The Fed’s inflation focus implies a high bar for rate hikes in 2020. Further cuts this year cannot be ruled out if inflation continues to undershoot the Fed’s target.
The Fed defied nearly all expectations in 2019 when it cut rates three times, shaving 75 bps off the fed funds rate. Early last year, Western Asset had suspected the Fed might increase its focus on inflation, which would eventually require easier monetary policy. The Fed’s inflation focus became more apparent as the year went on, clarified by both its actions and comments. The Fed’s inflation focus now implies a high bar for rate hikes in 2020. Conversely, further cuts this year cannot be ruled out entirely if inflation continues to undershoot the Fed’s target.
- The 2019 rate cuts demonstrate that inflation now plays a much larger role in the Fed’s monetary policy decisions than it has in the past.
- The change in the Fed’s inflation outlook, in our view, was the primary motivator for the Fed to cut rates in 2019.
- It remains to be seen whether the Fed cuts are enough to sustainably boost inflation, however, and for the moment we doubt that they are.
- Our outlook for inflation to remain below 2%, together with the very high bar set by Chair Powell, suggests that the Fed is unlikely to raise rates in 2020.
- If the Fed is truly committed to boosting inflation, further rate cuts cannot be entirely ruled out for 2020.
The Federal Reserve (Fed) surprised almost everyone in 2019. It cut rates three successive times—July, September and October—in an environment of reasonably stable US economic growth, a falling unemployment rate and steady to rising risk markets.
The Fed’s willingness to cut rates in such an environment represented a distinct break from the previous two decades of monetary policy, in which the Fed primarily took its cues from either the labor market or the stock market. Investors who were slow to update their model of Fed behavior—and who, as a consequence, were expecting the Fed to tighten or at best remain on hold in the face of rising stocks and a lower unemployment rate—found themselves a step behind in 2019. Fortunately, Western Asset was not among that group.
Over the course of 2019 we argued that there was an ongoing shift in the Fed’s attitude toward inflation, which would likely lead it to easier policy at some point. While the Western Asset view was controversial at the beginning of the year, the contours of the Fed’s shift have subsequently become clearer and clearer. In particular, its rate cuts have served as a tangible validation of our view. If there was an error in our analysis, it was that we didn’t take it far enough. We harbored some lingering doubts about whether the Fed had truly changed its stripes, and therefore we were a bit too timid in forecasting the amount of rate cuts. Yet the rate cuts came and then kept coming, even as growth and markets held steady.
The Fed’s rate cuts last year have implications for the 2020 outlook. First, the 2019 rate cuts demonstrate that inflation now plays a much larger role in the Fed’s monetary policy decisions than it has in the past. Second, the focus on low inflation has moved the Fed toward a “make-up” strategy, whereby the Fed would seek to offset periods of below 2% inflation with periods of above 2% inflation. Any such “make-up” strategy implies the bar for future hikes has been set quite high. Finally, in 2019 the Fed showed it is willing to back its inflation objective with policy actions. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has insisted that willingness remains in place. This means a further easing of policy cannot be ruled out, and would become increasingly likely if inflation failed to rise in line with Fed expectations.
Inflation in Focus
Our view is that the rate cuts of 2019 were first and foremost about inflation. Other explanations were offered at the time and have continued to be promoted since, including “insurance cuts” and as a response to a global economic slowdown. These other explanations are unconvincing, in our view, as they neither fit the fact pattern nor do they answer the question of what compelled the Fed to act in excess of almost everybody’s expectations.
“Our view is that the rate cuts of 2019 were first and foremost about inflation.”
-- Western Asset
The analogy between 2019 and the “insurance cuts” of 1998 seems particularly unhelpful. It’s true there are similarities. For example, the Fed cut the same amount in both years (0.75%) and there were fears surrounding an emerging market economy in both years (Russia in 1998, China in 2019). But these similarities are overshadowed by the differences. One significant difference is that in 1998 the Fed was responding to what was, at the time, a widespread and growing concern about financial markets in general, and the vulnerabilities of levered investors in particular. By the time the Fed first cut rates in September 1998, the S&P 500 had declined 10% from its peak and huge losses had forced Long Term Capital Management to shut down. Needless to say no equivalent financial market stress was seen in 2019, as in fact the S&P was higher at the time of the Fed’s July cut than it was at the time of the Fed’s last hike.
“In contrast to 2018, when the inflation outlook was favorable and the Fed was hiking accordingly, the inflation data in 2019 was disappointing pretty much across the board.”
