August 26, 2022
Today's the day, everybody. Big Jay Powell grabs the mic in Jackson Hole at 10am ET, potentially breathing life into a stock market after a fairly uneventful week. Let's get to it.
Today's newsletter, edited by Kate Marino, is 1,118 words, 4.5 minutes.
1 big thing: Powell's Jackson Hole speech
As Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell gives a much-awaited speech this morning, he faces a paradox: The more he expresses confidence that America's inflation crisis is starting to abate, the greater the risk it won't, Axios' Neil Irwin writes.
Driving the news: Powell is on tap to speak in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at 10am ET, and the whole financial world will be watching (you can too).
- The big question: How much higher might the Fed, in Powell's view, need to push interest rates to crush inflation?
The dilemma: Powell may hint that early signs of diminishing inflation pressure are evidence that prices will start to moderate on their own, enough for the Fed to cool its jet on interest rate increases.
- But that would fuel a surge in asset prices, which is counterproductive to Powell's purposes.
- Higher stock and bond prices would tend to increase spending and borrowing in the economy, at a time the Fed's entire strategy is to restrain demand in order to bring inflation down.
State of play: In recent weeks, there has been some promising news that suggests inflation will largely dissipate on its own, even without the Fed needing to drive the economy into recession.
- Prices for gasoline and some other key commodities have been falling; supply disruptions are healing; and while the job market remains quite strong, workers' pay isn't accelerating in ways that would portend a 1970s-style upward spiral in wages and prices.
Yes, but: We've seen this movie before. In his Jackson Hole speech last year, Powell laid out his reasoning for thinking inflation wouldn't last. The speech contained the words "transitory" and "temporary," five times each.
- That summer's lull in inflation gave the Fed false confidence.
- When he gave that speech, the Consumer Price Index had risen 5.2% over the previous 12 months. That number is now 8.5%.
In effect, Powell and the Fed are now in credibility-rebuilding mode, which means that even if their best guess is that inflation will come down on its own, they can't take any chances.
The bottom line: Powell and the Fed don't want to cause a recession if they don't have to. But after their mistaken inflation call last year, a whatever-it-takes mentality is more important than usual.
2. Catch up quick
3. 📈 Charted: Profit margins hit 72-year high
Corporate profit margins jumped to the highest level since 1950 in the second quarter, according to fresh government data released yesterday, Matt writes.
Why it matters: While executives have bemoaned supply chain snarls, inflation and wage growth over the last year, profits have handily outpaced costs.
State of play: The data, released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, showed Q2 2022 was a remarkably good one for corporate America.
- Non-financial corporate profits — which strips out financial corporations whose profits can swing wildly based on markets — saw profits climb to an annualized pace of over $2 trillion.
What we're watching: energy prices. Surging profits at oil companies — thanks to a rapid run-up in oil and gas prices this year — have been a major contributor to profit growth.
💭 Matt's thought bubble: That suggests that keeping profits at this level could be tough. If rising gasoline, heating and electric bills become a long-term feature of the economy, it could eat into American consumer spending, which will, in turn, erode the profits of more consumer-facing companies.
Case in point: Dollar Tree's shares were pummeled yesterday, after warning that inflation would likely pinch customers — and therefore, its sales — in the coming months.
4. "Understaffed and overcommitted"
The implementation of President Biden's widespread, income-targeted student loan forgiveness is shaping up to be a bureaucratic challenge for the Department of Education, Axios' Sophia Cai and Erin Doherty write.
Why it matters: Millions of Americans are in limbo waiting for information on how to take action on student debt relief — the success of which relies largely on an agency juggling unprecedented changes, on top of other reforms.
- The agency doesn't have income data for most of the 43 million Americans eligible for forgiveness, meaning around 35 million people — including Pell Grant recipients — will have to attest that they make less than $125,000 per year and apply for relief.
The big question: When will borrowers actually see the relief?
- "That's the million-dollar question," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told NPR Wednesday. "It's really important that folks know that we're also improving a system that was broken and that was antiquated."
How it'll work: The approximately 8 million qualifying borrowers for whom the agency already has income information will get automatic debt relief.
- For everyone else: The White House is asking them to sign up for updates from the Education Department to receive further info on how to apply.
But, but, but: Experts caution that the agency may not be equipped to accomplish such a massive undertaking.
- "It's an understaffed and overcommitted organization," Charlie Eaton, a UC Merced associate professor of sociology and student loan expert, tells Axios.
The rub: The Biden administration says the loan payment moratorium will end in January — and for that to happen "it's going to be really important borrowers have actually had a chance to declare their eligibility for loan forgiveness," Eaton says.
- "Even if borrowers complete online attestations of their income and the online system works, the loan servicers will then need adequate time to adjust every borrower's balance and new payment levels," he adds.
The bottom line: "It's just a massive amount of change and stress on the student loan system all happening at once," says Bryce McKibben of the Hope Center at Temple University.
5. Here comes an LNG spending surge
The global scramble for natural gas — intensified by Russia's war on Ukraine — is slated to bring a near-term surge in spending on new liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure, Axios' Ben Geman writes.
Why it matters: A new analysis shows one of the spillovers from the energy shocks rearranging global commodity flows and supply relationships.
- LNG projects that, before the war, were viewed as speculative, now look more likely to move forward or have gotten the green light from investors.
State of play: The firm Rystad Energy estimates that investment in new projects will peak at $42 billion of developments sanctioned in 2024.
The intrigue: Rystad's work also dives into a dynamic Axios has explored — the tension between the near-term thirst for gas and nations' longer-term climate goals.
- "[P]roject approvals after 2024 are forecast to fall off a cliff as governments transition away from fossil fuels and accelerate investments in low-carbon energy infrastructure," the analysts find.
🍩 1 thing readers love: Thanks to everyone who wrote in with doughnut recommendations! There are too many to list (but I'm happy to try them all, of course).
- Some highlights: Kevin Fosnacht says Stan's Donuts makes an amazing peanut-butter-filled glazed.
- Warren Green name-checks Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
- And Katherine Rodota says Marie's Donuts in Sacramento is the spot. "They open at midnight if you want to get them nice and fresh (and as a late night snack post going out hehe)."
I'd name-check more but I need to run out and get some doughnuts asap. Have a great weekend!
⚡️Axios Markets is copyedited by Mickey Meece.