Inflation

The US CPI report for June, published on Friday, was the fourth successive monthly print that surprised on the low side. Initially, these inflation misses were dismissed by the Federal Reserve as idiosyncratic and temporary, but they are now becoming too persistent to ignore. If they are not reversed fairly soon, the FOMC will need to give greater weight to the possibility that inflation may not return to target over the next couple of years.

Janet Yellen appeared to open the door to this possibility for the first time in her evidence to Congress last week. In a distinct change of tone, she specifically mentioned uncertainties about “when and how much inflation will respond to tightening resource utilisation”, thus acknowledging the possibility of alterations in the Phillips Curve.

She also emphasised that monetary policy is not on a preset course, adding that the FOMC will be carefully monitoring whether the recent decline in inflation is reversed in the months ahead. Normally, her guidance on data is more even handed, without specifically highlighting downside inflation risks.

My colleagues at Fulcrum (especially Juan Antolin-Diaz and Alberto Donofrio) have recently estimated some new econometric models [1] to track the course of inflation in the US, and these models identified the importance of the latest inflation surprises fairly early in the process. After the latest CPI data, the models suggest that there is a high and increasing chance that US inflation will fail to return to target within the next 2 years. Read more

In this month’s regular temperature check on global economic activity, the Fulcrum nowcasts identify a continuing strong and co-ordinated global expansion, with no significant signs of any meaningful reversion to trend, especially in the advanced economies. We reported a couple of months ago that the very robust rates of growth in the US and China had come off the boil, but these economies have since rebounded again, and the Eurozone has continued to record stellar rates of expansion by its own subdued standards.

Rather belatedly, the consensus growth projections published by mainstream economic forecasters have begun to reflect these strong activity reports, despite the aberrantly weak GDP data in the US in 2017 Q1. These upgrades to global growth projections break the dismal pattern of repeated downgrades that has been experienced ever since 2012.

It is unclear whether these improvements represent merely a short term cyclical recovery based on expansionary demand policy. The absence of any rise in core inflation suggests that, at the very least, supply has so far been able to match any increase in demand, though it is far too early to conclude that this will prove sustainable.

John Williams, President of the San Francisco Fed, strongly expressed the mainstream, pessimistic view about supply side growth in a good speech last month. Nevertheless, it is worth at least considering the possibility that a very modest supply side improvement may finally be underway, while recognising that the case will be unproven for a very long time to come.

The Fulcrum monthly nowcasts are attached hereRead more

Markets are becoming concerned about the central banks’ response – or rather their lack of response – to a series of inflation releases that have surprised economists on the low side recently. A few months ago, with the oil price shock of 2014-16 fading into history, it seemed that the Federal Reserve and the ECB were on a relatively smooth path towards attaining their inflation targets of around 2 per cent over the next three years. Now, that seems much less certain.

In the US, there have been three successive monthly inflation reports that have been much lower than forecast. In the eurozone, the monthly path has been bumpier, but the upshot is that core inflation has been stuck at 1.0 per cent, showing no sign of any progress towards target.

Bond markets have adjusted their inflation “breakevens” downwards. Although this has been in part driven by a widening in negative inflation risk premia, it seems to imply a loss of confidence that the global reflationary forces are gaining momentum.

When inflation surprised on the downside after the oil price collapse in 2014, the major central banks eventually responded by aggressively adding to monetary stimulus (in the case of the ECB), or by postponing the intended tightening (the Fed). This time, the central banks have completely refused to alter their planned monetary stance, and several of them – notably including the ECB – have been making more hawkish noises.

Although the drop in inflation has been very modest compared to 2014-15, some commentators have started to worry about a “Sintra pact” among global central bankers to normalise interest rates.

So what is going on, and does this new policy response spell danger for risk assets? Read more

In January 2012, the FOMC started to publish its “dot plots” showing the committee’s median expectation for the fed funds rate several quarters ahead. Ever since then, it has become customary to compare the Fed’s dots with the market’s forward pricing for the funds rate over the relevant horizon. Frequently, the dots have been much higher than the market pricing, and this has usually been taken as a signal that the market expects a more dovish stance for monetary policy than implied by the FOMC.

Lawrence Summers recently took this argument a step further, arguing that the gap between the dots and the market’s path for rates suggests not only that the Fed will not, but should not, raise rates. He believes that the dot plot comparisons show that investors do not see sufficient justification for a monetary tightening in the near future. In supporting evidence for this, Professor Summers points to the forward path for inflation built into the inflation-linked bond market, which is also much lower than the inflation path predicted by the FOMC.

