This week we sit down with our good friend Joe Keating, Co-Chief Investment Officer of NBC Securities. We discuss his economic outlook regarding inflation, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the Federal Reserve raising interest rates.

The views, information, or opinions expressed during this show are solely those of the participants involved and do not necessarily represent those of SouthState Bank and its employees. 

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Intro: Helping Community Bankers grow themselves, their team, and their profits. This is “The Community Bank Podcast.”

Caleb Stevens: Well, Hey everybody and welcome back to the community bank podcast, thank you for joining the discussion today. I’m Caleb Stevens and I am joined by our economist in residence I like to say, Mr. Tom Fitzgerald, Tom, how’s it going?

Tom Fitzgerald: Hey Caleb, I’m doing fine, hope you’re doing well.

Caleb Stevens: I’m doing well, and this was a wide-ranging discussion all about the economy that you had this airs on Monday, but we have this discussion last Thursday, so we’re hoping nothing changes too big in the world between now. And then, but Tom, tell us what you talked about with Joe.

Tom Fitzgerald: Well, we were talking, it was kind of, we opened it up with the fact that last year we just had to deal with the impact of COVID and now it’s that you have to deal with the impact of war on top of the lingering effects of COVID. So, it just gets complicated, the analysis and the forecasting kind of going into how we see that playing out as far as inflation and how it’s going to drive that and how it’s also going to impact growth and kind of the impact that all of that will have on the fed and their rate hiking campaign, which as you said, is going to be kicking off this week. So, it’s a great discussion you know, a lot of insight from Joe and a lot of back and forth so, I think the listeners will get a lot out of it.

Caleb Stevens: Joe’s a regular guest; he’s the co-chief Investment Officer of NBC Securities in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a wealth of knowledge we have him on very frequently on this show to make sense of the economy. So let’s go to that discussion, right now.

Tom Fitzgerald: Well, Joe, it’s great to have you back I think it’s been probably what third quarter when you were here with us before is that right?

Joe Keating: I think that’s right, Tom.

Tom Fitzgerald: And an, as usual, there’s always a lot of developments that have happened in between your last visit and today, last year we just had to deal with COVID this year, we have to deal with COVID and war and that’s complicated, obviously the analysis and forecasting. You’ve got a combination of high inflation now you’ve got a fed that’s pivoted hard to the hawkish side. You’ve got COVID-19, that’s kind of morphing into an endemic versus pandemic status. You’ve got oil prices and other commodities now from the war starting to hit highs that are either certainly cycle highs, if not all-time highs. The war itself, all of that has created headwinds, tailwinds, cross-currents your outlet for the economy, Joe, what are you making of all of this sort of kind of distill it down and look at your crystal ball?

Joe Keating: Yes, well, Tom, I love your characterization of the economy and the financial markets facing an unprecedented array of headwinds, tailwinds, and cross-currents all the while trying to settle into and think of it as an interconnected array of equilibrium positions. It is a very challenging environment to look into the future, but we’ll take a shot at it. So, here it goes to begin the likelihood of a recession in the coming months has increased, but it is not our base case. First, anytime the Federal Reserve is tightening monetary policy or about to begin tightening monetary policy, the probability of a policy mistake comes into play. Although we do not expect the fed to push the economy into recession, the jobs market remains a key source of strength for the economy’s payroll employment.

We saw last Friday an increase of 678,000 in February with revisions for December and January adding another 92,000 jobs. And inside the report, we saw that hours worked were up to five and a half percent year over year, which is strong. And the unemployment rate fell to 3.8%, I think the combination of plummeting Omicron cases and high-wage job opportunities are drawing more workers back into the jobs market. The economy’s added 4.6 million jobs with the six months as the economy continues to move toward fully reopening and then yesterday the jolt report showed 11.3 million job openings, very close to a record. Moving to the sectors of the economy despite the recent rise in mortgage rates, housing starts new home sales, existing home sales, and very low inventories of new and existing homes point to strong housing demand on the horizon.

