We’ll Be Behind

The Chair and the Vice-Chair both said
Before we raise rates at the Fed
We’ll taper our buying
While we’re verifying
If growth can keep moving ahead

So, don’t look at forecasts ‘cause we
Care only for hard stats we see
Thus, we’ll be behind
The curve, but you’ll find
Inflation we’ll welcome with glee

The Fed has made clear they are driving the bus looking only in the rearview mirror.  This is a pretty dramatic change in their modus operandi.  Historically, given the widespread understanding that monetary policy works with a lag of anywhere from 6 months to 1 year, the Fed would base policy actions on their forecasts of future activity.  This process was designed to prevent inflation from rising too high or allowing growth to lag too far from trend.  One of the problems they encountered, though, was that they were terrible forecasters, with their models often significantly understating or overstating expectations of future outcomes.

So, kudos to Chairman Powell for recognizing they have no special insight into the future of the economy.  It is always difficult for an institution, especially one as hidebound as the Federal Reserve, to recognize its shortcomings.  This does beg the question, though, if they are going to mechanically respond to data with policy moves, why do they even need to be involved at all?  Certainly, an algorithm can be programmed to make those decisions without the added risk of making policy errors. Instead, the Fed could concentrate on its role as banking supervisor, an area in which they have clearly fallen behind.  But I digress.

Back in the real world, this change, which they have been discussing for some time, is truly important.  It seems to be premised on the idea that measured inflation remains far below their target, so running the economy ‘hot’ is a desirable way to achieve that target.  And running the economy hot has the added benefit of helping to encourage maximum employment in the economy, their restated goal on that half of the mandate.  It also appears to assume that they have both the tools, and the wherewithal to use them, in case inflation gets hotter than currently expected.  It is this last assumption that I fear will come back to haunt them.  But for now, this week’s CPI data did nothing to scare anybody and they are feeling pretty good.

One other thing they both made clear was that the timing of any rate hike was absolutely going to be after QE purchases are completed.  So, the tapering will begin at some point, and only when they stop expanding the balance sheet will they consider raising the Fed Funds rate.  Right now, the best guess is late 2023, but clearly, since they are data driven, that is subject to change.

There is a conundrum, though, in the markets.  Despite this very clear policy direction, and despite the fact that bond investors are typically quite sensitive to potential inflation, Treasury yields have seemingly peaked for the time being and continue to slide lower.  Certainly, the auctions this week, where the Treasury issued $120 billion in new debt were all well received, so concerns over a buyer’s strike were overblown.  In fact, overnight data showed that Japanese buyers soaked up nearly $16 billion in bonds, the largest amount since last November.  But, depending on how you choose to measure real interest rates, they remain somewhere between 0.0% and -1.0% based on either Core or Headline CPI vs. the 10-year.  Traditionally, headline has been the measure since it represents everything, and for a bond investor, they still need to eat and drive so those costs matter.

Summing this all up tells us 1) the Fed is 100% reactive to data now, so overshooting in their targets is a virtual given; 2) interest rates are not going to rise for at least another two years as they made clear they will begin tapering their QE purchases long before they consider raising interest rates; and 3) the opportunity for increased volatility of outcomes has grown significantly with this new policy stance since, by definition, they will always be reactive.  To my mind, this situation is one where the current market calm is very likely preceding what will be a very large storm.  If central banks handcuff themselves to waiting for data to print (and remember, hard data is, by definition, backwards looking, generally at least one month and frequently two months), trends will be able to establish themselves such that the Fed will need to respond in a MUCH greater manner to regain control.  Markets will not take kindly to that situation.  But that situation is not yet upon us, so the bulls can continue to run.

And run they have, albeit not as quickly as they have been recently.  In Asia overnight, it was actually a mixed performance with the Nikkei (+0.1%) eking out a small gain while the Hang Seng (-0.4%) and Shanghai (-0.5%) both stumbled slightly.  Europe, on the other hand, is all green with gains ranging between 0.2% and 0.4% across the major markets.  US futures are actually looking even better, with gains of 0.45%-0.6% at this hour.  Earnings season started yesterday, and the big banks all killed it in Q1, helping the overall market.

