Market Analysis

Can the Fed Smelt Steel?

Those asking the Fed to do something about prices are largely missing the target.

One year ago, Fed head Jerome Powell unveiled a change to the Fed’s inflation targeting objectives, culminating a multi-year strategy review process. That review stemmed from the Fed’s chronic failure to hit its 2% y/y inflation target, installed in 2012, with price increases throughout the 2010s deemed too low. The solution Fed people cooked up: Instead of targeting 2% inflation in every given month, they would now target “inflation that averages 2% over time.” They didn’t unveil a precise formula or define “over time,” leaving the world to believe the Fed would tolerate a spell of relatively hot inflation if the long-term average over some arbitrary period was 2%. There was some cheering at the time, but that was before CPI inflation spiked over 5% y/y and the Fed’s targeted gauge, the PCE price index, hit 4%.[i] Now pundits are calling for the Fed to change tack again, either going back to the old targeting system or clarifying precise boundaries. In our view, this all misses the point greatly, as there is little the Fed can do about the issues driving prices now—a key point for investors to understand.

Inflation, defined as a broad, consistent increase in prices across the entire economy, is a monetary phenomenon—too much money chasing too few goods. This, the Fed can theoretically influence with short-term interest rates, which it can raise or lower to flatten or steepen the yield curve, respectively. In a modern system like the US, banks create most new money by holding only a fraction of every new loan in reserves, so fast lending generally speeds money supply growth (and vice versa). When yield curves are steep, with long rates comfortably above short rates, banks’ core business model—borrowing at short-term rates and lending at long-term rates—becomes more profitable. That makes lending more attractive for banks, so they do more of it, and money supply grows swiftly. When the yield curve is flat or even inverted, aggressive lending becomes much less profitable. Banks tighten their belts. That slows or, in some cases, reverses money supply growth. Eventually, those money supply changes feed through to prices.

It is probably tempting to look at last year’s money supply spike and think that was the trigger for today’s high inflation rates. But money supply isn’t the only monetary variable. Velocity—the rate at which money changes hands—also matters a great deal. If supply is up while velocity is down, they can offset each other. We think that is mostly what happened last year. Velocity tumbled as lockdowns blocked sales and hit incomes. The Fed’s big money supply increase mostly offset that plunge.

Now, even with much of society reopened, the official measure of velocity is still crawling around its pandemic-era low. Meanwhile, money supply is growing much, much more slowly—true of M2 money stock, which has all the things society uses to buy goods and services, and broader measures like M4. The yield curve spread has shrunk by about half a percentage point and is now in line with not-at-all-inflationary 2017 and 2018. In short, the monetary backdrop doesn’t look like anything the Fed would traditionally need to do something about.

In our view, the most common explanation for this year’s spiking inflation metrics is largely correct: Supply shocks. Distortions related to reopening in the West and renewed lockdowns in parts of Asia are disrupting the production and shipping of goods globally. The price of every good stems from supply and demand. So, shortages naturally push prices higher. Today’s shortages arrived as Western economies reopened and demand improved, creating a perfect storm. Raising short-term interest rates won’t change this basic conundrum.

As a result, pundits calling for the Fed to shift course and do something about prices now might as well be asking the Fed to:

  • Drill for oil
  • Mill lumber
  • Fabricate semiconductors
  • Build cars
  • Farm cattle, hogs and poultry
  • Smelt iron ore into steel
  • Build container ships
  • Build shipping containers
  • Automate the unloading of container ships to ease backlogs at US ports
  • Convince China to stop closing ports every time there is one COVID case on site
  • Fill in at Vietnamese ports while dockworkers are sidelined with COVID
  • Work as line cooks and servers
  • Man the hotel concierge and check-in desks and join the housekeeping staff
  • Moonlight as flight attendants and pilots

Now, we reckon Powell and his Fed friends are talented people who could do some or all of these things in their spare time. The California contingent of your friendly MarketMinder editorial staff fondly remembers Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari splitting logs in an amusing campaign ad when he ran for governor several years ago—he clearly has some ranching chops. If you told us Lael Brainard knows her way around a blast furnace and Powell can run the breakfast service at his local diner, we would probably believe you. But in all seriousness, everything on the above laundry list is far outside the Fed’s sphere of influence. Central bankers can’t bring new supply capacity online tomorrow any more than they can magically wave COVID out of existence or brainwash governments into addressing the pandemic with some semblance of logic. They are limited to monetary policy tools only.

The rising prices in these areas will eventually self-correct given time. Higher oil prices, for example, have already begun to encourage producers to ramp up output—same for steel and many other raw materials. Lumber prices may remain elevated on the consumer side, but upstream, futures prices are down hugely from highs seen earlier this year. In time, this should bleed through to retailers. Never forget: Prices send signals.

We won’t go so far as some who have warned of the dangers of the Fed raising interest rates during a supply shock. That crowd points to the ECB’s decision to hike rates in mid-2011, which is rather irrelevant to today’s situation. Tightening into a brewing debt crisis is juuuuust a bit different than tightening into a combination of robust demand and limited supply, and in our view, the ECB has always shouldered too much of the blame for the European recession that followed. A rate hike didn’t make Greece default (twice in 2012) or governments throughout Southern Europe implement austerity on the heels of the global financial crisis. Our point is simply this: The Fed’s price-fighting power is limited right now, and the more investors understand that, the easier it will become to sift through the financial news.

[i] Source: St. Louis Fed, as of 8/23/2021.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.