The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates Wednesday by a quarter point, but it also faces the tough task of reassuring markets it can stem a worse banking crisis.
Economists mostly expect the Fed will raise its fed funds target rate range to 4.75% to 5% Wednesday afternoon, though some expect the central bank could pause its hiking due to concerns about the banking system. Futures markets were pricing in a roughly 80% chance for a rate hike, as of Tuesday morning.
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The central bank is contemplating using its interest rate tools at the same time it is trying to soothe markets and stop further bank runs. The fear is that rising rates could put further pressure on banking institutions and crimp lending further, hurting small businesses and other borrowers.
“The broader macro data shows some further tightening is warranted,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America. He said the Fed will have to explain its double-barreled policy. “You have to show you can walk and chew gum at the same time, using your lender-of-last-resort powers to quell any fears about deposit flights at medium-sized banks.”
Federal regulators stepped in to guarantee deposits at the failed Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and they provided more favorable loans to banks for a period of up to one year. The Fed joined with other global central banks Sunday to enhance liquidity through the standing dollar swap system, after UBS agreed to buy the embattled Credit Suisse.
Investors will be looking for assurances from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell that the central bank can contain the banking problems.
“We want to know it’s really about a few idiosyncratic institutions and not a more pervasive problem with respect to the regional bank model,” said Gapen. “In these moments, the market needs to know you feel you understand the problem and that you’re willing and capable of doing something about it. … I think they are exceptionally good at understanding where the pressure is that’s driving it and how to respond.”
A month of turmoil
Markets have been whipsawed in the last month, first by a hawkish-sounding Fed and then by fears of contagion in the banking system.
Fed officials begin their two-day meeting Tuesday. The event kicks off just two weeks after Powell warned a congressional committee that the Fed may have to hike rates even more than expected because of its battle with inflation.
Those comments sent interest rates soaring. A few days later, the sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank stunned markets, sending bond yields dramatically lower. Bond yields move opposite price. Expectations for Fed rate hikes also moved dramatically: What was expected to be a half-point hike two weeks ago is now up for debate at a quarter point or even zero.
Markets were calmer Monday and Tuesday with stocks rising and Treasury yields edging higher. The action comes after UBS’s weekend agreement to buy Credit Suisse for $3.25 billion soothed some nerves about the global banking system.
But worries remain about U.S. regional bank First Republic, which received deposits of $30 billion from a consortium of banks last week. CNBC’s David Faber reported that JPMorgan is working to help the bank find alternatives, such as a capital raise or sale.
First Republic stock fell 47% Monday but rose Tuesday with other regional banks after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the government could backstop deposits at other institutions if necessary.
Messaging is the key
Gapen expects Powell to explain that the Fed is fighting inflation through its rate hikes but then also assure markets that the central bank can use other tools to preserve financial stability.
“Things going forward will be done on a meeting-by-meeting basis. It will be data dependent,” Gapen said. “We’ll have to see how the economy evolves. … We’ll have to see how financial markets behave, how the economy responds.”
The Fed is scheduled to release its rate decision along with its new economic projections at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. Powell will speak at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Gapen expects the Fed’s forecasts could show it expects a higher terminal rate, or end point for rate hikes, than it did in December. He said it could rise to about a level of 5.4% for 2023, from an earlier projection of 5.1%.
Jimmy Chang, chief investment officer at Rockefeller Global Family Office, said he expects the Fed to raise interest rates by a quarter point to instill confidence, but then signal it is finished with rate hikes.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a rally because historically whenever the Fed stops hiking, going to that pause mode, the initial knee-jerk reaction from the stock market is a rally,” he said.
He said the Fed will not likely say it is going to pause, but its messaging could be interpreted that way.
“Now, at the minimum, they want to maintain this air of stability or of confidence,” Chang said. “I don’t think they’ll do anything that could potentially roil the market. … Depending on their [projections], I think the market will think this is the final hike.”
Fed guidance could be up in the air
Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG, said she expects the Fed is likely to pause its rate hiking because of economic uncertainty, and the fact that the contraction in bank lending will be equivalent to a tightening of Fed policy.
She also does not expect any guidance on future hikes for now, and Powell could stress the Fed is watching developments and the economic data.
“I don’t think he can commit. I think he has to keep all options on the table and say we’ll do whatever is necessary to promote price stability and financial stability,” Swonk said. “We do have some sticky inflation. There are signs the economy is weakening.”
She also expects it will be difficult for the Fed to present its quarterly economic forecasts, because the problems facing the banks have created so much uncertainty. As it did during the pandemic in March 2020, the Fed might temporarily suspend projections, Swonk said.
“I think it’s an important thing to take into account that this is shifting the forecast in unknown ways. You don’t want to overpromise one way or the other,” she said. Swonk also expects the Fed to withhold its so-called “dot plot,” the chart on which it shows anonymous forecasts from Fed officials on the path for interest rates.
“The issue is they can change their forecast up to Tuesday, but how does anyone know? You want the Fed to look unified. You don’t want dissent,” said Swonk. “Literally, these dot plots could be changing by the day. Two weeks ago, we had a Fed chairman ready to go 50 basis points.”
The impact of tighter financial conditions
The tightening of financial conditions alone could have the clout of a 1.5 percentage point hike in rates by the Fed, and that could result in the central bank cutting rates later this year, depending on the economy, Swonk said. The futures market is currently forecasting much more aggressive rate cutting than economists are, with a full percentage point — or four quarter point cuts — for this year alone.
“If they hike and say they will pause, the market might actually be okay with that. If they do nothing, maybe the market gets nervous that after two weeks of uncertainty the Fed’s backing off their inflation fight,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “Either way we still have a bumpy road ahead of us.”
The Fed could also make a surprise move by stopping the runoff of securities from its balance sheet. As Treasurys and mortgages mature, the Fed no longer replaces them as it did during and after the pandemic to provide liquidity to financial markets. Gapen said changing the balance sheet runoff would be unexpected. During January and February, he said about $160 billion rolled off the balance sheet.
But the balance sheet recently increased again.
“The balance sheet went up by about $300 billion, but I think the good news there is most of that went to institutions that are already known,” he said.