The average prices of food and fuel rose more than 16% in February from a year earlier and are expected to rise further by the war in Ukraine. Consumers are paying much more for meat, bread, milk, shelter, gas, and utilities. Only a small amount of food consumed in the U.S. is imported, and most of that is from Mexico and Canada. But Russia provides 15% of the world’s fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals that are now in short supply as planting season approaches. Wheat futures are up 29% since Feb. 25 and corn is up 15%. There is no shortage of wheat in the U.S., but global supply was the tightest in 14 years before the conflict, and dramatic shortages and price spikes are expected. What data is the Fed looking at, and how is it assessing inflationary risks? It’s hard to feel confident that the right hands are on the wheel because the combination of extraordinary factors, such as extremely tight labor markets and wage inflation (at over 6% annually and accelerating) showed inflation was already a significant risk. Yet interest rates were left unaltered. This is even before the crisis in Ukraine. The Fed should do whatever is necessary with interest rates to bring down inflation, including movements of more than a quarter-point, and a rapid reduction of its balance sheet. It also means recognizing that unemployment is likely to rise over the next couple of years. Paul Volcker would not have had to take extraordinary steps, driving the economy into a recession to crush runaway inflation, if his predecessors had not lost their focus on inflation. To avoid stagflation and the associated loss of public confidence in our economy today, the Fed has to do more than merely adjust its policy dials — it will have to head in a dramatically different direction.
Beyond 2022, higher interest rates and slower global growth most likely trigger a market correction, perhaps at an exorbitant cost. As discounts rates rise and growth assumptions lower, many stocks based assumptions that low interest rates and high growth would sustain for many years will see dramatic repricing and much lower valuations.
Energy and commodities, and the businesses associated with them, are in for a very bumpy ride, but there is a fundamental sustainability to their cash flow and long-term attractiveness as world supply reorders. That which is essential prevails.
The luxury of thinking we have halcyon days of global growth and geopolitical stability may not be with us for some time to come. It is perhaps time to plan for that now.
Collectively, the world is good at screaming about all sorts of immediate and looming crises, whether that is climate change, totalitarian governments abusing civilians and trampling on personal rights or outright genocide. A speech and a prayer suffice but we’re not going to do anything. Donation websites, lighting buildings in flag colors of abused nations, and sending hopes and prayers accomplish nothing. We send prayers. We just won’t answer them. The Ukraine war’s consequences are severalfold. Economically, global consequences may be slower and less spectacular than the dramatic Russian military invasion. But, the effects will permeate the global economy, and Russia will be the biggest long-term loser. While this does not comfort families suffering and dying in the streets of Ukrainian cities, it realigns global industries and economies, strengthens the West, and is likely to galvanize United States’ leadership in the global economy – setting up even more intense rivalry China. A big uncompromising response now is the most likely strategy to settle these dramatic issues – and if it leads to regime change in Russia, that helps everyone, especially the Russians. The US and the EU need to grow up and start acting like global leaders.
Observing is not learning. Acting is. But we’re not going to do that. A call for action is sufficient, as long as someone else does it. That much we’ve learned. What used to take several years now takes a fraction of that – including miraculous innovation and profound global disruption. “Five years in 18 months” caused an initial burst of productivity, clarity, and efficiency, but also a train wreck of supply chain disruption, virtual meetings, empty classrooms, and social isolation.
Financial markets are imbalanced and lack liquidity in crucial sectors, even historically stable and predictable markets such as the global bond and currency markets. Investments are slanted in one direction more frequently and the markets are vulnerable to big price swings as a result. These large global markets are not immune to ever more lopsided trades creating extreme volatility. This occurs even when a small change occurs in positions, sentiment, or news. Even the world’s most liquid markets, US dollar currency trades and US Treasuries, are seeing skewed positioning resulting in surprisingly large shifts in prices and Treasury bond yields. The market now leans too far one way or the other, and that imbalance will be forced to reverse more powerfully and unpredictably.
A National Investment Authority, an idea gaining traction among the administration, would be responsible for “devising, financing, and executing a long-term national strategy of economic development and reconstruction.”
This is not the job of a government; this is the role of the free market. The market does this quite well, and government does this quite poorly. An NIA is another way to bring misery and inefficiency.
Policy reflective of central planning, socialism, or industrial policy brings misery to all. This discredited philosophy that tortured so many in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia seems to be getting more traction today bewilderingly. It leads to nothing more than bureaucratic idiocy, waste, and disregard for any consumer needs.
