Federal Reserve goal to push inflation down closer to 2%
Even though actions speak louder than words, traders this week remained hesitant to make any huge bets ahead of Fed Chairman Powell’s speech today in Jackson Hole. Amid early signs of a housing slowdown and fears of a recession, his speech was be parsed through for any clues on how hawkish the Federal Reserve will be in the face of mounting economic challenges.
Powell reiterated the central bank’s resolve to push inflation down closer to its 2% goal despite the likely cost of pushing the unemployment rate up from its current half-century low of 3.5%, saying “Restoring price stability will likely require maintaining a restrictive policy stance for some time,” in remarks at the Kansas City Fed’s annual policy forum.
To provide some context, at this same Wyoming gathering two years ago (when inflation had been stubbornly lagging the Fed’s 2% goal for years), Powell introduced the central bank’s new inflation averaging policy that would tolerate inflation running above its 2% goal for some time in order to push the unemployment rate lower. By the Fed’s preferred measure, inflation is currently about triple that; PCE this morning came in at an annual rate of 6.3%.
“Clear progress” toward maximum employment
At this event last year, Powell said the bank’s test for inflation was met and the economy had made “clear progress” toward maximum employment. This was before the Fed dropped the “transitory” moniker regarding inflation.
Since then, the Fed has gotten more aggressive by starting to shrink its balance sheet and raising its policy rate four times. The federal funds rate target range sits at 2.25-2.50%, the same level it was in May 2019 at the height of the last tightening cycle.
The question remains how much the Fed will decide to put the brakes on the economy and cause demand to subside?
From the Jackson Hole event this year, bond market participants, investors, portfolio managers, and economists will all look for clues as to whether Powell thinks the FOMC will pause rate hikes any time soon.
While that doesn’t appear to be in the cards, the Fed Chairman said that Fed officials will base their decisions on incoming data. He also repeated that many of the factors that drive inflation are outside of the Fed’s control. The bottom line is that rate hikes will continue as the Fed prioritizes driving down inflation rather than economic growth.
Uncertainty surrounding the pace and size of rate hike
Yes, the question remains how much the Fed will decide to put the brakes on the economy and cause demand to subside. Current bets for the September FOMC meeting are split roughly between a third 75 BPS rate hike in a row and 50 BPS, though sentiment has shifted toward 50 BPS over the past two weeks and the latest market predictions are estimating 125-150 BPS in tightening by the end of the year.
Kansas City Fed President George said this week that the fed funds rate is not at a restrictive level at this time and that the Fed could hold the rate above 4.00 percent. St. Louis Fed President Bullard, one of the FOMC’s most hawkish members, said that rates are not high enough now and that he is targeting a fed funds rate range between 3.75 percent and 4.00 percent for the end of the year.
For our clients, the uncertainty surrounding the pace and size of rate hikes increases the importance of trading as much as possible throughout the day to match incoming loans. While we’re all (Fed members included) still struggling to understand a crazy economy hit by pandemic and war that is showing conflicting signs of strength and weakness, that is no excuse for lacking sound margin management practices. There were times in the past where it was okay to wait until the end of day to put on trade and cover hedge, but with current volatility of more than a half point a day in some cases, it’s best to lock in your margin frequently.
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