U.S. Economy Complicated By War, Inflation, Yield Inversion & Strong Jobs Data
Nonfarm payrolls added close to 500,000 new jobs in March in an already tight labor market. The unemployment rate dipped to 3.600%, a tick above the 50 year low of 3.500% back in February 2020. The long-term jobs picture is concerning as there are many more job openings than jobs available. The large number of job openings relative to the population actively seeking work could cause wage inflation to rise faster than economists prefer. Wage inflation is both sticky and a big component in overall inflation readings. Should companies have to pay even more for new hires, those companies will do all they can to raise prices to offset the higher employment cost. This in turn raises all prices, and so on and so forth. It becomes clear how inflation can become embedded throughout the economy as you game this out, and why the Fed is talking up rate hikes to cool off the economy and lower inflation expectations.
The PCE, the Fed’s preferred method of inflation came in at 6.40%, a 40 year high. PCE strips out volatile food and energy costs. Many forecasters see a 9% plus CPI number for March. Inflation is real and probably not going away any time soon. Using the PCE as an example, the Fed funds rate in real term is -6.15% when measured against inflation. This is destructive to savers and imposes a hidden tax on the population. Caution is warranted as the Fed’s policy shift stands for the benefit of main street, which may very well come at the expense of Wall Street.
With the Fed moving away from QE and intending to initiate both higher rates and QT, there is an increasing probability that the Fed may put the U.S. into a recession. This may not occur in the immediate moment, but prior to the end of 2023. The flattening and momentarily inverted 2-10 yield curve is supportive of this thought. How far the Fed will be able to raise short-term rates is unknown, but bond trading supports not much more than 2.00%-2.500%, which still leaves short-term rates negative when measured against present inflation. Fed hikes much higher than this level could be quite destructive given the absurd amount of U.S. debt. The Fed is truly embarking on a journey “where no man has gone before” when it comes to Fed policy.
Now, a few general observations. The war in Ukraine remains an international concern, but the markets for the moment seem to have moved past the troubling headlines. Also, the oil markets are trading better which will provide some relief to consumers over time. Mortgage rates are no longer cheap and the rise in interest rates will slow the pace of refinances. There are approximately 6 million homes that can still benefit from a refinance, down from 14 million not too long ago. However, the purchase market remains active. The dream of homeownership has not cooled as of yet. On the higher end, many potential buyers we speak to are looking to make gains from the stock market, or crypto market, to buy real estate. The recent volatility which saw many asset classes get crushed early in the quarter and then resurge probably has a lot to do with the desire to move into the safety of real estate. Moreover, lack of supply (as we have spoken about in many blog posts) will provide a natural floor to how low housing in markets such as Southern California may go down, even if the overall housing market is slowed by rising rates.