In the Conversation: Rate Hike on The Horizon

Tom WilsonTom Wilson, Managing Director, Wealth Advisory &
Senior Investment Manager

Just a few months ago, it seemed unlikely that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates. However, on the precipice of the December 16 meeting, the consensus opinion has shifted to the Fed likely to raise interest rates when they conclude their two-day meeting. Investors will be looking closely at the comments coming out of the meeting.

We expect the Fed to highlight the positive aspects of U.S. employment, which has been one of their two mandates. This can provide them the justification for increasing interest rates from today’s exceptional levels. Their second mandate is an inflation target that supports price stability and economic growth. On this point, the Fed will likely note that the economy is running below their 2% target and thus could make dovish comments on the prospect of raising rates in the future.

Investors will also be looking to see how the Fed comments on China’s economy, the drop in oil prices, and the decline in global equity markets. More specifically, the market would be looking for insight on how much the Fed will weigh this information when setting monetary policy here in the U.S.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

In the Conversation: No Surprises Here

Tom WilsonTom Wilson, Managing Director, Wealth Advisory &
Senior Investment Manager

After completing their two days of meetings, The Federal Reserve decided to leave the Federal Funds Rate unchanged. As noted in yesterday’s blog, this was the consensus opinion of what would take place today.

The Fed noted that general business conditions had improved since their last meeting in July. They specifically noted the continued improvement in the labor markets, strength in the housing sector, and modest improvement in consumer and business spending. On the negative side, they stated that export growth has been soft and that inflation continued to run below the committee’s longer-term target. In addition, Fed chair Janet Yellen commented that weakening global growth had also contributed to today’s low level of inflation.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

In the Conversation: FOMC Meeting

Tom WilsonTom Wilson, Managing Director, Wealth Advisory &
Senior Investment Manager

The consensus opinion now is that the Federal Reserve will not raise interest rates when they conclude their two-day meeting tomorrow, September 17.  Thus, such a decision will not be a surprise to the markets, but investors will be looking closely at the comments coming out of the meeting.

We expect the Fed to note the positive aspects of U.S. employment, which is one of their two mandates. Their second mandate is an inflation target that supports price stability and economic growth. On this point, the Fed will likely note that the economy is running below their 2% target.

Investors will also be looking to see how the Fed comments on China’s economy and its impact on global growth, particularly on Pacific Rim countries and world equity markets. More specifically, the market would be looking for insight on how much the Fed will weight this information when setting monetary policy here in the U.S.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

An End to Complacency

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

Volatility abruptly made an entrance onto the global stage, shoving aside the complacency that has reigned over the world’s equity markets this year as they have marched steadily from record high to record high. Asset prices were driven sharply lower last week, as gathering concerns that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States may be closer than anticipated to raising interest rates, combined with increasing worries about the possibility of deflation in the Eurozone, and a default by the nation of Argentina, to weigh heavily on investor sentiment. The selling seen across equity markets last Thursday was particularly emphatic, with declining stocks listed on the NYSE outpacing those advancing by a ratio of 10:1, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX), which measures expected market volatility, climbing 25% to its highest point in four months, all combining to erase the entirety of the gains in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the year.

Preisser_Complacency_8.4.14The looming specter of the termination of the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program, which is scheduled for October, is beginning to cast its shadow over the marketplace as this impending reality, coupled with fears that the Central Bank will be forced to raise interest rates earlier than expected, has served to raise concerns. Evidence of this could be found last Wednesday, where, on a day that saw a report of Gross Domestic Product in the United States that far exceeded expectations, growing last quarter at an annualized pace of 4%, vs. the 2.1% contraction seen during the first three months of the year, and a policy statement from the Federal Reserve which relayed that, “short-term rates will stay low for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends” (Wall Street Journal) equity markets could only muster a tepid response. It was the dissenting voice of Philadelphia Fed President, Charles Plosser who opined that, “the guidance on interest rates wasn’t appropriate given the considerable economic progress officials had already witnessed” (Wall Street Journal), which seemed to resonate the loudest among investors, giving them pause that this may be a signal of deeper differences beginning to emerge within the Federal Open Market Committee. Concern was further heightened on Thursday morning of last week, when a report of the Employment Cost Index revealed an unexpected increase to 0.7% for the second quarter vs. a 0.3% rise for the first quarter (New York Times), which stoked nascent fears of inflation, bolstering the case for the possibility of a more rapid increase in rates.

