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Market braces for key inflation report Tuesday that may test the Fed’s mettle

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Shoppers wearing protective masks push shopping carts inside a Costco store in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The pace of consumer inflation is likely to have returned to prepandemic levels in March, and it is expected to heat up even more in the next couple of months.

Rising inflation is one of the biggest fears in the market, and if it gets too hot, it could corrode asset values, limit buying power and eat away at corporate margins.

It is inevitable the reopening economy will generate some pick-up in inflation, with demand up sharply and supply chain issues resulting in shortages. Newly vaccinated consumers are also expected to resume traveling and other activities outside the home, which could create a temporary surge in services inflation.

But the Fed and some economists argue this inflationary pick up will be temporary, meaning it should not derail the recovery or result in Fed rate hikes. That makes every new inflation report very important to markets, and that is the case with Tuesday’s 8:30 a.m. release of March CPI.

The March consumer price index is expected to show a moderate 0.2% increase in core inflation, excluding food and energy prices, according to economists polled by Dow Jones. On a year-over-year basis, that is a 1.5% pace, compared to 1.3% in February.

March headline inflation is expected to increase by 0.5% or 2.5% year-over-year, up from 1.7% in February. By May, some economists expect headline inflation could be running at an year-over- year rate of 3.5% or more. The headline rate was last at 2.5% in January, 2020.

“We remain positive but once we get to the end of this year and early next year, and we’ve worked through the supply chain bottlenecks and demand has normalized, as the economy opened up, we don’t think it’s a sustained source of inflation over the medium term,” said Blerina Uruci, senior U.S. economist at Barclays.

Uruci expects core inflation to reach 2.3% by May but then it could be below 2% in the second half of the year.

The Fed has taken great pains to assure markets that it does not expect the inflation trend to remain hot and that the increase is largely the result of base effects. That means the gains in inflation appear larger when compared to the weakness in prices a year ago, when the economy was shutdown.

“I think this year we should be prepared for a lot of volatility in inflation. We’ll have those base effects now and we have a little bit of deceleration after that,” Uruci said.

The central bank has also altered its inflation policy and says it will tolerate inflation running above its 2% target for a period, before it would raise interest rates.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has been driving the message that the Fed is not worried about inflation just yet. He told it to the audience of “60 Minutes” Sunday evening. On an International Monetary Fund panel last week, Powell argued that the U.S. has lived in a period of low inflation for a quarter century and he expects that trend to continue.

“We want to see inflation move up to about 2%. And we mean that on a sustainable basis. We don’t mean just tap the base once. But then we’d also like to see it on track to move moderately above 2% for some time. And the reason for that is we want inflation to average 2% over time,” Powell said in the “60 Minutes” interview. “Inflation has been below 2%. We want it to be just moderately above 2%. We want it to be just moderately above 2%. So that’s what we’re looking for. That’s the situation we’re looking for. And when we get that, that’s when we’ll raise interest rates.”

Fed: Don’t be alarmed

Jim Caron, head of global macro strategy at Morgan Stanley Investment Mangement, said the market is now taking its cue from the Fed and that Powell has prepared the markets.

“He gave the market a pregame to see these high inflation prints and not get alarmed. His message to the market is don’t be alarmed by it. It’s coming back down,” said Caron. He said Powell has made it clear that inflation should not be a long-term problem. The Fed has said it wants to keep policy easy to help the economy and the labor market, with millions still unemployed.

“The way we frame this debate is whether we think inflation is unanchored or anchored,” said Caron. “I think where Powell is coming down is he’s saying it is anchored because it really is just base effects…The way he’s coming down on it is by saying there’s a lot of slack in the economy.”

But then there’s the potential for surprises, like on Friday, when March producer price inflation showed a surprise 1% jump, double what was expected. The market took the data in stride, but that may not be the case if the CPI is hotter.

“The CPI will be more relevant for the market,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment strategist at Bleakley Advisory Group. Boockvar expects inflation to be more persistent than the Fed expects, and the market could react to any signs of that.

“Companies are only now beginning to increase prices to offset their own cost pressures,” he said.

Uruci said the inflation picture has altered since the pandemic, but she was not surprised by the jump in PPI, as it is consistent with what she is seeing in CPI. “We have really been highlighting the buildup of pipeline price pressures,” Uruci said. She said PPI was boosted by two things that would not necessarily show up in problem for consumer inflation. One was a rise in export prices and the other a strong gain in prices of goods sold to the government.

