Jay Powell is selling but the bond market isn’t buying

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell declared that the Fed’s commitment to taming inflation is “unconditional”:

June 23 (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve’s commitment to reining in 40-year-high inflation is “unconditional,” Powell told lawmakers on Thursday, even as he acknowledged that sharply higher interest rates may push up unemployment.

“We really need to restore price stability … because without that we’re not going to be able to have a sustained period of maximum employment where the benefits are spread very widely,” the Fed Chairman told the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee.

Under questioning by members of the House panel on Thursday, Powell said there was a risk the Fed’s actions could lead to a rise in unemployment. “We don’t have precision tools,” he said, “so there is a risk that unemployment would move up, from what is historically a low level though. A labor market with 4.1% or 4.3% unemployment is still a very strong labor market.”

He also dismissed cutting interest rates if unemployment were to rise while inflation remained high. “We can’t fail on this: we really have to get inflation down to 2%,” he said.

The Fed chief was also asked about the central bank’s balance sheet, which was built up to around $9 trillion during the pandemic in an effort to ease financial conditions and is now being pared. The Fed aims to get it “roughly in the range of $2.5 or $3 trillion smaller than it is now,” Powell said.

But the bond market isn’t buying it. Treasury yields from 2-year to 30-year are compressed in a narrow band above 3%, indicating a flat yield curve. Expectations are that the Fed can’t go much higher than 3.0% to 3.5%.

Treasury Yield Curve

The dot plot from the last FOMC meeting similarly projects a 3.4% fed funds rate by the end of 2022, 3.8% by 2023, and lower at 3.4% by the end of 2024.

FOMC Dot Plot

You cannot cure inflation with a Fed funds rate (FFR) of 3.5%.

CPI is growing at 8.6% YoY, while the FFR target maximum is 1.75%. Another 1.75% just won’t cut it. You have to hike rates above inflation. Positive real interest rates are the best antidote for inflation but the economy, in its current precarious state, could not withstand this.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI

Taming inflation in the 1980s

Paul Volcker killed inflation by hiking the fed funds rate to 20% in 1980, but we live in a different world.

In 1980, federal debt to GDP was less than 50% of GDP. Today it’s 118%.

Federal Debt/GDP

The Federal deficit was 2.5% of GDP. Now it’s 12%.

Federal Deficit/GDP

Private debt (excluding the financial sector) was 1.35 times GDP in 1980. Now it’s more than double.

Private Non-Financial Debt/GDP

Powell can’t hike rates like Volcker. If he tried, he would collapse the economy and the US Treasury would be forced to default on its debt. Collapse of the global reserve asset is about as close as you can get to financial Armageddon.

Pricking the bubble

Instead, the Fed plans to use QT to deflate the asset bubbles in stocks and housing, in the hope that a reverse wealth effect — as households feel poorer — will slow consumer spending and reduce inflation.

So far, the S&P 500 has dropped by 25% and the housing market is likely to follow. The 30-year mortgage rate has climbed to 5.81%, more than double the rate in August last year.

30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate

Housing starts and permits are both declining.

Housing Starts & Permits

Powell talks of a $2.5 to $3.0 trillion reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet. That would increase the supply of Treasuries and MBS in financial markets by an equivalent amount which would be sucked out of the stock market, causing a fall in prices.

The two largest foreign investors in US Treasuries — Japan and China — have also both become net sellers to support their currencies against the rising Dollar. That will further increase the supply of Treasuries, causing an outflow from stocks.

Since 2009, stock market capitalization increased by $47.4 trillion, from $16.9T to $64.3T at the end of Q1. At the same time, the Fed’s balance sheet increased by $7.9 trillion, from $0.9T to $8.8T. Market cap increased by $6T for every $1T increase in the Fed’s balance sheet (QE). The multiplier effect is 6 times (47.4/7.9).

Stock Market Capitalization & Fed Total Assets

If the Fed were to shrink its balance sheet by $2.5 trillion and net foreign sales  of Treasuries amount to another $0.5 trillion, we could expect a similar multiplier effect to cause an $18 trillion fall in market capitalization ($3Tx6). Market cap would fall to $50T or 26.5% from its $68T peak in Q4 of 2021.

That’s just the start.

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”

Nobel prize-winner Milton Friedman argued that long-term increases or decreases in the general price level were caused by changes in the supply of money and not by shortages or surpluses of oil, commodities or labor.

