Hotter-Than-Expected Inflation Clouds Rate-Cut Outlook - Kanebridge News
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Hotter-Than-Expected Inflation Clouds Rate-Cut Outlook

By JUSTIN LAHART
Wed, Feb 14, 2024 9:04amGrey Clock 4 min

US: Inflation eased again in January but came in above Wall Street’s expectations, clouding the Federal Reserve’s path to rate cuts and potentially giving the central bank breathing space to wait until the middle of the year.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that consumer prices rose 3.1% in January from a year earlier, versus a December gain of 3.4%. That marked the lowest reading since June.

Still, the consumer-price index was higher than the predicted 2.9%, a disappointment for investors who hope the Fed will cut rates sooner rather than later. Rate cuts tend to help stock prices by boosting economic activity and reducing competition from bonds for investor dollars.

The release gave a nasty jolt to markets. Stocks fell sharply and bond yields rose. The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid more than 500 points, or about 1.4%, its worst one-day decline since March. For all three major U.S. stock indexes, it was their worst performance on a CPI release day since September 2022 , according to Dow Jones Market Data.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 4.315%, bringing it to its highest level since the end of November.

Interest-rate futures, which before Tuesday’s report implied the central bank would probably begin cutting rates by its May meeting, now suggest a June start date is more likely.

Where the Fed could go from here

Investors’ belief that Fed cuts were imminent has helped fuel the rally in stocks. The Dow on Monday had hit its 12th record close of 2024.

But Tuesday’s inflation report underscores why Fed officials have been dismissive of such expectations. Some Fed officials have suggested that the pace of improvement over the past six months might overstate underlying progress in containing price pressures.

Officials have said they aren’t ready to entertain rate cuts at their next meeting, March 19-20, because they want to see more evidence that inflation is returning to their 2% target.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said officials want to see more evidence that inflation is returning to its 2% goal, which is measured against a separate gauge to be released later this month by the Commerce Department.

“It’s not that the data aren’t good enough. It’s that there’s really six months of data,” Powell said in an interview on “60 Minutes” earlier this month. “It doesn’t need to be better than what we’ve seen, or even as good. It just needs to be good.”

Core prices, which exclude food and energy items in an effort to better track inflation’s underlying trend, were up 3.9% in January. That was equal to December’s gain, which was the lowest since mid-2021.

From a month earlier, overall prices were up a seasonally adjusted 0.3%, and core prices were up 0.4%—larger gains than economists expected.

Two measures of inflation

The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation has been running cooler than the Labor Department’s, and analysts said that could continue in January. The figures released Tuesday calculate medical care and airfares differently, and those categories were especially strong in January. The Labor Department’s measure also puts a much higher weight on shelter costs, which for both owners and renters are derived from rents. Shelter costs accounted for 0.23 percentage point of the monthly gain in overall prices in January. Shelter costs were up 0.6% month over month.

Some Fed officials have said they are looking for evidence that a slowdown in price pressures is broadening beyond goods such as used cars, which have seen prices decline over the past year. Tuesday’s figure showed the opposite: Price declines accelerated for goods while price increases accelerated for services.

And prices are still far above where they were before the pandemic—especially for items   that most Americans buy often, like groceries.

The sting of those past price increases might be part of why so many Americans remain down on the economy . An analysis conducted by Goldman Sachs economists suggests that frustration with high price levels might have contributed to low confidence readings that persisted in the early 1980s even after inflation had slipped sharply.

“It does seem like it takes a while for confidence to recover, in part because people are focused on levels rather than changes,” said Goldman chief economist Jan Hatzius .

The Labor Department’s measure of overall consumer prices was up 19.6% this January from four years earlier, just before the pandemic hit. In contrast, prices were up 8.9% in the four years ended January 2020.

Economists generally expect inflation to cool this year, though they caution the process could be bumpy. Cooling prices for newly signed leases, for example, should eventually translate into lower shelter costs.

“I can tell inflation has gotten better,” said Mike Poore, of Henderson, Ky. “That’s definitely a good thing. It’s a shame it’s not happening quicker.”