The US needs roughly one and a half million housing starts per year based on population growth and scrappage, and 2021 was the first year in the aftermath of the 2008-09 recessions that crossed that threshold. Additionally, millennials are now the largest living generation in the United States and have begun to enter the housing market in force making up over 50% of the new mortgage issuance for the first time in 2019 and continuing to stay there. This represents a demographic tailwind for new and existing home sales for the foreseeable future for consumer spending, which as we all know, represents 70% of the economy jobs and income growth are positives. Consumer spending on a wide array of services from travel to dining out to entertainment will grow at a faster pace than spending on goods can continue and likely accelerate the trend of the second half of 2021, as we move through 2022.

However, real incomes have fallen recently with average hourly earnings being reported last Friday at a 5.1% rate over the past year, while an array of consumer inflation measures are higher by 5.2% to almost 8% lower and middle-income households’ purchasing power is being pinched. This dynamic is doing part of the work of the Federal Reserve and cooling demand that may be a small silver lining. Business capital spending will benefit from companies moving production back to the US from the need to boost efficiency and productivity in light of rising input and cost and wages. An inventory rebuild will also add to growth in 2022 due to low inventories of many goods, but that will also stimulate imports, which will hurt growth through negative net exports, which could be a wash. We look for growth in the current quarter to be in the two to two and a half percent range due to the negative impact of Omicron on the pace of activity in January, the pace of growth should rebound to a pace closer to 3% over the remaining three quarters of the year with full-year growth between two and a half and 3% compared to 5.6% in 2021.

Growth in 2023 will trend towards the economy’s recent 2% growth rate since 2000, and that 2% growth rate is a function of population and labor force growth since 2000, the percentage of US population greater than 55 started to rise this is not a coincidence. It is the main cause of slower long-run equilibrium growth in the economy.

Tom Fitzgerald: Joe, can you kind of speak to, we’re sort of in this discussion now with the fed on the kind of the precipice of starting to tighten the treasury curve it’s flat and there’s talk of inversions again, we’re kind of getting that discussion of an inverted yield curve and what that means. Can you kind of speak, what do you see the treasury market in particular in the treasury yield curve? What are they telling us right now?

Joe Keating: Sure. Well, Tom that we followed this very closely back when the fed was raising rates between 2015 and 2018. And I went and revisited the analysis in the strategy statement that I write on February 1st that is analysis, as you mentioned of the yield on two-year Treasury notes to 10-year treasury notes. And we use that to monitor investors’ assessment of whether the federal reserve is moving or in this case, signaling its intention to move too quickly and aggressively to tighten monetary policy, which could have recessionary implications that are too slow, which would support the current inflation rate pressures. So, what’s the treasury market telling us to answer your question first? Remember, the Federal Reserve has not even started the Titan policy yet. It is only poised to stop providing additional policy accommodation this month, actually next week as the bond-buying program ends and the fed begins to raise rates.

However, the financial markets have tightened financial conditions already higher treasury yields and mortgage rates, wider corporate yield spreads, a flatter yield curve, treasury yield curve, as you mentioned, and lower stock prices. In large measure based on what the fed has started, it is likely to do in terms of tightening policy this year, treasury yields since September 30 and why September 30? If you go back to September 30, that’s when roughly half of the members of the FOMC committee saw rates rising in 2022, and half saw rates rising in 2023. So, since that point, we’ve seen a 49 basis point rise in 10-year Treasury yields to 198 and 144 basis point rises on two-year Treasury notes to 172, while the yield spread fell from 121 basis points to 26 basis points today.

So, it is clear that the federal reserve has gotten the attention of the treasury market and at a 26 basis point yield spread, the treasury market is getting closer to forecasting a likely policy mistake in potential recession, as it was back in December of 2018 since the yield curve has not inverted, however, the treasury market appears to be signaling that it anticipates the fed will likely approach a neutral policy stance in coming months, similar to the conditions in the financial markets during 2018. As chair Powell, tightened policy almost too far during 2018, with four additional rate hikes following the five rate hikes that chair [unclear 10:38] had already put in place. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the further rise in oil prices have further weighed on ten-year treasury yields and the two to 10-year treasury yield spread giving us that 26 basis point spread currently. This is as close to the 19 basis point reading at the end of 2018 when the market was very concerned, the chair Powell had gone too far in tightening monetary policy during 2018, and we did not fall into recession then. A flight to safety and 10-year treasury notes is likely leaning on the yield spread currently, but irrespective the market is concerned about the outlook for the economy. So, I don’t think it’s flashing recession signals at the moment, Tom, but it’s clearly on watch in terms of making sure that the fed doesn’t go too far in terms of tightening policy.

