All eyes are on Trump and Washington DC as the Trump Train rolls through our capital. Trump has been even more aggressive in using Executive Orders and in speaking to foreign leaders than most suspected and that has the Street on edge. Maybe we need to rename the Trump Train to the Trump Bulldozer.
While most eyes are on Trump we are increasingly focused on the Fed. The Fed must attempt to act in concert with the President and his fiscal policy to avoid overheating or stalling the economy but good luck to them anticipating his next move. The Fed has made noise in recent weeks that perhaps it could shrink the size of its portfolio. The Fed has been consistent, in that, there was an inherent belief at the Eccles Building that the Fed did not need to shrink its balance sheet and that doing so would be the last maneuver in its process of normalizing rates.
Ben Bernanke, former Fed Chairman, took the time to explain in his blog why that is simply not a good idea. Could it be that politics are playing a role at the Fed?
…best approach is to allow a passive runoff of maturing assets, without attempting to vary the pace of rundown for policy purposes. However, even with such a cautious approach, the effects of initiating a reduction in the Fed's balance sheet are uncertain. Accordingly, it would be prudent not to initiate that process until the short-term interest rate is safely away from the effective lower bound.
…the FOMC may still ultimately agree that the optimal balance sheet need not be radically smaller than its current level. If so, then the process of shrinking the balance sheet need not be rapid or urgently begun.
Why is the Fed now talking about shrinking its balance sheet and not raising rates? We would like to see more consistency from the Fed. They have insinuated that three rates hikes are due this year. After taking a pass on raising rates this past week and not setting the table for one in March the market is now pricing in just two rate hikes. The first rate hike is due in June and the second in December. If you have not read our Quarterly Letter you can take a peak for a further discussion on the topic. The short version is, if the Fed raises rates too slowly Trump's policies may overheat the stock market which is at already historical valuations.
If Fed Speak can't jawbone a March rate hike back onto the table, policymakers will have precious little room for error to make good on their promised three rate increases for the remainder of the year.
February is the worst performing month in the October - May period but investors are heavily loaded up on equities regardless. By way of Arthur Cashin , here are the widely followed Jason Goepfert's notes on the market's latest gyrations or lack thereof.
After spurting to a new all-time high in late January, the S&P 500 has had a daily change of less than 0.1% for five of the six sessions since then. That's almost unprecedented, but there have been times when it has contracted into an extremely tight range after a breakout. Several of those have occurred in just the past few years, and all of them preceded a tough slog for stocks over the medium-term. Hedge funds are betting that the rally continues. Exposure to stocks among macro hedge funds is estimated to be the highest since July 2015 and the 4th-highest in the past decade. The three other times it got this high, stocks struggled as the funds reduced exposure and eventually went short.
Stocks have stalled. Investors are heavily exposed to equities. February is not the best month for equities so investors aren't expecting much. The market has a way of surprising you. Could the market finally be ready to make a move? Investors seem to be heavily tilted to the rally side of the boat.