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Inflation wild card unsettles markets

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Regime changes usually take a while to fully register among investors. The big talking point in markets at the moment surrounds the potential return of a more troublesome level of consumer price inflation and what protective action investors should take.

The underlying trend of inflation matters a great deal for financial markets and investor returns. The rise in both equity and bond prices in recent decades has occurred during a long period of subsiding inflation pressure and from recent efforts by central banks to arrest disinflationary shocks since the financial crisis. 

A year after the global economy abruptly shut down, activity is duly picking up speed. The logical outcome has been a surge in readings of inflation and this week, a measure of US core prices recorded its largest annual gain since 1996, running at a pace of 3 per cent*.

Core readings exclude food and energy prices and are deemed a smoother gauge of underlying inflation pressure, a point that many people outside finance find baffling when budgeting the cost of groceries and petrol.

So the significant jump in the core measure, and even accounting for the base effect of the pandemic’s brief deflationary shock a year ago, has understandably generated plenty of noise.

This will remain loud in the months ahead as activity recovers from lockdowns with a hefty tailwind of fiscal stimulus working its way through the broad economy.

But muddying the waters for investors is that the outlook for inflation is still difficult to judge at this stage.

“There is so much dislocation in the economy from the reopening and base effects from a year ago that it will take at least six to 12 months before we get a clear view of the underlying inflation trend,” said Jason Bloom, head of fixed income and alternatives ETF strategies at Invesco.

Investors who are now worried about an inflation shock face a dilemma. Some assets seen as traditional hedges against such a risk, like inflation-protected bonds and commodities, have already risen appreciably. Effectively a period of inflation running hot has been priced in to some degree.

And history does provide a cautionary note for those moving late to buy expensive inflation protection.

Past inflationary alarms, as economies recovered in the wake of the dotcom bust in the early 2000s and the financial crisis of 2008, proved false dawns. After a mercifully brief pandemic recession, the powerful and well entrenched disinflationary trends of ageing populations and falling costs associated with technological innovation are by no means in retreat.

For such reasons, a number of investors and the US Federal Reserve expect inflationary pressure this year will prove “transitory”. But stacked against deflationary forces is the immense scale of the monetary and fiscal stimulus of the past year.

The effects of monetary and fiscal stimulus means “inflation may settle into a pace of 2.5 per cent (annualised) and that would be different from the average of 1.5 per cent before the pandemic”, said Jason Pride, chief investment officer of private wealth at Glenmede Investment Management. “Inflation will be higher. At a dangerous level? No.”

In an environment of firmer growth and moderate inflation pressure, equities will benefit, led by companies that have earnings more influenced by the economic cycle. Investors also will seek companies that have the ability to pass on higher prices to customers in the near term and offset a squeeze on profit margins.

Still, a troublesome period of elevated inflation cannot be easily dismissed. The “transitory” argument could be challenged if economic growth continues to run hot into next year, accompanied by a trend of higher wages from companies finding it hard to attract workers.

Before reaching that point, expected inflation priced into the bond market may well push past the peaks of the past two decades and enter uncharted territory in the US and also for other developed markets in the UK and Europe.

Bond market forecasts of future inflation pressure over the next five to 10 years have already risen sharply in recent months. But the rebound is from a low level and for now, expected inflation is not far beyond the Fed’s long-term target of 2 per cent.

“It is the change in inflation expectations that drives asset returns,” said Nicholas Johnson, portfolio manager of commodities at Pimco. Assessing almost 50 years of data, a portfolio holding equities and bonds underperforms during bouts of elevated inflation, while real assets including inflation-linked bonds and commodities prosper, according to the asset manager.

“Most investors have not experienced a period where inflation surprised to the upside,” added Johnson. Clients are asking more questions about insulating their portfolios, but their present exposure to commodities and other assets show that in broad terms investors are “not paying much of an inflation premium”.

That can change and the prospect of inflation regime change remains a wild card for investors.

michael.mackenzie@ft.com

*The value of core inflation has been changed since first publication.



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BNP under fire from Europe’s top wine exporter over lossmaking forex trades

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BNP Paribas is facing allegations that its traders mis-sold billions of euros of lossmaking foreign exchange products to Europe’s largest wine exporter, the latest accusations in a widening controversy that has also enveloped Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank.

J. García Carrión, founded in Jumilla in south-east Spain in 1890, is in dispute with the French lender over currency transactions with a cumulative notional amount of tens of billions of euros. It claims the lossmaking trades were inappropriately made with one of its former senior managers between 2015 and 2020, according to people familiar with the matter.

BNP is one of several banks facing complaints from corporate clients in Spain over the alleged mis-selling of foreign exchange derivatives, which pushed some companies into financial difficulties.

Deutsche Bank has launched an internal investigation of the alleged mis-selling that this week led to the departure of two senior executives, Louise Kitchen and Jonathan Tinker.

An internal investigation at JGC found that BNP conducted more than 8,400 foreign exchange transactions with the company over the five-year period, equivalent to about six each working day.

