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Weekly investment update – The inflation hinge

Estimates of the level of the US fed funds rate – the Federal Reserve’s main policy rate – in one year had risen from 1% at the beginning of 2022 to a peak of 3.4% in early May, but it has been stable at between 2.8% and 3.4% over the last two months (see Exhibit 1).

This partly reflects communications from Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) policymakers about the pace at which they intend to raise rates. It also indicates that investors believe an additional 200bp in policy rate increases will sufficiently slow the US economy to move inflation back towards the Fed’s 2% target.

Each of these assumed levels (the fed funds rate, growth and inflation) need to be internally consistent for them to ultimately be realised. We may yet see them challenged by markets.

If one assumes the potential US GDP growth rate is 1.75%, then the economy arguably needs to grow at a slower pace than this for a while for the non-transitory parts of inflation to decline (or equivalently, the unemployment rate, currently at 3.6%, needs to rise to above the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) of around 4% for a time).

Above-potential growth, so above-target inflation?

Currently, however, consensus economic estimates project the economy growing at an above-potential 2.4% annualised rate for the rest of this year and at 1.9% in 2023. One should remember though that these are the median estimates, so by definition half of the estimates foresee slower (and in a few instances, even negative) rates of growth.

The robustness of these growth forecasts will hinge upon how inflation behaves in the months ahead as that will drive market expectations for the level of fed funds.

For inflation, the Fed focuses on the core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) index, currently running at 4.9%. Its medium-term target is 2%. Many of the factors that have driven headline inflation to the current high levels (rising oil and food prices) should ultimately prove transitory, but the core components are less predictable.

One important core component where we do have more visibility is rent and owners’ equivalent rent (OER). These have a combined 18% weight in the PCE index.

What is propping up inflation?

A study by the Dallas Fed has shown that increases in house prices lead increases in rent and OER inflation by somewhat less than two years. Given that house price growth remains strong (see Exhibit 2), this would suggest that at least these components of core PCE may continue to drive sustained above-target inflation in the months ahead.

The bulk of the remaining parts of the index will need to decline more sharply for the overall measure to move towards the Fed’s target.

Any significant deviation from the desired path could lead markets to price in additional rate rises by the Fed. Alternatively, higher inflation may prompt a slowdown in growth by itself as ‘demand destruction’ ensues, although the resulting stagflation is hardly a more attractive prospect.

Disclaimer

Please note that articles may contain technical language. For this reason, they may not be suitable for readers without professional investment experience. Any views expressed here are those of the author as of the date of publication, are based on available information, and are subject to change without notice. Individual portfolio management teams may hold different views and may take different investment decisions for different clients. This document does not constitute investment advice. The value of investments and the income they generate may go down as well as up and it is possible that investors will not recover their initial outlay. Past performance is no guarantee for future returns. Investing in emerging markets, or specialised or restricted sectors is likely to be subject to a higher-than-average volatility due to a high degree of concentration, greater uncertainty because less information is available, there is less liquidity or due to greater sensitivity to changes in market conditions (social, political and economic conditions). Some emerging markets offer less security than the majority of international developed markets. For this reason, services for portfolio transactions, liquidation and conservation on behalf of funds invested in emerging markets may carry greater risk.

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