FOMC Tightens as Economy Slows

Economic Concerns Increase

In 2021 the FOMC refused to accept and acknowledge that inflation was getting worse in the second and third quarter and continued with its monthly purchases of $120 billion in Treasury debt and Mortgage Backed Securities. At the November FOMC meeting the FOMC timidly lowered its purchases by just $15 billion a month, as Chair Powell belatedly retired the word transitory. As headline and core inflation ramped higher the FOMC increased the taper from $15 billion to $30 billion at the December meeting. The members of the FOMC have widely acknowledged that the FOMC is behind the inflation curve. In his testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on January 11, Chair Powell presented the path forward. ““As we move through this year … if things develop as expected, we’ll be normalizing policy, meaning we’re going to end our asset purchases in March, meaning we’ll be raising rates over the course of the year. At some point perhaps later this year we will start to allow the balance sheet to run off, and that’s just the road to normalizing policy.”

After waiting too long to begin to remove accommodation in 2021, the FOMC will be tightening just as the economy is slowing down. During February investors will be buffeted by economic reports showing that the US economy slowed markedly in January. We can expect to read articles and interviews on CNBC and Bloomberg that discuss the specter of the FOMC making another policy mistake by removing accommodation as the economy slows, which could push the economy into a recession before the end of 2022.

On January 25 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lowered its global GDP forecast to 4.4% from the 4.9% it projected in the October 2021 forecast. The IMF cut the estimate for the US from 5.4% to 4.0%. The IMF cited the drag from Omicron in the first quarter, persistent supply chain disruptions, and the dimmed prospects for President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. The IMF also lowered estimates for Germany, France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, China, and Emerging Markets. The IMF trimmed its estimate for China by 0.8% and lowered the estimate to 4.8%. It also cut Brazil and Mexico by 1.2%, so Brazil will grow 0.3% in 2022 and Mexico 2.8%. Over the last 12 months Brazil’s central bank has lifted its policy rate from 2.0% to 8.0% as Brazil’s inflation rate soared to 35% (yes not a misprint) before falling to 17.8% in December. Mexico’s CPI reached 6.1% in January even though the Banco de Mexico increased its policy rate from 4.0% to 5.25% in 2021.

In December the Census Bureau conducted its monthly ‘Household Pulse’ survey and found that 3 million workers were not working due to COVID. They were home with COVID or were taking care of someone who was sick. In January the number of workers who weren’t at work mushroomed to 8.8 million, which represents more than 5% of the US’s workforce. This likely forced many small businesses to reduce production, output, or lower the number of hours their business could be open.

The surge in Omicron cases and hospitalizations in December and early January convinced many healthy people that hunkering down was warranted to minimize the risk of getting infected. People stopped going to restaurants, movies, or flying. On January 25, 1.05 million passengers went through TSA checkpoints less than half of the number that flew on December 19. According to aggregated credit card data by Bank of America, spending on entertainment services plunged by more than -20% in the first 3 weeks of January to the lowest level since May of last year.