Inflation and the Fed remain the key
Inflation remains high. While it has drifted lower recently, the 3.3% year-on-year rise in the July Core Personal Consumption Index (PCE) measure, a common gauge of inflation, is still well above the Fed’s target rate of a 2% long-term average. And we believe the last percent or so will be the hardest to wring out.
Indeed, this is why we think—at this late stage of the game—the Fed is being particularly clear about its higher-for-longer message. The most recent projections from the Fed’s September meeting revealed a target policy rate of 5.0% at the end of 2024 and 3.9% two years out. This is a significant rise from the Fed’s expectations just six months ago that the same rates would end 2024 at 4.3% and 2025 at 3.1%. The Fed wants to convince the market that inflation must continue to fall, even if the cost is a weaker economy, because the damage of persistently high inflation and high inflation expectations is worse in the long run. The recent rise in Treasury yields and weakness in equity markets suggest that the message is getting through. Rates aren’t likely to fall significantly anytime soon.
But, in terms of restricting monetary conditions, the Fed has done its job. With 10-year Treasury rates and 10-year real rates back to levels not seen since before the Global Financial Crisis, it is hard to imagine the Fed has much more to do than wait and monitor the lagging effects of higher rates. Yes, the Fed has indicated that it could raise rates another 0.25% before the end of the year, but this would be more like icing on the cake than a step towards another level of tighter monetary conditions. In our view, there just isn’t a lot of room for the Fed to hike rates without a significant impact on both investor sentiment and the real economy.
Meanwhile, the market has come closer to our view expressed last quarter that the Fed will keep rates higher for longer. But the market is still pricing in three 0.25% cuts for 2024, and this seems too aggressive to us. Inflation, particularly the Fed’s preferred Core PCE measure, is simply too high, and the Fed wants it lower. Should inflation fall more rapidly than we expect, the Fed could start cutting rates later in 2024 even if economic growth remains strong. But, in our view, it is more likely that inflation only drifts lower as higher-rates-for-longer have their intended effect. In this scenario, rate cuts come only once the Fed sees the right balance of acceptable inflation and the need to restimulate economic growth.
Bottom line: The Fed is (mostly) done but won’t cut rates as fast as the market thinks.