Esther George, John Williams and Jerome Powell, at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 24, 2018.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
The Federal Reserve’s efforts to reverse its easy policy will be a dominant theme for markets in the week ahead, as central bankers meet virtually for a key annual summit.
Rather than convening amid the backdrop of the Grand Tetons in the crisp late August air, central bankers will have their annual Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium online due to Covid risks. Fed officials will be under pressure to gently steer toward less policy support, without creating a market tantrum.
Federal Reserve officials, in numerous recent speeches and interviews, have already managed to speed up expectations for when they could begin to slowly pare back their $120 billion a month in bond purchases. More of that talk is expected at their annual symposium, which begins Thursday.
The Fed chairman’s speech is typically the highlight of the annual event, and various Fed chairs have used the Jackson Hole, Wyo. meeting to send important messages. The question is whether Jerome Powell will channel his speech Friday morning to provide more details on how the Fed could begin to unwind its bond buying, and even whether he is personally ready to embrace it.
“We’re not expecting a big policy reveal at this meeting,” said Mark Cabana, head of U.S. short strategy at Bank of America. “I don’t think Powell wants to front run the [September] meeting, given the myriad of voices that are out there. I don’t think this is the time when Powell really wants to make a splash.”
Besides the Fed, the week has a few economic reports. Existing home sales are released Monday; new home sales Tuesday and durable goods Wednesday. Friday has personal consumption expenditures data and the inflation index, closely watched by the Fed.
Fed and markets
But the Fed will matter most, as investors will also keep an eye on how the economy is responding to the spread of the Covid delta variant. Stocks were lower in the past week, with the S&P 500 down 0.6%.
There could be some volatility around the Fed’s symposium, after the release this past Tuesday of minutes from the last official meeting rattled investors. The minutes described most members of the Federal Open Market Committee as being ready to taper this year if the economy is strong enough. Cabana said he changed his view after that release and now expects the Fed to begin paring back purchases in November, rather than January.
“We just think this signal in communications is pretty clear,” he said. “For now, it’s safe to say they are wanting to start later this year, and we think the data will allow them to do that.”
As for Powell, “he’s not going to announce taper. What we anticipate is that he’s going to give a live speech that talks about a lot of the progress that has been made since the start of Covid, and there’s a lot of it,” said Cabana. He said Powell could reiterate that the Fed will be data dependent in its decision to taper, and that many Fed officials believe it could make sufficient progress toward that goal later this year.
The minutes caused hiccups in markets as investors reacted to the idea that the Fed will take its first steps toward peeling away the extraordinary amount of policy it used to fight the impact of the pandemic. Tapering the bond program could take months, but once it ends it could herald the onset of rate hikes.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said Powell should provide a road map for how the Fed will taper, but with the caveat of being able to step back if Covid becomes more serious than expected.
“The asset purchases were initially to stabilize financial conditions. … There’s clearly a consensus building stronger than it even was at the last meeting in July, given how [Fed officials] have been speaking out since then,” said Swonk. “They want to wind down asset purchases. As they wind them down, they’re not hitting the brakes. They’re only lifting their foot off the accelerator. The difference is important for [Powell] to lay out at Jackson Hole.”
Swonk said the Fed needs to provide a road map for tapering, but also with off ramps in the event that Covid is worse than expected.
“To avoid this becoming a tantrum and avoid financial markets seizing up again, he wants to get the messaging out and the context of it, as much as possible,” Swonk said. “If this becomes a disorderly reaction and things are melting down, they would have to pivot. Where we’re at is these types of purchases are no longer justified and may be detrimental in terms of how much liquidity they’re putting into financial markets when its no longer needed.”
Week ahead calendar (times in ET)
10 a.m. Existing home sales
10 a.m. New home sales
8:30 a.m. Durable goods
8:30 a.m. Jobless claims
8:30 a.m. Q2 GDP
Earnings: Big Lots
8:30 a.m. Personal income and spending
8:30 a.m. Advanced trade
10 a.m. Consumer spending (final August)