Now that the Fed has started its process of “normalizing” interest rates, the question the market is focusing on is: when will be the Fed’s next move? I expect that there will be a period of waiting and watching while the FOMC members assess whether inflation is going to reach their target. If they decide it is, then they will tighten further and USD will appreciate; if not, then we may have reached almost the maximum for “policy divergence” and USD could weaken. But while they are waiting and watching, the dollar is likely to trade in a range.
Fed Chair Yellen spelled out in broad terms the conditions necessary for further tightening in her opening remarks at the press conference following the recent FOMC meeting. She said that “the process of normalizing interest rates is likely to proceed gradually, although future policy actions will obviously depend on how the economy evolves.” In other words, we are not to expect a rate hike at each meeting, as happened in the 2004 tightening cycle; each meeting is “live,” i.e. they will have to make a fresh decision at each meeting.
Under the Fed’s dual mandate, it is required to pursue “maximum employment” and “stable prices.” The former they define as 4.8% to 5.0%, which means that with the unemployment rate currently at 5.0%, they’ve met their goal. The latter they define as “inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures.” They’re not there yet by any means. That means progress on inflation will determine whether they hike or not. Inflation data may therefore supplant the monthly nonfarm payrolls as the key indicator for the markets.
With inflation taking the spotlight, the monthly personal consumption expenditure (PCE) deflator, the Fed’s main target, becomes an even more important indicator than before. The figure for November, which was released Wednesday, showed the overall deflator rising 0.4% yoy – a welcome acceleration from +0.2% yoy in October but still close to zero -- while the core index, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, remained at 1.3%, well below the 2% target.
While their target is defined as the PCE, the market assumes they look more at core PCE. The recent movements of this indicator are not encouraging. The three-month change annualized hit the target earlier this year, but has since declined and is now bouncing around 1.2% -- exactly where the yoy rate of change is.
Given the relatively stable inflation rate, I would expect a period of stability on the FOMC too. I don’t see much chance of another rate hike at the January meeting; I think the earliest would be the next meeting after that, in March. That means we may be in for a period of range trading on the dollar, at least against the major currencies.
I still believe that the Committee wants to raise rates further in order to normalize their monetary policy, but they need to move within the context of their mandate. That means they will be watching the inflation numbers carefully – and so should we.