Inflation whirlwind on wall street: Ken Griffin’s long-term warning looms – Jonathan Levin

In the tumultuous world of Wall Street, Tuesday’s inflation report sparked fervour. While the core consumer price index in October rose a modest 0.2%, quelling fears of a surge predicted by some economists, billionaire Ken Griffin advocates a broader perspective. Griffin foresees enduring inflation due to de-globalisation and the waning “peace dividend.” This report, though momentarily easing concerns, leaves the long-term inflation outlook uncertain. As markets react, the Federal Reserve treads cautiously, emphasising the challenge of predicting trends, even as it juggles short-term relief against potential future tightening.

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Ken Griffin’s Warning Looms Over Inflation Celebration: Jonathan Levin

By Jonathan Levin

On Wall Street, there’s always a lot of excitement around the latest inflation report. Tuesday’s better-than-expected number was an extreme example — bond yields plummeted and stocks surged. But at the Federal Reserve, policymakers tend to focus on multi-month trends, which are sending extremely mixed signals. And billionaire Ken Griffin, for his part, thinks we should take an even longer view.

Let’s start with the good news. Tuesday’s report showed the core consumer price index rose just 0.2% in October from a month earlier, which annualized to about 2.8% — within spitting distance of the Fed’s 2% target. The median economist surveyed by Bloomberg had thought the number would come in around 0.3%, and 11 of 65 respondents predicted a jump of 0.4% (more on why later.) As a result of that positioning, the reported set off a 20 basis-point yield drop on two-year notes, the biggest one-day move since March.

The guts of the report were also encouraging:

  • Shelter, a massive and inertial category, rose just 0.3% from the previous month, reversing an alarming spike in September.
  • Core services excluding housing — a bespoke cut of the overall data that Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said he watches closely — rose just 0.2%, also slowing from September.
  • And the weighted share of CPI components running above a 2% annualized pace fell to about 69% from 70% (although it was still up significantly from the recent low of 58% after the June report.)

So what does the latest news do for the long-term trend?

As the chart below shows, the three-month annualized rate of core inflation ticked up a bit, and it’s still too high for policy makers to feel comfortable that they’ve tamed inflation. Of course, the outcome was better than the alternative; under a counterfactual scenario in which the 0.4% core CPI inflation forecasts had come true, the three-month annualized pace would have moved up more, to 4.1%, and progress on the six-month rate would have essentially stalled. In conjunction with other data on the real economy, it’s possible that would have helped build the case for further rate increases as soon as December or early 2024. Instead, those rate increases are delayed, though not necessarily canceled.

Policymakers focus on moving averages for a variety of reasons. Seasonal adjustment factors get revised (which can retroactively change the interpretation of a given a report); the index contains a number of imputed categories that behave in quirky ways (recent movements in owners’ equivalent rent and health insurance are key examples); and month-to-month data are just inherently noisy. 

This month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ health insurance category — one of those  methodologically odd ones — was widely expected to show price increases after 12 straight months of declines. Health insurance prices are very hard to measure, so the government essentially backs into an estimate once a year and then spreads it out over the ensuing 12 periods (a methodology that, by the way, isn’t shared by the personal consumption expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge.) Since that effect was foreseeable, many analysts thought it might combine with inflation in other categories to help fuel a larger jump overall. In the end, health insurance jumped, but there were more than enough offsets — good news for sure, but also a reminder of how these numbers are funky and imperfect and should be taken with many grains of salt.

Next, there’s the longer-term outlook for inflation and bonds. Griffin, the Citadel founder, thinks the forces of de-globalization and the end of the “peace dividend” could mean higher baseline inflation for decades. Griffin, not unlike other prominent investors including Bill Ackman, warned last week that the pandemic experience together with rising geopolitical tension may lead countries to produce more domestically, fueling higher baseline inflation, possibly for “decades.”

Here’s how he put it at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum last week in Singapore: 

Griffin reiterated some of his earlier views on the peace dividend during an interview with Bloomberg’s Sonali Basak on Tuesday, and also weighed in on the Fed. He allowed for the possibility of rate cuts next year under a scenario in which near-term inflation continues to moderate and unemployment ticks up, but, he said, the Fed must be careful about the signals it sends in the process.

“The key from my perspective is the Fed needs to stay on message that they’re going to put the inflation genie back in the bottle,” he said. “And if they cut too soon, I think they risk losing credibility around their commitment to a 2% inflation target.”

Let’s be clear: In a market that’s been rocked by a lot of bad inflation news, this number could have been much worse, and less-bad-than-expected is worth celebrating — albeit very briefly. It slashes the likelihood of a Fed rate increase in the months ahead without taking further tightening off the table down the road. But for all its positive qualities, Tuesday’s report won’t resolve most of the big outstanding questions governing global markets. Taking the long view, the inflation outlook is still roughly as hazy as it was yesterday.

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