Investors braced for a rocky ride this week, uncertain whether the upturn in oil prices will last and fearful of what first-quarter earnings statements will show. The situation is compounded by uncertainty over when the U.S. Federal Reserve will impose — or if it will impose — its next interest rate hike.
The U.S. equity markets were in the red last week, pressured by oil prices and a weak recovery, with the Nasdaq closing down 3.1 percent for the year.
Oil futures advanced 6.6 percent Friday in New York, still trying to recover from February’s 13-year low, following word U.S. output fell for the 10th time in 11 weeks, with the number of active oil rigs at their lowest level since 2009. But next Sunday’s planned meeting among major oil producers in Doha, Qatar, to discuss freezing output throws yet another layer of uncertainty over the markets. Saudi Arabia has said it will agree to a freeze only if other major suppliers like Iran join in.
“There’s a lot of nervousness about the April 17 meeting and what it will mean for the market,” John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC, a New York hedge fund focused on energy, told Bloomberg. “We’re still hemmed in a range below $40. Breaking through would be very bullish for the market.”
West Texas Intermediate crude for May closed at $39.72 in New York Friday while June Brent settled at $41.94 in London, up 6.4 percent.
“I’m not buying this rally,” Stewart Glickman, an equity analyst at Standard & Poor’s Capital IQ in New York, told Bloomberg. “We went from $26 to $41 [per barrel] on optimism that something will happen to curb supply. The risks of a sharp downturn remain greater than those for a rally.”
Andrew Slimmon, portfolio manager with Morgan Stanley Investment Management, told the Wall Street Journal stocks are unlikely to climb without solid signs of earnings growth and better-than-expected guidance in first-quarter reports.
Meanwhile, earnings statements are expected to show an 8.1 percent decline among S&P 500 companies for the first three months of the year, data from S&P Global Market Intelligence indicate, with the energy sector expected to lead with a 105 percent drop. JPMorgan is to kick off reports from the banking sector with a projected 6.1 percent decline in earnings compared with last year.
China is expected to report gross domestic product figures showing a 6.7 percent annual expansion rate, compared with 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter.
Other reports due out include retail sales, which are expected to show an anemic 0.3 percent rise in March. Investors also will keep an eye out for consumer and producer prices figures.
Bill Gross, manager of the Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, told Barron's he expects the Fed to raise interest rates at least once and perhaps twice this year but he doesn’t expect Treasury yields to change much from their current 1.7 percent.
“They [the Fed] have to normalize interest rates over a period of two, three, four years, or the domestic and global economy won’t function,” Gross said. “In today’s world, normalization would mean a 2 percent fed-funds rate, a 3.5 percent yield on the 10-year bond, and a 4.5 percent mortgage rate. Would this create some pain? Of course. Housing prices probably would stop rising, and might fall a bit. The Fed has to move gradually.”
Gross said the result of continued low interest rates will be very slow growth. “The days of 3 percent and 4 percent annual growth are gone,” he said.
Gross noted, however, increasing interest rates would strengthen the dollar further against the euro and the yen.
The Fed decided against boosting interest rates at its March meeting and whether it will take action at this month’s meeting is still questionable. Chair Janet Yellen has emphasized the need for patience. “I consider it appropriate for the committee to proceed cautiously in adjusting policy,” Yellen told the Economic Club of New York.
The Fed raised the benchmark rate in December for the first time in a decade. It is expected to increase rates by a half point this year.