The Federal Reserve has clearly ratcheted up its new year anti-inflation rhetoric to match red hot labor markets and consumer price gains — but the speed and breadth of its tone change may have to do with forcing money markets to take it more seriously.
With monthly economic numbers still plagued by pandemic-related distortions and COVID-19 still raging, the shift from a more relaxed "wait-and-see" posture of gradually dialing back stimulus to one of urgent hawkish activism has been jarring.
Despite some criticism that Fed Chair Jerome Powell is just bolstering his inflation-fighting credentials to secure his renomination, the Fed conversion has come from across the Federal Open Market Committee spectrum.
Take San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly, a labor market economist and inequality expert regarded as one of the most dovish members of the FOMC.
In two speeches as recently as mid-November, Daly insisted inflation would moderate. Raising interest rates would not fix the supply-chain bottlenecks and other temporary issues pushing up prices, but would harm jobs and the economy.
"Uncertainty requires us to wait and watch with vigilance," she said on Nov. 11, adding on Nov. 16: "Running headlong into a fog can be costly. Patience is the boldest action we can take."
This month, she said policy "definitely" needs to be adjusted, albeit cautiously, to tackle inflation.
A brief timeline of the Fed's recent guidance is useful.
In late September, half of the 18-strong FOMC saw no interest rate hikes until at least 2023. U.S. futures markets and Wall Street heavyweights like Goldman Sachs at the time were pricing in no change in rates this year.
When the FOMC's Nov. 2-3 meeting rolled around, markets were discounting only one full quarter-point rise this year, and that was not until around September.
The FOMC turned the screw at its mid-December meeting. It signaled three rate hikes this year, one more than the market was pricing in at the time, and said it would speed up the taper to conclude asset purchases in March.
In a final twist, the minutes of that meeting released on Jan. 5 also revealed that the FOMC opened initial discussions on shrinking its overall asset holdings.
Markets eventually got the hint. Futures markets are now close to fully pricing in four 25-basis point rate increases in 2022, starting in March. Economists at Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have ripped up their old forecasts and are also gunning for 100 basis points of tightening this year.
McGeever is a columnist for Reuters.