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Fed Minutes – Anybody Feel Smarter Today?

In a week where there wasn’t much in the way of high-impact macro data, I along with other inflation hounds was left to pore over what were some very diffuse Fed minutes yesterday. There seems to be a communication breakdown – figuratively and literally – in what was the longest minutes report in recent memory (over 8000 words!) yet also the hardest to interpret.

After all, the bond markets have been moving crazily; it seemed the smell of inflation was in the air following a strong jobs report and a 35 basis point rise in the benchmark 10-yr over a two week period.

Economy Cliff’s Notes

In a word, the FOMC minutes were dovish. Janet Yellen, her voting cohorts, and their staffs just can’t find enough data points to make a strong case for either inflation or broad growth. We clearly identified this reality last week, noting that things were becoming “more opaque by the day”. While there was a slight tickup in weekly pay, retails sales continues to print weak while headline and core CPI and PPI are well, well below the Fed’s 2%-ish target.

The Producer Price Index (PPI) for January came in yesterday at a 0.8% drop after a 1.1% annualized growth pace in December. Most vitally, we’re now on pace to turn in exactly zero growth Y/Y in the PPI. As with every inflation metric right now, it’s being thrown off kilter by the fall in crude oil.

For now, macro analysts like Michael Hanson over at BofA Merrill are saying that while we may see negative headline inflation, it’s “probably not deflation” as seen by the Fed. This is backed up by recent comments from Yellen, who has called the spike down in energy prices as “transitory”, while Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser noted that “I don’t see deflation as a risk in the U.S. economy”.

Rock and a Hard Place – Stuck in the Middle With You

I’m in the camp with most people who believe that the Fed would love nothing more than to get at least 1-2 rate hikes passed along this year. They would love to get the credit markets operating in a more normalized capacity, and they would certainly love to have the extra arrows in the quiver that a 0.5% – 1% Fed Funds rate would provide.

This stance doesn’t require one to be a hawk or a dove; it’s just good business for the Fed to have a full set of levers at their disposal. But there is real damage that could be done to the long-term viability of the Fed if they were to raise rates this summer, only to find that GDP growth has vanished and they’re forced to re-cut rates.

And as I noted last week, there is a very fine line there. The PPI results will in many ways flow through to the CPI over the next few months, and as I write this crude oil is down another 4% or so today and we may see the largest crude inventory build in history later Thursday.

As it stands now, we are the only advanced economy on the planet that is forecasting a rate increase in 2015. Granted, we are also the healthiest, so there’s a case to be made that we should be the first ones out of the gate. But for now, the Fed is admittedly (for the first time in over a year) looking overseas at risks in China and the Middle East, and even looking with some fear at the fixed income ETF market, of all places.

Investor Implications

It’s prudent for the Fed to be considering the near-term impact of falling commodities, just as it’s prudent to see them within the context of stagnant global growth. Neither are tasks we wish the Fed was spending so much time on, but the times are what they are; there’s not exactly a dog-eared playbook of what to do at this point. Just a compass.

Anybody that is out there with a strong opinion on whether the Fed is doing the right thing will have to cherry pick their metrics and indicators to prove their position. Fed Funds futures bettors scaled back their odds for a June rate hike, following the “let’s punt the ball” tone of the January FOMC minutes.

I tend to agree with a couple of analysts that have suggested the surging U.S. Dollar is a de facto rate increase already, as it will push down our exports a bit. In the meantime, the Fed – like the rest of us – will sit and wait to see if GDP is hanging in there. This continues to look a lot like Goldilocks for equities, just like the past few years.