March 18, 2018

Trump spending spree may speed up the Fed

1. Will the Fed pick up the pace: Everything seems to move faster in the Trump era. Perhaps even the deliberative Federal Reserve.

The US central bank has long telegraphed a no-rush attitude about lifting interest rates from historic lows.

But the Fed may be forced to pick up the pace over the next two years, in part because of a spending spree by President Trump and Congress - spending aimed at stimulating the already healthy American economy.

If the Fed doesn't raise rates more quickly, it risks falling behind. The $1.5 trillion Republican tax cut, as well as a bipartisan $300 billion spending plan, could overheat the robust labor market.

That extra stimulation for the economy will push inflation higher and lead the Fed to raise interest rates four times this year instead of the expected three, Capital Economics chief economist Jonathan Loynes predicted in a recent report.

Wall Street will be hunting for clues on Wednesday, when the central bank wraps up its first meeting under new chief Jerome Powell.

Virtually everyone expects the Fed to raise rates this week, and at least twice more later in the year.

The real drama is over whether the Fed will signal a more aggressive stance, perhaps by adjusting higher its "dot plot" of projected rate hikes. And if it does, will that spook a stock market accustomed to low rates?

The strong economy, coupled with the burst of spending and tax cuts from Washington, will likely prompt the Fed to raise its rate hike projections in March, according to Goldman Sachs chief economist Jan Hatzius.

Powell, Trump's pick to lead the Fed, recently told Congress he doesn't want to "get behind the curve of inflation and have to raise rates quickly and cause a recession." For now, Powell said he sees "no evidence" that the economy is "overheating."

Trump has made no secret of his desire for the Fed to take it nice and slow. "I'd like to see rates stay low," Trump told The Wall Street Journal last summer. At the time, he called then-Fed chief Janet Yellen a "low-interest-rate person."

All this raises questions about the wisdom of borrowing more money to stimulate an economy with low unemployment and high budget deficits.

"I'm not sure whether the tax cuts were necessary," said David Leduc, chief investment officer of active fixed income at BNY Mellon Asset Management. "But people forget this expansion has been so anemic and unsatisfying."

Rick Rieder, BlackRock's chief investment officer for fixed income, was loudly calling for help from Washington - years ago, when growth was sluggish.

"The timing has been off," Rieder wrote in a recent report.

"It is almost as if the economic party was well under way, and then the punch bowl was just spiked (rather than taken away)," he said. "It will be fun for a while and then maybe tougher afterward."

2. Tense time for a global summit: Frictions over global trade loom over the G20 meeting of major world economies, which opens Monday in Buenos Aires.

Trump's plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum sent a tremor through global markets and angered US trade partners, who said they aren't afraid to retaliate. The administration has offered exemptions to Canada and Mexico. It's unclear whether other countries will be spared.

China, which has been the target of frequent attacks from Trump over its trade practices, could be hit with separate tariffs on its products. How China reacts will go a long way toward determining whether a trade war breaks out.

If it does, American companies will suffer. Boeing in particular has a lot to lose. It's the nation's single largest exporter, and China is a critical market. The Chinese government has signaled that it will consider ordering jets from Airbus instead of Boeing if the United States steps out of line on trade.

3. AT&T trial begins: Corporate America will be paying attention when the Justice Department's lawsuit to block AT&T from buying Time Warner goes to trial this week. Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday in Washington.

The Justice Department argues that the deal would give AT&T the power to charge its competitors more for Time Warner content, or to block it entirely from other providers like Comcast and Verizon. The outcome of the case will help shape the media industry. (Time Warner is the parent of CNN.)

It could also influence the thinking of other companies considering deals. So far, they don't seem to be afraid. Over the past few months, CVS announced that it is buying Aetna, Disney said it would buy Fox, and Cigna put in a bid for Express Scripts. The deals are all massive in scale and could pose antitrust problems.

4. Food news: General Mills plans to report earnings on Wednesday, and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, reports on Thursday.

General Mills has been struggling to sell yogurt and cereal, although cereal sales ticked up last quarter. Darden, on the other hand, is enjoying success with Olive Garden. We'll see next week how the food giants fared last quarter.

Starbucks holds its annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

5. Coming this week:

Monday - Oracle earnings; G20 starts

Tuesday - FedEx earnings

Wednesday - General Mills earnings; AT&T trial opening statements; Powell's first press conference

Thursday - Darden, Nike earnings

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