An Inflation Downtrend Quickly Evaporates

Some inflation analysts have enthusiastically contorted the inflation data to dismiss today’s inflation problem and/or conclude that inflation’s run came to an end months ago (since last year’s peak). One method of dismissal came in the form of a downtrend in the monthly change in the core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) starting conveniently at the peak as far down as November’s relatively benign reading. (Alan Binder used a related method dividing inflation into different time periods). Suddenly, with two consecutive up months that inflation downtrend has evaporated. The mist leaves behind what essentially looks like a random walk in the land of higher for longer.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal Consumption Expenditures Excluding Food and Energy (Chain-Type Price Index) [PCEPILFE], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; February 24, 2023.

The chart above shows how the pandemic disrupted a serene post financial crisis range for monthly core PCE largely between 0.0% to 0.2%. Since PCE’s breakout two years ago (which the Fed ignored as transitory), core PCE has effectively settled into a higher range from 0.2% to 0.6%. Inflation may have indeed peaked, but it remains stubbornly high in the aggregate. The eagerly anticipated pre-pandemic serenity remains as elusive as ever.

Higher for longer inflation aligns with the Federal Reserve’s insistence on maintaining restrictive monetary policy higher for longer. The stock market may finally be catching on to the notion of higher for longer for inflation. When the core Consumer Price Index (CPI) came in hotter than expected in the previous week, the S&P 500 (SPY) wavered from intraday highs to lows and even increased the next day. Sellers took over the next 5 of 6 trading days with today’s 1.0% loss seemingly confirming a change in sentiment.

The S&P 500’s loss would have been worse except traders decided to defend support at the 200-day moving average (DMA) (the blue line above). This important trend line separates the index from more churn and a continuation of selling back down to the bear market line (20% down from the all-time high).

The bond market sniffed out the hotter inflation environment ahead of the stock market. Bond yields have steadily risen all month. For example, the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) is down 5.8% month-to-date (lower TLT means higher yields). The hot PCE brought an abrupt end to a 2-day relief rally in TLT.

Of course, the inflation story does not end here. The recent experience with inflation surprises suggests inflation will continue to confound the over-confident. A humbled Federal Reserve seems validated in taking a “risk management” approach to monetary policy in this haze of uncertainty. Still, if monthly core PCE takes a fresh drop next month, I am guessing a chorus will resume the inflation dismissals. If monthly core PCE continues higher from here, I will ring fresh alarm bells. I am watching the bond market’s next moves for potential clues. Moreover, I cannot wait to hear what the Federal Reserve and Chair Jerome Powell have to say about these developments in next month’s meeting!

Be careful out there!


Kashkari Acknowledges the Fed’s Inflation Miss. Will the Fed Catch Easing Financial Conditions?

At the beginning of the year, Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, wrote a revealing piece titled “Why We Missed On Inflation, and Implications for Monetary Policy Going Forward.” The article is a worthwhile (and bit-sized) piece since it may be the first and only time any member of the Fed has attempted to confront this topic head-on. Recall that it was June, 2021 when the Fed first acknowledged a surprising increase and persistence in inflation pressures. However, Chair Jerome Powell implied that the inflation problem would go away on its own accord. It was St. Louis Federal Reserve President and CEO who raised a truly hawkish alarm bell. His colleagues took a lot longer to get on board.

Kashkari’s Confessional

Kashkari sums up the Fed’s collective miss as coming from an over-reliance on traditional Phillips-curve models. These models failed the Fed for this economic cycle:

“In these workhorse models, it is very difficult to generate high inflation: Either we need to assume a very tight labor market combined with nonlinear effects, or we must assume an unanchoring of inflation expectations. That’s it. From what I can tell, our models seem ill-equipped to handle a fundamentally different source of inflation, specifically, in this case, surge pricing inflation.”

No wonder it is easy to maintain a deflationary mindset. The Philips-curve models are biased against inflationary pressures.

Refreshingly, Kashkari is not willing to accept economic shocks as an excuse for missing the seriousness of inflation in this economic cycle. Instead, he cautions that such dismissals impede learning. Moreover, he claims that even a crystal ball on inflation shocks would not have pushed the Philips-curve models to raise an inflation alarm. Since Kashkari makes this claim without evidence, I hope that someone in the Fed is working on a related white paper to advance learning on this topic.