Bond yields, meanwhile, are continuing to slide, with Treasuries (-1.9bps) continuing to show the way to virtually all Western bond markets.  Bunds (-1.6bps), OATs (-2.0bps ) and Gilts (-2.7bps) are rallying as well despite the generally upbeat economic news.  There was, however, one negative release, where the German economic Institutes have cut their GDP forecast by 1.0%, to 3.7%, after the third wave and concomitant lockdowns.

Oil prices, which have had a huge runup this week, have slipped a bit, down 0.5%, but the metals markets are all in the green with Au (+0.6%), Ag (+0.6%), Cu (+1.5%) and Al (+0.25%) all in fine fettle.

It can be no surprise that with Treasury yields lower and commodity prices generally higher, the dollar is under further pressure this morning.  In the G10, the commodity bloc is leading the way with NZD (+0.25%), CAD (+0.2%) and AUD (+0.2%) all performing well.  There are a few laggards, but the movement there is so small, it is hardly a sign of anything noteworthy.  The euro, for instance, is lower by 0.1%, truly unremarkable.  In the EMG bloc, RUB (-1.2%) is the biggest mover, suffering on the news that the Biden Administration is slapping yet more sanctions on Russia for their election meddling efforts.  After that, HUF (-0.4%) has suffered as the central bank maintains its rate stance despite quickening inflation readings.  On the plus side, ZAR (+0.65%) and MXN (+0.3%) are the leading gainers, both clearly benefitting from the commodity story today.

One thing to watch here is the technical picture as despite the slow-motion decline in the dollar since the beginning of the month, it is starting to approach key technical support levels with many traders looking for a breakout should we breach those levels.  We shall see, but certainly if Treasury yields continue to slide, the dollar is likely to slide further.

We have a bunch of data today led by Initial Claims (exp 700K), Continuing Claims (3.7M), Retail Sales (+5.8%, +5.0% ex autos) and then Empire Manufacturing (20.0), Philly Fed (41.5), IP (2.5%) and Capacity Utilization (75.6%).  The Retail Sales data is based on the second stimulus check being spent, and the Claims data is assuming strength based on the NFP from last month.    We also hear from a bunch more speakers, but Powell and Clarida are done, so it would be surprising to see anything new from this group of three.

All told, nothing has changed my view that as goes the 10-year Treasury yield, so goes the dollar.  That will need to be proven wrong consistently before we seek another narrative.

Finally, I will be taking a few, very needed, days off so there will be no poetry until I return on Thursday April 22.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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Perfect Right Here

Said Harker, by end of this year
A taper could be drawing near
But Mester explained
No cash would be drained
As policy’s perfect right here

Ahead of this morning’s payroll report, I believe it worthwhile to recap what we have been hearing from the FOMC members who have been speaking lately.  After all, the Fed continues to be the major force in the market, so maintaining a clear understanding of their thought process can only be a benefit.

The most surprising thing we heard was from Philadelphia Fed president Harker, who intimated that while he saw no reason to change things right now, he could see the Fed beginning to taper their asset purchases by the end of 2021 or early 2022.  Granted, that still implies an additional $1 trillion plus of purchases, but is actually quite hawkish in the current environment where expectations are for rates to remain near zero for at least the next three years.  Given what will almost certainly be a significant increase in Treasury issuance this year, if the Fed were to step back from the market, we could see significantly higher rates in the back end of the curve.  And, of course, it has become quite clear that will not be allowed as the government simply cannot afford to pay higher rates on its debt.   As well, Dallas Fed President Kaplan also explained his view that if the yield curve steepened because of an improved growth situation in the US, that would be natural, and he would not want to stop it.

But not to worry, the market basically ignored those comments as evidenced by the fact that the equity market, which will clearly not take kindly to higher interest rates in any form, rallied further yesterday to yet more new all-time highs.

At the same time, three other Fed speakers, one of whom has consistently been the most hawkish voice on the committee, explained they saw no reason at all to adjust policy anytime soon.  Regional Fed presidents from Cleveland (Loretta Mester), Chicago (Charles Evans) and St Louis (James Bullard) were all quite clear that it was premature to consider adjusting policy as a response to the Georgia election results and the assumed increases in fiscal stimulus that are mooted to be on the way.

