Published on July 14, 2022

Despite the Fed’s aggressive tightening policy, we think inflation still has a ways to run, though we remain cautiously optimistic about the economy.

It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

In titling this quarter’s outlook, it was a close call between Yogi Berra’s famous déjà vu quote and that of French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” – which translates to “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Although the Fed remains singularly focused on controlling inflation, as evidenced by the recent 75 basis point increase in the fed funds rate, we have yet to observe a meaningful drop in inflation. Not surprisingly, fixed income markets remained under pressure, delivering another quarter of negative returns characterized by spread widening and interest rate volatility.

Despite the acceleration of the Fed’s response, price increases persisted throughout the economy last quarter, as indicated by most every inflation metric, whether CPI, PCE (the Fed’s favorite), UIG (our favorite), or any of the others found in the alphabet soup. We look at UIG as an indicator of persistent inflation – in that sense, it has more value than the others, which tend to include price shocks from temporary disruptions. Further, Fed policy should be calibrated to bring UIG lower, and in our minds when we consider the Fed’s target of 2%, it is the persistent level of inflation that matters most.

Regardless of measure, we are nowhere near realizing this ideal. Markets recently have relished weakness in manufacturing and housing, interpreting both as signs that the economy is slowing, which should decrease inflationary pressures and allow the Fed to slow its pace. However, these headlines also suggest a recession looms, which helps Treasuries but hurts risk assets across the credit spectrum. And, just as quickly as you have a poor data point, a Fed speaker or pundit will reiterate the Fed’s commitment to squashing inflation – even in the face of economic weakness – taking the steam out of any Treasury rally.

This leaves the Fed and markets in a precarious position. Jerome Powell will not be taking victory laps around the Federal Reserve if he engineers a recession, particularly after a binge diet of quantitative easing, flexible average inflation targeting (a real gem), and the fed funds rate set at zero for way too long. The aggressive rate hikes are not a reflection of monetary austerity but simply a side effect of policy gone wrong – as the Fed has now created volatility after previously squashing it for too long and creating asset bubbles of all shapes, sizes, and flavors.

The unknown forward path of Fed policy brings back fond memories of studying quantum mechanics in college – specifically the Uncertainty Principle. In 1927, German physicist Werner Heisenberg asserted that one could not simultaneously precisely know the position and the momentum of a particle. In 2022, we assert the Fed cannot simultaneously know the forward path of the fed funds rate (per their dot plots) while the economic data that drive their estimates evolve and are uncertain.

Further, estimating a terminal fed funds rate should be taken with a grain of salt. The Fed again finds itself holding on to one handrail by its dot plot and the other by economic data. The Fed’s current tack of being solely focused on inflation is a step in the right direction, but it is too early to know how long or how far they will need to push short rates to achieve their inflation target.

We will continue to focus on all inflation measures, understanding the lags that exist between rising rates and their potential to stem rapid price increases. As we pointed out in our prior quarterly outlook, the notion of a 2% neutral inflation target is likely a figment of the past, and we believe the Fed should be happy with a 3% target in the intermediate term. However, the Fed has committed to a 2% long-term goal and abandoning it as the neutral target at this stage would eliminate what little credibility remains.

Our challenge is to try to estimate the true neutral rate of inflation and position accordingly. For now, this likely means higher short-term rates and wider spreads for risk assets, but ultimately it will depend on the trajectory of the economy. The best place to invest on a true sign of a slowdown is not the front end of the curve, but rather longer maturity Treasuries. This tends to be the playbook for fixed income investing in periods of rapid tightening, but we still think it best to wait for more evidence that the economy is slowing. Just think, what if this economy is stronger and more resilient than the market and Fed believe? We think it just might be, which suggests higher rates ahead. The yield curve may still invert, but if it does, we think it will happen at interest rates that are higher than levels observed at the end of June.

We would like to thank you again for your confidence in the team and welcome any questions or comments you may have.

Eddy Vataru

Chief Investment Officer – Total Return & Lead Portfolio Manager

John Sheehan

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

Daniel Oh

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

Written by

Eddy Vataru

Chief Investment Officer – Total Return & Lead Portfolio Manager

Eddy Vataru

Chief Investment Officer – Total Return & Lead Portfolio Manager

Prior to joining Osterweis Capital Management in 2016, Eddy Vataru worked in senior management positions at Incapture, LLC and Citadel, LLC. Before that he spent over 11 years at BlackRock (formerly Barclays Global Investors, BGI), where his last position was as Managing Director and Head of U.S. Rates and Mortgages. While in this role, BGI worked with the U.S. Treasury in implementing its Agency MBS Purchase Program, buying mortgages for the U.S. government from 2008-2009.

