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February CPI Tops Expectations, Slowly Gears Fed Timetable Forward

The U.S. economy got a little economic boost today with a stronger-than-expected CPI reading for February, and a strong Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) that continued to project GDP growth.

Headline CPI and core CPI both came in 0.2% higher than January, as slight price hikes at the pump for refined products balanced out a general breather in the declines in some of the base commodities. The headline numbers had been tracking negative for the past three months, which everyone was pretty much ok with chalking up to crude oil. Just so long as GDP growth came in respectably, there wasn’t any reason to panic.

But core CPI (ex-food and energy costs) was already lagging behind Fed goals of around 2%, and already in the midst of sending deflationary ripples up the global goods chain, into…well, just about everything.

Muddled Waters for First Rate Hike

It’s created a tense chess match between investors and the Fed the past few weeks. It started just after the stellar (as in +295,000) February jobs report last month, when the consensus started to form that the Fed would have to act sooner rather than later in creating a interest rate normalization cycle.

The key first step of that cycle is getting us off the floor of zero percent rates – a stance that doesn’t befit a growing economy and presents what Yellen herself has called an “asymmetrical risk”.

U.S. Definitely Growing…But How Much?

Just as soon as we seemed to have some headway into a summer rate increase, nearly every economic indicator in the U.S. started been printing well below analyst estimates. In fact, the depth of our misses has hit a multi-year high, according to Bloomberg analysis:

Bloomberg surprise index

 

In light of this reversal, both investors and the Fed have had to take stock of things. First quarter GDP estimates continue to be ratcheted down – from the 2.5% – 3.0% level I highlighted last month (a number that was freshly lowered at the time) to an average Q1 GDP estimate of about 1.5% today.

Cranky Markets are Volatile Markets

It’s why we’ve seen a spike in volatility around every asset class – fixed income, forex, commodities, and equities have all been bumping around trying to align their compass to the next clear trend line. Would the Fed remove “patient” in the March FOMC meeting? Was September the new June (for the first rate hike)? Was 2015 off the table entirely?

Answering these questions is challenging enough in isolation, but it’s been exacerbated by the stunning rise the the USD index, which alters true price action in commodities and long bonds. The surging U.S. dollar is a de facto rate hike. It lowers the cost of imports dramatically (a deflationary force), and it makes our exports more expensive overseas.

And while the realities of pricier U.S. exports certainly hurt some companies more than others, the simple fact is that close to 50% of the total revenues of the S&P 500 member companies is derived in a currency other than the U.S. dollar.

2014, Part Deux?

It’s quite astonishing how much the first quarter of this year is looking like the first quarter of last year. Tick by tick, indicator by indicator, we seem to be replicating that market environment.

This time last year we were watching interest rates hit new lows, but convinced the party had to end any moment – inflation was coming, and we needed to position ourselves away from fixed income and into equities, gold, and other commodities. Fixed income turned out to deliver stronger returns than even equities did.

GDP looked to be on track for a good start to the year, but then a bout of really bad whether caused us to actually contract as an economy in Q1. Most of the top analysts said “don’t worry, we’ll be strong in the back half of the year”, and sure enough we were. The U.S. turned in over 4.5% growth in the next two quarters.

Looking around today, it’s much the same setup – so far. The key differences between then and now are this:

1) the unemployment rate is lower than last year; we have clearly moved close enough to full unemployment in the Fed’s eyes that it’s no longer an impediment to a rate increase. That box is checked off.

2) the USD is much stronger (10-20% or more) against every major global currency. As I’ve discussed, this move alone is the equivalent of a 25-50 bps rate hike.

In fact, if the dollar hadn’t been zooming so hard the past six months, there’s a chance the Fed would’ve put a token 25bp hike out there last week. Instead, Yellen reminded us that the Fed isn’t there to make things easy for investors, saying the Fed “can’t provide and shouldn’t provide” certainly to markets when it comes to the timing of rate hikes.

We don’t seem to be in any danger of that.