Markets Tank on Fed “Vote of Confidence”

The big question today was “Will the Fed Pause It’s Planned Rate Increase in the Wake of Recent Market Volatility?” The answer: “No” And the reaction: More volatility (which markets hope will make the Fed think twice about next year’s planned increases). The Fed today continued its “march to neutral”. The big long term questions are: “What is the neutral rate? Are we there yet?” Remember that Powell spooked markets by saying “We’re a long way from neutral” in early October. Then markets rallied on his late November comment that we are “just below” neutral. That comment and subsequent rally convinced many investors that the December Fed statement could be “one and done”, ie. an increase today and then a pause. Markets were up this morning pre-announcement on that expectation – hope/hype. But Fed Chair Powell tried to thread the needle today. First off, a unanimous decision to increase the rate, which amounted to a “Declaration of Independence” by the Fed in light of recent pressure from the Executive Branch. The Fed’s independence is critical to its standing in the world. Then the “dot plot” of future increases and Powell’s press conference indicated TWO more increases on tap for 2019, contrary to market expectations as the futures markets indicate zero increases for next year. Today, Powell said that we are at the “lower end” of neutral with the increase of the Fed Funds rate to 2.50% (note that 2.50% – 3.50% is the target range for the neutral rate amongst Fed officials). The Fed lowered their growth projections for 2018 to 3.0% (down from 3.1%) and 2019 to 2.3% (down from 2.5%). A seemingly offhand remark put today’s selloff into overdrive: when asked about continuing to trim the Fed’s balance sheet, Powell indicated no pause. Markets were hoping for a “dovish olive branch” in the form of a pledge to pause selling bonds purchased during Quantitative Easing. The 10 year Treasury yield dropped on the “flight to quality”, now at 2.76% (down 50 bps from last month’s high). Stay tuned  By David R. Pascale, Jr. , Senior Vice President at George Smith Partners