Movers and SHAKERS
Image Credit: Francois de Halleux (Flickr)
The Fed is in a Box, Any of Its Options Could Create Problems
What does transitory mean? It means fleeting and temporary. The “inflation is transitory” expectation has, over the past two months, become less probable. The last time we had economic weakness and inflation, was in the ’80s when the Fed (FOMC) found themselves needing to stimulate the economy by lowering rates while at the same time needing to stave off inflation with higher rates, back then we said, “the Fed is in a box.” Well, for those of us that have forty-plus years of economic memories, it feels like we’ve been here before.
Officials at the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank are poised to begin withdrawing the liquidity in the system (economy) that was added in response to the reaction to the pandemic. Wall Street economists expect the Fed to announce a $15 billion reduction in monthly Treasury and mortgage-backed securities purchases beginning this month (November). If $15 billion per month is withdrawn, all tapering will be out of the system by July of 2022.
The Fed has been using the “transitory” description when discussing inflation. If they continue to suggest it is temporary, the markets, stock and bond, may lose all confidence and could crumble. So the voting members may feel they have no choice but to become more hawkish at a time when U.S. economic growth is less than satisfactory. Uncertainty as to fiscal spending plans adds another degree of difficulty for the Fed as they have incomplete information related to tax rates and government spending plans. Monetary and fiscal policy should work in conjunction with each other. Fiscal policy is up in the air. The Fed is, in a box, or boxed in. No matter what action or inaction they announce tomorrow, it will likely draw a negative (and positive) response on different fronts.
What to Listen For
On the top of Fed-watcher’s minds is whether the FOMC will continue its “transitory” description with respect to inflation. Price increases are prevalent in everyone’s daily lives and have proved more persistent than central bankers had suggested they’d be. Fed Chairman Powell has remained consistent in his public expressions that rising prices are the result of the economy reopening and won’t be long-lived. Investors will be listening for this same language, particularly those in more interest-sensitive sectors. Eliminating all “transitory” language may perpetuate a bond market sell-off that could carry over into stocks.
Recent Economic Numbers
Fed watchers are beginning to have a more difficult time making the inflation-is-transitory case. They are looking at, for example, the quarterly Employment Cost Index (ECI) released on Friday (October 29), which is the preferred wage cost measurement release of many economists. It includes full compensation costs rather than just payroll data. The larger-than-expected rise in the third quarter ECI was the fastest pace of increase since they started measuring this almost 40 years ago. Labor costs, as a percentage of business expenses, are often a companies’ highest expense. The ECI shows these costs are increasing rapidly as employers raise pay to attract workers.
The labor shortage is helping to promulgate the “everything-shortage,” this scarcity of things is also providing inflationary fuel. Labor numbers will be reported this Friday when the Labor Department releases its October employment situation report. Economists expect sporadic hiring and wages that are rising at an increased pace as millions of workers remain on the sidelines for reasons that are less understood. From a supply/demand standpoint, if true labor-force participation is lower than Fed policymakers are accounting for, the U.S. economy is much closer to full employment than they thought and wage inflation as competition for employees continues will spiral upward.
Against that potentiality, what if the Fed decides they can risk spooking the markets by eliminating the word “transitory” in their statement? After all, Powell recently said the Fed could accelerate the tapering process. So it may. What is important for all investors to understand is that much of the Fed’s control over the economy is done outside of actual monetary policy and instead falls in setting expectations and providing confidence. For example, their words and promises.
Based on bond market movements, investors are already expecting that the Fed will raise rates sooner than the central bank has indicated. Economists at Goldman Sachs last week said, “We now expect core PCE inflation to remain above 3%—and core CPI inflation above 4%—when the taper concludes.” The PCE index is considered the Fed’s most worthwhile inflation gauge.
Can monetary policy impact supply shortages that have been caused by supply-chain issues? The trillions that consumers have in savings amounts to approximately 10% of GDP. The shortage problem is also being exacerbated by high demand. Monetary policy is meant to affect demand. Reducing demand by pulling cash out of the system and making money more expensive could help the supply chain catch up while slowing demand price pressures. But, this is where the Fed is in a box. Demand is already falling. Last week’s third-quarter GDP report reflected the slowest rate of growth since the pandemic inspired lockdowns. As consumers retrenched, government spending fell, exports fell and business spending on plant and equipment declined. The increased prices are one cause of slowing consumption. It is conceivable that if rising rates and less liquidity through tapering further slows demand and price pressures decline, demand returns. This is possible, but a weak argument as consumers tend to buy when they believe products will cost more in the future.
For the FOMC voting members, they may feel “damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” as it relates to increased tapering and including the “transitory” language. While the future is always uncertain, market participants have eyes and can conduct their own analysis. If they lose confidence in the Fed having a steady and capable hand, they may panic. If they have confidence in the Fed’s words and actions, and those words are not pro-growth, they may also sell. This places the Fed in a box. Although the Fed’s mission isn’t market-related, severe reactions by the stock and bond markets reverberate through all sectors of the economy.
Managing Editor, Channelchek
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