Likely Too Soon

The narrative now seems to be
That tapering’s what we will see
The meeting in June
Is likely too soon
By autumn, though, Jay may agree

tran∙si∙to∙ry
adjective
not permanent.
“transitory periods of medieval greatness”

per∙sist∙ent
adjective
continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period.
“persistent rain will affect many areas”

Forgive my pedanticism this morning but I couldn’t help but notice the following comment from former NY Fed President William Dudley.  “The recent spike in US inflation is likely transitory for now – but it could become more persistent in the coming years as more people return to work.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but I would describe the words ‘transitory’ and ‘persistent’ as antonyms.  And, of course, we all know that the Fed has assured us that recent rises in inflation are transitory.  In fact, they assure us multiple times each day.  And yet, here is a former FOMC member, from one of the most important seats, NY Fed president, explaining that this transitory phenomenon could well be persistent.  If you ever wondered why the term ‘Fedspeak’ was coined, it was because ‘doublespeak’ was already taken by George Orwell in his classic ‘1984’.  Apparently, one does not regain one’s intellectual honesty when leaving a government institution where mendacity is the coin of the realm.

However, let us now turn to today’s main story; tapering.  The discussion on tapering of QE continues apace and the market is settling on a narrative that the Fed will reduce the amount of its monthly purchases by the end of the year.  Certainly, there are a minority of Fed governors who want to get the conversation going in earnest, with St Louis’ James Bullard the latest.  And this idea fits smoothly with the concept that the US economy is expanding rapidly with price pressures, even if transitory, building just as rapidly.  Just yesterday, Elon Musk compared the shortage in microprocessors needed to build Teslas to the shortage of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic last year.  (As an aside, one, more permanent, result of that TP shortage is that prices in my local Shop-Rite are significantly higher today than pre-pandemic, at least 40% higher, even though the shortage was transitory no longer persists.)  

The point is that the combination of shortages of specific items, bottlenecks in shipping and dramatically increasing demand fed by massive government stimulus programs are all feeding into higher prices, i.e. inflation.  Even the most committed central bank doves around the world have noticed this situation, and while most are unwilling to alter policy yet, the discussion is clearly beginning.  Last night, the RBA omitted their promise “to undertake further bond purchases to assist with progress goals,” despite maintaining their YCC target of 0.10% for 3-year AGB’s.  As well, yesterday Fed Governor Lael Brainerd, arguably the most dovish FOMC member, explained, “while the level of inflation in my near-term outlook has moved somewhat higher, my expectation for the contour of inflation moving back towards its underlying trend in the period beyond the reopening remains broadly unchanged.”  Apparently, Lael attended the Alan Greenspan school of Fedspeak.

Add it all up and you get a market that is convinced that tapering is visible on the horizon and will begin before Christmas 2021.  While I don’t doubt it is appropriate, as I believe inflation is not actually transitory, I am also skeptical that the Fed is ready to alter its policy until it sees data showing the employment situation has reached its newly formed goals.  I fear that, as usual, the Fed will be late to the tightening party and the outcome will be a far more dramatic policy reversal and much bigger market impact (read stock market decline) than desired.

How, you may ask, has this impacted markets today?  The big winner has been the dollar, which is firmer against virtually all its counterparts this morning.  For instance, NZD (-0.5%) is the laggard in the G10 space after RBNZ comments explaining the balance sheet will remain large for a long time.  In other words, while they may stop buying new securities, they will replace maturing debt and so maintain a significant presence in their bond market.  Meanwhile, CHF (-0.5%) is under pressure after SNB Vice-president Zurbruegg explained that the bank’s expansive monetary policy, consisting of NIRP and FX intervention is still necessary.  The rest of the bloc is also softer, but not quite to that extent with AUD (-0.35%) under pressure from commodity price pullbacks and JPY (-0.35%) suffering after odd comments by a BOJ member that they would respond to any untoward JPY strength in the event the Fed does begin to taper.

