Could December be the start of a ‘Santa Pause’ rally for stocks?

The Federal Reserve’s tone has become more dovish, while the US and China have made progress on trade

Could December be the start of a ‘Santa Pause’ rally for stocks?

Time to read: 6 min

When I was in high school, I worked as a lifeguard. I loved the job, but I was always aware of the enormous responsibility that came with it. I found the key to success was to anticipate trouble before it happened — to watch swimmers for any early signs of distress before they ever came close to drowning. Today, I see similarities between lifeguards and policymakers such as the US Federal Reserve (Fed), which must try to anticipate economic downturns before they start. For the last several weeks, I have written in my blog that signs of a global slowdown are starting to appear. The good news is that policymakers appear to be reacting to those early signs — which I believe could help spur a “Santa Pause” rally for markets.

The Fed takes a more dovish tone

First came the Nov. 28 speech by Fed Chair Jay Powell at the Economics Club of New York. The S&P 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average rallied because he took a far more dovish tone than he did just a month ago; in fact, his words were a powerful “about face” from his comments early in October. In those earlier comments, he said the Fed was “a long way from neutral,” and, not surprisingly, these two indexes fell on those remarks; last week he said he believes rates are “just below” neutral, which sent them upward.

Some have criticized the market reaction, pointing out that Powell was just being “factual” by stating that current rates are just below the low end of the neutral range. However, that’s not what he said in October. What he did last week was to essentially support and underscore Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida’s recent comments, in which Clarida stated that rates are close to neutral. In Powell’s speech, he explained that, “Our gradual pace of raising interest rates has been an exercise in balancing risks.” Powell’s words generally support the dovish comments heard from several Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants over the past few weeks.

Then came the release of the minutes from the November meeting of the FOMC, which is the policymaking arm of the Fed. While the FOMC still has a positive view of the economy, it is beginning to worry about tariffs and debt. The FOMC believes it will be appropriate, if current conditions persist, to remove the language from its post-meeting statement that suggests further rate hikes are appropriate. Many FOMC participants agreed that “monetary policy was not on a preset course” and that “the stance of policy should be importantly guided by incoming data,” reiterating Clarida’s previous assurances that the Fed remains data dependent. This past weekend, Dallas Fed President Richard Kaplan was very clear in his assessment that global growth is softening, and that there are signs of weakness appearing in sectors sensitive to higher interest rates. His message was clear: The Fed should not be on a preset course for rate hikes and should instead be patient and cautious.

In other words, the Fed is a vigilant lifeguard sitting on the edge of its chair, watching for signs of trouble and willing to alter its actions to prevent problems.

Outside of the Fed, reactions to the data are varied

It’s not just the Fed that seems to be reacting to signs of an economic downturn. It seems that US President Donald Trump’s administration is also willing to at least temporarily alter its trade policy in light of recent economic data that is weaker. Admittedly, I was very worried about the meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 meeting. That was especially so once I heard that Pete Navarro, the Director of Trade and Industrial Policy at the White House, would be attending the dinner — Navarro has written numerous books that are very critical of China, and bringing him to US-Sino trade talks, in my view, was like bringing your mother-in-law to marriage counseling — there is unlikely to be an amicable outcome. However, the US delegation must have been spooked by recent developments — particularly General Motors’ announcement that it would be closing plants — because they agreed to a moratorium on tariff increases in exchange for an agreement by China to buy some additional goods from the US as well as an agreement by China to reduce auto tariffs on US imports, according to the US.

In my view, this is terrific news for the stock market, which may celebrate for days. However, I would not assume that we won’t see an escalation in tensions in the future. The trade wars are on “pause,” but they don’t seem to be over just yet. But hopefully this is a sign that the US will be taking into account economic data as it formulates its trade policies and conducts its negotiations going forward. In addition, as I suspected would happen, we are seeing a greater likelihood that Congress will seek to curtail Trump’s trade authority, most notably by Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. In a recent interview with Axios, Grassley said he would take a favorable view of legislation limiting the administration’s power to impose tariffs to protect national security (known as Section 232 authority).

Not all policymakers have been as sensitive to weakening data. One institution that doesn’t seem too interested in reacting to recent data is the Bank of Korea. The Monetary Policy Committee voted last week to raise rates by 25 basis points, following its 25 basis point rate hike a year ago. Korean export levels have begun to stagnate and the employment situation has been lackluster, with the likelihood of further weakening when a minimum wage increase is implemented next year. Perhaps the Bank of Korea will become more sensitive if data deteriorates enough. I think we are likely to see a rate cut in the next six months.

What could this mean for stocks?

