Prices Rise in a Trice#CPI, #inflationexpectations

There once was a world where the price
Of stuff stayed the same…paradise
But then central banks
Were born, and now thanks
To them prices rise in a trice

Now, worldwide the story’s the same
As these banks, inflation, can’t tame
They’re all terrified
That stocks might just slide
And they would come in for the blame

“I’d expect price increases to level off, and we’ll go back to inflation that’s closer to the 2% that we consider normal.  In the 70’s and 80’s inflation expectations became embedded in the American psyche.  That isn’t happening now.”  So said Treasury Secretary Yellen yesterday in an interview on NPR.  One has to wonder on what she bases these expectations.  Certainly not on any of the evidence as per the most recent data releases.

For instance, the NY Fed’s latest Inflation expectation survey was released yesterday with 1-year (5.7%) and 3-year (4.2%) both at the highest level in the series’ history since it began in 2013.  She cannot be looking at yesterday’s PPI data (8.6%, 6.8% core) as an indicator given both of these are at their highest level on a final demand basis since PPI started being measured in this manner in 2011.  However, a look a little deeper at the intermediate levels, earlier in the supply chain, show inflation running at levels between 11.8% and 27.8% Y/Y.  While all of these costs are not likely to flow into the price of finished goods, you can be sure that the pressure to raise prices throughout the chain for both goods and services remains great.  And of course, later this morning we will see the CPI data (exp 5.9% Y/Y, 4.3% ex food & energy) with both indicators forecast to show substantial increases from last month.  Secretary Yellen continues to try to sell the transitory story and twelve months of increasing prices later, it is wearing thin.

The US, though, is not the only place with this problem, it is a global issue.  Last night China released its inflation readings with PPI (13.5%) rising far more than expected and touching levels not seen since 1995.  CPI there rose to 1.5%, a tick higher than expected which indicates that either there is a serious lack of final demand in the country or they are simply manipulating the data to demonstrate that the government is in control.  (In fact, it is always remarkable to me when a Chinese data point is released that is not exactly as expected given the control the government exerts on every aspect of the process.)  Regardless, the fact is that price pressures continue to rise in China on the back of rising energy costs and shortages of available energy, and ultimately, given China’s status as the world’s largest exporter, those costs are going to feed into other nations’ import prices.

How about Europe?  Well, German CPI rose 4.5% Y/Y in October, the highest level since September 1993 in the wake of the German reunification which dramatically shook up the economy there.  Remember, too, the German’s have a severe phobia over inflation given the history of the Weimar Hyperinflation, so discontent with the ECB’s performance is growing apace in the country.

Essentially, it is abundantly clear that rising prices have become the norm, and that any idea that we are going to ease back to moderate inflation in the near-term are fantasy.  Naturally, with inflationary pressures abundant, one might expect that central banks would be out to address them by tightening policy.  And yet, while peripheral nations have already done so, the biggest countries remain extremely reluctant to tighten as concern over economic output and employment growth continue to dominate their thoughts.

Historically, central bank decision making always required balancing the two competing goals of pumping up supporting the economy while preventing prices from running away.  Between the GFC and the pandemic, though, there was no need to worry as measured inflation never reared its ugly head, so easy money supported growth with no inflationary consequences.  But post-pandemic fiscal largess has changed the equation and now central banks have to make a decision, with significant political blowback to either choice.  Yet the biggest risk is the lack of a decisiveness may well lead to the worst of all worlds, rising prices and slowing growth, i.e. stagflation.  I promise you a stagflationary environment will be devastating to financial assets all over.

Now, as we await the CPI data, let’s take a look around the markets to see how traders and investors are responding to all the latest news and data.

Equity markets are mostly following the US lead from yesterday with declines throughout most of Asia (Nikkei -0.6%, Hang Seng +0.7%, Shanghai -0.4%) and most of Europe (DAX -0.2%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.4%).  US futures are all pointing lower at this hour as well (DOW -0.3%, SPX -0.3%, NASDAQ -0.5%) so there is little in the way of joy at the current moment.  Risk is definitely under pressure.

What’s interesting is that bonds are not seen as a viable replacement despite declining stock prices as yields in Treasuries (+2.7bps) and throughout Europe (Bunds +0.8bps, OATs +2.1bps, Gilts +3.4bps) are higher.  So, stocks are lower and bonds are lower.  Did I mention that stagflation would be negative for financial assets?

