Insights & Advice

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Waiting on the Fed

It should be clear to you by now that in the United States the Federal Reserve Bank is calling the shots in our financial markets.  To a lesser extent this phenomena is happening all over the world. As such, the markets did little this week because the Fed doesn’t meet again until Tuesday.

The S&P 500 Index has simply been trading in a tight range between 1,970 and 2,000. Although stocks are marking time, there has been some movement elsewhere in the financial spectrum. Take the dollar for example. The greenback is on a tear against most other currencies, but specifically the Yen and the Euro. As the dollar has strengthened gold, silver and oil have plummeted.

This is both good and bad news. The dollar’s gains make our exports more expensive and imports cheaper. Since most commodities are priced in dollars, as the U.S. currency climbs, commodities become more expensive. Traders, always looking for a profitable arbitrage, sell gold or oil and buy dollars.

The decline in energy prices, however, gives an important boost to consumers, who buy an average of 400 gallons of fuel a year or more. A 40 cents decline at the pump translates into well over $120 in savings for everyone who drives.  It is like getting a multi-billion dollar tax cut that goes right into our pockets.

So what is behind this gain in the dollar?

Some say it is because of all of the geopolitical risk in the world today. ISIS, Ukraine, Russia, even Scottish secession are making the safe haven dollar an attractive alternative.  Others argue it is not so much that the dollar is gaining ground but that the Euro and Yen are getting weaker. That is due to the policies that are being implemented by their central banks.

It is true that Japan has been actively promoting a weaker currency, as they continue their own massive QE program. I have written at length on their efforts to break a double decade worth of stagflation. The job is not done, in my opinion. I expect that although the program is supposed to sunset in 2015, the Japanese central bank will extend its efforts beyond that date.

Over in Europe, as I wrote last week, the ECB has also announced further easing of interest rates and their own bond buying form of quantitative easing. More actions will be implemented if called for, according to their officials.

The result of this European and Japanese stimulus was to drive down their currencies as interest rates fall. Given that our own Fed is ending our QE program in October, investors are betting interest rates in the U.S. and the dollar offer a better deal going forward than elsewhere.

There is another more speculative element in the dollar’s rise. As readers know, thanks to the Fed’s overwhelming influence on the markets, a cottage industry of Fed Guessers has sprung up among the financial weeds. These pundits make a living trying to outguess the next central bank move. They parse every word, comma and period of the monthly Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) statements trying to discern a change in stance.

This week, in anticipation of Tuesday’s FOMC, the guess is that with the economy exhibiting gathering signs of strength, the Fed will be forced to move earlier in raising interest rates. Right now that move is not expected to happen until sometime in 2015. No one knows, but in a slow market where stocks are waiting for the Fed’s next move, traders will believe just about anything.

As for me, I am ignoring all of these pundits. I do believe the U.S. dollar is on a long-term trajectory higher as are interest rates. That is a natural thing to happen when a country’s economy is improving. The Fed says rates will remain low until 2015, and maybe after that. That’s all I need to know. Stay invested and ignore the noise.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, At the Market