Fed heads like me will be parsing the FOMC statement on Wednesday for clues regarding the future of monetary policy, which naturally will affect the valuations of all asset classes including currencies, stocks, and commodities. The first thing that any Fed watcher does is to look for changes from the previous statement, so let’s break it down to the three main areas of interest.
No one expects interest rates to change on Wednesday, but it will be important to see if the language regarding the need for “exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period” is retained. The odds are that it will be however, expect to see the dollar gain as traders in Fed Funds Futures price in a rate hike perhaps as soon as December if It isn’t. One of the world’s great Fed watchers, Bill Gross of PIMCO, is of the belief that the Fed won’t be making a move on rates until well into 2010, if then.
Because of the output gap, the difference between potential and actual GDP, the Fed is of the belief that “substantial resource slack is likely to dampen cost pressures,” and that “inflation will remain subdued for some time.” (By “resource slack,” the FOMC is referring to the amount of workers who are unemployed).
Be aware that when the Fed talks about inflation what they really are most concerned about is the potential for a wage-price spiral as seen during the 1970’s. The reality is that there’s very little chance of seeing that occur anytime over the next several years. For one thing, there are much fewer unionized workers. Second, and even more important, there obviously is an oversupply of workers relative to the amount of jobs available which means there’s little pricing power among employees. Third, companies don’t need to hire more workers because contrary to what usually happens when companies eliminate jobs, productivity (worker output per hour) is rising (6.4% in Q2 on an annualized basis according to Tuesday’s report). Aside from that, the report also indicated that labor costs fell the most in eight years over the period.
Most economists, including such luminaries as Paul Krugman and Nouriel Roubini, believe the economy has bottomed although in the case of Roubini the opinion is that the economy will remain in recession through the end of the year. The Fed itself was fairly sanguine about the prospects for economic growth in June, saying that “policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, fiscal and monetary stimulus, and market forces will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth in a context of price stability.” Nothing has really happened since June 24 to change that outlook given the improvements seen in the ISM’s, housing, Q2 GDP along with the July jobs report and unemployment rate, so expect to see a similar opinion expressed in Wednesday’s statement.
Putting these three together really indicates that a sweet spot exists for stocks, because the economy is set to improve while policy looks to remain expansionary as inflation remains low. The latter point is especially important because it means that in real terms (taking inflation into account)any percentage gains will be that much higher, i.e. that the purchasing power of the dollars you receive when you cash in your investments will not have eroded to an appreciable degree.
Those factors certainly have been great for stock investors; the S&P has gained nearly 12% since the FOMC met on June 24. The problem is that for forex traders, the concurrent movement in the dollar (short) against the euro, pound and A$ hasn’t been quite as pronounced during that period although those currencies did make significant moves against the yen (they have made significant gains on the USD overall since March). Also of note is that USD/JPY, which basically mirrored S&P movements for several years, hasn’t done anything of note since the March rally although it the yen does gain rather dependably on days when stocks retreat.
The Fed may also make a decision regarding whether to extend its $300B program to purchase Treasuries. If they choose not to continuing purchasing U.S. debt it could cause interest rates to rise, which will tend to put downward pressure on the dollar. Also, Congress wants the Fed to extend its program to purchase commercial mortgage backed securities for another year, so look for the FOMC to comment on that.
Commercial real estate is likely to present the biggest obstacle to economic growth over the medium term. There’s a crisis looming there because of the inability of property owners to refinance debt which is coming due. Rents and property values have fallen dramatically, which means that there will be less income available to service the debt and that banks will require any loans they do make to have lower loan to value ratios. Property values are forecast to remain depressed which means that many owners are underwater on their mortgages, another recipe for rising foreclosure rates.