To Make Jay Concerned

On Friday the payroll report
Surprised folks by coming up short
Is growth really slowing?
Or else, is this showing
A government data distort?

This morning, though, all eyes have turned
To metals and stuff that is burned
As those prices soar
They seem to have more
Potential to make Jay concerned

With all that anticipation leading up to the payroll report on Friday, it sure turned out differently than expected.  You may recall that the median forecast for the headline number was a cool million new jobs, with a survey range from 700K to 2.1 million.  The result, 266K plus a reduction of 140K from the previous month was, in a word, awful.  In fact, it was the largest statistical miss since the data began.  Now, the analyst community is busy trying to figure out what went wrong.

There are a couple of possible answers, each with its own implications.  The simplest explanation is that the combination of exiting from an unprecedented, government-imposed economic shutdown is not easily modeled and when combined with the vagaries of seasonal adjustments to the data, analysts’ models were simply wrong.  It is important to remember that the seasonal adjustments in this data stream are quite large relative to the reported data, so this is quite a viable explanation.

A second possible explanation, and one favored by the current administration, is that the data shows the economy needs more government support as too many people are falling through the cracks.  On the other hand, the business community continues to complain how difficult it is to hire qualified employees, especially in the service sector, as the ongoing government unemployment largesse is paying more than many low paying service sector jobs.  (The story of the entire workforce of a Dollar General store upping and quitting en masse is the quintessential symbol of this concept.)  Another facet of this argument is the skills mismatches that exist as, for example, erstwhile airline staff may not be able to analyze data for an IT firm, effectively resulting in a hiring need and unemployed worker at the same time.

While skills mismatches certainly exist, they always have, arguably one way for businesses to obtain staffing is to pay more for the roles in question.  The risk in that strategy is, especially for small businesses, increased labor costs will force companies to raise prices at the risk of losing business.  Based on Friday’s report, this is clearly not yet the default choice of the small business owner.  Odds are, though, especially as demand for all products and services increases with the reopening of the economy more generally, that this is going to be the outcome.  Higher wages to get workers and higher prices for goods and services.

Occam’s Razor suggests that the first explanation, data uncertainty, is the most likely cause for Friday’s massive statistical miss.  However, don’t expect the other two arguments to disappear as they are each very compelling for the currently competing political narratives.  Ultimately, we will find out more through the data for the rest of this month and get to do this all over again in June.

On the topic of rising prices, though, this morning has much more to offer, specifically in the commodity space.  The big weekend news has been about a cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, which happens to be the largest pipeline for oil products like gasoline and diesel, to the East Coast.  With the pipeline shut, (apparently the pipeline can still carry the products, but the company cannot track how much fuel is being consumed, and thus charge accordingly), gasoline and product prices are rising, dragging up oil prices as well (WTI +0.5%).  But of more interest is the metals sector where prices are exploding higher.  Not only are precious metals (Au +0.45%, AG +1.25%) higher, but industrial base metals are really rocking (Fe +5.1%, Cu +2.6%, Al +1.9%, Ni +0.8%).  This is, of course, one of the key features of the inflation is coming narrative, sharply rising commodity prices will work their way into the price of stuff.  But inflation is a measure of the ongoing change in prices over time.  The Fed’s argument is that these prices will have an impact in the short run, but unless commodity prices continue rise year after year, the effect will be ‘transitory’.

The counter to the Fed’s argument is that we are currently embarking on the beginning of a commodity super-cycle, a price phenomenon where prices trend in one direction for many years on end, often 10-15 years.  If this argument is correct, and the prices of copper and iron ore are just beginning their climb, then the Fed is going to find themselves with a whole lot of trouble in the future.  But right now, it is merely dueling forecasts and narratives, so nothing is clear.

With all the excitement in commodities, things are pretty quiet in the financial markets.  Equity markets in Asia were a bit higher (Nikkei +0.55%, Hang Seng 0.0%, Shanghai +0.25%) while European bourses are mixed (DAX -0.25%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.15%).  US futures are also mixed with Dow (+0.3%) continuing last week’s rally while NASDAQ (-0.25%) continues to feel pain from the ongoing rotation out of tech.

Bond markets are not buying the inflation narrative at this point with Treasuries (-0.5bps) seeing slightly lower yields while Bunds and OATs are essentially unchanged on the day.  The only real mover is the Gilt market (+1.7bps) which has rallied after weekend elections failed to give the Scottish National Party a majority in the Scottish Parliament and thus the prospect of a referendum to allow Scotland to leave the UK seems to be pushed back.

The outcome of the Scottish vote helped the pound as well, with GBP rallying 0.9% this morning, far and away the best performer in the FX markets.  Amid broad-based dollar weakness, the pound’s performance still stands out.  Next in line, in the G10, is AUD (+0.5%) which is a clear beneficiary of the rise in commodity prices.  In fact, iron ore is Australia’s largest commodity export.  NZD and CAD (both +0.2%) are lesser beneficiaries and the rest of the block, save JPY (-0.2%) is slightly firmer.  The yen seems to be suffering from the latest poll showing PM Suga’s popularity continuing to slide and bringing some uncertainty to the situation there with an election due by the end of the year.

Asian currencies were the big beneficiary in the EMG space led by KRW (+0.7%), IDR (+0.6%) and CNY (+0.3%).  The story there continues to be the anticipated strong growth rebound combined with the dollar’s weakness.  Remember, Chairman Powell has essentially promised that US rates are going to remain at zero regardless of what happens for at least another year.  As it happens, TWD (+0.3%) has traded to its strongest level since 1997, as the robust economic situation, plus the huge demand for semiconductors has more than offset any geopolitical concerns.

Data this week is back-loaded as follows:

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 100.8
JOLTs Job Openings 7.5M
Wednesday CPI 0.2% (3.6% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.3% (2.3% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 495K
Continuing Claims 3.64M
PPI 0.3% (5.8% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.4% (3.7% Y/Y)
Friday Retail Sales 1.0%
-ex autos 0.9%
IP 1.0%
Capacity Utilization 75.1%
Michigan Sentiment 90.1

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, CPI will be very interesting, as will Retail Sales.  We also hear from 13 more Fed speakers this week, all of whom are certain to repeat the mantra that the economy needs more support and they will not be changing policy anytime soon.  Remember, inflation is transitory…until it’s not.

The dollar is starting the week off on the back foot.  If we continue to hear Fed speakers insist that policy is not going to change, and we continue to see inflationary consequences rise, the dollar will weaken further.  In the end, 10-year Treasury yields remain the key number to watch.  As long as they remain within the recent range, the dollar is likely to remain soft.  If they should break higher, though, watch out.

Good luck and stay safe