The Fed and Alice in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland a young Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures after falling down a rabbit hole. The new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will similarly have to lead global financial markets through a series of bizarre, unprecedented experiences.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Bros, financial markets were in complete disarray and in danger of imploding. The Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, embarked on an unprecedented (and unproven) rescue attempt — now known as quantitative easing or QE for short — injecting more than $3.5 trillion into the financial system through purchase of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

The Fed aimed to drive long-term interest rates down in the belief that this would encourage private sector borrowing and investment and revive the economy. Their efforts failed. Private sector borrowing did not revive. Most of the money injected ended up, unused by the private sector, as $2.5 trillion of excess commercial bank reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Fed Excess Reserves

Richard Koo pointed out that the private sector will under normal cirumstances respond to lower interest rates with increased borrowing but during a financial crisis, when their balance sheets have been destroyed and their liabilities exceed their assets, their sole focus is to restore their balance sheet, using surplus cash flow to pay down debt. The only way to prevent a collapse is for the government to step in and plug the gap, borrowing surplus capital and investing this in infrastructure.

One Pill Makes you Larger

Fortunately Bernanke got the message.

US and Euro Area Public Debt to GDP

… and spread the word.

Japan Public Debt to GDP

And One Pill Makes you Small

Unfortunately, other central banks also followed the Fed’s earlier lead, injecting vast sums into the financial system through quantitative easing (QE).

ECB and BOJ Total Assets

Driving long-term yields to levels even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to imagine.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Pool of Tears

Then in 2014, another twist in the tale. Long-term yields continued to fall in Europe and Japan, while US rates stabilised as Fed eased off on QE. A large differential appeared between US and European/Japanese rates (observable since 2014 on the above chart), causing a flood of money into the US, in pursuit of higher yields.

….. with an unwanted side-effect. The Dollar strengthened. Capital inflows caused the trade-weighted value of the US Dollar to spike upwards beween 2014 and 2016, damaging US export industries and local manufacturers facing competition from foreign imports.

US Trade-Weighted Dollar Index

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

A jobless recovery in manufacturing and low wage growth in turn led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promising increased protectionism against global competition.

US Manufacturing Jobs

Then in 2017, to the consternation of many, despite rising interest rates the US Dollar began to fall.

US TW Dollar Index in 2017

Learned analysis followed, ascribing the weakening Dollar to rising commodity prices and a recovery in emerging markets. But something doesn’t quite add up.

International bond investors are a pretty smart bunch. When they look at US bond markets, what do they see? The new Fed Chairman has inherited a massive headache.

Donald Trump is determined to stimulate job growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. This will certainly create jobs. But when you stimulate an economy that is already at full employment you get inflation.

Who Stole the Tarts?

Jerome Powell is sitting on a powder keg. More than $2 trillion of excess reserves that commercial banks can withdraw without notice. Demand for bank credit is expected to rise as result of the Trump stimulus. Commercial banks, not known for their restraint, can make like Donkey Kong with their excess reserves provided by the Bernanke Fed.

Under Janet Yellen the Fed mapped out a program to withdraw excess reserves from the market by selling down Treasuries and MBS at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion each year thereafter. But at that rate it will take 10 years to remove the excess.

Bond markets are worried about what will happen to inflation in the mean time.

Off With His Head

The new Fed Chair has made all the right noises about being hawkish on inflation. But can he walk the talk? Especially with his $2 trillion headache.

….and the Red Queen, easily recognizable from Lewis Carroll’s tale, tweeting “off with his head” if a hawkish Fed threatens to spoil the party.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

….When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low….

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

~ White Rabbit by Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane (1967)

Outlook for 2018

At this time of year we are usually inundated with projections for the year ahead, from predictions of imminent collapse to expectations of a record year.

We live in a world of uncertainty, where both extremes are possible, but neither is likely.

