The Fed is upbeat on economy, but markets aren't buying it
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The Federal Reserve and the financial markets seem destined to lock horns for the rest of the year. Financial market participants are convinced that the economy is on shaky footing and that inflation is rolling over. As a result, they believe that the Fed should maintain its extremely easy monetary policy. However, yesterday’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) statement, underscored by Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenTrump nominates former Fed economist to central bank's board On The Money: Trump may impose 0B in China tariffs as soon as next week | Trump nixes federal worker pay raise | Biz groups push for deal with Canada | Trump threatens to leave WTO Trump says he doesn't regret picking Powell to lead Fed MORE’s press conference, indicated that the Fed is inclined to continue moving toward a more normal policy stance.

Round one of this battle occurred in the first quarter of the year. The FOMC declared in December 2016, when it hiked rates for only the second time in this expansion, that it expected to raise rates three more times in 2017, a proposition that was viewed somewhat skeptically by markets. In particular, markets were pricing in very low odds of a Fed move in March throughout January and February, forcing Fed officials to engage in aggressive jawboning at the end of February to signal a March rate hike. 

This shot across the bow managed to get market participants to back off a bit, as there was early and uncontentious acquiescence to a June rate increase, a move that the FOMC followed through on yesterday.

However, after the spring months brought a string of surprisingly soft core inflation readings, a mixed bag in terms of economic data (including a very weak Q1 GDP result) and flagging prospects for a boost from fiscal policy, market participants, while accepting a June move, have been gravitating toward a view that the Fed would be unable to follow through on its projections of steady rate hikes. In the wake of a below-expected CPI reading Wednesday, markets were gearing up for the Fed rate increase to possibly be a “one-and-done” maneuver.

Despite a history of extreme dovishness throughout her tenure as Fed chair, Janet Yellen surprised markets Wednesday with her upbeat assessment of the economy and dismissiveness of recent low inflation readings. The committee continues to project that it will raise rates once more this year and three times in 2018. 

Moreover, the Fed provided strong hints that it is about to finally begin the process of reducing the massive stash of securities holdings that it built up during multiple rounds of quantitative easing in the years after the financial crisis.

Markets are skeptical, to put it mildly. Futures contracts indicate that market participants are betting that there is only a 50-50 chance of a single quarter-point rate hike before the end of this year and that the Fed will only raise rates once in all of 2018. 

At the same time, analysts have been forced to move up their predicted timeframe for the beginning of the Fed’s balance sheet reduction operations after Janet Yellen said yesterday that they may begin “relatively soon.” But, even on that front, the consensus view is that the Fed will wait three more months even though Wednesday’s wording conveyed a sense of imminence.

Going forward, the markets are once again set to resist the Fed’s rate hike overtures after an uneasy détente in the spring. Perhaps the Fed will get lucky and the economic data will firm up, making a compelling case for further rate hikes that even skeptical market participants will accede to.

That is my own view: I look for GDP growth to bounce back after a tepid first quarter; for labor markets to continue to tighten; and for inflation to return to the Fed’s 2-percent target sooner than generally expected.

However, if the economic data remain ambiguous, then Janet Yellen and company may have to bring the markets to heel the hard way — as they did in February and March. Let’s hope that tempers do not flare during what could prove to be a long, hot summer in the financial markets.

Stephen Stanley is the chief economist at Amherst Pierpont, a broker-dealer servicing institutional and middle-market clients with a range of fixed-income products. Stanley is a regular guest on CNBC and Bloomberg TV. 


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