It does not normally pay to disagree with Larry Summers, and he may well be right about the immediate future for Fed policy. Inflation is clearly coming in lower than expected.

Nevertheless, it is worth examining the Summers argument in greater detail, since the existence of risk (or term) premia in the market’s forward pricing for interest rates and the inflation rate can scramble the message that investors should take from these readings. Read more

In this month’s regular update on global activity data, the Fulcrum nowcasts have continued to report that the world economy is expanding at slightly above trend rates. As we noted last month, there have been some signs of a modest slowdown in the US, but the Eurozone, Japan and the UK have remained fairly robust. China had shown a few signs of slowing in the spring, but the most recent growth estimates have rebounded to the 7 per cent average that has been intact for several previous quarters.

There now seems to be less chance that the global economy will achieve a clear upside break in its growth rate this year, but there are no signs of a significant or broadly-based slowdown either.

As we have noted on many occasions, the global financial markets have been in a regime that has come to be known as “global reflation” since March, 2016. However, some of the elements of that regime, including rising inflation expectations in the bond markets and a firm US dollar, have clearly frayed at the edges, following a decline in the market’s confidence that a sizeable fiscal reflation package will be introduced by the Republican administration in Washington, and the publication of weak inflation reports in the US and the Eurozone.

The current market regime is probably better described as one of “global expansion” rather than “global reflation”. In retrospect, that would have been a more accurate description of the entire market regime that started last year, since this period has always been about rising real output growth, rather than rising core inflation.

The latest monthly nowcasts are presented in detail here. Read more

A few months ago, the Federal Reserve seemed determined, at long last, to normalise monetary policy in the US. In fact, it still seems to be set on that course. The FOMC has indicated that it intends to raise rates in June by a further 0.25 per cent, and they also seem ready to announce a plan to shrink the central bank balance sheet in September.

But there is now a fly in the Fed’s ointment. The last two monthly releases for consumer price inflation have been much weaker than anyone expected. Although the FOMC was fairly dismissive of the first of these announcements – saying in the minutes of its May meeting that it was probably caused by temporary or idiosynchratic factors – it is not yet known whether they have continued to ignore the second set of weak CPI data in April. The two months together have left core CPI inflation 0.4 percentage points lower than expected.

When the PCE deflator is released next Tuesday, it will probably show the 12-month core inflation rate at 1.5 per cent in April, the lowest figure since the end of 2015. The FOMC’s reaction to this incoming news will depend on their reading of the underlying causes of low inflation, which are highly uncertain. But the markets have already decided that they will take the evidence seriously enough to abort their programme of rate rises after the planned June increase. Read more

The global reflation regime that has been dominant in the financial markets for much of the past 12 months has paused in recent weeks. Many commentators, including James Macintosh at the Wall Street Journal and the FT’s Gillian Tett, have suggested that this pause in the markets is giving ominous signals about the health of global economic activity. Concerns have been expressed about the strength of official US GDP data in 2017 Q1, and there have been unexpectedly low readings for core inflation in several economies.

This shift in mood is probably too pessimistic. The change in market behaviour has so far been small, relative to the large rise in equities and the decline in bond prices seen since world activity bottomed in February 2016. Furthermore, while there has been a modest slowdown in US activity indicators since March, the growth rate remains well above trend, and the official GDP numbers are likely to be much stronger in 2017 Q2 and Q3.

However, there are legitimate concerns about the ability of the Trump administration to deliver the large fiscal stimulus that had been expected. These concerns need to be addressed in the announcements on tax policy that are expected imminently. Read more

A year ago, Lawrence Summers’ perceptive warnings about the possibility of secular stagnation in the world economy were dominating global markets. China, Japan and the Eurozone were in deflation, and the US was being dragged into the mess by the rising dollar. Global recession risks were elevated, and commodity prices continued to fall. Fixed investment had slumped. Productivity growth and demographic growth looked to be increasingly anemic everywhere.

Estimates of the equilibrium real interest rate in many economies were being marked down. It seemed possible that the world economy would fall into a “Japanese trap”, in which nominal interest rates would be permanently stuck at the zero lower bound, and would therefore not be able to fall enough to stimulate economic activity.

Just when the sky seemed to be at its darkest, the outlook suddenly began to improve. Global reflation replaced secular stagnation as the theme that dominated investor psychology, especially after Donald Trump’s election in November. Why has secular stagnation lost its mass appeal, and has it disappeared forever? Was it all a case of crying wolf? Read more

In mid 2016, the global economy embarked on a regime of reflation that has been dominating market behaviour ever since then. This has constituted a simultaneous rise in real output growth, along with a rebound in inflation as commodity prices have recovered from their 2014-15 slump.

