The Federal Reserve has a “dual mandate” designed to “foster economic conditions that achieve both stable prices and maximum sustainable employment.” The “dual mandate” is obviously a moving target, but it appears for now, based on the Fed’s explicit goals, Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, has accomplished the central bank’s mission. More specifically, inflation, according to the just-reported BEA’s (Bureau of Economic Analysis) GDP Price Deflator statistics, has plummeted dramatically to the Fed’s goal of 2.0% from the sky-high inflation number of 9.1% a year ago (see chart below). Meanwhile, the economy continues to grow (+2.0% GDP growth in the 2nd quarter), and the long-awaited recession boogeyman has yet to appear.
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis
Rate Pig Moving Through Economic Python
How has inflation plunged so quickly? For starters, in addition to the Fed’s restrictive policy of reducing the balance sheet, since the beginning of last year, the Fed has also effectively slammed the brakes on the economy by taking their target interest rate from 0% to 5.5%. The pace and scale of the interest rate increases have been reduced this year, however it is possible there might be more rate hikes ahead (currently, pundits are betting for no more rate increases this year, although a boost in November is possible if economic data accelerates). Like a pig working its way through the economic python, the large interest rate increases naturally take a while to work their way through the consumer, commercial, and government credit markets.
To put things in better perspective, a study done earlier this year showed the average 30-year monthly mortgage payment for a $500,000 home was higher by more than $800 (up +44%) versus a year ago! But wait, it’s not just consumers feeling the pinch of higher rates. Businesses and governments in all shapes and sizes have felt the pain as well from higher borrowing costs. Post-COVID supply chain constraints and disruptions have eased too, which have helped choke down the high inflation numbers. In the background, let’s not also forget about the disinflationary benefits of ever-expanding technology adoption coupled with the related productivity advantages (see also AI Revolution).
As a result of these dynamics, we are now starting to see cracks appear in our country’s employment foundation as this month’s JOLTs (Job Openings and Labor Turnover – see black line in chart below) and ADP monthly job additions data, which both came in disappointingly low compared to forecasts. Chairman Powell must be ecstatic inflation has plummeted, while the unemployment rate remains near multi-decade lows, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth continues expanding (i.e., no recession in sight).
Source: Calculated Risk and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Hot Summer, Hot Stocks
Economic activity clearly can and will change, but the stock market has been like the weather this summer…hot. However, after experiencing up-months in six out of the first seven months of 2023, the S&P 500 index decided to take a small breather this month. For August, the S&P slipped -1.8%, but the month was a tale of two cities. By the middle of the month, the index had fallen by roughly -6% on fears of potentially more aggressive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve due to better than anticipated economic data. In other words, inflation fears were on the rise and the 10-Year Treasury Note yield temporarily climbed to a 52-week high. By the end of the month, economic data cooled, interest rates dropped a little, and stock prices rebounded smartly by +4.0% to finish the month on a strong note.
For the year, the S&P’s remain strongly positive, up +17.4%. As I have written in the past, the seven largest companies in the S&P 500 index (a.k.a., The Magnificent 7: Apple Inc.; Microsoft Corp.; Alphabet Inc.; Amazon.com, Inc.; NVIDIA Corp.; Tesla, Inc.; and Meta Platforms, Inc.) have contributed to a significant portion of the year’s gains – the average Magnificent 7 stock has skyrocketed an eye-popping +99.0% with NVIDIA being the largest winner, more than tripling in value during the first eight months of the year.
The Federal Reserve can admit they were late to the game in taming out-of-control inflation, but Fed Chair Powell has been swift in moving to preserve his legacy as an inflation fighter. Now that inflation is coming under control and the economy is beginning to cool, Powell needs to make sure he doesn’t murder the economy into recession with overzealous future interest rate increases. Time will tell if the mission has already been accomplished, but so far, the Fed has been delicately balancing an economic soft landing and stock market investors like it.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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