The chart below shows the supply of money (M2) as a percentage of GDP. The economy thrived with M2 below 50% throughout the Dotcom boom of the late 1990s but has since grown bloated with liquidity as the Fed tried to revive the economy from the massive supply shock of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2002 — the introduction of hundreds of millions of workers earning roughly 1/30th of Western-level wages.

Money Supply (M2)/GDP

The massive supply shock helped to contain prices over the next two decades, perpetuating the myth of the Great Moderation — that the Fed had finally tamed inflation. Fed hubris led them to pursue easier monetary policy with little fear of  inflationary consequences.

All illusions eventually come to an end, however, and the 2020 pandemic caused the Fed to purchase trillions of Dollars of securities to support massive government stimulus payments. The MMT experiment failed disastrously, causing a $5 trillion spike in M2 without an accompanying rise in GDP. M2 spiked up from an already bloated 70% of GDP to more than 90%, before GDP recovered slightly to reduce it to the current 89%.

Trade tensions with China, coupled with supply chain disruptions from the 2020 pandemic and a sharp rise in natural gas prices — as industry switched from coal to reduce CO2 emissions — triggered price increases. These were aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions, leading to oil shortages.

Normally, high prices are the cure for high prices. Consumers cut back purchases in response to high prices and demand falls to the point that it matches available supply. Prices then stabilize.

But consumers are sitting on a mountain of cash, as illustrated in the above M2 chart. They continued spending despite higher prices and demand didn’t fall. Investors who have access to cheap debt also, quite rationally, borrow to buy appreciating real assets. Unfortunately cheap leverage is seldom channeled into productive investment and instead fuels expanding asset bubbles in homes and equities.

The Fed is forced to intervene, employing demand destruction, through rate hikes and QT deflate asset bubbles, to reduce consumer spending.

An unwelcome side-effect of demand destruction is that it also destroys jobs. Unemployment rises and eventually the Fed is forced to relent.

Conclusion

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says that the Fed’s commitment to reining in inflation is “unconditional” but the bond market is pricing in rate hikes peaking between 3.0% and 3.5%, way below the current rate of inflation. The economy is unlikely to be able to withstand more because of precarious levels of debt to GDP and a massive fiscal deficit.

Instead, the Fed plans to shrink their balance sheet by $2.3 to $3 trillion. QT is expected to deflate asset bubbles in stocks and housing and achieve a reverse wealth effect. Households are likely to curb spending as their net worth falls and they feel poorer.

Unfortunately, demand destruction from rate hikes and QT will also cause unemployment, inevitably leading to a recession. The Fed seems to think that the economy is resilient because unemployment is low and job openings outnumber unemployed workers by almost 2 to 1.

Job Openings & Unemployment (U3)

But elevated debt levels and rapidly rising credit spreads could precipitate a sharp deleveraging, with crumbling asset prices, rising layoffs and credit defaults.

High Yield Spreads

The Fed may also manage to lower prices through demand destruction but inflation is likely to rear its head again when they start easing. Surging inflation is likely to repeat until the Fed addresses the underlying issue: an excessive supply of money.

Milton Friedman was a scholar of the Great Depression of the 1930s which he attributed to mistakes by the Fed:

“The Fed was largely responsible for converting what might have been a garden-variety recession, although perhaps a fairly severe one, into a major catastrophe. Instead of using its powers to offset the depression, it presided over a decline in the quantity of money by one-third from 1929 to 1933 … Far from the depression being a failure of the free-enterprise system, it was a tragic failure of government.”

Ben Bernanke, another scholar of the Great Depression, acknowledged this during his tenure as Fed Chairman:

“Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton (Friedman) and Anna (Schwarz): Regarding the Great Depression, you’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

Instead the Fed made the opposite mistake. By almost doubling the quantity of money (M2) relative to GDP (output) they have created an entirely different kind of monster.

Money Supply (M2)/GDP

Slaying the beast of inflation is likely to prove just as difficult as ending the deflationary spiral of the 1930s.

Stocks: Winter is coming

GDP grew by a solid 10.64% for the 12 months ended March ’22 but that is in nominal terms.

GDP

GDP for the quarter slowed to 1.58%, while real GDP fell to -0.36%. Not only is growth slowing but inflation is taking a bigger bite.

GDP & Real GDP

The implicit price deflator climbed to 1.94% for the quarter — almost 8.0% when annualized.

