What the FOMC Says may be More Important than What it Does

Provided that the Federal Reserve delivers the widely tipped and
expected 25 bp hike in the Fed funds target range, the key to investors’
reaction will be a function of the FOMC statement and forecasts.
  The FOMC meeting is the last big
event of the year for investors.  The Bank of England, the Swiss National
Bank, and Norway’s Norges Bank hold policy meetings, none are likely to alter
policy. Several emerging market central banks meet this week, and Mexico is the
only one that will likely move.  Many expect a 25 bp hike, but there is
some risk of a 50 bp move.  The Bank of Japan meets the following week,
and it too is unlikely to take fresh measures.   

A failure of
the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates would be a significant shock and
spur a dollar sell-off, a Treasury rally, and probably an equity market
 The likelihood of this scenario is
so low that it is not worth much time discussing.  Similarly, 50 bp move
also is highly unlikely.  It would go against everything the Fed has been
saying about gradual moves.  It would be an admission of getting behind
the curve, and there is no evidence that this is their assessment. 
Since the FOMC
last met, the US dollar has strengthened, interest rates have risen sharply,
and the unemployment rate has fallen further. 
 Investors will learn what the
central bank makes of these developments.  Officials that have spoken
since the election have generally agreed that it is premature to make any
judgments of changes in fiscal policy or economic policy more broadly.  
And for good reasons.  It is far from clear the policies of the new
There seems to
be a broad sense that probably near midyear there will some tax cuts and
spending increases, alongside a tougher, perhaps more mercantilist trade
  The details are vague, and how this sits with fiscal
conservative wing of the Republican Party is not clear.    While the
intentions and signals of the President-elect have spurred a sizable reaction
in the capital markets, more concrete details are needed to begin contemplating
the impact on monetary policy.  
Therefore, and
this is where some investors may be disappointed, the FOMC’s economic
assessment, and most importantly, their forecasts are unlikely to change very
Of course,
the part of the statement that updates the economic assessment may be upgraded
a notch.  The headwinds that held the economy below trend appear to be
transitory as the Fed had anticipated.  The fourth quarter growth looks to
be around 2.5%.  Consumption may be a little less robust and trade is
looking like a drag.  
The Fed will
have to recognize the rise in market-based measures of inflation expectations.
 Both the 5-year forward forward and
the 10-year break-even rates are up around 30 bp since the end of October to be
around 2.0%.  There are two mitigating factors.  First, the
survey-based measures of inflation expectations if anything have softened.
 The University of Michigan survey found expectations for the next 5-10
years slipped to 2.5% this month from 2.6%.  Second, due to technical
factors such as liquidity differences, in a rising interest environment, TIPS
tend to sell off more than conventional bonds.
All else being
equal the appreciation of the dollar and rise in yields would likely have a
dampening impact on growth and inflation forecasts.  
This may be blunted by the further decline
in the unemployment and underemployment rates and the wealth effect.  And
given the uncertainties over the new Administration, most Fed officials are
likely to be reluctant to change their forecasts much now, when in three
months, visibility will be better.
we expect the median dot show expectations for two hikes next year. 
 While this is twice as fast as the pace in 2015 and
2016, it fits any definition of prudent and cautious.  A recent Wall
Street Journal survey found that among economists three rate hikes are thought
from the December 2017 Fed funds futures contract is a trickier. 
 Various possible scenarios calculations and
assumptions are needed.  Here is a simple one.  Assume that the Fed
hikes rates in the first half (Q2?), and the Fed funds target range coming
into the 13 December 2017 FOMC meeting is 0.75%-1.00%. In the first 13 days
December 2017, the Fed funds effective average is 87.5 bp, the midpoint.
 If the Fed were to raise the target range to 1.00%-1.25%, then the
midpoint of the new range is 1.125%.  
The last
trading day is 29 December 2017. 
 Fed funds may be volatile but it
often falls on the last day of the year.  For the sake of this exercise,
let’s assume that the effective average on 29 December is half the average of
56 bp.  Since it is a Friday, that rate applies to the weekend as well.  On
these assumptions, the average for the month is a fraction more than 1.03%.
 Before the weekend, the December 2017 Fed funds futures contract closed
at 1.04%.  
In her press
conference, Yellen will likely deflect any discussion of the new
Administration’s policies.
  However, she can be counted to offer
a vigorous defense of the Fed’s independence against encroachments.  Given
two current vacancies, the expiration of several governor terms in 2018, the
new Administration will have the opportunity to change the Federal Reserve
significantly without going through the politically and economically sensitive
course of direct confrontation.  
Outside of the
new Administration’s possible economic policies, the reversal of Saudi Arabia’s
oil strategy may be another factor behind the rise of inflation expectations.
  Although an agreement within OPEC
and between OPEC and non-OPEC producers is also difficult the achieve, the real
challenge is the enforcement, as no such mechanism exists.  While everyone
is well aware of that, our point is that sequence is important and it is too
early to worry about violations.  
Like many, we
seem to have underestimated the Saudi’s resolve. 
 Shortly after securing an agreement from non-OPEC
members to cut output, Saudi Arabia indicated it was prepared to cut output
more than agreed last week.  It suggested it would cut output below the
psychologically important 10 mln bpd threshold.  Not is OPEC not dead, but
Saudi Arabia’s leadership is significant. Although non-OPEC members will cut
558k barrels, less than the 600k asked for, but it is still the most ever.
 It is also impressive, that despite Kazakhstan new large oil field coming
on line, it also participated by a small cut (20k bpd).  
The optics are
good and this will likely lift oil prices further.
  Over the coming months, we suspect
there is scope for oil to rise 12%-25% ($57-$65 a barrel basis the January
futures contract).  That said, the closer one examines the details, the
less impressive it looks.   Consider Russia will account for 300k bpd
reduction, more than half of the non-OPEC contribution.  Russia had
boosted its output in recent months as an agreement was distinct, even if
unlikely, possibility.  There was a post-Soviet Union record 11.247 mln
bpd in October.  It says that it will cut 200k barrels by March and
another 100k bpd in six months.  
Saudi Arabia’s
agreement with OPEC would have brought its output back to its average earlier
this year. 
 Several other countries, including
Mexico are simply formalizing a natural decline.  Important non-OPEC
producers, including those in the US, Canada, and Brazil will be the
beneficiaries, as free-riders.  US capacity, especially the shale
component, is very flexible and there are reports of that many wells have been
drilled, but the wells have been capped.  Consider it a free natural
underground storage facility.   
Also, recall
that important technological advances have been made over the past two and half
years (yes, Professor Gordon, the innovations are not as significant as the
internal combustion engine) that lowers the cost of getting that marginal
barrel of shale.
 Assuming that some US producers are
skeptical of the implementation of the oil agreement, there may be incentives
to boost output quickly to take maximum advantage of what could be a small
window of opportunity.  
Given last
week’s ECB meeting and the approaching holidays, European economic data,
including the PMIs may not be particularly important.
  Given the disappointing German and
French industrial production figures last week, the risk is on the downside for
the aggregate report after a 0.8% contraction in September.  
Just like there
is no agreed upon definition of QE, there is no agreed upon definition of
Context is important and intent matters.
 Draghi said it is not tapering as in the beginning of a gradual slowdown
of purchases as an exit strategy rather than an abrupt end.   At this
point, there are only guesses as to why the ECB reduced its monthly purchases.
 However, this is a one-off adjustment, unless circumstances change.
 Moreover, the end date, year from now is soft.  The ECB will most
likely buy bonds well into 2018.   
The ECB did not
begin an exit strategy, which is what many of those who want to insist on
calling what it announced as tapering seem to think. 
 The easing of the deposit floor limit on purchases
and widening the range purchases suggests a sustainable course.  The
adjustments to the securities lending may also help minimize disruptions.
  The ECB has also not exhausted scope for additional technical
adjustments. The decision not to lift the security ownership cap hit Portugal
because it is near its cap.  
Italy remains a
source of tension, but its problems remain localized. 
 We do not see the rejection of the referendum has
part of the Brexit-US election axis, and the 40% that voted for the referendum
is a sufficient block to elect the next Prime Minister. We would suggest the
local elections earlier this year, in which the Five-Star Movement won in Rome
and Turin is a more revealing sign of its ascendancy.   
Italy’s foreign minister Gentiloni will replace Renzi as Prime Minister provided he can put together a government that can win a confidence vote. A broad coalition government needs to be in place by the middle of the week, to allow Gentiloni to represent Italy at the EU Summit that begins Thursday.  Gentiloni is the fourth unelected Italian Prime Minister.  

