If The Economy’s Slowing, Why Aren’t Rates Falling?

Will the Federal Reserve drop new clues about the timing of the first interest rate hike in today’s policy statement at 2pm Eastern? Conventional wisdom suggests that the central bank will push out the date in the wake of sluggish economic data. “We think the statement’s downbeat growth description will reinforce the sense that a June liftoff remains a very long shot,” JPMorgan Chase economist Michael Feroli advised in a note to clients. Sounds reasonable, but it’s not obvious that Mr. Market’s fully on board with this outlook when we look at Treasury yields and the market’s implied inflation forecast.

Yields in April have been a tight range, with the benchmark 10-year Note ticking up to 2.0% yesterday (Apr. 28)—a month-to-date high. A similar if slightly softer trend describes recent activity for the 2-year yield, which is widely viewed as the most sensitive spot on the yield curve for rate expectations.


Meanwhile, the market’s implied inflation prediction—the nominal 10-year yield less its inflation-indexed counterpart—continues to wind higher, touching 1.89% yesterday—a hair below a 5-month high. “You have a tug-of-war going on with mixed economic data and some change in sentiment that inflation, though modest, could be starting to brew,” observes Sean Simko, who helps manage bond portfolios at SEI Investments.


The critical question is whether the first-quarter macro stumble for the US economy is temporary? Everyone has an opinion, but no one really knows the answer at this point. The meandering yield activity reflects this wait-and-see attitude.

Perhaps it’s telling that yields are as firm as they are despite the disappointing economic reports of late. Today’s “advance” GDP report for the first quarter, due at 8:30am Eastern, is expected to show that growth decelerated, perhaps to a dead stall via the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow estimate. But if you expected a hefty stumble in yields in this climate, you’d be wrong… so far. Is that because yields are already low? Or is the market hedging its bets a bit and pricing in a firmer run of macro numbers in the weeks ahead?

As for anticipating the timing of the first rate hike, assumptions are heavily influenced at the moment by one’s preferences for explaining the first-quarter stumble. “A September lift-off [for rates] is the marginal favorite, but June and July are possibilities if it becomes clear quickly that the first-quarter slowdown was a temporary weather-related blip rather than something more serious,” according to Capital Economics via a research note published on Monday.

Defining “blip” is ultimately a job that can only be resolved with the data. Meanwhile, the question du jour: What’s the Fed’s interpretation of what we know so far? No one should confuse the bank’s perspective as the last word on the future, but the crowd may be inclined to overlook that glitch, if only until the next data point arrives.