Kashkari went on to observe that the Fed’s policy framework focuses on the labor market and inflation expectations: “If we can deepen our analytical capabilities surrounding other sources and channels of inflation, then we might be able to incorporate whatever lessons we learn into our policy framework going forward.” Yet, in April 2022, I summarized two Fed studies that identified housing as a key source of the inflation problem. At the time, I assume these studies helped guide the Fed’s determination to finally start hiking rates. I do not know how to reconcile these studies with Kashkari’s claim, but I hope he finds his way to this work at some point.

Kashkari concludes by standing firmly behind today’s monetary policy. Without a sense of irony, Kashkari defended the current monetary tightening by using wage pressures as his example.

“One may ask why tightening monetary policy is the right response to what I described as surge pricing inflation. Unfortunately, the initial surge in inflation is leading to broader inflationary pressures that the Federal Reserve must control. For example, nominal wage growth has grown to 5 percent or more, which is inconsistent with our 2 percent inflation target given recent trend productivity growth. Monetary policy is the appropriate tool to bring the labor market back into balance.”

Kashkari is also not interested in cutting rates anytime soon: “consider cutting rates only once we are convinced inflation is well on its way back down to 2 percent.” Seemingly like everyone else on the Fed, he fears the echoes from the 1970s warning that it is all too easy to declare a premature victory over inflation.

Easing Financial Conditions

If bond yields are any indication, the bond market stopped worrying about increasing inflation pressures back in October and November. For example, the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) not only bottomed but also it rallied 15.5% in just three months (TLT moves inversely to bond yields). Accordingly, I am eager to see whether the next announcement on monetary policy calls out the bond market for prematurely facilitating an easing in financial conditions.

The iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) achieved a higher low at the end of December. It is close to a breakout above tis 200-day moving average (DMA) (the blue line above) which would usher in a new phase of easing of financial conditions. Is the Fed ready for that to happen? (Source:

The Chicago Federal Reserve’s Adjusted Financial Conditions Index has been consistently easing since a cycle high in October.

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: no positions

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:

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: no related positions

Jim Bianco: “Arguably One of the Worst Forecasts In Fed History”

I thought *I* was critical of the Fed waiting so long to start normalizing monetary policy! Jim Bianco, President of Bianco Research, LLC, took criticism of the now moribund “transitory inflation” narrative to a new extreme. In an interview with CNBC’s Fast Money, Bianco took the Fed to task for what he called “arguably one of the worst forecasts in Federal Reserve history.” As a result, the Fed finds itself stuck with an inappropriately loose monetary in the middle of a high price, supply-constrained economy. The Fed intends to dampen demand through higher borrowing costs and lower stock prices (the wealth effect). The historic gap between job openings and the number of unemployed gives the Fed plenty of room to hike rates (until something breaks).

Fast Money invited Bianco after noticing an extended twitter thread that also took the stock market to task for ignoring rate hike risks. Bianco noted the dichotomy between a bond market that understands the Fed is more focused on controlling prices than growth, and a stock market that keeps doing its best to ignore the prospects. Bianco’s charts show that “the carnage is epic” in the bond market: “This is not only the worst bond market in our career (total return) but might be the worst of our lifetime.” Meanwhile, Bianco insists that what is ahead will hurt all financial assets.

The Trade

In “The Market Breadth“, I specialize in market opportunities at the extremes of behavior. So hearing that the bond market is suffering historic losses actually intrigues me. I suspect that sometime in the middle of an aggressive tightening cycle, bonds will present a generational buying opportunity. I am not a student of bond markets, so I will have to rely on the technical signals from a proxy bond instrument like the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT). The weekly chart below suggests that the opportunity zone on TLT sits somewhere between the 2013 lows (government shutdown drama) and the lows of the financial crisis. I assume the lows of 2018 will be an insufficient stopping point, but I will watch closely for a bounce at that level. On the way down, I have been fading TLT rallies with put options.

The iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) is in a bear market with a 26% drawdown from its all-time high during the stock market crash of March, 2020.

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: no positions