This week’s reports on wholesale inflation and a series of Federal Reserve speeches has made one thing very clear: Chances are very good for a rate hike in June.
After increasing its target interest rate in March, the Federal Reserve has stood still in the following weeks. But projections of inflation, employment and other economic indicators continue to make a good case for further increases as part of the Fed’s plan to increase rates three times this year.
On Thursday, markets were surprised by wholesale inflation increasing at a more rapid pace than expected. The Producer Price Index, a monthly reading on the price of wholesale goods, increased by 0.5 percent. Analysts had only expected a 0.2 percent increase.
The increase in wholesale prices were broad-based across industries and supported a trend of rising prices in many sectors of the economy. The annualized 3-month average for the Producer Price Index is now 2.9 percent, a significant increase that shows no signs of peaking.
The April consumer price index, released Friday morning, rebounded to a modest rate after an unexpected decline in March. Analysts have been watching consumer prices increase since last summer, and the March dip combined with April’s rebound seem to indicate a more modest pace of inflation on consumer goods.
The CPI advanced a seasonally adjusted 0.2% in April from the prior month, the Labor Department said Friday. Excluding the volatile categories of food and energy, so-called core prices rose just 0.1% from March. Consumer costs have increased 2.2 percent since this time a year ago, marking the second straight month annual gains eased.
This inflation mixed bag (wholesale acceleration and only modest consumer increases) will be on the minds of Federal Reserve Open Market Committee members, who are tasked with keeping employment at full levels while attempting to use monetary policy to keep inflation at 2 percent annually.
Bank presidents: Rate hike seems imminent
Speaking of the Fed, four Fed officials gave speeches this week, a rarity for the usually silent central bank. These speeches, while giving members of the committee a platform for advocating their individual ideas, can also be coordinated to help investors read tea leaves on what moves will be made next.
One common theme in remarks this week is that Fed leaders believe their plans to slowly increase rates and reduce other accommodative monetary policy, such as buying mortgage-backed securities, are on track.
Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley told an audience in Mumbai, India this week that the Fed will be cautious not to move too swiftly in order not to upset markets. Still, he confirmed strong employment and inflation numbers supported the Fed’s plans to begin unwinding its recession-era policies.
“We are pretty close to full employment,” Dudley said, according to Bloomberg. “Inflation is just a little bit below our target of 2 percent if you look at the underlying inflation trend, so clearly if the economy continues to grow above trend we are going to want to gradually remove monetary policy accommodation.”
Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President Eric Rosengren took an even more hawkish stance. In a speech in Vermont this week, he told investors the economy faced a risk of becoming “over-hot” with the unemployment rate dropping down to just 4.4 percent in April, with rising wages and prices.
He advocated for three more interest rate increases before the end of 2017 and for Fed officials to begin reducing its $4 trillion balance sheet, made up of Treasury bonds and mortgage securities, which it purchased during the recession to provide monetary stimulus to the weak economy.
“This would represent an unsustainable, overshooting pace, and provides an important rationale for continuing the process of normalization of monetary policy that is currently underway,” Rosengren said. “Along with a gradual reduction in the level of the balance sheet, it would still be reasonable to have three rate increases over the remainder of this year, assuming the economy evolves like my forecast envisions,” he said.
Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari and Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan also gave speeches this week that seemed to fall in line with their colleagues. While Kashkari advocated for tight regulations on the largest banks, and Kaplan spoke about the tightening labor market, neither said anything to go against the grain of additional rate hikes.
What does this all mean for us? As I’ve said all year, gradually rising rates should be expected, even though Friday’s weak consumer price index keeps some rate-increase headwinds in place. I still don’t see a scenario in the near-term that would call for sharp increases, but a June increase is still likely. In general, the market has priced in these trends so I do not see a major change in pricing on the horizon.
The Asian influence
To close our blog this week, I want to pass along an interesting overseas development that reminds us why global economics matter.
This weekend, a number of Asian policymakers will convene in Beijing, China to discuss the One Belt, One Road project, a potentially $500 billion initiative to invest in logistics infrastructure.
Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced the policy in 2013, and it was later named one of China’s three major national strategies. According to a CNBC report, the plan aims to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa with a vast logistics and transport network, using roads, ports, railway tracks, pipelines, airports, transnational electric grids and even fiber optic lines. The project involves 65 countries, which together account for one-third of global GDP and 60 percent of the world’s population, or 4.5 billion people, according to Oxford Economics.
This ambitious spending plan, if brought to fruition, would further expand China’s influence in global trade and economics. It would also accelerate economic growth in a number of developing countries.
While this doesn’t affect our economy in the near-term, it’s important to remember the global nature of economics today. If a plan such as this took shape, it would certainly be felt in our trade relationships, the price of goods and services and, yes, even our interest rates and monetary policy.
If you want to learn more about it, CNBC has a good explainer here.