Month in Cash: Inflection point in Fed policy?

04-01-2017

If you could predict swings in the markets, you would, of course, be very rich. But inflection points only get determined after the fact. For cash managers, the crucial question these days is whether or not the Federal Reserve has shifted monetary policy. Does the Fed still view its rate hikes as normalization—raising rates from extraordinary accommodation—or as tightening, i.e., adjusting rates to check inflation?

We are taking the position that March was the tipping point for policymakers (save Minneapolis Fed’s Neel Kashkari), when their mindset changed from keeping the economy on life support to shepherding it to prosperity. This is not just because the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) voted to raise rates by 25 basis points to a range of 0.75-1% at its mid-March meeting, but because its summary of economic projections and Chair Janet Yellen’s press conference suggested two more hikes could come in 2017. And in the weeks since the FOMC meeting, some Fed officials are leaving the door open for even more moves if economic conditions don’t surprise to the negative. That’s a far cry from the last two years, when the Fed led the markets to expect multiple hikes, only to offer one each year.

Yellen frequently reminds us that her Fed makes decisions based on data, and, well, the data is looking good. The labor market is strong; perhaps the only thing holding it back from full employment is that some companies are having a hard time finding workers with the required skills. Inflation, as measured by the personal consumption expenditures index (PCE), is approaching the Fed’s target of 2%, and consumer and producer price indexes already are above that level. Manufacturing is in the midst of a remarkable turnaround, the housing market is robust and consumer and business confidence is high.

It wasn’t long ago that some Fed officials suggested they would risk the economy running hot in an effort to jump start inflation. They seem to be less comfortable with that approach these days. They also do not appear to be overly concerned with the potential fiscal policy of the Trump administration, a wise position considering the likelihood of sweeping changes to the tax code has diminished following the collapse of the GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

However things turn out, money fund managers should have a clear path to reacting to them. Supply of issuance should not be a problem. The U.S. reached its legal borrowing limit in March, although the U.S. Treasury says it could employ extraordinary measures into autumn if needed to avoid an actual debt-ceiling crisis. The Treasury has been good about communicating to the market, and the Fed’s management of the federal funds range (with reverse repo and interest on excess reserves as bounds) has been working well, with the benchmark rate itself in the mid-80s. The London interbank offered rate (Libor) continued to rise over March.

In light of all of this, we have kept the weighted average maturity (WAM) of our government funds at 35-45 days, with most of them in the upper part of the range; the WAM for our prime funds is at 40-50 days. We talked about adjusting the latter, but there is still enough value in the prime yield curve at this point. We decided to keep some powder dry for April to find more value and supply in the market.