Analysis: Softer inflation print stirs hopes of 'Goldilocks' scenario for U.S. markets

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NEW YORK, Jan 12 (Reuters) – Some investors believe a slowdown in U.S. inflation last month may be paving the way for a market-friendly “Goldilocks” scenario for asset prices, where the Federal Reserve is able to bring down consumer prices without badly damaging growth.

U.S consumer prices unexpectedly fell for the first time in more than 2-1/2 years last month, data showed on Thursday, suggesting that inflation was now on a sustained downward trend even as other key economic indicators, such as employment, showed comparatively robust growth.

Such a scenario could, in theory, bolster the case for the U.S. central bank to ease off its market-bruising rate increases sooner than it has projected, potentially sparing the economy from a widely-forecast recession that many expected to further hurt stock prices after last year’s steep decline.

“Softer inflation and (the) strong jobs market do support the Goldilocks scenario, which will certainly make the rate hike discussion heated at the heart of the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee),” said Ipek Ozkardeskaya, a senior analyst at Swissquote Bank.

Of course, the Fed has given little indication that it is close to veering from the rate trajectory policymakers mapped out last year, in which they projected their key policy rate would top out at between 5.00% and 5.25% this year, up from a current 4.25%-4.50% rate.

Market pricing indicates investors remain wedded to a more dovish view, with the policy rate peaking below 5% around mid-June before falling in the second half of the year.

‘GOOD NEWS’ ON INFLATION

For the near-term outlook, though, Thursday’s data cemented expectations that the Fed would dial back the pace of its rate increases again at its Jan. 31-Feb. 1 policy meeting.

Investors are now pricing in roughly a 90% chance that the central bank will raise its policy rate by 25 basis points to a range of 4.50% to 4.75% at that meeting, up from about a 75% chance priced in on Wednesday and the 35% chance expected a month ago, according to CME Group’s FedWatch Tool. The Fed hiked rates by three-quarters of a percentage point at four straight meetings starting in June 2022 before slowing to a half-percentage-point increase at its meeting last month.

“This in my opinion is exactly what we wanted, not too hot, not too cold, a Goldilocks number that will set us up for a much-improved year this year,” said Phil Blancato, chief executive officer at Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management.

Meanwhile, moves in stocks were so far muted on Thursday compared to past release dates for consumer price data, often a flashpoint for big market swings in recent months. The S&P 500 index (.SPX) was recently up about 0.6%, while yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury were down about 11 basis points at around 3.44%.

By contrast, the S&P 500 moved an average of 2.7% in either direction over the prior seven CPI releases, compared with an average daily move of about 1.2% over the same period.

Investors in options markets were expecting a similar move on Thursday, with short-term options pricing a move of about 2% going into the CPI print, according to data from market maker Optiver.

“This was the first in-line CPI print in a long time and the first print in six months where it was not profitable to be ‘long volatility,'” said Hugo Bernaldo, senior cross-asset trader at market maker Optiver, in Amsterdam. “That may cause the market to rethink these going forward.”

The more than 3% rise in stocks month-to-date may have also contributed to Thursday’s muted reaction, said Charlie McElligott, equity derivatives strategist at Nomura.

“It was a bullish story, but we had traded up into it anticipating it … and that compressed the actual post-event trade,” McElligott said.

“There have been a number of discretionary, macro, tactical folks who had this disinflation Goldilocks kind of risk trade on to start the year,” he said.

Tiffany Wilding, PIMCO’s North American economist, believes the Fed is likely to raise rates just two more times this year before pausing.

They “still need to keep policy in restrictive levels, but in terms of the likelihood of needing to go much higher from here, I think that definitely is falling by the day as we’re getting more good news on the inflation data,” she said.

Reporting by David Randall and Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Ira Iosebashvili and Paul Simao

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