US equities and inflation: It’s all good now

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Please note that this article may contain technical language. For this reason, it is not recommended to readers without professional investment experience.

The publication, on 2 February, of a non-farm payrolls report showing the biggest jump in wage gains since the end of the Great Financial Crisis, signalling a pick-up in US inflation, prompted a 10% correction in the S&P 500 equity index. After a rally throughout 2017 amid low volatility, this was – some would say – a healthy injection of volatility into financial markets.

Another US inflation surprise, this time in the January CPI print released on Valentine ’s Day, led to a 1.3% rise in the S&P 500. The headline CPI rose by 0.5% month-on-month (MoM), while core CPI was up by 0.35% MoM compared to consensus expectations of just 0.2% MoM.

Firmer tone to US inflation does not change the big picture

Most importantly, the January core CPI figure adds to a string of solid readings in recent months: on an annualised basis, core inflation is up by 2.9% over the past three months, and by 2.6% over the past half year.

The temporary dip in US inflation in the spring of 2017 due to a handful of transitory factors served to mask a clear firming trend in core consumer price inflation over the past several years, as seen in Exhibit 1 below.

Once the weak March 2017 reading drops out, the year-on-year rate of core US inflation should rise from 1.8% currently to 2.4% by June, assuming upcoming monthly readings are similar to what we saw in 2016 and most of 2017.

Broadly speaking, the recent trend in the CPI data suggests ongoing firming in core service prices that has been accompanied by less core goods deflation (and indeed, some modest inflation most recently).

Still, we should not see this one CPI report as drastically altering the inflation picture, as the recent trend in goods prices is not likely to be sustainable.

Exibit 1: A clear firming trend in US inflation – average core CPI readings 2014-2017

Note: Excludes weak readings from spring (March-May) 2017. Source: BLS, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of February 2018

This latest CPI report is commensurate to the 0.34% increase in average hourly earnings in the non-farm payrolls report from 02/02/18 when, again, markets had expected a gain of just a 0.2%. Why the difference in the equity market reaction?

On more steady feet after the kneejerk reaction?

The first explanation is that the initial shock has now passed. The big mystery of 2017 was why, at a time of tight conditions in US labour markets, inflation pressures were so absent. The gains in payroll costs were seen as the first signs of the price pressures that investors had long foreseen in an economy growing at a solid clip and marked by an ever-tightening job market.

Financial markets quickly repriced Treasury yields, inflation expectations – both up – and marked down equities on concerns about the prospect of accelerating policy tightening at the US Federal Reserve. The subsequent inflation data just confirmed the new consensus and required no further price adjustments in the markets.

Exhibit 2: Equity markets have bounced back from the sell-off, though on a year-to-date basis, not all are back in the black (change in main equity market indices; EM = emerging markets)

Source: JP Morgan, Bloomberg, FactSet, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of February 2018

Exhibit 3: Bond yields spiked higher in the market correction; while emerging market and credit yields (investment-grade and high-yield)  have partly reversed, government bond yields have held on the gains year-to-date (change in basis points)

Source: JP Morgan, Bloomberg, FactSet, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of February 2018

The good side of inflation

The second explanation is that inflation is not inherently bad for equities and this realisation has gained ground. Rising prices may mean rising input costs and salaries, but it should also mean rising corporate revenues and hence profits. In fact, the correlation between returns for the S&P 500 and changes in expected inflation is modestly positive (as shown by the dotted orange line in Exhibit 4). We expect any further increase in inflation to be modest.

Exhibit 4: The correlation between returns for the S&P 500 index and changes in expected inflation has been modestly positive (one-month change in S&P 500 and 5-year 5-year forward breakeven inflation)

Note: Weekly data from 1999. Source: Bloomberg, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of 16/02/2018

No time to be complacent (again)

The benign reaction of the markets to date does not mean, however, that investors need no longer pay attention to, or worry about, inflation. It’s a question of how much is too much, that is, will inflation accelerate so quickly that expectations for the future path of the fed funds rate advance to the point where policy action risks tipping the economy into a recession? We are not there yet, but that’s not to say we never will be.

Daniel Morris

Senior investment strategist, CFA charterholder

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