-- Western Asset
Rather than “insurance cuts,” the most obvious explanation for the Fed’s rate cuts in 2019 was a focus on inflation, and in particular a renewed concern about below-target inflation. In contrast to 2018, when the inflation outlook was favorable and the Fed was hiking accordingly, the inflation data in 2019 was disappointing pretty much across the board. Of particular note was the plateauing and slight deceleration of wage inflation (Exhibit 1). While wage inflation is not explicitly included in the Fed’s mandate, it carries elevated significance because of its salience for workers and its more immediate connection to the full employment part of the Fed’s mandate. Also of note was the decline in inflation expectations, for example, as measured by TIPS breakeven inflation, which ended the year suggesting that future inflation would remain decidedly below the Fed’s 2% objective (Exhibit 2). Finally, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, core personal consumption expenditures (PCE), moved lower in 2019 due to a combination of idiosyncratic events as well as ongoing softness in services inflation. Taken together, the stall in wage inflation, the notable decline in inflation expectations and the below-mandate prints for core PCE suggest a much more troubled outlook for future inflation than the Fed maintained previously. This change in inflation outlook, in our view, was the primary motivator for the Fed to cut rates in 2019.
“Powell’s message was unmistakable: low inflation was the key to understanding the Fed’s actions in 2019.”
-- Western Asset
Exhibit 1: Wage Inflation
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Haver, Bloomberg, New York Federal Reserve. As of 31 Dec 19. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indexes are unmanaged, and not available for direct investment. Index returns do not include fees or sales charges. This information is provided for illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of an actual investment.
Exhibit 2: Inflation Expectations
High Bar for Future Rate Hikes
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Haver, Bloomberg, New York Federal Reserve. As of 31 Dec 19. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This information is provided for illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of an actual investment.
Obviously the link between inflation and the 2019 rate cuts is clearer with the benefit of hindsight. Over the course of the year, Fed officials themselves gave a series of muddled explanations for their actions, often finding it convenient to cite multiple rationales at the same time. However, by the final rate cut in October the other reasons had declined in importance and all that was really left was a heightened concern about low inflation. At that meeting the Fed admitted that the uncertainty about global events had receded and that US growth continued to be rather sturdy, yet the Fed cut rates anyway. In his last press conference of 2019, Chair Powell returned again and again to the subject of low inflation, highlighting in a variety of contexts how low inflation had influenced the decision to cut rates. Here are a few examples of Powell’s emphasis on inflation from that press conference¹:
“As you can see, inflation is barely moving up, notwithstanding that unemployment is at 50-year lows and expected to remain there … In fact, we need some upward pressure on inflation to get back to 2 percent.”
“We believe that policy is somewhat accommodative, and we think that that’s the appropriate place for policy to be in order to drive up inflation.”
“That underscores, I think, the challenge of getting inflation to move up. The Committee has wanted inflation to be at 2 percent, squarely at 2 percent, forever since I arrived in 2012. And it hasn’t happened, and it’s just—it’s because there are disinflationary forces around the world, and they’ve been stronger than, I think, people understood them to be.”
Powell’s message was unmistakable: low inflation was the key to understanding the Fed’s actions in 2019. In our view, it’s likely to also be the key going forward as well.
High Bar for Future Rate Hikes
“So I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we would consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Chair Powell, October 2019
“Powell’s message was unmistakable: low inflation was the key to understanding the Fed’s actions in 2019.”
Not only did the concern about low inflation play a significant role in motivating cuts in 2019, but it also appears to have shaped how the Fed intends to conduct policy going forward. In particular, a number of Fed speakers have mentioned the desirability of a “make-up” strategy with regard to inflation, whereby periods of inflation below 2% would be offset by periods of inflation above 2%. The details of such a strategy are still being debated, and it could take a few months for the specifics to be announced as official Fed policy.
It would be a mistake, however, to wait for the official announcement to incorporate this into the outlook. Indeed, based on his recent comments, it appears Chair Powell has already embraced a “make-up” strategy. In each of the last two press conferences Chair Powell has said that in order to raise rates he would need to see “a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent.” Given the starting point of the Fed’s preferred inflation measure (core PCE at 1.6%), it seems fair to conclude that a “really significant move up” would take inflation above 2%. It also seems fair to interpret Powell’s inclusion of “persistent” in the criteria as a response to the extended period of below-target inflation. Powell’s guidance, which he has now repeated twice in response to direct questions, is therefore essentially to adopt a make-up strategy.
