Whom He Must Obey

The question is, what can he say?
You know, course, I’m talkin’ ‘bout Jay
Can he still, more, ease?
In order to please
The markets whom he must obey

Fed day has arrived, and all eyes are on the virtual Marriner Eccles Building in Washington, where the FOMC used to meet, prior to the current pandemic.  In the wake of Chairman Powell’s speech at the end of August, during the virtual Jackson Hole symposium, where he outlined the new Fed framework; analysts, economists and market participants have been trying to guess when there will be more details forthcoming regarding how the Fed plans to achieve their new goals.  Recall, stable prices have been redefined as ‘an average inflation rate of 2.0% over time’.  However, Powell gave no indication as to what timeline was considered, whether it was fixed or variable, and how wide a dispersion around their target they are willing to countenance.  So generally, we don’t know anything about this policy tweak other than the fact that, by definition, inflation above 2.0% will not be considered a sufficient reason to tighten monetary policy.  There are as many theories of what they are going to do as there are analysts propagating them, which is why this meeting is seen as so important.

As it is a quarterly meeting, we will also see new Fed economic forecasts and the dot plot will be extended to include the FOMC membership’s views of rates through 2023.  As to the latter, the working assumption is that virtually the entire committee expects rates to remain at current levels throughout the period.  Reinforcing this view is the futures market, where Fed Funds futures are essentially flat at current levels through the last listed contract in August 2023.  Eurodollar futures show the first full rise in rates priced for June 2024.  In other words, market participants are not looking for any policy tightening anytime soon.

Which begs the question, exactly what can Jay say that could be considered dovish at this point?  Certainly, he could explain that they are going to increase QE, but that is already defined as whatever is deemed necessary to smooth the functioning of markets.  Perhaps if he defines it as more than that, meaning it is supposed to help support economic activity, that would be interpreted as more dovish.  But isn’t infinite QE already as much as they can do?

It seems highly unlikely that the committee will give a fixed date as to when policy may eventually tighten.  But it is possible, though I think highly unlikely as well, that they define what level of inflation may require a change in policy.  The problem with that theory is there are too many potential paths down which inflation can wander.  For instance, if core PCE increased to 2.5% (a BIG if) and remained stable there for six months, would that be enough to force an adjustment to policy?  Would one year be the right amount?  Five years?  After all, core PCE has averaged 1.6% for the past ten years.  For the past twenty, the average has been 1.72%.  In fact, you have to go back over the past 32 years in order to calculate the average core PCE at 2.0%.  And of course, this is the problem with the Fed’s new framework, it doesn’t really tell us much about the future of policy other than, it is going to be ultra-easy for a long, long time.

It is with this in mind that the market has embraced the idea that the dollar must naturally fall as a consequence.  And that is a fair point.  If the Fed continues to out-ease all other central banks, then the dollar is quite likely to continue to soften.  But as we have seen already from numerous ECB speakers, and are likely to see from the BOE tomorrow, the Fed is not acting in a vacuum.  FX continues to be a relative game, as the differential in policies between currencies is the driving factor.  And while Madame Lagarde did say she was not concerned about the euro’s strength, you may recall that she also indicated, once upon a time, that it was not the ECB’s job to worry about Italian government bond yields.  That was her position for at least a day before the ECB figured out that was their entire job and created the PEPP.  My point is, if Jay comes across as more dovish somehow, you can be certain that every other central bank will double down on their own policy ease.  No country wants to be the one with the strong currency these days.

But for now, the market is still of the opinion that the Fed is out in the lead, and so the dollar continues to drift lower.  This morning, we see the dollar weaker against the entire G10 bloc with NOK (+0.6%) the leader on the back of oil’s 2.5% rally, although GBP (+0.5%) is also firmer after UK inflation data showed smaller declines than forecast, perhaps alleviating some of the pressure on the BOE to ease further.  At least that’s the thought right now.  But even the euro, after ultimately slipping yesterday, has rallied a modest 0.15% although it remains below 1.19 as I type.

