Sunday, August 4, 2019

Powell's dilemma (and why it matters)

Preface: Explaining our market timing models
We maintain several market timing models, each with differing time horizons. The "Ultimate Market Timing Model" is a long-term market timing model based on the research outlined in our post, Building the ultimate market timing model. This model tends to generate only a handful of signals each decade.

The Trend Model is an asset allocation model which applies trend following principles based on the inputs of global stock and commodity price. This model has a shorter time horizon and tends to turn over about 4-6 times a year. In essence, it seeks to answer the question, "Is the trend in the global economy expansion (bullish) or contraction (bearish)?"

My inner trader uses a trading model, which is a blend of price momentum (is the Trend Model becoming more bullish, or bearish?) and overbought/oversold extremes (don't buy if the trend is overbought, and vice versa). Subscribers receive real-time alerts of model changes, and a hypothetical trading record of the those email alerts are updated weekly here. The hypothetical trading record of the trading model of the real-time alerts that began in March 2016 is shown below.

The latest signals of each model are as follows:
  • Ultimate market timing model: Buy equities*
  • Trend Model signal: Neutral*
  • Trading model: Bearish*
* The performance chart and model readings have been delayed by a week out of respect to our paying subscribers.

Update schedule: I generally update model readings on my site on weekends and tweet mid-week observations at @humblestudent. Subscribers receive real-time alerts of trading model changes, and a hypothetical trading record of the those email alerts is shown here.

What Powell couldn't say
The message from Jerome Powell's post-FOMC press conference was confusing. The overall economic outlook was positive, but the Fed was nevertheless cutting the Fed Funds target rate by a quarter-point. It was advertised as an "insurance" cut. Powell went on to spook the markets by stating that it was not the start of an easing cycle, but walked that partially back by holding out the possibility of more cuts.

What is going on?

Josh Barro, writing in the New York Times, read between the lines and outlined what Powell couldn't say. The Fed was reluctant to cut rates, but it believed that monetary policy was forced to offset the negative effects of the trade war.
One of the key factors the Fed must respond to is the specific economic mess Trump creates when he upsets the global trade regime, and the size of that mess requires a qualitative assessment. Powell can’t say “We’ll cut rates in September if Trump threatens Xi Jinping seven times on Twitter, but not if he only does it five times”; he’s going to have to make a judgment call about where we stand with trade (and about how businesses and investors are responding based on their own assessments about where we stand with trade) when the time comes.

“I would love to be more precise, but with trade, it is a factor that we have to assess in a new way,” Powell said, diplomatically. “It is not something that we have faced before and we are learning by doing,” he said at another point.
 Powell also made it clear that the Fed is staying neutral and not taking sides in the trade war:
“We play no role in assessing or evaluating trade policies other than as trade policy uncertainty has an effect on the U.S. economy in the short and medium term,” he said. “We are not in any way criticizing trade policy; that is really not our job.”
The two dissenting votes against the rate cut was evidence of the reluctance of Fed policy makers to ease interest rates. In addition, former New York Fed president Bill Dudley, who was able to speak more freely, wrote in Bloomberg Opinion that he believed that only one cut was necessary.

The full post can be found here.

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