The Fed Asks “What Inflation?”

Last week, headlines and pundits were hot and bothered about the potential for the Federal Reserve to fall behind the curve on inflation. While my on-going assumption is that the Fed will indeed chose much higher inflation rather than risk ending the economic recovery with higher rates, I think the current hand-wringing by some is premature. In fact, it seems more the result of either boredom with the Fed’s business as usual policy stance and/or the anxiety on the part of some stock market bears looking for any kind of catalyst to shake the market out of its low volatility slumber

I was so surprised at all the hand-wringing over a “business as usual” policy statement that I rolled the tape on the press conference. I was wondering what I missed, I actually listened to the conference call a second time (yes, it was painful). The experience made me even more convinced the market over-reacted just as much as it did when Yellen carelessly suggested rates might increase earlier than the late 2015 market projection.

Recent inflation numbers apparently increased expectations that the Fed might show a more hawkish tone. This is reflected best in the first question of the press conference from Steve Liesman of CNBC:

“Is every reason to expect, Madam Chair, that the PCE inflation rate, which is followed by the Fed, looks likely to exceed your 2016 consensus forecast next week? Does this suggest that the Federal Reserve is behind the curve on inflation? And what tolerance is there for higher inflation at the Federal Reserve? And if it’s above the 2 percent target, then how is that not kind of blowing through a target the same way you blew through the six and a half percent unemployment target in that they become these soft targets?”

 

This was a leading question, especially considering that Yellen made it very plain in her introduction that the inflation readings remain benign. Moreover, long-term expectations for inflation remain tame (also see the Fed’s latest projections). Most importantly, the year-over-year change in the PCE, the Personal Consumption Expenditure, reached the 2.0% target in early 2012 only to quickly plunge from there. Not only might it be premature to project a 2% reading for next week’s release, but there is nothing to suggest that this time is different. The Federal Reserve has the least control over the non-core prices of food and energy, so the escalation of violence and turmoil in Iraq is definitely not the kind of event that the Fed would try to offset with monetary policy.

 

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The Fed still can’t tease the market into sustaining pre-recession inflation levels…
Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Perhap’s Yellen’s poor response ignited the flames of disappointment. Yellen did not address PCE directly and instead talked about the noise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) while reiterating the Fed’s standard guidance on inflation:

“So, I think recent readings on, for example, the CPI index have been a bit on the high side, but I think it’s–the data that we’re seeing is noisy. I think it’s important to remember that broadly speaking, inflation is evolving in line with the committee’s expectations. The committee it has expected a gradual return in inflation toward its 2 percent objective. And I think the recent evidence we have seen, abstracting from the noise, suggests that we are moving back gradually over time toward our 2 percent objective and I see things roughly in line with where we expected inflation to be.”

Ironically, Yellen could have just pointed to the longer-term trend in the CPI. This view dominates any shorter-term noise….

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The overall trend on CPI continues to point downward
Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The most bizarre part of the buzz on the Fed’s supposed willingness to ignore inflation is that Yellen re-affirmed, re-emphasized that the Fed is all about meeting its price target. It will not tolerate deviations in EITHER direction for long:

“…we would not willingly see a prolonged period in which inflation persistently runs below our objective or above our objective and that remains true. So that hasn’t changed at all in terms of the committee’s tolerance for permanent deviations from our objective.”

This was Yellen’s response to Liesman asking about the Fed’s tolerance for higher-than-target inflation.

I feel irony in my skepticism about a Fed ignoring a budding inflation threat: this is the core scenario that has kept me long-term in the gold (GLD) and silver (SLV) trades. My thesis/assumption back in 2009/2010 was that the Federal Reserve would be extremely reluctant to tighten policy even as the economy strengthened out of fear that rate hikes would quickly kill the economy. By the time the Fed was ready to hike rates, the “inflation genie” would already be out the bottle. Granted, I am not nearly as rabid about this view, especially since I have come to appreciate the deep entrenchment of the lingering post-recession deflationist psychology in the economy.

