Powell Plays for Time

The Fed’s unspoken hope is that lower rates will keep the credit market from crumbling.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

July 15, 2019

Something doesn’t add up. Last week the Fed chairman Jerome Powell went before Congress to say that while the economy remains on “solid footing” it might need some assistance in the form of lower interest rates. It was barely six months ago when he was using similar language to advocate for higher rates. It makes no sense to pitch for easier monetary policy amid a hot labor market and record highs stock prices, but that’s exactly what Powell did.

The Fed chairman referred to economic headwinds blowing toward the US from abroad due to weakening global growth and disruptions in international trade. These pressures are real but hardly justifies the abrupt U-turn in Fed policy this year. It has to be something more than that.

Although Powell didn’t address it directly, the simplest explanation is growing concern over the state of the credit markets. As we wrote in “BBBe careful” one of the unintended consequences of easy money policies has been the explosion in debt, especially among weaker credits (lower-rated companies.) Despite a decade of massive monetary stimulus, the aggregate corporate credit profile has fallen well short of growth trends in the economy. In fact, half of the $5 trillion investment-grade bond universe is now rated just BBB, one notch above junk status.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an accident waiting to happen. It is quite literally a cliff edge, where even a handful of ratings downgrades could quickly create a feedback loop of forced liquidation by funds that are prohibited from owning junk, spreading outward and turning a simple economic slowdown to into a financial crisis.

The only option the Fed has is to play for time, massaging investor sentiment with the prospect of lower rates, maintaining ample liquidity and hoping (!) that growth will recover enough to feed through to corporate balance sheets. But considering that the current expansionary cycle is now already the oldest on record the odds are against it. Second-quarter corporate reporting season begins this week and will give us a look at whether the Fed-inspired exuberance in equities is matched by actual earnings.

Don’t underestimate the downside potential for interest rates. The Fed knows the credit market is the monster in the closet and is preemptively setting the stage for rate cuts despite the lack of any significant stress on the system. They are teed up to ease quickly and aggressively at the first outward sign of trouble. Whether the Fed has enough ammunition to alter the outcome under that scenario remains to be seen but given that the starting point on this next rate-cutting cycle begins with a policy rate at just 2.4%, we have our doubts. There is not much room between here and zero.

In April, we recommended owning short (2-3 year) treasuries. See “The dollar and deflation“. It’s still the best trade on the board and has much more to go.

HYG, the high-yield bond ETF. Despite a lot of heavy lifting from the Fed the bounces are getting smaller.

Author: Bruce J. Clark

Bruce Clark is a thirty-five year veteran of the financial markets, both as a trader and as a journalist. After a career as a principal and proprietary trading manager for some of the world's largest banks, he began writing about markets for Thomson Reuters in 2012 as a senior financial market analyst, working out of the New York and Washington, DC bureaus. He is presently a Washington, DC-based editor for MT Newswires and a special contributor to ConnectedtoIndia and The Capital.

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