The result has been a sharp increase in nominal GDP growth in most of the major economies. As the secular stagnation theme has lost its potency for investors, a decline in the perceived risk of outright deflation has triggered a rise in breakeven inflation expectations in bond markets everywhere.

One of the most important questions for 2017 is whether this bout of reflation will continue. My answer, based partly on the latest results from the Fulcrum nowcast and inflation models (see first graph), is that it will continue, at least compared to the sluggish rates of increase in nominal GDP since the Great Financial Crash.

However, the nature of the reflation theme is changing. The term “reflation” does not necessarily imply that global inflation, or inflation expectations, will continue to rise very much from here.

A likely pattern in 2017 is that there will be upgrades in consensus forecasts for real output growth, but inflation will stabilise, and will not threaten to break above central bank targets in most advanced economies.

Equities and other risk assets would probably view this as a healthy mix of output and inflation components of national income, while bond markets would probably exhibit a stabilisation in breakeven inflation expectations, with real yields rising a bit. Read more

The financial markets have begun to wake up to the fact that the Republican reforms to US corporate taxation will probably include important new “border adjustments” to the definitions of company revenues and costs. The basic idea is that US should shift to a “territorial” system, with corporations being taxed only on revenues and costs incurred within the US itself, and not on their worldwide aggregates, which is the principle behind the present system. [1]

A border tax was not explicitly part of the Trump platform before the Presidential Election. It was, however, included in the tax plan published last year by Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, and Mr Trump has recently tweeted that companies that do not “make in USA” can expect to “pay big border tax”. That might be compatible with the Ryan plan, though it also might not be.

Although most other countries already operate “territorial” systems, the Republican plan includes other features that would make the new tax regime operate like a tariff on imports into the US, combined with a subsidy on many exports from the US, a combination that would have profound international economic consequences.

This is not just an obscure change to the details of America’s corporate tax code. It would be seen by trading partners as a protectionist measure that could disrupt world trade.

The direct effects of a border tax adjustment to the US corporate tax regime would be likely to raise American inflation, cut imports, boost exports and raise tax revenue, possibly by over $1.2 trillion over a decade. However, it would also raise the dollar’s exchange rate, which could offset or cancel out some of these other effects.

The impact on real GDP and employment would depend on how these effects panned out, and how the Federal Reserve reacted to the increase in inflation. It cannot be assumed that the effects would be beneficial. Recent estimates by Michael Gapen and Rob Martin at Barclays Capital suggest that the first year effects would be to raise US inflation by about 0.5-1 per cent, and to reduce real GDP by 1.0-1.5 per cent.

Given these economic effects, it is very doubtful whether this form of border tax, taken in isolation, would be good for the overall equity market, though other planned reforms to the corporate tax regime (including lower marginal tax rates, and full deduction of capital spending in the first year) certainly would be. Read more

A year ago, there was a pervasive mood of gloom among economists and investors about prospects for the global economy in 2016. China was in the doldrums, and fears of a sharp renminbi devaluation were rife. The oil shock had caused major reductions in capital spending in the energy sector, and consumers seemed reluctant to spend the large gains they were enjoying in real household incomes.

Deflation risks dominated the bond markets in Japan and the Eurozone. In the US, the Federal Reserve seemed determined to “normalise” interest rates, despite the rising dollar and the weakness in foreign economies.

At the turn of the year, there were forecasts of global recession in 2016. At the low point for activity and risk assets in 2016 Q1, the global growth rate (according to the Fulcrum “nowcasts”) had dipped to about 2 per cent, compared to a trend growth rate of 4 per cent. It was a bleak period. The dominant regime in financial markets was clearly one of rising risk of deflation.

Since then, however, there has been a marked rebound in global activity, and in recent weeks this has become surprisingly strong, at least by the modest standards seen hitherto in the post-shock economic recovery. According to the latest nowcasts, the growth rate in global activity is now estimated to be 4.4 per cent, compared to a low point of 2.2 per cent reached in March.

The latest growth estimate is the highest reported by the nowcast models since April, 2011 – before the euro crisis and the China slow-down hit global activity very hard. This relatively upbeat take on the current state is supported by alternative data sources. For example, the Goldman Sachs Global Leading Indicator has just reached its highest point since December, 2010.

The uptick in global activity growth has, of course, been accompanied by a rise in headline inflation rates in almost all major economies. Recently, I argued that this jump in inflation was still “weak and patchy”, and almost entirely due to the partial recovery in oil prices, which has been taken further this week by the market reaction to the OPEC decision to reduce oil production.

