Will the Doves Assume Control of the Fed Today?

It doesn’t even feel like the world has recovered from the hangover left by Janet Yellen and the Fed after their ill-fated and poorly timed December interest rate hike, but now, it’s FOMC announcement day again. However, unlike December when a rate increase was widely expected, the Fed is not going to take any action today.

The Fed’s post-announcement commentary is what everyone will sink their teeth into for clues of future rate hikes or the committee’s possible move back to the dovish side. With stocks correcting sharply in January along with the global economic uncertainty, it’s very hard to believe that the hawks will win out today in any way, shape or form. Given the Fed’s hints at four interest rate increases in 2016 and the markets only pricing in one or two rate hikes, it will be interesting to see how that gap is bridged.

As with previous announcement days, the model for today is plus or minus 0.50% for the S&P 500 until 2pm before a few sharp moves are made and then a rally into the close. That’s the historical trend 75% of the time.

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All Signs Point to a Horrifically Wrong Decision by Yellen & the Fed

FINALLY, or YET AGAIN, it’s FOMC statement day. Unlike every meeting since 2007, I do believe the Fed is wrongly going to raise short-term interest rates for the first time since 2006. Since 2008, my thesis has been and continues to be that the Fed should not raise interest rates until the other side of the next recession. This is your “typical” post-financial crisis recovery that’s very uneven. It teases and tantalizes on the upside and frustrates and terrorizes on the downside. Another recession, albeit mild, is coming over the next few years. That’s okay. We’ll get through it. On the other side of it, our economy should get back to trend or average GDP growth, not seen since pre-2008. This could also coincide with Europe getting its fiscal act together after another sovereign debt crisis.

I have heard some pundits use the word “credibility”. The Fed needs to hike rates to either preserve or establish credibility. I am sorry, but that’s idiotic and doesn’t need any further rebuttal. Some believe that an unemployment rate of 5.0% represents “full” or “maximum” employment and that a rate hike is necessary to cool the jobs market. Another reason I totally dismiss as unfounded. How about the labor participation rate at 62.40%, a 38 year low?!?!

From my seat, it looks like an 80% likelihood and the markets are expecting the rate hike. China has stabilized, but is far from fixed. Europe is teetering on recession but that’s been the case. The dollar is well off the highs, but the bull market has at least another 20% left on the upside.

This will be the first rate hike ever with inflation under 1%.

This will be the first rate hike ever with the annual social security COLA at 0%.

This will be the first rate hike ever with wage growth needing to jump 100% to hit the Fed’s target.

This will be the first rate hike ever with industrial production on the verge of recessionary levels.

This will be the first  rate hike ever with GDP barely 2%.

This will be the first rate hike ever with inflation expectations close to 0%.

This will be the first rate hike ever with retail sales closer to recession than escape velocity.

This will be the first rate hike ever with non-farm payroll job growth continuing to decelerate.

Where’s the fire?!?!

What’s the hurry???

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.This is not a normal first  rate hike where the Fed is trying to tamp down inflation and/or worry about an overheating economy. This is simply to move off the 0% emergency level and get going. It’s also the wrong decision.

MV

Money velocity, which tells us how often a dollar is turned over during a given period of time, has been in a steady downtrend since 1998 and stands at the lowest level since records were kept. See the chart above. It saw a small rally from 2003 to 2006 which the Fed quickly extinguished with rate hikes. Now they are going to raise rates with this important indicator at all-time lows.

Unfortunately, I do not believe this is a one and done deal for Yellen et al. With the voting members of the FOMC changing substantially in 2016, the Fed will become much more hawkish next year. I forecast a .25% rate hike every quarter next year in March, June, September and December to end 2016 in the 1.375% zone.

Finally, the historical trend for today is to see the major indices trade in a +0.50% to -0.50% range until 2pm est and rally into the close.

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Ben Bernanke Cringing

New Fed chair, Janet Yellen, presided over her first FOMC meeting this week with her first press conference yesterday afternoon. In short, as much as I supported her for the position, it’s crystal clear that she is no Ben Bernanke and has much to learn. On the positive side, she was very calm and took time to give thoughtful and detailed answers. I especially liked when she stated that the glide path to tighter monetary policy was going to be shallow, meaning that once the Fed began to raise rates it would not be a straight shot to the historical norms. Rather, it certainly sounded like the path to 1% and then 2% would be very gradual without committing to specific timetables.

