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Kristina Hooper | March 29, 2021

Why investors both love and fear the Fed

Weekly Market Compass: Investors may be grateful for the U.S. Federal Reserve’s easy money, but they’re also wary about what might come next

If you had to quickly describe the relationship status between investors and the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed), your best bet might simply be: “It’s complicated.”

Stocks are moving up and down, and leadership in the stock market is rotating, based on market fears of inflation — or, to put it more accurately, fears about what the Fed will do if inflation does rise. But while stock market investors fear the Fed, they also love all the good things it has done for them. After all, the great stock market rally that began in March 2009 can be largely attributed to the Fed’s extraordinarily accommodative monetary policy — especially its quantitative easing. And the year-long rally that began in March 2020 has the Fed’s easy money fingerprints all over it. In other words, investors have developed a powerful bond — some might say a dependency — with the central bank.

The Fed’s reassurances have fallen flat

Now the good news is that the Fed is trying to be sensitive to investors’ wariness about what it might do next. Fed Chair Jay Powell doesn’t want stock market investors to worry. At every turn, he has tried to reassure them that the Fed will maintain its easy money policies for some time to come and that any rise in inflation will be transitory. Last week, for example, Powell was on Capitol Hill, providing comfort and reassurance. He made it clear that he wasn’t concerned about the rise in long-term bond yields, suggesting that they reflect growing optimism: “It seems that rates have responded to news about vaccination and ultimately about growth.” 1 Powell stressed that it has been orderly and that the Fed would only react if it is disorderly.

Powell reiterated that he doesn’t believe long-term price trends will be changed by the most recent fiscal stimulus package, supply-chain bottlenecks, or a surge in consumer demand, which is widely expected to come later this year as the economy re-opens. Powell said that while the Fed expects upward pressure on prices, he expects it will be transitory. He was emphatic: “Long term, we think that the inflation dynamics that we’ve seen around the world for a quarter of a century are essentially intact. We’ve got a world that’s short of demand with very low inflation … and we think that those dynamics haven’t gone away overnight and won’t.” 1. But investors didn’t believe him, based on the stock market reaction that day — they’re still wary that inflation will go up and the Fed will be forced to tighten.

It seems that market participants want to believe the worst of the Fed. They don’t believe Powell when he utters dovish words, but they latch onto any comments that can be perceived as hawkish. On Thursday, Powell gave an interview to NPR. He reiterated many of the reassurances he provided on Capitol Hill earlier in the week. He also shared his optimistic economic outlook for 2021. However, he also tried to be honest and transparent by stating the obvious: “… as we make substantial further progress toward our goals, we will gradually roll back the amount of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities we’re buying.”2 He talked about raising interest rates in the longer run, but said that such tightening would be very gradual and transparent. However, that sent stock market investors into a panic. The NASDAQ Composite Index, S&P 500 Index, and Dow Jones Industrial Average all dropped significantly in just a few hours before investors regained their senses and started buying.

Investors have to wait and see how the Fed would respond to inflation

My best advice is that investors shouldn’t let the Fed — or any central bank — overly influence their long-term investment strategy. I believe the Fed will honor Powell’s pledges, but many market participants are clearly skeptical. These participants must come to terms with the fact that they won’t know if Powell will follow through on his assurances until inflation actually spikes and the Fed has the opportunity to insist it is transitory and sit on its hands. They won’t know if the Fed has really abandoned pre-emptive tightening until it proves to us that it has.

The silver lining of this environment — in which so many investors have allowed themselves to be dependent on the Fed — is that other investors can take advantage of “Fedspeak”-related sell-offs, which can create tactical buying opportunities for investors with a longer time horizon. And if markets actually become disorderly, I believe Powell will likely step in.

Is the Fed the only source of concern for investors? No, there are others. But the lesson is the same: Instead of parsing — and panicking about — every utterance from Powell and others, I believe investors’ time would be better spent focusing on fundamentals and long-term goals.

Looking ahead

In the coming week, I’ll be paying close attention to COVID-19 infections in Europe. The region is in the throes of a third wave of infections, which threatens to be the worst of the waves. This is not dissimilar to the third wave that the U.S. experienced several months ago, which was its worst wave. Unfortunately, Europe’s vaccine rollout has been disappointing to say the least, and more infectious strains of the virus are spreading quickly. Lockdowns are being extended and could become more stringent as government officials warn that hospitals are being overwhelmed. This could further delay the eurozone’s economic recovery, which has already been delayed by the slow vaccine rollout. The ability to control infections in the eurozone is critical.

I’ll also be paying attention to China’s economy, with the government’s manufacturing and non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Indexes (PMI) and the Caixin manufacturing PMI being released this week. China’s economic recovery has been strong thus far this year, and I want to make sure there are no negative surprises in the offing.

I’ll also be following the volatility in stocks created by the fallout from the Archegos hedge fund unwinding. I think this is not dissimilar to the volatility created by Reddit-related stocks such as Gamestop that we experienced earlier this year: I don’t see this as a source of widespread contagion, although it will likely weigh down some specific stocks over the shorter term. 

And finally, I will be paying attention to Friday’s U.S. jobs report. I suspect non-farm payrolls will be very strong for the month of March, beating expectations, but could trigger a rise in the 10-year yield and concerns about inflation — and therefore stock market jitters — as investors are likely to worry again about whether the Fed will really sit on its hands … 

1 Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Powell Says Rise in Long-Term Bond Yields Reflects Economic Optimism,” March 24, 2021

2 Source: NPR interview transcript, March 25, 2021

More from Kristina Hooper

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Why did investors shrug off the latest U.S. inflation figures?
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Important Information

Header image: fstockfoto/ Getty

In general, stock values fluctuate, sometimes widely, in response to activities specific to the company as well as general market, economic and political conditions.

Quantitative easing (QE) is a monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective.

The NASDAQ Composite Index is the market capitalization-weighted index of approximately 3,000 common equities listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

The S&P 500® Index is an unmanaged index considered representative of the US stock market.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is a price-weighted index of the 30 largest, most widely held stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Purchasing Managers’ Indexes (PMI) are based on monthly surveys of companies worldwide, and gauge business conditions within the manufacturing and services sectors. The Caixin PMI for China is considered an indicator of economic health for the Chinese manufacturing sector. It is based on survey responses from senior purchasing executives.

The opinions referenced above are those of the author as of March 29, 2021. These comments should not be construed as recommendations, but as an illustration of broader themes. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future results. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions; there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations.