On Marketplace, El-Erian Describes the Cost of A Late Start to Fighting Inflation

Mohamed El-Erian earned kudos on these pages when he pushed against 2021’s conventional wisdom of “transitory inflation” and insisted that the Fed needed to act to fight inflation. When too many thought that inflation would take care of itself and presented no threat to the economy, El-Erian was a solid inflation-fighting voice. So when he recently showed up to Marketplace for an interview, my ears naturally perked up.

El-Erian made several references to the tardiness of the Fed’s monetary tightening. Woven together, these quotes provide a key tenet of Fed critique and characterize the implications of being late to tightening.

“We know that, had they [the Federal Reserve] not fallen into this cognitive trap of inflation being transitory, had they acted earlier, they could have hiked into a growing economy. And they could have avoided what is one of the most front-loaded hiking cycles in history…

If you are late — and the Fed has been very late — you have no choice but to move really quickly. To make it specific, this Fed has increased interest rates by .75% four times in a row. That is a record that is almost unheard of, including during the ’70s and ’80s, when we had a much bigger inflation problem…

Even when they recognized, at the end of November last year, that inflation was not transitory, they didn’t move fast enough.”

I call the “cognitive trap” the earlier lethargy of deflationary thinking. The Fed fought and worried about deflation for so long that simple inertia nearly guaranteed the Fed would be slow to respond when real inflationary pressures appeared. Now the Fed is counting on a strong jobs market to provide political and economic cover for their mad scramble to catch up. I have yet to see anyone come to this conclusion as I have, but the proof could come in the Fed’s response to definitive evidence of a contraction in the jobs market. If the Fed is not done hiking by then, they will most likely stop hiking soon after the negative impact on the job market is obvious.

Kai Ryssdal thinks Powell admitted the Fed “blew it” in his May interview with Powell. I heard something different. The relevant quote from this interview tells me that Powell only acknowledged a small possibility that moving earlier would have generated better outcomes. However, the point is moot since the Fed would have only moved earlier with perfect information:

“I have said, and I will say again that, you know, if you had perfect hindsight you’d go back and it probably would have been better for us to have raised rates a little sooner. I’m not sure how much difference it would have made, but we have to make decisions in real time, based on what we know then, and we did the best we could. Now, we see the picture clearly and we’re determined to use our tools to get us back to price stability.”

I contend that if the Fed had implemented its risk management framework last year, that policy would have moved the Fed to start hiking rates sooner. Risk management calculations could have informed the Fed that even with the low risk assigned to being wrong about “transitory”, the cost of being wrong was great enough to make earlier rate hikes worthwhile.

Sticky Inflation

Six months ago, I referenced the concept of “persistently elevated, unactionable inflation.” El-Erian talked about the potential for sticky inflation. He described the possibility this way: “…because the Fed waited for so long, the inflation challenge has shifted from the interest rate-sensitive sectors to sectors that are less interest rate-sensitive: services and wages.” Assuming El-Erian is correct, then as the economy grinds into a slowdown next year, the Fed is likely to concede to an economy with inflation above target. El-Erian makes the following supportive claim:

“…if they were formulating the inflation target today, I doubt it will be 2%. I think most people agree it would be higher than that…So the best we can hope for is, by the middle of next year, we’ve gotten to stable inflation of about 3% to 4%. They keep on telling us that they’re gonna pursue 2% in the future, and society learns to live with a stable inflation rate that is not 2%.”

Considering what the economy has experienced for almost three years, some stability might feel like a welcome change.

Before careful out there! (I highly recommend reading or listening to the full interview with El-Erian)


Lennar Corporation: How the Fed Is Cooling Inflation In the Housing Market

Plenty of evidence exists that the Federal Reserve’s fight against inflation is working. Home builder Lennar Corporation (LEN) recently provided a vivid example of how the Fed’s rate hikes have forced the housing market to correct and push back against inflationary pressures. Deflationary forces are now at work in the system.