“We expect services to only start picking up in Q3 and Q4. If we’re wrong in that forecast ,and that happens sooner, we could see elevated inflation for the rest of the year,” she said.

Inside the March CPI, she expects to see a pickup of 0.1% in shelter, which is about a third of the index. Because of the slowdown in rentals, shelter inflation has slowed to about 1.6% from over 3% prepandemic. She said the vaccine news may help lower vacancy rates in some metropolitan areas, lifting rental prices.

The test for the Fed is how March CPI and the next several reports line up.

“Fed officials can utter the word “transitory” until they are blue in the face, but 1) how will they know? and 2) will market participants still get nervous, despite Fed reassurance, when the inflation readings reach levels not seen in a very long time? ” wrote Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont. “Buckle up, this could be a bumpy ride!”

Stanley made the comment following Friday’s PPI report.

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Amcham finds 42% of members surveyed plan or consider leaving

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A man wearing a protective face mask stands on Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront that faces Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong.

Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images

A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found that 42% of respondents are considering or planning to leave Hong Kong, with more than half citing their discomfort with the controversial national security law imposed by China.

Various media outlets have reported anecdotes of people or businesses leaving Hong Kong following the clampdown by Beijing. And the Amcham survey offers a glimpse of the sentiment among the expatriate community in Hong Kong.    

Last year, China bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature to impose the national security law. Implementation of the law came after widespread pro-democracy protests rocked the financial hub in 2019 and took a toll on its economy. Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The chamber collected 325 anonymous responses for the survey, or 24% of its membership, between May 5 and May 9.

About 78% of respondents were expatriates who live in Hong Kong for work but do not hail from there.

… I don’t want to continue to fear saying or writing something that could unknowingly cause me to be arrested.

Among those planning to move out of the city:

  • 3% said they aimed to do so immediately.
  • 10% said before the end of the summer.
  • 15% said at the end of the year.
  • 48% said they plan to leave in the next three to five years.
  • The remaining 24% said as soon as they can relocate their jobs and/or family.

Around 62.3% of those considering leaving cited the national security law (NSL) as a reason.

“Previously, I never had a worry about what I said or wrote when I was in Hong Kong,” said an anonymous respondent to the Amcham survey.

“With the NSL, that has changed. The red lines are vague and seem to be arbitrary. I don’t want to continue to fear saying or writing something that could unknowingly cause me to be arrested,” the person said.

Hong Kong is ruled under a special framework that promises the city limited autonomy, including legislative and independent judicial power.

The Hong Kong government said last year the law is aimed at “an extremely small minority of criminals who threaten national security.” It maintained that the legislation “will not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents.”

Some critics disagreed. Former pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau told CNBC last month that people in Hong Kong have become “distressed” and “disillusioned” as some fear the city has lost important freedoms.

Still, a slight majority of respondents — about 58% — in the Amcham survey said they’re not planning to leave Hong Kong. Around 76.8% of them cited a good quality of life in the city, while some 55.1% said the business environment is excellent.

“Whilst we plan to stay for now, we are not sure about the long term in light of the political changes that have been taking place recently which make HK a less attractive place to be,” a respondent said.

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economist says states should decide on lockdowns

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under growing pressure to call for another nationwide lockdown in India as the overwhelmed health-care system struggles to fight a devastating second Covid-19 wave.

But one member of Modi’s economic advisory council says state governments should have the final say in social restrictions instead.

“All things considered, the current policy of leaving it to different states, to take local circumstances into account, and decide on a lockdown strategy – I think it is a better one on balance,” V. Anantha Nageswaran, part-time member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Tuesday.

Calls for a national lockdown — like the one imposed last year between late-March and May — have grown louder as India’s health-care system buckles, and patients are turned away due to shortages of hospital beds, medical oxygen and medicines needed to treat the disease.

Top White House coronavirus advisor Anthony Fauci also said in an interview with ABC News on Sunday that India needs to shut down in order to break the chains of transmission.

So far, the central government has resisted calls for a lockdown, allowing states to step up their own localized restrictions, including lockdowns and curfews.

