In this month’s update, we provide a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.
– Market volatility has been high driven by inflation and interest rate concerns, Stagflation seen as a risk
– US Fed and Australia’s RBA lift cash rates but bond rates ease from highs achieved early in May
– China is stimulating its economy as Covid case numbers decline
We hope you find this month’s Economic Update as informative as always. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss any aspect of this report, please contact our team.
We’ve had a turbulent couple of months on equity markets – to say the least! The new source of angst was from the Federal Reserve (“Fed”). Not only did they institute a big (0.50%) rate hike but they talked really aggressively about what might come next.
This policy aggression – or “hawkishness” – spooked bond markets. Yields on longer dated bonds e.g. 10 year Government bonds, jumped up sending the prices of high growth stocks – such as those of large mega-tech companies – tumbling in some cases. That took down the tech-based Nasdaq index to a level just shy of -30% from its December 2021 high, though there was a lesser impact on the S&P 500 because of its inclusion of all of the other industry sectors. The Dow (Jones Industrials index) was much less affected. For similar reasons our market falls were cushioned by our relative lack of a tech sector.
It is really important for investors to understand what is motivating the Fed and many market analysts. Some people have been talking about recession for some time but now the word “stagflation” has become more front of mind.
The term “stagflation” was coined in the mid-1960s in Britain by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It didn’t get mentioned again until 1970 and then became the word ‘du jour’ after the absolutely massive 1973 and 1979 OPEC oil price hikes. If you think recent oil price rises are big, check out what happened in 1973. Such a shock to the price system is called a “supply shock” because it is separate from the demand pressures that so often cause inflation.
Stagflation occurs when there is persistently high inflation coupled with sluggish (or worse) economic growth. The simplest explanation for those times and today is the following. A supply shock such as that caused to oil prices by OPEC in the 1970s or Russia in 2022, sparks high inflation. The central banks go out to quell inflation by hitting the monetary policy brakes – that is raising interest rates and possibly other measures.
If the cause of inflation cannot be cured by raising interest rates (as is the case for supply shocks), economic growth falls producing stagflation as inflation is largely impervious to the actions of central bank policy actions.
Conversely, when demand pressures are causing inflation, higher rates can cure an inflation problem. However, because of the long lags between raising rates and the real economy reacting, central banks can (and often do) cause recessions. It needs to be remembered that central bank monetary policy and Government fiscal policy (expressed through the budget) are blunt instruments hence policy mistakes are not unusual.
In the 1970s, when monetary policy supposedly came of age under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, the lag between raising rates and economic response was thought to be 12 – 18 months. Since then, financial markets have become far more complex.
Many of us now rarely use cash for anything! Most of us didn’t have a credit card in 1970. There are now also complex derivatives in financial markets that allow the size of financial transactions to be scaled up enormously. We doubt if anyone currently has a good handle how long the monetary policy lag is, but we think it would at least be a few months and possibly a lot longer.
Few serious analysts would doubt that we have been experiencing supply shocks for a couple of years: oil price rises from OPEC activity; both energy and grain prices from the Russian invasion of the Ukraine; and the supply-chain problems largely coming out of China because of covid-related lockdowns. There is equally good reason to assume that these supply shocks will not respond to rate rises in the US or Australia.
Because of the past lockdowns in the US, Australia and Europe – and the change in work habits that followed – labour has been harder to find in some sectors as we strive to get back to normal. In a sense, a reduced post-covid-workforce could be thought of as a supply shock. But the wage increases we are seeing are in part demand related.
Workers are being bid away from home or other jobs and workers also want to be compensated for the higher prices they are undoubtedly facing. Higher rates make it more costly for business to raise capital and can put downward pressure on that part of the inflation problem.
For much of the first part of the supply shock inflation problem, the Fed chair, Jerome Powell, sensibly told everyone not to worry about it. But, as the problem got bigger, and seemingly some Fed members were playing political games by saying the Fed was behind the curve, Powell started to lose his nerve.
The Fed hiked a “double notch” of 0.50% points at the start of May but Fed Chair Powell said he was not considering bigger hikes going forward. Markets became volatile as different interpretations of the current regime took centre stage. There was a very big US CPI headline inflation read of 8.3% but the Fed prefers the so-called “core” inflation numbers that strip out volatile energy and food prices. The core read was a more acceptable 6.2% but still very much above the 2% Fed target.
The problem with the US inflation data is that they focus most attention on the annual read comparing say this April’s prices with those in April 2021. In normal times there is no real problem in doing this. Indeed, there can be advantages in smoothing out statistical noise.
But when a big blip of a few months’ duration comes along, it takes months and months to notice inflation has really gone up. Equally, it takes months and months for the annual inflation rate to fall back to normal as the blip passes through the 12-month data window.
The US does also publish monthly data. The latest read for April was 0.3% for the headline rate and 0.9% for the core variant. There are two really important observations to make here.
Firstly, the 0.3% headline rate was the equal lowest in 12 months. Now, it could just be a statistical blip. We won’t know for at least a month or two, maybe more. Second, and more importantly, the core value was above the headline number. This means the volatile energy and food prices actually deflated in April! Could this be indicating the situation already be self-correcting?
Along came another variant of inflation later in May – the so-called PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditure) measure. The Fed has long-held it prefers this variant. The headline PCE monthly rate came in at 0.2% from 0.9% in the previous month. The core version was 0.3% for the second month in a row. This result could be more evidence that the supply shock impact is subsiding.
Now, energy, food and other prices are still high, but inflation measures a relative change from one month to the next. For inflation to remain high, energy prices and the rest would have to keep rising.
We are not yet prepared to make the call that inflation will naturally fall over the course of this year but we, and presumably the Fed, will be monitoring its progress very closely.
The current Fed funds (cash) rate is a range: 0.75% to 1.00%. The commonly held belief is that the neutral rate is somewhere around 2.5% in the US and 2% to 3% in Australia. When rates are below the neutral rate, policy is said to be accommodative (supportive of economic growth). When the cash rate is above neutral, the policy is considered contractionary (restrictive for economic growth).
The Fed has forecast they will make at least another two 0.5% hikes to the Fed funds interest rate before they start slowing the economy down. This is likely to occur at their next meeting in mid June and again in early August. By then it will be reasonably clear whether or not the inflation problem has started to self-correct and the modest hikes toward the ‘neutral’ interest rate may take some sting out of any demand-pull inflation.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is well behind the US in raising it official cash rate. The RBA just lifted its rate from 0.1% to 0.35% in May. In its meeting minutes, it did say that it considered a bigger hike to 0.5% which would have brought its rate back to a scale calibrated in 0.25% increments which is has been historically.
Both the US and Australia have strong but not “hot” labour markets. We are cautiously optimistic that neither central bank will cause stagflation. They have stated that they are aware much of inflation is due to supply-side problems.