Tom Fitzgerald: Yes, and I think when we get to the, as you said, the meeting next week the 25 basis points is pretty much penciled in or written in stone at this point. So I don’t see the market reacting too much to that one move, but then again, the language that Powell uses in the press conference, we’ll get new dot plots, we’ll get the new set the summary of economic projection. So, I think a lot of that could have the potential to kind of create some volatility if, as you said if they intend to continue to hike quickly, and without pause too much that could cause some disruption. So I think there’ll be a lot of interest in what that new dot plot looks like and what those economic projections come out with. At least that’s what I’m going to be looking at.

Joe Keating: I agree with that Tom.

Tom Fitzgerald: And I wonder too, with the war situation, are they building in maybe a little bit higher inflation forecast and a little bit lesser growth forecast? Again, given the headwinds that are coming from Ukraine at this point, but again, we’ll get the answers to that, or at least see what they’re thinking next week. Let’s focus kind of on inflation now, just specifically and we talked a little bit about, the headwinds that’ll come from Ukraine, but. I had Joe when I was looking at the numbers, when you get to this part of the year; I was hoping to see at least some plateauing in the year over year numbers because you’re getting to that point where we were getting some huge month over month increases last year at this time. And as for those roll off the year early calculations, if you’re putting on a lower number, then that year over year, the number’s going to drop a bit, but it looks like we’re going to just be taking off a 16th, a month over month and adding on a 16th month, over a month. And certainly, when we start feeling the impact of the Ukraine situation, it just doesn’t look like the Fed’s going to get at any break on inflation anytime soon. What is your outlook on that?

Joe Keating: Well, Tom, I agree with that assessment, we were all looking for the year-on-year comparisons to ease as we went through the year. I still think we’ll see some easing when we get out to April on the year over years, but probably not as much as we hoped for, there’s been kind of two 2, maybe now three phases of inflation. One was the year-over-year comparisons being uncomfortably high, the second phase was the result of strong demand arising from the fiscal stimulus and a much accommodated monetary policy colliding with restricted supply, which arose from shortages of key components and workers and bottlenecks such as ocean-going freight and trucking. And the very unusual spending patterns, the virus unleashed IE more expenditures on goods and services, the unusual origins of this inflation mean the solution is not straightforward.

However, repairing supply chains is beyond the means of the white house and the Federal Reserve treating the current inflationary pressures as a result of only excess demand could cause unnecessary damage to the economy. Hence, as we’ll talk about in a couple of minutes, our view that the “Central Bank” will pursue a, do no harm approach as a tightens monetary policy. Ideally, inflationary pressures will recede on their own as distortions to demand and supplies, self-correct. Rising semi a conductor will eventually cure the shortage of new cars and trucks and the outsized demand for used vehicles, motor vehicle prices account for roughly a third of the current increase in inflation, and supply chain disruptions, in general, account for more than half of the rise in inflation. A receding virus and less generous federal support should coax some workers to fill job vacancies.

Now, there are some encouraging signs for the inflation outlook, maybe you call these green shoots. And one is that goods consumption fell over the second half of 2021 and various supply bottleneck indicators have continued to improve namely delivery time, indices onshore, port congestion, semiconductor chip availability for motor vehicle manufacturers, and wholesale and retail inventories. However, it’s very possible that the second round of supply shortages could emerge from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the higher oil prices and other commodity prices will impact inflation measures in the near term. Of some concern are the implied inflation outlooks embodied in the treasury market that you and I follow closely, which the good news is that they’re notably below the five to 7% readings we’re currently seeing, but they firmed over the past couple of weeks with the surge oil prices.

The implied five-year inflation outlook is up to 333 above the 275 level in late January and slightly above the previous high of 317 back on November 15. The 10 years implied inflation outlook has recently rebounded to 284 compared to a recent low of 238 in late January and is in line with the 276 back in back on November the 15th. So, it’s clear when we compare these to where we were in late January, that the higher readings generally reflect higher commodity prices coming out of the situation in Ukraine.

