May 20, 2022
Hi! It's Emily. I've been waiting all week for today's email, which features Matt's quest for a new kitchen, a photo of the Markets team (we couldn't get Neil in the pic!), and, oh yes, all the biz and econ news you need to start your Friday. Let's go!
🎧 Situational awareness: Axios' "How It Happened" podcast has a new episode examining the fight for the Donbas in Ukraine, through the eyes of both a journalist and a soldier.
Today's newsletter, edited by Kate Marino, is 876 words, 3.5 minutes.
1 big thing: Jerome Powell is living rent-free in my head
I should have pulled the trigger when I had the chance, Matt writes.
- Not long ago, I was feeling flush, and toying with the idea of transforming my recent stock market gains into something my family sorely needed: an eat-in kitchen.
Why it matters: Aside from my personal quest to calmly stir mac-and-cheese while chatting with my wife and 5-year-old daughter, our will-they-or-won't-they renovation drama shows how Fed rate hikes turn human psychology into a tool of monetary policy.
State of play: Just a couple of months ago, the financial logic for a renovation was clear and compelling.
- After 20 years of obsessively maxing out my 401(k) contributions — and about two years in which the stock market basically doubled — I was overcome by an odd sensation I'd never before encountered: confidence in my retirement.
- Meanwhile, low-interest rates would make the borrowing costs for the project pretty affordable.
- And superheated home values where we live — Westchester County, just north of New York City — likely made sinking a bit of cash into our circa-1940 Cape Cod-style cottage the best investment I could make.
The intrigue: As has become abundantly clear recently, all those factors were side effects of one simple fact: Money was remarkably cheap, thanks to the Fed.
That's changing. Since March, the Fed has raised interest rates twice and talked tough about more hikes to come. And just like that, all the solid economic underpinnings of my plan have gone wobbly.
- Borrowing costs have surged — just look at the 30-year mortgage rate, at 5.25% compared to sub-3% for much of last year.
- The housing market seems like it may start to slow.
- The stock market has buckled. With the S&P 500 down by roughly 19%, my 401(k) doesn't inspire quite as much optimism as it used to.
How it works: My experience is a pretty clear example of what economists call the wealth effect.
- When the value of assets — like stocks and houses — goes up, it can spur additional investment and consumption.
- This chain is part of the way the Fed's interest rates influence the people leading households, companies and large institutions.
- It's not an exaggeration to say that Fed chair Jerome Powell gets in their heads and changes their psychology, and by extension, the economy.
Yes, but: There's a valid criticism that because the wealth channel is an effective way of influencing the economy, it's led the Fed to focus too much on keeping stock prices and home values up. And because stocks and homes are owned by the richer part of American society, this has worsened wealth inequality in recent years.
- On the other hand: It's also helped lower the unemployment rate, which benefits a broad range of Americans.
The bottom line: The fate of our eat-in kitchen hangs very much in the balance at the moment. We're not giving up on the idea.
- But we're not making a big push to get it done soon. So our family will be demanding less lumber, tile, wiring and labor than we might have if Powell and his pals hadn't started lifting rates. And that's exactly what they wanted.
2. Catch up quick
3. The financialization of watches
Rolex watches have always been expensive — all those sponsorships don't come cheap. But over the past few years they've morphed from consumption good (buying one makes you that much poorer) to alternative asset class (buying one can, potentially, make you significantly richer), Axios' Felix Salmon writes.
Why it matters: Watches in general, and steel Rolex watches in particular, have now become an object of speculation. That in turn has helped to drive their price sharply upward.
The big picture: Rolex watches have been all but impossible to buy on the primary market for years now.
- Annual supply of about 1 million watches per year now has to include a large allocation to China. That means authorized dealers don't receive enough supply, even to mollify their best customers — all of whom are trying to buy as many watches as they can, given that secondary-market prices are always significantly higher than retail prices.
- Rolex isn't in the business of maximizing profits, so it doesn't expand production to meet demand. Instead, it's wholly owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a Swiss charitable trust. When it does introduce new models, it does so slowly and deliberately, and tries to lead rather than follow the taste of the public.
By the numbers: The secondary market in Rolex watches is highly liquid. The average Rolex now sells for about $15,000 — up from less than $5,000 in 2011.
- Prices have been softening in recent months, however — the first sustained down market since Rolex watches became an investment-grade asset class.
What they're saying: "A lot of buying was from people thinking prices can't go down," says WatchCharts.com founder Charles Tian. "Now we're seeing that first major sign that this type of growth is not sustainable."
4. Pic du jour: Retreating!
This is us! We ideated. Executed. Unleashed. And wielded all manner of buzzy jargon at our retreat in DC. Thanks for reading to the end and we'll see you back here Monday, same Markets time, same Markets channel.