Emerging market currencies are behaving in a similar manner, as the entire bloc is firmer vs. the greenback.  Once again ZAR (+0.95%) leads the pack on the combination of firmer commodity prices (gold +0.5%), the highest real yields around and faith that the Fed will continue to ease further.  But we are seeing MXN (+0.5%) gaining on oil’s rally and CNY (+0.35%) following up yesterday’s gains with a further boost as expectations grow that China’s economy is truly going to be back to pre-Covid levels before the end of the year.  Overall, it is a day of dollar weakness.

Other markets have shown less exuberance as Asian equity markets were essentially flat (Nikkei +0.1%, Hang Seng 0.0%, Shanghai -0.3%) and European bourses are also either side of flat (DAX -0.1%, CAC +0.1%, FTSE 100 -0.1%).  US futures, naturally, continue to rally, with all three indices looking at gains of 0.4%-0.6% at this time.

Government bond markets remain dull, with another large US auction easily absorbed yesterday and 10-year yields less than a basis point different than yesterday’s levels.  In Europe, actually, most bond yields have edged a bit lower, but only one to two basis points’ worth, so hardly a sign of panic.

As to the data story, yesterday saw a much better than forecast Empire Manufacturing number (+17.0) boding well for the recovery.  This morning brings Retail Sales (exp 1.0% headline, 1.0% ex autos) at 8:30, and then the long wait until the FOMC statement is released at 2:00pm.  Chairman Powell will hold his press conference at 2:30, and if he manages to sound dovish, perhaps we see further dollar declines and equity rallies.  But I sense the opportunity for some disappointment and perhaps a short-term reversal if he doesn’t invent a new dovish theme.  In that case, look for the dollar to recoup today’s losses at least.

Good luck and stay safe
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Casting a Pall

The Chairman explained to us all
Deflation is casting a pall
On future advances
While NIRP’s what enhances
Our prospects throughout the long haul

The bond market listened to Jay
And hammered the long end all day
The dollar was sold
While buyers of gold
Returned, with aplomb, to the fray

An announcement to begin the day; I will be taking my mandatory two-week leave starting on Monday, so the next poetry will be in your inbox on September 14th.

Ultimately, the market was completely correct to focus all their attention on Chairman Powell’s speech yesterday because he established a new set of ground rules as to how the Fed will behave going forward.  By now, most of you are aware that the Fed will be targeting average inflation over time, meaning that they are happy to accept periods of higher than 2.0% inflation in order to make up for the last eight years of lower than 2.0% inflation.

In Mr. Powell’s own words, “…our new statement indicates that we will seek to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time. Therefore, following periods when inflation has been running below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.”

You may have noticed that Powell adds no specificity to this new policy, with absolutely no definition of ‘some time’ nor what ‘moderately above’ means.  But there was more for us, which many may have missed because it was a) subtle, and b) not directly about inflation.

“In addition, our revised statement says that our policy decision will be informed by our “assessments of the shortfalls of employment from its maximum level” rather than by “deviations from its maximum level” as in our previous statement.”

This is the rationale for their new willingness to let inflation run hot, the fact that the benefits of full employment outweigh those of stable prices.  The lesson they learned from the aftermath of the GFC in 2008-9 was that declining unemployment did not lead to higher general inflation.  Of course, they, along with many mainstream economists, attribute that to the breakdown of the Phillips curve relationship.  But the Phillips curve was not about general inflation, rather it was about wage inflation.  Phillips noted the relationship between falling unemployment and rising wages in the UK for the century from 1861-1957.  In fact, Phillips never claimed there was a causality, that was done by Paul Samuelson later and Samuelson extended the idea from wage to general inflation.  Eventually Milton Friedman created a theoretical underpinning for the claim unemployment and general inflation were inversely related.

