Fed hikes rates into mediocrity

Senior US Investment Strategist Paul Eitelman analyses the latest Federal Reserve announcement on interest rate hikes.

  • The US Federal Reserve raised interest rates for the second time this year
  • Lacklustre real US GDP growth indicates that the US economy is continuing to underperform expectations
  • The global cycle, the US unemployment rate and accommodative financial conditions warrant today’s hike
  • We don’t believe the fundamentals are strong enough to warrant another hike this year

Fed hikes rates into mediocrity

The US Federal Reserve (the Fed) raised interest rates for the second time this year at today’s June 14th meeting, taking the US policy rate slightly above 1%. While this decision was widely anticipated by markets, there are several important observations for global investors to bear in mind.1

The macro backdrop for today’s decision

Domestic mediocrity offset by global strength

The Fed normally hikes interest rates into economic strength. But following a lacklustre showing in the first quarter (1.2% real US GDP growth), the US economy is continuing to underperform expectations. For example, the Citi US Economic Surprise Index — a measure that tracks incoming economic data against consensus estimates — collapsed from +58 in mid-March to -40 in early June. But it has yet to push the Fed off course.

Inflationary pressures have also failed to materialise. Core consumer price inflation slowed markedly in March and April. Again, this is normally a dynamic that would slow the Fed down.

The rate hike justification

So, why hike? Regarding the outlook for both growth and inflation, it appears that the Fed is essentially forecasting that much of the recent slowdown is transitory in nature. There are some elements to this argument that we are receptive to. The inventory drawdown in the first quarter was a large headwind to growth in the first quarter (and is likely to reverse) and a price war in the telecom industry has had a significant impact on the recent inflation statistics (and is likely to fade away over time). But we also see more fundamental reasons for caution. Bank lending to consumers and businesses has cooled notably in recent months.2 Automobile sales — one of the timeliest indicators on consumption activity — is tracking three percent below its first quarter average through May.3 Rental price inflation is starting to moderate after a significant build-out in multifamily homes in recent years.

While domestic economic fundamentals, in our view, have been lacklustre, three other forces have aligned to warrant today’s hike.

  • The global cycle has strengthened. The slowdown in China, in particular, was a major source of worry for the Fed in 2016. But more recently we have seen a broad-based reacceleration in economic and earnings trends across the emerging market economies. Stronger global growth removed a source of downside risk to the Fed’s domestic US outlook.
  • The unemployment rate at 4.3% is very low by historical standards. Monetary policy acts with a lag in terms of its impact on the real economy. And with the economy by most measures at or near full employment, this was a key catalyst for a hike.
  • Financial conditions remain very accommodative. Despite having now raised short-term interest rates four times this cycle, the ten-year Treasury yield is actually lower than it was before the Fed started hiking. Longer-term interest rates on mortgages and business loans are what matter for economic activity, and the Fed has not injected much restraint into the economy through its rate hikes thus far.

The balance sheet unwind

Making monetary policy boring again

In addition to hiking interest rates, the Fed is also talking about starting the process of winding down its balance sheet, i.e. its portfolio of asset holdings. In many ways, this is the opposite of the Fed’s Quantitative Easing program, where they bought assets to suppress long-term interest rates and stimulate the economy. The key for investors is that they plan to do this in a passive, predictable, and slow paced way:

  • Passive — Rather than selling their Treasuries and Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS), the Fed will simply stop reinvesting the principal when these assets mature.
  • Predictable — The cessation of reinvestments is expected to be tapered down every three months on a pre-specified timeline (rather than tapering all at once).
  • Slow paced — Recent simulations from the Fed suggest they are planning to draw down the balance sheet at a much slower pace than that at which they grew it following the crisis.

John Williams (Federal President for San Francisco) has even said that they have designed the process to be “boring”.4 Markets can handle boring, and as such we do not expect a major impact from this proposal on fixed income assets.

Market implications

Not a favorable mix for US equity investors

The biggest issue for investors is that the Fed is hiking into a mediocre US economy. We don’t see the fundamentals as being strong enough to warrant another hike this year. But the risks to this view are skewed towards the Fed staying on course for another rate increase in September or December. Under this scenario, our analysis of Fed hiking cycles over the last 30 years shows that rate hikes can be quite damaging to valuation multiples. In a normal cycle, this headwind is more than offset by a strong economy and strong corporate earnings. But in a mediocre growth world, there is unlikely to be enough fundamental support from US earnings to warrant chasing the US equity rally. Instead, we continue to look for opportunities in non-US equity markets, where valuations are more attractive, and economic and earnings trends are stronger. Emerging market local currency debt is another area where we see good value.

1 Source: http://projects.wsj.com/econforecast/#qa=20170501001
2 Source: Federal Reserve Board. Data as at May 2017
3 Source: Autodata Corporation, Thomson Reuters Datastream as at May 2017
4 Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-29/fed-s-williams-sees-much-smaller-balance-sheet-in-five-years

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