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STOCKS RALLY ON RATE HIKE AND DOVISH COMMENTS FROM THE FED
U.S. and global stocks rallied after the Federal Reserve raised its short-term interest rate target range on Wednesday and Fed Chair Janet Yellen expressed confidence in the U.S. economy. As was widely expected, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised the federal funds target by a quarter point (0.25%) to a range from 0.75% to 1.00%. The central bank hiked rates for the first time this year, the second time in three months, and only the third time since the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. After announcing the quarter-point hike, Yellen said the Fed intended to take a go-slow approach to further interest rate hikes.
The Fed has a dual objective of maximizing employment and moderating inflation. The unemployment rate dipped to 4.7% in February and inflation was close to the central bank's 2% target over the 12-month period. Yellen allowed that 2% is an inflation target and that it might rise above that level, just as it had been under it for the past few years. “It’s a target,” she emphasized. The Fed’s current forecasting bias appears to be toward tighter monetary policy, but its consensus on economic conditions remained measured, forecasting 4.5% unemployment and about 2% inflation for the coming three years. T. Rowe Price Chief U.S. Economist Alan Levenson noted that one of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises was to get the economy to return to 3% growth. In Business Insider, Levenson said, “It’s possible that over time, the right policies on the regulatory side could lift growth potential, but 3.5% or 3% is probably not realistic.”
Fed fund futures rallied after the FOMC maintained its economic projections, and T. Rowe Price traders noted that the futures market is fully pricing in the next rate hike in September, an above-average probability of another rate increase in December, and three rate increases in 2018. According to Levenson, the process of raising rates to more normal levels is likely to be very gradual due to the sluggish nature of the U.S. recovery.
TOE TO TOE WITH CONGRESS
President Trump has proposed a radical budget for fiscal 2018 that increases defense and security spending and slashes funding for the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies, which is sure to face stiff opposition. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on MSNBC that the budget team has designed a plan that fulfills the president’s campaign promises: “[we] turned his words, his policies into numbers. So folks who voted for the president are getting exactly what they voted for.” The proposed budget follows President Trump’s “America First” pledge, “…to keep Americans safe, we have made tough choices that have been put off for too long,” Trump said. The plan cuts total discretionary spending by 1% from fiscal 2016 and doesn’t substantially increase the deficit.
BONDS: YIELDS DECREASE ON DOVISH FED-SPEAK
Intermediate- and longer-term Treasury yields ended the week lower. (Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions.) Overall, economic data were positive. The February producer price index rose 0.3% from January and climbed 2.2% from February 2016, the highest rate in nearly five years. The consumer price index (CPI) rose 0.1% in February, with core CPI up 2.2% annually. New housing starts rose 2.8% in February, but building permit issuance fell 6%. Weekly initial jobless claims fell by 2,000 to 241,000 as the labor market continued to project signs of strength.
Municipal bonds produced positive returns for the week but underperformed both Treasuries and the broad taxable fixed income market. The municipal AAA yield curve flattened slightly after the announcement from the Fed, with longer-term rates moving slightly lower. The investment-grade corporate bond issuance calendar was active on Monday but slowed ahead of the Fed's decision. The investment-grade corporate market was on firmer footing toward the end of the week as oil prices recovered. The high yield market was weaker overall amid continued negative flows and mixed news about global oil reserves that caused bonds from higher-risk energy issuers to underperform. Floating rate bank loans, which historically have outperformed other fixed income assets in a rising interest rate environment, reported steady industrywide inflows this week and last. Coupon payments on bank loans are typically based on the three-month London interbank offered rate, which continued to climb. This should lead to higher coupons for bank debt investors.