Arguably, the question must be asked whether the labor market situation in the UK a century ago was really a valid model for the current US economy.  As it turns out, the time of Downton Abbey may not be a viable analogy.  Who would’ve thought that?

Regardless, Powell made it clear that with this new framework, the Fed has more flexibility to address what they perceive as any problems in the economy, and they will use that flexibility as they see fit.  In the end, the market response was only to be expected.

Starting with the bond market, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought that owning a fixed income instrument yielding just 1.4% for 30 years when the Fed has explicitly stated they are going to seek to drive inflation above 2.0% for some time was a bad idea.  The Treasury curve steepened sharply yesterday with the 10-year falling one point (yield higher by 6.5bps) while the 30-year fell more than three points and the yield jumped by more than 10 basis points.  My sense is we will continue to see the back end of the Treasury curve sell off, arguably until the 30-year yields at least 2.0% and probably more.  This morning the steepening is continuing, albeit at a bit slower pace.

As to the dollar, it took a while for traders to figure out what they should do.  As soon as Powell started speaking, the euro jumped 0.75%, but about 5 minutes into the speech, it plummeted nearly 1.2% as traders were uncertain how to proceed.  In the end, the euro recouped its losses slowly during the rest of the day, and has risen smartly overnight, up 0.7% as I type.  In fact, this is a solid representation of the entire FX market.  Essentially, FX traders and investors have parsed the Chairman’s words and decided that US monetary policy is going to remain uber easy for as far in the future as they can imagine.  And if that is true, a weaker dollar is a natural response.  So, today’s broad-based dollar decline should be no surprise.  In fact, it makes no sense to try to explain specific currency movements as the dollar story is the clear driver.

However, that does not mean there is not another important story, this time in Japan.

Abe has ulcers
Who can blame him with Japan’s
Second wave rising?

PM Shinzo Abe has announced that he has ulcerative colitis and will be stepping down as PM after a record long run in the role.  Initially, there was a great deal of excitement about his Abe-nomics plan to reflate the Japanese economy, but essentially, the only thing it accomplished was a weakening of the yen from 85.00 to 105.00 during the past eight years.  Otherwise, inflation remains MIA and the economy remains highly regulated.  The market reaction to the announcement was to buy yen, and it is higher by 1.15% this morning, although much of that is in response to the Fed.  However, it does appear that one of the frontrunners for his replacement (former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba) has populist tendencies, which may result in risk aversion and a stronger yen.

As to the equity market, the Nikkei (-1.4%) did not appreciate the Abe news, but Shanghai (+1.6%) seemed to feel that a more dovish Fed was a net benefit, especially for all those Chinese companies with USD debt.  Europe has been a little less positive (DAX -0.3%, CAC -0.1%) as there is now a growing concern that the euro will have much further to run.  Remember, most Eurozone economies are far more reliant on exports than the US, and a strong euro will have definite repercussions across the continent.  My forecast is that Madame Lagarde will be announcing the ECB’s policy framework review in the near future, perhaps as soon as their September meeting, and there will be an extremely dovish tone.  As I have written before, the absolute last thing the ECB wants or needs is a strong euro.  If they perceive that the Fed has just insured further dollar weakness, they will respond in kind.

Turning to the data, we see a plethora of numbers this morning.  Personal Income (exp -0.2%), Personal Spending (1.6%) and Core PCE (1.2%) lead us off at 8:30.  Then later, we see Chicago PMI (52.6) and Michigan Sentiment (72.8).  The thing is, none of these matters for now.  In fact, arguably, the only number that matters going forward is Core PCE.  If it remains mired near its current levels, the dollar will continue to suffer as not only will there be no tightening, but it seems possible the Fed will look to do more to drive it higher.  On the other hand, if it starts to climb, until it is over 2.0%, the Fed will be standing pat.  And as we have seen, getting Core PCE above 2.0% is not something at which the Fed has had much success.  For now, the dollar is likely to follow its recent path and soften further.  At least until the ECB has its say!

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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