In last week’s Q4 earnings conference call, Lennar described an important chain of events that are underway. The company has been proactive in getting ahead of slowing demand and rising rates by purposely reducing margins to accommodate price reductions and incentives on a community-by-community basis. (The following housing markets are Lennar’s most problematic: Orlando, Pensacola, Northern Alabama, Austin, Phoenix, Utah, Reno, and Portland). In turn, Lennar is using its size and market dominance to force concessions from its supply chain. For example:

“We have very strong relationships with our trade partners. We have demonstrated to them that we have taken the first step by lowering sales prices to drive sales, and they understand this and understand the dynamic of labor availability as overall starts slow and they’re working closely with us to lower their prices…As with our trade partners, our land partners or sellers understand that we are maintaining volume and increasing market share while taking the first hit to our margin. They will need to work together and participate or we’ll need to move on.”

Lennar was even more direct in describing its advantage when inferring that the supply chain needs the work that Lennar can provide by keeping sales volumes flowing:

“…you really can’t underestimate the leverage that we get in working with our trade partners as things slow down across the board. People are looking for work. If we’re going to be the ones out there to do — starting homes, we’re going to get cost concessions, bringing cost concessions from our trade partners, from our land partners, and we’re just going to continue”

The industry-wide slowdown in housing starts has “sped up the availability of labor and materials for Lennar.” As a result, the company can use its dominant market position to extract lower costs out of the supply chain. Scarcity in the supply chain is easing and inflationary pressures are easing. Smaller builders are likely suffering the most from this change in dynamics.

Interestingly, LEN jumped 3.8% to a 10-month closing high in response to what was a surprisingly bullish earnings report considering the market environment. This buying was particularly impressive given the post-Fed sell-off underway in the stock market. It looked like another win for the seasonally strong period for home builder stocks. However, since then, gravity has slowly exacted its toll as interest rates have started to climb again. That post-earnings celebration is completely reversed now. The chart below marks earnings with a dashed vertical line labelled “E” in the bottom axis.


An irony awaits the economy on the other side of this housing reality check. With builders slowing down starts in parallel with housing demand postponed by punishing mortgage rates, an economic recovery will deliver a rush that will expose new market dysfunctions. Home prices could quickly turn around as eager buyers once again scramble for limited inventory. The major builders will continue to move slowly in adding supply to the market. The intense rationalization of the housing market will keep “normalization” out of reach in the most attractive housing markets.

In the meantime, waning inflationary pressures should at least benefit more participants than runaway inflation.

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: no position

Median CPI May Be A Window on Fed’s Inflation Caution

Last week, the Federal Reserve disappointed markets once again with its refusal to acknowledge the market’s belief in the end of the inflation threat. The opening statement for December’s decision on monetary policy delivered the familiar refrain: “The Committee anticipates that ongoing increases in the target range will be appropriate in order to attain a stance of monetary policy that is sufficiently restrictive to return inflation to 2 percent over time.” During the press conference, Chair Powell further emphasized that the Fed has yet to see substantial evidence that inflation will continue to come down in a sustained way. So while the Fed is slowing the pace of rate hikes, the Fed will continue hiking past the market’s peak rate expectations. Powell even rebuffed once again the notion that the Fed will cut rates next year. So if inflation has peaked, why is the Fed so “stubborn”? The dynamics in median CPI may be a window on the Fed’s inflation caution.

Every month, financial markets receive a bevy of inflation reports. The Federal Reserve watches all of them as is clear from the various research papers and metrics the various Federal Reserve banks produce. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland produces a monthly report on the median CPI and the 16 percent trimmed-mean CPI. Per the definition provided with the report:

Median CPI is the one-month inflation rate of the component whose expenditure weight is in the 50th percentile of price changes. 16 percent trimmed-mean CPI is a weighted average of one-month inflation rates of components whose expenditure weights fall below the 92nd percentile and above the 8th percentile of price changes.”

Why use the median CPI and the 16% trimmed-mean CPI? The Cleveland Fed explains: “By omitting outliers (small and large price changes) and focusing on the interior of the distribution of price changes, the median CPI and the 16 percent trimmed-mean CPI can provide a better signal of the underlying inflation trend than either the all-items CPI or the CPI excluding food and energy (also known as core CPI).”

This effective smoothing of the inflation dynamics produces a lag in the peak for inflation and shows almost no indication that inflation is ready to come down in the sustained fashion the Fed wants to see. In the chart below, the yellow line is the median CPI, and the greyish blue line is the 16% trimmed-mean CPI. For November, the order from top to bottom is the (headline) CPI, median CPI, 16% trimmed-mean CPI, and the core CPI.

The trend is NOT yet down. If these were stock charts, I would even argue an uptrend remains in place.

