Friday’s bull market led equity and commodity prices to their third consecutive weekly increase. Market volatility has continued to return to more comfortable levels. Investors views on the current macroeconomic environment and expectations about the future are important determinants of market behavior. While the global macroeconomic picture still includes low growth, I worry that unorthodox monetary policy may have its effectiveness counteracted by the signals it sends.
Oil prices, as measured by front-month contracts of West Texas Intermediate crude oil, increased nearly six percent during the week (see below). The S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by more than a percentage point during the week, while the Nasdaq Composite Index was up two-thirds of a percent.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) fell to its lowest level of the year on Friday, closing at 16.5. Possibly supporting the relative calm in markets, the week offered very little new domestic macroeconomic data. Next week should provide more food for investor thought.
A quiet week for domestic data provides opportunity for reviewing the global picture. The IMF forecasts global growth to remain weak but gradually improve. Emerging markets, including China, continue to experience relatively slower growth and lower demand. Commodity exporters continue to be hurt by the collapse in prices. Global trade has slowed, and some economists have asked whether we have reached the end of globalization.
The European Central Bank (ECB) expanded quantitative easing and cut all interest rates during their meeting this week. Other central banks in the region will likely follow the ECB further into negative interest rate territory. I worry that negative interest rates and other unorthodox monetary policy are not as effective as anticipated. What Keynes termed “animal spirits” plays a role in explaining why the continued lowering of borrowing rates may not lead to more lending.
Negative interest rates send a mixed message. A bank is simultaneously being enticed to lend by the low cost of money while being told that the economy is in unprecedentedly bad shape. Near to zero, the actual effect of small changes to the interest rate can be overpowered by the message that is sent by the direction of movement. When central banks tighten from zero, as the Fed did in December, it signals that monetary policy is moving away from uncharted waters and that the economy is improving. A tightening central bank adds basis points to its arsenal for handling future crises. When central banks such as the ECB and Bank of Japan (BOJ) loosen monetary policy further, they move farther into a territory which scares investors and lenders and constrains their future movement.
In the U.S., labor market tightening, wage growth, core inflation, and signs of modest economic growth push the Fed towards another quarter point rate hike. Most economists, however, do not expect a rate increase from the Fed during its meeting next week. Despite other concerns, such as the weak global picture and the continued strength of the dollar, the animal within me would like to see a Fed funds rate increase in one of the next two meetings.