A Big Week

We have in front of us a big week. This may determine the course of the next year or so in the stock market, the economy, and in politics.

A lot is about to happen. Let’s run it down, day by day.

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Inflation is Back

Inflation is back. What’s left to see is what anyone does about it.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for January came in at a strong 2.1% over the last 12 months. That’s above the target rate of 2.0% set by the Federal Reserve for the fourth month in a row. There will be attempts to explain it away in various ways. In the noise that will be created over this what will count is action by the Federal Reserve one way or the other.

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Fed Raising Rates …. When?

It’s been nearly a year since Janet Yellen, in her first testimony press conference after a Fed Open Market Committee (FOMC)  meeting, told the world just what she was looking for before raising the Fed Funds Rate (and everything that rises along with it). The openness was remarkable for a Fed Chair and a sign of a new era as a woman took control of what is arguably the most power job in the world.

Since that time, we have followed “Yellen’s Dashboard” with periodic updates to just just how we’re doin’. Nearly everyone agrees that interest rates will rise sometime this year, probably around June, as she has told us.  But how does that stack up against her very public criteria? It’s worth checking in with some math to see where we are with rates and what we can expect.

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Inflation? Naw.

After years of low interest rates and quantitative easing that amounts to more or less printing $4.5T, it would be easy to predict that inflation is bound to rise eventually. More dollars means, by supply and demand, that they have to be worth less, yes?

But the opposite is happening as the US economy charges ahead as the strongest economy in the developed world. While we have stopped stimulating our economy, Japan and Europe are only accelerating their programs. The US is poised to lose the currency war with the strongest currency standing – and a guarantee of lower prices for a lot more than just gasoline in the near future.

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Too Many Dollars, Too Few Dollars

What is the real rate of inflation? The official Consumer Price Index (CPI) is calculated with a basket of goods that are supposed to reflect the economy as a whole. There are over 200 categories of consumer goods that make their way into the CPI, including health care, airline travel, clothes, education, and so on. The price of this basket of goods is checked from one month to the next and it’s all added up to produce the CPI.

There is one big problem with this, however – not everyone buys the same goods. On average, over the whole economy, it’s about right. But people who have very little money don’t fly, go to the doctor as often, pay for school, and so on. Charles Gave of GaveKal Dragonomics came up with his own measure of inflation, modeled for the poor, and found some surprising results – and a correlation that spells trouble for the nation’s poor for a long time to come.

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Velocity and Inflation

Since 2008, the Federal Reserve has more or less printed over $3.2 Trillion in three rounds of “Quantitative Easing”, now tapering off to zero. Many have speculated that this has to result in inflation for the simple reason that there are more US Dollars out there than ever before. That’s based on the most fundamental principle of any market, supply and demand –more of these things called “Dollars” around and the value has to drop, meaning it takes more of them to make a reasonable exchange with something real.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Inflation remains less than 2% per year as it has since the financial crisis that started in 2007. How on earth can that be?

The answer is that the number of US Dollars in the world is only one part of the equation. The “velocity of money”, or the number of times they turn over in the economy, is equally important. Data since 2007 shows what every freelancer and job seeker knows – it’s a tough world out there, and people are pretty slow to let go of the dough they have.

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Fed Funds Future Foggy, Fudgy

The stock market is surging on solid corporate profits. Jobs are being created, if a bit slowly. Should the Federal Reserve continue its policy of Quantitative Easing? The short answer is probably not. But the policy of buying $85B in mortgage backed securities is continuing, at least for the foreseeable future. And with Janet Yellen, the Fed Vice Chair, slated to replace Ben Bernanke in January we have every reason to believe that the policy will continue.

It’s time to examine how the Fed sets their benchmark interest rate, the Fed Funds Rate, and what we can reasonable expect them to do with it in the near future. It shows just how much the Fed is really in charge of the economy – absent a Federal Government that is doing what needs to be done.

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