Inflation is expected to have declined in December, but it may not be enough to stop the Fed

A woman shops in a supermarket as rising inflation affects consumer prices in Los Angeles, California, June 13, 2022.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The pace of consumer inflation is expected to have fallen slightly in December from the prior month because of a sharp drop in gasoline and energy prices, but the annual rate is still likely to remain uncomfortably high.

According to Dow Jones, economists now expect a decline of 0.1% in the consumer price index on a monthly basis, but inflation is still expected to climb at a 6.5% rate from the prior year. That compares to a gain of 0.1% in November, and a 7.1% pace year over year. However, the CPI is well off the 9.1% peak rate in June.

Core CPI, excluding energy and food, is expected to be up 0.3% in December, gaining 5.7% on a year-over-year basis. Core CPI rose 0.2% in November and 6% on a yearly basis.

“We welcome it with open arms. It’s good news,” said KPMG chief economist Diane Swonk of the expected decline. “It’s great and it helped to fuel consumer spending in the fourth quarter. … But it’s still not enough.”

The consumer price index is expected Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET. It is the final CPI report before the Federal Reserve’s Feb. 1 interest rate decision. For that reason, the inflation number has become a major event for financial markets, and now some traders are betting it will show inflation slowing even more than economists forecast. They also point to weaker-than-expected wage growth in December’s jobs report, as well as other data that reflects lower inflation expectations.

Stocks rallied on Wednesday ahead of the report. “The market is looking at it as glass half full. Inflation is rolling over, and the Fed is almost done raising interest rates,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “I think they remember the last two months when you had numbers that were well below expectations. They’re just assuming that’s going to be the case again.”

Expected impact on the Fed

A focus on inflation in services

“The hope is that basically we are now in a position where you could envision a soft landing. That requires the Fed to not only stop raising rates but ease up sooner and that doesn’t seem to be where they’re at,” said Swonk. “The Fed is hedging a different bet than the markets are. … This is where nuance is really hard. You’re in this position where you’re improving. It’s like a patient is getting better, but they’re not out of the hospital yet.”

The fed funds rate range is currently at 4.25% to 4.5%, and the central bank has forecast a final high rate of 5.1% for this year.

“The Fed is also worried about a second round of supply shock, whether it’s China’s abrupt abandonment of its zero-Covid policy or something else from Russia. They don’t want to declare victory too soon,” said Swonk. “They’re making that very clear. They’ve said it over and over again and nobody listens.”

Economists expect another key metric — the personal consumption expenditure deflator — could show core inflation slowing even below the Fed’s forecast of 3.5% by Dec. 31. Some economists who expect a recession predict rate cuts before year-end, as the markets expect. But the Fed has no forecast for rate cuts until 2024.

Some strategists expect Fed officials to begin to sound more dovish and less at odds with the market view. Boston Fed President Susan Collins said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday that she was leaning toward a quarter-point hike at the next meeting.

“We think one of the changes in coming months is the Fed will soon realize it is cheaper to change the inflation narrative than reverse a recession leading to millions of lost jobs,” writes Fundstrat founder Tom Lee in a note Wednesday.

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Why everyone thinks a recession is coming in 2023

People who lost their jobs wait in line to file for unemployment following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas, U.S. April 6, 2020.

Nick Oxford | File Photo | REUTERS

Recessions often take everyone by surprise. There’s a very good chance the next one will not.

Economists have been forecasting a recession for months now, and most see it starting early next year. Whether it’s deep or shallow, long or short, is up for debate, but the idea that the economy is going into a period of contraction is pretty much the consensus view among economists.

“Historically, when you have high inflation, and the Fed is jacking up interest rates to quell inflation, that results in a downturn or recession,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “That invariably happens — the classic overheating scenario that leads to a recession. We’ve seen this story before. When inflation picks up and the Fed responds by pushing up interest rates, the economy ultimately caves under the weight of higher interest rates.”

Zandi is in the minority of economists who believe the Federal Reserve can avoid a recession by raising rates just long enough to avoid squashing growth. But he said expectations are high that the economy will swoon.

“Usually recessions sneak up on us. CEOs never talk about recessions,” said Zandi. “Now it seems CEOs are falling over themselves to say we’re falling into a recession. … Every person on TV says recession. Every economist says recession. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Fed causing it this time

The Fed now has a serious battle with inflation. It forecasts additional rate hikes, up to about 5.1% by early next year, and economists expect it may maintain those high rates to control inflation.

