Does The Fed Have a Currency Problem?, by Tim Duy: The PCE inflation data was released today, and I have been seeing commentary on the relative strength of the core-inflation numbers. This, for example, from the Wall Street Journal:
A key gauge of U.S. consumer prices sank in January due partly to cheaper oil, undershooting the Federal Reserve’s goal of 2% annual inflation for the 33rd consecutive month. But a gauge of underlying price pressures remained resilient headed into 2015.
Core-PCE is hovering around 1.3%, and the stability relative to last month is supposedly supportive of Federal Reserve plans to hike interest rates later this year.
I would caution against that interpretation just yet. While it is true that the year-over-year change is how the Fed measures its progress toward price stability, you should also be watching the near term changes to see the likely direction of the year-over-year message. And in recent months, near-term core inflation has been falling at a rapid pace:
On a 3-month basis, core inflation is at its lowest since the plunge in 2008. Year-over-year inflation has been held up by a basis effect from a jump in early 2014, but unless we get another jump in the monthly data, you can guess where the year-over-year number will be heading in the next few months:
Which means that unless the numbers turn soon, there is a fairly good chance the Fed's preferred inflation guide (I say guide because headline inflation is truly the target) drifts lower as the year progresses. Hence I am less eager to embrace that today's release is supportive of the Fed's plans.
Why is core-inflation drifting lower? Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen offered this in her testimony last week:
But core PCE inflation has also slowed since last summer, in part reflecting declines in the prices of many imported items and perhaps also some pass-through of lower energy costs into core consumer prices.
While oil prices have stabilized, the dollar continues to gain ground, hitting an 11-year high today:
If the dollar continues its upward gains - as might be expected given divergent monetary policy across the globe - further downward pressure on core-inflation is likely. This clearly throws a wrench into the Fed's plans. It would be hard to justify confidence in the inflation outlook if core-inflation trends lower in the months ahead.
The Fed could be headed for a very uncomfortable place. The dollar is rising, tightening financial conditions and placing downward pressure on inflation. At the same time, interest rates remain low while equities push higher, loosening financial conditions, arguably an equilibrating response to the rising dollar. On net, then, the US economy keeps grinding upward, the labor market keeps improving, and the unemployment rate sinks lower. Yellen & Co. would want to resist tightening in the face of low inflation, but they would be increasingly tempted to react to low unemployment. Moreover, concerns of financial instability would mount if longer-term rates remained low and equities pushed higher. All in all, sounds like an increasingly hawkish FOMC coupled with a sluggish global economy and dovish central bankers elsewhere is raising the odds of a US policy error.
Bottom Line: The rising dollar may be causing the Fed more headaches than they like to admit. To the extent that it is pushing inflation lower, the dollar should be delaying the time to the first rate hike as well as lowering the subsequent path of rates. The Fed may have to respond to the so-called "currency wars" whether they like it or not. That said, I can't rule out that they ignore the inflation numbers given the tightening labor market and what they perceive to be loose financial conditions. The Fed could fail to see the precarious nature of the current environment and move forward with plans to normalize policy. Increasingly likely to be a very interesting summer for monetary policy.