As anticipated in Wednesday’s rally–the Standard & Poor’s 500 climbed 1.02% and the NASDAQ Composite was up 1.73%–Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Thursday announced that going forward the Fed would let inflation rise to above its current target of 2% from time to time in an effort to achieve maximum employment in the U.S. economy. Inflation above the current 2% annual rate would be OK, Powell said, in order to make up for years in which inflation trailed the Fed’s target.
In effect, the Fed will let the current benchmark interest rate of 0% to 0.25% ride for longer than the market had anticipated just a few months ago–perhaps for the next five years, Wall Street is now thinking. The so-called break-even inflation rate for 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which reflects market expectations of inflation levels, rose 12 basis points to 1.728% following the speech. That still well below the Fed’s 2% inflation target.
The new policy framework would mean the Fed would continue to buy Treasuries and mortgage-based securities (and who knows what other assets) every month in an effort to surpress longer-term yields. That buying would keep pumping cash into the pockets of investors (who currently hold bonds that will be purchased by the Federal Reserve.) And where is that cash going to go? Not into a bond market where 10-year Treasuries are paying 0.75%, up from 0.68% just a couple of days ago. But into stocks, which we all know will keep climbing to the sky as long as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Facebook keep driving the rally higher.
The temptation will be almost irresistible to assume that higher stock prices don’t carry higher risk as long as the Powell Put is in effect. (The negative way to look at the Fed move, should anyone be inclined to take a negative view of the promise of more cash, is that the Fed is also saying that the economy is likely to remain weak with sluggish growth as far as the eye can see. Otherwise why keep benchmark interest rates near 0%? And in a slow growth economy what should you buy but Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. the thinking is likely to go.)
After the Wednesday’s rally on Fed speculation, the reaction to the actual Fed news was relatively muted Thursday. The S&P 500 climbed just 0.17% to the close and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was ahead only 0.57% with the NASDAQ Composite gaining just 0.34%.
The Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLF) rose 1.69% on the day to easily outperform the Technology Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLK) and its gain of 0.08% on the day.