Tom Fitzgerald: Well, let’s talk briefly about what we did allude to the upcoming fed meeting and how Powell’s probe has taken the 50 basis point hike off the table. How do you see the fed conducting monetary policy as the year plays out? And if you want to kind of risk, forecasting into 23, you can do that. But how do you see, as I said, we’ll get the dot plots and we’ll get more of Powell’s thoughts next week, but where do you see the fed going with the rate hikes this year?

Joe Keating: Sure. Well, Tom, we all know the policy moves the feds going to make this year; the questions are timing in order of magnitude. We had been expecting the Fed to raise rates by 25 basis points in each quarter of 2022, starting this month and shrinking the almost 9 trillion dollar bond portfolio midyear. However, you got to mention that following the strong January jobs and hot inflation reports, and then what we’ve seen so far in February, the futures market for the federal funds rate is indicating that it is possible a “Central Bank” could pursue a sequence of five to 6, 25 basis point increases into row this year, which would take the target range for the federal funds rate to one and a half to one and three quarters. Given the inflationary pressures, it’s a toss-up whether the “Central Bank” hikes rates four or six times this year, in my opinion. Although at the margin, I’m leaning towards four because I do think we’re going to see a slowdown in the economy and as we go through the year, some improvement on the inflation data.

And that’s going to be the key to how the fed proceeds, we should note, however, that the 1.72% yield on the two-year Treasury note currently points the fed hiking rates six times in the next 12 to 18 months, pretty much in line with the futures market for the federal funds rate. The current Russia Ukraine conflict will likely force a reassessment of the path of tightening by the fed if much higher energy prices have an outsized negative impact on consumer spending and leads to a wider divergence between headline, consumer prices being persistently high in core prices being somewhat lower without energy and food prices. So, here I am differing from the consensus a little bit everyone’s just kind of looking at the higher energy prices saying okay, the Fed’s going to have to lean on this. But what we’re seeing, and we already mentioned this when we talked about the [unclear19:51] economy, it is squeezing real incomes.

Real incomes are falling on a year-over-year basis and that is going to slow down the consumer as we go through the year. There’s also a growing risk that the adverse shock to the global economy from the situation in Ukraine will trigger a significant, further tightening of financial conditions that could persuade the fed to pause the rate hikes before year-end. So, a lot of uncertainty, and when Mr. Powell will use the term of the concept of being nimble I think he’s talking straight to us the fed will need to be nimble as they go through the year.

Tom Fitzgerald: I agree. And I’ve sort of been writing recently about, I think they get three hikes on the book by March, May, and June. And then they’ll start with the balance sheet runoff, and then kind of take a look around what the economy’s doing what’s happened with the situation in Ukraine. And then that still gives them half a year to get another two to three hikes in if the economy looks like it can stand that. So, I think they’re in a decent spot the war is going to put a little headwind on growth and it’s going to boost inflation, which is not, that’s sort of a double whammy for them, which will complicate trying to get this done, this so-called soft landing. But they’ve got a good plan I think as you said, they’ll be nimble about it and nothing’s, written in stone at this point as once you get past those two or three initial rate hikes, I believe.

Joe Keating: Tom, I agree with that and I think you said that better than I did, so Bravo.

Tom Fitzgerald: We’ve got a lot of listeners who are the financial or portfolio managers for their investment portfolios. Where do you see kind of, as you said, the 10 years traded briefly over 2% I think right now, as we record, it’s just fewer than 2%. Some of that flight to safety that occurred early on in the invasion of Ukraine is kind of backed up on more of the inflationary impact now. But where do you kind of see, your crystal ball again, where do you see that 10-year treasury over the remainder of the year?

Joe Keating: Well, Tom, I’ll give you a fairly short answer here and it might surprise a lot of the listeners, but the treasury market knows everything that we’ve been talking about. So, I think the yield and the 10-year treasury is going to trade in a range between one and a half percent and just a little over 2% over coming months as the market responds to higher near term inflation readings, which I think is taking it up to the 2% right now. But a looming slowdown in the economy and some easing of inflationary pressures resulting from the tightening of monetary policy, by the fed and the squeeze on real incomes which as I already mentioned, which I think is being underappreciated by most folks looking forward. So, I think we’re pretty close to the high end of the range on the 10-year treasury sitting right here at 2% as we’re speaking and I don’t see it going much higher as we go through the year.