Emerging market currencies have also been under pressure all evening led by TRY (-0.9%) and KRW (-0.65%).  The latter’s movement was a clear response to the PBOC setting its fixing rate for a weaker CNY than the market had anticipated, thus opening the way for a weaker KRW.  Given the fact that South Korea both competes aggressively in some markets with Chinese manufacturers, and has China as its largest market, the intricacies of the KRW/CNY relationship are many and complex.  But in a broad dollar on scenario, it is not too surprising to see both currencies weaken, and given KRW’s recent strong performance, it had much further to fall.  But currency weakness in this bloc is across EEMEA, APAC and LATAM, which tells us it is much more about the dollar than about any particular idiosyncratic stories.

In the rest of the markets, equities were mixed in Asia (Nikkei +0.45%, Hang Seng -0.6%, Shanghai -0.75%) while Europe is green, but only just (DAX +0.15%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.1%).  US futures are either side of unchanged at this hour as the market tries to digest the tapering story.  Remember, much of the valuation premium that exists in the US is predicated on lower forever interest rates.  If they start to climb, that could easily spell trouble.

Speaking of interest rates, they have edged lower in the session with 10-year Treasury yields down 0.3bps while in Europe, yields have fallen a bit faster (bunds -1.4bps, OATs -1.5bps, gilts -1.2bps).  Certainly, there is no keen inflationary scare in this market as of yet.

Interestingly, oil prices continue to rise, despite the stronger dollar, with WTI (+1.0%) trading to new highs for the move.  But the rest of the commodity space finds itself under pressure this morning as the dollar’s strength takes its toll.  Precious metals are softer (Au -0.25%, Ag -0.5%) as are base metals (Cu -0.8%, Al -0.5%) although the ags are holding up.  But if dollar strength is persistent, I expect that commodity prices will remain on the back foot.

On the data front, today brings only the Fed’s Beige Book this afternoon, as the ADP employment number is delayed due to the Memorial Day holiday Monday.  As well, we hear from four Fed speakers, including three, Harker, Kaplan and Bostic, who have been in the tapering camp for several weeks now.  However, until we start to see the Treasury market sell off more aggressively, I think tapering will be a nice talking point, but not yet deemed a foregone conclusion.  As such, that link between Treasury yields and the dollar remains solid, with the dollar likely to respond well to further discussions of tapering and higher yields.  We shall see if that is what comes to pass regardless of the current narrative.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf




Far From our Goals

Said Brainerd, “we’re far from our goals”
Of helping to max out payrolls
So, patience is needed
Else we’ll be impeded
And Biden might drop in the polls
Thus, we must maintain the controls

There is a single hymnal at the Marriner Eccles Building in Washington, DC and every FOMC member continues to read from that gospel.  In short, the current view is that things are getting better, but there is still a long way to go before the economy can continue to grow without Fed support, therefore, the current policy mix is appropriate and will be for a long time to come.  On the subject of inflation, when it was even mentioned by any of the six Fed speakers yesterday, it was pooh-poohed as something of no concern, widely recognized that it will rise in the short-term, but universally expected to be ‘transitory’.  I don’t know about you, but it certainly makes me feel much better that a group of 6 individuals, each extremely well-paid with numerous perks accorded to their office, and each largely out of touch with the world in which the rest of us live, are convinced that they can see the future.  After all, the Fed’s forecasting record is unparalleled…in its futility.

However, that is the situation as it currently stands, the Fed remains adamant that there is no need to taper its QE program, no need to raise interest rates anytime soon and that the current policy mix will address what ails the US economy.

The problem with this attitude is that it seems to ignore the reality on the ground.  Exhibit A is the news today that average gasoline prices across the nation crossed above $3.00/gallon for the first time since 2014.  In fairness to the Fed, some portion of this is a result of the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, where a number of states on the East Coast find themselves with no gasoline to pump.  But do not be mistaken, as I’m sure everyone is aware, gasoline prices have been rising sharply for the past 6 months, at least.  At issue now is just how much higher they can go before having more deleterious effects on the economy, let alone on many individuals’ personal situation.

It is not just gasoline, but pretty much all commodities that have been rallying sharply since the pandemic induced lows of April 2020.  Since its nadir, for example, the GSCI has more than doubled, but that merely brings it back to its level of the prior five years, when there was no concern over commodity driven inflation.  The difference this time is that due to a combination of the Covid-induced breakdown in supply chains and a massive reduction in Capex by the mining and extraction sector, the prospect of equilibrium in this space in the near term is limited.  There is a growing belief that we are embarking on a so-called commodity super-cycle.  This would be defined as a long-term period where commodity demand outstrips supply and commodity prices rise continually, generally doubling or tripling from the previous lows.

