Are We Ready For A Second Wave?

As we know well by now, the financial markets have recovered nicely from the initial wave of the coronavirus, at least until recently. After plunging by a third from its February 19 all-time high through its March 23 bottom, the S&P 500 has rebounded sharply, although it still remains about 10% below its record high. NASDAQ, however, has won back all of what it lost and now is solidly in the green for the year. Bond yields, meanwhile, have largely settled into a relatively narrow range, all of which signals that investors are fairly positive about the future.

Certainly, the most recent economic news has borne out that optimism. Retail sales jumped a record 17.7% in May after plunging 14.7% in April, the first increase in fourth months. Moreover, May sales in dollars were only 7.7% below where they were in February before the worst effects of the virus hit. In other words, after an extraordinary dip, spending is already close to where it was as more stores and restaurants reopen.

Elsewhere, the Conference Board’s index rose a better than expected 2.8% in May after falling 6.1% in April. Sales of newly-built homes jumped 16.6% while the National Association of Home Builders’ confidence index surged 21 points in June to 58. Sales of existing-home sales, by far the largest category, dropped nearly 10% in May, but that “reflected contract signings in March and April, during the strictest times of the pandemic lockdown,” the National Association of Realtors said, adding that “home sales will surely rise in the upcoming months with the economy reopening, and could even surpass one-year-ago figures in the second half of the year.”

While all of that is undoubtedly good news, is it sustainable? Right now, two main questions are facing the economy and the financial markets: How bad will a dreaded “second wave” of the virus be on both the nation’s health and economy and what happens now that the U.S. government’s stimulus programs have started to run out? Continue reading "Are We Ready For A Second Wave?"

That Precious Fed Independence

Well, what do you know? That precious Federal Reserve independence we keep hearing about turns out to be a crock.

That reality was exposed in the most blatant terms last week when William Dudley, just a year removed from his serving as the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – the second most powerful position on the Fed, just below the chair – argued in a Bloomberg op-ed that the current Fed should do absolutely nothing to try to fix the economy if President Trump is hell-bent on destroying it through his tariff war with China. The Fed, he said, shouldn’t “bail out an administration that keeps making bad choices on trade policy, making it abundantly clear that Trump will own the consequences of his actions.”

But he went well beyond that, urging the Fed to use its monetary policy to help defeat Trump in the 2020 president election.

“There’s even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed’s purview,” he said. “After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”

Thank you, Mr. Dudley, for that admission. Some of us have suspected, Continue reading "That Precious Fed Independence"

The Fed's Tower Of Babel

There was a profusion of communications and opinions from the Federal Reserve last week. The challenge now is to try to make sense of it all.

The first thing that caught my attention was the release of a survey conducted by the New York Fed measuring how well the Fed communicates its intentions to market makers. It didn’t do so well.

The bank found that a majority, or 15 out of 24, of the primary dealer banks that bid on U.S. Treasury debt auctions and make a market in government securities found the Fed’s communications prior to its July 31 decision to lower interest rates to be “ineffective” or close to it. “Several dealers indicated that they found communication confusing, and several characterized communications from various Fed officials as inconsistent,” the New York Fed said.

A similar survey of money managers found only slightly better results, with exactly half, or 14 of 28, giving the Fed “low grades for communications effectiveness.”

Then, at the Kansas City Fed’s annual “symposium” in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Athanasios Orphanides, a professor at MIT, released a paper including suggestions on how the Fed can improve how it communicates its policy-making process. While the paper commends the Fed for increasing the amount of information it provides to the public over the past three decades – it surely has – there’s room for improvement in how it communicates that information. Specifically, Orphanides recommended that Fed members provide more details about their confidence or uncertainty in their various economic projections and how those might change given different scenarios or over time.

While all of the information the Fed already provides, and the prospect of more, is good in theory, the problem is that the Fed is providing too much information, which is creating more confusion and uncertainty, rather than less, about exactly where it stands collectively, while businesses, investors and consumers crave simple guidance on the direction of future Fed policy so they can make more intelligent decisions. Continue reading "The Fed's Tower Of Babel"

Mixed Signals

In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, the bond market is signaling that the U.S. economy is headed for a recession, rather than the economy telling the bond market that news, which it doesn’t appear to be doing.

On Wednesday, yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell below two-year yields for the first time since 2007. “This kind of inversion between short and long-term yields is viewed by many as a strong signal that a recession is likely in the future,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Except, of course, when it doesn’t, and this just may be one of those times. The economy, albeit weaker than it was late last year and earlier this year, doesn’t seem to be close to a recession.

Actually, Treasury yields have been inverted for a while, depending on which spread you look at it. At the same time, yields along the curve have dropped sharply in recent weeks, with some securities dropping to record lows.

For example, on Thursday, the yield on the 30-year bond dropped below 2.0% for the first time ever. That’s down from 3.45% on Halloween. The 10-year yield plunged below 1.60%, down from 3.16% last October 1 and it's lowest level since it hit 1.46% three years ago in July.

Meanwhile, the price of gold has jumped 18% since May to more than $1520 an ounce, its highest level in more than six years. And of course, stocks are down, with the S&P 500 off more than 6% since hitting a record high just a couple of weeks ago.

Why is the market so panicky? Continue reading "Mixed Signals"

Silence is Golden

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a young cub reporter fresh out of college covering the bond market for a Wall Street trade newspaper, I used to scratch my head over how traders and investors would try to discern what the next Federal Reserve move would be. Obviously, not much has changed since then.

Back then, however, the Fed rarely said anything, and when it did, its words would be couched in the famous “Fed speak,” in which the chairman – Alan Greenspan was the best (or worst) at it – said a bunch of gobbledygook that few people could understand but spent countless hours trying to decipher.

In my innocence, I asked one of the senior reporters, “Why doesn’t the Fed just tell us what it intends to do instead of making everybody guess?” I don’t remember ever getting a good explanation.

The problem with that type of “communication” – or lack of it – is that investors are prone to make panicky, knee-jerk reactions to whatever the Fed eventually does.

Since then, the Fed, to its credit, has made a real, concerted effort to become “more transparent” in its communications and avoid surprises as much as it can. The process started with Ben Bernanke, and Jerome Powell has really run with it, holding a press conference after every Fed meeting, or 10 times a year, rather than quarterly as his immediate predecessors did. That’s on top of the countless public speeches and congressional appearances he makes, plus those of the other members of the Fed’s Board of Governors and the presidents of the regional Fed banks, those with a vote on monetary policy.

Now, it seems, we’re at the point where the Fed is confusing the markets by having too many voices say too many things, rather than confusing the markets by saying as little as possible. Which situation is better, I’m not sure.

Case in point: Continue reading "Silence is Golden"