Tom Fitzgerald: I tend to agree with that I just see the treasury market at that those investors out there looking at probably a slowing economy as some of these headwinds from the war start to drift across globally. And just as you said the commodity prices, particularly the oil and gas and not only that, the food, Ukraine is a huge wheat exporter that is going to be a hit to the market. So, food costs are going to go up and so when you’re paying more for food, you’re paying more for gas, that’s less to spend on others and the CPI report, I guess we could talk about that briefly this morning came out. It pretty much was right on target as far as expectations go, but that owner’s equivalent rent, which is the CPI’s way to measure housing cost, I think was up five-tenths of a percent, which is, I think, a high for the year. So, you’re starting to see those creases and rents that have been, sort of topics of news and reporting over the last year have started to filter into the CPI, which I think will be another, component to keep when you’re paying more for rent. Again, that’s another reason you don’t have that disposable income like you had maybe six months or a year.

Joe Keating: Yes, I agree with that, Tom I think that a good portion of the consumer sector is going to be squeezed starting to be squeezed already, but will continue to be squeezed in coming months. And that will as I kind of allude to earlier that’s going to do some of the work of the fed for the fed.

Tom Fitzgerald: And you talked about real wages, wages were up year over year, with over 5% in the number of the last jobs, but when inflation’s running at seven or 8%, you’re still falling behind.

Joe Keating: That’s exactly right.

Tom Fitzgerald: Let’s kind of pivot a bit and look at the equity side of the markets, the volatility from the war in Ukraine has hit stocks, extremely heavily we’ve gotten into correction territory, both for the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones, the NASDAQ, and the Russell 2000 both have been flirting with the bear market territory. So, they’re taking it pretty hard as to what the impacts could be going forward. Any particular thoughts that you have on kind of how that conflict in Ukraine is going to impact common stocks for the balance of the year?

Joe Keating: Sure. I think it’s important for investors and I truly mean investors to maintain a long-term perspective and to stay focused on the dynamics of the current economic expansion, which we see as in the middle of a potentially long business cycle. And if you do that, I think several of what I would refer to as guiding principles can be ascertained. So, here goes, we view the decline in common stock prices over the past two and a half months, particularly after Russia invaded Ukraine as a very attractive buying opportunity. This does not mean stock prices could not suffer further near-term declines, but if investors maintain an appropriate long-term investment horizon, it is time to pick up some very high-quality companies. And I would encourage people to stay high quality with durable earning streams that have gotten caught up in the decline in the overall market.

The key for the economy and the financial markets is whether or not the invasion leads to a recession in the US economy. Remember the primary impact, as we’ve talked about on the economy will come from higher commodity prices, particularly oil prices, the rise in oil prices and other commodity prices will slow consumer spending. As we spend a fair amount of time talking about as they pinch household discretionary spending a further softening in consumer sentiment will also weigh consumer spending. As such as I just mentioned a moment ago, the invasions doing some of the work of the fed and cooling aggregate demand which they will do by tightening policy. The Federal Reserve’s intention to tighten monetary policy this year will go forward as we already talked about; however, whatever degree of aggressiveness was contemplated will now be tempered. And I think you described that well, Tom by saying let’s get three under our belt and then see where we’re at accelerated tightening in my opinion is off the table for now.

We do think the fed is going to follow and I do no harm approach to tightening policy. While we place little value on short-term market forecast, we did think it was likely the current selloff would end in late March following some resolution of the Russia Ukraine crisis, be it an invasion or a negotiated settlement. And the conclusion of next week’s FOMC meeting when investors would gain some insights on the manner timing in order of magnitude in which monetary policy would be tightened. We think the event of the past three weeks, well, if the invasion likely pulled the bottoming process forward, and I think that’s, what’s going on, it’s a bottoming process. Market corrections are typically good buying opportunities if the economy is not entering a recession, all indications are that the economy’s growth rate will slow this year, but we limited threats to the economic expansion from Russia invading Ukraine.

