The Federal Reserve’s rate debate and Ukraine tensions could jolt markets in the week ahead


The Federal Reserve’s rate debate and Ukraine tensions could jolt markets in the week ahead

Stocks are likely to be volatile in the week ahead as investors watch tensions between Russia and Ukraine and debate how quickly the Federal Reserve can raise interest rates. Markets were roiled in the past week and bond yields spiked after a hot inflation reading Thursday upended many Wall Street forecasts for interest rate hikes. Investors were dealt another blow Friday after the White House warned that Russia could invade Ukraine during the Olympics. Both the U.S. and U.K. have called for their citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible. “I think the Fed is keeping everyone on edge, and this is going to add to that edginess,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. “So we had a three-week earnings respite from the macro. We turned micro, and this week we were reminded earnings season is pretty much over and all macro issues matter again.”

The major averages slid sharply on Friday afternoon, and Treasury yields came off the highs they set after Thursday’s report that January’s consumer price index jumped by 7.5%, a 40-year high. The S&P 500 lost 1.8% for the week, falling to 4,418. With about two hours left to Friday trading, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a White House briefing that there were signs of Russian escalation at the Ukraine border. Sullivan said it was possible an invasion could occur during the Olympics, despite speculation to the contrary. “Up until now, I’d say it was all about monetary policy. This throws an extra unknown into the works,” said Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at Bannockburn Global Forex. “The dollar is rallying, oil prices have rallied and stocks are selling off... Even if nothing happens this weekend, people will be nervous about it in the next week.”

Boockvar said the Russian tensions complicate the central bank’s outlook, and an invasion would add to already hot global inflation. “It’s causing problems for the Fed because this basically would inflate oil prices, food prices, wheat, fertilizers and everything else and just make the Fed’s inflation fighting capability that much more difficult to maneuver,” he said. “The Fed can’t back off. You can’t blame geopolitics as a reason not to hike rates.” He said if the central bank were concerned about an economic impact, it could slow hikes.

Fed’s inflation fight

By Friday morning, some economists had ratcheted up expectations for the Fed to hike interest rates by a half point in March, following the January inflation report. Others, like economists at Goldman Sachs, have raised their views to a faster pace, with as many as seven quarter-point hikes for this year. Fed speakers will be a highlight in the week ahead, particularly St. Louis Fed President James Bullard who appears on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Monday at 8:30 a.m. Bullard added to market turbulence and the sharp jump in bond yields Thursday when he said that he would like to see rates rise by 100 basis points (or 1 percentage point) by July. “I think volatility remains elevated as we transition from essentially this more dovish Fed to this more hawkish Fed policy which we’re experiencing,” said Patrick Palfrey, senior equity strategist at Credit Suisse. “We haven’t yet settled on how hawkish we are going to be and until we can chart a new path for interest rates hikes with some consistency, I think volatility is going to remain elevated, and that’s going to be more true for high valuation companies.”

What to watch

The Federal Reserve releases minutes from its last meeting on Wednesday. Investors will watch it carefully for any new insights on its plans for rate hikes, the inflation outlook or comments on its balance sheet. There will also be more important inflation data, when the producer price index is reported Tuesday. That report is also expected to be very hot, after January’s CPI. Surging inflation has caused consumer sentiment to slump, and now economists are watching consumer spending closely. That means January’s retail sales will also be important when it is reported Wednesday. There is also a final rush of big earnings reports,  with Cisco, Nvidia and AIG Wednesday. Walmart reports Thursday, and Deere reports Friday. “We’re starting to transition beyond earnings, I think investors took a fair amount of comfort that profit margins stayed as high as they did,” said Palfrey. “I think the question is as we look out at the next couple of quarters, are we able to pass through prices at the same rate?”

Fed debate

Palfrey said investors are looking for more clear communications from the central bank. Bullard is the only Fed official who endorsed a 50-basis-point hike, while others, like Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester said she does not expect to raise the fed funds target rate by more than a quarter point. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has left the door open to a half point hike but did not say he favored it. Fed Governor Lael Brainard speaks Friday, as does Fed Governor Christopher Waller. Mester speaks Thursday. Other Fed officials have pushed back on Bullard’s comments. But still, there is a high level of uncertainty in the market, and bond pros are wondering if the St. Louis Fed chief will walk back his comments Monday morning.

Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, said some investors wonder if market volatility could slow the central bank’s tightening path. “The Fed is full steam ahead. They have to be... They’re still adding to the balance sheet. We’re still at zero on rates,” she said. “There’s nothing in my mind, unless an asteroid lands on earth and blows us all to smithereens, that makes the Fed say we’re fine, we’re going to stay at zero.” “They’re admitting themselves they’re behind the curve. They let the inflation cat out of the bag. I don’t think they thought it would have the traction it has had,” she said.

Rate rally and reverse

When bonds sell off, yields go higher and they jumped this past week. The 10-year yield was as high as 2.06% Friday. After the Ukraine news, the 10-year yield was back down to about 1.93%. The 2-year yield was at a high of 1.63% Friday, up from 1.32% the week earlier. The biggest moves were Thursday, and the yield on the 2-year note moved more than 20 basis points Thursday. But by Friday afternoon, it had fallen back to 1.51%.