A Beginning, a Middle and End

“A beginning, a middle and end”
Is how Powell outlined the trend
Of current inflation
Which has caused frustration
For central banks who overspend

As Ralph Waldo Emerson so notably observed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  I am reminded of this each time I read that (little statesman) Jay Powell or (the divine) Madame Lagarde explain that inflation is largely transitory.  Little-minded they certainly appear to be, no?  Every day the evidence grows that inflation is trending higher yet despite this information, they remain consistent in their belief (or at least in their comments) that all of this price appreciation will quickly pass.  Yesterday, at an ECB held virtual symposium, Powell expressed frustration that supply chain bottlenecks have not been resolved as quickly as the Fed’s models indicate they should be.  Or perhaps the frustration stems from the fact that they have been completely wrong about inflation and it is starting to have a serious impact on their idealized world.  Whatever the case, each time they try to gloss over the implications of inflation, they lose just a touch more credibility (to the extent they have any remaining) in the markets’ collective eyes.  While the Fed’s track record for forecasting has always been awful, the current situation appears to be one of either intransigence in the face of new evidence, or more likely, a recognition that a change in their narrative has the potential to lead to much worse outcomes.

Fortunately, they continue to explain that if inflation were to get out of hand, they have the tools to address the issue and they are not afraid to use them!  However, history indicates that is not the case.  Consider that those ‘tools’ consist of the ability to raise interest rates and tighten monetary policy.  We all recall that just 3 years ago, as the Fed was attempting to normalize its balance sheet, allowing purchased assets to mature without being replaced, as well as slowly move interest rates higher, the equity market tumbled 20% in Q4 2018.  This led to the Powell pivot, where he decided that a declining stock market was a negative for his personal balance sheet the economy and instead, the FOMC cut rates in January to mitigate the damage already done.  The situation today appears far more dangerous with market leverage and valuations at historic highs.  Tightening policy in this market condition is likely to result in at least a 20% revaluation of equities, something the Fed can clearly not countenance.  Hence, it is far easier to ignore inflation than to respond to it.  Meanwhile, Paul Volcker spins in his grave!

In the meantime, Eurozone inflation readings released thus far this morning have shown virtually every one at the highest levels since before the GFC, at the very least, if not the highest readings in three decades.  For instance, French CPI printed at 2.7%, its highest print since June 2008.  Italian CPI, at 3.0%, is merely its highest since 2012, but in fairness, prior to the euro’s creation, Italian CPI regularly ran at much higher levels resulting in a continuing depreciation of the lire. Shortly we will see German inflation, with some of its States already reporting levels above 4.2%, their highest prints since the mid 1990’s, which is also the current forecast for the nation as a whole.  The point is, there is absolutely no evidence that inflation is peaking, and while Powell and Lagarde twiddle their thumbs, things are going to get worse before they get better.

So, what does this mean for markets?  Well, we have already seen yield curves steepen in the US and throughout Europe as there is a strong belief that despite rising inflation, neither the Fed nor ECB is going to respond.  Yes, the Fed said they would think about tapering come November, but if anything, that is likely to simply steepen the curve further as the price-insensitive buyer of last resort reduces its purchases.  The real question is, at what point will the Fed decide that yields are too high and adjust policy to rein them in?  SMBC’s house forecast is for 1.80% by the end of the year, which is in line with much of the Street.  The conundrum, however, is that Street forecasts are for continued higher prices in equities as well, and it seems to me that the two scenarios are unlikely to be achieved simultaneously.  If rates do continue higher, while I think the short-term impact will be USD positive, I fear the equity market may not be quite as sanguine.

Overnight, markets continue to wrestle with the conflicting ideas of rising inflation and central bank sanguinity on its transitory nature.  While we have seen a sharp rise in yields over the past week, last night was a consolidating session with bond market movement quite limited.  Treasury yields have edged higher by 1.2bps, but at 1.53% remain a few ticks below the peak seen Monday.  We have seen similar, modest, price action on the continent (Bunds +0.5bps, OATs +0.4bps) although Gilts (+2.4bps) have responded to better-than-expected GDP results for Q2, which showed year on year growth of 23.6%.  Not surprisingly, this has helped the pound as well, which is firmer this morning by 0.1%.

Equity markets have also had mixed reviews with Asia (Nikkei -0.3%, Hang Seng -0.4%, Shanghai +0.9%) not giving consistent direction and Europe following suit (DAX -0.2%, CAC 0.0%, FTSE 100 +0.2%).  US futures are higher by about 0.5% at this hour as traders await this morning’s data releases.

While oil prices have slipped a bit this morning (WTI -0.8%) the same cannot be said for NatGas (+2.7%) as the energy situation remains fraught in Europe and the UK (and Asia).  The rest of the commodity space is generally under pressure as well with copper (-1.7%) and aluminum (-0.4%) both falling while the precious sector is essentially unchanged on the day.

The dollar, while mixed in the overnight session, saw significant strength yesterday which has seen the euro fall below 1.1600 for the first time since July 2020, and looking for all the world like it has further to run.  Unless yields in the US stop rising, my take is we could well see 1.12 before long.  But in the past two days we have seen some sharp declines; NOK (-1.5%), NZD (-1.3%) and EUR (-0.9%) have all suffered.  Even the yen (-0.45%) is declining here despite some evidence of risk mitigation.  In fact, it has weakened to its lowest point since the beginning of the Covid situation in February 2020, and here, too, looks as though it as room to run.  115 anyone?

EMG currencies have shown similar price behavior, falling sharply yesterday with a more mixed overnight session.  But the breadth of the decline is indicative of a dollar story, not any idiosyncratic issues in particular countries.  While those clearly exist, they are not driving the market right now.

This morning’s data calendar brings the weekly Initial (exp 330K) and Continuing (2790K) Claims data as well as the third look at Q2 GDP (6.6%).  Then at 9:45 we see Chicago PMI (65.0).  While the GDP data contains inflation information, it is not widely followed or used in models.  However, it is interesting to note that the Core PCE calculation there is at 6.1%, which happens to be the highest print since Q3 1983!  Perhaps this is why it is ignored.

We also hear from six Fed speakers in addition to Powell and Yellen sitting down in front of the House Financial Services Committee.  Of course, Powell has made clear his views on the transitory nature of inflation and I’m confident no question from a Congressman will get him to admit anything different.  Rather, I expect a staunch defense of the two disgraced Fed regional presidents who resigned after their insider trading was made known, and both he and Yellen to beseech Congress to raise the debt ceiling and not allow the government to shut down.  In other words, nothing new will occur.

The dollar has pretty clearly broken out of its recent range and I expect that this move has some legs.  I would be buying dollars on dips when the opportunity arises.  For payables hedgers, pick your spots and lock in comfortable rates.  The trend is now your friend.

Good luck and stay safe