Michael Zezas: The Fed’s Tough Job Ahead

3m ·

Michael Zezas: The Fed’s Tough Job Ahead

Confirmation hearings for Fed Chair Powell’s second term highlighted the challenges for the year ahead. Inflation concerns fueled by high demand and disrupted supply chains, a tight labor market and the trajectory of the ongoing pandemic will make guessing the Fed’s next moves difficult in 2022.

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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Michael Zezas, Head of Public Policy Research and Municipal Strategy for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the intersection between U.S. public policy and financial markets. It's Thursday, January 13th at 10:00 a.m. in New York.


A key focus in D.C. this week is the Senate confirmation hearings for Fed Chair Jay Powell, who's been nominated for another term at the helm of the Federal Reserve. Whenever the Fed chair speaks, it's must-see TV for bond investors. And this remains as true as ever this week.


See, the Fed has a really tough job ahead of them. The economy is humming, and it's nearing time to tighten monetary policy and rein in inflation. We know from their most recent meeting minutes that the Fed sees it this way. But how quickly to do it, and by what method to do it, well, that's more up for debate. That's because, in fairness to the Fed, there's no real template for the challenge that's ahead of them. The pandemic and the economic recovery from it have presented an unusual and hard to gauge set of inputs to monetary policy decision making. Take inflation, for example. There's no shortage of potential overlapping causes for the currently high inflation reads: supply chain bottlenecks; an unprecedented rapid rebound in demand for goods, both in absolute terms and relative to services; a sluggish labor force participation rate; and, influencing each of these variables, the trajectory of a global pandemic. The Fed's job, of course, is to assess to what degree these factors are temporary or enduring, and calibrate monetary policy accordingly to bring inflation to target. But to state the obvious, this is complicated.


So it's not surprising that the recent Fed minutes showed they're considering a wide range of monetary tightening options. A lot is on the table around the number of rate hikes, pace of rate hikes and pace of balance sheet normalization. We expect Chair Powell will be further underscoring this desire for optionality in monetary policy in his forthcoming statements.


Of course, another phrase for optionality might be policy uncertainty, and this is exactly the point we think bond investors should focus on. Precisely guessing the Fed's every move is likely less important than understanding the Fed has, and can continue, to change its approach to monetary tightening as it collects more data and better understands the current inflation dynamic. This is the genesis of the recent uptick in bond market volatility, which we expect will be an enduring feature of 2022.


But volatility can mean opportunity, particularly for credit investors, in our view. Corporate and municipal bond credit quality is very strong, but both markets have a history of underperforming during moments of Treasury market volatility. That's why my colleagues and I are recommending for both asset classes to start the year with portfolios positioned cautiously, allowing you to take advantage of better valuations when they present themselves. In this way, like the Fed, you too will have options to deal with uncertainty.


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