In the past two years, the contradictions on the U.S. housing market have continued to get worse. Higher property prices, often seen as an indicator of a healthier market, now seem disproportionate compared with the reality of a market that is still limping from the battering it took during the crisis. As Fed members seem increasingly impatient to trigger a rate hike cycle, the imbalances resulting from this distortion pose a serious threat that prices could fall again.
The main risk from the FOMC’s meeting in the past two days was a possible change of direction on Fed monetary policy. It looks like the bank is staying the course. Today’s statement was unequivocal: there will be no rate hike in the foreseeable future. We can only tip our cap to the Fed’s determination in resisting mounting pressure from the market. Janet Yellen would be taking an imprudent risk if she were to rise to the bait and hint at a possible rate hike. Indeed, the U.S. economy may be doing better than it was a few months ago but its ability to weather an increase in long-term interest rates, which would be the obvious corollary to anticipations of a rate hike, is, in our opinion, close to nil….even after apparently positive GDP numbers from the second quarter.
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The U.S. housing recovery, considered a slam dunk by the vast majority of economists since spring 2012, has sputtered since summer 2013. Even though most economic indicators have been pointed higher in recent months, real estate has been the odd man out. Housing starts have been wildly unstable from one month to the next and are hardly increasing at all. At less than 900,000 housing units in June, they are on par with end-2012 and still a long way away from returning to their long-term average, while many observers predicted they would do so by the end of this year.
How worried should we be? What would happen if activity in this sector failed to return to normal levels during the current cycle? What weight will the Fed give to these disappointments in its decision-making process?
No stress: that’s how the message sent by the Fed after its FOMC meeting on June 18th can be summed up. Through a statement, it left its message from April pretty much unchanged, thus leaving no room for excessive reactions in either direction. Janet Yellen excelled at this balancing game even as the environment had grown increasingly tense in the few days before the meeting.
By calming things down, Janet Yellen has snuffed out the risk of runaway anticipations and opened the door to a correction on the two-year, whose levels had become dangerously tight in the last two weeks.
The Fed’s consistent message is a stabilizing factor amid growing geo-political tension and, consequently, stress on the price of oil.
On balance, today’s communication strengthened our expectations, validating our scenario that the probability of an interest rate hike in the foreseeable future is low. Growing concerns over the possibility of a sustained gap in long-term interest rates between the US and the euro area should ease, which also reduces the likelihood of the dollar strengthening much versus the euro.
Geo-political and oil risk notwithstanding, the overall picture is mostly favorable for equities on both sides of the Atlantic but could also prove promising for gold, given the risks associated with future developments in the situation in Iraq