In short, while I am not as sure that year-end spending will necessarily drive a Santa Claus rally for markets this year, I do expect a “Santa Pause” rally. Comments from Powell and other FOMC participants, along with the minutes from the FOMC meeting, suggest the Fed could hit the “pause” button for rate hikes at some point next year. This pushed stocks higher last week and may continue to propel markets higher going forward. And the Sino-US agreement to hit the “pause” button on their trade dispute is already showing signs of propelling markets higher. This could be a good December for risk assets globally after all given that the two key risks threatening markets seem to be in abeyance — at least temporarily

What’s ahead for the week

As we look ahead, there are several things to watch:

  1. Possible US government shutdown. We are within a few days of a possible partial government shutdown in the US, and I believe there is still a strong possibility that it could occur. Given that it would be only a partial shutdown, I don’t believe it would have much impact, if any, on markets — especially given that the Fed pause and the tariff pause are creating double tailwinds for risk assets. However, investors will want to follow the situation closely.
  2. OPEC meeting. Oil prices are up already on news of the US-China trade truce, and are likely to go up further if OPEC announces production cuts at its upcoming meeting this week. Making the meeting more interesting is that Qatar is withdrawing from OPEC. The reasons are multifold: Qatar wants to focus on natural gas — perhaps a hint of times to come as reliance falls on crude oil as an energy source — but it also is reacting to the political and economic boycott of the country by Saudi Arabia and several of its allies. While Qatar’s departure from OPEC may be a lot easier to orchestrate than Brexit, it also carries with it significant ramifications given its role as a diplomatic and thoughtful OPEC member.
  3. The US employment situation report. On Friday, the November Employment Situation Report for the US will be released. We will want to pay very close attention to the average hourly earnings number given what it may tell us about inflation. Wage growth in the October jobs report rose over 3% for the first time in years,1 and I think we could see similar wage growth this month. Looking back at the beginning of this year, I believe that the January employment report’s average hourly earnings number that was released in February contributed to that month’s sell-off; similarly, the October jobs report’s average hourly earnings number that was released in November contributed to that month’s sell-off. I must underscore that Fed officials have made it clear that the Fed is data-dependent — which is not the same thing as being dovish. The Fed seems dovish because most recent data has been on the weak side. However, if data gets stronger (and a few very recent data points are pointing in that direction) or data indicates inflation is rising, then the Fed will need to become more hawkish in its pace of tightening. So while markets rejoiced last week because it looked like the Fed may take its foot off the accelerator in 2019, that foot can get back on the accelerator rather quickly depending on data — such as average hourly earnings.
  4. Brexit. The next two weeks will be critical as the UK prepares for a vote by Parliament on Dec. 11 regarding Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan. Pressure is coming from all sides, as many members of her party have voiced opposition to the plan because they believe the UK should have a better Brexit deal than the one May has proposed. And then there are those in the UK, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who would prefer to stay in the European Union and are advocating for another Brexit referendum vote. After all, May was forced to concede that Brexit in any form would initially leave Britain worse off than if it had remained in the EU. And so the stakes are high. The Bank of England recently warned that a “no-deal” Brexit would result in the largest drop in national income since World War II, with particular vulnerability for home prices. If the Parliament vote on May’s proposal fails, I would expect a second vote with a greater likelihood of passing. If a second vote fails, then there is a good likelihood that May’s government could collapse, in which case another Brexit referendum becomes more likely.

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1 Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of Nov. 2, 2018

 

Important information

Blog header image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock.com

A Santa Claus rally is when the stock market rises at the end of December. This phenomenon has been attributed to holiday spending by consumers, tax considerations and more.

In a “no-deal” Brexit, the UK would leave the EU in March 2019 with no formal agreement outlining the terms of their relationship.

The S&P 500® Index is an unmanaged index considered representative of the US stock market.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is a price-weighted index of the 30 largest, most widely held stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The opinions referenced above are those of Kristina Hooper as of Dec. 3, 2018. These comments should not be construed as recommendations, but as an illustration of broader themes. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future results. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions; there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations.

Kristina Hooper

Chief Global Market Strategist

Kristina Hooper is the Chief Global Market Strategist at Invesco. She has 21 years of investment industry experience.

Prior to joining Invesco, Ms. Hooper was the US investment strategist at Allianz Global Investors. Prior to Allianz, she held positions at PIMCO Funds, UBS (formerly PaineWebber) and MetLife. She has regularly been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters and other financial news publications. She was featured on the cover of the January 2015 issue of Kiplinger’s magazine, and has appeared regularly on CNBC and Reuters TV.

Ms. Hooper earned a BA degree, cum laude, from Wellesley College; a J.D. from Pace University School of Law, where she was a Trustees’ Merit Scholar; an MBA in finance from New York University, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where she was a teaching fellow in macroeconomics and organizational behavior; and a master’s degree from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she focused on labor economics.

Ms. Hooper holds the Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst, Certified Investment Management Analyst and Chartered Financial Consultant designations. She serves on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Financial Planning, which is the pro bono arm of the financial planning industry, and Hour Children.

 

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