Since the Jackson Hole economic symposium in late August, things have quickly escalated: Hawkish decisions and comments from US policymakers evoke a (desperate?) effort to launch a blitzkrieg on inflation. The consequences so far have been a sharp fall in equity valuations and a surge in bond yields, especially for short-dated maturities. How far will these movements lead financial markets?
A starter – Frontloading in Europe
The Riksbank opened this week full of monetary policy meetings by raising its policy rate by 100bp to 1.75%. Not only was this more than expected, but comments and official forecasts suggest that Sweden’s central bank has opted for a bigger rise now to curb inflation rather than having to tighten monetary policy substantially later. The terminal rate suggested by the revised rate path stands at 2.50%, i.e. significantly below market pricing (3.60%).
In a speech in Frankfurt, European Central Bank (ECB) President Christine Lagarde said that monetary policy needs to avoid deviations between the actual rate of inflation and the ECB’s target becoming entrenched. Her conclusion is clear:
‘In case of signs of a risk of de-anchoring of inflation expectations due to a high level of inflation, the policy rate consistent with our target will be restrictive’.
The ECB president added that ‘inflation expectations remain relatively well anchored’. However, it would be unwise to take this for granted. The renewed acceleration in producer prices in Germany (+7.9% compared to July, +45.8% year-on-year) justifies this cautious approach.
A main course from the US
The latest FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meeting ended on 21 September with a 75 basis point (bp) increase, raising the federal funds target to the range of 3.00%-3.25%.
This third successive 75bp rate hike had largely been anticipated by both economists and markets as last week’s publication of US consumer price index data for August underlined the extent to which inflation pressures in the economy are becoming entrenched.
At the press conference after the announcement, Jerome Powell, Chair of the US Federal Reserve (Fed), clarified that his message on the economic outlook and monetary policy conduct had not changed since the Jackson Hole seminar. After three 75bp hikes, the Fed is now trying to convince investors that it could return to a somewhat slower pace of rate rises without starting to cut its policy rates as quickly as markets anticipate.
Communication in this area is delicate; nevertheless, after the press conference, fed fund futures markets showed the federal funds rate peaking next March at 4.60% with a first cut priced in November 2023. This can be considered as a first success for Chair Powell. He will have further opportunities to repeat a line that is sounding clearer and clearer.
Just like Christine Lagarde before him, he did not want to give an explicit estimate of the terminal rate (i.e. the policy rate that will mark the high point of the tightening cycle), but the forecasts provided by all FOMC members speak for themselves.
The BoJ has other issues to deal with
On 7 September, the USD/JPY exchange rate rose to almost 145 yen/US dollar, marking the highest level since 1998 and prompting action from the Japanese authorities. The following day the Deputy Minister of Finance said the government and the Bank of Japan (BoJ) ‘are ready to take all necessary action on the foreign exchange market if the yen continues to tumble.’
As the US dollar rose again, the BoJ raised the possibility of intervention to support the currency. Last week, several sources reported that the BoJ had conducted a currency ‘rate check’ that was not followed by action. In the past, such checks were the prelude to direct intervention in the currency market. In addition, finance ministry officials reiterated that a sharp fall in the yen was not desirable and the minister himself warned that if needed, action would be ‘immediate.’
However, the BoJ does not intend to modify its monetary policy to target an exchange rate level. On 21 September, the BoJ made unscheduled purchases of long-dated Treasury securities (Japanese government bonds (JGBs) at the long end of the curve to defend the 0.25% upper limit on the 10-year JGB yield set under its yield curve control policy.
The USD/JPY exchange rate returned briefly towards 140 on 22 September after Japanese authorities intervened, while the BoJ ended its 22 September policy meeting with a strong commitment to maintain its ultra-accommodative stance.
Announcing a tighter monetary may not change much, as shown by the fall of the Swedish krona after the sharp increase in the policy rate and sterling’s depreciation despite another hike in the Bank of England’s base rate.
These are certainly challenging times for central bankers: The message (‘anything but inflation’) is crystal clear, but not enough to reduce any uncertainties.