Last month's inflation data came in the cooler. The dollar continued to decline, while stocks eked out some gains. Next up, first-quarter earnings results.
The money-center banks kicked off results on Friday. The first four banks to report — JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, PNC, and Wells Fargo — were surprised by the upside. Next week, we will see how hard the beleaguered regional banks were impacted by the rush to move deposits to the bigger banks. Investors will be watching two key factors (deposits and loan demand) to determine if these banks are investible going forward.
On the macroeconomic front, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) came in line. Prices rose just 5 percent in the year through March. That is down from 6 percent in February. Inflation showed the slowest pickup in prices in almost two years. The Producer Price Index (PPI) came in lower than expected as well. The top line number month over month was -0.5 percent versus an expected 0 percent. Year over year, the PPI was up 2.7 percent (3.0 percent expected), which was down from February's 4.9 percent (revised).
Those numbers heartened investors, but the bottom line is that it doesn't change the central bank's stance on monetary policy. They know their policies are working, but we are a long way off from their stated target of a 2 percent inflation rate. Therein lies the rub.
The disconnect I see is between what the market expects and what the Fed will do. Just about everyone is expecting a 25-basis point hike in the Fed funds rate when the FOMC meets again in May. It is what happens from there that could get us in trouble. The bulls are certain that the Fed will pause its hiking cycle after that. Many believe that the Fed will then turn around and start cutting interest rates (3 rate cuts by the Fall) almost immediately after that.
The impetus for that event would be that the economic data suddenly falls off the cliff. Others say it will be a combination of weak data, and continued contagion risk coming out of the financial sector. That will convince the Fed to abandon their stated 2 percent inflation target (and their credibility) before they break something else in the economy. If you believe that scenario, I have a bridge I would like to sell you as well.
My take is that we will see a moderate recession. The chance of experiencing a harsher economic decline depends on whether the Fed pauses its' interest rate hikes. But even if they do, a pause does not mean the Fed is through hiking, and it certainly does not mean they will be cutting interest rates. Inflation is falling, however, and while the labor market is hanging tough, there are signs that around the edges employment is cooling a little. U.S. jobless claims applications are at the highest level in more than a year, but the Fed still needs to see a reversal in the employment data.
In the meantime, gold continued to climb, hitting $2,063,40 an ounce, which is just a smidge below its all-time high of $2,074.88. Silver gained as well ($26.11 an ounce), but it is a long way from its high of $48.70 at the end of the 1970s. And then there is Bitcoin, which rose above $30,000, and has doubled in price since the beginning of the year. All three have benefited from the decline and the U.S. dollar and the contagion concerns of the banking industry. You can read my thoughts on cryptocurrencies in this week's column "The Bitcoin Bounce."
I am guessing that next week we have a dip and bounce scenario where the S&P 500 Index could pull back 70 points or so and then bounce to the 4,230 area. At that point, I get a lot more cautious.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at email@example.com.
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