However, the bond markets have taken the reflation trade increasingly seriously, in part because of the assumed shift towards fiscal easing after the election of Donald Trump in the US. Although the case for a rise in core inflation in 2017 (as opposed to headline inflation) is far from convincing, the recent rebound in global activity may well give the “reflation trade” a further leg upwards.

Morgan Stanley says that investors have stopped asking “is reflation happening?” and instead they are now asking “will it prove sustainable?” It is easy to be sceptical about this. We could be observing nothing more than another short term spike in activity. But, for the moment, the newsflow is clearly improving in a manner that has not hitherto been seen during the faltering “recovery” from the Great Financial Crash. (Full details of the monthly nowcasts can be found here.) Read more

The global markets remained in reflationary mode for much of last week, a regime that has now persisted for many months. Led by the US, bond yields have been rising, mainly because inflation expectations are on the increase. Risk assets have been performing adequately, with the exception of the emerging markets.

This reflationary regime has been driven by much stronger global economic activity since mid-2016, and latterly by a belief that Donald Trump’s election victory will lead to US fiscal easing, along with the possibility of the “politicisation” of the Federal Reserve, implying overly accommodative monetary policy.

There are various ways in which this regime could end. The world economy could suddenly go back to sleep, as it has on many occasions since 2009. The US fiscal easing could become bogged down in the Washington “swamp”. Or the Fed could become unexpectedly hawkish, stamping on the first signs of inflationary growth in the American economy. This last risk is probably under-estimated, and is worth considering in detail. Read more

The response of the financial markets to the US election result has been almost as contradictory as the rabble rousing campaign of the President-elect himself. Unmitigated gloom in the hours after the Trump victory was swiftly followed by a euphoric atmosphere in US markets.

Investors are apparently assuming that the new administration will usher in a mix of fiscal reflation, prudent monetary policy, deregulation and tax cuts that will prove very good for the American economy. Trade controls are seen as damaging the emerging economies, but not the US. A steeper yield curve is seen as reflecting a “better” mix between fiscal and monetary policy.

With one very graceful acceptance speech, Donald Trump has suddenly morphed into Ronald Reagan in the markets’ consciousness. Read more

The great global disinflation in the advanced economies started in 1982, flattened in the 1990s and 2000s, and then nosedived towards deflation as commodity prices collapsed in 2014-15. For much of that final period, deflation fears dominated global bond markets and, to a lesser extent, equities and other risk assets. But there have been signs during 2016 that markets have edged away from a regime of “deflation dominance”, and we have seen partial signs of reflation.

It would be a bold call to claim that the great disinflation of the last three decades is now beginning to reverse. I am certainly not making that call. However, headline inflation is now rising towards the rates recorded before the oil price crash. There are signs that the risk of outright deflation is falling and, in some parts of the developed world, core inflation has edged higher. Read more

As investors anxiously await the key monetary policy decisions from the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan next week, there have been signs that the powerful rally in bond markets, unleashed last year by the threat of global deflation, may be starting to reverse. There has been talk of a major bond tantrum, similar to the one that followed Ben Bernanke’s tapering of bond purchases in 2013.

This time, however, the Fed seems unlikely to be at the centre of the tantrum. Even if the FOMC surprises the market by raising US interest rates by 25 basis points next week, this will probably be tempered by another reduction in its expected path for rates in the medium term.

Instead, the Bank of Japan has become the centre of global market attention. The results of its comprehensive review of monetary policy, to be announced next week, are shrouded in uncertainty. So far this year, both the content and the communication of the monetary announcements by BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda have been less than impressive, and the market’s response has been repeatedly in the opposite direction to that intended by the central bank.

As a result, the inflation credibility of the BoJ has sunk to a new low, and the policy board badly needs to restore confidence in the 2 per cent inflation target. But the board is reported to be split, and the direction of policy is unclear. With the JGB market now having a major impact on yields in the US, that could be the recipe for an accident in the global bond market. Read more

Ever since the crash of 2008, the global financial markets have been subject to prolonged periods in which their behaviour has been dominated by a single, over-arching economic regime, often determined by the stance monetary policy. When these regimes have changed, the behaviour of the main asset classes (equities, bonds, commodities and currencies) has been drastically affected, and individual asset prices within each class have also had to fit into the overall macro pattern. For asset managers of all types, it is therefore important to understand the nature of the regime that applies at any given time.

