Why it may not be plain sailing for the Fed on inflation

There are widespread indications that price pressures are building across several sectors

FILE PHOTO: A security guard walks in front of an image of the Federal Reserve before the arrival of U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to give a news conference following the two-day Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) policy meeting in Washington, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
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Markets reached the half-year point last week, with Wall Street equities reaching new highs, the US 10-year bond yield steady slightly below 1.5 per cent and the greenback improving. Investors shrugged off concerns about “tapering” by the US Federal Reserve and analysts hailed the latest US employment data as a “goldilocks” moment that showed that the economy was running “not too hot, not too cold, but just right”.

This current benign perspective at the middle of the year reflects the recent big improvement in growth prospects as a result of successful vaccine campaigns, with a number of major central banks having raised their growth forecasts in the past few weeks.

More importantly, markets appear to be buying into the Fed’s argument that any accompanying inflation will be “transitory”, meaning that quantitative easing tapering will not be seen for some time and interest rates will be left alone for even longer.

The latest US June employment reports provided encouragement to this view. Although 850,000 new jobs were added, which was more than markets expected, other crucial components of the data were a little softer. The unemployment rate ticked up to 5.9 per cent and the workweek dropped.

This leaves a weaker June path for economic activity than assumed, with growth forecasts for the second quarter being adjusted slightly lower. And although wages growth at 3.6 per cent year on year was a bit stronger than assumed in June, they were revised slightly lower for May and April.

Overall, the numbers thereby reinforced investors’ belief that the Fed will remain dovish, causing bond yields to ease and equities to rally further into the end of the week.

Market developments probably served to buy the Fed more time, giving it greater assurance that it is on the right path
Tim Fox

However, it may not be as plain sailing for the Fed on inflation, as the markets currently assume, on a number of fronts, including wages where there are widespread indications that pressures are building due to strong demand for labour and high vacancy rates.

While the markets appear to be buying the Fed’s view that current high readings of inflation are being driven by one-off exceptional factors in the consumer goods sector in particular, such as a post-pandemic dislocation of supply chains, wages are among a number of other elements that could yet tip over into broader price pressures.

Rising asset prices, house prices and oil prices are other ingredients that could all feed into a much more troubling challenge in the months ahead.

Mohammed El-Erian, president of Queens' College, Cambridge University, writing in the Financial Times last week took issue with the benign “goldilocks” assumptions that currently prevail, arguing that too much confidence is being placed in the view that inflation will be “transitory”, along with some other assumptions “about the durability of high global growth rates and the continuation of ever friendly central banks”.

In warning that there has been too little appreciation of the way inflation can develop through the system, he went on to express concern that the Fed could be very late in adapting its strategy should price pressures become more persistent.

For the moment, at least last week’s data and market developments probably served to buy the Fed more time, giving it greater assurance that it is on the right path.

After the Federal Open Market Committee meeting, which was held from June 15 to June 16, appeared to accelerate the timetable for a prospective move towards tapering, the Fed probably now feels it can remain sidelined and observe the economy for a little longer before feeling any pressure to act.

From the markets perspective, this “goldilocks scenario” of the Fed acting cautiously in terms of any future monetary tightening will probably continue, as it “looks through” increases in inflation and puts greater weight on achieving stronger jobs growth.

Over the rest of the summer, the Fed will have a number of opportunities to adjust market perceptions on the timing of policy normalisation should it need to at its July 14 Congressional meeting, the July 27 to July 28 FOMC meeting, and the Jackson Hole conference from August 26 to August 28.

But as the US celebrated the Fourth of July this weekend, the Fed was probably very comfortable with where the economy has recovered to so far in 2021 and will not have been losing too much sleep over arguments that it might be dragging its feet.

Tim Fox is a prominent regional economist and financial markets analyst, and is an adviser to Switzerland based St Gotthard Fund Management.

Updated: July 05, 2021, 4:51 AM