The front end of the interest rate markets have priced in between 0.75% and 1.00% of tightening over the past several months. The one year US Treasury Bill has risen to 1.0% from 20bps in early December. The Two year US Treasury Note similarly has increased to 1.48% from around 50bps in December. The Two year note briefly traded above 1.60% at the end of last week as St. Louis Fed President Bullard began pounding the table for more immediate policy changes than the market had been expecting based on Powell’s measured and deliberate pace. Yields have fallen a touch since then – being walked lower by Ukraine – Russia geopolitical risks and the release of the FOMC January meeting’s minutes, which showed an inclination to move faster but no hint of an imminent 50 bps increase.
The biggest surprise this week wasn’t the shocking 7.5% rise in the Consumer Price Index over the last 12 months; although that was certainly an unpleasant surprise. Instead, the surprise is how quiet the markets are finishing the week. On the back of the outsized CPI, traders began to “whisper” that the Fed would preemptively raise rates Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. Validating that speculation, St. Louis Fed President Bullard was quoted as saying that he supported a 50 basis point rate hike in March and would like to see the Fed Funds rate 100 basis points higher by June. One would expect that prior to making such a bold forecast he would have had a conversation with the Chairman so as to not send a misleading message to the markets. With that in mind the markets took his message seriously, with the two-year note 20 basis points higher and the S&P 500 nearly 90 points lower on the day. We arrived at our desks prepared for a day of carnage on Friday morning, only to find a the Fed said that the Central Bank doesn’t favor a half point hike or an emergency move. Apparently, Bullard didn’t have the blessing of the Chairman to make such a statement?
Without a doubt, the Federal Reserve should have raised the overnight interest rate interest rate today, February 10th. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the January inflation report and, again, it shocked to the upside. Consensus expectation was that prices would have risen 7.3% year-over-year. Instead, prices rose 7.5% over last year’s basket. The Fed has 2% as their stated target for inflation and when inflation began to exceed that target last year they revised the mandate somewhat to say 2%, on average, given the vagaries of the economic cycle.
Parsing the individual components of the inflation report, the only category that did not exceed 2% was education, rising 1.7% for the year. At the opposite side of the spectrum, energy was up 27%, and the gasoline subcomponent was up 40% compared to last year. For the same period, new car prices rose 12.2% and used car prices rose a whopping 40.5%.
The January employment report did little to quell the frazzled nerves of investors. Following the ADP employment number, which showed a contraction of -301,000 on Wednesday, the street was prepared for a negative non-farm payroll print this morning. Especially given that Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki delivered warnings that the report may be a bad one due to the spike in virus cases. In fact, the BLS said the economy added 467,000 new jobs for the month, a number greater than any of the 23 economic forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg. Anyone who watches economic data long enough knows that the devil is always in the detail, and this report was no different. Apparently, looking through to the seasonal adjustment employed to “smooth” the series, the actual number would have been much closer to trend. Moreover, the BLS did their 10-year lookback adjustment in January, which further muddied the final number.
As economist debate the message Chairman Powell delivered to investors on Wednesday, the fact remains that the Fed continues to pursue emergency monetary policy. For evidence, one need look no further than the bi-weekly System Open Market Account Holdings report that was released this past Wednesday. The report, essentially the Fed’s balance sheet, has swelled to $8.3 trillion, up from $7.74 Trillion on September 1st.