The 16% trimmed-mean CPI looks like it has likely peaked, but the topping pattern lacks the double-topping that makes the peak in core CPI look so convincing. The median CPI is the worst news for those who think the inflation threat is already over: this measure is just now plateauing after streaking straight upward since late last year. Sure, there are all sorts of forward-looking measures that the Fed sees as confirming a peak in inflation, but there is little saying the inflationary pressures are going to come down sufficiently and conclusively. The Fed’s risk management framework thus mandates that the Fed proceed with caution. The magnitude of decline that mollifies the Fed remains anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, interest rates are still fighting the Fed and likely more focused on the prospects for a 2023 recession.

The iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) is hovering at levels last seen three months ago. TLT looks like it bottomed out in October/November. Source: TradingView.com

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: no related positions

The Fed Plants A Flag On Peak Inflation and An Economic Soft Landing

Robert G. Valletta, associate director of research and senior VP at the SF Fed, planted a flag on peak inflation and an economic soft landing in a recent economic research blog post. Valetta provided data suggesting that inflation is finally on a sustained path lower alongside increased risks for a mild recession. The blog post is not an official statement from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, but the work is a powerful message nonetheless.

Valetta declared “recent data suggest that inflation may have peaked.” The latest inflation projection shows a gradual decline toward the Fed’s 2% average goal around 2025 or 2026. Valetta cautions that “repeated upside surprises” to inflation mean that “the risks to this forecast [are] weighted to the upside.” In other words, we should expect the Federal Reserve to keep its interest rate higher for longer in order to ensure inflation’s glide path stays pointed downward. The graph below shows the recent peak and successive higher forecasts for inflation since March.

After on-going upside revisions, PCE core price inflation is now expected to approach the 2% target somewhere around 2025.

After on-going upside revisions, PCE core price inflation is now expected to approach the 2% target somewhere around 2025. (Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

The cost of peaking inflation is slower growth. Valetta expects “growth to remain well below trend this year and next year before converging back to trend in 2025.” Conveniently, that return to trend occurs just as inflation returns to the Fed’s target. Most importantly, Valetta points to a mere one percentage point increase in unemployment “through 2024.” This expectation means that the onset of a recession next year will create a mild economic slowdown. Today’s unemployment rate is still near the historic low of 3.5%. Unemployment below 5% is surprisingly low for a recessionary environment. The high job vacancy rate softens the economic blow of slowing growth as there is plenty of room to cool off labor demand without disrupting the labor market.

Valetta acknowledged that the inversion of the yield curve suggests that odds are high for a recession: “such yield curve inversions have proven historically to be reliable predictors of recessions over the subsequent 12 months. After some divergence earlier this year, two leading measures of the yield spread have now both become inverted.” However, Valetta does not want readers to decide that a recession is a foregone conclusion: “their predictions come with substantial statistical uncertainty, however, and are not definitive indications that a recession is looming.”

Inverted yield curves have preceded recessions since the late 1980s.

Inverted yield curves have preceded recessions since the late 1980s. (Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

The Fed’s success in fighting inflation has come from a “proxy funds rate” that is much higher than the effective funds rate. According to the SF Fed, “this measure uses public and private borrowing rates and spreads to infer the broader stance of monetary policy.” The gap between the proxy and effective rate is higher than ever. No wonder Fed Chair Jerome Powell can so comfortably reiterate that the Fed can now slow the pace of rate hikes.

The proxy funds rate is over two percentage points higher than the effective federal funds rates.

With peak inflation finally here, traders and investors should focus on how long the Fed intends to keep a restrictive stance on monetary policy. Given the extended period over which the Fed expects above target inflation, monetary policy should remain restrictive for longer than the market currently expects. In turn, the implication for the stock market of restrictive policy and below trend growth means valuations must come down further and cap upside in market returns for 2023 and perhaps 2024. Time will tell of course.

The S&P 500 (SPY) is out of bear market territory and now trying to fight its way through restrictive monetary policy.

Be careful out there!