That level of activity was far higher than what the company would have needed for normal hedging of exchange-rate risk on international wine exports, the people said, adding that the Spanish company had shared the results of its internal probe with BNP.

While the vast majority of the lossmaking trades related to euro-dollar swaps that moved against the bank, some were in currency pairs where JGC has little or no operations, such as the euro-Swedish krona.

As a direct result, the €850m-revenue company made about €75m of cash losses in those five years, while BNP could have made more than €100m of revenue from transactions, the people added. Many of the deals were made through trading desks in London.

Executives have demanded compensation for at least some of the losses, arguing that BNP’s traders or compliance department should have spotted and reported the disproportionately high level of transactions and profits from a single client, according to multiple people with knowledge of events.

JGC says the deals were designed as bets on currency markets, rather than for hedging, and is considering a lawsuit to try to recover some of the money, one of the people said.

“BNP Paribas complies very strictly with all regulatory obligations relating to the sale of derivatives and foreign exchange instruments,” the bank said in a statement. “We do not comment on client relationships.”

JGC declined to comment.

Separately, the Spanish wine producer is suing Goldman Sachs in London’s High Court for a partial refund of $6.2m of losses caused by exotic currency derivatives. Goldman has maintained the products were not overly complex for a multinational company with hedging needs and were entered into with full disclosure of the risks.

In Madrid, the wine company has also brought a case against a former senior executive who was responsible for signing off the lossmaking deals. JGC alleges this person conducted the deals in secret and covered them up internally by falsifying documents and misleading auditors.

In the London lawsuit, JGC alleges its executive was acting “with the encouragement and/or pursuant to the recommendations” of Goldman staff “for the purposes of speculation rather than investment or hedging”.

Deutsche Bank has been investigating for months whether its traders in London and Madrid sidestepped EU rules and convinced hundreds of Spanish companies to buy sophisticated foreign exchange derivatives they did not need or understand.

The Financial Times has reported that the German bank has settled many complaints brought against it in private and avoided going to court.

People familiar with the matter told the FT that the departures of Kitchen and Tinker were linked to the probe into the alleged mis-selling, which appears to have occurred in units that at the time were overseen by the two.

The bank declined to comment. Kitchen and Tinker did not respond to requests for comment.



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Will the Fed dare to mention tapering?

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Will the Fed dare to mention tapering?

When Federal Reserve officials convene on Tuesday for their latest two-day monetary policy meeting, questions over whether the central bank should start talking about tapering its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme will lead the agenda.

Since the US central bank last met in late April, several senior Fed policymakers, including vice-chair Richard Clarida, have cracked the door more widely open for a discussion about eventually winding down the pace of those purchases, which include US Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities.

The recent comments align with those referenced in the latest Fed meeting minutes, which indicated that “a number of participants” believed it might be “appropriate at some point in upcoming meetings” to begin thinking about those plans if progress continued towards the central bank’s goals of a more inclusive recovery from the pandemic.

Recent economic data support this timeline. Consumer prices in the US are rising fast, with 5 per cent year-on-year gains in May revealed in last Thursday’s CPI report — the steepest increase in nearly 13 years. Additionally, last month’s jobs numbers, while weaker than expected, still showed signs of an improving labour market.

Most investors still expect the Fed to only begin tapering in early 2022, with guidance on the exact approach delivered in more detail around September this year at the latest. Goldman Sachs predicts a more formal announcement will come in December, with interest rate increases not pencilled in until early 2024.

“The Fed is signalling they are going to start talking about it,” said Alicia Levine, chief strategist at BNY Mellon Investment Management. “They are softening up the market to expect [something] this summer.” Colby Smith

Are inflation risks rising for the UK?

Consumer prices in the UK have risen at an annual rate of less than 1 per cent for most of the pandemic due to low demand for goods and services and weak wage pressure.

However, with the recent easing of Covid-19 restrictions releasing pent-up consumer demand, the nation’s headline inflation figure doubled in April from the previous month.

When core consumer price inflation data for May are released on Wednesday, some analysts expect an even bigger leap, predicting that annual CPI growth will jump to the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent.

Robert Wood, chief UK economist at the Bank of America, said such an inflation surge would add to the BoE’s hawkishness. He also forecast further rises later this year as commodity price increases continued to elevate energy and food costs.

Additional price pressure would come from supply chain disruptions and higher transport costs that push up input costs.

“The upside risks to our inflation forecast are growing from all angles,” said Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, who expected consumer price levels to peak at 2.6 per cent in November.

“The reopening may result in prices in pubs and restaurants climbing quicker than we have assumed,” Dales added, while labour shortages in some sectors, such as construction and hospitality, were also starting to push up wages and prices.

However, both analysts expect the increased price strain to be temporary.

“Once higher commodity prices have fed through to consumer prices, inflation will fall back again,” said Wood, forecasting that UK inflation would drop back below the BoE’s target in late 2022. Valentina Romei

Line chart of Annual % change on consumer price index showing UK consumer price inflation is set to rise above target

Will the BoJ keep its rates policy on hold?

