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"

Sorry, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus

So who looks more right now, President Trump or Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell? Based on the market’s reaction to last week’s Fed rate increase, we’d have to say it isn’t Powell.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t right, at least looking at the situation objectively and what Powell is supposed to be doing as Fed chair. While it’s certainly arguable that the Fed does need to take a pause from raising interest rates for a few months to fully digest the recent economic data, which is showing the economy slowing some – but nowhere near a recession – it is right to continue tightening, no matter how unpalatable that is to the market.

Quite frankly, most of the calls for the Fed to refrain from raising interest rates are blatantly self-serving. Of course, investors don’t want the Fed to ever tighten policy, because, as we’ve seen, higher rates mean lower stock prices. Not many people like that, especially when it’s been ingrained in them over the past 10 years that stock prices only go one way – up – and that “buying the dips” is a no-lose strategy to make up for past losses.

Welcome to reality, folks. Continue reading "Sorry, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus"

Is The Fed Done Tightening After December?

It’s beginning to look a lot like the Federal Reserve is done tightening, at least after next week’s monetary policy meeting, when it’s expected to raise interest rates another 25 basis points, to 2.5%, its fourth rate hike this year. After that, however, it’s looking less and less likely that it will raise rates at all next year, certainly not four times, which seemed to be the market consensus not all that long ago.

As we know well, Fed chair Jerome Powell told the Economic Club of New York late last month that interest rates are “just below” the so-called neutral rate, a retreat from his comments less than two months earlier that the fed funds rate was a “long way” from neutral. That sparked a big, but short-lived, rally in both bonds and stocks, as it left investors with the idea that Powell and the Fed are going to be a lot less hawkish moving forward in light of still somnolent inflation and now signs of a weakening economy, exacerbated by the recent inversion of some Treasury bond yield curves, which traditionally have been a sign of impending recession.

As CNBC’s Jim “Mad Money” Cramer noted on Monday, the Fed "risks its credibility" if it doesn’t raise rates next week, a move it has been telegraphing for several months. Failure to do so risks setting off a market panic because, as Cramer said, the Fed could create the impression that “there's something really wrong that we don't know about.” So the Fed has largely backed itself into a corner and must go through with it, whether it wants to now or not.

But what about next year? Continue reading "Is The Fed Done Tightening After December?"

Is The Housing Market About To Turn Positive?

One of the anomalies of the current economic rebound compared to past recoveries is the virtual absence of the housing market in the upturn. Not only has the housing industry – and its symbiotic partner, the mortgage market – failed to lead or even participate in the recovery, as it usually does, it’s been a laggard most of the way.

The main reason, of course, is the huge change in perception among young Americans about the attractiveness of home ownership. Most of them grew up during the housing boom of the early 2000s and the subsequent bust following the financial crisis – indeed, the housing bust was the root cause of the crisis – so homeownership for many of them has mostly negative connotations, as opposed to a symbol of the American Dream.

Then there’s the burden of student loan debt, which has made homeownership unaffordable for many, so it’s not hard to see why the U.S. homeownership rate has dropped to 64.3% most recently, down from the peak of 69.2% at the end of 2004.

Making matters even worse is the relative lack of homes for sale, which has created a huge supply-and-demand imbalance pushing prices in most areas of the country higher. The reason for the lack of supply is threefold: Older homeowners don’t want to give up the 3.5% mortgage they’ve refinanced into over the past several years. And many of them still can’t sell their homes at the price they want because the value is still below where it was 10 years ago. They’re also reluctant to sell their homes only to have to find a new home at an inflated price. Continue reading "Is The Housing Market About To Turn Positive?"

Are We Better Off Today Than Two Years Ago?

Two weeks from now Americans will head to the polls to vote in what has been billed as “the most important election of our lifetime.” That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it will no doubt be one of the most important – maybe not as important as the previous one in 2016, but certainly a close second.

Since then, there have been some huge changes in the financial markets and the economy, nearly all of them wildly – and demonstrably – positive. CNBC was nice enough to quantify them the other day in this chart, and the numbers are startling.

I’ll just mention a few:

  • S&P 500: Up 32% since the 2016 election.
  • Average hourly earnings: Up 5%, to $27.24 from $25.88.
  • Nonfarm payrolls: up 4.4 million, to 149.5 million from 145.1 million.
  • Unemployment rate: 3.7%, down from 4.9%.
  • Consumer confidence: up 37 points, to 138 from 101.
  • Corporate tax rate: 21%, down from 35%.
  • Assets held by the Federal Reserve: down 6%, to $4.22 trillion from $4.52 trillion.

Needless to say, there have been some negatives: Continue reading "Are We Better Off Today Than Two Years Ago?"