Amid concerns of a global slowdown, Fed looks likely to act

Amid concerns of a global slowdown, Fed looks likely to act

Time to read: 4 min

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see a production of Macbeth. Though I’ve heard the words many times before, I was particularly fixated on the witches’ verses: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” The pricking of thumbs was originally intended to represent the historic belief that people could sense when evil was approaching. However, I couldn’t help but think this was a timely analogy for the sensations some market participants are feeling that an economic slowdown is approaching.

We heard last week from Fed Chair Jay Powell, who noted he is seeing “concerning” signs of a global slowdown. Recently the People’s Bank of China warned of a slowdown, as well. And prickling thumbs were not needed to see that gross domestic product (GDP) in the eurozone declined to 0.2% in the third quarter, just 1.7% year-on-year. This contrasts starkly with 0.4% rates of growth for both the first and second quarters, and a 2.7% annualized pace for the fourth quarter of 2017. Adding to the negative picture was last month’s increase in eurozone inflation, which rose to an annual rate of 2.2%, up from 1.4% a year earlier.1 This may make it more difficult for the European Central Bank to remain on course to end tapering at the end of 2018. Given that last year’s global growth provided an important tailwind for the US economy, it makes sense for the Fed to be on alert and closely monitoring the global growth picture.

More troubling was what Jim Cramer shared last week on his CNBC show: “So many CEOs have told me about how quickly things have cooled.” He added: “So many of them are baffled that we could find ourselves in this late-cycle dilemma that wasn’t supposed to occur so soon.”

The Fed looks poised to respond to a slowdown

I have worried for some time that the growing trade wars and central bank tightening would conspire to cause a tangible, albeit modest, slowdown in global growth. The good news is that the Fed finally seems to be concerned — and poised to act.

Recall that the stock market wasn’t sure what to make of the Powell-run Fed — hence the sell-off in February as the baton was being passed from former Fed Chair Janet Yellen to Powell. Until last week, it wasn’t clear that the Fed under Powell was still data-dependent, given the more rapid and regular pace at which rates were raised this year. Last week’s comments by Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida were very important, as he confirmed in an interview that the Fed is still data-dependent. What’s more, Clarida shared the view that the Fed is near neutral — which seemed to contradict Chair Powell’s recent comments that the Fed is a “long way” from neutral. Clarida’s comments came a day after Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic articulated the view that the Fed should take a “tentative approach” to raising rates given their proximity to the neutral level. This also comes the same week that Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said that he was “not convinced” a December rate hike is prudent.

This is further confirmation of what I have expected — I believe that while the Fed is likely to raise rates in December, it is likely to take its foot off the accelerator to some extent in 2019. And the fall in Treasury yields at the end of last week suggests other investors are starting to suspect the same thing. Quite frankly, now that we are beginning to get the scent of a possible slowdown, I believe this is a good time for the Fed to begin communicating to investors that it is data-dependent and ready to respond to weaker data.

Geopolitical headwinds have continued to play out

Of course, there are a number of negative headwinds that could have an impact on global markets, including Italy’s budget and the Brexit debacle.

We were taken on another roller coaster ride last week as UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced an agreement for leaving the European Union. This announcement was followed by the resignation of several members of her cabinet (most notably, the Brexit minister), as well as building momentum in the movement to vote “no confidence” on May.

I happened to be in London last week to watch this unfold firsthand. I asked my cab driver what he thought of the Brexit deal that May was promoting. He responded: “You’re from America, right? Tell me this: Do the turkeys vote for Thanksgiving in America?” He went on to explain that he doesn’t want a Brexit and wouldn’t want a “yes” vote on this plan. Now, admittedly, as a London cabbie, he benefits from greater international trade and tourism — but he suspected many others outside London were also starting to recognize they benefit from the same.

I can’t help but wonder if we ultimately will see another Brexit referendum held in the UK. After all, knowing what they know now, British voters may vote differently if the referendum were held today. In the meantime, the impending Brexit has been causing market turmoil. The pound sterling fell last week, as did the FTSE 250 Index. I believe this was a knee-jerk reaction to the dramatic events of last week and the growing uncertainty of the Brexit situation — but I expect we will see a recovery when we get greater clarity.

Looking ahead

This week, we will want to monitor five key issues.

  1. Trade developments. I had held out hope last week that the trade situation would improve based on trade advisor Pete Navarro’s comments that it seemed that “globalists” were making progress in changing President Trump’s mind on the burgeoning tariff war with China. However, based on this past weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, I expect the trade situation to deteriorate. The US, represented by Vice President Mike Pence, and China, represented by President Xi Jinping, exchanged barbs and couldn’t even agree on a non-binding statement at the conclusion of the meeting. I don’t expect anything constructive to come out of the Trump-Xi trade talks at the G20 meeting.
  2. Possibility of a US government shutdown. Markets appear poised to sell off significantly if the US government shuts down on Dec. 7. While a shutdown seems unlikely at this juncture, the situation could change quickly — so we will want to follow it closely.
  3. Congress’ vote on the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). There are concerns that the USMCA is in jeopardy, given rumblings that some members of Congress will oppose it for varying reasons. I think the USMCA will ultimately be passed, but some small alterations will likely be made in order to appease enough lawmakers.
  4. Falling oil prices. There continue to be concerns about lower oil prices. It looks like oil prices may remain lower for longer, which means investors need to contemplate the implications. For example, lower oil prices will have different implications for different countries, depending on whether they are oil-exporting or oil-importing. And lower oil prices, all else being equal, should ease cost pressures for the chemical industry, which uses oil as a key ingredient.
  5. The tech sector. The tech sector continues to come under very significant pressure, helped by growing concern that the sector — particularly the FAANG stocks — will come under greater regulation. I talked about this as a potential outcome from the midterm elections, and I believe it’s more likely than ever. However, it is not a reason for investors to abandon the tech sector, but instead could represent a selective buying opportunity.

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1 Source: Eurostat as of Nov. 16, 2018

Important information

Blog header image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock.com

In a “no-deal” Brexit, the UK would leave the EU in March 2019 with no formal agreement outlining the terms of their relationship.

The FTSE 250 Index represents mid-cap stocks listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Gross domestic product is a broad indicator of a region’s economic activity, measuring the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced in that region over a specified period of time.

FAANG stocks refer to Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google (now Alphabet, Inc.)

The opinions referenced above are those of Kristina Hooper as of Nov. 19, 2018. These comments should not be construed as recommendations, but as an illustration of broader themes. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future results. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions; there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations.

Kristina Hooper

Chief Global Market Strategist

Kristina Hooper is the Chief Global Market Strategist at Invesco. She has 21 years of investment industry experience.

Prior to joining Invesco, Ms. Hooper was the US investment strategist at Allianz Global Investors. Prior to Allianz, she held positions at PIMCO Funds, UBS (formerly PaineWebber) and MetLife. She has regularly been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters and other financial news publications. She was featured on the cover of the January 2015 issue of Kiplinger’s magazine, and has appeared regularly on CNBC and Reuters TV.

Ms. Hooper earned a BA degree, cum laude, from Wellesley College; a J.D. from Pace University School of Law, where she was a Trustees’ Merit Scholar; an MBA in finance from New York University, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where she was a teaching fellow in macroeconomics and organizational behavior; and a master’s degree from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she focused on labor economics.

Ms. Hooper holds the Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst, Certified Investment Management Analyst and Chartered Financial Consultant designations. She serves on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Financial Planning, which is the pro bono arm of the financial planning industry, and Hour Children.

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