On this very negative day, commodity prices, too, are under pressure with oil (-0.6%), NatGas (-1.8%), gold (-0.35%), copper (-0.3%) and tin (-1.1%) all suffering.  In fact, throughout the entire commodity complex, only aluminum (+2.0%) and corn (+0.5%) are showing gains.  At this point, oil remains in a strong uptrend, so any pullback is likely technical in nature.  NatGas continues to respond to the glorious weather in the northeast and Midwest with reduced near-term demand.  Even in Europe, Gazprom has finally started to let some more gas flow hence reducing price pressures there although it remains multiples of the US price.

Turning to the dollar, it is today’s clear winner, gaining against 9 of its G10 brethren, with CAD (flat) the only currency holding its own.  SEK (-0.6%) and NOK (-0.5%) lead the way lower with the latter tracking oil’s declines while the former is simply showing off its high beta characteristics with respect to dollar movement.  In the EMG bloc, TRY (-1.1%) is the laggard as traders anticipate another interest rate cut, despite high inflation, and there is concern over the fiscal situation given significant foreign debt payments are due next week.  ZAR (-0.9%) is slumping on the commodity story as well as concerns that the budget policy may sacrifice the currency on the altar of domestic needs.  But the weakness extends throughout the space with APAC currencies under pressure as well as LATAM currencies.  This is a dollar story today, with very little holding up to the perceived stability of the buck.

As well as the CPI data, given tomorrow’s holiday, we see Initial (exp 260K) and Continuing (2050K) Claims at 8:30.  There are actually no further Fed speakers today with Bullard yesterday remarking that two rate hikes were likely in 2022.  We shall see.

With the inflation narrative so strong, this morning’s data will be key to determining the short-term direction of markets.  A higher than expected print is likely to see further declines in both stocks and bonds with the dollar benefitting.  A weaker outcome seems likely to unleash yet another bout of risk acquisition with the opposite effects.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Likely to Fade

The bond market’s making it clear

Inflation, while higher this year,

Is likely to fade

Just like Jay portrayed

While bottlenecks soon disappear





The data though’s yet to support

Inflation’s rise will be cut short

Perhaps CPI

Next week will supply

The data the Fed does purport

For the past month, virtually every price indicator in the G20 has printed higher than forecast, which continues a multi-month trend and has been a key support of the inflationist camp.  After all, if the actual inflation readings continue to rise more rapidly than econometric models indicate, it certainly raises the question if there is something more substantial behind the activity.  At the same time, there has been a corresponding increase of commentary by key central bank heads that, dammit, inflation is transitory!  Both sides of this debate have been able to point to pieces of data to claim that they have the true insight, but the reality is neither side really knows.  This fact is made clear by the story-telling that accompanies all the pronouncements.  For instance, the transitory camp assures us that supply-chain bottlenecks will soon be resolved as companies increase their capacities, and so price pressures will abate.  But building new plant and equipment takes time, sometimes years, so those bottlenecks may be with us for many months.  Meanwhile, the persistent camp highlights the idea that the continued rise in commodity prices will see input costs trend higher with price rises ensuing.  But we have already seen a significant retreat from the absolute peaks, and it is not clear that a resumption of the trend is in the offing.  The problem with both these stories is either outcome is possible so both sides are simply talking their books.

While I remain clearly in the persistent camp, my take is more on the psychological effects of the recent rise in so many prices.  After all, even the Fed is focused on inflation expectations.  So, considering that recency bias remains a strongly inbred human condition, and that prices have risen recently, there is no question many people are expecting prices to continue to rise.  At the same time, one argument that had been consistently made during the pre-pandemic days was that companies could not afford to raise prices due to competition as they were afraid of losing business.  But now, thanks to multiple rounds of stimulus checks, the population, as a whole, is flush with cash.  As evidenced by the fact that so many companies have already raised prices during the past year and continue to sell their wares, it would appear that the fear of losing business over higher prices has greatly diminished.

And yet…the bond market has accepted the transitory story as gospel.  This was made clear yesterday when both Treasury and Gilt yields tumbled 8 basis points while Bund and OAT yields fell 6bps.  That is not the behavior of a bond market that is worried about runaway inflation.  

So, which is it?  That, of course, is the $64 trillion question, and one for which nobody yet has the answer.  What we can do, though, is try to determine how markets may move in either circumstance.

If inflation is truly transitory it would seem that we can look forward to a continued bull flattening of yield curves with the level of rates falling alongside the slope of the yield curve.  Commodity prices will arguably have peaked as new production comes online and equity markets will benefit significantly from lower interest rates alongside steady growth.  As to the dollar, it seems unlikely to change dramatically as lower yields alongside lower inflation means real yields will be stable.