The important conclusion is that Powell’s make-up strategy sets the bar for future rate hikes exceptionally high. To put this into perspective, consider the following back-of-the-envelope calculation. Based on Powell’s comments, it seems reasonable to assume that core PCE would need to be 2.2% or higher for at least six months to justify a rate increase. (These assumptions are made to be consistent with Powell’s “really significant” and “persistent” criteria. But the point here is a general one and the conclusion would likely hold under whatever final formulation the Fed arrives at for its make-up strategy.) Further, note that the annual volatility of core PCE over the last 20 years has been 0.6%. Based on these assumptions and the historical volatility of inflation, there is a less than 7.5% chance that Powell’s criteria would be satisfied by the end of 2020 (Exhibit 3).
Exhibit 3: Core PCE Volatility
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Western Asset. As of 31 Dec 19. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This information is provided for illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of an actual investment.
Three caveats are warranted for this rough calculation. First, Powell was careful to qualify his criteria by saying that it has not yet been made into official forward guidance. Official codification could happen when the Fed finishes its ongoing strategy review—and in our view it likely will happen when the review is finalized—but until then there is some risk of back-tracking. Second, the Fed could theoretically be motivated to increase rates for some reason other than inflation, potentially to address financial stability concerns. That said, the risk here seems rather small at the moment, especially as there are other tools the Fed could deploy if financial stability concerns were to mount much further (for example, the counter-cyclical capital buffer). Finally, this analysis does not incorporate an inflation forecast, but instead simply reflects historical volatility of inflation. Incorporating an inflation forecast would obviously affect these probabilities. This is the topic we address in the next section.
What If Inflation Doesn’t Rise?
“Our view at Western Asset is that inflation is unlikely to rise above 2% in the near future.”
-- Western Asset
Our back-of-the-envelope calculation was based on only the historical volatility of inflation. Accordingly, it did not incorporate a forecast of inflation. Our view at Western Asset is that inflation is unlikely to rise above 2% in the near future. As we discussed in a paper last year, Falling Inflation Could Move the Fed, neither the bottom-up nor the top-down analysis of inflation indicates a strong case for an acceleration. The Fed’s actions since that paper was written make the top-down case for an inflation acceleration slightly stronger at the margin. It remains to be seen whether the Fed cuts are enough, however, and for the moment we doubt that they are. The global disinflationary headwinds remain firmly in place, and the bottom-up analysis doesn’t suggest much has changed.
Our outlook for inflation to remain below 2%, together with the very high bar set by Chair Powell, suggests that the Fed is unlikely to raise rates in 2020. In particular, given our low inflation outlook, the probability of a rate increase due to inflation appears to be even less than the 7.5% calculated in the previous section. What makes this conclusion all the more notable is that there is a healthy margin of safety in our analysis. Even if inflation were to move up somewhat, and even if it were to exceed our expectations and reach 2% next year, that would still be insufficient to generate a Fed response.
A trickier question is whether another year of below 2% inflation could motivate the Fed to continue cutting rates. In other words, could 2020 see a repeat of 2019 in terms of Fed cuts? There are reasons to doubt the Fed’s willingness to continue cutting, including the US election cycle and a much-discussed split of views within the Fed. In addition, the outlook for growth and risk markets has turned up recently, due in part to reduced political and trade risks. It’s hard for the Fed to cut into a brightening growth outlook.
Yet, many of those same claims could have been made at various points in 2019, and the Fed cut rates anyway. The experience of 2019 showed that the Fed is indeed capable of acting to support inflation, and is also capable of overcoming the common objections to doing so. Chair Powell has insisted that the Fed remains committed to boosting inflation. He has further said that the Fed’s commitment extends beyond words and will result in actions when needed. Therefore, it seems unadvisable to fully rule out further rate cuts. While not quite the base case, if the Fed is truly committed to boosting inflation, it may turn out that the Fed is compelled to cut again sometime in 2020.
“Going forward, the Fed’s new focus on inflation implies a high bar, and therefore low probability, for future hikes.”
-- Western Asset
As we reflect on what changed in 2019 we are struck first by the number of things that did not change. The economic recovery remains ongoing, although unspectacular in magnitude. The policy backdrop remains challenging, although arguably not any more so than at the beginning of the year, especially with regard to trade policy, where there has been some recent relief. And inflation remains very subdued both in the US and around the world.
What does appear to have changed, however, is the Fed’s willingness to act to support inflation. The Fed’s three cuts in 2019 surprised anybody who expected monetary policy to be determined primarily by the unemployment rate or by risk markets. Such a view may have been understandable—after all, it had accurately described the Fed’s behavior for the prior two decades—but it was worse than inaccurate in 2019.