Japan’s economic recovery has diverged from Europe and the US this year as it struggles with its Covid vaccination campaign and big cities such as Tokyo continue to be partially locked down under states of emergency due to the pandemic.

Although the nation’s wholesale prices rose at their fastest annual pace in 13 years last Thursday on surging commodity costs, Japan has otherwise faced a lack of price pressures compared with the US.

That means that when the Bank of Japan concludes its two-day meeting on Friday, analysts believe it will not alter monetary policy.

“I don’t expect any change in policy,” said Harumi Taguchi, principal economist at IHS Markit in Tokyo. “They increased flexibility in March and I expect they will continue to watch that.”

After a policy review, Japan’s central bank in March scrapped its pledge to buy an average of ¥6tn ($54.8bn) a year in equities, and the pace of its exchange traded fund purchases dropped sharply in April and May. The moves signalled a shift away from aggressive monetary stimulus in favour of what the BoJ termed a more “sustainable” policy.

“Japan is one of the few countries whose property prices have not risen, and since rent is a major component of the consumer price index, it is not likely to see much inflation ahead,” said John Vail, chief global strategist at Nikko Asset Management in Tokyo.

“Interest rates can remain extremely low, which in turn keeps the yen on a weak trend,” Vail added. Robin Harding

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Dollar traders chill after the tantrum

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It was a classic case of buy the rumour, sell the fact.

In February this year, investors and analysts were concerned that the US economy was beginning to hot up, sparking fears that inflation would pick up and force the Federal Reserve to quicken its policy tightening. This, in turn, led to a surge in US government yields, which propelled the dollar to the year’s high against its peers a month later.

Fast-forward to the end of the first half of the year and inflation in the US is running at its fastest pace since the global financial crisis, but the dollar has weakened for two straight months after appreciating in the first quarter.

Most of the shift is down to US central bankers who rushed to reassure investors that they would keep conditions extremely accommodating, soothing the flare-up in Treasury yields and the dollar’s exchange rate.

As a result, analysts are pretty confident that Fed chair Jay Powell and his board will “look through” the rise in prices at the central bank’s rate-setting meeting next week, keeping the dollar on its current weakening path.

“The combination of steady Fed expectations and a broadening global economic recovery should allow recent dollar weakness [to] continue,” said Zach Pandl, co-head of foreign exchange strategy at Goldman Sachs, in a research note. He expected the euro to benefit the most against the US currency.

Still, some strategists cannot help but wonder whether they should stick to selling the fact, or if it is time to start buying the rumour — and the dollar — again. Despite inflation powering to above 5 per cent year on year, yields on 10-year Treasuries fell to their lowest in three months, in a counterintuitive reaction fuelled by the anticipation that policymakers will shrug off the building heat in the economy.

“Getting US inflation right may be the most important market call for the rest of the year,” said Athanasios Vamvakidis, global head of currency strategy at Bank of America in London.

A decision from the US central bank to keep its policy unchanged would allow the dollar to continue with its weakening path, but maybe not as much as traders anticipated at the beginning of 2021. Vamvakidis notes that currency markets are quietly pricing in less dollar weakness than at the start of the year, with the consensus view now calling for the euro to trade at around current levels $1.21 by the end of December rather than at $1.25.

“For now, high US inflation and a still dovish Fed keep real US rates highly negative and this supports the euro. The question is for how long this is sustainable if US inflation proves persistent,” he said, adding that the bank expected the euro to finish the year at $1.15.

Line chart of Dollar index (DXY) showing The dollar has weakened after first-quarter gains

There are signs that investors might be getting too relaxed. Options markets display little nervousness about the Fed meeting, and Mark McCormick, global head of currency strategy at TD Securities said negative bets on the dollar had begun to build up heavily again in recent weeks.

This adds to the risk of a sharp snapback in the currency’s exchange rate if the Fed does hint at tapering its asset purchases on Wednesday or before analysts expect.

“Don’t expect much more dollar weakness into the summer,” said McCormick.

There are also some offbeat signs that there is a risk of traders betting too heavily on the Fed’s commitment to keeping liquidity ample. Analysts at Standard Chartered noted that Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, a former Fed chair, mentioned the potential benefits of a higher interest rate environment twice in recent weeks.

John Davies, a US rates strategist at Standard Chartered, said that it was most likely that the Treasury chief was defending the Biden administration’s fiscal plans rather than criticising Fed policy, but it was highly unusual.

“It is still striking when the Treasurer of a public or private entity argues for higher borrowing costs,” said Davies.

Investors now expect the US central bank to start cutting its asset purchase amounts in the first quarter of next year, with an announcement pencilled in for potentially September, when the Fed meets for its annual symposium at Jackson Hole, according to Oliver Brennan, head of research at TS Lombard.

But while an earlier than expected announcement would cause some ructions, the real risk is that investors will have to start anticipating the timing of rate increases in the US, which could come sooner and harder than they anticipated.

“The taper sets the clock ticking for the first rate hike and real rates rise [and] big changes in Fed policy are rarely smooth-sailing,” said Brennan.

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