Market chaos and confusion over Federal Reserve rate hikes started Wednesday with a daunting inflation report for June, followed by an official’s comment indicating a major rate move was on the table. Another tough inflation reading Thursday didn’t help, and pretty soon traders were betting the Fed might take benchmark borrowing rates up a full percentage point later this month, the biggest move since a shift in monetary policy back in the 1990s. Then, later Thursday and into Friday, everything changed. Other Fed officials weighed in with comments less hawkish about future rate moves. Finally, a retail sales report released Friday, also for June, seemed to seal the deal that all of the hubbub over a bigger-than-expected rate hike was overdone. When conditions settled at week’s end, the market was back to expecting a 75 basis point hike in late July. A basis point equals 0.01%. But the episode served as a reminder of how sclerotic policymaking has become for an economy that hasn’t seen inflation like this in more than 40 years. “Just as we want stable prices, we also want stable monetary policy. Unfortunately, that’s the last thing we’ve gotten,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at the Bleakley Group. “This scattershot approach to monetary policy … the hubris of it is coming to the fore.” Strange summer It’s been a strange summer for monetary policy indeed, starting in June and continuing into mid-July. Multiple Fed officials last month had indicated they were poised to raise rates 50 basis points. Then, just one day before the Federal Open Market Committee two-day meeting that started June 14, unsourced media reports emerged that central bankers were leaning toward 75 basis points , a move that was announced as the meeting concluded. In July, the messages have also been been muddled. The biggest impact came Wednesday, when Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic, who isn’t even a voting member of the policy-setting FOMC this year, said “everything is in play” regarding rate hikes. That came just hours after the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the consumer price index rose 1.3% in June , good for a year-over-year 9.1% increase that was the highest since November 1981 and above already-lofty Wall Street estimates. Futures market pricing shifted quickly, going from a near certainty of a 75 basis point move to, at one point Thursday, about an 80% probability of a 100 basis point increase , or a full percentage point, according to CME Group data. Then things shifted back yet again. Fed Governor Christopher Waller gave a speech late Thursday morning saying that while he was open to a full percentage point move if the data should warrant it, he expected to do 75 basis points. Waller also expressed confidence in the economy, noting that things are slowing down but he doesn’t believe the U.S. is in or heading for a recession, as an increasing number of Wall Street economists believe. Waller further said the heavy pricing toward 100 basis points was likely a case of the market “kind of getting ahead of itself.” Data dependency, to the extreme So how could things get so crazy in the futures market? At the heart of it is an uncertainty that has investors as confused as policymakers. “The market has become as data dependent as the Fed is,” said Quincy Krosby, chief equity strategist for LPL Financial. “You know that the Fed is minute-by-minute data dependent. You know it from when they switched from 50 basis points to 75 during the [June] blackout period. They are extremely data dependent. So why would that change now?” When all of the noise got washed out, the market settled back into an expectation of 75 basis points. Krosby and Boockvar think that’s where things will stay as there likely won’t be enough major data to change any minds between now and the next meeting on July 26-27. While Bostic on Friday walked back his earlier remarks a bit by warning that hiking too quickly could “undermine a lot of those things that are working well,” St. Louis Fed President James Bullard upped his expectations for rate increases this year to a pace that would take the fed funds rate to 3.75%-4%. That equates to a 25 basis point increase from his earlier projection. “It probably doesn’t make too much difference to do 100 basis points here and less in the other three meetings [in 2022] or to do 75 basis points here and slightly more in the remaining three meetings of the year,” Bullard said. The uncertainty over rates, then, is likely to continue as long as the data remains volatile. “We know it could turn on a dime as it did when the CPI came out,” Krosby said. “It could turn on a dime again.” — Reuters contributed to this report .
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