Negative sentiment weighed heavily on equity markets outside of the U.S. as well last week, as the possibility of deflationary pressures taking hold across the nations of Europe’s Monetary Union, combined with ongoing concerns over the situation in Ukraine and the second default in thirteen years by Argentina on its debt to unsettle market participants. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Euro-zone inflation increased at an annual rate of just 0.4% in July, having risen by 0.5% the month before. In July 2013 the rate was 1.6%” While a fall in prices certainly can be beneficial to consumers, it is when a negative spiral occurs, as a result of a steep decline, to the point where consumption is constrained, that it becomes problematic. Once these forces begin to take hold, it can be quite difficult to reverse them, which explains the concern it is currently generating among investors. The continued uncertainty around the fallout from the latest round of sanctions imposed on Russia, as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, further undermined confidence in stocks listed across the Continent and contributed to the selling pressure.

ArgentinaInto this myriad of challenges facing the global marketplace came news of a default by Argentina, after the country missed a $539 interest payment, marking the second time in thirteen years they have failed to honor portions of their sovereign debt obligations. The head of research at Banctrust & Co. was quoted by Bloomberg News, “the full consequences of default are not predictable, but they certainly are not positive. The economy, already headed for its first annual contraction since 2002 with inflation estimated at 40 percent, will suffer in a default scenario as Argentines scrambling for dollars cause the peso to weaken and activity to slump.”

With all of the uncertainty currently swirling in these, “dog days of summer,” it is possible that the declines we have seen of late may be emblematic of an increase in volatility in the weeks to come as we move ever closer to the fall, and the terminus of the Fed’s asset purchases.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Fed Likely to Remain Accommodative in the Near Term

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Equity market investors expressed concern last week after the release of the minutes from the latest FOMC meeting suggested that the Federal Reserve is considering slowing down the pace of the current quantitative easing (QE) program. The Fed is currently purchasing $85 billion of U.S. Treasury and Agency mortgage-backed securities per month.

The Fed has changed its stance on when policy would potentially move to a tightening bias, from emphasizing a calendar date to basing it on economic data. The Fed has stated that it would not raise short-term rates until the unemployment rate fell to 6.5% as long as inflation is not expected to rise above 2.5%. With inflation currently running well below their threshold and with the unemployment rate elevated at 7.9%, it is likely the Fed is more focused on bringing down the employment rate, potentially at the expense of higher inflation.

With short-term interest rates already at the zero bound, the asset purchases are attempting to promote the same result as additional cuts to the fed funds rate. Even if the Fed tapers off their asset purchases in the next few months, any QE is still easing. They would just be taking their foot off of the accelerator. We feel that economic growth should remain tepid in the first half of the year and not strong enough to bring down the unemployment rate significantly, so the Fed is likely to keep their accommodative stance. In addition, the key members of the FOMC – Bernanke, Yellen and Dudley – all lean to the dovish side with respect to monetary policy.

Before actual tightening occurs, the Fed will first have to end QE. When the Fed stops asset purchases, it would be in the context of an improving economy. An improving economy is typically a positive for asset prices. As ISI Group shows in the following charts, equity prices have eventually increased in past episodes of policy tightening.

The Fed raised interest rates from 1.00% to 5.25% from June 2004 to June 2006. After a modest correction, equity prices moved up substantially.

The Fed raised interest rates from 1.00% to 5.25% from June 2004 to June 2006. After a modest correction, equity prices moved up substantially.

The Fed tightened in more aggressive increments during the 1994-1995 period. The equity markets moves sideways for a period of time, and then ultimately moved higher.

The Fed tightened in more aggressive increments during the 1994-1995 period. The equity markets moves sideways for a period of time, and then ultimately moved higher.

Balancing Act

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

Concern lurched back into the market place last week, as the specter of an eventual withdrawal of the extraordinary measures the U.S. Central Bank has employed since the financial crisis, served to temporarily rattle markets around the globe. Although stocks rebounded smartly as the week drew to a close, from what had been the largest two-day selloff seen since November, the increase in volatility is noteworthy as it spread quickly across asset classes, highlighting the uncertainty that lingers below the surface.

Equities listed in the United States retreated from the five-year highs they had reached early last week following the release of the minutes of the most recent Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting as the voices of those expressing reservations about continuing the unprecedented efforts of the Central Bank to stimulate the U.S. economy grew louder. The concern of these members of the Committee stems from a fear that the current accommodative monetary policy may lead to “asset bubbles” (Bloomberg News) that would serve to undermine these programs. “A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs and risks of asset purchases might well lead the committee to taper, or end, its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred. The minutes stated.” (Wall Street Journal).

