Federal Reserve: Trick or Treat

Want to guess who Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is going as for Halloween? Based on his most recent speech on the economy, it’s got to be the Grim Reaper.

Even as reports continue to show the economy recovering pretty quickly following the government-mandated shutdown of the spring and summer – which several of his Federal Reserve colleagues have cited – Powell continues to paint the direst picture of the American economy. However, this time, he has gone beyond the bounds of the Fed’s independence, publicly politicking for a new federal fiscal stimulus package. If one doesn’t arrive soon, he warned, it will be “tragic” and “lead to a weak recovery, creating unnecessary hardship.”

“The recovery will be stronger and move faster if monetary policy and fiscal policy continue to work side by side to provide support to the economy until it is clearly out of the woods,” Powell said in a speech last week to the National Association for Business Economics.

I had been under the impression that the Fed was supposed to be “independent” of the government, or at least that’s what we were told repeatedly when President Trump went off on Powell for not doing what he wanted. However, it seems to be ok if Powell cedes that independence voluntarily and takes sides on a political debate.

This isn’t so much an example of charter creep, which just about every government agency and leader does, as much as a charter leap, with the Fed not only taking over more and more of the economy and financial markets but publicly lobbying for government action to make it so. Continue reading "Federal Reserve: Trick or Treat"

Do We Really Need More Stimulus?

As we speak, Republicans and Democrats are still wrestling over another coronavirus stimulus package. Everyone wants one, we’re told, and the economy needs one.

Don’t start spending that stimulus check just yet.

Despite what they claim, Democrats don’t really want a deal, no matter how big, at least not until after the election. Do you really believe that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer want to allow President Trump to play Santa Claus and send out $1,200 checks to American voters right before the election? Needless to say, the president would just love to have his name on those checks.

So don’t count on another stimulus package until after the election, if then. It’s a valid question of whether the country really needs another one. But never fear, the Federal Reserve will step in where Congress fears to tread.

At its September 15-16 monetary policy meeting – the last one before Election Day – the Fed updated and revised its prognosis upward for the U.S. economy, finally catching up with many other analysts and some of its own regional banks who are forecasting a much brighter picture than Fed Chair Jerome Powell and many other Fed officials have been painting over the past couple of months.

The Fed now expects U.S. economic growth to be negative 3.7% for this year, a big upgrade from its negative 6.5% projection in June. It also expects positive growth of 4.0% next year (down from 5.0%), 3.0% in 2022 and 2.5% in 2023. Regarding unemployment, it expects the jobless rate to fall to 7.6% this year from its June projection of 9.3%, declining further to 5.5% next year, 4.6% in 2022, and 4.0% – i.e., full employment – in 2023. Continue reading "Do We Really Need More Stimulus?"

The Fed Makes It Official

The Fed recently enacted what the experts are calling a historic policy change. More accurately, it’s the official acknowledgment of what the Fed has already been doing, namely keeping interest low, seemingly forever. What it also means is that it sharply alters the old 60-40 investment mix, to something more like 80-20 or 80-10-10.

The Fed is basically assuming that inflation will be nonexistent – or, at least manageable – for the foreseeable future and is, therefore, willing to let it run “hotter” for longer than it used to before it steps in and raises interest rates. But is that a realistic assumption? Nearly unanimously, Fed officials have been touting the party line that the economy is bad – despite numerous reports that show it is snapping back pretty strongly – and is likely to stay that way or get even worse – which may not be the case. The stock market certainly doesn’t seem to be buying that.

What the Fed seems to be doing is baking in the cake its already oversized role in the economy (and society) and keeping it that way “for as far as the eye can see.”

As I noted in my previous column, cynics might draw the conclusion that the Fed is purposely dumbing down its economic forecasts so as to cement its role for the long-term. Jerome Powell’s streamed announcement at the Jackson Hole summit pretty much made that de facto.

So what does that do for your portfolio? Given that the Fed has now determined that rates will stay low for the foreseeable future, do bonds have any place in your portfolio? What would be the point? Continue reading "The Fed Makes It Official"

Reasons To Be Cheerful

According to the Federal Reserve, the economy is in danger of hurtling over another cliff. Still, recent economic statistics and market indicators paint a much more hopeful picture – the S&P 500 just hit a new all-time high, gold is falling, and bond yields are rising. Which story are we supposed to believe?

On the one hand, we have the recent economic statistics. On Friday, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales rose another 1.2% in July, pushing them above pre-pandemic levels. If that’s not a classic V-shaped recovery, I don’t know what is. While the headline sales figure came in below expectations of a 2.0% rise, the prior month’s 7.5% increase was revised upward to show an 8.4% jump. Excluding autos, July sales actually beat estimates, rising 1.9% versus a Street forecast of 1.5%.

Also, on Friday, the Fed itself reported that industrial production rose 3.0% last month, in line with estimates. In comparison, the capacity utilization rate rose more than two percentage points from the previous month to 70.6% and its fourth big monthly increase in a row.

The day before, the Labor Department said initial unemployment claims continued to drop, falling well below one million for the first time in several months and down sharply from a peak of near seven million in March, a reverse V-shaped drop.

The financial markets seem to be buying it. Last week the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose above 0.70% for the first time since late June, putting it up 20 basis points just in the previous 10 days. Gold is down more than 5% from its August 6 high. And of course, the S&P 500 has wiped out all of this year’s losses, including the 33% drop in February and March, when a good portion of the U.S. was going into lockdown. Continue reading "Reasons To Be Cheerful"

What To Expect From A Biden (And Bernie) Fed

Now that Judy Shelton has passed the first big hurdle to be confirmed as a member of the Fed – passing muster with the Senate Banking Committee by a 13-12 party-line vote – let’s assume that the full Senate will confirm her. While it’s not a slam dunk, Republicans do control the chamber by a 53-47 majority, so even if Mitt Romney votes against her, as he says he will, she’s probably in.

Despite what her many detractors believe – that she has the power all by herself to return the U.S. to the gold standard and direct the Fed to do whatever President Trump wants – that probably won’t happen unless Fed chair Jerome Powell resigns or Trump figures out a way to remove him without triggering a massive global financial panic safely. Even then, it’s a fantasy. So Shelton is probably going to be confirmed, and nobody is going to die as a result.

So let’s turn instead to what a Fed under a President Biden might look like. Luckily, the former vice president has publicly revealed what he has in mind, in a short and concise 110-page press release entitled, “Combating the Climate Crisis and Pursuing Environmental Justice,” the product of a “unity task force” set up by Biden, and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whom I guess wrote most of it. I’ll save you the trouble of pouring through it unless you’re feeling masochistic.

Granted, there’s only a little (fortunately) in the tome that deals with the Fed. Indeed, through the magic of word search, I found that there are only eight references to “Federal Reserve” in the document, but what’s there is enlightening about their thinking. No, there’s nothing in there about Fed monetary policy, I suppose to respect the Fed’s independence. Continue reading "What To Expect From A Biden (And Bernie) Fed"