One month ago, a SocGen strategist calculated something remarkable: at a time when the Fed is warning of multiple 50bps hikes in coming FOMC meetings and Powell is threatening to take fed funds above neutral - somewhere in the great unknown zone between 2.0% and 4.5% - and even the gradually fading market consensus still expects just under 8 hikes this cycle...
... quant Solomon Tadesse calculated that according to his analysis, if the Fed i focused on preserving growth (at the expense of higher inflation), then Fed Funds will peak at just around 1.0%, which combined with a QT programme to the tune of about $1.8tn, means the Fed will very soon be forced to reverse.
Furthermore, as Tadesse has since pointed out, with the Fed’s recent bold 50bp hike, "there does not seem much room left for manoeuvring for the desired soft-landing." He then echoes what we have been saying in recent weeks, namely that the "type of week-long market meltdown witnessed since the recent hike often precedes a policy about-face in line with our projection."
Ok but what if having decided to push the US into a recession, growth be damned, the Fed is now focusing only and entirely on inflation? After all, current rates are far, far below the prevailing CPI which is around 8%, and while many argue whether CPI has peaked, there is a significant possibility CPI could hit double digits in the coming months.
This is the question that Tadesse addresses in his latest must-read note (available to pro subs in the usual place), in which he writes that "an inflation-fighting impulse is currently in the air, begging the question of what it could take to stamp out the current trend for good, even at the cost of a hard landing."
According to the SocGen quant, given the rising inflation prints and accompanying political pressure, if the pro-growth tightening threshold is breached - which it likely will be as soon as the next FOMC meeting, making a hard landing inevitable, and unleashing the Fed in favor of a single-minded inflation-fighting policy stance, Tadesse's analysis suggests that it "could take overall monetary tightening of as much as 9.25% to arrest inflation, with the policy rate going up to 4.5% and the balance coming from QT of about $3.9tn, which would slash the current Fed balance sheet by about half."
Here is some more detail from the SocGen quant on this potential "alternative" in which the Fed single-mindedly pursues inflation containment, going Volcker-style with accelerated rate hikes reminiscent of the 1970s and early 1980s, when the average MTE (tightening to easing) ratio was about 1.5x (left-hand chart below).:
Such aggressive monetary tightening with a focus solely on inflation containment, even at the cost of inducing recession, according to our analysis, would require overall monetary tightening of about 11.6%. Given that rates have already been tightened by 2.5%, another 9.25% of monetary tightening might be expected via policy rate hikes and an aggressive QT program. The policy rate could go up by as much as 4.5%, with the remainder coming from QT (right-hand chart above). These projections are all before the 4 May rate hike of 50bp, which lowers the balance proportionately.
At a rate of 12bp per $100bn of QT, this also amounts to a QT program of about $3.9tn, roughly equivalent to the net growth in the Fed’s balance sheet during the pandemic. An important caveat in the analysis is the presumption that current inflation levels resemble those of the late 1970s through the 1980s. As recent inflation prints are the highest in 40 years, this might be a reasonable assumption, particularly in reference to the rates seen in the early 1980s. In addition, in interpretating the results, there is an implicit assumption that the current inflation prints are persistent and demand driven. However, as our earlier analysis shows, the current inflation dynamics are driven both by transitory supply-related disruptions and demand-driven price pressures. Should the supply bottlenecks ease over time, the degree of monetary tightening needed to contain inflation through demand destruction could turn out to be lower.
The above-left chart shows monetary policy frontiers (MPF). These are all the policy-rate hike and QT combinations that could generate the inflation-containing overall tightening of upwards of 9pp and the growth-conscious overall tightening discussed earlier, with the most likely outcomes of policy combinations identified with stars. Thus, our analysis suggests that while it might only take another 25-50bp for growth-conscious tightening to peak before a hard landing, an aggressive inflation-containing policy could mean additional policy rate hikes of up to 4.0pp.
As noted earlier, the above analysis assumes that the Fed is resigned to a hard-landing. Does it mean that a soft-landing is now inevitable? Pretty much. Here is Tadasse again:
In an earlier research note, we argued that if current monetary policy follows a pro-growth impulse, as has been the case over the past four decades, the current tightening phase could peak with only 0.75-1pp of rate hikes, combined with a QT program to the tune of about $1.8tn. After the Fed’s recent bold 50bp hike, there now does not seem to be much room left for manoeuvring toward a soft landing. Moreover, the type of week-long market meltdown witnessed since the hike has often preceded a policy about-face, which is what we expect.
Summarizing the above, the SocGen quant writes that "monetary policy is thus at a crossroads, with a stark choice between a ‘growth’ conscious, albeit inflationary, rate-hike cycle, peaking after 300bp of tightening (with a mix of QT and FFR) or an inflation-containing, albeit recessionary, rate-hike cycle, peaking at about a 925bp of overall tightening (with a mix of 450bp in policy rate and the balance from QT)."
And while there could be possibilities in between these two extremes, the middle ground may not, in general, be an admissible rational strategy. Such an intermediate path, plausible due to political pressure or a mid-course reversal in policy priorities between price stability and full employment, would likely fail to accomplish either mandate and could damage central bank credibility.
What does this mean for traders? Nothing good - as Tadesse concludes, equity strategies do not fare well in scenarios of high inflation and declining growth (i.e. stagflation), as companies struggle with falling revenues and rising costs, lower growth causes lower earnings, and higher rates combined with an increase in the equity-risk premium negatively impact valuations. And while SocGen notes, that "cash flow and balance-sheet strength would matter for relative performance here", we would add that the real question is how fast does the market expect inflation to shrink back to the 2-3% range. The answer to that question will determine most investing strategies for the next year or so.
For those unable or unwilling to answer, a simple heuristic is that strategies that pay high dividends at cheap valuations (such as quality income) should do well in this environment. So should equity strategies dominated by firms with pricing power, such as those in the upstream of the production chain, as should defensive equity strategies with stable cash flows and relative pricing power (such as utilities, the quality and quality income factors). Pair trades can use these as the long legs, offset with shorts among cyclical and aggressive growth strategies.