CPI – reduction in the rate of increase is not a decrease but still lit the fuse of a tape bomb

There has yet to be a decrease or contraction in month-over-month inflation – and yet the market has another record-setting day in terms of volatility. The better-than-expected (7.7 vs 8% reduction in the rate of increase) squeezed off a tape bomb: 

S&P 500 makes historic leap…as investors went risk off, mostly predicated on the cratering of the cryptocurrency markets. And the unknown of the October consumer price index reading made the bulls less aggressive during the steep decline.

In what may be the biggest 1-minute green bar in the entire history of the index, it leapt nearly 110 handles, or 3%, (3,751.50-3,861) at the 8:31 a.m. mark. The stocks in the index were following suit. In retrospect, even buying at those elevated prices has been profitable. (ToS news, 11/10/2022)

But as welcome as a slowing of increase is, the response (and following wealth effect) is largely an illusion:

This morning’s CPI report does little to alleviate that call for further policy action. While the headline has come off peak levels, the momentum in prices remains robust, suggesting, as Fed Chairman Jerome Powell did last week, there is still a significant amount of work yet to be done.

As expected, shelter and energy costs continue to be key drivers of the headline rise. While housing prices have slowed, given the multi-year deficit of supply, even with demand off peak levels and supply rising from earlier lows, there remains a sizable gap between the existing need and stockpile of housing units, providing structural support to prices. (Stifel)

Whether 50 bps is priced in or not doesn’t matter. The lack of recognition of the ongoing damage is protracting the problem – the country is still at 40-year highs in terms of cost escalations:

Former Secretary of the Treasury Summers: “we can’t stop at curbing inflation”

In a post by former United States Secretary of the Treasury, Dr. Summers writes, “curbing inflation comes first, but we can’t stop there.” In this essay, a complexity of problems are addressed, including a few strengths such as an extraordinarily strong labor market, given the negative GDP growth of the first six months of this year. All have acknowledged this odd combination where recessionary threats exist but several jobs are still seemingly available to any looking for them – this is only due in part to the strength of the overall economy, but it is a point that should be acknowledged, alongside a bizarre mixture of the post-pandemic workforce that do not appear to be returning to traditional jobs, at least at this present time. 

Summers goes on to outline the “serious, interconnected problems demanding attention” regarding the following challenges (all emphases mine):

First, an economy that even progressives such as Paul Krugman recognize as overheated is operating with a core inflation rate that is close to 7 percent and is not yet declining — with the latest monthly figure exceeding the latest quarterly figure, which in turn exceeds the latest annual figure.

Second, the combination of the adverse effects of inflation and the adverse effects of necessary anti-inflation policies has prompted a consensus prediction of recession beginning in 2023. The most recent Federal Reserve projection suggesting that inflation can be brought down to 2 percent without unemployment rising above 4.4 percent is simply not plausible as a forecast.

Third, the Fed has raised interest rates in a way that markets would have thought unlikely in the extreme only a year ago. Markets are reeling from the shock, with the possibility that normal trading could break down in the Treasury bond market, an event that if unchecked would have significant ramifications for other markets.

Fourth, the global economy is everywhere challenged by rising U.S. interest rates and a dollar exchange rate at record levels against some key currencies. The fallout from the war in Ukraine has also been devastating to many economies. A weak and closing global economy hurts our exporters and markets and dangerously implicates vital national security interests.

But managing inflation not seen in four decades remains the grand central theme and cannot be overstated:

The objective of policy should be clear, at least. What is most important is that the maximum number of Americans who want to work are able to work at as high an income as possible, now and in the future. Other matters — from the level of government debt to the functioning of financial markets to business incentives to inflation — are not important for their own sakes but because of their effects over time on employment and income.

Put another way: Questions of macroeconomic policy are not about values but judgments about the ultimate effects of various actions. As Fed chair during the early 1980s, Paul Volcker famously tamed out-of-control inflation at the cost of a severe recession. But he did so not because he cared less about unemployment or worker incomes than his predecessors did but because he rightly recognized that delay in containing inflation would only mean more pain down the road.

This principle can be seen in the current labor market. Even as job openings have risen to unprecedented levels and labor shortages have empowered workers, Americans’ real incomes have declined significantly. Unless inflation comes down, workers will not see meaningful increases in their purchasing power — and many of them will continue to doubt the government’s ability to carry out basic tasks.

That’s why it’s vital that the Federal Reserve not waver. Chair Jerome H. Powell has vowed to impose sufficiently restrictive monetary policy to return inflation to within range of the Fed’s 2 percent target. The more confident that workers, businesses and markets are that the Fed will follow through on that, the less painful the process will be.

