At a policy forum focused on US-Canada economic relations, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell questioned whether the Fed would be able to lower interest rates this year prior to significant signs of an economic slowdown. This was not a huge shock to the equity market since the Fed futures markets had already signaled that there was little chance of a Fed rate hike before September. The culprit for this shift from multiple fed rate cuts to few if any rate cuts in 2024 was last week’s release of March inflation data.

Headline CPI for March rose 3.5% YOY, up from 3.2% YOY in February, and core CPI remained unchanged at 3.8% YOY. In general, March’s data reversed a fairly steady deceleration that has been seen in most inflation components since the June 2022 peak. The main exception to this was owners’ equivalent rent which did decelerate from 6% YOY to 5.9% YOY. See page 3.

The rebound in headline inflation was a disappointment to those expecting multiple Fed rate cuts this year; however, it was the underlying data that was truly worrisome. All the inflation indices excluding shelter, food, energy, used cars and trucks, and medical care, moved higher in March and service sector inflation accelerated. Prices in the broad service sector (which is 64.1% of the CPI weighting) increased from 5.0% to 5.3%. Hospital & related services prices rose from 6.1% to 7.7%. Tenants’ and household insurance rose from 4.1% to 4.6% and motor vehicle insurance rose from 20.6% to 22.2%. Medical care services, where prices were declining for most of the second half of 2023, reversed this trend and were up 2.1% YOY in March. See page 4. We continue to hear some market commentators state that headline inflation would be less than 2% if the housing component was eliminated. In our view, these comments will soon be silenced because inflation has become embedded in the system and is no longer tied to the price of oil or housing.

Nonetheless, oil prices are rising again, and this suggests that headline inflation could continue to rise in the months ahead. It is important to note that in 12 of the 13 months ended in January of this year, the price of crude oil was down on a year-over-year basis, and this was a significant factor in helping to slow headline inflation. For example, WTI was down 3.8% YOY in January 2024 and headline CPI was 3.1% YOY. In February, WTI was up 1.6% YOY and headline CPI rose 3.2% YOY. In March WTI was up 9.9% YOY and headline CPI was up 3.5% YOY. To date, in April, WTI is up 11.2% YOY and we expect headline CPI will also rise in April. What is more important is that energy is one of the few commodities that has the ability to drive prices higher throughout the broad economy. Higher energy costs increase transportation, manufacturing, and service costs, which then get passed down to the consumer (who is already burdened by higher gasoline, electric, and heating bills).  

Therefore, it was not surprising to hear Chair Powell temper expectations of rate cuts. In fact, interest rates have clearly been on the rise after the March inflation release.

Warnings from the CBO

Another factor impacting interest rates is the mounting level of federal debt. We agree with those who believe a day of reckoning is ahead for the debt markets. A steady stream of fiscal stimulus packages over the last four years has been both inflationary and a catalyst for higher interest rates. According to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data, federal debt held by the public is expected to reach a record 107% of GDP in 2029 and reach 166% of GDP by 2054. And according to the CBO (the independent advisor on budgetary and economic issues providing cost estimates for current and proposed legislation), mounting debt will slow economic growth and raise interest rates.

2023 was an important turning point for the federal budget since it marked the year when the annual primary deficit (federal inflows minus outflows) equaled 3.8% of GDP versus interest outlays which represented 2.4% of GDP. According to CBO data, this balance will shift this year and the primary deficit is estimated to equal 2.5% of GDP and interest outlays rise to 3.1% of GDP. CBO forecasts show interest outlays growing to a shockingly high 6.3% of GDP by 2054. See page 5. At present, net interest costs are 13% of current federal outlays and this is estimated to rise to 23% by 2054.

Whether or not the Federal Reserve raises or lowers interest rates will impact deficits since 3-month Treasury bills now represent 14.5% of total federal debt and total Treasury bill issuance represents 25% of total Treasury debt outstanding. This is the highest level since 2009. And though Washington DC is at the center of this spending, inflation, debt, and interest rate spiral and it seems oblivious to it and all its consequences. It must be an election year…. 

In general, this combination of high interest rates, growing deficits, and interest payments on federal debt exceeding the primary deficit is reminiscent of the 1980-1990 decade when the combination of high debt levels and high inflation led to a series of rolling recessions.

Technical and Earnings Update

Charts of gold, silver, gasoline, and WTI crude oil are all technically strong. See page 7. Gold and silver may be breaking out of major base patterns due to concern of war escalating in Europe and the Middle East, which in turn impacts the price of oil and most commodities. But regardless of the reason, these four commodity charts are bullish, and that has inflationary implications.

Conversely, all four of the popular equity indices are trading below their 50-day moving averages this week and the DJIA and Russell 2000 are also trading below their 100-day moving averages. Given the huge advance seen from the October low, this appear to be a normal correction; however, the Russell 2000, which never got close to making a new record high, has fallen back into its long-term trading range of 1650 to 2000. See page 10.

The NYSE 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at negative 1.15 this week and neutral after recording a 90% down day on April 12. The prior 90% day was also a down day made on February 13, 2024. This oscillator reached overbought territory for two consecutive days on March 13 and 14 and March 20 and 21 and for three consecutive trading days on March 27, March 28, and April 1. These overbought readings followed the string in early January when the oscillator recorded readings of 3.0 or higher for 22 of 25 consecutive trading days ending January 5. Since a minimum of five consecutive trading days in overbought is required to confirm a new high, this means that, since early January, this indicator has not confirmed the new highs in the averages made in January, February, and March. See page 11. The S&P Dow Jones consensus estimate for calendar 2024 is $240.93, up $0.26, and the LSEG IBES estimate for 2024 is $243.04, up $0.01. Based upon the IBES EPS estimate for calendar 2024, equities remain overvalued with a PE of 20.8 times and inflation of 3.5%. This sum of 24.3 is above the 23.8 level that defines an overvalued equity market. The LSEG IBES earnings growth estimate for the current first quarter earnings season declined from 5% YOY to 2.7% YOY this week. Growth for calendar 2024 fell from 9.9% YOY to 9.2% YOY. We remain cautious.

Gail Dudack

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