Is The Worker Shortage Transitory?

For the past several months, there have been two "T" words that have captivated the financial markets.

The first, of course, is the "Taper," which now looks like it may be starting as early as next month. Following its September monetary policy meeting, the Federal Reserve—using its usual weasel words—didn't exactly say it was ready to taper, but basically confirmed that it would begin soon, saying that "a moderation in the pace of asset purchases may soon be warranted." So we can probably expect the Fed to provide more definite information following its next meeting in early November, and that may include a start date of later that month.

The second "T" word is "Transitory," as in the "inflation is transitory" mantra Fed chair Jerome Powell has been repeating for most of 2021. However, recently he's backed off a little on that stance, telling Congress last month that while he believes inflation will eventually return to the Fed's 2% target rate, "these effects have been larger and longer-lasting than anticipated." In other words, maybe inflation isn't as transitory as he says, therefore the need to taper.

Now, after two crummy monthly job reports in a row, it may be fair to ask if the shortage of workers holding back the economy isn't transitory either. Continue reading "Is The Worker Shortage Transitory?"

Looking Past Powell

Jerome Powell's term as chair of the Federal Reserve doesn't end until next February, but the handicapping of his reappointment has already begun. A recent poll by the Wall Street Journal found that three-quarters of economists it surveyed believe Powell will be renominated by President Biden, but I would argue that the odds are at best 50-50, if not lower.

Powell has unquestionably been friendly to the financial markets, which counts in his favor on Wall Street, but that may be a detriment when it comes to the progressives who are likely to have the biggest voice in choosing the next Fed chair. Right off the bat, Powell checks off none of the boxes that progressives are looking for, and as he has shown since his inauguration, Biden almost never goes against what they want.

Let’s look at Powell’s negatives: He's a white male. He's a Republican. He comes from Wall Street. He's rich (although most people at this level are). Let's also not forget that Powell was nominated to his position by President Trump, which automatically disqualifies him in the eyes of many, never mind the constant barrage of criticism Trump leveled at him once he was seated.

Just the taint of being associated with the former president should be enough to make him unsuitable for another term.

More importantly, however, Powell has not publicly bought into the prized objectives of the left, namely using the Fed to further social policy (i.e., wealth redistribution) and climate change initiatives, asserting that those are political decisions better left to Congress. Continue reading "Looking Past Powell"

Don't Fear The Taper

Long, long ago, even before the 2008 global financial crisis, the world’s central bankers, including the Fed, shifted their focus from trying to fight inflation to trying to create it. As we know, however, that pursuit of the holy grail of 2% has taken more than a dozen years, and now that we appear to be there, and well beyond it, in fact, the Fed refuses to believe it.

Ever since the economy began reopening earlier this year, the U.S. year-on-year inflation rate has been rising steadily and strongly, well above the Fed’s 2% target. In May, the YOY rise in the consumer price index hit 5.0%, while the core index, which excludes food and energy prices, rose 3.8%. Looking ahead, it’s hard to see inflation easing anytime soon, given the trend in rising worker’s wages, which once on the books are going to be hard to pull back, especially given the dearth of workers relative to job openings. Prices are also rising due to strong pent-up demand that is far outpacing the supply of goods, due partly to the lack of workers.

Yet Fed Chair Jerome Powell continues to insist that this recent surge in inflation is “transitory,” a mere temporary reaction to the economic reopening.

Is he saying that because he really believes it, or because he’s worried what will happen if the Fed starts to turn down the juice, even a little bit, and with a fair warning? Continue reading "Don't Fear The Taper"

Are You Ready For Some Inflation?

The latest indicators of inflation are in, and they’re starting to look a little warm – bad news if you’re a bond investor. For March, the consumer and producer price indexes showed prices rising at their highest levels in years and well above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target.

The headline consumer price index jumped 2.6% on a year-on-year basis, the most since August 2018, and 0.6% since February, the biggest one-month jump since 2012. A good part of that rise was due to the steep rise in gasoline prices, so the so-called core CPI, which excludes food and energy prices, showed a more modest 1.6% YOY rise.

The producer price index, however, showed inflation running even hotter. Headline PPI jumped 4.2% YOY in March – its biggest spike in nearly 10 years – and a full 1.0% compared to the prior month. Excluding food and energy, the YOY increase was 3.1%, 0.6% on a monthly basis. Producer price increases often – but not always – turn into higher consumer prices, depending on whether or not manufacturers choose to, or are able to, pass along their higher costs to customers.

Whether these are momentary spikes or not, of course, remains to be seen. For his part, Fed chair Jerome Powell professes not to worry. Continue reading "Are You Ready For Some Inflation?"

Did The Fed Just Send A Message?

In case you missed it, last Friday, the Federal Reserve agreed to let a year-long suspension of capital requirements for big banks that allowed them to exclude Treasury securities and deposits held at the Fed from their supplementary leverage ratio expire at the end of the month.

While the subject of bank capital ratios usually puts some people to sleep, the Fed decision could have very real consequences for the financial markets and the nascent economic rebound at large. It also seems to diverge from the Fed’s own stated and oft-repeated monetary policies.

Then again, the Fed may have just sent a subtle message that its low-rate stance is about to change.

As the New York Times explained, the intention of relaxing the banks’ capital requirements last year at the outset of the pandemic-induced economic lockdown “was to make it easier for financial institutions to absorb government bonds and reserves and still continue lending. Otherwise, banks might have stopped such activities to avoid increasing their assets and hitting the leverage cap, which would mean raising capital. But it also lowered bank capital requirements, which drew criticism.”

At a practical level, Friday’s decision may add further fuel to the fire that is driving up bond yields by discouraging banks from buying Treasury securities, which would seem to run counter to the Fed’s low-interest-rate policy. The Fed, of course, is buying trillions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, which it has stated it has no intention of stopping. Yet, it saw fit to make a move that could have the effect of driving the banks – also big buyers of government securities – out of the market. So why did the Fed do this? Continue reading "Did The Fed Just Send A Message?"