We are clearly in stage 3 (the final stage) of a bull market. Risk premiums are close to record lows. The yield spread between lowest investment-grade (Baa) bonds and equivalent risk-free Treasuries has crossed to below 2.0 percent, levels last seen prior to the 2008 global financial crisis. The VIX is also close to its record low, suggesting high levels of investor confidence.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Money supply continues to grow at close to 5.0 percent, reflecting an accommodative stance from the Fed. MZM, or Zero Maturity Money, is basically M1 plus travelers checks and money market funds.

Zero-Maturity Money

Inflationary forces remain subdued, with average hourly wage rates growing at below 2.5 percent per year. A rise above 3.0 percent, which would pressure the Fed to adopt a more restrictive monetary policy, does not appear imminent.

Average Hourly Wage Rates

Tax relief and higher commodity prices are likely to exert upward pressure on inflation in the year ahead. But the Fed’s stated intention of shrinking its balance sheet, with a reduction of $100 billion in the first 12 months, is likely to have an opposite, contractionary effect.

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed gave a bit of a scare, dipping below 1.0 percent towards the end of last year. But data has since been revised and the index now reflects a far healthier outlook.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

A flattening yield curve has also been mooted as a potential threat, with a negative yield curve preceding every recession over the last 50 years.

Yield Differential 10-Year compared to 2-Year and 3-Month Treasuries

A yield differential, between 10-year and either 2-year or 3-month Treasuries, below zero would warn of a recession. When long-term yields fall below short-term yields financial markets stop working efficiently and bank lending tends to contract. Banks, who generally borrow at short-term rates and lend at long-term rates, find their margins are squeezed and become strongly risk-averse. Contracting lending slows the economy and normally leads to recession.

But we are some way from there. If we take the last cycle as an example, the yield curve started flattening in 2005 (when yield differentials fell below 1 percent) but a recession only occurred in 2008. The market could continue to thrive for several years before the impact of a negative yield curve is felt. To exit now would seem premature.

Fed flunks econ 101?

Caroline Baum’s opinion on the Fed’s approach to inflation:

For all the sturm und drang about the Fed debasing the dollar and sowing the seeds of the next great inflation, the public’s demand for money has increased. The increased desire to hold cash and checkable deposits has risen to meet the increased supply. Velocity, or the rate at which money turns over, has plummeted.

The Fed has two choices. It can adopt the Dr. Strangelove approach and learn to stop worrying and live with low inflation and low unemployment. Or it can do something about it, which runs counter to its stated intention to raise the funds rate and reduce the size of its balance sheet.

Option #1 involves learning to live with a low, stable inflation rate about 0.5 percentage point below the Fed’s explicit 2% target.

Not only has the Fed has achieved price stability in objective terms, but it has also fulfilled former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s subjective definition of price stability: a rate of inflation low enough that it is not a factor in business or household decision-making.

Option #2 means taking some additional actions to increase the money supply by lowering interest rates or resuming bond purchases. The Fed is taking the opposite approach. It began its balance sheet normalization this month, allowing $10 billion of securities to mature each month and gradually increasing the amount every quarter. And it has guided markets to expect another 25-basis-point rate increase in December….

The Fed faces a delicate balancing act. Unemployment is low but capacity utilization is also low, indicating an absence of inflationary pressure.

Capacity Utilization

Janet Yellen understandably wants to normalize interest rates ahead of the next recession but she can afford to take her time. The economy is unlikely to tip into recession unless the Fed hikes rates too quickly, causing a monetary contraction.

I believe the Fed chair is relying on the outflow from more than $2 trillion of excess reserves held by banks on deposit with the Fed to offset the contractionary effect of any rate hikes.

Capacity Utilization

If pushed, the Fed could lower the interest rate paid on excess reserves in order to encourage banks to withdraw excess deposits. But so far this hasn’t been necessary. The attraction of higher interest rates in financial markets has been sufficient to encourage a steady outflow from excess reserves, keeping the monetary base (net of reserves) growing at a steady clip of close to 7.5% p.a. despite rate hikes so far.

Capacity Utilization

Makes you wonder why Donald Trump would even consider replacing the Fed chair when she is doing a great job of managing the recovery.

Source: Fed flunks econ 101: understanding inflation – MarketWatch

How long will the bull market last?

