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?"

Yellen Joins The Party

When then-President-Elect Joe Biden nominated Janet Yellen to be his Treasury secretary last month, the markets rejoiced. The former Federal Reserve chair was a known quantity, and investors hate uncertainty – they knew what they were getting. Even better, they liked what they were getting—a monetary dove who favors low-interest rates and supports an interventionist government and Fed. While she wouldn't be on the Fed in her new role, she still holds the same views.

Moreover, since she is Jerome Powell's immediate predecessor, and they both worked together on the Fed for several years, it was pretty much a given that the two will work closely and harmoniously together for the good of the country, as the times demand.

But the markets were also relieved that Biden did not bow to the so-called progressives on the extreme left of his party and pick someone more to their liking, instead choosing someone with safe, relatively moderate views that both parties could support – as indeed they did, by an 84-15 Senate vote. In other words, Biden wanted – and the markets demanded – an adult in the room, and that's what they got with Yellen.

Or did they? Continue reading "Yellen Joins The Party"

The Fed's Role In GameStop

All of the news articles and media commentary on the volatility in GameStop (GME) stock last week centered on the supposed war between retail investors who were buying the stock, putting a squeeze on those evil rich hedge-fund managers who had shorted the stock. And the Davids, at least for now, were beating the Goliaths. Good versus evil is always easy to understand and makes for a compelling story, especially when "the little guy" prevails.

Morality play aside, a lot of people were probably scratching their heads as to why some people would be so enthusiastic about buying stock in a company that appears to be 10 years behind the times, seeing as how its main business consists of selling or reselling physical copies of digital games even as the rest of the world has moved onto streaming. It also cast a lot of attention on short-selling, with many people receiving a crash course in the tactic.

However, it's also another example of how the Federal Reserve's super-loose monetary policy and 0% interest rates are distorting investor behavior. While retail investors on Robinhood and other platforms are driving up the price of what otherwise might be a stock headed in the other direction, we need to remember one of the reasons why investors are willing to make such outlandish bets like this.

It demonstrates the lengths some investors will go to make money because it's become difficult to do so in more conventional (i.e., safe) investments, such as quality stocks and bonds. It also reveals the almost devil-may-care attitude some investors have adopted, believing that the Fed will eventually ride to their rescue. Continue reading "The Fed's Role In GameStop"

The Conundrum Continues

Just how bad are things for the U.S. economy anyway? If you just finished reading the financial news headlines the past few days, you can't be blamed for being just a little confused.

From the government side, you would swear that the sky is falling. Not only is the COVID-19-fueled financial crisis ongoing, but it might also be getting even worse. Last week, we heard it from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and this week from his predecessor, Janet Yellen, President Biden's nominee for Treasury Secretary.

"The economy is far from our goals" of full employment and sustained 2% inflation, Powell said at a webcast sponsored by Princeton University. Therefore, he said, "Now is not the time to be talking about exit" from easy money policies. "When the time comes to raise interest rates, we will certainly do that," he said. "And that time, by the way, is no time soon."

Yellen painted an even bleaker picture. "Economists don't always agree, but I think there is a consensus now: Without further action, we risk a longer, more painful recession now—and long-term scarring of the economy later," she said in prepared remarks for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

While not dismissing the concern that "further action" would add to the already humungous federal debt burden – now at $21.6 trillion and expected to grow even more under Biden – Yellen was more worried about the possible consequences of not spending enough. Continue reading "The Conundrum Continues"