As we wrote last week, the May inflation report and the University of Michigan consumer sentiment surveys were worrisome indicators. So much so that on Monday the Fed leaked news to the media that they were going to raise rates 75 basis points at the coming meeting, instead of the 50 they’ve signaled since the May meeting. Chairman Powell admitted as much at the post-FOMC press conference. In addition to that hawkish turn, the committee further communicated that they expect the overnight rate to end 2022 at 3.4% and end 2023 at 3.8%. Moreover, to drive home his transformation from Trump lapdog to Volker incarnate, he later said that his commitment to reining in inflation was “unconditional.” Presumably, that means that he doesn’t care how the equity market reacts. We’re not fully convinced of that commitment, but time will tell.
President Biden and the members of the Federal Reserve were hoping against hope that this morning’s CPI report would come in below expectations, but to no avail. In fact, each and every one of the economic releases communicated bad news to our leaders. The headline year-over-year CPI came in at 8.6% versus the consensus estimate of 8.3%, and the ex-food and energy tally came in at 6.0%, a touch above the survey estimate of 5.9%. Later in the morning the University of Michigan consumer survey offered no better news. The overall sentiment tally plunged to 50 versus last month 58, and the inflation component for the coming year ticked up to 5.4%. That’s a clear message to Messrs. Biden and Powell of no confidence. The reaction out of the markets was as expected with Stock indices getting crushed. Several intrepid market analysts said earlier this week that the stock market could be close to a bottom, but they’re eating their words today as the S&P 500 is only 100 points away from its recent low.
Investor consensus reversed sharply this week, from the opinion that the Fed would hike twice then pause, to the Fed needs to hike at every meeting until reaching 3.0%. Evidence of the change can be found in the 17 basis point rise in the yield of the two-year note, which is now about 10 basis points below the high of the year.
While the economic data was generally mixed for the week, with the exception of the print on the May employment report, we attribute the consensus change to the meeting between Chairman Powell and President Biden, and comments from the JP Morgan CEO.
Bond prices continued to rebound this week with the front end out performing. The yield to maturity on the 2 year US Treasury Note declined another 10bps to 2.49% while the yield on the 30 year Bond remained the same at 2.99%. The steepening of the yield curve is the result of participant’s expectation of slower growth and lower inflation going forward. The chart below shows that participants removed future expected rate hikes over the course of the next year – effectively recalibrating the terminal fed funds rate lower. The mid-month equity swoon and the string of earnings misses added to the bullish sentiment in the front end.
Through April, the capital markets took the Fed’s hawkish tone as a welcome antidote to stubbornly high inflation. But as we move further into the year, that mindset has reversed. Driving the change is the barrage of weak earnings reports we’ve seen over the past two weeks, and specifically retail earnings. Amazon, Walmart and Target were the worst of the category, all having their stock price fall by more than 20%. The overriding culprit has been rising costs of goods sold cutting into their bottom line. That was more than enough to undercut the fledgling return of investors confidence we saw as we closed out last week. For this week the S&P 500 is down more than 4% and trading at its lowest level since March 2021.
Chairman Powel left the first in-person FOMC press conference in two years as a G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time), according to the investment media and suffered the fate of a spring lamb the very next day. For those unfamiliar with the term “spring lamb,” myself included, it’s a lamb slaughtered before it reaches its first birthday. Apologies for the grim analogy. On Wednesday investors were delighted that Powell had driven home the point that a 75 basis point rate hike was not forthcoming and cheered by his general tone of confidence. However, by the next morning the relief had been replaced by anxiety that stagflation is on its way, stock prices are too high and the yield curve too flat. From the Wednesday’s high to the Friday low, the S&P 500 tumbled more than 5.5%. Equally vicious was the selloff in the 30-year. On Thursday, the long bond fell nearly 3 ½ points before retracing about half of that by the close. To put that price action into perspective, the current long bond (2 ¼% 2/2052) is trading at a price less than 82, down from its issue price of 100 in February. The yield-to-maturity calculates to 3.20%, offering a real return of about -5.00%. Moreover, with the latest selloff, the 2-year/30-year yield curve has steepened 51 basis points since April 1st. Typically, the yield curve steepens when market participants believe the Fed is losing the inflation battle.
Last week we flagged the advance report of Q1 GDP as the economic report to watch this week, and we were spot on. Investors were shocked to learn that economic activity contracted 1.5% in the first quarter, driven primarily by trade and government spending. On the bright side, the consumer continued to spend, with the personal consumption measure rising 4.7% over Q1 2021. But a big expansion in imports and reduced government handouts were more than enough to offset the gain in consumption.
The invisible hand versus the Fed Chairman wearing the big wooden clogs. That could best describe the comparison of the Volker Fed versus the Powell Fed. Ironically, Chairman Powell, along with uber-dove, ECB Chair Christine Lagarde, spoke at a panel discussion hosted by the Volker Alliance on Thursday. The recently turned hawkish Powell confirmed that the Fed was prepared to raise the overnight Fed Funds rate by 50 basis points…when it meets nearly two weeks from today. Moreover, he strongly suggested that the committee is likely to raise the overnight rate by another 50 basis point when they meet on June 15th.
The minutes of the recently concluded FOMC meeting are rarely of interest since the Fed adopted the post-meeting press conference during Chairman Bernanke’s term. Since then, Fed Chair’s have chosen to communicate the committee’s thinking at the post-meeting press conference. Chairman Powell didn’t follow that pattern at the March 15 meeting as the minutes contained “bombshell” information. Two days ago Fed Governor Brainard rocked the markets with her comments that the Fed was ready to begin to reduce its balance sheet. That was confirmed yesterday when the minutes loosely detailed how balance sheet reduction was to be implemented.
The brutal bear market in bonds continued this week, with the two-year note 108 basis points higher than where it stood on March 1st. Following a solid non-farm payroll report, two’s are 9 basis points higher for the first day of April. As a result, the 2-year/30-year yield curve is now marginally inverted, which is likely to provoke recession fears. Historically an inverted yield curve signals a recession ahead. We think the selling is getting overdone, but are reluctant to extend duration until we see some stability in the market.