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Weekly Commentary: Transitory Histrionics

Weekly Commentary: Transitory Histrionics

May 3 – Financial Times (Sam Fleming): “Having lamented low inflation as one of the great challenges facing central bankers today in March, Jay Powell on Wednesday wrongfooted many investors with comments that seemed to play down the gravity of the problem. The new message from the Federal Reserve chairman — that ‘transitory’ drags may be slowing price growth, rather than more persistent problems — marked a rude awakening for investors who had been hoping that he would signal an ‘insurance’ interest rate cut this summer because of low inflation. To critics, Mr Powell’s sharp change in tone extends a pattern of unpredictable communications that have made Fed policy more difficult to read. While many accept that investors got ahead of themselves in treating a 2019 rate cut as a fait accompli, the risk is that in his effort to dial back expectations of easier policy Mr Powell undercut the central bank’s broader message: that it will do whatever is necessary to get stubbornly low inflation back on target.”

To many, Chairman Powell’s Wednesday news conference was one more bungled performance. It may not have been at the same level as December’s “tone deaf” “incompetence.” But his message on inflation was muddled and clumsily inconsistent. How on earth can Powell refer to below-target inflation as “Transitory”?

Chairman Powell should be applauded. Sure, he “caved” in January. And while he can be faulted (along with about everyone) for not appreciating the degree of market fragility back in December, markets had over years grown way too comfortable with the Fed “put”/backstop.  

I don’t fault the Powell Fed for having attempted in December to let the markets begin standing on their own. It was about time – actually, way overdue. Fault instead unsound markets and decades of “activist” Fed policymaking.

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