There are three main tasks for the caretaker government: prepare for elections, make the necessary decisions to address the simmering banking crisis, continued reconstruction of the areas devastated by the recent earthquakes.   An election
before the Dutch election in March seems optimistic, but still the table is set
for quite a political spring in Europe (Holland, Italy and France, UK likely triggering Article 50, before German elections in the Fall).  
The Italian
premium over Germany has been trending higher all year. 
 It began below 100 bp and is now at 167 bp, having
been a little above 185 bp in late November.  Italy’s 10-year bond yield
is up 45 bp this year.  Spain’s is off 25 bp.  However, Italy can
still borrow money at negative interest rates going out two years.  The
current minus nine basis points compares with positive ten basis point in late
November.  The Italian bank stock index fell 2.25% before the weekend, it
still closed higher on the 12.75% on the week and 18% over the past two weeks.
 Perhaps, if necessary, the interregnum government can take the unpleasant
step of seeking ESM support, which could otherwise tarnish Renzi’s comeback.
Renzi not
Grillo, the head of the 5-Star Movement is likely the odds-on favorite of the
next election at this juncture. 
 The Constitutional review of the new
electoral law for the lower chamber after the former law were disallowed will
take place in late January.  If the new electoral law is rejected by the
Court on grounds that giving a bonus to the largest party is not consistent
with representative government, it would further bolster Renzi insofar as it
favors coalition building, and this is a critical weakness for the Five-Star
Lastly, we note
the dollar is running against the yen. 
 It has risen in seven of the past
nine weeks. It began with an eight-day advance in late September and early
October, well before the US election. After carving out a base in the summer
around JPY100, the dollar has rallied strongly.  Since the middle of September,
the yen has fallen nearly 12% against the dollar.  The greenback has
retraced a little more than 60% of the decline since peaking in June 2015 near
JPY126.   In the coming months, we expect the dollar to works its way back
toward JPY120.  

Since the
middle of September foreign investors have returned to the Japanese stock
In the last 10 weeks, foreign investors
bought an average of JPY258 bln of Japanese equities a week.  In these ten
weeks, in all bought one saw net foreign buying.  The average over the
previous 10 weeks was a net sale of JPY249 bln over which time foreigner were
net buyers in two of the weeks.   The Topix has rallied about 13% over the

Japan reports
the Tankan Survey next week. 
 There is good reason to be
optimistic of the Japanese economy in the near-term.  Growth in this
quarter is off to a better start than the previous quarter. There will be an increase
of fiscal stimulus next year.  Higher oil prices will aid efforts to
arrest lingering deflation pressures.   While the US President-election
appears to have ruled out TPP, much to Japan’s dismay, his more confrontational
approach to China and “American First” plays well for Abe, who
continues to expand Japan’s military capacity.


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