Stock Market Loves Powell Moving from “Keep At It” to “Stay the Course” On Fighting Inflation

When Federal Reserve Chair tersely spoke at Jackson Hole on August 26th, he sent a chill through financial markets. Taking on the toughest inflation-fighting tone he could muster, Powell concluded by proclaiming “we will keep at it until we are confident the job is done.” The S&P 500 (SPY) promptly dropped 3.4% on the day. The message was so harsh that it almost took two months for the stock market to bottom out. Fast-forward to Powell’s speech November 30th titled “Inflation and the Labor Market” at the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Powell concluded by proclaiming “we will stay the course until the job is done.” The S&P 500 promptly rallied 3.1% on the day. The move was bullish enough to close the index above its 200-day moving average (DMA) for the first time in almost 8 months. The S&P 500 also closed above the May, 2021 low. Something about the difference between “keep at it” and “stay the course” significantly mattered to traders!

The S&P 500 (SPY) rallied enough to punch through two important resistance levels. The cumulative losses from Jackson Hole are now almost reversed.

The S&P 500 (SPY) rallied enough to punch through two important resistance levels. The cumulative losses from Jackson Hole are now almost reversed. (Source: TradingView.com)

If not for the stock market’s reaction, I would have interpreted Powell’s speech to land somewhere between hawkish as ever and no new information. In fact, there were several key points from the speech which should have told the market the Fed is as serious as ever about sustaining an extended fight against inflation (the following are direct quotes unless otherwise indicated; particularly important quotes in bold):

  • It will take substantially more evidence to give comfort that inflation is actually declining. By any standard, inflation remains much too high.
  • So when will inflation come down? I could answer this question by pointing to the inflation forecasts of private-sector forecasters or of FOMC participant…But forecasts have been predicting just such…a decline for more than a year, while inflation has moved stubbornly sideways.
  • It seems to me likely that the ultimate level of rates will need to be somewhat higher than thought at the time of the September meeting and Summary of Economic Projections. (a reiteration from the November monetary policy meeting)
  • Restoring [supply and demand] balance is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. (another reiteration)
  • Despite the tighter policy and slower growth over the past year, we have not seen clear progress on slowing inflation. 
  • It is far too early to declare goods inflation vanquished, but if current trends continue, goods prices should begin to exert downward pressure on overall inflation in coming months. (the stock market must have focused on this claim)
  • As long as new lease inflation keeps falling, we would expect housing services inflation to begin falling sometime next year. Indeed, a decline in this inflation underlies most forecasts of declining inflation. (in other words, this claim is old news)
  • We can see that a significant and persistent labor supply shortfall opened up during the pandemic—a shortfall that appears unlikely to fully close anytime soon. (the stock market clearly did not hear this)
  • The labor market, which is especially important for inflation in core services ex housing, shows only tentative signs of rebalancing, and wage growth remains well above levels that would be consistent with 2 percent inflation over time. (in other words the job market is at risk of sustaining high rates of inflation)
  • Despite some promising developments, we have a long way to go in restoring price stability.
  • It makes sense to moderate the pace of our rate increases as we approach the level of restraint that will be sufficient to bring inflation down. The time for moderating the pace of rate increases may come as soon as the December meeting. (this is another reiteration, but the stock market seemed to treat this as welcome new news)

If the Fed Fund futures market reversed course and priced in lower peak rates, the stock market’s sudden burst of enthusiasm could have made more sense. However, futures speculators just shifted out the peak 5.00%-5.25% range by one meeting, from March, 2023 to May, 2023. The market did move up the schedule for the first rate cut and ended the year at 25 basis points lower. However, note well that during the Q&A Powell reiterated a warning about the market’s expectations for quick rate cuts: “Cutting rates is not something we want to do soon. That is why we’re slowing down.”

Fed Fund futures market peaked rates at the March, 2023 meeting ahead of Powell’s speech (source: CME FedWatch tool)

Fed Fund futures market peaked rates at the May, 2023 meeting after Powell’s speech and moved the first rate cut up by 5 months (source: CME FedWatch tool)

The day’s rally in the stock market is one of those many times to ignore contrary fundamental assessments and pay attention to what the market thinks. If buyers follow through with the 200DMA breakout on the S&P 500, I will assume seasonal tailwinds are in full flight. Absent any shocks, the market could then rally all the way into the Fed’s December 14th pronouncement on monetary policy. That event will give Powell a fresh chance to redirect financial markets if financial conditions loosen up too much by then. Maybe Powell will have to reiterate how the Fed will “keep at it” instead of “staying the course.”

The Q&A of the Brookings Institution session mainly reiterated points from the speech. There were two points that stirred my interest for future reference.