US markets are clearly in a bull phase, with the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq making strong gains. A rising Freight Transport Index highlights the broad up-turn in economic activity.

Freight Transport Index

Low corporate bond spreads — lowest investment grade (Baa) minus 10-year Treasury yield — and VIX below 15 both reflect bull market conditions.

Bond Spreads

Real GDP is growing around a modest 2 percent a year. Low figures are likely to continue, with annual change in hours worked (total payroll * average weekly hours) falling to 1.2 percent in September.

Real GDP

Money supply (M1) growth recovered to a balmy 7 percent (p.a.) after a worrying dip below 5 in early 2016.

M1 Money Stock

The Fed may be reluctant to tighten monetary conditions but will be forced to act if inflation starts to accelerate. Annual growth in hourly wage rates turned above 2.5 percent in September, signaling underlying inflationary pressure.

Average Hourly Wage Rate - Annual Growth

Another dip in M1 below 5 percent growth would warn that monetary conditions are tightening. From there, it normally takes 12 months to impact on the broad market indices.

M1 Money Stock and Fed Funds Rate

At this stage it looks like another 2 years of sunshine before the storm. But one false tweet and we could face an early winter.

Australia faces headwinds

Australian wage rate growth, on the other hand, is declining. is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Wage Price Index

Source: RBA & ABS

As is inflation.

Australia: Inflation

Source: RBA & ABS

Growth in Household Disposable Income and Consumption.

Australia: Household Income and Consumption

Source: RBA & ABS

And Banks return on shareholders equity.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA & APRA

But not Housing.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA, ABS, APM, CoreLogic & Residex

At least not yet.

Falling house prices would complete the feedback loop, shrinking household incomes, consumption and banks ROE.

Gold finds support at $1250

The Dollar Index continues to test support at 96.50. The primary trend is down and breach of support is likely, signaling a decline to test the 2016 low at 92/93.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold found support at $1250. A weaker Dollar and rising political uncertainty both favor an up-trend but rising interest rates are expected to weaken demand. Respect of support at $1250 would confirm the up-trend, while breach of $1200 would warn of another decline.

Spot Gold

Inflation surges

Inflation is rising, with CPI climbing steeply above the Fed’s 2% target. But core CPI excluding energy and food remains stable.

Consumer Price Index

Job gains were the lowest since May 2016.

Job Gains

But the unemployment rate fell to a low 4.5%.

Unemployment

Hourly wage rate growth has eased below 2.5%, suggesting that underlying inflationary pressures are contained.

Average Hourly Earnings Growth

The Fed is unlikely to accelerate its normalization of interest rates unless we see a surge in core inflation and/or hourly earnings growth.

Australia’s economic growth is slowing.

Employment and Participation rates are falling.

Australia Employment & Participation Rates

Wage rate growth is slowing.

Australia Wage Rates

Slowing wage rate growth and inflation confirm that the economy is faltering.

Australia Underlying Inflation

The RBA, with one eye on the housing bubble, has indicated its reluctance to cut rates further. Increased infrastructure spending by Federal and State governments seems the only viable alternative.

With the motor industry winding down and apartment construction headed for a cliff, this is becoming increasingly urgent.

US Job Growth, Wage Rates & Inflation

Payrolls jumped by a seasonally adjusted 235,000 jobs in February, setting the Fed on track for another rate rise next week.

US Job Growth

GDP growth is projected to lift in line with employment, wage rates and hours worked. At this stage, the Fed is still attempting to normalize interest rates rather than slow the economy to cool inflationary pressures.

Projected GDP

Wage rate growth remains muted, at close to 2.5 percent, so rate hikes are likely to proceed at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rates and Money Supply

The need to tighten monetary policy is only likely to be seriously considered when wage rate growth [light green] exceeds 3.0 percent [dark green line]. Then you are likely to witness a dip in money supply growth [blue], as in 2000 and 2006, with bearish consequences for stocks.

*The dip in 2010 was a mistake by the Fed, taking its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the 2008 crash.