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Fed Confusion; FOMC's Wrong-Footed Comments: Best of Kass

While the odds now favor a March start of tapering, a confused Fed is capable of anything.

And that lack of predictability is bearish.

At the time of original publication, Kass had no positions in the investments mentioned.


Happy Halloween From the Fed
Originally published on Thursday, Oct. 31 at 7:28 a.m. EDT.

Below are some statements from the Federal Open Market Committee's most recent rate-decision release:

  • "Labor market conditions have shown some further improvement."
  • "Activity continued to expand at moderate pace."
  • "Data suggest household spending and business investment advanced while housing slowed somewhat in recent months."
  • " The FOMC still expects growth to pick up from its recent pace and the unemployment rate to gradually decline toward levels Committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate."

The FOMC introduced uncertainty into the markets in its surprisingly upbeat economic assessment/outlook, which didn't, as it did in September, mention tight financial conditions. Moreover, the failure to mention (with emphasis) the failure of fiscal policy suggested to market participants that the probability of a December 2013 tapering has not been abandoned.

The markets took the FOMC comments as hawkish.

In response:

  • U.S. dollar-Japanese yen traded above 98.60 post-Fed;
  • The 10-year yield was 2.47% prior to FOMC and moved up to 2.52% (reversed from down to up);
  • S&P futures are down 50 basis points on the day; and
  • S&P energy is down 1%.

My view is that the Fed's description of the domestic economy is wrong-footed. (Note: In the past, I have often pointed to the Fed's poor forecasting ability.) For example, the jobs market has deteriorated and has not improved, and business capital spending is weak.

Additionally, I would observe that the quality of the FOMC statements has eroded and that Fed policy has grown less predictable. (Yesterday's ambiguous statement is perhaps a function of a more divided Fed than many have observed.)

Finally, below are The Wall Street Journal's Jon Hilsenrath's relevant post-FOMC comments:

-- LITTLE CHANGE IN THE ASSESSMENT OF THE ECONOMY: The housing sector has "slowed somewhat," the Fed said. That's a downgrade from September when officials said it had been strengthening. The labor market had shown "some further improvement," the Fed said, an ever-so-slight downgrade from the "further improvement" the Fed noted in September. On net, very little change in how officials see the economy performing.

-- FINANCIAL CONDITIONS IMPROVING: The Fed dropped its reference to financial conditions having tightened in recent months, as it noted in September. That's a nod of approval to rising stock prices and the recent drop in long-term interest rates. The Fed also removed a reference to its concern about higher mortgage rates, which have dropped since the last meeting.

-- STILL AN EYE ON TAPERING: The Fed retained language it used in September which suggested officials had an eye on pulling back from their bond-buying program if the economy improved. It noted "underlying strength" in the broader economy and said it chose to "await more evidence" on the economy's performance before adjusting the bond-buying program.

Taken together, the Fed isn't taking a December adjustment to the bond-buying program off the table. But that comes with the strong caveat that it depends on whether the economy is living up to its expectations. As part of that assessment, Fed officials will be updating their economic forecasts in December and will need to make a judgment about whether their projection of accelerating economic growth in 2014 is likely to be met.

The bottom line is that while a January or March 2014 tapering remains most likely, an element of uncertainty (and a possible December tapering) has been introduced.

If, as many of us believe, bond buying has had an outsized impact on the pricing of assets (stocks and bonds), then the market outlook over the balance of the year has grown more hazy and scary.

Happy Halloween from the Fed.

At the time of original publication, Kass had no positions in the investments mentioned.

Doug Kass is the president of Seabreeze Partners Management Inc. Under no circumstances does this information represent a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security.

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