GDP Implicit Price Deflator

Growth is expected to decline further as long-term interest rates rise.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Moody's Baa Corporate Bond Yield

Conventional monetary policy would be for the Fed to hike the funds rate (gray below) above CPI (red). But, with CPI at 8.56% for the 12 months to March and FFR at 0.20%, the Fed may be tempted to try unconventional methods to ease inflationary pressures.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI

That includes shrinking its $9 trillion balance sheet (QT).

During the pandemic, the Fed purchased almost $5 trillion of securities. The resulting shortage of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) caused long-terms yields to fall and a migration of investors to equities in search of yield.

The Fed is expected to commence QT in May at the rate of $95 billion per month — $60 billion in Treasuries and $35 billion in MBS — after a phase-in over the first three months. Long-term Treasury yields are likely to rise even faster, accompanied by a reverse flow from equities into bonds.

S&P 500 & Fed Total Assets

S&P 500 breach of support at 4200, signaling a bear market, would anticipate this.

Conclusion

Fed rate hikes combined with QT are expected to drive long-term interest rates higher and cause an outflow from equities into bonds.

A bear market (Winter) is coming.

Dr Lacey Hunt, Hoisington Asset Management | The debt trap

From Dr Lacey Hunt at Hoisington Asset Management on the declining velocity of money:

M2 Velocity

The Fed is able to increase money supply growth but the ongoing decline in velocity (V) means that the new liquidity is trapped in the financial markets rather than advancing the standard of living by moving into the real economy…..

GDP/Debt

Money and debt are created simultaneously. If the debt produces a sustaining income stream to repay principal and interest, then velocity will rise since GDP will eventually increase beyond the initial borrowing. If advancing debt produces increasingly smaller gains in GDP, then V falls. Debt financed private and governmental projects may temporarily boost GDP and velocity over short timespans, but if the projects do not generate new funds to meet longer term debt servicing obligations, then velocity falls as the historical statistics confirm.

The increase in M2 is not channeled into productive investment — that fuels GDP growth — but rather into unproductive investment in financial assets. The wealthy invest in real assets, as a hedge against inflation, but these are mainly speculative assets — such as gold, precious metals, jewellery, artworks and other collectibles, high-end real estate, or cryptocurrencies — which seldom produce much in the way of real income, with the speculator relying on asset price inflation and low interest rates to make a profit. Many so-called “growth stocks” — with negative earnings — fall in the same category. Debt used to fund stock buybacks also falls in this category as their purpose is financial engineering, with no increase in real earnings.

In 2008 and 2009 Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (R&R) published research that indicated from an extensive quantitative analysis of highly indebted economies that their economic growth was significantly diminished once they become highly over-indebted.

…..Cristina Checherita and Philip Rother, in research for the European Central Bank (ECB) published in 2014, investigated the average effect of government debt on per capita GDP growth in twelve Euro Area countries over a period of about four decades beginning in 1970. Dr. Checherita, now head of the fiscal affairs division of the ECB and Dr. Rother, chief economist of the European Economic Community, found that a government debt to GDP ratio above the turning point of 90-100% has a “deleterious” impact on long-term growth. In addition, they find that there is a non-linear impact of debt on growth beyond this turning point. A non-linear relationship means that as the government debt rises to higher and higher levels, the adverse growth consequences accelerate……Moreover, confidence intervals for the debt turning point suggest that the negative growth rate effect of high debt may start from levels of around 70-80% of GDP.

…..Unfortunately, early-stage economic expansions do not fare well when inflation and interest rates are not declining at this stage of the business cycle, which is not the normal historical role, or the path indicated by economic theory. As this year has once again confirmed, in early expansion inflationary episodes, prices rise faster than real wages, thereby stunting consumer
spending. The faster inflation also thwarts the needed continuing cyclical decline in money and bond yields, which are necessary to gain economic momentum.

…..The U.S. economy has clearly experienced an unprecedented set of supply side disruptions, which serve to shift the upward sloping aggregate supply curve inward. In a graph, with aggregate prices on the vertical axis and real GDP on the horizontal axis, this causes the aggregate supply and demand curves to intersect at a higher price level and lower level of real GDP. This
drop in real GDP, often referred to as a supply side recession, increases what is known as the deflationary gap, which means that the level of real GDP falls further from the level of potential GDP. This deflationary gap in turn leads to demand destruction setting in motion a process that will eventually reverse the rise in inflation.

