Fed’s Powell Avoids Rate Cut Talk While April CPI Keeps Hope Alive

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell made a timely appearance in Amsterdam for a meeting of the Foreign Bankers’ Association. It was the day before the release of the April CPI report, so Powell’s commentary set the stage and an immediate context for interpreting the April results. Powell expressed no enthusiasm for rate cuts, but he also insisted that monetary policy is currently restrictive. So when the April CPI came in “softer than expected”, the relief in the market was palpable: rate cuts are (presumably) still on the table this year. The S&P 500 (SPY) and the NASDAQ (COMPQ) made new all-time highs and validated my bullish call from last week.

I break down the key components of Powell’s observations (using the transcript from the CNBC TV recoding of the live event) and then juxtapose them with the prospects for inflation going forward.

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The S&P 500 (SPY) since the October lows overlayed with my past short-term trading calls. (Source: Tradingview.com)

Is Policy Really Restrictive?

Powell observed that “the labor market is about as tight as it was before the pandemic in 2019, and that’s good. Real wages are now positive, and unemployment has been below 4% for 27 consecutive months, something that hasn’t happened in half a century. So, the labor market is very strong, with signs of gradual cooling and rebalancing, so that the supply and demand for workers are coming back into balance, just as we would want.” The logic did not make sense at first. Powell provided the evidence of balance in the labor market later on in the discussion. He noted that “the ratio of vacancies to unemployed people, for example, has gone from more than 2 to 1 to now 1.3 to 1, and it was 1.2 before…You also see wages coming down, and you see quits coming down.” Most importantly, Powell used these observations as evidence that “policy is probably restrictive.”

Powell went on to add that restrictive policy is weighing on rate-sensitive spending. However, the conventional indicators of financial conditions still show they are just as loose as they were before the Fed started hiking, January 28, 2022 to be exact. In other words, either the market has done some serious advanced front-running of rate cuts or current policy is not nearly as restrictive as the Fed thinks. Even the stock market’s all-time highs suggest monetary conditions are not tight. From the Federal Reserve Board of Chicago’s National Financial Conditions Index (NFCI) (follow the black line for ANFCI):

Even the hand-wringing this year from the Federal Reserve about resilient inflation implies that policy may not be restrictive enough (whether that means rate hikes, or, more likely, extending the time horizon for current rates).

Resilient Inflation

Powell repeated a familiar refrain about inflation not falling as fast as expected given presumed restrictive policy. Thus, Powell had to show deference to the possibility that today’s high rates will need to stay in place longer than expected:

“The first quarter in the United States was notable for its lack of further progress on inflation. We had higher readings in the first quarter, higher than we expected. We did not expect this to be a smooth road, but these were higher than I think anybody expected. So, what that has told us is that we’ll need to be patient and let restrictive policy do its work.”

This comment tells me rate cuts are nowhere on the horizon. Moreover, Powell noted “we have the highest interest rates in some time. It may be that it takes longer than expected to do its work and bring inflation down.”

Most telling were Powell’s words when a question offered the opportunity to reassure the market that rate cuts were still on the way. Emphasis mine:

“So, as I just mentioned, I do think it’s really a question of keeping policy at the current rate for a longer time than had been thought. By many measures, the policy rate is restrictive. The question is, is it sufficiently restrictive? And I think that’s going to be a question that time will have to tell. Entertain the possibility? That could be a very small probability, but I have said that I don’t think it’s likely based on the data that we have that the next move we make would be a rate hike. I think it’s more likely that we’ll be at a place where we hold the policy rate where it is.”

Note what Powell did NOT say: it’s more likely that rates will be lower by the end of the year (or even next year).

So, nowhere in the discussion did Powell provide a line for the market expect rate cuts anytime soon. Thus, he has primed the market to get excited about any soft data that could provide the seeds of an excuse for the Fed to cut rates. Powell’s positioning is made even more potent by the stock market’s ability to trade at all-time highs despite all the hand-wringing about inflation this year.

Inflation Forecast

Powell expressed a lot of uncertainty about the path for inflation despite his confidence that “we will do that, that we will get inflation down to 2%.” I am not sure how rate cuts help bring down inflation (Turkey sure learned a central bank cannot cut rates to lower inflation), so I have to assume Powell has an image of “higher for longer” monetary policy rates.

Responding to a question on whether inflation could end up being more persistent than expected, Powell said: “I think we need more than a quarter’s worth of data to really make a judgment on that.” It’s like the perpetual data delay. It will be interesting to hear whether April’s inflation data finally gives the Fed more confidence that inflation is coming down sustainably. Time is running out for the Fed to start telegraphing the first rate cut, so the pressure is on the Fed to spin a story about April and May inflation that points to the 2% target.

When I look a the core CPI graph (year-over-year percentage change in the price index), it looks like inflation will soon resume a steep descent. To apply a modicum of extra rigor, I ran a simplistic forecast through ChatPGT’s Data Analyst. I let the model pick its forecasting method. This is a very simplistic forecast because it only uses the aggregate CPI time series. A more accurate forecast would consist of aggregating the forecasts of individual components of core CPI.

I provided the model core CPI (measured year-over-year) data back to 2016. I wanted the model to surmise that “equilibrium” consists of a tight range for inflation. I did not provide any more data because I figured the further away history gets from the pandemic era, the less likely the model has any value (another downside of using a single, aggregated time series for the forecast).

The chart below combines the actual core CPI data with the forecast. The “funnel” around the forecast shows the confidence interval within which inflation will fall in the future at 95% certainty. The wide swath of possibilities is consistent with Powell’s uncertainty about the path ahead. The flat average forecast is a typical behavior of time series forecasting where there are no definitive seasonal effects detected or modeled future episodic events. (For you ChatGPT and statistics wonks, I provide an Appendix below where ChatGPT explains the model and justifies its approach).

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items Less Food and Energy in U.S. City Average [CPILFESL], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; May 15, 2024.

The Bond Market Rules

Putting aside vain attempts to forecast future inflation, the bond market is the ultimate arbiter of inflation expectations and/or how inflation may impact interest rates. The bond market in the form of the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF is at a very critical (technical) juncture. The downtrend in TLT (uptrend in rates) was the ultimate guide in pushing the market into its April correction. The rebound in stocks for May perfectly correlates with the rebound in TLT (lower rates). The “soft” April CPI report sent TLT up 1.4% and right up against the top of the downtrend channel.

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iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (Source: TradingView.com)

A confirmed breakout with a higher close should open the floodgates of bullishness for the stock market. A failure at resistance from the upper part of the channel could trigger a false breakout for the indices. Thus, given this year’s correlation with stocks, I reloaded on TLT puts as a hedge on my long trading positions.

Overall, the lesson in all these dynamics is that inflation combined with the interest rate response should continue to dominate the market’s underlying narrative. With rates on hold, even the Fed is just along for the ride for now.

Be careful out there!

More By This Author:

What A Currency Trap Looks Like For The Bank Of Japan
Financial Conditions Make A Monetary Roundtrip And Undercut The Need For Rate Cuts
From Inflation Fizzle To Sizzle

Disclosure: long SPY calendar call spread, long TLT puts

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Dr. Duru 4 weeks ago Contributor's comment

Sorry. I just realized I forgot to include the Appendix. For those interest, go to the original article here: https://inflationwatch.wordpress.com/2024/05/16/feds-powell-avoids-rate-cut-talk-while-april-cpi-keeps-hope-alive/