Back in mid July we suggested the Fed might pause at its August meeting. On August 8th they held their benchmark lending rate at 5.25%, while saying that consumer prices will “moderate over time” because of their 17 prior rate increases, surging energy prices and a cooling housing market. In the eyes of many the move was a bold one for new Fed chief Ben Bernanke. Inflation hawks (those who believe inflation is worse evil than slow economy) immediately criticized his decision as a gamble that could jeopardize the Fed’s credibility as an inflation fighter. Yet, as the data have come in, the decision seems all the wiser. Both the Producer Price Index and the Consumer Price Index showed that inflation unexpectedly dropped last month. Housing starts slid 2.5% last month for the fifth time in six months. And yesterday, Conference Board said its index of leading economic indicators dropped in July.

Growth of the U.S.economy was less than half that of the first quarter, according to the Commerce Department in its first estimate of second-quarter Gross Domestic Product.  GDP increased at a seasonally adjusted 2.5% annual rate April, compared to 5.6% in the first quarter and also well below economists’ estimates of 3.2%. 

“Economic moderation seems to be underway” which “should help to limit inflation pressures over time” said Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in his prepared comments to the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday.  He noted the importance of “forward-looking” and taking a “longer-term” view as rate increases take time to affect the economy.  It may be that Mr. Bernanke and his Fed may have raised rates as far as they are going to for the foreseeable future. 

The Federal Reserve raised their benchmark interest rate for the 17th consecutive time yesterday which was a surprise to no one.  But in a surprise to many, they suggested for the first time that a pause might be coming soon.  Their statement said “the extent and timing of any additional” rate increases “will depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth.” Stock markets surged on the news.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared to close 217.24 points higher than when the statement was released, a gain of about 2% - its best day in more than three years. The NASDAQ Stock Market was up 3%, its biggest one-day rally since March 2004. Long-term bond yields edged down as prices rose.

The Federal Reserve has increased rates by a quarter of a percent 16 times including their May increase without a major market drop, but one would think that the likely quarter point increase at the end of this month will be the straw that breaks the veritable camel’s (err bull’s) back.  Since that May 10th meeting the Federal Open Market Committee has become a ‘federal open mouth committee, as termed by one of our favorite economists, Ed Yardeni.  The mixed signals have rattled markets of all stripes, from stocks, to bonds, to commodities. 

May was very unkind to investors.  The S&P 500 declined 3.1% making it the worst monthly decline since 2004.  The Dow Jones 30 fared a little better, declining by 1.6%.  The NASDAQ has been on its longest decline since 1994.  With inflation fears running high, uncertainty about how close the Fed will come to ruining the economy, high energy and commodity prices, and fears of what will happen in Iran, Iraqall piled on after the Fed’s May 10th meeting to send many to the exits.  The biggest losers were the emerging markets as investors feared that investors’ capital would leave these risky markets as interest rates rise. 

Last week we discussed the abundance of global economic growth and how, so far, it had not been accompanied by excessive inflation.  Even in the face of commodity prices rising straight up, record oil prices, rising wages, and tight supplies in almost all raw material category.  The pressure relief valve is productivity.  It has been rising steadily all over the world, keeping a lid on inflation. 

The Fed may be near the end of its long-term tightening process according to minutes released from their last Open Market Committee meeting.  Since the release the equity and commodity markets have soared. The CRB index of commodities was up 5% in the following two days, led by petroleum, gold, copper, and platinum.  The stock market gains were boosted by materials, energy, and industrials.  Extra lift came from some superb earnings reports from individual companies in the groups just mentioned, as well as from some leading technology companies, banks, brokers, and pharmaceuticals. Is the return of “irrational exuberance” in our future?  One could argue that it already exists in the commodities and metals markets as well as the related company stock prices.  They are up huge this year following a two-year bull market. 

The airplanes of September 11th, the tech-bust of 2000, the corporate scandals of 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the relentless credit tightening of the Federal Reserve, spiraling oil prices, and increasing global Islamic unrest, separately or combined have failed to stop this economy of ‘steel.’  Will virus infected birds finally accomplish what the prior challengers have been unable to wreak?  The predictions range from not at all, to a total global depression. 

Interest rates are rising across the board.  Just last week we discussed the inverted yield curve and the problem it posed for banks and for those who borrow from banks.  Since our last Brief, the yield on the 10-year note has gone up 10 basis points, or a tenth of a percent, while shorter maturities such as the 2-year note is up only modestly.  The result has been a yield curve that is a bit more accommodative for banks.  Our experts believe the yield curve will not change much from here, remaining relatively flat (short term rates close to long-term rates), therefore challenging for banks, but not disastrous for them or the economy.  If the Fed raises the funds rate to 5% by May as many predict, then the 10-year Treasury bond yield will also likely to rise to 5%.