The vexing issue of inflation

Weekly Market Review: Central banks and investors are grappling with uncertainty about the future of inflation

The vexing issue of inflation

Time to read: 3 min

Last week saw a focus on the topic of inflation. The minutes from the most recent Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, released last week, showed that a number of FOMC participants are rethinking whether current low inflation is as transitory as they originally posited. The minutes even showed that a few FOMC members were interested in postponing future rate hikes until they are confident inflation is on a trajectory toward 2%. It seems that the Fed is still trying to understand why the Phillips Curve1 is no longer holding — why unemployment can hover around 4% but not drive up wage growth and, with it, overall inflation.

The minutes from the most recent European Central Bank (ECB) meeting were also released last week. They show a central bank whose Governing Council is confident about a strengthening of economic growth — but not as confident about the prognosis for inflation. After all, even though economic growth has improved significantly in recent months, the euro area rate of inflation is currently just 1.4% year over year — which is below the long-term average (since 1991) of 1.98%.2

The ECB’s uncertainty about whether inflation can rise sustainably is reflected in its desire to keep the conclusion of asset purchases open-ended: According to the meeting minutes, asset purchases will continue “until the end of September 2018, or beyond, if necessary, and in any case until the Governing Council sees a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation consistent with its inflation aim.” Underscoring uncertainty about the future of inflation, several members of the Governing Council actually suggested that there be a de-linking of tapering plans from inflation.

Investors seem to be concerned about inflation, but inflation seems unlikely

With inflation seemingly low and the Phillips Curve relationship being called into question in a number of economies, it seems surprising that we are seeing significant flows into Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). Last week, $1.2 billion in flows went into mutual funds and exchange-traded funds focused on TIPS.3 This was the third-largest weekly inflow on record. It seems that some investors are suddenly becoming concerned about inflation — the $64,000 question is why.

Actual inflation readings and inflation expectations in a variety of different economies remain low. In fact, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has started to question whether low inflation may be more than temporary; she explained in an address at NYU Stern School of Business last week, “My colleagues and I are not certain that it (inflation) is transitory and we are monitoring inflation closely.” And recall that, in the past decade, as very accommodative monetary policy was implemented, some economists worried that inflation would pick up — but that didn’t happen. With monetary policy becoming slightly less accommodative, it seems higher inflation is even less likely.

Perhaps concerns about higher inflation could be a result of the de-globalization trend we are seeing in different parts of the world. Consider an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) paper from 2008 titled “Globalisation and OECD Consumer Price Inflation.” The paper argues that the moderation in inflation experienced in the 1990s and the 2000s was a result of a “marked increase in the extent of globalisation.”4 Other papers have made similar arguments, offering compelling reasons why globalization contributed to lower inflation. If globalization drove down inflation, then it stands to reason that de-globalization could drive up inflation.

And de-globalization seems to be afoot, which could be worrying for investors. For example, there is the distinct possibility the United Kingdom will leave the European Union (EU) without a trade agreement with the EU — a critical trading partner. And North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations have been extended into the first quarter of 2018 in an effort to keep this significant trade agreement alive — but odds seem to be increasing that it will falter. Then there is the US’ stance on trade agreements in general — an eschewing of multilateral trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership in favor of bilateral trade agreements.

Key takeaway

It could be that investors are expecting a rise in inflation over the longer term, driven by the powerful trend of de-globalization — or at least they may want to hedge against that possibility. Now, a week’s worth of flow data regarding US investors is far from conclusive — especially since bond markets don’t seem to be reflecting any inflation expectations, which is arguably why the yield curve has been flattening. However, recent flows into TIPS could be the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and so inflation, inflation expectations and de-globalization developments are all certainly worth close monitoring. And, given the trend toward de-globalization, investors may want to think seriously about how they can hedge against inflation in their portfolios.

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1 The Phillips Curve is the theory that inflation and unemployment have an inverse relationship.

2 Source: Eurostat; data as of Oct. 31, 2017

3 Sources: Bank of America Merrill Lynch and EPFR Global

4 Source: Nigel Pain, Isabell Koske and Marte Sollie, “Globalisation and OECD Consumer Price Inflation,” OECD Economic Studies No. 44, 2008/1

Important information

Blog header image: katjen/Shutterstock.com

The opinions referenced above are those of Kristina Hooper as of Nov. 27, 2017. These comments should not be construed as recommendations, but as an illustration of broader themes. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future results. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions; there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations.

This does not constitute a recommendation of any investment strategy or product for a particular investor. Investors should consult a financial advisor/financial consultant before making any investment decisions. Invesco does not provide tax advice. The tax information contained herein is general and is not exhaustive by nature. Federal and state tax laws are complex and constantly changing. Investors should always consult their own legal or tax professional for information concerning their individual situation. The opinions expressed are those of the authors, are based on current market conditions and are subject to change without notice. These opinions may differ from those of other Invesco investment professionals.

Kristina Hooper
Global Market Strategist

Kristina Hooper is the Global Market Strategist at Invesco. She has 21 years of investment industry experience.

Prior to joining Invesco, Ms. Hooper was the US investment strategist at Allianz Global Investors. Prior to Allianz, she held positions at PIMCO Funds, UBS (formerly PaineWebber) and MetLife. She has regularly been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters and other financial news publications. She was featured on the cover of the January 2015 issue of Kiplinger’s magazine, and has appeared regularly on CNBC and Reuters TV.

Ms. Hooper earned a BA degree, cum laude, from Wellesley College; a J.D. from Pace University School of Law, where she was a Trustees’ Merit Scholar; an MBA in finance from New York University, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where she was a teaching fellow in macroeconomics and organizational behavior; and a master’s degree from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she focused on labor economics.

Ms. Hooper holds the Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst, Certified Investment Management Analyst and Chartered Financial Consultant designations. She serves on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Financial Planning, which is the pro bono arm of the financial planning industry, and Hour Children.

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