Currently, however, the decline in money growth and velocity indicate that the inflation induced supply side shocks will eventually be reversed. In this environment, Treasury bond yields could temporarily be pushed higher in response to inflation. These sporadic moves will not be maintained. The trend in longer yields remains downward.

Negative real yields

A negative real yield points to the fact that investors or entrepreneurs cannot earn a real return sufficient to cover risks. Accordingly, the funds for physical investment will fall and productivity gains will erode which undermines growth. Attempting to counter this fact, central banks expand liquidity but the inability of firms to profitably invest causes the velocity of money to fall but the additional liquidity boosts financial assets. Financial investment, however, does not raise the standard of living. While the timing is uncertain, real forward financial asset returns must eventually move into alignment with the already present negative long-term real Treasury interest rates. This implied reduction in future investment will impair economic growth.

….research has documented that extremely high levels of governmental indebtedness suppress real per capita GDP. In the distant past, debt financed government spending may have been preceded by stronger sustained economic performance, but that is no longer the case. When governments accelerate debt over a certain level to improve faltering economic conditions, it actually slows economic activity. While governmental action may be required for political reasons, governments would be better off to admit that traditional tools would only serve to compound existing problems.

Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (which will be referred to as RR&R), in the Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives linked extreme sustained over indebtedness with the level of interest rates…… “Contrary to popular perception, we find that in 11 of the 16 debt overhang cases, real interest rates were either lower or about the same as during the lower debt/GDP years. Those waiting for financial markets to send the warning signal through higher (real) interest rates that governmental policy will be detrimental to economic performance may be waiting a long time.”

Growth Obstacles

In 2022, several headwinds will weigh on the U.S. economy. These include negative real interest rates combined with a massive debt overhang, poor domestic and global demographics, and a foreign sector that will drain growth from the domestic economy. The EM and AD (Advanced) economies will both serve to be a restraint on U.S. growth this year and perhaps significantly longer. The negative real interest rates signal that capital is being destroyed and with it the incentive to plough funds into physical investment.

Demographics continue to stagnate in the United States and throughout the world……..Poor demographics retard economic growth by lowering household, business and state and local investment. This keeps intact the observable trend in numerous countries – extreme over-indebtedness reduces economic growth which, in turn, worsens demographics, which reinforces the weakness emanating from the debt overhang. William Stull, Professor of Economics at Temple University, makes the case that for nations’, “demographics is destiny” (a phrase coined by Ben Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon), highlighting the importance of its critical secular growth in determining economic fortune.

Although fourth quarter numbers are not yet available, the global debt to GDP average for 2020-21 is almost certainly the highest on record for any two-year period. Transitory growth spurts, like the one Q4 2021, are unlikely to be sustained. The sporadic but weakening growth trend evident before the pandemic hit in 2019 will return, reinforcing the debt trap.

Inflation

The University of Michigan indicates consumer sentiment in the fourth quarter was worse than during the height of the 2020 pandemic and at the levels of the beginning of the very deep 2008-09 recession. Consumers cut back significantly on their buying plans as expectations for increases in future income slumped. To fund the sharply higher cost of necessities, households have been forced to reduce the personal saving rate in November to 6.9%, or 0.4% less than in December 2019. Needing to tap credit card lines undoubtedly contributed to the erosion in consumer confidence measures. Without the sizable cut in personal saving, real consumer expenditures were barely positive in the fourth quarter. With money growth likely to slow even more sharply in response to tapering by the FOMC, the velocity of money in a major downward trend, coupled with increased global over-indebtedness, poor demographics and other headwinds at work, the faster observed inflation of last year should unwind noticeably in 2022.

Services inflation

A friend asked a question: “Our advanced economies are 70 – 80 % Services based these days; so will this make CPI inflation difficult to sustain if wages growth is not sustained.”

The answer is YES. Inflation is unlikely to be sustained if wages growth declines.

BUT wages growth is accelerating, not declining, both in the services sector and in the broader economy.

Average Hourly Wages Growth: Total Private & Services Sector

Wages growth is also not likely to decline while we have record job openings; 5.4 million in the services sector alone.

Job Openings: Services Sector

Employers are having to offer higher wages and sign-on bonuses to attract workers — the result of record high savings levels fueled by government stimulus.

