The economic news this week is good, but not too good. And that points to more of the same standoff between the markets and he Federal Reserve that has become one of the central facts of traders' lives.
Thursday's report on April durable goods orders came in better than expected -- and so did Wednesday's report that showed the trade deficit growing less than expected, as exports of U.S. goods increased. But in each case, the details are soft enough that markets still aren't betting on an interest-rate hike in June. They gauge July or September as more likely.
Commentary out of the Fed has consistently pointed to a strengthening economy that can withstand a second rate increase, after the central bank began to reverse its seven years of near-zero rate policy last December. But the market has been skeptical, with stock prices rising in a bet the Fed will stay on the sidelines, and futures prices pointing to a one-third chance of a June rate hike. That's true even though junk-bond spreads have stepped back from the panic they were showing a few months ago.
This week's details do little to end the impasse. Here's why.
The trade-deficit report was better than expected, but not because exports were so great. Those came in pretty much the way everyone expected, according to economists at Barclays.
The beat occurred because consumers imported fewer goods than projected, at least in the Census Bureau's first estimate of April numbers. That suggests the market is right: Growth isn't accelerating all that much if imports are sluggish, because consumer spending at everyplace from Home Depot (HD) - Get Report and Walmart (WMT) - Get Report to dealers selling imports like Toyotas (TM) - Get Report and BMWs is 70% of the economy. Offsetting that note of skepticism was a much better-than-expected 16.6% jump in April new home sales that helped boost builders like Toll Bros. (TOL) - Get Report
Likewise, the durable goods orders were a solid beat -- but only in the volatile transportation segment.
Durable goods orders overall rose 3.4% from March, pasting a 0.3% average forecast as reported by Econoday. But transportation orders were up 8.7%, indicating that aircraft makers like Boeing (BA) - Get Report are piling up orders. Take them out, and so-called core orders rose just 0.4%. That beat the 0.3% forecast by a little, but was in the middle of forecasts ranging from gains of 0.1% to 0.8%.
So you can look at either report and find backing both for the Fed's stance that the economy is picking up in the second quarter, or the market's stance that the improvement is still too halting and narrow for the central bank to take a chance on repeating what happened in December.
In case you forgot, that's when the Fed raised rates right before the market tossed a hissy fit about weakness in China and the debt loads of oil-service companies like Baker-Hughes (BHI) and Halliburton (HAL) - Get Report and drillers like Chesapeake Energy (CHK) - Get Report and Anadarko Petroleum (APC) - Get Report .
For now, the data is pushing the market's expectations for a rate hike toward either July or September, futures prices say. By September, there's a two-thirds chance the Fed will raise rates at least once, and a 21% shot of two or more hikes. The real thing taking June off the table is the vote a week later on whether Britain should leave the European Union: The Fed won't risk raising rates right before a potential new source of uncertainty, LPL Financial economic strategist John Cannally said last week.
Two hikes by September is a bit much, most likely. This Fed has drawn criticism for delaying rate hikes it has clearly telegraphed, not for moving faster than markets think. The markets say maybe July, and almost certainly by September, and then let's see what happens before the monetary policy committee meets in December. There's nothing bullish enough in this week's data so far to change the Fed's mind.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.