Fed may be less patient than market believes

THE market seems to be betting that the Federal Reserve (Fed) is going to steal a page from China’s playbook.

But unlike China, which is trying to put off the inevitable by, among other things, banning some executives from selling stock for six months, investors are now betting that the Federal Reserve has shelved any interest rate hike until 2016.

Following ructions in Greece and China, and having digested Wednesday’s release of the Federal Open Market Committee June meeting minutes, investors at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are now betting that we won’t see a rate hike until January.

That’s a substantial change from a month ago, when futures were still looking for an increase this year. Today futures price only a 39% probability of a rate hike by the Fed’s Dec 16 meeting and just a 9% chance of one by September.

One risk of this line of thinking is that it may assume that the Fed is as worried about what is happening in the rest of the world as many investors themselves are.

In the past month the situations in both Greece and China have worsened sharply and unexpectedly. Greece and its European partners have thus far proved unable to come up with a plan for Athens to avoid default, raising the possibility that it is ejected, or cascades, out of the euro currency.

China has suffered a gut-churning crash in its stock market in less than a month, with Shanghai shares falling by as much as 30%.

But while both stories have obvious global impact, particularly China to the extent that the share plunge proves a harbinger of even weaker growth there, neither, as of now, should qualify as a reason for the Fed to sit tight.

Even the International Monetary Fund, which this week again urged the Fed to delay until next year, seems to agree.

“From what I read... the Fed has more or less the same interpretation of the implications of the events in Greece and China as we do, which is that they are not of major importance for the US at this point, so it should not affect their choices in terms of monetary policy very much,” said Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s chief economist.

Even more to the point, both crises could melt away or be resolved, making the landscape come September or October look far less forbidding in financial markets than it does now.

While the IMF argues that the Fed should wait, at least in part because it fears the spillover effects if the dollar appreciates due to higher US rates, the tone of the minutes, which reflect how the Fed was feeling and thinking in June, is more balanced.

The word “Greece” occurs three times in the minutes, but the words ‘wage’ or ‘wages’ are used eight times, seven of which in a decidedly upbeat way.

“Several other participants indicated that, in their view, labour market slack had already been largely eliminated. The ongoing rise in labour demand appeared to have begun to result in a firming of wage increases,” according to the minutes of the June rate-setting meeting.

Officials will be looking for signs of wage pressures, especially given the strong evolution of data about job openings. The Labour Department’s Job Openings and Labour Turnover Summary (Jolts), released this week, showed a new 15-year record in open positions in May.

One potential catch is inflation. Inflation remains below the Fed’s target of 2% and may face further downward pressure. Energy futures prices have been sinking, in part based on gloomy expectations about demand in China and the rest of Asia. This dynamic seems far more likely to delay a hike than concern about the losses of speculators in Chinese shares.

“Overall, we maintain our baseline outlook for a rate hike in September, given our conviction about incoming data and their signal about economic momentum,” economist Michael Gapen of Barclays wrote in a note to clients.

“We are more willing to look through the anomalous quarter one outturn and believe subsequent data and pending revisions to GDP will signal the economy remains healthy.”

This would have been not far off consensus a couple of months ago but seems bold now. It is, however, easy to see the issues we obsess about now, such as Greece, receding rapidly in investors’ imaginations.

When September comes it will very likely all be about US data. That may bring on a rate hike a good deal sooner than markets now expect.

If so, look for this to cause large immediate problems for two constituencies: emerging markets and investors in riskier instruments.

  • James Saft is a Reuters columnist. His opinions are his own.
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