What really matters to the Fed and why that matters to you

In Britain, we're obsessed with house prices. But in America, things are very different. John Stepek explains why, and why it matters to you.


The Fed's Janet Yellen: stocks are all that matters

George Osborne drew all the headlines this week.

But as I said yesterday, the week really belonged to the central banks.

I want to talk about that, and why it matters, in a bit more detail today

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What really matters to the Fed

The Dow Jones has turned positive for the year. Oil prices are near their highest point for this year. Gold has had a good year too.

And yet, this abrupt change of heart isn't necessarily what you'd expect given the backdrop. US consumer price inflation is rising more rapidly than anyone had expected.

As Reuters pointed out, "core" consumer price inflation rose by 2.3% in the year through February. That compares to the Fed's 2% inflation target. Factory output was up. Housing starts grew rapidly, having been held back by bad weather.

Says Reuters: "Builders cannot keep up with the demand for housing because of a shortage of lots and skilled labour, which is driving rents higher in major metropolitan areas."

So inflation is rising. Yet, as Jared Dillian points out in his 10th Man email, the Fed has gone "from being concerned about inflation pressures building to being fairly glib about it".

What does that mean for your money? Well, it's probably worth being prepared for inflation.

One of the takeaways from the financial history course I was on the other week was that stocks do OK under inflation until things start to get really out of hand. With inflation up to about 4%, stocks are cheery enough.

And I think this is important to bear in mind. You see, as far as I can work out, there's one key indicator that the Fed really gives a damn about. It's not employment. It's not wages. It's certainly not inflation.

It's the level of the S&P 500.

It's the little differences

At the end of the day, our government isn't that bothered about where the FTSE 100 is from one day to the next. If it was, you can bet it wouldn't still be knocking around where it was roughly 16 years ago. That lack of interest comes from the fundamental lack of interest and mild distrust that the majority of the electorate has for "stocks and shares".

But property? Every single time the chancellor (this one and his predecessors) stands up to do a Budget, he bumps a little more money the housing market's way. Because he gets it.

He understands that "an Englishman's home is his castle" and all that. If a British homeowner wants to know how the economy is doing, they look at the price of their house. If it's up at election time, they'll vote for the incumbent. If it's down, they'll vote for the opposition.

This is also, I suspect, the driving force behind Osborne trying to kill off buy-to-letters in favour of first-time buyers. If you don't own a house, you can't feel a part of Britain's ever-expanding, ever-wealthier economy.

Anyway. So if the authorities are going to prop up anything in Britain, it's house prices.

In America, it's different. Until the recent bubble, property on average didn't have a particularly attractive record as an investment, and wasn't the be-all and end-all of everyone's financial existences.

But stocks they're a lot more important. The average British person reckons they can get rich in the long run by owning property. The average American reckons they can do the same with stocks.

So the thing the authorities care about as a popular barometer of economic health, is the stockmarket.

As long as the stockmarket is rising, the Fed will be happy. To me, that rather equates to the Fed being happy with inflation ticking higher and higher, until it reaches the 5% or so mark, at which stocks start to get a little worried.

By that time of course, it's too late to do anything without getting extreme. But the Fed will be so busy worrying about fighting the last battle the one against deflation that it won't remember just how nasty an opponent inflation can be until it's right at the heart of the economy.

To cut a long story short the biggest bubble around right now is in bonds. The logical way for that bubble to pop is inflation. There's a pleasing circularity to the story, but it's not going to be very pleasing for those on the sharp end of that bubble bursting.

We'll have more on all this in future issues. Meanwhile, it's something to keep your eyes peeled for.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.