Risk to Investors as Global Inflation Hinders the Fed

by: SA Editors

In the current edition of Morgan Stanley's Global Economic Forum Richard Berner analyzes the relationship between US and global inflation

To be sure  — as in past inflation scares — the recent pickup in global inflation also owes importantly to surging oil and other commodity prices, especially as energy and food account for a large share of consumer budgets in many emerging market economies.  And such inflation shocks are not necessarily a threat to US inflation; they represent changes in relative prices rather than a change in the overall price level.  So long as inflation expectations are well-anchored and the domestic factors described above point to tame inflation, their influence could be transitory.  The problem now is that it likely will take central bank action and some time to rein in inflation in many parts of the world, and not every central bank is working hard to do it

This new environment will make the Fed's ability to reach its goals more challenging and this carries increased risk for investors:

The rise in global inflation means that central banks cannot take for granted the continuation of past good news on inflation, even if some domestic factors are favorable.  To be clear, global inflation shocks do not mean that the Fed has lost control over inflation.  On the contrary, I agree with San Francisco Fed President Yellen that “such shocks …do not alter in the least the ability of a central bank to attain its desired inflation objective over the medium term in a flexible exchange rate regime.  But they do affect inflation in the short run, and they can make the attainment of a particular inflation goal easier or more painful…at least for a time” (see her discussion of William R White, “Globalization, Inflation and Monetary Policy,” March 7, 2008). 

Thus, the US risks from rising global inflation do mean that the Fed must continue to state its commitment to price stability and its resolve to bring inflation down, and back that up with action.  Although the FOMC last week gave no hint that action was likely soon, market participants should take the FOMC at its word when it says “The Committee will …act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.”  Of course, if we are right that these global sources of US inflation are not transitory and the upside risks to inflation persist, talk alone will not suffice.  Fed Chairman Bernanke will have an opportunity to clarify the nature of those risks at his semi-annual Congressional testimony in a couple of weeks.  For their part, investors should take note of Yellen’s comment about the medium term, because the combination of higher inflation and a flatter Phillips curve probably mean that the process of bringing inflation back down will take longer than is currently in the price.  While that process is underway, uncertainty about inflation, global growth and monetary policy will weigh on markets and investors — which is not a happy combination for risky assets.