the Fed’s inflation target: 2% or 3%?

There seems to me to be increasing questioning recently among professional economists about whether the Fed’s official inflation target of 2% is a good thing or whether the target should be changed to, say, 3%.

The 2% number has been a canon of academic thought in macroeconomics for a long time.  But the practical issue has become whether 2% inflation and zero are meaningfully different.  Critics of 2% point out that governments around the world haven’t been able to stabilize inflation at that level.  Rather, inflation seems to want to dive either to zero or into the minus column once it gets down that low, with all the macro problems that entails.  It’s also proving exceptionally hard to get the needle moving in the upward direction from t sub-2% starting point.  My sense is that the 3% view is gaining significant momentum because of current central bank struggles.

This is not the totally wonkish topic it sounds like at first.  A 2% inflation target or 3% actually makes a lot of difference for us as stock market investors:

–If the target is 3%, Fed interest rate hikes will happen more slowly than Wall Street is now expecting.

–At the same time, the end point for normalization of rates–having cash instruments provide at least protection from inflation–is 100 basis points higher, which would be another minus for bonds (other than inflation-adjusted ones) during the normalization process.

–Over long periods of time, stocks have tended to deliver annual returns of inflation + 6%.  If inflation is 2%, nominal returns are 8% yearly; at 3% inflation, returns are 9%.  In the first case, your money doubles in 9 years, in the second, 8 years.  This doesn’t sound like much, either, although over three decades the higher rate of compounding produces a third more nominal dollars.

Yes, the real returns are the same.

But the point is that the pain of holding fixed income instruments that have negative real yields is greater with even modestly higher inflation than with lower.  So in a 3% inflation world, investors will likely be more prone to favor equities over bonds than in a 2% one.

–Inflation is a rise in prices in general.  In a 3% world, there’s more room for differentiation between winners and losers.  That’s good for you and me as stock pickers.


three steps and a stumble?

That’s the conventional wisdom (read: old wives tale) about Fed rate hikes and the stock market.  The idea is that the market absorbs the first two hikes in any rate rise series as if nothing were going on   …but reacts negatively on the third.

The third in this series of rate hikes will almost certainly come tomorrow.

The problem with this particular old saw is that there’s very little evidence from the past to support it.  Yes, there may be an immediate knee-jerk reaction downward.  But in almost all cases the S&P 500 is higher a year after a third hike than it was on the day of the rate rise.  Sometimes, the S&P has been a lot higher, once in a while a percent or two lower, but there’s no third-hike disaster on record.

Generally speaking, the reason is that rate rises occur as a policy offset to the threat of the runaway inflation that can happen during a too-rapid acceleration in economic growth.  As financial instruments, stocks face downward pressure as higher rates make cash a more attractive investment option.  On the other hand, strong earnings growth exerts contervailing upward pressure on stock prices.  In most cases, the two effects more or less offset one another.  (Bonds are a different story.  With the possible exception of junk bonds, all the pressure is downward.)

Of course, nothing having to do with economics is that simple.  There are always other forces at work.  Usually they don’t matter, however.

In this case, for example:

–I think of a neutral position for the Fed Funds rate as one where holding cash gives protection against inflation and little, if anything, more.  If so, the neutral Fed Funds rate in today’s world should be between 2.5% and 3.0%.  Let’s say 2.75%.  Three-month T-bills yield 0.75% at present.  To get back to neutral, then, we need the Fed Funds rate to be 200 basis points higher than it is now.

I was stunned when an economist explained this to me when I was a starting out portfolio manager.  I simply didn’t believe what she told me, until I went through the past data and verified what she said.  Back then, I was the odd man out.  Given the wholesale layoffs of experienced talent on Wall Street over the past ten years, however, I wonder how many more budding PMs are in the position I was in the mid-1980s.

–the bigger issue, I think, is Washington.  I read the post-election rally as being based on the belief that Mr. Trump has, and will carry out, a mandate to reform corporate taxes and markedly increase infrastructure spending.  The Fed decision to move at faster than a glacial pace in raising interest rates is based to a considerable degree, I think, on the premise that Mr. Trump will get a substantial amount of that done.  If that assumption is incorrect, then future earnings growth will be weaker than the market now imagines and the Fed will revert to its original snail’s pace plan.  That’s probably a negative for stocks …and a positive for bonds.




the Employment Situation–now scanning the horizon for wage increases

the Employment Situation

Last Friday morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its monthly Employment Situation report for September.  The numbers were good– +248,000 new jobs added in the economy, +236,000 of them in the private sector.

Revisions were also favorable.  July figures were boosted from +212,000 to +243,000, and the worrisome +142,000 number posted for August was revised up to +180,000.

With last month’s poor employment gain showing now being interpreted as simply a hiccup in the reporting system rather than an indicator of a slowdown in hiring, the stock market’s attention is beginning to turn toward the wage gain information in the ES, rather than the employment numbers themselves.

wage gains?

what counts aw wages in the ES?

The figure itself appears to me to be pretty solid.  It’s derived from actual gross wage figures reported by the large number of substantial private sector firms who are participants in the BLS Establishment survey.  There is some government estimation, in the sense that the participating firms are thought to be representative of the economy as a whole.  But the data aren’t estimations.  They’re the real, complete salary figures.

The figures are gross, in the sense that they are before any deduction for taxes or benefits.

They’re salary figures only.  They don’t include payroll taxes that employers pay.  They also don;t include health or retirement benefits that employees may receive.

the current rate of wage gains…

…is 2% per year.

In one sense, this suits the Fed just fine.  The absence of sharp upward pressure on wages means the central bank doesn’t have to hurry to raise interest rates to stave off potentially runaway inflation (in the US, inflation is almost completely about wage gains).  The low number implies that employers can easily find all the qualified workers they need to grow their businesses either from new entrants into the labor market or from the currently unemployed.  They don’t need to poach new hires from rivals by offering very large pay increases.

On the other, it’s kind of eerie that the Fed can have had the monetary stimulus taps more wide open than ever before for over five years and not have wages be rising faster than this.

The wage gain numbers will increase in importance to Wall Street in the coming months, I think, as the Fed prepares to start raising the Federal Funds rate from the current level of zero.

My sense of the consensus belief is that:

–rates will being to rise next Spring,

–the “normal” rate is not the 4.0%-4.5% the Fed was talking about in 2012-13, but rather 2.5%-3.0%, and

–the Fed Funds rate could be halfway back to normal by the end of 2015–meaning five or six quarter-percent moves next year.