This discussion is an excellent prelude to this morning’s CPI release, where the analyst community is looking for a 0.2% M/M rise which translates into a 3.6% Y/Y rise.  Ex food and energy, expectations are for 0.3% M/M and 2.3% Y/Y.  The sharp rise in the annual headline rate is exactly what the Fed has been discussing as base effects, given this time last year, the economy was seeing price deflation on the back of the economy’s shutdown, with transportation, hospitality and leisure prices collapsing due to a forced lack of demand.  As such, the market seems entirely prepared for a very large number.  From my vantage point, the Y/Y number is not so important today, but the M/M number is.  Consider that a 0.3% reading, if strung over twelve months, comes to an annual inflation rate of more than 3.6%, considerably above the Fed’s target.

We continue to hear one Fed speaker after another explain that while the economy is improving, they must still maintain ultra-easy monetary policy.  We continue to hear them explain that any inflation readings will be transitory.  And maybe they are correct.  However, if they are not, and inflation embeds itself more deeply into the national psyche, the Fed will find themselves in an unenviable position; either raise interest rates to combat inflation (you know, the tools they have) and watch the financial markets fall sharply; or let inflation run hot, and allow the dollar to fall sharply while eventually watching financial markets fall sharply.  Talk about a Hobson’s Choice!

Now to markets, which after yesterday’s selloff in the US equity space, albeit with a close that was well off session lows, we saw a mixed Asian session (Nikkei –1.6%, Hang Seng +0.8%, Shanghai +0.6%) and are seeing a similar performance in Europe (DAX +0.25%, CAC 0.0%, FTSE 100 +0.35%).  US futures, on the other hand, are uniformly pointing lower at this hour, down between 0.35% (DOW) and 0.6% (NASDAQ).

Bond markets, after yesterday’s worldwide rout, have seen a small rebound with Treasury yields edging lower by 0.5bps, although still hanging around the 1.60% level.  There is an overwhelming consensus that 10-year Treasury yields are set to rise substantially, but so far, that has just not been the case.  European markets are seeing yield declines of between 1bp (Bunds and OATs) and 2bps (Gilts).  Today brings two critical data points, first the US CPI data shortly and then the US 10-year Treasury auction will be closely scrutinized to determine if there is a crack in demand for our seemingly unlimited supply of Treasury paper.

Commodity prices are broadly higher led by oil (WTI +1.3%) with base metals continuing to climb as well (Cu +0.7%, Al +0.5%, Ni +1.0%).  The same cannot be said of the precious metals space, though, with both gold (-0.2%) and silver (-0.8%) seeing some selling on profit taking.

The dollar is in fine fettle this morning, rallying against 9 of its G10 counterparts with only CAD (+0.1%) holding its own.  NZD (-0.6%) and AUD (-0.5%) are in the worst shape as both respond to weaker than expected Chinese monetary growth which implies that the Chinese economy may not be growing as quickly as previously thought.  However, the European currencies are all modestly softer as well on worse than expected Eurozone IP data (0.1% vs. 0.8% expected).  EMG currencies are also under pressure this morning, with the APAC currencies feeling it the worst.  KRW (-0.45%), THB (-0.4%) and SGD (-0.25%) are leading the way lower, also on the back of the Chinese monetary data.  Interestingly, TWD (-0.03%) is barely changed despite an equity market rout (TAIEX -4.1%) and concerns about growth in China.

Other than the CPI data and the Treasury auction, there is no other news or data.  Well, that’s if you exclude the continuing parade of Fed speakers, with today’s roster of 4 positively sparse compared to what we have seen lately.  The one thing we know is that they are unlikely to change their tune.

Which brings us back to the 10-year Treasury.  It continues to be the market driver in my view, with higher yields leading to a stronger dollar and vice versa.  I suspect that this morning’s CPI data may print higher than forecast, but it is not clear to me if that will truly have an impact.  My bigger fear is that broad risk appetite may be waning given the leadership of the equity rally has been suffering of late.  In this situation, we could easily go back to a classical risk-off framework of lower stocks, higher bond prices (lower yields) and a stronger dollar.  Just beware.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf