Fed hikes but more benign than feared: Shane Oliver

Fed hikes but more benign than feared: Shane Oliver
Fed hikes but more benign than feared: Shane Oliver


As things go the Dutch election was probably the most important event last night - but I will start with the Fed.

Basically the Fed was more benign than expected. Yes they raised the Fed Funds interest rate by another 0.25 percent to a range of 0.75 percent to 1 percent on the back of ongoing improvements in the labour market and the US economy and progress towards the 2 percent target for core inflation.

The Fed continues to describe the risks to the outlook as roughly balanced and has taken to describing its inflation goal as “symmetric” which highlights that it’s not a hard goal but is to be achieved over the cycle (but no doubt there will be a lot of hot air devoted to what “symmetric” precisely means).

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Fed hikes but more benign than feared: Shane Oliver

But the key was that the Fed did not signal a faster pace of tightening than had already been indicated. The median dot plot of Fed officials interest rate expectations remained unchanged at three hikes for this year and another three hikes for next year and the Fed continues to expect that future hikes will be “gradual” (albeit less gradual than in 2015 and 2016).

Of course this does not mean that the Fed poses no threat. Market expectations still look remarkably complacent being 1% or so below the Fed’s dot plot for 2019 and at some point in the next year the focus will shift to the Fed allowing its balance sheet to start running down (which will probably be achieved by letting bonds roll off as they mature rather than reinvesting the proceeds). This all points to a resumption of the bond bear market at some point.

But for now markets liked the Fed’s decision with bonds rallying, the US dollar falling and shares rallying as fears that the Fed would get more aggressive did not pan out. Support for this benign response also comes from the likelihood that headline inflation measures will soon peak as the low base for commodity prices a year ago starts to drop out of annual inflation measures and indications that the US economy is still far from booming (March quarter GDP growth looks like coming in below 2% again).

Up until around twenty years ago there was a saying that shares reacted to Fed hikes with “three steps and a stumble”, ie the first two Fed rate hikes had little impact but the third caused a stumble.

In the last two decades this appears to have changed such that that first hike causes weakness (as we saw around June 2004) but subsequent hikes are largely looked through because they are seen as reflecting better economic conditions and hence profits, enabling the bull market to continue until eventually monetary policy becomes tight threatening the economy and bringing an end to the bull market.

So far the US share market seems to be following this pattern, with share market falls around the first rate hike in December 2015 but taking the last two hikes in its stride. Back in the 2004-2006 tightening cycle rates were going up at every Fed meeting and it took 17 hikes to ultimately kill the bull market back then off. With rates starting much lower in this cycle and the process being far more gradual this time around we still have a fair way to go before US monetary policy becomes tight in a way that threatens the bull market in shares. 

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Fed hikes but more benign than feared: Shane Oliver

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands exit polls point to the current PM Mark Rutte’s Liberal Party winning 31 seats in the 150 seat parliament against Geert Wilders’ Eurosceptic Freedom party only getting 19. While the Liberal Party is down on 41 seats from the 2012 election it will lead negotiations to form a centrist coalition government (which usually takes months) and Rutte will most likely remain PM.

If confirmed this would be a far worse outcome for the Freedom Party than had been expected, particularly given that turnout was high at over 80 percent. It would mark the third election in the Eurozone in a row since the Brexit vote that has seen support for anti-Euro populists gain less support than expected: support for Podemos declined in the Spanish election straight after Brexit, the Austrian’s voted for the pro-Euro candidate in their December election and now the Netherlands look to have stuck with pro-Euro centrists as well.

Maybe the Europeans have seen Brexit and Trump and decided that’s not for them! Popular support for the Euro remains high and this is clearly working against populist/nationalist parties and is likely to do so in the elections in France starting next month too. Italy is probably the biggest risk but the key message is that the risk of a break up in the Eurozone is overstated and this leaves Eurozone shares and peripheral bonds looking attractive. It’s also supportive of the Euro.

SHANE OLIVER is head of investment strategy and economics and chief economist at AMP Capital and is responsible for AMP Capital's diversified investment funds.


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