Instead, the government is focusing its efforts on delivering global aid received — including oxygen concentrators, cylinders, and generation plants as well as anti-viral drug Remdesivir — to affected areas. The country is also stepping up its vaccination campaign.

People aged 18 and over waiting to be inoculated against Covid-19 at a vaccination centre at Radha Soami Satsang grounds being run by BLK-Max hospital on May 4, 2021 in New Delhi, India.

Hindustan Times | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

Nageswaran explained that at this point, the benefits of a nationwide lockdown will not significantly outweigh the costs. He added that the surge in cases is still relatively localized in different pockets instead of at a national level.

India has reported more than 300,000 daily cases for 20 consecutive days. On Tuesday, however, the health ministry said its data showed a net decline in the total active cases over a 24-hour period for the first time in 61 days.

India’s death toll from the coronavirus is close to 250,000.

Economic growth trajectory

Last year’s national lockdown knocked India off its growth trajectory, pushing the economy into a technical recession. Prior to the second wave of infections, the economy was slowly on the mend — but economists are now predicting the recovery will be delayed in light of the current situation.

There is a growing possibility that localized lockdowns will likely continue until June or beyond, and given the current pace of vaccination, any attempt to fully reopen the economy could result in a potential third wave of infections, Kunal Kundu, India economist at investment bank Societe Generale, said in a recent note.

Kundu said the bank had a forecast of 9.5% year-on-year real GDP growth for India’s fiscal year ending in March 2022, that was below market consensus. But even that target is no longer tenable as it was based on the assumption that the economy will open up sooner due to a rapid pace of vaccination.

“With localised lockdowns until June and beyond, this adds downside risk to our existing growth forecast. We now expect real GDP to clock growth of 8.5% for the current year,” Kundu said.

He added that India’s ability to track the new variants will be key to preventing subsequent waves. For that, the country “needs to earmark more fiscal resources for genomic surveillance and vaccine research,” and ensure all temporary Covid-19 care centers are still operational, he said.

Nageswaran added that if India’s Covid-19 cases do not peak in the next two weeks, and if it drags into the next quarter, the country’s pre-pandemic level growth trajectory will be harder to achieve until the 2022-2023 financial year.

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Consultant outlines steps to meeting socially responsible targets

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With sustainable investments becoming an increasing part of the international agenda, pressure is piling on businesses to ensure they have a suitable strategy in place.

BlackRock — the world’s largest asset manager and a forerunner in sustainable investments — was last week accused of inconsistency in its ESG agenda. ESG stands for environmental, social and corporate governance, and refers to a set of standards that measure a company’s performance in areas like carbon emissions and social responsibility.

The investment firm was found to have links to an Indonesian palm oil company, which once again raised concerns around possible blind spots in the ESG investment process. But according to Singapore-based consultancy Asia Research and Engagement (ARE), there are several steps businesses can take to ensure their ESG strategy is considered and consistent.

It’s no good having a commitment for 2050 and expecting all of the change to happen in 2049.

Benjamin McCarron

founder and managing director, Asia Research and Engagement

First, businesses must set out a strong intention to “manage whatever it is that needs to be managed,” Benjamin McCarron, founder and managing director of ARE told CNBC Tuesday. That could be internal policies or external investments.

Then, leaders should set in place a time-targeted plan to meet those goals.

“It’s no good having a commitment for 2050 and expecting all of the change to happen in 2049, so there needs to be a plan which is in place and which is progressive through time,” he said.

An Acehnese worker harvests palm oil fruits at a palm oil plantation area in Kuta Makmur, North Aceh Regency.

SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Next, they need to implement a transparent reporting system and have appropriate governance in place to ensure that reporting is adhered to.

Finally, businesses need to start now. “Don’t leave it too late,” said McCarron.

The advice comes as interest in ESG investments has been rising. In the first quarter of 2021, investments in sustainable funds hit a new high of nearly $2 trillion, marking the fourth quarter of gains, according to Morningstar.

However, investors should continue to exercise caution to ensure companies are acting in accordance with their claims. Institutional investors should engage in dialogue, exert their voting rights and implement shareholder proposals to make sure companies are meeting the set goals.

Meanwhile. it’s much easier for retail investors, said McCarron: “You can have whatever values you want. If you don’t want to own something, don’t own it.”

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