If the markets get their way, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will use the Fed’s Jackson Hole symposium to clarify whether the Fed is at the beginning of a serious rate cutting cycle — or just intending to cut a few times, as insurance against a possible downturn.
Powell speaks Friday morning to kick off the Fed’s annual Jackson Hole symposium in Wyoming, and that event is the main focus of markets in the week ahead. The Fed also releases the minutes of its July meeting Wednesday afternoon, and it is expected to detail discussions around its decision to cut interest rates last month for the first time in more than a decade.
In a briefing following that meeting, Powell discussed the quarter point rate cut as a “midcycle adjustment,” implying it was just considering a few cuts. That comment shook markets, and interest rates have plunged, along with global bond yields.
“What the market wants is clearly that he moves away from the ‘midcycle adjustment’ commentary and transition toward an easing cycle,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial.
Markets also will be watching any developments that reveal how trade talks between the U.S. and China are faring. President Donald Trump soothed some nerves in the past week when he delayed some of his latest tariffs on Chinese goods. Trump also said Thursday that discussions are continuing, and that he expects to talk to President Xi Jinping soon, though he gave no details.
Powell speaks at a time when markets have been doubting the Fed’s ability to head off a recession. Since he spoke on July 31, the stock market has been turbulent, with the S&P 500 losing nearly 3%, but the move in interest rates has been massive. The 10-year yield was at 2.07% that day, and touched a low of 1.475% on Thursday before returning to 1.54% by late Friday.
The Treasury’s 30-year bond made a historic move in the past week, when its yield fell to a record low of 1.915%, before rising back above 2% Friday. Also, the most widely watched part of the yield curve inverted, when the 2-year yield made the unusual move of temporarily rising above the 10-year yield. That would be taken as a sign of pending recession if it inverts again and stays that way for some time.
Stocks were lower for the week, but reversed sharper losses by the end of the week. The S&P 500 was up 1.4% Friday at 2,888, but was down 1% for the week. The Dow rose 1.2% to 25,886 Friday, but lost 1.5% for the week.
Dramatic moves in the world’s sovereign yields came as global central banks cut interest rates, and there was talk from a European Central Bank official that the ECB could use a big stimulus program. That puts extra pressure on the Fed, which has emphasized that it could lower rates because of the weak global economy, the impact of trade wars and sluggish inflation. Rates all over the globe moved lower, and the benchmark German 10-year bund set a new low of negative 0.73 Friday morning.
“They don’t want to signal they’re worried about the economy because the economy is doing okay, ” said Pramod Alturi, fixed income portfolio manager at Capital Group. “I think they can do it. It’s going to be a tough communications challenge. The worry is when they try to tow the line, they end up being more hawkish than the market is looking for.”
Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said she is looking for Powell to comment on the yield curve inversion and the market turbulence. “Is he more concerned about the outlook?” she said. “Has he become more concerned since the meeting, given the slowdown in global data, the increase of risks in the trade war and the recent significant moves in the market” she said.
The fed funds futures market is pricing in two to three rate cuts for the balance of the year. Since the Fed meeting, the market has become more concerned about the economy, with weaker global data from Europe and China, as well as a new round of tariffs on Chinese goods, announced by President Donald Trump.
“Is Powell going to stick to the midcycle adjustment? It’s only been three weeks, but you throw in the sharp inversion of the yield curve and the extra consumer tariffs … is he going to let the market whipsaw him? We’ve seen a big inversion and a sharp drop in rates since that meeting,” said Peter Boockvar, chief market strategist at Bleakley Advisory Group.
Strategists said the Fed tries to avoid making policy changes at the Jackson Hole meeting, but it was done during the financial crisis.
“Is it going to be an academic speech? Or is he going to pull a Ben Bernanke and use Jackson Hole as his FOMC venue. It was really [former Fed Chairman] Bernanke who most notably [used the meeting to discuss policy] when he laid out the case for QE twice,” Boockvar said.
Powell could also have to defend the Fed’s independence, and reiterate that he will stay in his position until his term expires, particularly after President Donald Trump criticized Fed policy and called him “clueless” this week.
Besides the Fed, there are some economic reports of interest in the week ahead. Existing home sales are announced Wednesday and PMI manufacturing and services data is released Thursday.
Krosby said she is watching developments with Huawei, since the temporary licenses for U.S. firms doing business with the black-listed Chinese company end on August 19.
“In terms of headlines this could be a market mover because of Huawei’s importance to Beijing. If there is an extension from the administration it could suggest an improvement in the D.C./Beijing dialogue, no doubt a positive headline,” she said, in an email. “We could find out what happens from a presidential tweet or from the Department of Commerce, which has jurisdiction over the issue.”