M2/GDP

Retail sales, missing workers and the inflation threat

The October labor report shows hours worked were roughly unchanged from September and still 100K below the pre-pandemic high (5.25m). But GDP of 19.5 trillion is up slightly when compared to 19.2T in Q3 2019, indicating that productivity has improved.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Monthly retail sales for September, on the other hand, were way above trend.

Retail Sales

People are spending Dollars they didn’t earn, courtesy of record government stimulus.

That is one of the primary causes of rising consumer prices (red below): when demand outstrips supply.

Average Hourly Earnings & CPI

A rising CPI in turn causes second run inflation through higher wage demands (green and gray above) if central banks fail to act quickly. They become embedded and difficult to dislodge.

The combined effect of the pandemic and government stimulus has had a profound impact on the US labor market. The economy added 5.8 million jobs in the 10 months to October, at an average of 580K per month. That rate is likely to slow as the economy reopens and enhanced unemployment benefits end.

We are missing 4.2 million employees, compared to the pre-pandemic peak of 152.5m jobs, and seem unlikely to find them, judging by the 10.4 million job openings in September. High levels of job openings are likely to exert continuing upward pressure on wages.

Non-farm Payroll & Job Openings

The missing workers — aided by government handouts — have either retired, quit their jobs to day-trade Tesla and crypto-currencies, or have re-assessed their work-life priorities. No doubt there will be a trickle back to the workforce — as day-traders encounter reversion to the mean and/or savings run low — but the Fed needs to reassess its full employment target. Failure to do so would leave interest rates too low for too long and allow second run inflation to become entrenched. The only way to then dislodge it is with the kind of drastic measures that Paul Volcker used in the early eighties, with the fed funds rate peaking at 20%.

Fed Funds Rate under Paul Volcker

David Woo: Prelude to volatility

The bond market had a heart attack last week. Rising inflation caused a massive back up in bond yields in the short end of the market. The market is now pricing in two rate hikes in 2022. The Fed will have to raise real interest rates in order to tame inflation.

Real interest rates are falling. The stock market is taking its cue from the bond market and is rising. Stock prices represent discounted future cash flows, so negative real interest rates make a big difference to earnings multiples.

The Democrats are determined to spend their way to a mid-term election victory, with a $1T infrastructure bill and $1.75T social spending, both light on tax revenue. The GOP will try to stop them when the debt ceiling issue returns in December but they don’t have much leverage.

Financial conditions will have to tighten a lot more in 2022. The Fed is way behind the curve and is going to have to play catch-up.

Conclusion

Inflationary pressures in the US economy are growing, while the Democrats plan a further $2.75T in fiscal stimulus which is light on tax revenues.

Long-term yields lag far behind inflation, with real interest rates growing increasingly negative. The assumption is that the Fed will tighten sharply in 2022 to curb inflation. We expect that the Fed will taper but is not going to rush to hike interest rates for three reasons:

  1. The Fed would be tightening into a slowing economy, with growth fading as stimulus winds down;
  2. High energy prices will also help to cool demand; and
  3. US federal debt levels — already > 120% of GDP and likely to grow further with proposed new stimulus measures — are a greater long-term threat than inflation. The Fed and Treasury are expected to work together to boost GDP and tax revenues through inflation, keeping real interest rates negative to alleviate the cost to Treasury of servicing the excessive debt burden.

Deconstructing Evergrande’s effect on China

Elliot Clarke at Westpac says that China will be able to withstand the shock of Evergrande’s collapse and that power outages are a bigger threat.

We still think that the property sector contagion is part of a broader issue that China will struggle to overcome, as Michael Pettis succinctly explained:

China’s debt problem

Tweeted by Prof. Michael Pettis:

In the past — e.g. the SOE reforms of the 1990s, the banking crisis of the 2000s, SARS in 2003, the collapse of China’s trade surplus in 2009, COVID, etc. — whenever China faced a problem that threatened the pace of its economic growth, Beijing always responded by accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment by enough to maintain targeted GDP growth rates. It didn’t adjust, in other words, but rather goosed growth by exacerbating the underlying imbalances.

That is why it had always been “successful” in seeing off a crisis. But when the main problem threatening further growth becomes soaring debt and the sheer amount of non-productive investment in property and infrastructure, it is obvious, or should be, that accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment can no longer be a sustainable solution. All this can do is worsen the underlying imbalances and raise further the future cost of adjustment.