The current military action in Ukraine presents a low level of risk for earnings. Finally, let’s just compare the current drop in stock prices to the two most recent, large declines over the February 19 to March 23rd, 2020 the S&P fell almost 34% as the economy entered the government-mandated sudden stop recession the surest and deepest downturn in the economy on record. Currently, the US economy is not in recession, nor does it appear to be close to entering a recession although the risks have increased, with the economy continuing to heal as the pandemic is close to winding down a review of the data as we did earlier on consumer business capital spending and housing sectors, along with the jobs data, do not suggest a recession on the horizon. The second one is the S&P 500 falling 19.8% from September 20 to Christmas Eve in 2018, following the nine rate hikes by the Federal Reserve between December 15 and December 18 that came close to pushing the economy into recession. Although it did not before the “Central Bank” reversed course and lowered rates three times in 2019, currently the Federal Reserve has not even started to tighten monetary policy. And as you mentioned, Tom can adjust policy and the pace of tightening this year, depending upon how the growth and inflation data play out.

Tom Fitzgerald: And so you are, I would take it from that you’re still a big supporter of Corporate America and view these prices as sort of a sale at this point.

Joe Keating: I do Tom, in fact, in the strategy statement; I use the heading that Corporate America remains on sale. Despite the uncertain and potentially rocky path near term for stock prices due to the military action in Ukraine, the fed technique policy in our opinion remains the key risk for common stocks as a “Central Bank,” turns its attention into attacking the current elevated inflation pressures. Mr. Powell said last week in testimony before Congress, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was likely to push inflation higher. He indicated the Federal Reserve would not tolerate a significant period rate of higher inflation, even if that meant choking off economic growth. So, far Wall Street analysts have not lowered their forecast for earnings growth this year. They gained in earnings last year and the pullback in stock prices so far this year has the stock market looking its cheapest since the spring of 2020, the S&P 500 is currently trading at roughly 18 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months. You can compare that to 23.6 times at the end of 2020 and 30.7 times at the end of 2021.

We’ve been looking for a bumpier path forward for common stock prices this year and that certainly has been the case during January, February and so far into March. For common stocks to resume their path higher earnings must grow this year, and the fed needs to avoid making a policy mistake and successfully bring the economy in on a soft landing. On the earnings front with 95% of the companies reporting for the fourth quarter operating earnings are higher by 41% year over year, for 2022 the analysts at standard and poor’s are looking for operating earnings to grow 8.7%. So, despite the selloff here over the last two and a half months, we look at the backdrop of a growing economy and earnings as favorable for common stocks in the back of the year.

Particularly with a lot of policy risk priced into the market during this timeframe, we still look for 5,000 on the S&P 500 this year, which would be a 5% gain from the end of 2021. We continue to expect a heavy dose of volatility, which will require discipline and a focus on longer-term objectives as a resolve of investors is tested. Higher levels of volatility are unsettling, but what we are experiencing this year’s more than norm the exceptionally low volatility of 2021 was the anomaly. So far we’ve had an average correction if you go back to 1980, the average annual peak, the trough decline during any calendar year on the S&P 500 is 14% and as of last night, the S&P was in the range of a little bit more than 11% lower. We know that at some point, the current correction in stock prices will end and a rebound based on higher earnings and more attractive entry prices will take place. The timing is always uncertain and particularly so now, as investors are reluctant to aggressively step in when the bombardment of Ukraine continues and oil prices have the potential to rise materially higher, even if only temporarily, fear and negative psychology are much stronger, short-run drivers of stock prices than fundamentals in a growing economy. However, over time fundamentals and a growing economy went out.

Tom Fitzgerald: Well, Joe, you’ve given us a lot to think about, and your insights are always welcomed. And certainly, in this time there’s still a lot to play out the Ukraine war, you don’t know how that’s all going to turn out how that’s going to impact inflation and growth in the global economy. So I think we’ll have you back in a few months, just to kind of reset where we are from here because the volatility is high, I think, it’s going to remain high for the foreseeable future. So anyway, I certainly appreciate your insight today, Joe, and thanks again for participating with us.

Joe Keating: Thank you, Tom. It’s my pleasure and it’s always great to catch up with you and to have a little back and forth between the two of us I find it enlightening and fun. Thank you.

Tom Fitzgerald: Same here, Joe. Take care.


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