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13 Jun 2024 - Data Dependency and Fiscal Stimulus Complicate Inflation Fight

By: JCB Jamieson Coote Bonds

Data Dependency and Fiscal Stimulus Complicate Inflation Fight

JCB Jamieson Coote Bonds

May 2024

Financial markets have dealt with a large volume of economic data and communication from central bankers in recent weeks. Despite some overly sensationalised media coverage and short-term predictions, we believe that the central banks' messaging has remained consistent across jurisdictions.  

The US Federal Reserve (US Fed), the global leader in setting market trends, and the Reserves Bank of Australia (RBA) domestically, have both cautioned patience with monetary policy, as already restrictive settings continue to work through the system, lowering growth and demand whilst bringing inflation back towards target. This process is frustrating in the day to day, in that inflation data doesn't move in straight lines - seasonal factors, annual price increases, one-off adjustments, flash sales, and other variables create a bumpy, unpredictable, and somewhat volatile path. Even well-resourced teams of economists at major investment banks consistently get their estimations markedly wrong, reflecting the inherent volatility in this process.

Take the latest CPI quarterly release in Australia, which was widely predicted to be 0.8%. When the actual figure came in at 0.96% (rounded up to 1.0%), the unexpected result triggered a significant market reaction, leading to the removal of any expectations of a rate cut from the RBA.

What makes this even more galling for forecasters is that with a monthly inflation series, they already have about two thirds of the dataset before the quarterly figures are released. This makes forecasting errors even more surprising and exacerbates the market's reaction when a when a relatively small portion of new data has an outsized impact.

This may be more detail than you require as you read this over your morning coffee. Of course, forecasting errors can also work in reverse, as we have seen some large undershoots versus expectation over time. Yet the sequencing of these dataset surprises drives market sentiment, and sadly, central bankers are now wedded to react to a 'data dependent' approach, risking falling behind the curve.

The key takeaway here is that while inflation in Australia peaked at 7.8% in the fourth quarter of 2022, it has since steadily fallen to 7.0%, 6.0%, 5.4%, 4.1% and now 3.6% over the preceding quarters. This downward trend, though slightly slower than the RBA forecasts, has been the direction of travel for 18 months. The fight against inflation is not yet over, but it is well advanced, whilst the battle rages on under restrictive interest rate settings.

The US economy, which has long been the 'exception' in a souring global macroeconomic story, has suddenly slowed significantly.  Whilst the incoming numbers remain solid, they are markedly weaker than we had received previously, with a shock miss on components like GDP, the employment report (Non-Farm Payrolls), initial unemployment claims and a host of second-tier manufacturing and activity data.  This has taken the US "economic surprise" index to a negative reading. Markets are now focused on how the interplay of slower growth will affect prices (and inflation) in the coming quarters, trying to calibrate the timing of central banks that have become unashamedly 'data dependent'. The significant failure of models used to calibrate policy through the COVID-19 period has made central bankers highly reactive, no longer willing to back their judgements on years of policy learnings and economic theory to move policy ahead of the cycle.

Ordinarily, as growth slowed, central bank policy levers would already be in motion to address the slowdown and expected cooling inflation outcomes associated with weaker demand, acknowledging that policy works with long lag times. Now, as data dependency is 'policy de jour', the danger is that economies may slow more than necessary before central banks act to curb a downturn. This delay could lead to more severe corrective measures, as central banks struggle to address a substantial loss of economic momentum.

We have heard various terms to describe economic trajectories, such as 'hard,' 'soft' and 'no' landing.  If, like an aircraft, the economy hits stall speed, the pilots' attempts at recovery will be a lot more severe than if they'd simply eased up a little ahead of time.  Central bankers are often criticized for waiting until ''something breaks'' before taking decisive action. This was evident during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) over a decade ago when rates were held at similar levels to today until a catastrophic episode was unavoidable, prompting rates to be slashed by more than 5% to jump start economies and reverse the damage caused by overly restrictive rates from the pre-2008 period.

With this concept in mind, our baseline position at the start of the year was that central bankers would aim for a non-stimulatory rate cutting cycle in the back half of 2024. This was expected to be led by Europe or the US, commencing around the middle of the year. Such a strategy could help smooth the economic cycle, offer some relief to consumers and borrowers, and ideally avoid the negative consequences of keeping rates too high for too long.  That is still seemingly on track for Europe, with the European Central Bank (ECB) likely leading the way, followed by Canada, the UK and New Zealand. However, the expected timing for the US to lead the rate-cutting cycle has shifted further out.  

An interesting development is Sweden's Riksbank, which just leapfrogged the pack by cutting rates from 4.00% to 3.75%, whilst observing similar economic outcomes to our own domestic data, weak growth, deeply negative retail sales and cooling (though still above mandate) inflation. Perhaps some central bankers are still moving ahead of the curve.

In the US, the trend has slightly reversed, with inflation moving from a low of 3.1% up to 3.5% over the last five months. Despite this uptick, the US Fed retained its easing bias and reduced the scope of its Quantitative Tightening program during its May meeting, helping solidify expectations around bond yields. A short covering rally followed thereafter, which all asset markets have enjoyed, lifting bonds and equities alike.

From prior communications, the US Fed indicated its intent to cut rates, retaining an easing bias. However, the slight increase in inflation has complicated the process, delaying market expectations for rate cuts to later in the year.  While monetary policy is fighting the good fight against inflation with restrictive policy settings, US fiscal policy remains highly stimulatory, with public spending running at around ~6% of GDP.  Much of the economic growth in the US has been fueled by this large public sector spend, which has been exceptional against other jurisdictions and looks to continue in an election year. As a result, this continued fiscal stimulus could create some friction in achieving normalisation of inflation.  

The RBA has found that recent surprises in our own inflation were predominantly due to education and insurance, which we think has heavy seasonal annual reset, and is unlikely to be repeated in following quarters. Calling the near-term inflation pathways remains difficult. Plenty of things can work sequentially against further progress in the near term, like a stimulatory federal budget, larger fair work outcomes on minimum wages, geopolitical flare ups driving energy prices higher or global shipping disruptions to name a few. On the other hand, there are reasons for optimism.  Oil prices are well off their highs despite recent geopolitical tensions involving Israel and Iran. Slowing economic activity has tempered discretionary spending, as evidenced by deeply negative retail sales. We've also seen declines or stabilisations in rent and used car prices. In the 10 years prior to COVID-19, Australia's average quarterly inflation rate was 0.52%. If we assume that the next few quarters are much higher at 0.8%, inflation could fall to 3.2% by the end of the third quarter, against the RBA estimate of 3.8% by year end.  

These contrasting forces create a complex landscape for policymakers, and while there is room for inflation to fall below the RBA's forecasts, data dependency will continue to drive monetary policy decisions. The uncertainty surrounding these various factors suggests that flexibility and careful analysis will remain critical as the RBA navigates the path ahead.

Author: Charlie Jamieson, Chief Investment Officer

Funds operated by this manager:

CC Jamieson Coote Bonds Active Bond Fund (Class A)CC Jamieson Coote Bonds Dynamic Alpha FundCC Jamieson Coote Bonds Global Bond Fund (Class A - Hedged)

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