Investors expected that the Fed would not only end its bond buying program, but many believed it would also raise interest rates. While the Fed did agree to taper its bond buying, essentially decreasing its $150 billion monthly bond buying program by $15 billion per month, ending the program in 2022. However, the Fed kept interest rates the same and clearly signaled that it would not raise interest rates anytime soon, and almost definitely not until the taper of its bond buying was completed – in other words, not for at least one more year.
Investors who had been betting on the Fed raising interest rates wagered on the yield curve flattening for Treasuries. Therefore, they invested in short-term Treasuries believing those would outperform longer-term Treasuries, as well as 10-year and 30-year bonds. Instead, we are seeing the opposite happen. Short-term bonds are dropping in price and yields are approaching their highest levels since March 2020. Meanwhile, prices for long-term bonds have climbed. This same phenomenon is happening for government bonds that only in the United States, but also in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere.
There are warning signs that the stock market is transitioning from some form of reality to misguided euphoria. The S&P 500 is up almost 10% in the last 30 days. However, this broad optimism doesn’t seem to be matched by many forms of fundamental reality.
Earnings are barely moving, and profit margins are under pressure from higher wages and rising product costs. However transitory one imagines supply chain constraints and lack of available workers, the situation has certainly extended much further than most predicted.
Central bank independence and fiscal responsibility matter, even though the Western world is acting as if these rules no longer apply. Well, perhaps. But the world has given us three examples where the consequences are extreme when these basic foundations of economic policy are ignored or violated. Ultimately, if markets lose confidence in a central bank’s independence and thoughtfulness (yes, thinking really matters), or a sovereign government’s fiscal responsibility (where thoughtfulness is never taken for granted), inflation expectations will undermine an economy and make recovery almost hopeless.
Separating signal versus noise is challenging these days because today’s signal is more muddled than ever. One of the more unusual circumstances, which I covered in more detail in the article “Important and Unknowable” is that the immediate past is telling us extraordinarily little about the near future. That is unusual because we can typically estimate the near-term by connecting the dots with reasonable depth and data from the recent past.
One of the reasons why people have inflation fears, currency tremors, market jitters, and emotional vacillation between joy and terror is that all these outcomes seem equally likely that any sense to realistically gauge the directions of these key metrics. We can usually rely upon near-term data to predict the near-term future, and that usually gives us a reasonable sense of comfort about the markets, and how to plan, prepare, predict, and withstand anticipated market moves. But that does not seem to be the case now.
Economic predictions have always been highly variable and uncertain, and, for some reason, relied upon as if the future were a magical algorithm. Essentially, economists would make one fundamental mistake. They thought they were practicing a science. Data could be collected, inputted, and a predictive algorithm could be generated. Even Nobel Prize winners like Paul Samuelson believed that with enough data we could come to understand the economy and how it functioned.
This is nonsense. As Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown us, human behavior and irrationality, combined with unpredictability and randomness (thank you Naseem Taleb) make this even a questionable social science. Using existing analysis and algorithms to reliably forecast is a fool’s errand, essential for someone’s tenure, and maybe even a Nobel Prize, but doesn’t add much that is useful. Some of the more laughable Nobel Prizes have been given to people who determined that markets were efficient. They are not. Economies can be predicted with useful data input. They cannot. A couple of inputs about inflation and the unemployment rate, and we know how to manage an economy. We can’t. That last one is the Philip’s Curve – true for a limited time and then it goes spectacularly wrong – a lot like most risk and market prediction models.
One thing we can add is that most predictions seem too good to be true, and almost always are. The economy is not a perpetual motion machine, nor is it a credit card with no limit and no requirement to pay the balance. The current notion that “deficits don’t matter” seems patently silly and naïve to think that we can simply print money without any economic discipline to generate sustainable profitable businesses with the efficient use of capital.
“Money goes where it’s needed, but it stays where it is treated well.”
Walter Wriston (former CEO of Citicorp)
That means it has to generate a return and not be co-opted by governments and public policy, nor be flooded by capital with no economic discipline.
Deficits may be a reasonable way to jumpstart a sluggish economy, but they are not sustainable. Current thinking is that fiscal discipline, debt repayment, and the idea of a balanced budget are anachronistic and useless. It is dangerous to stress test this idea because the downside is potentially cataclysmic. Capital likes a free market, but we hardly have a free market with money today. Constant stimulus does not create economic discipline.