A Touch of Despair

The Beige Book detected the fact
That bottom lines all have been whacked
As wages explode
While growth, somewhat, slowed
Inflation, it seems, ain’t abstract

Meanwhile we heard from a vice-Chair
Whose words had a touch of despair
It seems he now thinks
There just might be links
Twixt QE and price everywhere

Chairman Powell’s comments due tomorrow are taking on much greater importance than just a few days ago as the Fed narrative is seemingly in the middle of a change.  While many have been willing to dismiss the fact that the regional Fed presidents have been more hawkish lately, leading the charge for the beginning of tapering, the Fed governors had been far more sanguine on the subject, at least until very recently.  Tuesday, we heard from Governor Waller about his concerns that inflation could be more persistent, especially if one looked at the headline measures as he dismissed the other measures as efforts at manipulation.  Yesterday it was vice-Chair Quarles’ turn to put the market on notice that inflation’s persistence has begun to become troublesome and while he still felt price pressures would abate next year, his level of confidence in that forecast was clearly declining.  Both of them hinted at the possible need for rate hikes sooner than previously expected.

Yesterday, too, the release of the Fed’s Beige Book presented a clear picture of two issues: wages were rising rapidly, and growth was slowing.  The problem stems from the fact that despite wage increases of 20% or more, companies are still having a problem staffing up to desired levels and that has led to reduced output.  It has also led to business after business explaining that they would be raising prices to offset increased costs for not just wages, but raw materials and shipping.  In your Economics 101 textbook (likely Samuelson’s) this was the very definition of a wage-price spiral.

It is this recent hawkish turn by several Fed governors that brings even greater attention to Chairman Powell’s comments tomorrow.  The market is already assuming that tapering will begin next month, but the question remains, will the Fed be able to continue along that line if economic activity continues to slide?  I raise this issue because after Tuesday’s weaker than expected housing data, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow indicator has fallen to 0.533% for Q3.  And that’s an annual rate, down from Q2’s 6.8% GDP growth.  It appears the Fed may have a difficult decision to make in the near future; fight rapidly rising inflation or fight rapidly slowing growth. As I’ve written before, stagflation is a b*tch.

Adding to the economic problems is the continued slowing of growth in China where ongoing power shortages combined with a resurgence of Covid related shutdowns and the implosion of China Evergrande have resulted in the slowest, non-Covid, growth in decades.  At the same time, the PBOC continues to drain liquidity from the economy in an effort to reduce leverage which has the effect of further slowing activity there.  Given China has been the global growth engine for at least the past decade, a slowdown there means we are going to see slower activity everywhere else.  Alas, for the central banking community, it is not clear that will help price pressures abate, not as long as energy and raw material prices continue to rise.

Summing it all up shows that growth worldwide is falling from Q2’s peak while price pressures are flowing from commodities to shipping and now wages.  All this is occurring with interest rates broadly at their lowest levels in history. (I know some countries have raised rates a bit, but the reality is there is far less room to ease policy than tighten overall.)  Given this backdrop, it remains amazing to me that equity markets worldwide have been able to continue to perform well.  And yet, they continue to do so broadly, albeit not last night.  However, I believe that interest rate markets are beginning to recognize that the future may not be so rosy as we are seeing yields continue to climb and inflation breakevens rise to levels not seen in nearly a decade.  Remember, there is no perpetual motion machine and no free lunch.  Central banks have spent the entire post GFC period continually supporting markets while allowing significant imbalances to develop across all segments of the economy and, ironically, markets.  I have often said the Fed’s biggest problem will arrive when they announce a policy change and the market ignores the announcement.  I fear that time is growing much nearer.

With those cheery thoughts to support us, let’s take a look at the overnight session.  It seems that risk is having a bit of a struggle today with most of Asia (Nikkei -1.9%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai +0.2%) under pressure and Europe (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.4%, FTSE 100 -0.6%), too, having difficulty this morning.  US futures are also pointing lower, -0.3% or so across the major ones, which implies pressure at the opening at the very least.  China continues to be a drag on the global markets as other Chinese real estate companies are starting to fall and the word is Evergrande’s sales have fallen 97%.  I guess buying from a bankrupt company is not that attractive a proposition.

In a bit of a surprise, European sovereign bond yields are rising this morning (Bunds +1.6bps, OATs +1.2bps, Gilts +3.7bps) as ordinarily one would expect a rush into safe havens when risk is on the run.  However, as the EU begins another summit, it is likely to simply highlight the ongoing problems across the continent, notably in energy, and that seems to be sapping confidence from investors.  Treasury yields are very marginally softer on the day, so far, but with more and more Fed members talking up inflation worries, I expect they are likely to continue to rise for a while yet.

Commodity markets are under pressure today as well with oil (WTI -0.8%) and NatGas (-1.7%) leading the way, but weakness, too, in copper (-2.9%), aluminum (-0.3%) and all the main agriculturals (soy -0.7%, wheat -0.7%, corn -0.5%).  By contrast, gold’s unchanged price is looking good!

As to the dollar, it is broadly, though not universally, stronger this morning.  In the G10, AUD (-0.3%) and NZD (-0.3%) lead the way down with the rest of the commodity bloc also suffering a bit.  On the plus side, JPY (+0.25%) is the only gainer, which given equity price action seems pretty standard.  In the emerging markets, TRY (-2.4%) is the outlier after the central bank cut interest rates by 2.0%, double the expected outcome, to 16.0%, despite inflation running at 19.6% in September.  You may recall that President Erdogan fired several central bankers last week as they were clearly not willing to do his bidding.  There is nothing promising about the lira these days.  Aside from that, the rest of the space is softer led by ZAR (-0.7%) on weaker commodity prices, and PLN (-0.4%) as investors’ concerns grow that the EU is going to try to punish Poland for its recent court ruling that said EU law does not reign supreme in Poland.  Other movers have been less significant but are spread across all three geographies.

On the data front, this morning brings the weekly Initial (exp 297K) and Continuing (2548K) Claims numbers as well as Philly Fed (25.0), Leading Indicators (+0.4%) and Existing Home Sales (6.09M).  Of this group, I expect the Philly number will give the most information, but in truth, I believe traders and investors are more interested in hearing from Chris Waller again as well as NY Fed president Williams this morning to try to get any more information about the evolving Fed story.

Broadly speaking, I believe the US interest rate story continues to underpin the dollar and I see nothing to change that view.  The dollar has been trending higher since summer and while the last week has seen marginal dollar softness, I believe it is merely a good time to take advantage and buy dollars for receivables hedgers.

Good luck and stay safe