Good News Is Bad for Stock Traders as Fed Obsession Returns

Inflation Data Fuels Fed Rate Bets
  • Three central bank presidents stoke fear in the equity market
  • Readings on industrial production and inflation also hurt

Signs of a healing economy have been nothing to celebrate in the U.S. stock market.

On a day when industrial production, housing starts and consumer inflation all exceeded forecasts, the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 181 points, posting its fifth swing in six days of at least 1 percent. The selloff worsened as a pair of Federal Reserve officials played up the odds of at least two interest-rate increases this year.

Turbulence is back in a market that before last week had seen only one drop of comparable size since February and where conventional measures of volatility have been stuck below historical averages. Tuesday’s cocktail of improving economic data and Fed hawkishness proved particularly hard to swallow.

“It became evident that Fed governors were out there banging the drum for higher interest rates,” said Walter “Bucky” Hellwig, who helps manage $17 billion as senior vice president at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama. “We haven’t seen a lot of buying in the market, so that prompted more selling and exacerbated some of the nervousness about the Fed.”

The market-implied probability of a rate increase in June is 16 percent as of Wednesday, up from 4 percent Monday, according to futures data compiled by Bloomberg. Expectations for a June hike rose as high as 50 percent on March 11, a week before the Fed refrained from tightening amid concern that slowing global growth may spillover to the U.S.

The odds have now climbed to about 70 percent for a move by year-end, up from 56 percent on Monday. The calculation assumes the effective fed funds rate will average 0.625 percent after the central bank’s next increase.

“The market is starting to get scared of an increase,” Brian Frank, portfolio manager at Frank Capital Partners LLC, said by phone. “We’ll have a better idea on how significant this is based on tomorrow’s actions. Every dip seems to be instantaneously bought.”

Losses in U.S. stocks deepened as the trading progressed Tuesday, with selling extending across industries from food companies to utilities. Fed bank presidents Dennis Lockhart and John Williams warned that at least two interest-rate increases may be warranted this year, while the central bank’s Robert Kaplan said a hike may be needed in the not-too-distant future. The S&P 500 climbed 0.2 percent as of 10:20 a.m. Wednesday, erasing early losses.

Reports showed the cost of living in the U.S. climbed in April by the most in three years and residential housing starts increased. A 0.7 percent gain in industrial production exceeded economists forecasts and suggested the worst of America’s manufacturing slump is over.

Since last Tuesday, the Dow has posted two gains of 175 points or more and three separate declines of more than 180 points. Its close today at 17,529.98 left it 3.1 percent below its 2016 high reached April 20 and up just 0.6 percent on the year.

“Today is in-line with what’s been going on in the past few weeks: anytime there’s been a strong move up, there’s a strong move down the next day,” said Aaron Jett, vice president of global equity research at Los Angeles-based Bel Air Investment Advisors LLC. “It’s just a teeter-totter every day. There’s no real rhyme or reason for it.”

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