In contrast to many investors, Western Asset was positioned on the correct side of the Fed outlook in 2019 because we recognized early on that the Fed had adopted a new focus on inflation. Going forward, the Fed’s new focus on inflation implies a high bar, and therefore low probability, for future hikes. Chair Powell made this clear when he said his criteria for rate hikes is “a really significant move up” in inflation that is “persistent.” Finally, a new focus on inflation means that further cuts cannot entirely be ruled out, especially if inflation continues to challenge the Fed by remaining below 2%.
U.S. Treasuries are direct debt obligations issued and backed by the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government. The U.S. government guarantees the principal and interest payments on U.S. Treasuries when the securities are held to maturity. Unlike U.S. Treasury securities, debt securities issued by the federal agencies and instrumentalities and related investments may or may not be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Even when the U.S. government guarantees principal and interest payments on securities, this guarantee does not apply to losses resulting from declines in the market value of these securities.
A basis point (bps) is one one-hundredth of one percentage point (1/100% or 0.01%).
The Federal Reserve Board ("Fed") is responsible for the formulation of U.S. policies designed to promote economic growth, full employment, stable prices, and a sustainable pattern of international trade and payments.
The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged index of 500 stocks that is generally representative of the performance of larger companies in the U.S.
Long-Term Capital Management L.P. (LTCM) was a hedge fund management firm founded in 1994. In 1998 it lost $4.6 billion in less than four months following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 1998 Russian financial crisis. The firm's master hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Portfolio L.P., collapsed in the late 1990s, leading to an agreement on September 23, 1998, among 14 financial institutions under the supervision of the Federal Reserve. The fund liquidated and dissolved in early 2000.
The Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Price Index is a measure of price changes in consumer goods and services; the measure includes data pertaining to durables, non-durables and services. This index takes consumers' changing consumption due to prices into account, whereas the Consumer Price Index uses a fixed basket of goods with weightings that do not change over time. Core PCE excludes food & energy prices.
The Employment Cost Index is a quarterly report from the U.S. Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics that measures the growth of employee compensation (wages and benefits). The index is based on a survey of employer payrolls in the final month of each quarter. The ECI tracks movement in the cost of labor, including wages, fringe benefits and bonuses for employees at all levels of a company.
U.S. Treasury inflation protected securities (TIPS) are a special type of Treasury note or bond that offers protection from inflation. Like other Treasuries, an inflation-indexed security pays interest six months and pays the principal when the security matures. The difference is that the coupon payments and underlying principal are automatically increased to compensate for inflation as measured by the CPI. Also referred to as “Treasury inflation-indexed securities.”
TIPS break-even inflation is the difference between the nominal yield on a fixed-rate investment and the real yield (fixed spread) on an inflation-linked investment of similar maturity and credit quality.
Standard deviation is a statistic used as a measure of the dispersion or variation in a distribution, or dataset, from its mean, or average; it measures the volatility of an investment’s return over a particular time period; the greater the number, the greater the volatility.
The federal funds rate (fed funds rate, fed funds target rate or intended federal funds rate) is a target interest rate that is set by the FOMC for implementing U.S. monetary policies. It is the interest rate that banks with excess reserves at a U.S. Federal Reserve district bank charge other banks that need overnight loans.
Forecasts are inherently limited and should not be relied upon as indicators of actual or future performance.
All investments involve risk, including possible loss of principal.
The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amounts originally invested, and can be affected by changes in interest rates, in exchange rates, general market conditions, political, social and economic developments and other variable factors. Investment involves risks including but not limited to, possible delays in payments and loss of income or capital. Neither Legg Mason nor any of its affiliates guarantees any rate of return or the return of capital invested.
Equity securities are subject to price fluctuation and possible loss of principal. Fixed-income securities involve interest rate, credit, inflation and reinvestment risks; and possible loss of principal. As interest rates rise, the value of fixed income securities falls.
International investments are subject to special risks including currency fluctuations, social, economic and political uncertainties, which could increase volatility. These risks are magnified in emerging markets.
Commodities and currencies contain heightened risk that include market, political, regulatory, and natural conditions and may not be suitable for all investors.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Please note that an investor cannot invest directly in an index. Unmanaged index returns do not reflect any fees, expenses or sales charges.
