1. Fed in the hot seat: President Donald Trump may have boxed Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell into a corner that neither of them want to be in.
Wall Street widely expects the Fed to raise interest rates on Wednesday. But Trump told Reuters last week that another rate hike would be “foolish.” He said on Fox News: “Hopefully the Fed won’t be raising interest rates anymore.”
Yet Trump’s repeated attacks on the Fed mean the central bank may not be able to pause now — even if it wanted to. Forgoing a rate hike, one that was already baked into the market, would rattle nervous investors and prompt talk that the Fed is caving to White House pressure.
“It would shock markets if they didn’t hike and it would show political capitulation,” said David Kotok, co-founder and chief investment officer at investment firm Cumberland Associates. “Trump’s attacks on the central bank are of no help to anybody.”
Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, argues that tame inflation and slipping growth estimates would give the Fed room to skip a rate hike on Wednesday — except for the Trump factor.
“We don’t think Chairman Jay Powell pays much attention to the president, but cynics in the bond market and elsewhere would howl that a stand-pat Fed has become politicized,” Valliere told clients in a recent note.
Valliere described “two great Fed ironies.” First, the central bank will have to raise rates precisely because of Trump’s pressure. And secondly, Trump had “the most dovish Fed chairman in our lifetimes — but he fired her.”
In fact, Trump complained to Fox News that former President Barack Obama had years of “zero” interest rates. Of course, at that time former Fed chief Janet Yellen was attempting to nurse the economy back to health.
In any case, Trump is very likely to be disappointed on Wednesday by the Fed.
However, Wall Street is expecting the Fed to trim its 2019 forecast for rate hikes (the infamous dot plot) because of emerging signs of slowing global growth and evidence that higher borrowing costs are squeezing the housing market and auto sales.
PIMCO’s Joachim Fels and Andrew Balls wrote in a report last week that a “pause” in the first half of 2019 “looks increasingly likely.” Bank of America Merrill Lynch thinks the Fed’s dot plots will signal two hikes in 2019 and just one in 2020. Even Goldman Sachs, which long called for four rate hikes in 2019, has softened its view on Fed policy.
Still, Trump’s attacks on the Fed make any shift in policy awkward for Powell, who was nominated by the president.
While Trump is worried about short-term swings in the economy and the stock market — especially before the 2020 election — the Fed has broader concerns.
The central bank, an institution that prides itself on being above politics, is charged with guarding against the risk of runaway inflation. The 1970s showed how debilitating inflation spikes can be.
And bigger picture, the Fed must protect the central bank’s reputation for being independent. Without that, investors could lose faith in the stability of the system.
“History records the misuse of central banks influenced by political forces resulting in inflation and eventually hyperinflation. Venezuela, Zimbabwe, the Weimar Republic,” Kotok said. “The importance of central banks’ independence cannot be overstated.”
2. Bank of England: With the United Kingdom deep in Brexit turmoil, investors will be closely watching the Bank of England’s meeting on Thursday. It left interest rates unchanged at 0.75% when it last met in September.
“Since the committee’s previous meeting, there had been indications, most prominently in financial markets, of greater uncertainty about future developments in the withdrawal process,” it said at the time.
The UK government is still no closer to a Brexit deal and the BOE warned that leaving the European Union will mean trouble for its economy.
3. US GDP: The US Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its third estimate of third-quarter GDP Friday.
The second estimate, released at the end of November, was a rate of 3.5% annualized growth, mirroring its October estimate. That’s a slower than the 4.2% rate in the second quarter, because of a deceleration in business investment. The economy boomed in the first half of the year in part because of the dramatic tax cut enacted at the end of 2017.
4. Earnings: A smattering of tech, retail and consumer companies will report earnings this week including FedEx (FDX), Olive Garden owner Darden (DRI), General Mills (GIS), Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), Blackberry (BB) and Oracle (ORCL).
One to watch is Nike (NKE). Despite the stock being up 16% for the year, its value has sharply fallen since its last earnings report. Some concerns include Trump’s tariffs on its bottom line and narrowing its focus. Thursday’s earnings will also be its first full report since it debuted its controversial Colin Kaepernick ad.
5. Coming this week:
Monday — Oracle (ORCL) earnings
Wednesday — General Mills (GIS) earnings; Fed decision on interest rates
Friday — Carmax (KMX) earnings; GDP third estimate.