Over the course of his career as a fixed income investor, Mr. Vataru has developed extensive experience in managing passive, active, and hedge fund portfolios.

Mr. Vataru is a principal of the firm and the lead Portfolio Manager for the total return fixed income strategy. He is also a Portfolio Manager for the growth & income and flexible balanced strategies. He regularly publishes market commentary and has been named a Venerated Voice on AdvisorPerspectives.com – a designation reserved for the most widely read authors on that site.

Mr. Vataru graduated from California Institute of Technology (B.S. in Chemistry & Economics) and from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis (M.B.A.). Mr. Vataru holds the CFA designation.

John Sheehan

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

John Sheehan

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

Prior to joining Osterweis Capital Management in 2018, John Sheehan spent more than 20 years working at Citigroup, first as Managing Director responsible for Investment Grade Syndicate in New York City, where he advised issuers on accessing funding in the corporate bond market. Later at Citigroup, he was Managing Director in charge of West Coast Investment Grade Sales in San Francisco, where he covered several of the largest U.S. investment grade credit investors.

Mr. Sheehan is a principal of the firm and a Portfolio Manager for the total return fixed income strategy.

Mr. Sheehan graduated from Georgetown University (B.A. in Economics). Mr. Sheehan holds the CFA designation.

Daniel Oh

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

Daniel Oh

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

Prior to joining Osterweis Capital Management in 2018, Daniel Oh spent over eight years as a Director at Estabrook Capital Management in New York City and was the lead Portfolio Manager of the Estabrook Investment Grade Fixed Income Fund. Before that he was at Merrill Lynch & Co. as an Associate in Prime/Alt-A-Non-Agency Mortgage Trading. Prior to that, he held positions at Seneca Financial Group and Morgan Stanley.

Mr. Oh’s professional history includes experience in investment grade corporate credit, non-agency and whole loan mortgages, structured credit, and distressed investments.

Mr. Oh is a principal of the firm and a Portfolio Manager for the total return fixed income strategy.

Mr. Oh graduated from Columbia University (B.A. in Economics/Political Science) and from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan (M.B.A.).

Related Insight

Invest With Us

For more information about this strategy, please send us an email or call us at (800) 700-3316.

The Osterweis Funds are available by prospectus only. The Funds’ investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses must be considered carefully before investing. The summary and statutory prospectuses contain this and other important information about the Funds. You may obtain a summary or statutory prospectus by calling toll free at (866) 236-0050, or by visiting www.osterweis.com/statpro. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing to ensure the Fund is appropriate for your goals and risk tolerance.

Mutual fund investing involves risk. Principal loss is possible. The Osterweis Total Return Fund may invest in fixed income securities which are subject to credit, default, extension, interest rate and prepayment risks. It may also make investments in derivatives that may involve certain costs and risks such as liquidity, interest rate, market, credit, management and the risk that a position could not be closed when most advantageous.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This commentary contains the current opinions of the authors as of the date above which are subject to change at any time. This commentary has been distributed for informational purposes only and is not a recommendation or offer of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed.

No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without the express written permission of Osterweis Capital Management.

Consumer Price Index (CPI) reflects the weighted average of prices of a basket of consumer goods and services, such as transportation, food and medical care.

The PCE price index, released each month in the Personal Income and Outlays report, reflects changes in the prices of goods and services purchased by consumers in the United States.

The Underlying Inflation Gauge (UIG) captures sustained movements in inflation from information contained in a broad set of price, real activity, and financial data.

The fed funds rate is the rate at which depository institutions (banks) lend their reserve balances to other banks on an overnight basis.

Spread is the difference in yield between a risk-free asset such as a Treasury bond and another security with the same maturity but of lesser quality.

QE, or quantitative easing, is a monetary policy in which a central bank purchases government securities or other securities from the market in order to lower interest rates and increase the money supply.

A yield curve is a graph that plots bond yields vs. maturities, at a set point in time, assuming the bonds have equal credit quality. In the U.S., the yield curve generally refers to that of Treasuries.

Treasuries (including bonds, notes, and bills) are securities sold by the federal government to consumers and investors to fund its operations. They are all backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States government” and thus are considered free of default risk.

A basis point (bp) is a unit that is equal to 1/100th of 1%.

Osterweis Capital Management is the adviser to the Osterweis Funds, which are distributed by Quasar Distributors, LLC. [OSTE-20220708-0549]