The high cost of groceries

A Bank of America Institute analysis of customer data found households tended to make far more transactions a month for food and drinks at restaurants and bars, for groceries and for gasoline than they do for other items. Labor Department figures show that prices in all three of those frequent-transaction categories are higher, relative to before the pandemic, than prices overall.

Research from University of California, Berkeley economist Ulrike Malmendier and three co-authors found that prices for items that people buy more often play an outsize role in framing their inflation expectations. “In terms of what gets ingrained in people’s brains, it’s stuff that they purchase frequently,” she said.

Other research Malmendier has conducted examines the scarring effects of inflation episodes , which can have persistent, and potentially costly, effects on people’s financial decisions. She is heartened by the fact that inflation has retreated relatively quickly from the 9.1% it hit in June 2022 —a contrast to the experience of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when inflation remained elevated for years.

“I’m a little less worried about long-lasting effects than I was in 2022,” she said.



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The S&P 500 index has been crushing private-equity returns in the past year, and Blackstone ’s second-quarter results illustrate that trend.

As part of its earnings release early Thursday Blackstone said its corporate private-equity returns in the year ending in June were 11.3%. That compares with a 24.5% total return for the S&P 500.

In the prior year ending in June 2023, the S&P 500 topped Blackstone with a 19.4% return against 9.7% for the firm’s corporate private-equity business, which has $145 billion of assets and remains one of its most important areas along with real estate.

Blackstone is the leading alternatives firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management and has the largest market value of any public investment firm at more than $160 billion.

Driven by Nvidia , Microsoft , Apple , Amazon and other big technology stocks, the S&P 500 has handily topped most asset classes in the past several years.

Another sign of more difficult times for private equity came earlier this week from Calpers, the $503 billion California pension fund, when it reported it s preliminary returns for its fiscal year ending in June . Calpers is one of the first major endowments or pension funds to report results for the June fiscal year. undefined The pension fund, a major player in private equity, said its private-equity investments gained 10.9% net of fees—although that figure is lagged one quarter. Calpers’ public-equity investments were up 17.5% in the year ended June—its strongest asset class. Private equity remains a favorite of many pension funds and leading university endowments like those of Harvard and Yale. Their view is that private equity can beat public-market returns over the long term.

But the private-equity business has gotten tougher in recent years due to keen competition for deals, higher interest rates and a less receptive IPO market, which has made exits tougher.

And private-equity portfolios of firms like Blackstone look nothing like the S&P 500, given their investments in small to midsize companies.

Blackstone, for instance, bought a majority stake in Emerson’s climate technologies business last year and more recently purchased Tropical Smoothie, a franchiser of fast-casual cafes. It also holds a stake in Bumble, the publicly traded online dating site, and it’s an investor in actress Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Blackstone’s corporate private-equity business runs $145 billion and has 82 investments, according to the firm’s website.

Blackstone’s private-equity business has strong long-term returns including a gain of over 50% in the year ended in June 2021 when it handily topped the S&P 500 index.

But the S&P 500 index has become difficult to beat more recently and it’s dominated by some of the best companies in the world. It carries less risk than private equity, given the cash-rich balance sheets of its leading companies like Apple , Microsoft and Alphabet .

Private-equity firms, by contrast, often use considerable leverage to boost returns. Investors can get exposure to the S&P 500 through index funds that charge 0.1% or less in annual fees and with immediate liquidity.

A key risk with the S&P 500 is its vulnerability to a selloff in the leading tech firms that now make up over 40% of the index. The recent rotation into smaller companies illustrates that.

Blackstone shares gained 1.1% to $136.31 Thursday in the wake of its earnings news as investors focused on rising investment deployments and positive management comments on the firm’s outlook.

The firm’s nearly $40 billion of inflows and $34 billion of capital deployment during the second quarter marked “the highest level of investment activity in two years,” Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement.

Citi analyst Christopher Allen wrote in a note to clients on Thursday that while Blackstone’s overall performance was mixed, the outlook appears to be improving given fund-raising and deployment trends.

Investors also were heartened by Blackstone President Jon Gray’s comments about a bottoming in commercial real estate and strong capital deployment in that area.

But ultimately, the game for Blackstone and its alternatives peers is about performance—particularly beating low-fee public investments like the S&P 500. That seems to be getting more difficult.