How Do You Get Inflation Under Control?

Raise the dollar, drop the metals. Under most possible scenarios, things don’t look good for gold, silver, and mining stocks – for the medium-term.

With the USD Index and U.S. Treasury yields the main fundamental drivers of the PMs’ performance, some confusion has arisen due to their parallel and divergent moves. For example, sometimes the USD Index rises while U.S. Treasury yields fall, or vice-versa, and sometimes the pair move higher/lower in unison. However, it’s important to remember that different economic environments have different impacts on the USD Index and U.S. Treasury yields.

To explain, the USD Index benefits from both the safe-haven bid (stock market volatility) and economic outperformance relative to its FX peers. Conversely, U.S. Treasury yields only benefit from the latter. Thus, when economic risks intensify (like what we witnessed with Evergrande on Sep. 20), the USD Index often rallies while U.S. Treasury yields often fall. Thus, the economic climate is often the fundamental determinant of the pairs’ future paths.

For context, I wrote on Apr.16:

The PMs suffer during three of four possible scenarios:

  1. When the bond market and the stock market price in risk, it’s bearish for the PMs
  2. When the bond market and the stock market don’t price in risk, it’s bearish for the PMs
  3. When the bond market doesn’t price in risk, but the stock market does, it’s bearish for the PMs
  4. When the bond market prices in risk and the stock market doesn’t, it’s bullish for the PMs

Regarding scenario #1, when the bond market and the stock market price in risk (economic stress), the USD Index often rallies and its strong negative correlation with the PMs upends their performance. Regarding scenario #2, when the bond market and the stock market don’t price in risk, U.S. economic strength supports a stronger U.S. dollar and rising U.S, Treasury yields reduce the fundamental attractiveness of gold. For context, the PMs are non-yielding assets, and when interest rates rise, bonds become more attractive relative to gold (for some investors). Regarding scenario #3, when the stock market suffers and U.S. Treasury yields are indifferent, the usual uptick in the USD Index is a bearish development for the PMs (for the same reasons outlined in scenario #1). Regarding scenario #4, when the bond market prices in risk (lower yields) and the stock market doesn’t, inflation-adjusted (real) interest rates often decline, and risk-on sentiment can hurt the USD Index. As a result, the cocktail often uplifts the PMs due to lower real interest rates and a weaker U.S. dollar.

The bottom line? The USD Index and U.S. Treasury yields can move in the same direction or forge different paths. However, while a stock market crash is likely the most bearish fundamental outcome that could confront the PMs, scenario #2 is next in line. While it may (or may not) seem counterintuitive, a strong U.S. economy is bearish for the PMs. When U.S. economic strength provides a fundamental thesis for both the USD Index and U.S. Treasury yields to rise (along with real interest rates), the double-edged sword often leaves gold and silver with deep lacerations.

In the meantime, though, with investors eagerly awaiting the Fed’s monetary policy decision today, QE is already dying a slow death. Case in point: not only has the USD Index recaptured 93 and surged above the neckline of its inverse (bullish) head & shoulders pattern, but the greenback’s fundamentals remain robust. With 78 counterparties draining more than $1.240 trillion out of the U.S. financial system on Sep. 21, the Fed’s daily reverse repurchase agreements hit another all-time high.

Please see below:

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Source: New York Fed

To explain, a reverse repurchase agreement (repo) occurs when an institution offloads cash to the Fed in exchange for a Treasury security (on an overnight or short-term basis). And with U.S. financial institutions currently flooded with excess liquidity, they’re shipping cash to the Fed at an alarming rate. And while I’ve been warning for months that the activity is the fundamental equivalent of a taper – due to the lower supply of U.S. dollars (which is bullish for the USD Index) – the psychological effect is not the same. However, as we await a formal taper announcement from the Fed, the U.S. dollar’s fundamental foundation remains quite strong.

