Easy Money vs. Free Money - Choose Your Poison

When I was in high school, one of my political science teachers explained to us that the political spectrum wasn’t so much a straight line – with the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right – but was really shaped like a horseshoe, with the far left and the far right moving closer together at the outer fringes to the point where they almost meet. That the name-calling and the accusations – and the behavior – are most vehement at the outer edges doesn’t change the fact that the things they say they believe in are virtually indistinguishable from each other, only the labels are different.

President Trump’s plan to nominate Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve is a good example. These two men have undisputed conservative credentials and are also in sync with the president’s demand that the Fed adopt an easy money policy so as not to undermine U.S. economic and stock market gains. Not surprisingly, that makes them completely unacceptable to the left.
There’s been the obligatory hand-wringing and phony outrage by their opponents decrying that Trump “means to remake the 105-year-old agency into a partisan tool” (the Washington Post) and “trample over the Fed’s independence” (the Financial Times). We got the same blather when Trump nominated someone to the Supreme Court – which, we’ve been told, is completely independent and never, ever takes politics into consideration when it decides cases, and justices are never, ever chosen because of their perceived political views.

Already, even before they’ve been formally nominated by the White House, Trump’s opponents have started to dredge up all the dirty laundry they can about Cain – alleged sexual harassment eight years ago – and Moore – all the juicy details about his divorce. Whether or not those past sins will be enough to torpedo their nominations remains to be seen. But it’s likely their personal peccadillos – not their actual monetary and economic philosophies – will be the main focus of their nomination hearings, should they even get that far. Continue reading "Easy Money vs. Free Money - Choose Your Poison"

Sweet Surrender

Janet Yellen had a pretty easy job when she was the Federal Reserve chair. By keeping interest rates at or near zero for years on end, she never heard any criticism from the president, government officials or the financial markets. Since he became Fed chair a little over a year ago, Jerome Powell has gotten nothing but flack, from President Trump – who was at it again last week – to a whole swarm of people on Wall Street complaining that the Fed was ruining their returns.

Powell got the message several months ago, and last week he handed in his formal surrender. Not only did the Fed leave interest rates alone at its monetary policy meeting, but it indicated that there would likely be no more rate hikes the rest of this year, and maybe next year, too. “It may be some time before the outlook for jobs and inflation calls clearly for a change in policy,” Powell said.

The Fed also called a halt to the runoff in its still humungous Treasury securities portfolio. Beginning in May, the Fed will slow to $15 billion – from the current $30 billion -- the monthly redemptions of its Treasury holdings, with the runoff to end in October, meaning its balance sheet will start growing again.

So now Powell and his Fed mates can sit back blissfully and listen to the silence, at least for now. Continue reading "Sweet Surrender"

Blowin' In The Wind

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell last week held sacred the Fed’s “precious” independence, but he apparently forgot how quickly and easily it’s been bullied into altering its monetary policy by both politicians and influential financial markets people.

Until just a couple of months ago, the Fed was determined to “normalize” interest rates and its enormous balance sheet. But after a relative – emphasis on that word – weak patch for the economy and howls of pain from investors during last year’s correction, the Powell Fed was lighting quick to reverse course and put a halt to more rate hikes and portfolio runoff until further notice.

Not surprisingly, the financial press hasn’t given President Trump any credit for this (if credit is the right word in this instance), even though he was clearly the first and loudest basher of tightening Fed policy. Wall Street then jumped on the bandwagon, and voila, we have a new “patient” Fed and an easier monetary policy – and the best January for stocks since the 1980s.
Powell and other members of the Fed have tried to justify their abrupt about-face by noting recent weak – again, relatively speaking – economic data. But January’s robust nonfarm payrolls report – nearly double the consensus forecast – calls that into serious question. Continue reading "Blowin' In The Wind"

Fed Chairman Powell Resuscitates Financial Cohort

The market-wide sell-off in the fourth quarter of 2018 was largely induced by the Federal Reserve and its alleged commitment to sequential interest rate increases into 2019. This was largely viewed as reckless and misguided while turning a blind eye to broader economic data-driven decision making about further interest rate hikes. The stock indices responded to the sequential interest rate hike stance with overwhelming negative sentiment, logging double-digit declines across the broader markets. Many market observers were questioning the Federal Reserve’s aggressive stance as companies issued weakness in ancillary economic metrics (slowing global growth, strong U.S. dollar, trade war, government shutdown, weak housing numbers, retail weakness, auto sluggishness, and oil decline) as an indication that cracks in the economic cycle were materializing. The strong labor market and record low unemployment served as a basis to rationalize increasing rates to tame inflation however these aforementioned economic headwinds appeared to cause the Federal Reserve to pivot in its aggressive stance. As Chairman Jerome Powell began to issue a softer stance on future interest rate hikes, January saw very healthy stock market gains after being decimated for months prior. On January 30th, Jerome Powell issued language that the markets were craving to levitate higher as he left interest rates unchanged and exercised caution and patience as a path forward. Using data-driven decision making as a path forward was cheered by market participants as the broader indices popped for healthy gains on top of the already robust gains throughout January.

Financial Cohort Squeezed

The financial cohort was stuck in a precarious situation in the latter half of 2018. On the one hand, a rising interest rate environment would provide boosts to bottom line revenue as a function of the increased rates on their deposit base. Banks had domestic and global economic expansion tailwinds at their back while posting accelerating revenue growth, increasing dividend payouts, engaging in a record number of share buybacks, benefiting from tax reform and deregulation. Augmenting this positive backdrop was a record number of IPOs, a record number of global merger and acquisitions along with consulting fees regarding mergers and acquisitions and trading around market volatility. All of these elements ostensibly provided an ideal confluence that boded well for the financial sector. JP Morgan (JPM), Citi (C), Wells Fargo (WFC), Goldman Sachs (GS) and Bank of America (BAC) seemed to be poised to continue to benefit from the favorable economic backdrop. Despite all these elements, 2018 was terrible for the financials which performed horribly, especially during the fourth quarter as rapid rate hikes were in the cards. Continue reading "Fed Chairman Powell Resuscitates Financial Cohort"

Shutdown Or Not, The Fed Abides

Here’s an additional reason to be thankful for the independence of the Federal Reserve. Since the Fed does not receive funding through the congressional budgetary process and is largely self-funded through the interest on its massive government securities portfolio, plus its many other activities, we don’t have to worry that this week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting will fall victim to the partial government shutdown.

But how much will actually happen at the meeting that can be expected to move the financial markets?

One thing we do know is that Fed Chair Jerome Powell will hold a press conference after the meeting ends at 2:00 EST. Last summer Powell announced that he will hold a presser at the end of each of the Fed’s 10 scheduled meetings, not just every three months.

But it’s unlikely that the Fed will raise interest rates at the meeting, after Powell largely put the kibosh on that idea late last year, when under extraordinary pressure from President Trump and just about everyone investor within reach of a microphone he and his Fed colleagues surrendered and said “no mas” to any more monetary tightening for a while. Continue reading "Shutdown Or Not, The Fed Abides"