Was last week’s tiny decrease in the August consumer price index just enough to dissuade the Federal Reserve from announcing this Wednesday that it’s planning to start tapering its massive $120 billion a month asset purchase program? The financial markets and the financial press interpreted (hoped?) the report signaled that inflation might really be transitory after all and that the Fed will have no reason to reduce its purchases—at least not yet.
The headline CPI number rose 0.3% from July, slightly below the prior month’s 0.5% jump. The year-on-year increase came in at 5.3%, down a mere one-tenth of a percentage point from July’s 5.4% pace. That prompted near-euphoria from some analysts that the recent spike in inflation over the past five months had mercifully come to an end, giving the Fed little reason to begin the taper soon.
Needless to say, the release a few days before of the producer price index, which jumped 0.7% from the prior month and 8.3% YOY, got much less attention, even though producer prices often presage higher consumer prices. Indeed, many manufacturers have begun to announce they must and will raise prices and make them stick, meaning inflation is anything but transitory.
The Fed, however, is likely to stick to its earlier policy intention to let inflation run “hotter for longer” and not make a commitment to start tapering just yet, despite recent comments from a bevy of Fed officials—including Fed Chair Jerome Powell—that it is poised to do so. The Fed never said what “hotter” or “longer” meant, but five straight months of 4%-plus annualized inflation may not have met the criteria, whatever it is. Instead, Powell has realigned his focus from inflation to the jobs market, fostering full employment being the Fed’s other mandate. And on that score, following August’s disappointing jobs report, we are definitely not in the taper zone just yet.
Meanwhile, the Fed suffered a bit of embarrassment last week that may also persuade it to avoid making a major monetary policy decision this week. The presidents of two of the Fed’s regional banks— Robert Kaplan from the Dallas Fed and Eric Rosengren from the Boston Fed—revealed that they had traded large amounts of stocks and real estate securities last year even as they helped set Fed policy. (Rosengren is a current alternate voting member of the Fed’s monetary policy committee while Kaplan isn’t, although both are certainly privy to all of the Fed’s information and deliberations and help shape Fed policy).
While their trades apparently were within the regional banks’ ethic rules (the Fed itself has stricter standards), they definitely didn’t pass the smell test. (Did Kaplan and Rosengren really not realize how these revelations would look, even if they were within the rules?) The two immediately said they would sell those assets, and Powell ordered the Fed staff “to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the ethics rules around permissible financial holdings and activities by senior Fed officials.”
Powell’s edict followed a stern letter from Big Bank nemesis, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to all of the presidents of the Fed’s 12 regional banks, calling on them forthwith to “impose a ban on the ownership and trading of individual stocks by senior officials” and report back to her on their progress. We can hazard a guess that this episode likely won’t move Warren any closer to supporting Powell’s bid for another term as Fed chair.
However, Powell did receive an endorsement from none other than former Sen. Chris Dodd and former Rep. Barney Frank, the main sponsors of the 2010 financial reform law that bears their names (appropriately so, considering that they played major roles in creating the 2008 financial crisis in the first place by pressuring mortgage lenders to approve just about any borrower with a pulse). What’s interesting about their endorsement is how they tried to portray Powell as “independent” even as they praised him for not being so.
“The most important issue facing us today is the enactment of President Biden's comprehensive program. Reappointing Mr. Powell will provide strong support for this essential step,” the two solons wrote in an op-ed in The Hill.
“We are not predicting a diminution of the Fed's independence,” they assure us. “Whatever one thinks of the rule that presidents should not tell the Fed what to do, it is clear that Mr. Powell is a believer - as Donald Trump discovered to his dismay. In fact, this is very much why Powell's explicit refutation of the economic argument against the Biden plan” (i.e., his “denial that excessive inflation is either imminent or inevitable given current Fed policy”) carries so much weight.”
In other words, as long as Powell sides with this White House spending trillions more and ignores rising inflation, he’s “independent.” The odds are starting to look a lot better for another Powell term, which means easy money for years to come. Inflation will just have to run hotter for a little while longer.
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INO.com Contributor - Fed & Interest Rates
Disclosure: This article is the opinion of the contributor themselves. The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. This contributor is not receiving compensation (other than from INO.com) for their opinion.