JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon is so worried about inflation he won’t invest the Wall Street bank’s cash. Homebuyers are backing out of the market amid a pricing frenzy and used car sticker shock is now a bigger deal than new car pricing on the dealership lot.
It is not news that inflation is running hot. The May Consumer Price Index spike of over 5% was the highest since 2008. Strip out food and energy prices from that inflation print and it was the highest inflation reading since January 1992. Producer prices, meanwhile, rose at their fastest pace in over a decade. And according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York survey, consumers fears about inflation are at a record, too.
A good question then: Why is the S&P 500 Index setting new records, the Dow hanging near if now slightly below a post-pandemic rally record, and the Nasdaq coming off a recent seven-day winning streak right before the Fed’s meeting concludes on Wednesday? All three major stock market indices are now between roughly 90% (the Dow) to over 110% (Nasdaq) above their pandemic lows.
For Nick Colas, co-founder of DataTrek Research, all the comparisons between current inflation numbers and records from the past are interesting for market historians, but less relevant to the stock market outlook. Stock futures were muted ahead of the Fed on Wednesday.
A patient bond market is the key
The reason for his bullish take amid the inflation fears and the number he says that is more important to watch than CPI: the bond market. It is signaling patience.
Even with the hot inflation print Treasury yields remain low. Yes, the inflation numbers can be real — and a valid concern for the bears, especially when they point to prices for homes and rentals — but market historians should also note that the bond market has a history of being slow to react to inflation trends.
The 10- year Treasury yield remains right around 1.5%.
The bond market is not signaling an inflationary environment that is here to stay and Colas is willing to bet that the bond market is a better bettor right now than Jamie Dimon.
“Treasury yields are not wrong,” he said. “If you think it [inflation] will come roaring back don’t be in bonds, don’t be in stocks.”
His bullish take on why the bond market is showing patience is that all the factors which are pushing up inflation are transitory in nature, as the Fed has consistently said. That includes used car prices which are spiking not only because fiscal and monetary policy have given car buyers more buying power, but also as a result of the chip shortage in the auto market and less supply of new cars. When short-term factors are stripped out, CPI is actually close to where it was right before the pandemic hit the U.S, a little over the 2% mark from February 2020.
The exception which supports the bears: inflation in home prices and rentals, which could stick and weigh on the economy in a less transient nature.
But Colas concludes from that data that while shelter inflation will continue to rise, history says it alone is not enough to keep CPI moving swiftly higher when other factors, including energy, used vehicles, car insurance and airfares — all of which drove the recent increase — are “safely in the transitory inflation camp.”
Cautious on stocks, not panicky on inflation
Yields have retreated from March highs, and that has helped lift the S&P to a new all-time record.
Colas now counts himself cautious on stocks, but not bearish on the market due to fears of a more hawkish Fed.
“We’ve been a touch cautious (but not bearish) on US stocks lately, and a modest new high alone is not enough to shift our view,” he wrote to clients after last week’s CPI. “Clearly, a decent chunk of our ‘no secular inflation’ thesis is already priced into Treasuries. Big Tech should see a small catch-up rally as a result. But as for the next move higher in large caps, we still think that will only happen as companies report Q2 in July and signal their outlook for the rest of 2021.”
His bigger picture view is that while markets can go through short-term periods of panic related to bonds and stocks, the bond market often takes a long time to really catch up to inflation. Historians can look at every CPI going all the way back to the 1950s if they’d like, but Colas noted that the period he looks to right now is when the U.S. was coming off the last major period of inflation that ended in the 1980s and saw inflation decline from double-digit percentages to 2%. It took the Treasury bond market 20 years to accept that inflation had been beaten in the U.S.
“Bottom line: This is exactly why 10-year Treasuries ignore even 1-2 years of CPI data,” he wrote in a recent note to DataTrek clients.
The lesson: “The Treasury market is a ‘show me’ market,” Colas tells CNBC. “It wants to see inflation go up or down for a long time before it re-prices. … high inflation this year says nothing about the future and before the pandemic, because we had such low inflation, it [the bond market] will need a lot of proof before it says inflation is rising again,” Colas said.
Investors do not expect a hawkish Fed
Market pros are not expecting a sudden hawkish turn in the Fed’s thinking or its conviction that inflation is “transitory.”
A Bank of America fund manager survey finds that roughly three-quarters of professional investors agree with the Fed.
“It’s hard to say it’s [going to be] hawkish because … I think it’s going from uber dovish to overly dovish,” Rick Rieder, Blackrock’s chief investment officer global fixed income, told CNBC.
There may be some more dissent among Fed members, but a rate hike is not expected until at least 2023 and many traders are willing to believe that will remain the Fed’s position on Wednesday. “Some of this hawkish expectation is way overblown,” Michael Arone, State Street’s chief investment strategist for the U.S. SPDR business, told CNBC. “Powell is going to say the labor market has 7.5 million jobs to go before it gets back to where it was.”
For Colas, what bonds have to say will remain the more important market commentary.