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Friday, February 29, 2008

Chinese Inflation: A Mounting Problem

I was asked my views on the Chinese inflation situation today and came up with this short piece:

The Chinese growth story is now sharing the spotlight with the country’s mounting inflation concerns. In January consumer prices rose 7.1%y/y; to a level not seen since 1996, a point when China was in the midst of recovering from levels around 20%y/y. Moreover, based on the current outlook February’s reading is not expected to show any signs of improvement. Starting late January and ending in February China faced a barrage of disastrous winter weather, affecting nearly every aspect of the economy, including crops. This is particularly relevant given that food prices have been the main cause of Chinese inflation, increasing an astonishing 18.2%y/y in January. Important to keep in mind is that January’s reading includes only a small portion of the storm’s total effect, which will be fully reflected in February’s release.

Drilling a bit deeper into China’s inflation problem we look at some of the reasons for the increase in food prices. In part this trend can be attributed to China’s economic success; Chinese economic growth has led to an increase in wealth among its population. With more money to spend Chinese citizens tastes began to shift, in the food sector this meant instead of having vegetables for dinner they preferred meat, especially pork. Since demand for these ‘new’ products are rising faster than they can be supplied, prices are going up. Despite the simplicity of this explanation it could have a significant effect on the Chinese economy. Take this scenario into account; if you expect dinner is going to cost more next month than it did today you are going to ask for better wages to make up the difference. With this in mind inflation expectations have a direct correlation with future inflation based on this principle. Currently, we believe this scenario may already be occurring. Price increases are now showing up in sectors other than food, including services, producer prices, and other non-food products. The increase in service prices could very well imply we are already seeing an increase in the cost of labor due to rising inflation expectations. This scenario will have to be watched closely by Chinese policy makers.

Curtailing the inflation problem will be a tough challenge for Chinese leaders, especially given an increase to inflation expectations. In a more traditional scenario, the solution would simply be a combination of tight monetary policy and conservative fiscal policies. However, a number of problems including reconstruction plans from the winter storms, ‘quasi’ pegged exchange rate, and liquidity factors add up to a unique challenge. Reducing government spending at a time when a large portion of the country’s infrastructure needs to be repaired is not feasible. Additionally, further appreciation of the RMB could reduce exporters’ price advantages to overseas competitors and may reduce Chinese market share lowering economic growth. Finally, increasing rates could make it harder for businesses to borrow within China during a time of industry consolidation; potentially adversely affecting growth. A likely outcome will come by finding a balance between tighter monetary policy and further appreciation in the RMB.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fed Cuts & Inflation

*Sorry for the delay in posting we were experiencing serious computer issues

One of the questions on everybodys’ minds is how high would inflation need to go before the Fed would reconsider any further rate cuts. During the recent months’ we have seen increasing down side risks to the US growth forecast, while at the same time growing inflation expectations. This is a dangerous mix in terms of continuing to use Fed policy as a stimulus to the economy. Historically, looking back at the data (since 1995), we can see that the Fed has never lowered rates when the Core CPI has gone above 2.9%, this means we could have at some room left, before the Fed rates cuts could potentially come off the table. To further test this we applied an ordered probit model with a grouping of economic indicators (ISM, core PCE – 2.0% inflation target, & a 1 month lag in the change in initial claims - 350) to see how the current situation compares to those in the past and to see which way the Fed is likely to move and in what magnitude based on inflation rates. What we discovered after running the model for both Core CPI and Core PCE (which we see as the Fed’s indicator of choice) was in-line with our original estimation that for the Fed to reconsider the cuts we would need to see the Core rates move to between 2.7% & 3.0%. Currently, the Core PCE and Core CPI are at 2.2% and 2.5%, respectively, with expectations rising.

To quantify the rate change we created five categories ranging from –2 to 2, with 0 implying no change. We created these categories after individually analyzing all FOMC rate changes from 1995 until 2007. To quantify the change we categorized the magnitude of the Fed rate hikes or cuts at each individual meeting into three groups: 0, 0.25%, and =>0.50%. So for example, a rate hike of 0.50% points would lead to a score of 2, while a rate cut of 0.25% would equal a score of -2.

With the left-hand side variable defined this way we ran them using an ordered Probit model against the ISM, inflation gap, and initial claims. We found that all of the variables were statistically significant.

The results show that the implied Fed rate change currently stands at -0.03 on our scale of -2 to 2, and has decreased in intensity over the last two months from its interim low of 0.09 in June (Chart 1). This movement corresponds to the decreasing growth and wavering employment levels. The current reading shows that there is a downward Fed bias, which implies the Fed is more likely to lower rates rather than raise them…


So long as the Fed considers downside risk to growth exists we can expect that rate cuts will remain on the table as long as Core PCE remains below the 2.7% to 3.0% range, or growth conditions do not deteriorate more significantly.