 So, overall, I am very skeptical that this episode is the long-awaited lift-off of inflation and a lagging Fed. I actually think the Fed is right to look through the current “warming” in inflation readings, and I think it will find vindication just as the Bank of England did during a similar episode under former Governor Mervyn King. When the Fed asks “what inflation”, I find myself surprisingly agreeing for now…

To me, the data do not support the notion that broad-based inflation is taking hold in the economy. We do not even have wage pressures, not to mention all the slack that remains in the economy as evidenced in part by extremely low levels of housing production. Just do a web search or read mainstream financial magazines to see anecdotally how many people are still worried about the sustainability of the so far very weak housing recovery. I find it hard to believe we will get strong inflation with all this weakness and deflationary fears. On the commodity side, copper and iron ore have experienced major price declines in recent months that also fly in the face of any kind of sustained inflationary pressure in the economy.

Full disclosure: long GLD, SLV.


The UK’s CPI inflation to remain stubbornly high for the next two years

On February 7th, The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England (BoE) decided to leave interest rates at the rock bottom rate of 0.5%. In doing so, the MPC acknowledged that it was assuming that the current stubbornly high inflation would eventually return to the target 2%. The MPC is expecting productivity gains and the reduction in external price pressures to do the trick.

“Inflation has remained stubbornly above the 2% target. Despite subdued pay growth, weak productivity has meant no corresponding fall in domestic cost pressures. And increases in university tuition fees and domestic energy bills, largely resulting from administrative decisions rather than market forces, have added to inflation more recently. CPI inflation is likely to rise further in the near term and may remain above the 2% target for the next two years, in part reflecting a persistent inflationary impact both from administered and regulated prices and the recent decline in sterling. But inflation is expected to fall back to around the target thereafter, as a gradual revival in productivity growth dampens increases in domestic costs and external price pressures fade.”

I took particular interest in the claim that external price pressures will fade. To do so, the global economy would have to remain weak. If so, then it is unlikely that growth in the UK will fare much better, even at the projected “slow but sustained” pace. The other possibility is that the British pound or sterling – CurrencyShares British Pound Sterling Trust (FXB) – appreciates enough that external prices go back down. If so, then Mervyn King’s hopes of rebalancing the economy with a reduction in demand for imports and an increase in exports surely will not be realized.

Adding to this conundrum for the UK economy is the stubborn persistence of weak economic growth (mainly flat) along with strong employment growth. The UK economy is getting less and less productive and thus less and less capable of offsetting inflationary pressures. This is a dynamic that I will be watching ever more closely given the BoE projects a two-year horizon over which the economy will continue to suffer high inflation and weak economic growth (aka stagflation). The implication for the currency is mixed, and I continue to expect “more of the same” for the pound.


Bank of England Governor King continues to bet on inflation taking care of itself

On June 15, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King spoke at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet for Bankers and Merchants of the City of London at the Mansion House. The speech covered very familiar themes for King and the Bank of England.

King begins by acknowledging the squeeze on the current economy:

“The challenge facing monetary policy is obvious – the combination of high consumer price inflation and weak economic growth. Both of these might seem surprising given the large amount of spare capacity in the economy. But the rise in world energy and other commodity prices, and the need to reduce both the external and budget deficits, are squeezing real living standards, pushing up on consumer price inflation and slowing domestic consumption.”

Over the years, King has consistently hammered on the theme of rebalancing in the UK’s economy: a transition away from domestic consumption and toward exports and the business investment required to support this shift. King indicated that the rebalancing underway will continue for several more years. This process has necessitated the devaluation of the currency. Interestingly, King cleverly attributes the devaluation to market forces while indicating the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) chose not to counter-act the pressures on the currency:

“A necessary precondition for that rebalancing was a fall in the real exchange rate. Markets anticipated that need. The nominal effective sterling exchange rate fell by around 25% between the start of the crisis in 2007 and the beginning of 2009, since when it has been broadly stable…

…We could have raised Bank Rate significantly so that inflation today would be closer to the target. But that would not have prevented the squeeze on living standards arising from higher oil and commodity prices and the measures necessary to reduce our twin deficits. And it would have meant a weaker recovery, or even further falls in output…”

In other words, the MPC decided to focus on the implications of a weak economy over the implications of high inflation, judging the former to be the greater threat. In doing so, King has frequently noted that today’s high inflation is temporary, thus rationalizing on-going accomodative monetary policy and low interest rates in the face of high inflation. The primary blame for high inflation has shifted from hikes in taxes (the Value Added Tax or VAT) to commodity and energy prices, both presumably out of the control of monetary policy. Internally, conditions do not exist for sustaining “domestically generated” inflation:

“So far, subdued rates of increase in average earnings, as well as remarkably – some might say disturbingly – low growth rates of broad money have provided strong signals that inflation will fall back in due course. Banks are still contracting balance sheets and reducing leverage. Spreads between Bank Rate and the interest rates charged to many borrowers remain at unprecedentedly high levels, if indeed borrowers are able to access credit at all.”

