Policy, Tighter

Apparently, seven percent
Defined for Chair Jay the extent
Of just how high prices
Can rise in this crisis
Ere hawkishness starts to foment

But is it too little too late?
As he’s not yet out of the gate
Toward, policy, tighter
Despite a speechwriter
That claims he won’t fail his mandate

There is no shame in being confused by the current market situation because, damn, it is really confusing!  On the one hand we see inflation not merely rising, but fairly streaking higher as yesterday’s 7.04% Y/Y CPI reading was the highest since June 1982.  With that as a backdrop, and harking back to our Economics 101 textbooks, arguably we would expect to see interest rates at much higher levels than we are currently experiencing.  After all, in its simplest form, real interest rates, which are what drive investment decisions, are simply the nominal interest rate less inflation. As of today, with effective Fed Funds at +0.08% and the 10-year Treasury at 1.75%, the calculated real interest rates are -6.96% in the front end and -5.29% in the 10-year, both of which are the lowest levels in the post WWII era.  The conclusion would be that investment should be climbing rapidly to take advantage.  Alas, most of the investment we have seen has been funneled into share repurchases rather than capacity expansion.

With this in mind, it makes sense that dollar priced assets are rising in value, so stocks and commodities would be expected to climb, as would the value of other currencies with respect to the dollar.  However, the confusion comes when looking at the bond market, where not only are real yields at historically depressed levels, but there is no indication that investors are selling bonds and seeking to exit the space.

Our economics textbook would have us believe that negative real yields of this magnitude are unsustainable with two possible pathways to adjustment.  The first pathway would be nominal yields climbing as investors would no longer be willing to hold paper with such a steep negative yield.  Back in the 1990’s, the term bond vigilantes was coined to describe how the bond market would not tolerate this type of activity and investors would sell bonds aggressively thus raising the cost of debt for the government.  So far, that has not been evident.  The second pathway is that the inflation would lead to significant demand destruction and ultimately a recession which would slow inflation and allow bondholders to get back to a positive real yield outcome.  Not only would that be hugely painful for the economy, it will take quite a while to complete.

The problem is, neither of those situations appear to be manifest.  The question of note is, is the bond market looking at the current situation and pricing in much slower growth ahead?  Certainly, the punditry is not looking for that type of outcome, but then, the punditry is often wrong.  Neither is the Fed looking for that type of outcome, at least not based on their latest economic projections which are looking for GDP growth of 3.6%-4.5% this year and 2.0%-2.5% next with nary a recession in sight in the long run.

This brings us back to the $64 trillion question, why aren’t bonds selling off more aggressively?  And the answer is…nobody really knows.  It is possible that investors are still willing to believe that this inflationary spike is temporary, and we will soon see CPI readings falling and the Fed declaring victory, so bond ownership remains logical.  It is also possible that given the fact that the BBB bill was pulled and seems unlikely to pass into legislation, that Treasury issuance this year will decline such that the fact the Fed will no longer be purchasing new debt will not upset the supply/demand balance and upward pressure on yields will remain absent.  At least from a supply perspective.  The problem with this idea is that pesky inflation reading, which, not only remains at extremely high levels, but is unlikely to decline very much at all going forward.

Ultimately, something seems amiss in the bond market which is disconcerting as bond investors are typically the segment that pays closest attention to the reality on the ground.  While the hawkish cries from Fed members are increasing in number and tone (just yesterday both Harker and Daly said they expected raising rates in March made sense and 4 rate hikes this year would be appropriate), that implies Fed Funds will be 1.0% at the end of the year, still far below inflation and not nearly sufficient to slow those rising prices.

It seems to me there are three possible outcomes here; 1) bond investors get wise and sell long-dated Treasuries steepening the yield curve significantly; 2) the Fed gets far more aggressive, raising rates more than 100 basis points this year and pushes to invert the yield curve and drive a recession; or 3) as option 1) starts to play out, and both stocks and bonds start to decline sharply, the Fed decides that YCC is the proper course of action and caps Treasury yields while letting inflation run much hotter.  My greatest fear is that 3) is the answer at which they will arrive.

With all that cheeriness to consider, let’s look at how markets are behaving today.  Despite a modest equity rally in the US yesterday, risk has been less in demand since.  Asia (Nikkei -1.0%, Shanghai -1.2%, Hang Seng +0.1%) was generally lower and Europe (DAX 0.0%, CAC -0.5%, FTSE 100 -0.1%) is also uninspiring.  There has been virtually no data in either time zone, so this price action is likely based on growing concerns over the inflationary outlook.  US futures at this hour are basically unchanged.

As to the bond market, no major market has seen a move of even 0.5 basis points today with inflation concerns seeming to balance risk mitigation for now.

Commodity markets are mixed with oil (-0.1%) edging lower albeit still at its highest levels since 2014, while NatGas (-4.5%) has fallen as temperatures in the NorthEast have reverted back to seasonal norms.  Gold (-0.1%) has held most of its recent gains while copper (-0.7%) seems to have found a short-term ceiling after a nice rally over the past few sessions.

Finally, turning to the dollar, it is somewhat softer vs. most of its G10 brethren with NZD (+0.35%) leading the way, followed by CHF (+0.3%) and CAD (+0.2%) as demand for any other currency than the dollar begins to show up.  In EMG currencies, excluding TRY (-2.5%) which remains in its own policy driven world, the picture is more mixed.  RUB (-0.75%) has fallen in the wake of the news from Geneva that there was no progress between Russia, the US and NATO regarding the escalating situation in the Ukraine with the threat of economic sanctions growing.  BRL (-0.55%) is also under some pressure although this looks more like profit taking after a nearly 3% rally in the past two sessions.  On the plus side, THB (+0.5%) and PHP (+0.3%) are leading the way as they respond to the broadly weaker dollar sentiment.

Data today brings Initial (exp 200K) and Continuing (1733K) Claims as well as PPI (9.8%, 8.0% ex food & energy), but the latter would have to be much higher than expected to increase the pressure on the inflation narrative at this point. From the Fed we hear from Governor Brainerd as she testifies in her vice-chair nomination hearing, as well as from Barkin and Evans.  Given the commentary we have been getting, I expect that the idea of 4 rate hikes this year is really going to be cemented.

The dollar has really underperformed lately and quite frankly, it feels like it is getting overdone for now.  While I had always looked for the dollar to eventually decline this year, I did expect strength in Q1 at least.  However, given positioning seemed to be overloaded dollar longs, and with the Treasury market not participating in terms of driving yields higher, it is beginning to feel like a modest correction higher in the dollar is viable, but that the downtrend has begun.

Good luck and stay safe
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