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Inflation Risks Put the Fed in an Uncomfortable Place

The Federal Reserve navigated its tapering announcement without much market volatility, but faces the challenge of managing rate expectations amid elevated inflation risks.

As expected, the U.S. Federal Reserve announced the first reduction in its monthly pace of bond purchases at the November FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meeting, while also admitting that the outlook for inflation is more uncertain. Markets responded calmly to the news but looking ahead, Fed policymakers have the tougher task of managing markets’ rate expectations in the face of elevated inflation risks.

While we agree with the Fed that the currently high inflation is likely to dissipate, it now appears that it will take longer to dissipate than initially thought. Inflation that remains elevated for longer, even if it’s attributed to temporary factors, increases the risk that longer-term inflation expectations also adjust higher – something the Fed wants to avoid. Indeed, the next few months are likely to test policymakers’ patience, and we see meaningful risk of Fed officials’ expectations for rate hikes being pulled further forward when the Fed’s next economic projections are released in December.

Long-anticipated tapering is a non-event

The Fed announced its plan for beginning to wind down its purchases of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). In particular, it announced that it will reduce purchases by $15 billion per month in mid-November and mid-December. And while these monthly reductions are likely to continue through June 2022, the Fed also specifically stated that it is prepared to change the pace of monthly reductions if economic conditions warrant. After the Fed ends these secondary market purchases, we expect it will keep its balance sheet static by continuing to roll over its maturing proceeds at Treasury auctions or back into the MBS market, respectively.

Elsewhere, the FOMC made only minor changes to the statement to acknowledge that economic activity has started to rebound from the summer soft patch, and that inflation, while still “expected” to be transitory, has remained elevated as supply and demand imbalances related to the pandemic contributed to “sizable” price increases in some sectors. Meanwhile, during the press conference, Fed Chair Jerome Powell continued to assert that inflation is likely to be transitory, but he also emphasized the Fed’s willingness and ability to act to tame inflation if needed.

Markets recalculate the interest rate trajectory

Since the September FOMC meeting, we’ve seen a meaningful repricing of market expectations for central bank policy rates. In the U.S., markets have now priced in an elevated chance of a rate hike as early as the June 2022 FOMC meeting. While comments from Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey were a likely catalyst of the move, we think the persistence of the shift in market pricing reflects upside risks to both U.S. and global inflation.

Yields on short-dated sovereign bonds in many countries have moved sharply higher in recent weeks, while those on longer-dated bonds have fallen modestly. This flattening of yield curves suggests investors expect central banks in several developed countries to start tightening sooner and at a swifter pace than previously thought. (For details, read PIMCO’s recent blog post, Yield Curves Flatten as Investors Rethink Outlook for Monetary Policy.”)

Elevated inflation risks

Over the last year, strong consumer demand for goods coupled with various capacity constraints along the supply chain have contributed to higher inflation – these issues have been especially acute in the auto sector. This was expected to dissipate as the economy recovered from the pandemic; however, more recent developments will likely further contribute to additional inflationary pressures before dissolving next year.

Indeed, a confluence of factors, including aberrant weather patterns, elevated demand for manufactured goods, and policy changes, have resulted in low stocks of natural gas and coal. This has contributed to higher utilities prices in the U.S. as well as across global markets, and will raise headline inflation data. However, the diminished stocks have also contributed to outright power rationing in China, and shuttered production for many low-margin manufacturers in Europe and elsewhere, which can also temporarily affect core inflation as production of a wider range of goods is disrupted and businesses struggle to rebuild already depleted inventories.

These global inflationary pressures have been further compounded by the domestic effects of Hurricane Ida. The storm disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, but also damaged a large number of motor vehicles. The subsequent replacement demand, amid already low auto inventories, already appears to be affecting wholesale prices for used cars, and we expect this to further boost the prices of consumer used vehicles in the months ahead.

These factors raise the prospect for another bout of 5% or more annualized U.S. inflation in the fourth quarter. And although we continue to believe that these factors will be temporary, and inflation will moderate in 2022, they are likely to raise the calculated year-over-year rates above 3% into the third quarter of next year.

Next several months will be challenging for the Fed

While we still expect U.S. inflation to return to the Fed’s target by the end of 2022, additional months of above-target inflation raise the risk that inflation expectations accelerate beyond levels consistent with the 2% target – something the Fed will want to avoid. As a result, effectively communicating the outlook for monetary policy over the next few quarters is likely to be challenging for the Fed for this and several other reasons.

First, while Fed officials likely want to manage the risk of an unwanted “jump” to higher inflation expectations, they will have to weigh this risk against the most likely outcome that inflation dissipates by itself. Since monetary policy works through long and variable lags, it’s possible that inflation could have already dissipated by the time the economy starts to adjust to early rate hikes.

Second, several pending leadership transitions raise the prospect of shifting policy views of the FOMC’s leadership, which may contribute to greater uncertainty and market volatility. And while we expect Chair Powell to be renominated, concerns raised by progressive Democrats make that outcome more uncertain.

Lastly, the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England are communicating their plans to raise rates ahead of the Fed. While earlier liftoff from other smaller developed market central banks should not directly influence Fed policy, officials will monitor the impact of policy adjustments abroad on U.S. rates and the dollar in the context of broader financial conditions, which do affect the U.S. economy.

PIMCO’s Fed outlook still below market pricing, but with upside risk

We continue to forecast the Fed’s first post-pandemic rate hike in the first quarter of 2023, but we also see the risks tilted toward earlier action. As for the subsequent path for rate hikes, across various scenarios our average forecast runs about 1 to 1.5 hikes below what markets are pricing by the end of 2023. As we discuss in our latest Secular Outlook, “Age of Transformation,” financial market sensitivity to higher rates may again prevent central banks from moving meaningfully away from their zero lower bound.

Visit PIMCO’s inflation page for further insights into the inflation outlook and investment implications, and visit our interest rates page for our latest views on the rates environment.

Tiffany Wilding and Allison Boxer are economists and regular contributors to the PIMCO Blog.

The Author

Tiffany Wilding

North American Economist

Allison Boxer

Economist

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