Consumers of lumber products may finally see an end to soaring prices. Lumber crack spreads (the difference in prices of finished lumber and raw timber) have been rapidly falling since peaking in early May. Specifically, the measure on this week’s chart uses the CME futures spot rate of random length softwood 2x4s used in construction minus the Timber Mart-South US Louisiana Pine Sawtimber spot rate. Both indices are falling with finished board prices falling at a faster pace.
The US Fed and European Central Bank (ECB) continue to pursue aggressive quantitative easing while the two dominant Asian central banks, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China, have slowed their securities purchases so far this year. The ECB’s activity is of particular interest, not only because of the size of the balance sheet ($9.2T, €7.6T), but the pace that it has expanded over the course of the past year. The ECB’s monetary support continues at a critical time as the EU economy appears to be emerging from the pandemic-induced slump. Lock downs are slowly being lifted and infection rates are plunging from the March and April spikes. Another promising (gradual) trend emerging is in sovereign interest rates in the region, which appears to be an indication of stronger economic activity in the months ahead. [chart courtesy Bloomberg LP (c) 2021]
According to the US Federal Reserve, growth in the money supply, widely described as M2, peaked at nearly 27% at February’s month end reading and as of March it registered a 24% annual clip. To place those figures in context, the pre-pandemic average annual growth rate of M2 over the preceding 20 years [February 2000 – February 2020] was 6.1% according to Fed data. The previous peaks in M2 growth never surpassed 10.3%. Put another way, the entire US money supply, from the birth of our nation to now, expanded by around 25% in the past year alone.
This tremendous amount of additional liquidity is tied to quantitative easing and the numerous fiscal stimulus plans that have delivered direct payments to individuals and families that, for the most part, landed in bank deposit accounts. Commercial Bank Liabilities, the equivalent of consumer deposits, have swelled some 26% since the beginning of the pandemic, indicating that stimulus recipients have fortified savings as opposed to increasing spending. The good news is that consumers are in better shape than they have been in several years. The bad news, if it can be considered that way, is that there is likely pent-up demand that could ultimately fuel inflationary concerns.
Bloomberg’s most recent update on economists’ expectations for the US Federal Reserve to begin tapering its asset purchases found that 45% of those surveyed believe the Fed balance sheet will begin to contract in Q4 of 2021. This is important because expectations are moving forward, as the previous month survey (March) had only 27% of respondents foreseeing the Fed tapering beginning in Q4 2021. The main difference between the April and March reports was a shift from Q1 2022 to Q4 2021. The Fed is not expected to alter policy in this week’s FOMC policy statement release and will likely maintain highly accommodative monetary conditions. But, the shift in expectations may turn out to be critical for capital markets. Benign Fed policy has been one of the main factors supporting asset prices over decades and especially in recent years. The shift in expectations may become a headwind for risk assets in the months ahead.
The European Central Bank’s net purchase of bonds through March 19th surpassed 21 billion Euros, the most since December, in an attempt to halt the rise in continental bond yields. According to Bloomberg, the yield on the Generic 10-year Euro Government Bond has risen from -0.67% in mid-December last year to -0.3% currently. Granted, Euro yields from 2-to-10 year issues are still negative but the pace of escalation has many concerned given the economic headwinds caused by the pandemic and the recent resurgence of infections and “re”closings. ECB President Christine Lagarde arguably faces a tougher challenge than her central bank counterparts because the EU does not have the fiscal flexibility of other major economies. That constraint may turn out to be a blessing for them as the US, for instance, implements yet another round of fiscal stimulus amounting to $1.9 trillion while the economy across the pond shows signs of accelerated economic activity.