Recapping the comments, it is clear that there is no intention to adjust policy, meaning either the Fed Funds rate or the size of QE purchases, anytime soon, certainly not before Q4.  And if you consider Kaplan’s comments more fully, he did not indicate a preference to reduce support, just that higher long-term rates ought to be expected in a well-performing economy.  Vice-Chairman Clarida speaks this morning, but it remains difficult to believe that he will indicate any changes either.  As I continue to maintain, the government’s ability to withstand higher interest rates on a growing amount of debt is limited, at best, and the only way to prevent that is by the Fed capping yields.  Remember, while the Fed has adjusted its view on inflation, now targeting an average inflation rate, they said nothing about allowing yields to rise alongside that increased inflation.  Again, the dollar’s performance this year will be closely tied to real (nominal – inflation) yields, and as inflation rises in a market with capped yields, the dollar will decline.

Turning to this morning’s payroll release, remember, Wednesday saw the ADP Employment number significantly disappoint, printing at -123K, nearly 200K below expectations.  As of now, the current median forecasts are as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 50K
Private Payrolls 13K
Manufacturing Payrolls 16K
Unemployment Rate 6.8%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.2% (4.5% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.8
Participation Rate 61.5%
Consumer Credit $9.0B

Source: Bloomberg

These numbers are hardly representative of a robustly recovering economy, which given the cresting second wave of Covid infections and the lockdowns that have been imposed in response, ought not be that surprising.  The question remains, will administration of the vaccine be sufficient to change the trajectory?  While much has been written about pent up demand for things like travel and movies, and that is likely the case, there has been no indication that governments are going to roll back the current rules on things like social distancing and wearing masks.  One needs to consider whether those rules will continue to discourage those very activities, and thus, crimp the expected recovery.  Tying it together, a slower than expected recovery implies ongoing stimulus

But you don’t need me to explain that permanent stimulus remains the basic premise, just look at market behavior.  After yesterday’s US equity rally, we have seen a continuation around the world with Japan’s Nikkei (+2.35%) leading the way in Asia, but strength in the Hang Seng (+1.2%) and Australia (+0.7%), although Shanghai (-0.2%) didn’t really participate.  Europe, too, is all green, albeit in more measured tones, with the DAX (+0.8%) leading the way but gains in the CAC (+0.5%) and FTSE 100 (+0.2%) as well as throughout the rest of the continent.  And finally, US futures are all pointing higher at this hour, with all three indices up by 0.25%-0.35%.

The Treasury market, which has sold off sharply in the past few sessions, is unchanged this morning, with the yield on the 10-year sitting at 1.08%.  In Europe, haven assets like bunds, OATs and gilts are little changed this morning, but the yields on the PIGS are all lower, between 1.6bps (Spain) and 3.9bps (Italy).  Again, those bonds behave more like equities than debt, at least in the broad narrative.

In the commodity space, oil continues to rally, up another 1.3% this morning, and we continue to see strength in base metals and ags, but gold is under the gun, down 1.1%, and clearly in disfavor in this new narrative of significant new stimulus and growth.  Interestingly, bitcoin, which many believe as a substitute for gold has continued to rally, vaulting through $41k this morning.

And lastly, the dollar, which everyone hates for this year, is ending the week on a mixed note.  In the G10, NOK (+0.3%) is the best performer, as both oil’s rise and much better than expected IP data have investors expecting continued strength there.  But after that, the rest of the bloc is +/- 0.2% or less, implying there is no driving force here, rather that we are seeing position adjustments and, perhaps, real flows as the drivers.

In the emerging markets, ZAR (+1.2%) and BRL (+0.6%) are the leading gainers, while IDR (-0.8%) and CLP (-0.6%) are the laggards.  In fact, other than those, the bloc is also split, like the G10, with winners and losers of very minor magnitude.  Looking first at the rand, today’s gains appear to be position related as ZAR has been under pressure all week, declining more than 5.6% prior to today’s session.  BRL, too, is having a similar, albeit more modest, correction to a week where it has declined more than 5% ahead of today’s opening.  Both those currencies are feeling strain from weakening domestic activity, so today’s gains seem likely to be short-lived.  On the downside, IDR seems to be suffering from rising US yields, as the attractiveness of its own debt starts to wane on a relative basis.  As to Chile, rising inflation seems to be weighing on the currency as there is no expectation for yields to rise in concert, thus real yields there are under pressure.

And that’s really it for the day.  We have seen some significant movement this week, as well as significant new news with the outcome of the Georgia election, so the narrative has had to adjust slightly.  But in the end, it is still reflation leads to higher equities and a lower dollar.  Plus ça change, plus ça meme chose!

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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