On Wednesday the FOMC
Will offer their latest decree
Will Fed funds be pared?
Or will Jay be scared
By Trump’s constant hyperbole?
The one thing that’s patently clear
Is rates will go lower this year
And lately some clues
Show Powell’s new views
Imply NIRP he’ll soon engineer
Once again, market movement overnight has been muted as traders and investors look ahead to Wednesday’s FOMC meeting and Chairman Powell’s press conference afterwards. Current expectations are for the removal of the word ‘patient’ from the statement and some verbiage that implies rates will be adjusted as necessary to maintain the US growth trajectory. Futures markets are pricing just a 25% probability of a rate cut on Wednesday, but a virtual certainty of one at the July meeting in six weeks’ time. With that said, there are several bank analysts calling for a cut today, or a 50bp cut in July. The one thing that seems abundantly clear is that interest rates in the US have reached their short-term peak, with the next move lower.
However, in the Mariner Eccles building, they have another dilemma, the fact that Fed funds are just 2.50%, the lowest cyclical peak in history. It has been widely recounted that the average amount of rate cutting by the Fed when fighting a recession has been a bit more than 500bps, which given the current rate, results in two possibilities: either they will have to quickly move to use other policy tools, like QE; or interest rates in the US are going to go negative before long! And quite frankly, I expect that it will be a combination of both.
Consider, while the Fed did purchase some $3.5 trillion of assets starting with QE1 in 2009, the Fed balance sheet still represents just 19% of US GDP. This compares quite favorably with the ECB (45%) and the BOJ (103%), but still represents a huge increase from its level prior to the financial crisis. Funnily enough, while there was a great deal of carping in Congress about QE by the (dwindling) hard-money set of Republicans, if the choice comes down to NIRP (Negative Interest Rate Policy) or a larger balance sheet, I assure you the politicians will opt for a larger balance sheet. The thing is, if the economy truly begins to slow, it won’t be a choice, it will be a combination of both, NIRP and QE, as the Fed pulls out all the stops in an effort to prevent a downturn.
And NIRP, in the US, will require an entirely new communications effort because, as in Europe and Japan, investors will find themselves on the wrong side of the curve when looking for short term investments. Money market funds are going to get crushed, and corporate treasuries are going to have to find new places to invest. It will truly change the landscape, and it is not clear it will do so in a net positive way. But regardless, NIRP is coming to a screen near you once the Fed starts cutting, although we are still a number of months away from that.
With that in mind, the obvious next question is how it will impact other markets. I expect that the initial reaction will be for a sharp equity rally, as that is still the default response to rate cuts. However, if the Fed is looking ahead and sees trouble on the horizon, that cannot be a long-term positive for equities. It implies that earnings numbers are going to decline, and no matter how ‘bullish’ interest rate cuts may seem, declining earnings are hard to overcome.
Bonds, on the other hand, are easy to forecast, with a massive rally in Treasuries, a lagging rally in corporates, as spreads widen into a weakening economy, but for high-yield bonds, I would expect significant underperformance. Remember, during the financial crisis, junk bond yield spreads rose to 20.0% over Treasuries. In another economic slowdown, I would look for at least the same, which compares to the current level of about 5.50%.
Finally, the dollar becomes a difficult question. Given the Fed has far more room to ease policy than does the ECB, the BOJ, the BOE or the BOC, it certainly seems as though the first move would be lower in the buck. However, if the Fed is easing policy that aggressively, you can be sure that every other central bank is going to quickly follow. Net I expect that we could see a pretty sharp initial decline, maybe 5%-7%, but that once the rest of the world gets into gear, the dollar will find plenty of support.
A quick look at markets overnight shows that the dollar is little changed overall, with some currencies slightly firmer and others slightly softer. However, there is no trend today, nor likely until we hear from the Fed on Wednesday.
Looking at data this week, it is much less interesting than last week’s and unlikely to sway views.
|Wednesday||FOMC Rates||2.50% (unchanged)|
|Thursday||BOJ Rates||-0.10% (unchanged)|
|Friday||Existing Home Sales||5.25M|
As I said, not too interesting. And of course, once the Fed meeting is done, we will get to hear more from the various Fed members, with two speakers on Friday afternoon (Brainard and Mester) likely to be the beginning of a new onslaught.
Yes, the trade situation still matters, but there is little chance of any change there until the G20 meeting next week, and that assumes President’s Trump and Xi agree to meet. So, for now, it is all about the Fed. One last thing, the ECB has their Sintra meeting (their answer to Jackson Hole) this week, and it is likely that we will hear more about their thinking when it comes to easing policy further given their current policy settings include NIRP and a much larger balance sheet already. Any hint that new policies are coming soon will certainly undermine the single currency. Look for that beginning on Wednesday as well.