The Fed took the time to explain
Why ‘Neutral’ they’ll never attain
Though theories suppose
O’er that rate, growth slows
Its measurement is too arcane
If one needed proof that Fed watching was an arcane pastime, there is no need to look beyond yesterday’s activities. As universally expected, the FOMC raised the Fed funds rate by 25bps to a range of 2.00% – 2.25%. But in the accompanying statement, they left out the sentence that described their policy as ‘accommodative’. Initially this was seen as both surprising and dovish as it implied the Fed thought that rates were now neutral and therefore wouldn’t need to be raised much further. However, that was not at all their intention, as Chairman Powell made clear at the press conference. Instead, because there is an ongoing debate about where the neutral rate actually lies, he wanted to remove the concept from the Fed’s communications.
The neutral rate, or r-star (r*) is the theoretical interest rate that neither supports nor impedes growth in an economy. And while it makes a great theory, and has been a linchpin of Fed models for the past decade at least, Chairman Powell takes a more pragmatic view of things. Namely, he recognizes that since r* cannot be observed or measured in anything like real-time, it is pretty useless as a policy tool. His point in removing the accommodative language was to say that they don’t really know if current policy is accommodative or not, at least with any precision. However, given that their published forecasts, the dot plot, showed an increase in the number of FOMC members that are looking for another rate hike this year and at least three rate hikes next year, it certainly doesn’t seem the Fed believes they have reached neutral.
The market response was pretty much as you would expect it to be. When the statement was released, and initially seen as dovish, the dollar suffered, stocks rallied and Treasury prices fell in a classic risk-on move. However, once Powell started speaking and explained the rationale for the change, the market reversed those moves and the dollar actually edged higher on the day, equity markets closed lower and Treasury yields fell as bids flooded the market.
In the end, there is no indication that the Fed is slowing down its current trajectory of policy tightening. While they have explicitly recognized the potential risks due to growing trade friction, they made clear that they have not seen any evidence in the data that it was yet having an impact. And given that things remain fluid in that arena, it would be a mistake to base policy on something that may not occur. All told, if anything, I would characterize the Fed message as leaning more hawkish than dovish.
So looking beyond the Fed, we need to look at everything else that is ongoing. Remember, the trade situation remains fraught, with the US and China still at loggerheads over how to proceed, Canada unwilling to accede to US demands, and the ongoing threat of US tariffs on European auto manufacturers still in the air. As well, oil prices have been rallying lately amid the belief that increased sanctions on Iran are going to reduce global supply. There is the ongoing Brexit situation, which appears no closer to resolution, although we did have French President Macron’s refreshingly honest comments that he believes the UK should suffer greatly in the process to insure that nobody else in the EU will even consider the same rash act as leaving the bloc. And the Italian budget spectacle remains an ongoing risk within the Eurozone as failure to present an acceptable budget could well trigger another bout of fear in Italian government bonds and put pressure on the ECB to back off their plans to remove accommodation. In other words, there is still plenty to watch, although none of it has been meaningful to markets for more than a brief period yet.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s take a look at the market. As I type (which by the way is much earlier than usual as I am currently in London) the dollar is showing some modest strength with the Dollar Index up about 0.25% at this point. The thing is, there has been no additional news of note since yesterday to drive things, which implies that either a large order is going through the market, or that short dollar positions are being covered. Quite frankly, I would expect the latter reason is more compelling. But stepping back, the euro has traded within a one big figure range since last Thursday, meaning that nothing is really going on. The same is true for most of the G10, as despite both data and the Fed, it is clear very few opinions have really changed. My take is that we are going to need to see material changes in the data stream in order to alter views, and that will take time.
In the emerging markets, we have two key interest rate decisions shortly, Indonesia is forecasts to raise their base rate by 25bps to 5.75% and the Philippines are expected to raise their base rate by 50bps to 4.50%. Both nations have seen their currencies remain under pressure due to the dollar’s overall strength and their own current account deficits. They have been two of the worst three performing APAC currencies this year, with India the other member of that ignominious group. Meanwhile, rising oil prices have lately helped the Russian ruble rebound with today’s 0.2% rally adding to the nearly 7% gains seen in the past two plus weeks. And look for the Argentine peso to have a solid day today after the IMF increased its assistance to $57 billion with faster disbursement times. Otherwise, it is tough to get very excited about this bloc either.
On the data front, this morning brings the weekly Initial Claims data (exp 210K), Durable Goods (2.0%, 0.5% ex transport) and our last look at Q2 GDP (4.2%). I think tomorrow’s PCE data will be of far more interest to the markets, although a big revision in GDP could have an impact. But overall, things remain on the same general trajectory, solid US growth, slightly softer growth elsewhere, and a Federal Reserve that is continually tightening monetary policy. I still believe they will go tighter than the market has priced, and that the dollar will benefit accordingly. But for now, we remain stuck with the opposing cyclical and structural issues offsetting. It will be a little while before the outcome of that battle is determined, and in the meantime, a drifting currency market is the most likely outcome.