Fed Lift-Off Conditions: A Look At Prior Cycles

The Fed’s decision to raise rates will remain data dependent, and liftoff will be delayed if the economic and inflation data continue to underwhelm the Fed’s expectations.

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Our U.S. fixed income team recently compared the economic data today with prior Fed liftoff cycles. A few observations stand out:

  • Current GDP growth is below the level that preceded previous Fed liftoffs, especially in nominal terms;
  • Headline inflation is also far lower than in past liftoff cycles, although core PCE inflation is at the same levels seen five months before the 1999 and 2004 Fed liftoffs;
  • Unemployment is close to the levels that prevailed in the run-up to the 1997 and 2004 initial Fed rate hikes, although the growth in labor productivity is well below that of all past cycles;
  • Among conventional measures of economic slack, the output gap is close to the levels of the 1994, 1997 and 2004 liftoffs, while the unemployment gap (U-3 minus NAIRU) was only lower prior to the 1999 Fed liftoff.

Judging by history alone, a Fed liftoff in September 2015 appears pre-emptive with regard to current growth and inflation rates, but far less so when looking at measures of excess slack in the economy. The Fed has downgraded the importance of the latter, especially given that structural trends make it particularly difficult to gauge slack this cycle.

 

Bad News About Oil Prices

I have very bad news about oil prices. In the foreseeable future, their most likely trajectory is… volatile. That is right, bullish and bearish oil price narratives will be proven to be unsatisfactory and overly simplistic. The best bet would be to invest in volatility plays.

What explains this heightened volatility in oil prices? The short answer is the death of OPEC. The U.S. geopolitical deleveraging out of the Middle East has created a disequilibrium, with Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in a competition for regional hegemony. This competition is unlike anything investors have seen in the Middle East because it takes place in the context of global multipolarity. The U.S. is no longer willing to expend increasingly scarce resources to micromanage the Middle East and no other power is going to step in to fill the vacuum. OPEC cannot survive in this environment because a cartel cannot be maintained when its members are openly at war with each other.

How important is the death of OPEC for oil prices? My colleague Robert Ryan, Chief Strategist of BCA’sCommodity & Energy Strategy, and I think that it is transformative. In our joint report – titled End Of An Era For Oil And The Middle East – we argue that the salient feature of the global oil market for the past 85 years has been coordinated control of production. Oil markets will see truly free-market pricing for the first time since 1930, when amidst a chaotic free-for-all spawned by the boom in oil the Texas Railroad Commission began pro-rating production in the state to control prices.

In addition to free-market pricing, oil prices are also no longer directly proportional to geopolitical risks in the Middle East. Geopolitics will now fatten both the left and right tails of the oil price probability distribution curve (Chart). Gone are the days when geopolitics of the Middle East played an obvious, unidirectional role that simply raised the risk premium on oil prices. The new paradigm, one of disequilibrium, will create headwinds and tailwinds to oil prices (Box).

Geopolitical And Economic Paradigm Shift Fattens The Tails

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New Paradigm: Geopolitical Risks Are Both A Headwind And A Tailwind To Oil Prices

Chart 2

This is a novel dynamic that investors are unfamiliar with. Making sense of the new paradigm will require fleet-of-foot geopolitical analysis and an astute read of the strategies of the two main players: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So why is volatility bad news? Because simple narratives are in high demand and the media is more than willing to supply them. When the last time anyone read a piece of financial journalism that was ambivalent about the direction of oil prices? That said, investors should not fear volatility. As with any other real world outcome, the new paradigm will produce winners and losers, and thus plenty of investment opportunities.