The opinions and views expressed herein are not intended to be relied upon as a prediction or forecast of actual future events or performance, guarantee of future results, recommendations or advice. Statements made in this material are not intended as buy or sell recommendations of any securities. Forward-looking statements are subject to uncertainties that could cause actual developments and results to differ materially from the expectations expressed. This information has been prepared from sources believed reliable but the accuracy and completeness of the information cannot be guaranteed. Information and opinions expressed by either Legg Mason or its affiliates are current as at the date indicated, are subject to change without notice, and do not take into account the particular investment objectives, financial situation or needs of individual investors.
The information in this material is confidential and proprietary and may not be used other than by the intended user. Neither Legg Mason or its affiliates or any of their officer or employee of Legg Mason accepts any liability whatsoever for any loss arising from any use of this material or its contents. This material may not be reproduced, distributed or published without prior written permission from Legg Mason. Distribution of this material may be restricted in certain jurisdictions. Any persons coming into possession of this material should seek advice for details of, and observe such restrictions (if any).
This material may have been prepared by an advisor or entity affiliated with an entity mentioned below through common control and ownership by Legg Mason, Inc. Unless otherwise noted the "$" (dollar sign) represents U.S. Dollars.
This material is only for distribution in those countries and to those recipients listed.
All investors and eligible counterparties in EU and EEA countries:
In Europe (excluding UK and Switzerland), this financial promotion is issued by Legg Mason Investments (Ireland) Limited, registered office Floor 6, Building Three, Number One, Ballsbridge, 126 Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. D04 EP27, Ireland. Registered in Ireland, Company No. 271887. Authorised and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.
In the UK, this financial promotion is issued by Legg Mason Investments (Europe) Limited, registered office 201 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3AB. Registered in England and Wales, Company No. 1732037. Authorized and regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority.
In Switzerland, this financial promotion is issued by Legg Mason Investments (Switzerland) GmbH, authorised by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA.
Investors in Switzerland: The representative in Switzerland is FIRST INDEPENDENT FUND SERVICES LTD., Klausstrasse 33, 8008 Zurich, Switzerland and the paying agent in Switzerland is NPB Neue Privat Bank AG, Limmatquai 1, 8024 Zurich, Switzerland. Copies of the Articles of Association, the Prospectus, the Key Investor Information documents and the annual and semi-annual reports of the Company may be obtained free of charge from the representative in Switzerland.
All Investors in Hong Kong and Singapore:
This material is provided by Legg Mason Asset Management Hong Kong Limited in Hong Kong and Legg Mason Asset Management Singapore Pte. Limited (Registration Number (UEN): 200007942R) in Singapore.
This material has not been reviewed by any regulatory authority in Hong Kong or Singapore.
All Investors in the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”):
This material is provided by Legg Mason Asset Management Hong Kong Limited to intended recipients in the PRC. The content of this document is only for Press or the PRC investors investing in the QDII Product offered by PRC’s commercial bank in accordance with the regulation of China Banking Regulatory Commission. Investors should read the offering document prior to any subscription. Please seek advice from PRC’s commercial banks and/or other professional advisors, if necessary. Please note that Legg Mason and its affiliates are the Managers of the offshore funds invested by QDII Products only. Legg Mason and its affiliates are not authorized by any regulatory authority to conduct business or investment activities in China.
This material has not been reviewed by any regulatory authority in the PRC.
Distributors and existing investors in Korea and Distributors in Taiwan:
This material is provided by Legg Mason Asset Management Hong Kong Limited to eligible recipients in Korea and by Legg Mason Investments (Taiwan) Limited (Registration Number: (98) Jin Guan Tou Gu Xin Zi Di 001; Address: Suite E, 55F, Taipei 101 Tower, 7, Xin Yi Road, Section 5, Taipei 110, Taiwan, R.O.C.; Tel: (886) 2-8722 1666) in Taiwan. Legg Mason Investments (Taiwan) Limited operates and manages its business independently.
This material has not been reviewed by any regulatory authority in Korea or Taiwan.
All Investors in the Americas:
This material is provided by Legg Mason Investor Services LLC, a U.S. registered Broker-Dealer, which includes Legg Mason Americas International. Legg Mason Investor Services, LLC, Member FINRA/SIPC, and all entities mentioned are subsidiaries of Legg Mason, Inc.
All Investors in Australia and New Zealand:
This document is issued by Legg Mason Asset Management Australia Limited (ABN 76 004 835 839, AFSL 204827). The information in this document is of a general nature only and is not intended to be, and is not, a complete or definitive statement of matters described in it. It has not been prepared to take into account the investment objectives, financial objectives or particular needs of any particular person.