Those higher rates are already taking a toll on the housing market, with home sales down 35.4% from last year in November, the 10th month in a row of decline. The 30-year mortgage rate is close to 7%. And consumer inflation was still running at a hot 7.1% annual rate in November.

“You have to blow the dust off your economics textbook. This is going to be be a classic recession,” said Tom Simons, money market economist at Jefferies. “The transmission mechanism we’re going to see it work through first in the beginning of next year, we’ll start to see some significant margin compression in corporate profits. Once that starts to take hold, they’re going to take steps to cut their expenses. The first place we’re going to see it is in reducing headcount. We’ll see that by the middle of next year, and that’s when we’ll see economic growth slowdown significantly and inflation will come down as well.”

National Bureau of Economic Research, the arbiter of recessions, considers how deep the slowdown is, how wide spread it is and how long it lasts.

However, if any factor is severe enough, the NBER could declare a recession. For instance, the pandemic downturn in 2020 was so sudden and sharp with wide-reaching impact that it was determined to be a recession even though it was very short.

“I’m hoping for a short, shallow one, but hope springs eternal,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG. “The good news is we should be able to recover from it quickly. We do have good balance sheets, and you could get a response to lower rates once the Fed starts easing. Fed-induced recessions are not balance sheet recessions.”

The Federal Reserve’s latest economic projections show the economy growing at a pace of 0.5% in 2023, and it does not forecast a recession.

“We’ll have one because the Fed is trying to create one,” said Swonk. “When you say growth is going to stall out to zero and the unemployment rate is going to rise … it’s clear the Fed has got a recession in its forecast but they won’t say it.” The central bank forecasts unemployment could rise next year to 4.6% from its current 3.7%.

Fed reversal?

How long policymakers will be able to hold interest rates at high levels is unclear. Traders in the futures market expect the Fed to start cutting rates by the end of 2023. In its own forecast, the central bank shows rate cuts starting in 2024.

Swonk believes the Fed will have to backtrack on higher rates at some point because of the recession, but Simons expects a recession could run through the end of 2024 in a period of high rates.

 “The market clearly thinks the Fed is going to reverse course on rates as things turn down,” said Simons. “What isn’t appreciated is the Fed needs this in order to keep their long-term credibility on inflation.”

The last two recessions came after shocks. The recession in 2008 started in the financial system, and the pending recession will be nothing like that, Simons said.

“It became basically impossible to borrow money even though interest rates were low, the flow of credit slowed down a lot. Mortgage markets were broken. Financial markets suffered because of the contagion of derivatives,” said Simons. “It was financially generated. It wasn’t so much the Fed tightening policy by raising interest rates, but the market shut down because of a lack of liquidity and trust. I don’t think we have that now.”

That recession was longer than it seemed in retrospect, Swonk said. “It started in January 2008. … It was like a year and a half,” she said. “We had a year where you didn’t realize you were in it, but technically you were. …The pandemic recession was two months long, March, April 2020. That’s it.”

While the potential for recession has been on the horizon for awhile, the Fed has so far failed to really slow employment and cool the economy through the labor market. But layoff announcements are mounting, and some economists see the potential for declines in employment next year.

“At the start of the year, we were getting 600,000 [new jobs] a month, and now we are getting about maybe 250,000,” Zandi said. “I think we’ll see 100,000 and then next year it will basically go to zero. … That’s not enough to cause a recession but enough to cool the labor market.” He said there could be declines in employment next year.

“The irony here is that everybody is expecting a recession,” he said. That could change their behavior, the economy could cool and the Fed would not have to tighten so much as to choke the economy, he said.

“Debt-service burdens have never been lower, households have a boatload of cash, corporates have good balance sheets, profit margins rolled over, but they’re close to record highs,” Zandi said. “The banking system has never been as well capitalized or as liquid. Every state has a rainy day fund. The housing market is underbuilt. It is usually overbuilt going into a recession. …The foundations of the economy look strong.”

But Swonk said policymakers are not going to give up on the inflation fight until it believes it is winning. “Seeing this hawkish Fed, it’s harder to argue for a soft landing, and I think that’s because the better things are, the more hawkish they have to be. It means a more active Fed,” she said.

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