Recession or Soft Landing?

From the recent archives of TGIF 2 Minutes – especially worth a second look as the year 2023 unfolds. Inflation recently came in at a still very high 6.5%… which seems “low” only because several months ago inflation was at 9.1%. Shelter and services (including daycare) remain the areas with highest inflation; gas, autos, computers, and sporting goods saw slower rises in still high prices. Employment remains an oddly strong component of the economy – leaving the likelihood of a “soft landing” type of economic slowdown a possibility.

Sept 2022: It is fairly safe to say that the US has entered a recession, even if the backwards looking, narrowly focused, official “National Bureau of Economics Research”, or NBER, has not declared it yet. The NBER is a private, non-profit organization founded in 1920 that somehow came to possess the distinct “responsibility” of declaring recessions in the US. Seriously?

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Stay Tuned for Year-End Commentary

As Christmas and Year-End 2022 approach there is a long list of topics to consider, including:

  • How to quantify the first truly down year for the markets since 2009
  • What inflation and higher interest rates mean going forward in 2023
  • How to approach higher taxes for those still working and those receiving Social Security
  • The timeless investing paradigms that have not changed
  • How much to diversify a portfolio while still paying attention to risk and liquidity
  • How to approach Long-Term Care decisions, both present and future
  • Changes made to gifting limits for 2023 (limits increased)
  • Changes made to IRA and 401k contribution limits in 2023 (limits increased)
  • What is next for cryptocurrency trading and valuation
  • What to serve for the Holiday meal (perhaps the most urgent item on the list).

What topics might be on your mind? Stay tuned for a Year-End commentary!

Thank you for reading, enjoy last minute shopping and TGIF!

Mortgage & Housing Costs

A cautionary note (please pardon the math on a Friday) on home prices and home mortgage affordability in the short- to intermediate-term future. This note can also be useful for those with HELOC loans, or home equity lines of credit, with floating interest rates.

Inflation has recently had an overlooked side effect: a decline in the amount of home that a given monthly mortgage payment buys. The obvious factor is that interest rates on 30-year mortgages have skyrocketed from around 3% about 10 months ago to over 7% today. (Note, there is a sound but painful reason for interest rates to have risen. Historically, higher interest rates are one of the most proven ways to gradually – emphasize, “gradually” – control inflation or slow down an over-heated economy).

In buying a house using a mortgage, the situation turns into kind of a “seesaw” between the amount put down and how that amount translates into the monthly payment. 

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How Long Will It Take To Tame Inflation?

A question that may be on a number of people’s minds is: How long will it take to tame inflation? Unfortunately, there is very little telling how long it will take the US Federal Reserve, or any other entity or force, to tame inflation especially with respect to the short-term. Part of the reason is because inflation is always part of a complicated economy – an economy with diverse people, businesses, and governmental/fiscal forces in action. Making timing (and hard landing/soft-landing) predictions about inflation is nearly impossible.

To add to the confusion, believe it or not emotions – specifically people’s expectations of inflation – are part of what keeps inflation around. In this inflationary cycle, inflation has stuck around longer than at almost any time in US history; long enough to increase people’s expectations that inflation will not go away quickly. The US Fed had stated one of its original intentions was to lower consumers’ inflationary expectations (but the Fed may have missed this boat due to forces out of its control, namely, the pandemic aftermath).

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The Psychology of Interest Rates

Dedicated readers of TGIF 2 Minutes will recall highlights two weeks ago of Morgan Housel’s excellent book, The Psychology of Money. Digging deeper into the book revealed the theme that human nature and psychology most often lead people to hear – and believe – only what they want to hear and believe or see happen.

This statement is not an insult or meant to sound arrogant. Rather, in matters of money, financial markets and even the economy there is evidence that people, the more they want something to be true, most often will believe a story that overestimates the odds of the story being true.* The markets, following recent comments by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, nudged UP on thoughts the Fed might “pivot” (meaning: possibly slow the pace of interest rate increases and even lower interest rates next year – a wishful “story”). But more recent moves down in markets reflect the less popular belief that the US Federal Reserve likely will NOT reverse course, thus continuing to raise interest rates until inflation shows evidence of cooling. 

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Reality Bites

Today’s TGIF 2 Minutes was delayed to reflect a speech given earlier today in Jackson Hole, WY by US Federal Reserve Chair, Jerome Powell.

Earlier today (Friday) US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell spoke in a widely anticipated speech at an annual meeting of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank. The market and investing worlds were looking for guidance from the Fed Chair regarding interest rates and future inflation. Part of the reason for the speech being so closely watched goes back to a former Fed Chair. For those old enough to remember, in December 1996 Alan Greenspan made a now famous speech that rocked the markets when he coined the term, “irrational exuberance.” Then Fed Chairman Greenspan commented,

  • “How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values…?” Greenspan went on, “We should not underestimate or become complacent about the complexity of the interactions of asset markets and the economy.”*

And down the markets went for a time. 

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Walking Up Interest Rates

To keep with the theme of walking, and because this week the US Federal Reserve “walked up” its benchmark interest rate, a brief discussion is warranted about interest rates, recessions, and the economy. By the way, the weather is HOT as heck, so today’s is a shorter post.

In the accompanying photo please note the mountains in the distance – which could be equated to higher ground, higher prices, and higher interest rates. The walkers seem not to be panicking (yet) because it is early in the higher interest rate progression. Think:

Higher interest rates in the short-term for,

  • Home mortgages
  • Car loans
  • Credit cards.

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A Game of Chicken?

Will the Fed raise interest rates aggressively? Or will the economic threat of recession force the Fed to slow its pace of rate increases? The outcome in what is shaping up as a sort of “game of chicken” remains to be seen.

Inflation is raging – there is no question. Prices of items as basic as eggs, butter and milk are increasing at crazy high rates. This is not to mention price increases for meat and produce. Gas prices have become crippling, just as workers return to corporate offices even part-time. Restaurants are still raising prices for diners. Home prices are still going up, although the recent rise in mortgage rates may cool the craziness. Wage increases are still happening (and not keeping up with inflation but also feeding into inflation) although there may be moderation in wages coming. The list goes on.

The Fed has good intentions to adjust rates to as ideal a level as possible to tame inflation while avoiding a deep recession.

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Series I Savings Bonds, Yes 9.62%

“What are I Bonds?” Thank you to a growing number of curious and smart clients, friends and colleagues for hammering this question enough over the past several months to warrant a TGIF 2 Minutes dedicated to I-Bonds. The “I” in I Bonds stands for inflation, which is why these bonds are so HOT at the moment. (Note: inflation overall is clearly not a good thing; I Bond interest rates may be one of the only things that benefit from skyrocketing inflation.)

Inflation is higher in 2022 than it has been in over 40 years – longer than lots of TGIF 2 Minutes readers may have been alive, and certainly longer than lots of readers have been working for, earning, and spending “real money”.

The “I” in I Bonds stands for inflation, which is why these bonds are so HOT at the moment.

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Slaying Inflation & Stagflation

Stagflation. An economic condition not experienced since the 1970’s – which was also the last time that inflation was as high as it is today.

Stagflation is an understandable word: stagnated growth coupled with persistent, high inflation. Often high unemployment is also part of the picture but presently is not the case. The reason stagflation is currently in the conversation is that in addition to current high levels of inflation, there are potential factors that could weigh even further on the US economy: tax increases and greater government spending. Stagflation could result – or could be inevitable no matter what.

Higher interest rates and focused policy today could be a small price to pay for a more balanced future with modest growth and less inflation.

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