First of all, Powell actually admitted that the housing market was in a bubble. The conditions he described were easily observable at the time: “coming out of the pandemic, rates were very low, people wanted to buy houses, get out of the cities and move to the suburbs. You had a housing bubble. Had prices going up that were very unsustainable levels, and overheating…” However, of course, the Fed did not dare say the “B” word in the middle of the mania. Powell did not offer any thought on whether the bubble could have been moderated by hiking rates sooner…or at least jawbone about the bubble.

Secondly, Powell mentioned one regret from the 2020 policy framework reset that he mentioned almost as a footnote. Powell indicated that he would not repeat the mistake of relying on a long history of low inflation as a basis for making policy. At the reset, Powell communicated that the Fed would not “lift off” (start hiking rates) until it “saw both maximum employment and price stability.” The stock market soared on this news as it correctly interpreted the change as a Fed more tolerant of a higher range in inflation. Powell admitted that commitment “made us under-estimate tail risk.”

I soundly criticized this pronouncement at 2020’s Jackson Hole. While Powell insisted this mistake has nothing to do with today’s inflation, I continue to insist that this commitment made the Fed slow to respond to rising and then realized inflation risks. Members of the Fed have also dismissed the notion that starting rate hikes a little earlier would have made a material difference in the inflation landscape. We will never know the counterfactual of course. Still, I feel somewhat vindicated that the Fed has taken note of its policy mistake (and prior deflationary bias) and learned some lessons.

Be careful out there!

Appendix: Notes from the Q&A session

Wage increases are going to be a core part of the inflation story going forward.

The labor market has a real supply imbalance

For most workers, wage increases are being eaten up by inflation. Need price stability to get real wage increases.

We assumed that the natural rate of unemployment had gone higher during the pandemic. It’s very hard to pin down where it is when there is a massive disruption.

Used to be able to look through supply shocks. But if we have repeated shocks, it changes things. What are the implications if true? Very hard to know the answers. We tend to think things will return to where they were naturally, but that’s not happening.

Need to be humble and skeptical about inflation forecasts for some time, calls for a risk management framework. If you are waiting for actual evidence for inflation coming down, it is possible to over-tighten. Slowing down is a good way of balancing the risks.

Very few professional forecasters have gotten inflation right.

There isn’t any one summary statistic to determine when policy is sufficiently restrictive. We monitor the tightening of financial conditions (which happens based on expectations). We also look at the effect of these conditions on the economy. Look at the entire rate curve. For significantly positive real rates along the entire curve. Forward inflation expectations reflect confidence in the Fed getting inflation down to 2%. Look at exchange rates, asset prices. Put some weight on these things.

How do you know when you can stop shrinking the balance sheet? This has already been described in a document. We’re in an ample reserves regime. General changes will not impact the funds rate. Will allow reserves to decline until somewhat above where we think is scarcity. Hold the balance sheet constant….. The demand for reserves is not stable. It’s a public benefit to have plenty of liquidity.

Question: August, 2020 announced new flexible inflation targeting framework. Anything in that we should be rethinking. Answer: We will do another review in 2026 or 2026. We implemented through guidance of various kinds. Put in strong guidance because there were a lot doubters that we could ever achieve 2%. Neither did we know. One piece of guidance we wouldn’t do again (it doesn’t have anything to do with the inflation we are currently seeing): we wouldn’t lift off until see saw both maximum employment and price stability. It made us under-estimate tail risk. Remember 25 years of low inflation, inflation just didn’t seem likely.

Cutting rates is not something we want to do soon. That is why we’re slowing down.

It’s not reasonable to expect we get back to the labor force participation in 2020 before the pandemic. But I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s been disappoint and surprising how little we’ve gained back.

We have to assume that for now most of the labor force balancing has to come on the demand side. By slowing job growth, not putting people out of work.

At what point do people ask for more wages because they aren’t keeping up with inflation. Don’t know when that happens, but if it does, you’re in trouble. Labor shortage is not going away anytime soon.

Coming out of the pandemic, rates were very low, people wanted to buy houses, get out of the cities and move to the suburbs, You had a housing bubble. Had prices going up that were very unsustainable levels, and overheating, now the housing market is coming out the other side of that. We have a built-up country, we have zoning, it’s hard to get homes built to meet demand

Full disclosure: long SPY call spread