The markets ease into a traditionally slow period with not much to look forward to other than the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole conference due next week, where the highlight, naturally, will be anything Janet Yellen says regarding the state of the labor markets. The chances of the Fed signaling a new shift when it comes to policy are slim – Yellen has proved to be a cautious speaker thus far, interested in furthering Ben Bernanke’s way of telegraphing as much as possible when it comes to policy alterations, and Yellen is more so, her “six months” comment from a few months ago notwithstanding. As Jonathan Spicer and Howard Schneider reported a few days ago, Yellen is much more interested in fighting an inflation war than dealing with a persistent deflationary/lousy economic environment to dominate the headlines, so the expectation should be for lower rates for longer, and not to expect a lot of surprises out of Wyoming next week.
Goldman Sachs economists not that Yellen had sounded a bit more positive on the labor market in July, but even still their belief when it comes to the slack that exists in the jobs market is still too great to bear much more than the end of quantitative easing/bond buying and perhaps a move to a couple of small rate increases around the middle of next year that, well, won’t hurt too much given the Fed’s policy rate still sits between 0 and 25 basis points. The forecasts from Reuters most recently put the first rate hike somewhere in the April to June range, which fluctuates depending on the strength of the economic figures.
The markets still haven’t entirely shed the notion that a more permissive Fed is a good thing, and so bad-is-good reactions still are more frequent than one might want. Still, Goldman notes that various labor force indicators still point to a jobs market operating far below capacity or the level of strength that the Fed wants. Some aspects have improved – job openings are rising, which points to desire for more employees, and payroll growth compared with potential labor force growth has been solid, but the hiring rate, quits rate, wage growth figures and participation rate still remain on the low side – so there’s just not the kind of job growth that will push everything else forward too. Morgan Stanley analysts recently noted that the University of Michigan’s final survey of consumers still finds ordinary folk not that enthused about spending in part because of labor-market weakness.
How the market positions headed into the last part of the year also depends on the Fed. Merrill Lynch data shows a net 78 percent of investors polled in one of their surveys expect higher rates in the next 12 months, the highest level since 2011, which is likely to affect positioning and result in more curve-flattening activity.
(This column will be on hiatus for a week next week)