On the other hand, if prices rise persistently for the next quarters (or years), financial markets are likely to respond very differently.  At some point the bond market will become uncomfortable with the situation and yields will start to rise more sharply amid a steeper yield curve as the Fed will almost certainly remain well behind the curve and continue to suppress the front end.  Commodity prices will have resumed their uptrend as they will be a key driver in the entire inflationary story.  Energy, especially, will matter as virtually every other product requires energy to be created, so higher energy prices will feed into the economy at large.  Equity markets may find themselves in a more difficult situation, especially the high growth names that are akin to very long duration bonds, although certain sectors (utilities, staples, REITs) are likely to hold their own.  And the dollar?  If, as supposed, the Fed remains behind the curve, the dollar will suffer significantly, as real yields will decline sharply.  This will be more evident if we continue to see policy tightening from the group of countries that have already begun that process.

In the end, though, we are all just speculating with no inside knowledge of the eventual outcome.  It is for this reason that hedging is so important.  Well designed hedge strategies help moderate the outcome regardless of the eventual results, and that is a worthy goal in itself. Hedging can reduce earnings/cash flow volatility.

Onward to today’s markets.  Starting with bonds, after yesterday’s huge rally, we continue to see demand as, though Treasury yields are unchanged, European sovereign yields have fallen by between 0.3bps (Gilts) and 1.5bps (Bunds), with the rest of the major nations somewhere in between.

Equity markets have been more mixed but are turning higher.  Last night saw the Nikkei (-1.0%) and Hang Seng (-0.4%) follow the bulk of the US market lower, but Shanghai (+0.7%) responded positively to news that the PBOC may soon be considering cutting rates to support what is a clearly weakening growth impulse in China.  (Caixin PMI fell to 50.3 in Services and 51.3 in Manufacturing, both far lower than expected in June.)  European markets have been in better stead with the DAX (+0.9%) leading the way and FTSE 100 (+0.5%) putting in a solid performance although the CAC (+0.1%) is really not doing much.  The big news here was the European Commission publishing their latest forecasts for higher growth this year and next as well as slightly higher inflation.  Finally, US futures markets are all pointing higher with the NASDAQ (+0.5%) continuing to lead the way.

Commodity prices are definitely higher this morning with oil (+1.5%) a key driver, but metals (Au +0.6%, Ag +1.0%, Cu +2.0% and Al +0.3%) all finding strong bids.  Agricultural products are also bid this morning and there is more than one analyst who is claiming we have seen the bottom in the commodity correction with higher prices in our future.

As to the dollar, it is somewhat mixed, but arguably, modestly weaker on the day.  In the G10, NZD (+0.4%), NOK (+0.3%) and AUD (+0.3%) are the leaders with all three benefitting from the broad-based commodity rally.  SEK (-0.25%) is the laggard as renewed discussion of moderating inflation pressures has investors assuming the Riksbank will be late to the tightening party thus leaving the krona relatively unattractive.

In the EMG bloc, ZAR (+0.5%), MXN (+0.35%) and RUB (+0.25%) are the leading gainers, with all three obviously benefitting from the commodity story this morning.  CNY (+0.25%) has also gained after investor inflows into the Chinese bond market supported the renminbi.  On the downside, KRW (-0.7%) and PHP (-0.6%) fell the most although the bulk of those moves came in yesterday’s NY session as the dollar rallied across the board and these currencies gapped lower on the opening and remained there.  Away from these, though, activity has been less impressive with few stories to drive things.

Two pieces of data today are the JOLTS Job Openings (exp 9.325M) and the FOMC Minutes this afternoon.  The former will simply serve to highlight the mismatch in skills that exists in the US as well as the fact that current policy with enhanced unemployment insurance has kept many potential workers on the sidelines.  As to the Minutes, people will be focused on any taper discussion as well as the conversation on interest rates and why views about rates changed so much during the quarter.

Our lone Fed speaker of the week, Atlanta Fed President Bostic, will be on the tape at 3:30 this afternoon.  To date, he has been in the tapering sooner camp, so I would expect that will remain the situation.  

Yesterday’s dollar rally was quite surprising given the decline in both nominal and real yields in the US.  However, it has hardly given back any ground.  At its peak in early April, the dollar index traded up to 93.4 and the euro fell to 1.1704.  We would need to break through those levels to convince of a sustained move higher in the dollar.  In the meantime, I expect that the odds are the dollar can cede some of its recent gains.

Good luck and stay safe

Adf