Furthermore, with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) publishing a rather cryptic article on Sep. 10 titled “Fed Officials Prepare for November Reduction in Bond Buying,” messaging from the central bank’s unofficial mouthpiece implies that something is brewing. And while the Delta variant and Evergrande provide the Fed with an excuse to elongate its taper timeline, surging inflation has the Fed increasingly handcuffed.

As a result, Goldman Sachs Chief U.S. Economist David Mericle expects the Fed to provide “advance notice” today and set the stage for an official taper announcement in November. He wrote:

While the start date now appears set, the pace of tapering is an open question. Our standing forecast is that the FOMC will taper at a pace of $15bn per meeting, split between $10bn in UST and $5bn in MBS, ending in September 2022. But a number of FOMC participants have called instead for a faster pace that would end by mid-2022, and we now see $15bn per meeting vs. $15bn per month as a close call.”

On top of that, with stagflation bubbling beneath the surface, another hawkish shift could materialize.

To explain, I wrote on Jun. 17:

On Apr. 30, I warned that Jerome Powell, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed), was materially behind the inflation curve.

I wrote:

With Powell changing his tune from not seeing any “unwelcome” inflation on Jan. 14 to “we are likely to see upward pressure on prices, but [it] will be temporary” on Apr. 28, can you guess where this story is headed next?

And with the Fed Chair revealing on Jun. 16 what many of us already knew, he conceded:

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Source: CNBC

Moreover, while Powell added that “our expectation is these high inflation readings now will abate,” he also conceded that “you can think of this meeting that we had as the ‘talking about talking about’ [tapering] meeting, if you’d like.”

However, because actions speak louder than words, notice the monumental shift below?

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Source: U.S. Fed

To explain, if you analyze the red box, you can see that the Fed increased its 2021 Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Index projection from a 2.4% year-over-year (YoY) rise to a 3.4% YoY rise. But even more revealing, the original projection was made only three months ago. Thus, the about face screams of inflationary anxiety.

What’s more, I highlighted on Aug. 5 that the hawkish upward revision increased investors’ fears of a faster rate-hike cycle and contributed to the rise in the USD Index and the fall in the GDXJ ETF (our short position).

Please see below:

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And why is all of this so important? Well, with Mericle expecting the Fed to increase its 2021 PCE Index projection from 3.4% to 4.3% today (the red box below), if the Fed’s message shifts from we’re adamant that inflation is “transitory” to “suddenly, we’re not so sure,” a re-enactment of the June FOMC meeting could uplift the USD Index and upend the PMs once again. For context, the FOMC’s July meeting did not include a summary of its economic projections and today’s ‘dot plot’ will provide the most important clues.

Please see below:

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Finally, with CNBC proclaiming on Sep. 21 that the Fed is “widely expected to indicate it is getting ready to announce it will start paring back its $120 billion in monthly purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities,” even the financial media expects some form of “advance notice.”

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Source: CNBC

The bottom line? While the Delta variant and Evergrande have provided the Fed with dovish cover, neither addresses the underlying problem. With inflation surging and the Fed’s 2% annual target looking more and more like wishful thinking, reducing its bond-buying program, increasing the value of the U.S. dollar, and decreasing commodity prices is the only way to get inflation under control. In absence, the Producer Price Index (PPI) will likely continue its upward momentum and the cost-push inflationary spiral will likely continue as well.

In conclusion, the gold miners underperformed gold once again on Sep. 21 and the relative weakness is profoundly bearish. Moreover, while the USD Index was roughly flat, Treasury yields rallied across the curve. And while Powell will do his best to thread the dovish needle today, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: if he talks down the U.S. dollar (like he normally does), commodity prices will likely rise, and inflation will likely remain elevated. If he acknowledges reality and prioritizes controlling inflation, the U.S. dollar will likely surge, and the general stock market should suffer. As a result, with the conundrum poised to come to a head over the next few months (maybe even today), the PMs are caught in the crossfire and lower lows will likely materialize over the medium term.

Related: Trading Energy ETFs in Foreign Currencies

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