Fed Watch: Markets Hoping For Optimism From Fed As Pandemic Grip Continues

Investors will be listening carefully to the tone of remarks coming from the Federal Open Market Committee meeting even as they don’t expect any significant changes in monetary policy.

The meeting Jan. 26-27 will be the first in the New Year and the first under a new administration after Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the U.S. on Jan. 20.

Last week’s of the European Central Bank governing council is probably as accurate a preview of the Fed meeting as anything. The ECB stood pat on monetary policy and the president, Christine Lagarde, noted the obvious – the pandemic still poses serious risks.

Europe is in worse shape than the U.S. in almost every respect with a resurgence of infections, new draconian lockdowns and curfews, and an even more disjointed vaccine rollout among the EU’s 27 members than among the 50 states of the U.S. in the eurozone is negative and the ECB’s deposit rate remains negative as well.

Fed’s Tough Mission: Additional Stimulus Needs Vs. Economic Optimism

The Fed meeting will take place against a backdrop of potential congressional gridlock as Democrats and Republicans bicker over a new fiscal stimulus package, the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, and even how an evenly divided Senate will conduct its business.

Investors want Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to walk the tightrope between acknowledging the need for monetary accommodation as COVID-19 continues to impact the economy and showing some optimism about the economic outlook as vaccines get wider distribution.

Between its emergency actions during the financial crisis and its recent volley of measures to cope with the impact of the pandemic, the Fed may have grown too critically important for its own good. Under a Biden administration pledged to racial equity and combating climate change, the Fed is under pressure to play its part in achieving these targets, historically beyond its mandate.

This not only means keeping money plentiful and cheap, but also becoming more inclusive in its policy outlook and promoting sustainability. Expectations range from greater racial and gender diversity in Fed staff to regulators stress-testing banks on climate-related losses and nudging them toward green investments.

The Senate is expected to confirm Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary this week after the finance committee unanimously approved her nomination. The former Fed chair will know exactly which buttons to push to get the Fed to go along with administration policy.

Always a dove, Yellen made it clear in her confirmation hearings last week that she is not worried right now about government debt and her top priority is aiding individuals and businesses to get through the pandemic. She encouraged lawmakers to “act big” in adopting a new fiscal stimulus package.

Biden has one open seat on the Fed’s board of governors to fill and the expectation is that he will lead the way in diversifying the central bank by naming either a person of color or a woman to that vacancy.

Meanwhile, Fed governor Lael Brainard, the only Democratic appointee currently on the board, made a point of saying that all 12 regional bank chiefs have been approved for another five years after undergoing a “rigorous” review. Who knew that they had to be reapproved every five years? Once again, nobody lost their job from this review, but Brainard—who headed up the process—was at pains to show this is not a rubber stamp.

Four different regional bank presidents are rotating into FOMC voting positions this month and newly confirmed governor Christopher Waller will be voting for the first time, but that is not likely to shift the committee’s consensus.

Powell will have to walk that tightrope between optimism and concern when he meets the press after the two-day FOMC meeting, reassuring investors on Fed policy while holding out hope for a better economy.

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