Dr. Summers goes on goes on to suggest policy measures in the out years that should not be overlooked, see the full discussion here. It is a sincere hope that Chair Powell and the other Governors will hear Dr. Summers and other voices of former Fed officials who have consistently warned for well over a year regarding the nature of cost escalations and excessive spending and liquidy. This is critically important as the capital markets continue a defiance that is likely to make things worse and prolong the solution, given the known impacts of the wealth effect – a topic that doesn’t appear to get enough attention or exploration. 

FOMC notes and updated indicators (2022 09 21)

FOMC NOTES*

  • Fed’s third straight 75 basis-point-hike drove “a much more hawkish dot plot that showed 125 more basis points of hikes this year” (so a potential fourth 75-basis-point increase in November) and a terminal rate of 4.6%
  • Policymakers substantially revised other economic projections and now see growth at just 0.2% this year, down from the 1.7% forecast in June. They now see the unemployment rate rising to 4.4% next year and inflation not falling to 2% until 2025
  • Chair Powell, “my main message has not changed at all since Jackson Hole” (recall: “historical record cautions strongly against prematurely loosening policy”) and “our job is to deliver price stability…central bankers see that as a precursor for health in the rest of the economy”
  • Powell said growth will need to be below trend for a while, and labor markets will need to soften, but he refrained from being too forceful on the subject of economic pain. Delays in restoring price stability could bring “more pain”

OTHER INDICATORS:

  • The Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index climbed to a record high
  • The yield on 10-year Treasuries advanced 12 basis points to 3.65%
  • US Leading Economic Index (LEI) fell 0.3% in Aug., vs. est. -0.1% (six-month annualized LEI narrowed to -5.3%)
  • US asking rents rose in August by the slowest pace in a year, a sign the hot rental market could finally be cooling, according to real estate brokerage Redfin. The national median asking rent rose 11% year-over-year to a record high of $2,039
  • Mortgage rates in US advance to 6.29% – the highest since October 2008

* source for many of these notes Stifel Economics

The bottom or is this time it’s different?

A number of market analysts observe that historically, an index can retrace a very significant amount (up to two-thirds; cf. Colby) while still in a primary trend. Some interpret the Dow Theory as supporting this:

…signals that occur on one index must match or correspond with the signals on the other. If one index, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is confirming a new primary uptrend, but another index remains in a primary downward trend, traders should not assume that a new trend has begun (Investopedia).

BofA Global believes this to be the case for a very specific reason: household majority position of the overall market that has not sold, yet:

U.S. households now own roughly 52% of the stock market. And a look at three major market plunges since 2000 (see chart) shows that equities only bottomed a few quarters after significant selling activity from households occurred.

BofA’s research investment team said a common refrain from July investor meetings was: “Everybody’s already bearish, might as well buy.” But they still favor cash, credit, and equities, in that order. Or at least until households, the “decision-maker,” decides to make a move and sell.

Gated article but full post access here.

July CPI – hot, cold, or goldilocks for the Fed?

For years the monthly CPI report has been rather routine, with decades of low inflation and the challenge, from the perspective of the Fed, to target slightly higher, target inflation rates – something that sounds almost absurd in our present time. As always, there is a challenge on the part of the Federal Reserve to not overreact in one direction or another. The conundrum is more than two years of highly stimulative activity that followed more than a decade of stimulative activity. The discussion of how behind the Central Bank may be is an entirely different discussion. For now, it is a question of how much, how fast, and a very interesting question on the part of the markets regarding interpretation. Below is an excerpt from the Chief Economist at Stifel who presents a balanced and thoughtful assessment:

July CPI is expected to rise 0.2% and 8.7% over the past 12 months, according to Bloomberg data. Although, some including the Cleveland Fed anticipate a slightly higher read at 8.8%. In either case, this would be a welcome reprieve from a 9.1% near-term peak in June, although from a monetary policy perspective, may prove underwhelming. Committee members, after all, have been clear several months of a marked reduction in prices is needed before the Fed can comfortably say inflation is trending back under control. Therefore, one month’s minimal decline does not make a trend and should not have a material impact on the Committee’s latest hawkish rhetoric, or plans to move forward with a potential third-round 75bp hike in September.

…Investors, meanwhile, are still unconvinced of the Fed’s resolve to fight inflation no matter the costs with the 10-year restrained relative to a federal funds rate of 2.50% and a likely rise to 3.50% by year-end. As a result, expectations continue to ping pong between a 50bp or 75bp rise next month. A cooler-than-expected inflation report will likely tip the scale in the direction of a smaller move, while a hotter-than-expected report will all but solidify forecasts for 75bps.

Graphic source/credit: Stifel

Where capital flows are moving to hedge against inflation

It has been so long for most of us and never for many to consider the impacts of inflation as a driver of investment decisions – but then again, the last two years of the pandemic have accelerated radical and essential changes to business and society (to use an old-fashioned summary phrase). 

There are traditional ways we have thought about inflation but many of these are tinctured with models we either grew up with, formally studied or both. The general thought is to divert money into tangible assets or as Elon Musk has advised, “physical things like a home or stock in companies you think make good products.” Warren Buffett in the same article advises investments in revenues generating assets such as great companies that produce products or deliver services and provides jobs. 

