Promises, Promises

Pity poor Jerome Powell. He just can’t seem to stay out of his own way.

For the past several weeks the Federal Reserve chair has been promising – ok, maybe not promising, but strongly “indicating” – that it’s only a matter of time that the Fed will cut interest rates. He’s certainly been grooming the financial markets for such a move, and the markets have duly responded, as the major U.S. equity indexes all jumped more than 7% last month while bond yields plunged.

Now comes last Friday’s jobs report that came in much stronger than most people expected and far stronger than the previous month’s totals. The Labor Department said the economy added 224,000 new jobs in June, well above not only the consensus Street forecast of 165,000 but also the most bullish individual estimate of 205,000. It was also far stronger than May’s total of 72,000, which was actually revised downward by 3,000 from the original figure.

Following May’s underwhelming report, most people seemed to believe that the jobs boom had finally played itself out, and it would be all downhill from here, with a recession looming in the not-too-distant future. And then what do you know, the June report comes out and takes everyone by surprise, not least of all Jay Powell himself. Continue reading "Promises, Promises"

Lock In Now Before It's Too Late

I’ve been shopping for brokered certificates of deposit, and the rates between one-year and five-year CDs aren’t a whole lot different. Rates at my broker range from 2.4% for one-year to 2.65% for five, with two- and three-year rates in between.

My first inclination was to stay short. Why lock up my money for five years when I can get nearly the same rate for one, two, or three years? What if rates go up in the meantime?

Fat chance. Given the Federal Reserve’s past behavior, the odds of that happening are pretty slim, if nonexistent. It may make more sense to lock up your money – if you don’t want to risk it in the stock or bond market – for as long as possible now.

With all of the betting now on the Fed cutting – not raising – interest rates this year, market interest rates are only likely to go down from here, not up. Despite its recent track record of quick monetary policy reversals in the face of market volatility, shifting from a restrictive policy to a more accommodative one – i.e., lower interest rates – just makes the Fed more comfortable. Other than savers – who most people with any influence ignore – everyone loves low rates, and if nothing else the Fed wants to be loved. Continue reading "Lock In Now Before It's Too Late"

Tonic For The Temper Tantrum

One of the many memorable scenes in the 1978 comedy classic Animal House is when a 20-year-old Kevin Bacon tries to tell the crowd at the Faber College alumni parade to “remain calm, all is well!” just before he gets trampled flat by the onrushing mob.

I flashbacked to that this week watching global bond yields sink to their lowest levels in several years even as the overall economy – in the U.S., at least – seems to be in pretty good shape. The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell below 2.22%, its lowest level since September 2017. That put it well below all of the Treasury’s securities that mature in one year or less, meaning you could get a higher yield by putting your money in a one-month T-bill (2.35%) than you could lending your money to the government for 10 years.

Still, that was a lot better yield than you could get overseas, where government bond yields sank even deeper into negative territory. The eurozone benchmark, the 10-year German bund, dropped to negative 17 basis points while the Japanese bond of the same maturity hit negative nine basis points, their lowest levels in nearly three years.

Yet, on that same day, the Conference Board’s U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for May jumped nearly five points to 134.1, its highest point since last November. The index “is now back to levels seen last fall when the index was hovering near 18-year highs,” noted Lynn Franco, the group’s senior director of economic indicators. “Consumers expect the economy to continue growing at a solid pace in the short-term, and despite weak retail sales in April, these high levels of confidence suggest no significant pullback in consumer spending in the months ahead.”

Clearly, there’s a serious disconnect between American consumers, who are in a bullish mood – not surprising, given the unemployment rate of 3.6% – and the bond market, which has pushed yields on the safest instruments down to levels you would expect in a recession. Who’s right? Continue reading "Tonic For The Temper Tantrum"

Sell In May? Wait For The Powell Put

After turning in one of its best January-April performances in more than 20 years, the stock market has suddenly run out of gas in May. We’re nowhere near correction territory – the S&P 500 is down about 2% so far this month after climbing more than 18% in the first four months of the year, and up 22% since the Christmas Eve bottom. Yet the financial press has been filled with “sell in May and go away” stories, citing the Wall Street urban legend – or historical trend, take your pick – that all the money that’s going to be made this year has already been made, so you may as well cash in your winnings and sit out the rest of the year.

The major impetus behind the dip – which doesn’t even meet the definition of a “dip” yet since few people seem to be buying on it – is President Trump’s announcement that he has upped the ante on the trade war with China, raising worries that talks between the two countries will collapse. The recent spate of high-profile IPOs from Lyft, Uber, Pinterest and other companies is also signaling that the stock market may have peaked.

Which raises the question: Is the Powell Put going to come to the stock market’s rescue again in the near future? How deep will a drop in the stock market – assuming it keeps dropping – have to get before the Federal Reserve intervenes and cuts the federal funds rate? Continue reading "Sell In May? Wait For The Powell Put"

Can't Get No Satisfaction

President Trump has already won his argument for loosening Federal Reserve policy. While Fed Chair Jerome Powell can boast all he wants about the sanctity of the Fed’s independence, the fact is he and his FOMC followers knuckled under to the pressure Trump – and the financial markets – exerted on them to call a halt to any more interest rate increases for a while. Indeed, the discussion has since moved to cutting interest rates, a thought that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago.

Back in October, we were talking about how many rate increases we could expect this year. Now that any rate hikes are basically off the table for the foreseeable future, according to the Fed, the talk has shifted to a potential rate cut, possibly before the end of this year.

So why can’t Trump be satisfied with that? Instead, he’s sabotaging his chance to fill the two remaining seats on the Fed’s board of governors by publicly considering two people – Herman Cain and Stephen Moore – both of whom have way too much political baggage to hope to be confirmed, never mind actually nominated (remember, Cain was never formally nominated before he withdrew, nor has Moore).

While Fed independence is certainly a noble idea, the fact is that every person considered for the board has some political taint to them, expressed or not. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been nominated in the first place. We all need to realize that and not try to pretend otherwise. Jerome Powell was nominated by Trump because he’s a Republican, while his predecessor, Janet Yellen, was nominated by President Obama because she’s a Democrat. Simple and reasonable. Continue reading "Can't Get No Satisfaction"