U.S. Inflationary Pressures Remain Muted

In our January 25, 2015 weekly newsletter (please email me for a copy), we pushed back our forecast for the first fed funds rate hike (25 basis points) to the September 16-17, 2015 FOMC meeting as long-term (both 5- and 10-year) inflationary expectations in the U.S. continued to decline after the official end of QE3 on October 29, 2014. 80% of all forecasters at the time expected a rate hike by the July 28-29 FOMC meeting. Just a few days later–in the midst of the January 27-28 FOMC meeting–a new CNBC Fed survey suggests that most analysts now expect the first fed funds rate hike to occur at the September 16-17, 2015 FOMC meeting. Our prediction for the first fed funds rate hike is now the consensus.

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Surveying both the data and the U.S. economy, there still seems to be no rising inflationary pressures, despite a pick-up in U.S. housing activity (due to the recent decline in mortgage rates) and a noticeable improvement in the U.S. job market. In fact, the U.S. CPI–even outside of energy–has continued to trend down over the last several months. E.g. the 12-month change in the U.S. CPI (less food and energy) declined from 1.9% in July to 1.6% in December, while neither the 16% trimmed-mean CPI nor the Median CPI have shown any signs of rising to a level that would justify a new rate hike cycle.

The $64 trillion question is: When will the Fed impose its first rate hike, and what does this mean for global asset prices (or the U.S. dollar)? The picture becomes even murkier when one takes into account the recent strength in the U.S. dollar (since we penned our Traderplanet.com ‘Euro Parity” article on September 24, 2014, the dollar has rallied from 1.27 to 1.14 in just a little over four months). Any new Fed rate hike cycle will likely reinforce the recent strength in the U.S./euro exchange rate (note: we now expect the euro to stage a bounce against the U.S. dollar as we believe the Euro Zone economy will surprise on the upside), especially given the open-ended nature of the European Central Bank (ECB)’s sovereign QE policy.

I am going out on a limb and predicting either one of the following scenarios: 1) The Fed hikes by 25 basis points at the September 16-17 meeting, but states that future rate hikes will be data-dependent, i.e. a rate hike will not signal the beginning of a new rate hike cycle, or 2) The Fed pushes back its first rate hike to its October 27-28 meeting, if not later.

The Fed must understand that capitalism is inherently deflationary. Ever since the Paul Volcker-led Fed slayed the U.S. inflation dragon in the early 1980s, the U.S. economy has consistently experienced disinflationary pressures. This accelerated with the German re-unification and the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’ 25 years ago, and of course, Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Moreover, with the exception of three short bull markets (World War I, the 1970s and 2001-2008), commodity prices (adjusted for the U.S. CPI) have been on a 150-year downtrend in the United States as U.S productivity growth triumphed over the disciples of Thomas Malthus.

Finally, academic studies have time and again proven that there are no consistent reliable leading indicators for U.S. inflation. Common factors cited by analysts–such as M2, capacity utilization, and the cost of housing–all scored poorly relative to a simple auto-regressive (i.e. momentum model). Others, such as U.S. industrial production activity and the 10-year treasury yield, scored better. Surprisingly, the data shows that the rise in food prices have historically been the best leading indicator of U.S. inflation, which we do not believe will apply going forward.

Our analysis and our recent trip to four different cities in India has convinced us of this: What China did to global manufacturing India will do to the global services industry. I.e. We believe India–over the next 5-10 years–will unleash a wave of deflationary pressures in service wages across the world as the country builds up its 4G infrastructure, and as its smartphone adoption grows from 110 million to over 500 million handsets over the next 5 years. Unlike other countries under the traditional Asian development model (where a country will leverage its low-cost labor to industrialize and export goods to developed countries, such as the U.S.), India has no language barrier and is well-versed with technology, computer programming, and providing global services already. This is a hugely deflationary force to reckon with and I believe the Fed must take this into account as U.S. service wages (finance, legal, and IT) will consequently continue to be compressed over the next 10-20 years (while tens of millions of educated Indians will join the global middle class for the first time since the 1700s).

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