The Financial Times notes a distinctive shift:

Investors are buying more US farmland in search of a hedge against inflation as commodity shortfalls caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drive world food prices to record highs.

Land values in the Midwest grain belt have gained 25-30 percent in the past year while auctions draw intense bidding for available ground.

FT notes that larger investors, funds, and institutions are not new to this asset class, but the volume of increase is what’s notable, which is driving inflation in the farmland itself, which in some cases has, “outstripped farmland’s earnings potential” which is thought to be offset by the overall value. 

Another post on Investopedia, 9 Asset Classes for Protection Against Inflation covers a blend of asset categories that may function as a hedge, including some that may address the impact of devalued currency. 

Consumer Price Index – Inflation as Expected

As expected, the CPI news release (April 2021) today shows significant inflation, as that has been the anecdote from almost everywhere. The surprise is just how much and how fast:

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.8 percent in April on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.6 percent in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 4.2 percent before seasonal adjustment. This is the largest 12-month increase since a 4.9-percent increase for the period ending September 2008.

Pent up and bottlenecked economy

The question is why this pace of increase or does this signal long-term problems. The most immediate causes relate to the re-opening of the economy. From MarketWatch:

The pace of inflation has surged after years of languishing at unusually low levels largely due to the rapid reopening of the U.S. economy.

Businesses can’t keep up in demand, a problem exacerbated by ongoing bottlenecks in the global trading system tied to the pandemic. Computer chips are especially in short supply and that’s held up production of new autos and other manufactured goods.

Americans are also rushing to dine out, travel or go far away for vacation, activities they shied away from during the pandemic. That’s also driving up prices at popular vacation resorts and other venues where people plan to congregate.

The first two reasons are pretty straightforward, but the third reason (pent up demand) is beyond question, even if this one is the most difficult to measure as it’s anecdotal and not enirely precise but we all observe it – everywhere is packed with people looking to get out and do something, anything. But the impacts are real and tangible as seen in the BLS data:

See full interactive (and drillable detail) here.

Apple and Gold as Market Barometer

Benzinga posted a very interesting comparison between gold prices and Apple Computer, as a measurement potential trend:

Gold investors have been waiting for this, The metal has been trending lower since August and after rebounding in April, it ran into resistance around $1,780. That put a halt on the rally…Now that resistance has been broken and a big move higher has been made….There’s a good chance it continues. With inflation here and a potential energy crisis on the horizon, a flight to safety has begun.

But the unexpected correlation: “One reason why the flight to safety has begun and gold is moving higher is the weakness in Apple Inc.” Apple has met resistance for months and the suggestion is that Apple, being so strong in earnings and organizational performance, yet underperforming as a security – could be a bearish signal overall.

Here is gold over the last year:

Now Apple:

Of interest as well, the gold backed digital asset PAXG over the last three months:

Optimism everywhere – as well as the expectation of inflationary pressures

A post in the Wall Street Journal last week reported pre-pandemic levels of consumer confidence and for good reason(s), “as more people received vaccinations, stimulus payments reached households and businesses more fully reopened.” Employment, stimulus, an opening economy, vaccinations – all very compelling and obvious drivers to an overall feel of things, as well as the continued disucssion of inflation and how this will shape policy choices in the mid to long-term.

The University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers shows a consistent trend (with the next update in two weeks):

The survey adds the following commentary on inflation the finds support for either direction with:

Each side in the current policy debate finds support in the consumer data. The recovery is far from complete as less than half of the fall in consumer sentiment has so far been recovered, and the current and prospective stimulus and infrastructure spending has the potential to spark a renewed inflationary psychology, although that will not occur immediately…

Inflationary psychology preceded actual inflation by about two years in the last bout in the 1970s. The key balance is not to underestimate the ultimate impact of those policies on jobs and inflation, and not to overestimate the ability of policies to bring any excesses to a painless soft-landing.

Similarly, in the May 1 Berkshire annual meeting Buffett noted on the one hand the last 20 plus years, “was not a highly inflationary period as a whole,” but what they are seeing is:

…very substantial inflation. It’s very interesting. We’re raising prices. People are raising prices to us, and it’s being accepted. Take home building. We’ve got nine home builders in addition to our manufactured housing operation, which is the largest in the country. So we really do a lot of housing. The costs are just up, up, up. Steel costs, just every day they’re they’re going up. And there hasn’t yet been because the wage stuff follows. The UAW writes a three-year contract, we got a three-year contract, but if you’re buying steel at General motors or someplace, you’re paying more every day. So it’s an economy really, it’s red hot. And we weren’t expecting it.

When asked in the Q & A his thoughts on the worry of “more inflation or that we will have a pretty dramatic fiscal monetary collision,” Buffett diplomatically answered, “we don’t know.”