Fresh earnings reports fueled further gains, with positive earnings surprises from several big-name technology companies that benefited the larger universe of Nasdaq-listed high-growth companies. Disappointing earnings from three mega-cap tech companies and a strong employment report triggered a Friday pull-back, paring the week’s gains.
Overall, U.S. stocks rose on the week, shaking off disappointing earnings, while Treasury yields reversed their drop after the Fed meeting. The U.S. jobs data this week brought back expectations the Fed was set to raise rates further in coming months. We think the key for the market outlook is whether inflation is on track to fall back to 2% targets and whether there will be a recession. Jobs data suggest the Fed has more work to do, even as the market still prices in rate cuts starting later in 2023.
We’re watching China inflation data for the first signs of effects from the economy’s restart after Covid lockdowns. Low inflation has allowed policymakers in China to keep policy supportive – but the rapid restart may prompt a change. China’s total social financing will be closely watched to see how current policy is translating into credit flowing into the economy.
Another Rate Hike
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by 0.25%, signaling to the financial markets that it would likely hike rates by another 25 basis points at its next meeting in late March. Fed officials said the slowdown in rate hikes might provide time to assess the impact of the accumulated rate hikes. The Fed retained language in its post-meeting statement that future rate hike plans were unchanged to discourage investors’ hopes of an imminent pause in the rate-hike cycle.1
Last year, major central banks took a “whatever it takes” stance on inflation. We saw this as phase one of their policy response in a new regime. We thought they’d one day pause their hikes and shift to more nuanced messaging when economic damage became clearer, then live with some inflation – phase two. Last week’s mixed messages imply they’re stumbling into phase two sooner and before the damage is fully clear – but we’re not there yet. Inflation is cooling, but it’s not on track to return to target. Some supply disruptions that fed inflation are resolving, and falling goods and energy prices are lowering headline inflation. The outlook for labor markets and wages is key now.
Headline inflation, including food and energy, has been falling as consumer spending returns to services from goods. Core services inflation will drive overall inflation as spending normalizes, with the labor market central to how phase two plays out, in our view. Central banks seem to think wage growth can fall with headline inflation as workers dial down demands for pay raises to keep up with prices. The Bank of England (BOE) did so explicitly in forecasts last week, implying a deep recession isn’t needed to get inflation to target. Recent job data has been sending inconsistent signals. Notably, Friday’s data showed a still-tight labor market that could keep wage pressures high, notwithstanding recent softer data from ECI and payroll firm ADP. We think wage growth could be more persistent: It reflects a tight job market, difficulty hiring and low unemployment.
Signs of the Phase Ahead
Signs the Fed is stumbling into phase two: Chair Jerome Powell made inconsistent statements after the Fed hiked 0.25% last week. Powell made clear in his scripted remarks that rates will rise, the Fed isn’t eyeing rate cuts and its job to fight inflation isn’t done. He also stressed that services inflation – the Fed’s main focus – has not shown signs of falling. Yet his unscripted responses sent mixed messages. Powell failed to push back against easing financial conditions that work against the Fed’s efforts to bring down inflation. He also seemed to imply the Fed’s December economic forecasts were stale. While perhaps unintentional, this disconnect suggests the Fed may be nearing a pause, making communication challenges even trickier.
Other major central banks are facing the same communication challenges. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde seemed to back down from previous whatever-it-takes language by not repeating that a shallow recession is “not enough” to hit the ECB’s inflation goals. She said the risk of ultra-high inflation had receded and lower headline inflation may lessen wage pressures in nearing annual pay negotiations. The BOE upped its 2023 GDP forecast and lowered its inflation forecast. The ECB and BOE raised rates by 0.5% last week, with the ECB set to do so again in March. The Fed, ECB and BOE pausing slightly sooner would reinforce our view they will face milder recessions this year and live with inflation that’s fallen a lot but is likely to settle above their targets. That means central banks are unlikely to cut rates as markets increasingly expect.3
Returns Following the Last Interest Rate Hike
Historically speaking, as you'll see in the chart below, the market returns after the last Fed rate hike have been positive. All eyes will continue to monitor their moves and the impact their policies have on the market.
Footnotes and Sources
1. The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2023
2. CNBC, February 1, 2023
3. BlackRock Investment Institute, U.S. Bureau of Economic Activity, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with data from Haver Analytics, February 2023.