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Rate Hikes Getting Closer? Economic Data, Hawkish Fed Take Center Stage

February 16, 2017

(Thursday Market Open) Expectations for a rate hike appear to be getting closer, judging by action in Fed funds futures.

Rates are a big subject right now as stock prices pulled back in pre-market trading Thursday after a string of record highs for all the major indices.

For much of the year so far, Fed funds futures had been pointing to the likelihood of the Fed’s June meeting for a first 2017 hike. But thanks in part to strong economic data (see below) and a more hawkish tone out of the Fed, chances for a May hike now stand at over 40% for the first time and March hike odds stand at approximately 25%, up from 13% last week.

A hike in March or May, if it was to happen, would conceivably give the Fed a longer runway to come through with its previously stated intentions of delivering three rate hikes this year. Futures indicate markets expect a 43% chance of at least three hikes this year, according to the futures market. That’s up from 33% on Monday. Several Fed speakers have reinforced the three hikes scenario recently, and inflationary concerns may play into that considering the strong gains in both producer and consumer prices indexes the government announced this week.

By the way, when it comes to inflation, let’s take that consumer price index (CPI) data yesterday for what it was. A lot of the big jump reflected a sharp rise in gasoline prices. When you look at core CPI, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, there was a 0.3% climb, which is less concerning. Are there hints of inflation? Certainly. But investors would be prudent to take CPI in the proper context.

If you’re the Fed, you’re looking for both low unemployment and signs that inflation is headed toward the long-term 2% target, and the Fed is getting both of those things now. Tax and fiscal policy from Congress are likely to be the most important things affecting the market going forward, but the Fed is probably going to remain another important factor.

Remember, the interest rate picture can change fast, and the market seems to be looking at possible higher rates not necessarily as a negative for stocks, but perhaps as confirmation of economic strength. 

Over on the earnings side, Cisco (CSCO) rose in pre-market trading after beating Wall Street analysts’ consensus on earnings per share and revenue. One cause for concern: The company’s security software was among the key strong points in CSCO’s earnings. Good for CSCO, but perhaps not such a good sign for the rest of us.

Tomorrow morning brings earnings from farm and construction equipment maker Deere & Co. (DE). Some analysts say they hope to see that the deep double-digit dips in revenues and profits, choked by low commodity prices and weak farm incomes, have slowed down.



The Nasdaq (purple line), plotted through Wednesday on the TD Ameritrade thinkorswim® platform, has taken a big lead on the S&P 500 Index (SPX) and the Russell 2000 (RUT) since the start of the year. This comes despite some talk that tech stocks might come under pressure from Trump’s trade and immigration policies. Sources: Nasdaq Stock Market, Standard & Poor’s, FTSE Russell. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

Record Highs That Aren’t So Bullish: Stock indices aren’t the only benchmarks reaching records this week. The government reported a weekly crude oil supply build of 9.5 million barrels to new record highs of more than 518 million barrels, beating the old weekly record set just last year. Remember, last week, the government reported hefty stockpile growth, but oil prices actually rose due to lower-than-expected gasoline supplies. Not the case this week, as gasoline supplies also ballooned by 2.8 million barrels, about quadruple what analysts had been expecting. What is interesting is that despite the very bearish supply data, oil prices seem pretty resilient, remaining in that long-term range between $50 and $55 a barrel. That could reflect signs of OPEC sticking to the production agreement its members forged last year, some analysts say. But keep an eye on the energy sector, which fell Wednesday on the supply news and is down more than 3% year to date.

More Signs of Economic Strength: A lot of economic data hit the headlines Wednesday, and most of it appeared to support what Fed Chair Yellen said this week about an improving economy. The strong data also underpinned the U.S. dollar, which reached its highest levels in more than three weeks before slipping slightly Wednesday. The bullish data included retail sales, the consumer price index (CPI), and February Empire Manufacturing. However, January industrial production fell 0.3%, worse than the Wall Street analyst consensus for no change. We’re not done with economic data yet this week. Leading indicators are due early Friday.

Nasdaq Boosted By Tech Rally: The tech-heavy Nasdaq is on a run, led by big gains from stocks like Apple (AAPL) and Facebook (FB). But this doesn’t necessarily look like another tech bubble like the one we saw back in the late 1990s. Most of the stocks rallying this year may have high valuations, but they are making money nonetheless. And a lot of the large tech firms have huge amounts of money overseas, and may be able to bring some of that back if the new administration puts tax reform in place. Where might they use the money? Stock buybacks, mergers and acquisitions, and dividend increases are just a few of the options getting market participants excited. We’ll see where it goes.

Good Trading,

Economic Calendar



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