On the flip side, Janet Yellen completely and utterly fell on her sword, stuck her foot in her mouth and any other appropriate analogy for making a huge blunder when she put an almost exact time frame of six month after QE ends to begin raising rates. As the words rolled off her lips, I immediately said “rut roh” and then watched the stock market crater. Defining “considerable time” as six months puts the Fed in a box and loss of credibility. I am sure she wishes she could unscramble those eggs, but that one statement is going to follow her for a long time, especially when the written statement doesn’t even hint at a specific time frame rate increases. Ben Bernanke would never, ever have done this.

If stocks don’t immediately right themselves, it looks like we will see new lows for March before stabilizing and heading back to all time highs. The bull market may not be over yet, but Janet Yellen certainly poured some cold water on it and the bears have their sights on 2015.

Bernanke’s Successor

First President Obama says that Ben Bernanke has stayed on longer than he planned. Then he slaps him upside the head by saying that he has stayed longer than he was supposed. And when given the opportunity to walk that comment back, the president not only declines but also doesn’t give Bernanke any real ringing endorsement. All very interesting to say the least!

Federal Reserve Vice Chair, Janet Yellen, is the odds on favorite to succeed Bernanke next year and what the market is discounting. Other names being floated are former Treasury Secretaries Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, Christina Romer and Roger Ferguson, none of which are favored by the markets. Long time readers know how little I think of Geithner (disaster would be a complement), but given his desire to be with his family in New York, I doubt that he is a serious candidate. From my seat (and others) Summers is an arrogant, condescending bully who does not play nicely in the sandbox with others. It also seems like he wants the job too much.

I believe that choosing the right Fed chief depends on the economic environment. During strong times, the markets favor more of a hawk who has laser focus on inflation. During crisis times and the aftermath like today, markets are more comfortable with a dove who is obsessed with fighting off deflation. Yellen falls in the latter camp, even more so than Bernanke.

As I have said more times than I can count since 2008, I am thankful every day that Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson were in charge during the market crisis. I may not have fundamentally agreed with all of their actions, but I firmly believe that they successfully fought off another depression. They may have been late in realizing the contagion and gravity of the crisis, but once they did, it was all hands on deck. Not to be melodramatic, but I sincerely believed they saved the almost free market financial system around the world.

The Most Unloved Investment

Last Wednesday, I participated in an interesting discussion on CNBC’s Closing Bell regarding what I consider to be the most “unloved” investment.  Most continue to scratch their heads as to why they haven’t cratered with the trillions of the dollars our Fed has created over the past few years.  But there are bigger stories at play. 

For years, most have thought that inflation would really kick into high gear, but that certainly hasn’t happened.  You may have seen it at the pump or at the grocery store, but those are considered “transitional” and easily cured with higher prices.  Think about it.  The higher the price goes for a certain good, the more likely we are to cut back and/or find a substitute.  I am a big chicken eater,  but if the price of chicken doubled, tripled or quadrupled, guess what, I would find something else to eat like turkey.

That may be all well and good for chicken, but what about heating my house with oil?  Aren’t I stuck? After crude oil skyrocketed to $147 in 2008, alternatives really started to sprout up.  Americans dramatically cut back on miles driven and oil used at home.  They also started purchasing wood burning and pellet stoves, solar panels and geo-thermal systems.  In most cases, there are always ways!

Anyway, I digress.  Since 2007, I have believed that our biggest enemy would  be and is deflation, not inflation.  During the credit crisis, trillions and trillions were “vaporized”. Remember all those alphabet soup products that banks were inundated with?  CMOs, CLOs, CDOs, SIVs.  The ones that were AA and AAA but really were junk?  Think of all that money that went away!  Although the Fed has created trillions, it hasn’t come close to replacing the money that was lost. 

Wages are a component of inflation and wage growth has been essentially non existent.  And the elephant in the room, housing?  That’s the largest component of inflation and it would be very tough to argue that housing prices are and have been on the rise.  So in my opinion, we are in need of a little, controllable inflation. 

So I think I uncovered a good future topic.  Enjoy the video.

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000087612&play=1