Tangible evidence of the unease these words created in the marketplace could be found in the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, or VIX, which measures expected market volatility, as it leapt 19% in the aftermath of this statement representing its largest single-day gain since November 2011 (Bloomberg News). The reaction of investors to the mere possibility of the Fed pulling back its historic efforts illustrates the continued dependence of the marketplace on this intervention and highlights the difficulties facing the Central Bank in not derailing the current rally in equities when it eventually pares back its involvement.

A measure of the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the Federal Reserve’s withdrawal of its unprecedented efforts to support the U.S. economy was dispelled by St. Louis Fed President, James Bullard, in an interview he gave late last week. Mr. Bullard, currently a voting member of the FOMC, was quoted by CNBC, “I think policy is much easier than it was last year because the outright purchases are a more potent tool than the ‘Twist’ program was…Fed policy is very easy and is going to stay easy for a long time.”

Reports of statements made by The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, earlier this month, which downplayed the potential creation of dangerous asset bubbles through the Central Bank’s actions, released Friday, helped to further assuage the market’s concerns. “The Fed Chairman brushed off the risks of asset bubbles in response to a presentation on the subject…Among the concerns raised, according to this person, were rising farmland prices, and the growth of mortgage real estate investment trusts. Falling yields on speculative-grade bonds also were mentioned as a potential concern” (Bloomberg News). Although the rhetoric offered by these members of the Federal Reserve in the wake of the release of the minutes of the FOMC was offered to alleviate fears, the text of the meeting has served as a reminder to the marketplace that the asset purchases currently underway, which total $85 billion per month, will be reduced at some point in the future, and as such, has served as a de facto tightening of policy.

Though investors appeared to be appeased by the words of Mr. Bullard as well as those of Mr. Bernanke, the steep selloff that accompanied the mention of a pull back of the Central Bank’s efforts is a reminder of the high-wire act the Fed is facing when it does in fact need to extricate itself from the bond market.

Quantitative Easing Ad Infinitum?

Amy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) launched an open-ended quantitative easing program yesterday. The Fed will purchase $40 billion of Agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) per month with no specified end date. The Fed will continue its Operation Twist program through December, which includes the purchase of $45 billion per month of longer-dated Treasuries.

The MBS purchases will continue indefinitely until the outlook for the labor market improves “substantially,” which is a different approach than previous easing programs. The Fed also used a communication tool, stating that short-term rates will remain zero-bound until at least mid-2015 (instead of late-2014).

The Fed did not express any concern with inflation, stating it will likely run at or below its 2% objective over the medium term. However, the market is not convinced and inflation expectations moved up significantly after the announcement.

U.S. 5-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate (Source: Bloomberg)U.S. 5-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate

Gold (white) and Silver (orange) Prices (Source: Bloomberg)

The equity markets reacted positively, with the S&P 500 Index gaining +1.6% on the day. An open-ended quantitative easing program may be even more supportive for equities. It is clear the Fed is not ready to stop easing until they see more meaningful and sustainable growth. They want to see more of an improvement in the housing and labor markets. Low rates are here to stay. While the Fed’s actions will increase the risk appetite of investors, we still need help from fiscal policy before year end.

The full FOMC statement can be found here and their updated economic projections here.

Have the Odds of More Quantitative Easing Increased?

Amy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Last Friday’s disappointing employment report raises the odds of more quantitative easing by the Fed. Payroll employment increased by only 96,000, and the increases reported in prior months were revised lower. The unemployment rate fell, but only due to a decline in the labor force. The labor force participation rate has fallen to 63.5%, the lowest level since September 1981. With GDP growth of just +1.7%, the U.S. economy is not growing at a pace sufficient to create needed job gains. The chart below shows just how weak job creation has been compared to previous recoveries. (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Job Creation

This employment report did not offer the Federal Reserve evidence of a “substantial and sustainable strengthening in the pace of the economic recovery”[1] that they are seeking.  As a result, the odds that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will announce further easing at their meeting on September 12/13 have increased.  Consensus seems to expect additional easing, and a lack of announcement to that effect could disappoint the markets.  There has been talk of an open-ended buying program of U.S. Treasuries and/or mortgage-backed securities.  The FOMC could also extend their rate guidance, perhaps pledging low rates into 2015.

Inflation remains within the Fed’s target level, so they still have room to ease; however, the effectiveness of further monetary policy easing is diminishing.  While the Fed feels obligated to act to fulfill their mandate of economic growth, the bigger problems facing the U.S. economy – the fiscal cliff, the Eurozone crisis and slower growth in China – are outside the Fed’s control.  More certainty surrounding fiscal policy would allow businesses pick up the pace of hiring and investment, boosting economic growth


[1] Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman.