Sang the Blues

The President’s finally decided
That Lael and Jay have now divided
The tasks at the Fed
And both of them said
Inflation just won’t be abided

The bond market took in the news
And quickly adjusted its views
Thus, interest rates rose
While gold felt the throes
Of pain as goldbugs sang the blues

By now, we all know that Chairman Powell has been reappointed to his current role as Fed Chair and Governor Brainerd has been elevated to Vice-Chair.  The underlying belief seems to be that the Biden administration was not prepared for what would likely have been a much more difficult confirmation fight to get Brainerd as Chair and decided to husband whatever political capital they still have left to fight for their spending legislation.  Arguably, the most interesting part of the process was that both Powell and Brainerd, in their remarks, indicated that fighting inflation was a key priority.  As Powell said, “We will use our tools both to support the economy and strong labor market, and to prevent higher inflation from becoming entrenched.”  Now that is a wonderful sentiment, and of course, directly in line with the Fed’s Congressional mandate to “promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long term interest rates.”  Alas for them both, the tools necessary for the different pieces of the mandate tend to be opposite in their nature.

However, the market response was clear as to its broad belief that tighter Fed policy is on the horizon.  Between those comments and what we heard last week from Governor Waller, vice-Chair Clarida and St Louis Fed President Bullard, it seems clear that the meeting in December is going to be all about the timing of the tapering.  While the progressive wing of the Democratic party remains steadfast in their belief in the power of MMT to deliver prosperity for all, it appears that the reality on the ground, namely that inflation is exploding higher, has become too big a problem to ignore for President Biden.

Here’s the thing.  The traditional tool for fighting rising inflation is to raise interest rates above the rate of inflation to create positive real yields.  Now, depending on how you define inflation; CPI, PCE, the core version of either, or the trimmed mean version of either, given where all of those measures currently stand, the minimum amount of rate increases is going to be 300 basis points, with a chance that it could be 400 or more.  Now, ask yourself how an economy that is leveraged to the hilt (total debt/GDP > 895%) will respond to interest rates rising by 300 or 400 basis points.  How about the stock market, with its current Shiller CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E) above 39 compared to a median of 15.86 over the past 150 years?  How do you think that will respond to the interest rate curve rising by 300 or 400 basis points?  The picture is not pretty.

It remains to be seen just how much pain the Fed and the Administration can stand if the Fed actually does start to tighten policy more aggressively in the face of rapidly rising inflation.  Consider that in Q4 2018, the last time the Fed was trying to ‘normalize’ policy by allowing the balance sheet to run down slowly while also raising interest rates, stocks fell 20% and the result was the ‘Powell Pivot’ on Boxing Day that year, where the Chairman explained that tightening policy wasn’t actually that critical at the time and would end immediately.  At that time the same measure of debt/GDP was ‘merely’ 763% and the CAPE was 29.  We have much further to fall today, and I expect that when/if that starts to happen, the Fed will not blithely continue tightening policy to fight inflation.  Remember the idea that the Fed has painted themselves into a corner?  Well, this is the corner in which they have painted themselves.  They need to raise rates to fight inflation but doing so is likely to provoke a severely negative market, and potentially economic, reaction.

Now, while we are all waiting for that shoe to drop, let’s take a look at how markets responded to the news.  The first thing to note is the bond market, where 10-year yields rose 9 bps yesterday and that trend has continued this morning with yields higher by another 2.3bps.  With the 10-year currently yielding 1.65%, all eyes are on the 1.75% level, the peak seen in March, and the level many see as a critical technical level, a break of which could open up much higher yields.  It should not be surprising that we have seen higher yields elsewhere as well, with European sovereigns (Bunds +5.9bps, OATs +5.7bps, Gilts +4.8bps) responding to three factors this morning; the US market movement, better than expected preliminary PMI data across the continent and hawkish comments from both Isabel Schnabel and Klaas Knot, two ECB members. You may recall last week when I described some Schnabel comments as apparently dovish, and a potential capitulation of the remaining hawks on the ECB.  Apparently, I was mistaken.  Today she was much clearer about the risks of inflation being to the upside and that they must be considered.  If the hawks are in flight, bonds have further to decline.

In the equity markets, yesterday’s news initially brought a rally in the US, but by the end of the day, as bond yields rose, the NASDAQ, which is effectively a very long duration asset, fell 1.25%, although the rest of the US market fared far better.  The overnight session saw a more modest reaction with the Nikkei (+0.1%) and Shanghai (+0.2%) edging higher although the Hang Seng (-1.2%) suffered on weaker consumer and pharma stocks.  Europe has rebounded from its worst levels but is still lower (DAX -0.7%, CAC -0.25%, FTSE 100 0.0%) despite (because of?) the PMI data.  I guess hawkish monetary policy trumps good economic data, a harbinger of what may be on the horizon.  At this hour, US futures are little changed, so perhaps there is good news in store.

News that the Biden administration is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the SPR along with releases by India and South Korea has weighed on oil prices (WTI -1.5%) although NatGas (+4.8%) is not following along for the ride.  Gold (-0.5%) got clobbered yesterday and is down 2.7% from Friday’s closing levels.  Clearly, inflation fighting by the Fed is not seen as a positive.  As to the rest of the metals complex, it is generally higher as expectations grow that demand around the world is going to pick back up.

Finally, in the FX market, the truly notable mover today is TRY (-11.2%!) which appears to be starting to suffer from a true run in the wake of President Erdogan’s praise of the recent interest rate cut and claiming that Turkey is fighting an “economic war of independence.”  It seems he’s losing right now.  Relative to that movement, nothing else seems substantial although MXN (-0.8%) is feeling pressure from declining oil prices while other EMG currencies slid on the broad strong dollar theme.  In the G10, NZD (-0.5%) is the weakest performer as long positions were cut ahead of the RBNZ meeting next week, but the bulk of the bloc is modestly lower as US interest rates continue to power ahead.

On the data front, we see the preliminary PMI data (exp 59.1 Mfg, 59.0 Services) and that’s really it.  Yesterday’s Existing Home Sales were better than expected, but really, today’s markets will continue to be driven by interest rates and views on how the Fed is going to behave going forward.  Taking Powell at his word means that tighter policy is coming which should help the dollar amid a broader risk-off sentiment.  Plan accordingly.

Good luck and stay safe
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