This is not easy to do, even in retrospect. There will always be inconsistencies in asset performance which cause confusion and require interpretation. Nevertheless, it is an exercise which is worth undertaking, because it can bring a semblance of order to the apparent chaos of asset markets.

Two main regimes have been in place in the asset markets of developed economies since 2012. (The emerging markets also fit the pattern, with some slight differences.)

These regimes are, first, the period in which quantitative easing was the dominant factor, from 2012 to mid 2015; and, second, the period in which deflation risk has been the dominant factor, from mid 2015 to now.

It is possible that the markets are now exiting the period of deflation dominance, and they may even be entering a new regime of reflation dominance, though this is still far from certain. Secular stagnation is a powerful force that will be hard to shake off. But if that did happen, the pattern of asset price performance would change substantially compared to the recent past. Read more

A few months ago, this blog commented that a rise in inflation in the advanced economies early in 2016 was “almost certain”. Thank goodness for the word “almost”. Since then, oil prices have plumbed new depths, and the markets have remained obsessed with fears about deflation.

The case for higher inflation in 2016 rested on the fact that the impact of energy on headline consumer price inflation would change direction when oil prices stabilised. This “inevitable” arithmetic effect has been delayed by the slump in oil prices in January, but it should manifest itself in the near future.

The key question, though, is whether this automatic rise in headline inflation presages a more important turning point for underlying inflation in the advanced economies – a turning point that has been wrongly predicted for several years now.

The answer is that there are some tentative signs of a slow rise in underlying inflation in the US, where price increases have been higher than expected in recent months. In contrast, inflation rates in the Eurozone and Japan have surprised on the low side. There, fears of “secular stagnation”, leading to deflation, still seem all too real. Read more

As Paul Krugman pointed out a year ago, a sharp difference of views about US monetary policy has developed between two camps of Keynesians who normally agree about almost everything.

What makes this interesting is that, in this division of opinion, the fault line often seems to be determined by the professional location of the economists concerned. Those outside the Federal Reserve (eg Lawrence Summers, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong) tend to adopt a strongly dovish view, while those inside the central bank (eg Janet Yellen, Stanley Fischer, William Dudley, John Williams) have lately taken a more hawkish line about the need to “normalise” the level of interest rates [1].

My colleague David Blake suggested that this blog should carry a Galilean “Dialogue” between representatives of the two camps. Galileo is unavailable this week, but here goes. Read more

Ever since the crash in 2008, the central banks in the advanced economies have had but one obsession — how to set monetary policy to ensure the maximum growth rate in aggregate demand. Interest rates at the zero lower bound, followed by a massive increase in their balance sheets, was the answer they conjured up.

Now, those central banks contemplating an exit from these policies, primarily the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, are turning their attention to the supply side of their economies. When, they are asking, will output reach the ceiling imposed by the supply potential of the economy?

The Bank of England has been in the lead here, with the Monetary Policy Committee recently conducting a special study of the supply side in the UK. Its conclusion was that gross domestic product is now only 0.5 per cent below potential, which implies that tighter monetary policy will soon be needed if GDP growth remains above potential for much longer.

In the US, the Fed has been much less specific than that, but the unemployment rate has now fallen very close to its estimate of the natural rate (5.0-5.2 per cent). Sven Jari Stehn of Goldman Sachs has used the Fed staffers’ supply side models to calculate that their implied estimate of the US output gap may be only 0.6 per cent, not far from the UK figure.

If the UK and US central banks were to act on these calculations, the implication would be that they no longer hold out much hope that they can ever regain the loss in potential output that has occurred in the past decade, relative to previous trends. That would be a massive admission, with an enormous implied sacrifice in future output levels if they are wrong. It would also be very worrying for financial assets, since it would draw the market’s attention to a downgrade in the Fed’s estimation of the long-run path for GDP. Read more

The leading central banks in the developed economies have, of course, been the main actors underpinning the global bull market in risk assets since 2009. For long periods their stance has been unequivocally dovish as they have deliberately tried to strengthen an anaemic global economic recovery by boosting asset prices.

In the past week, we have had major statements of intent from Janet Yellen, the new US Federal Reserve chairwoman; from the European Central Bank; and from the Bank of England. After multiple hours of fuzzy guidance about forward guidance, the clarity of previous years about the global policy stance has become much more murky. Central banks are no longer as obviously friendly to risk assets as they once were – but they have not become outright enemies, and they are unlikely to do so while they are concerned that price and wage inflation will remain too low for a protracted period.

It is now quite difficult to generalise about what central bankers think. However, a few of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slotted into place in the past week. Read more