It’s too early to start celebrating. That’s the Federal Reserve’s sober message — though given half a chance, the markets won’t heed it.
In a news conference on Wednesday, and in written statements after its latest policymaking meeting, the Fed did what it could to restrain Wall Street’s enthusiasm.
“It’s far too early to declare victory and there are certainly risks” still facing the economy, Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said. But stocks shot higher anyway, with the S&P 500 on the verge of a new record.
The Fed indicated that it was too early to count on a “soft landing” for the economy — a reduction in inflation without a recession — though that is increasingly the Wall Street consensus. An early decline in the federal funds rate, the benchmark short-term rate that the Fed controls directly, isn’t a sure thing, either, though Mr. Powell said the Fed has begun discussing rate cuts, and the markets are, increasingly, counting on them.
The markets have been climbing since July — and have been positively buoyant since late October — on the assumption that truly good times are in the offing. That may turn out to be a correct assumption — one that could be helpful to President Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party in the 2024 elections.
But if you were looking for certainty about a joyful 2024, the Fed didn’t provide it in this week’s meeting. Instead, it went out of its way to say that it is positioning itself for maximum flexibility. Prudent investors may want to do the same.
Reasons for Optimism
On Wednesday, the Fed said it would leave the federal funds rate where it stands now, at about 5.3 percent. That’s roughly 5 full percentage points higher than it was in early in 2022.
Inflation, the glaring economic problem at the start of the year, has dropped sharply thanks, in part, to those steep interest rate increases. The Consumer Price Index rose 3.1 percent in the year through November. That was still substantially above the Fed’s target of 2 percent, but way below the inflation peak of 9.1 percent in June 2022. And because inflation has been dropping, a virtuous cycle has developed, from the Fed’s standpoint. With the federal funds rate substantially above the inflation rate, the real interest rate has been rising since July, without the Fed needing to take direct action.
But Mr. Powell says rates need to be “sufficiently restrictive” to ensure that inflation doesn’t surge again. And, he cautioned, “We will need to see further evidence to have confidence that inflation is moving toward our goal.”
The wonderful thing about the Fed’s interest rate tightening so far is that it has not set off a sharp increase in unemployment. The latest figures show the unemployment rate was a mere 3.7 percent in November. On a historical basis, that’s an extraordinarily low rate, and one that has been associated with a robust economy, not a weak one. Economic growth accelerated in the three months through September (the third quarter), with gross domestic product climbing at a 4.9 percent annual rate. That doesn’t look at all like the recession that had been widely anticipated a year ago.
To the contrary, with indicators of robust economic growth like these, it’s no wonder that longer-term interest rates in the bond market have been dropping in anticipation of Fed rate cuts. The federal funds futures market on Wednesday forecast federal funds cuts beginning in March. By the end of 2024, the futures market expected the federal funds rate to fall to below 4 percent.
But on Wednesday, the Fed forecast a slower and more modest decline, bringing the rate to about 4.6 percent.
Too Soon to Relax
Several other indicators are less positive than the markets have been. The pattern of Treasury rates known as the yield curve has been predicting a recession since Nov. 8, 2022. Short-term rates — specifically, for three-month Treasuries — are higher than those of longer duration — particularly, for 10-year Treasuries. In financial jargon, this is an “inverted yield curve,” and it often forecasts a recession.
Another well-tested economic indicator has been flashing recession warnings, too. The Leading Economic Indicators, an index formulated by the Conference Board, an independent business think tank, is “signaling recession in the near term,” Justyna Zabinska-La Monica, a senior manager at the Conference Board, said in a statement.
The consensus of economists measured in independent surveys by Bloomberg and Blue Chip Economic Indicators no longer forecasts a recession in the next 12 months — reversing the view that prevailed earlier this year. But more than 30 percent of economists in the Bloomberg survey and fully 47 percent of those in the Blue Chip Economic Indicators disagree, and take the view that a recession in the next year will, in fact, happen.
While economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product, has been surging, early data show that it is slowing markedly, as the bite of high interest rates gradually does its damage to consumers, small businesses, the housing market and more.Over the last two years, fiscal stimulus from residual pandemic aid and from deficit spending has countered the restrictive efforts of monetary policy. Consumers have been spending resolutely at stores and restaurants, helping to stave off an economic slowdown.
Even so, a parallel measurement of economic growth — gross domestic income — has been running at a much lower rate than G.D.P. over the last year. Gross domestic income has sometimes been more reliable over the short term in measuring slowdowns. Ultimately, the two measures will be reconciled, but in which direction won’t be known for months.
The stock and bond markets are more than eager for an end to monetary belt-tightening.
Already, the U.S. stock market has fought its way upward this year and is nearly back to its peak of January 2022. And after the worst year in modern times for bonds in 2022, market returns for the year are now positive for the investment-grade bond funds — tracking the benchmark Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index — that are part of core investment portfolios.
But based on corporate profits and revenues, prices are stretched for U.S. stocks, and bond market yields reflect a consensus view that a soft landing for the economy is a near-certain thing.
Those market movements may be fully justified. But they imply a near-perfect, Goldilocks economy: Inflation will keep declining, enabling the Fed to cut interest rates early enough to prevent an economic calamity.
But excessive market exuberance itself could upend this outcome. Mr. Powell has spoken frequently of the tightening and loosening of financial conditions in the economy, which are partly determined by the level and direction of the stock and bond markets. Too big a rally, taking place too early, could induce the Fed to delay rate cuts.
All of this will have a bearing on the elections of 2024. Prosperity tends to favor incumbents. Recessions tend to favor challengers. It’s too early to make a sure bet.
Without certain knowledge, the best most investors can do is to be positioned for all eventualities. That means staying diversified, with broad holdings of stocks and bonds. Hang in, and hope for the best.