King really caught my attention when he provided two key conditions that would actually compel rate hikes:

  • A pickup in domestically generated inflation
  • A contraction in the spreads between Bank Rate and the interest rates charged to many borrowers

Given the dour outlook for the economy and an on-going reblancing in the economy, I continue to assume that rate hikes in the UK are somewhere off in a very distant future. King has proven quite adapt in coming up with reasons for maintaining loose monetary policy, and I continue to see strong evidence that he is reluctant to tighten for fear it could upset the rebalancing he so deeply desires. Indeed, King notes that there is no way to tell when the MPC may hike rates:

“Uncertainty inevitably surrounds both the speed of the rebalancing and the impact of today’s consumer price inflation on tomorrow’s domestically generated inflation. So it is simply impossible to know now at what point monetary tightening will begin.”


Housing prices hit new lows

CNBC reported on a study from Clear Capital titled “Clear Capital Reports national Double Dip“:

“Home prices have double dipped nationwide, now lower than their March 2009 trough…a surge in sales of foreclosed properties and a big push by banks to facilitate short sales…[forced] home prices down dramatically. Sales of bank-owned (REO) properties hit 34.5 percent of the market, according to the survey, resulting in a national price drop of 4.9 percent quarterly and 5 percent year-over-year. National home prices have fallen 11.5 percent in the past nine months, a rate not seen since 2008.”

CNBC goes on to indicate that the foreclosure problem has spread beyond just the “bubble” markets that were at the center of the housing crisis:

“…the mid-west is seeing a surge in REOs now, thanks to the plain old recession. 40 percent of the Chicago market is foreclosures, 43 percent in Cleveland and 51 percent in Minneapolis. Home prices fell 8.7 percent in the Mid-West during the past three months compared to the previous quarter.”

For more see CNBC’s article: “National Home Prices Double Dip” (or read the report).

It is once again important to note that housing was one of the big targets of the Federal Reserve’s dollar-printing campaign. Given that housing prices have not responded while commodity prices have soared, we must now wonder whether the Fed believes it simply did not print enough, whether there is a longer time lag than anticipated to seeing an impact in housing, and/or worry about the unintended consequences that have yet to be seen. The money had to go somewhere; so far, it has not been into housing.


Can the Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group Succeed Without Examining Monetary Policy?

Time for some comedic relief. On my main site “One-Twenty Two” I posted my own satirical commentary on the recent announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder about the formation of the Oil and Gas Fraud Working Group. This taskforce is supposed to ensure prices properly reflect “real” supply and demand factors from the marketplace. In my post, I ponder what the story would look like if Holder decided to go after the Federal Reserve’s role in generating higher oil and gas prices (mainly through killing the U.S. dollar). Click here to read it.


Service sector inflation at historic lows as the Fed “shoots blanks”

And now for a different perspective…

In CNBC article “Data Double Take: Inflation for Majority of Economy at Record Lows“, David Rosenberg, chief economist & strategist at Gluskin Sheff, argues that inflation is not a threat in the U.S. because the service sector’s rate of inflation is at historic lows. Moreover, companies in the service sector have no pricing power and workers are unable to earn higher wages. These arguments all run counter to other findings demonstrating that CPI from any angle is pointing to inflation in the near future.

The most interesting claim in the article is that the Federal Reserve’s printing press is, in effect, churning out fresh dollars at no cost:

“The Fed may be printing money, but it’s not multiplying through the economy like it once did. That’s because banks are not using it to extend credit, said the economist. Also, our economy has generally become more resistant to the Fed’s reflation powers because of productivity gains from technology and globalization, the doves say.

‘The money multiplier has been broken for quite some time, and recently it is going lower,’ said Brian Kelly, of Brian Kelly Capital, citing money supply data that for every $1 pumped into the economy only 76 cents is being created. ‘In effect, monetary policy has been losing its potency for 30 years. What the Fed is doing now is stepping on the gas while the tires spin in the mud.'”

