The new era at the Fed

With the first FOMC meeting and press conference led by Chairman Powell out of the way now, investors were given an excellent look at the beginning of a new era at the Fed. Powell, coming from a business and legal background, takes the reins after twelve years of career academics having had the Fed’s top spot. The difference in background and approach was evident in how Powell responded to questions from the press. When specifically questioned about various inflation and employment relationships, Powell used terms like “unobservable” and “disparate” to describe the underlying data and how the views on those subjects are at the Fed. These were candid answers that come from a person not being overly biased by any one particular economic theory as most traditional economists are. Then near the end of the Q&A, to hear the new Fed chair openly disagree with the predictive powers of an inverted yield curve by addressing the underlying economic factors involved instead of just granting omniscient status to such an established bond market signal was nothing short of fantastic. Powell showed flexibility and an openness of thought that was quite refreshing. However, he didn’t stray so far from the script as to cause any wild market swings. Powell effectively achieved what all his predecessors have strived for since Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” speech, which was to not rock the boat too much. Powell made it clear that the Fed was going to be focused on its two mandates and that he wasn’t interested in any political games. While it seems to be an exercise in futility to say political games won’t be an issue in this environment, Powell still gets the benefit of the doubt for now.

Powell’s responses in the Q&A should be of great comfort to investors. Yesterday, we heard from a Fed chair who is looking to be pragmatic, not dogmatic. Powell is the perfect fed-speak version of #Trump pro-business policies.

So, the question is, now what? The big debate in markets and a major focus of the Fed, is how will inflation play out? As Powell referred to in his “flat” Phillips curve explanation, inflation is lagging the strength in employment. The reason for this lag is of great debate in economic circles and is most attributable to advances in technology in my opinion. Thanks to technology, we find ourselves in a period marked by low inflation and sustainable levels of healthy growth. This is where the art of analysis Trumps science because we are dealing with intangibles and unobservable metrics that must be handled with open mindedness. Like the concept of “dark matter” in physics which scientists use to explain how galaxies maintain their shape when there isn’t enough observable mass to explain it, we know technology has impacted productivity and inflation, just not by how much. We know that thanks to fracking there has been a structural change to oil markets which has filtered through to nearly all products and processes in the form of lower prices with simultaneously higher demand. Then thanks to smart-phones, the on-line renaissance, and the “experiential” economy, the entire retail industry and traditional consumption have changed dramatically to the benefit of consumers through lower prices and increased demand. The moral of the story here is that inflation is different this time. The great news is that we have a Fed chair who is willing to accept this difference and isn’t going to throw markets into a tailspin trying to fit the situation into a box that it doesn’t belong.