This “Emperor” Has No Clothes


by Jim Rickards, Daily Reckoning:

Does the Fed even matter that much to the real economy and investor portfolios?

That’s an important question that doesn’t get nearly enough scrutiny. It’s possible that neither the Fed nor the reporters who cover the Fed want to ask hard questions about what the Fed really does.

Could it be the case that the emperor has no clothes?

Financial journalists often refer to a Goldilocks economy (“not too hot, not too cold, just right!”) as a tribute to the Fed’s finesse in handling rates. It’s also called the “soft landing” scenario because the Fed supposedly tamed inflation without causing a recession.


These narratives have no factual foundations; they’re just stories designed to get you to buy stocks and pump up stock prices.

The truth is the Fed is always behind the curve and doesn’t finesse the economy. And there’s no such thing as a soft landing; the economy does not gradually shift gears. It’s either growing fast or going into recession.

So where does the Fed stand today? Will it start cutting rates as Wall Street keeps (wrongly) predicting?

Wall Street Keeps Getting It Wrong

The Fed will not cut rates at its May or June meetings. Wall Street’s been predicting rate cuts for almost two years and they’ve been wrong every time. They’re predicting a June rate cut, and they’ll be wrong again.

A rate cut at the July 31 meeting is possible but is in jeopardy now due to inflation going up again in the latest report. We’ll have three more months of inflation, unemployment and GDP data between now and then.

If the Fed does cut rates in late July, it won’t be for good reasons. It’ll be because the economy has fallen into a recession. But given the boost to U.S. growth from out-of-control government spending in an election year, the recession may be postponed. So don’t count on a July rate cut either.

There’s no Fed meeting in August. The next meeting after that is Sept. 18. The Fed may be ready for a rate cut by then but here’s the problem: The Sept. 18 date is just seven weeks before the election on Nov. 5. The Fed pretends it’s non-political but in fact, it is highly political.

A rate cut in September will be viewed as helping Biden by boosting the economy and hurting Trump. At the same time, Trump is the likely winner based on currently available polling data and trends.

The Fed won’t want to be in the position of appearing to boost Biden and hurt Trump if Trump is going to win. Trump will make the Fed Public Enemy No. 1 and that’s the last thing they want. So the Fed will take a pass in September.

There’s no Fed meeting in October. The next two Fed meetings after that are on Nov. 7 and Dec. 18, both safely after the election. The Fed could cut rates at both meetings. But the Fed has painted itself into a corner on that.

The Fed’s Running out of Time

Beginning at the FOMC meeting on March 20, the Fed promoted the narrative that there would be three rate cuts before the end of the year. If they don’t cut in May, June, July or September (for reasons noted above) and there are no meetings in August or October, then the Fed would have at most two rate cuts this year, in November and December.

In short, the Fed is running out of meetings in which to conduct three rate cuts and may have to settle for two.

The Fed’s reckless promise and the dictates of the calendar are what are driving the stock market. The stock market’s fixated on the Fed, but the Fed doesn’t know what they’re doing. That’s a recipe for volatility and a sharp reversal of the first-quarter gains.

So why doesn’t the Fed just get on with it and start cutting rates in May? They could make an announcement and hire a band to play “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

The Fed thought they had won the battle when inflation dropped from 9.1% (CPI year-over-year) in June 2022 to 3.0% in June 2023. Nice job, Fed. It was when that June 2023 reading came out in July 2023 that the Fed put in one last rate hike, and then stopped dead. Since then, it’s been a countdown to rate cuts.

The problem is that inflation isn’t done. From the 3.0% in June 2023, inflation rose to 3.7% in August, and 3.7% again in September 2023. Inflation fluctuated between 3.1% and 3.4% until recently. March inflation came in at 3.5%, a full 0.3 percentage points higher than in February.

Oil’s up 24% in 4 Months

That’s not all that’s going up. The price of oil was $68.50 per barrel last Dec. 12 and is over $83.00 per barrel today. That’s about a 21% increase in just four months.

That oil price shock hasn’t worked its way through the supply chain yet. It has resulted in some price increases, but more are in the pipeline. This oil price spike will keep inflation at current levels or higher in the months ahead. The Fed is looking for signs that inflation is coming down but they’re not going to get them, as shown in the latest inflation report.

The price of one gallon of regular gasoline (regular, national average) was $3.64 as of yesterday, April 22. It was $3.57 on April 4, $3.55 on April 3, $3.54 on March 28, $3.52 on March 4 and $3.51 on April 4, 2023.

Put differently, gas prices are higher than they were last week, last month and last year.

That’s a bad sign for Biden politically, but it’s a worse sign for the Fed in terms of inflation. That gas price rise isn’t over because the wholesale price of oil is still on the rise. And oil prices affect far more than the price of gas at the pump.

Higher oil prices mean higher transportation costs whether by truck, train, plane or ship since all goods have to be transported to market. That means the price of everything is going up.

Other factors driving inflation from the supply side include the Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore, the closing of the Red Sea/Suez Canal shipping route and continued fallout from Ukraine war sanctions. Some of these supply side constraints may be deflationary in the long run, but they are definitely inflationary in the short run.

Running on Fed Happy Talk

The stock market has been running on Fed Happy Talk. That situation may end abruptly on June 12 if the Fed doesn’t cut rates and signals that rate cuts are not to be expected in the near future and perhaps not before the end of the year.

By then, we may be facing one of the worst economic outcomes possible: recession + inflation = stagflation.

Anyone under the age of 60 probably has no acquaintance with stagflation. The U.S. last experienced this in 1977–1981. I remember that period well. It was great for leveraged holders of hard assets such as gold and real estate.

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