In his day, Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Alan Greenspan was (in)famous for his irascible obscurity—often speaking without being fully understood.
In this year’s much-anticipated speech at the Fed’s annual central bankers’ gathering in Jackson Hole, Chairman Jerome Powell appears to have employed Greenspan’s speechwriter. Powell said a lot about the economy and inflation, but he obscured a great deal about future Fed policy. Yet beneath the (intended?) fog of his remarks was a worrisome message for devotees of soft-landing scenarios. Fasten seatbelts—the arriving passengers won’t enjoy a view of the majestic Tetons and should brace for a bumpy landing.
The initial market response has been minimal. Equity and bond prices bounced around immediately after the speech, but diverged somewhat by the close as stocks finished higher while bond yields rose. We’re not sure that’s right and here’s why:
Powell’s key points
To begin, Powell’s speech was a somewhat dull resuscitation of recent economic data, with a focus on the details of core personal consumption expenditures inflation (the Fed’s preferred measure). Having noted welcome declines in goods inflation and a probable decline in shelter inflation, Powell emphasized that non-housing core services inflation has been less responsive to either changes in the economy or to Fed tightening.
Powell also remarked that current Fed policy is already “restrictive,” meaning that the real (inflation-adjusted) fed funds rate is above broadly accepted ranges of what constitutes its “neutral” level.
But Powell carefully avoided saying what comes next. He noted that it could be a longer pause or additional rate hikes. But by failing to mention rate cuts, he sent his clearest message of the speech, namely that the Fed is either on hold with an already restrictive stance or might hike rates further. Easing anytime soon, however, is off the table.
Slave to dead economists?
That’s the clearest message from Powell. Parsing his other “Greenspan-esque” remarks, it seems the Fed is sticking to the view that the achievement of its 2% inflation objective requires “slack” in the economy. “Slack” is, of course, a euphemism for job losses.
That idea stems from the Phillips Curve—first developed over 60 years ago—which purports to show an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment (i.e., higher unemployment leads to lower inflation). But many economists are less certain. The Phillips Curve has never depicted a stable relationship between joblessness and inflation, and in recent decades it has been even less reliable. In fact, many measures of US inflation have fallen significantly this year without the unemployment rate rising.
However, it seems as though most Federal Open Market Committee members side with Powell’s Phillips Curve approach. If so, then the Fed is indeed laying down a marker for investors. Specifically, the implication is that policy must remain restrictive (or become more restrictive) until the unemployment rate rises. Also, the Fed’s threshold level of “slack” appears to be at least a 4.0% US unemployment rate (up from 3.6%).
If so, the Fed is signaling that despite (or because of) the fog that surrounds our understanding of inflation dynamics, a bumpy landing is an unavoidable necessity.
What does Powell’s Jackson Hole message mean for investors?
- First and foremost, interest-rate cuts are not coming soon and will only occur once US unemployment rises above 4%. That could be well into 2024.
- Second, the US economy must now slow, which puts at risk the expected sharp recovery of corporate profits currently expected by the consensus of Wall Street analysts for 2024.
- Third, the Treasury yield curve will likely remain inverted and could invert further. That’s because the Fed must be willing to risk recession in an effort to restore price stability, which is likely to occur. It rarely pays to “fight the Fed,” and an inverted yield curve is the logical way to express that view.
- Finally, if the Fed is wrong in the sense that inflation can fall without the need for “slack” in the economy, then it has embarked on a policy error. If so, reversing course later means undoing today’s tightening much faster and more aggressively than would otherwise be the case. Ultimately, investors may be surprised by how rapidly the Fed might eventually be forced to unwind its tightening stance.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal.
Equity securities are subject to price fluctuation and possible loss of principal.
Fixed income securities involve interest rate, credit, inflation and reinvestment risks, and possible loss of principal. As interest rates rise, the value of fixed income securities falls. Low-rated, high-yield bonds are subject to greater price volatility, illiquidity and possibility of default.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFORMATION
This material is intended to be of general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax advice. This material may not be reproduced, distributed or published without prior written permission from Franklin Templeton.
The views expressed are those of the investment manager and the comments, opinions and analyses are rendered as at publication date and may change without notice. The underlying assumptions and these views are subject to change based on market and other conditions and may differ from other portfolio managers or of the firm as a whole. The information provided in this material is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any country, region or market. There is no assurance that any prediction, projection or forecast on the economy, stock market, bond market or the economic trends of the markets will be realized. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and you may not get back the full amount that you invested. Past performance is not necessarily indicative nor a guarantee of future performance. All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal.
Any research and analysis contained in this material has been procured by Franklin Templeton for its own purposes and may be acted upon in that connection and, as such, is provided to you incidentally. Data from third party sources may have been used in the preparation of this material and Franklin Templeton (“FT”) has not independently verified, validated or audited such data. Although information has been obtained from sources that Franklin Templeton believes to be reliable, no guarantee can be given as to its accuracy and such information may be incomplete or condensed and may be subject to change at any time without notice. The mention of any individual securities should neither constitute nor be construed as a recommendation to purchase, hold or sell any securities, and the information provided regarding such individual securities (if any) is not a sufficient basis upon which to make an investment decision. FT accepts no liability whatsoever for any loss arising from use of this information and reliance upon the comments, opinions and analyses in the material is at the sole discretion of the user.
Products, services and information may not be available in all jurisdictions and are offered outside the U.S. by other FT affiliates and/or their distributors as local laws and regulation permits. Please consult your own financial professional or Franklin Templeton institutional contact for further information on availability of products and services in your jurisdiction.
CFA® and Chartered Financial Analyst® are trademarks owned by CFA Institute.