I would love to see more data on that because over those same 30 years the Federal Reserve’s monetary accommodations have been credited with creating shallow recessions before 2008, averting a complete financial meltdown in the last recession, and, most recently, driving stocks on a 30% rally since late summer of 2010. Of course, easy money from the Federal Reserve has also been blamed for assisting and outright creating the our triple bubbles in tech stocks, housing, and credit.

It seems that one’s inflation expectations often hinge on the imagination: either you believe the generally accepted inflation data as indicative of a tame future inflation outlook, or you look at specific (even pervasive) examples of inflationary pressures as warnings of what is to come. I have clearly been in the latter camp.


The Federal Reserve debates inflation

With so much heated debate and discussion about inflation in the media these days, I thought I would focus on how the Federal Reserve discussed and debated inflation in the latest meeting minutes released today.

The Federal Reserve’s staff economists concluded that while commodity prices have increased substantially and near-term inflationary expectations have also increased, the outlook for medium and long-term inflation remained stable. In other words, current inflationary pressures should prove “transitory.”

“Sizable increases in prices of crude oil and other commodities pushed up headline inflation, but measures of underlying inflation were subdued and longer-run inflation expectations remained stable…

…According to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, households’ near-term inflation expectations increased substantially in early March, likely because of the run-up in gasoline prices; longer-term inflation expectations moved up somewhat in the early March survey but were still within the range that prevailed over the preceding few years.

…Measures of inflation compensation over the next 5 years rose, on net, over the intermeeting period, with most of the increase concentrated at the front end of the curve, likely reflecting the jump in oil prices. In contrast, measures of forward inflation compensation 5 to 10 years ahead were little changed, suggesting that longer-term inflation expectations remained stable.

…The staff revised up its projection for consumer price inflation in the near term, largely because of the recent increases in the prices of energy and food. However, in light of the projected persistence of slack in labor and product markets and the anticipated stability in long-term inflation expectations, the increase in inflation was expected to be mostly transitory if oil and other commodity prices did not rise significantly further. As a result, the forecast for consumer price inflation over the medium run was little changed relative to that prepared for the January meeting.”

Some Federal Reserve members expressed their concern that current inflationary pressures may still lead to upward pressure on long-term expectations:

“…participants observed that rapidly rising commodity prices posed upside risks to the stability of longer-term inflation expectations, and thus to the outlook for inflation, even as they posed downside risks to the outlook for growth in consumer spending and business investment.”

InflationWatch has chronicled numerous instances of companies that either plan to or already have passed on price hikes to consumers. The Federal Reserve is also noticing, but their “contacts” are apparently not confident that plans for price hikes can stick:

“A number of business contacts indicated that they were passing on at least a portion of these higher costs to their customers or that they planned to try to do so later this year; however, contacts were uncertain about the extent to which they could raise prices, given current market conditions and the cautious attitudes toward spending still held by households and businesses.”

I often whether in these circumstances whether the Federal Reserve passes on some “friendly” advise to these contacts…

The most common reason cited for assuming inflation will remain tame is that there remains a large amount of slack in resource utilization in the economy. Someone on the Fed recalled an important exception to such assumptions:

“Some participants pointed to research indicating that measures of slack were useful in predicting inflation. Others argued that, historically, such measures were only modestly helpful in explaining large movements in inflation; one noted the 2003-04 episode in which core inflation rose rapidly over a few quarters even though there appeared to be substantial resource slack.”

One way to keep inflation expectations anchored is to insist that it will stay anchored. Ben Bernanke has planned to do press conferences, and the rulebook assurances over inflation may be part of the motivation:

“A few participants noted that the adoption by the Committee of an explicit numerical inflation objective could help keep longer-term inflation expectations well anchored.”

Finally, the topic of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet came up. I have long maintained that the Fed will find itself unable to wind down this balance sheet quickly or in a timely fashion. Some on the Fed are afraid that more people like myself will harbor these same doubts:

“…a few participants noted that if the large size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet were to lead the public to doubt the Committee’s ability to withdraw monetary accommodation when appropriate, the result could be upward pressure on inflation expectations and so on actual inflation. To mitigate such risks, participants agreed that the Committee would continue its planning for the eventual exit from the current, exceptionally accommodative stance of monetary policy.”

This path toward an exit is likely fraught with monetary perils and should provide a lot more volatility in financial markets. Stay tuned.