China’s automakers must adapt quickly or lose out on the EV boom in the face of regulatory scrutiny abroad and competition at home

Chinese new energy vehicle giant shows off the latest version of its Han electric sedan at the Beijing auto show on April 26, 2024.

CNBC | Evelyn Cheng

BEIJING — Chinese automakers, including state-owned auto giant GAC Group, can’t afford to take it easy in the country’s electric car boom if they want to survive.

Adoption of battery and hybrid-powered cars has surged in China, but an onslaught of new models has fueled a price war that’s forced Tesla to also cut its prices. While Chinese automakers also look overseas for growth, other countries are increasingly wary of the impact of the cars on domestic auto industries, requiring investment in local production. It’s now survival of the fittest in China’s already competitive EV market.

“The speed of elimination will only pick up,” Feng Xingya, president at GAC, told reporters on the sidelines of the Beijing auto show in late April. That’s according to a CNBC translation of his Mandarin-language remarks.

GAC slashed prices on its cars one week before the May 1 Labor Day holiday in China, Feng said, noting the price war contributed to its first-quarter sales slump. The automaker’s operating revenue fell year-on-year in the first quarter for the first time since 2020, according to Wind Information.

To stay competitive, Feng said GAC is partnering with tech companies such as Huawei, while working on in-house research and development. The automaker is the joint venture partner of Honda and Toyota in China, and has an electric car brand called Aion.

“In the short term, if your product isn’t good, then consumers won’t buy it,” Feng said. “You need to use the best tech and the best products to satisfy consumer needs. In the long term, you must have a core competitive edge.”

Expanding outside China

Factories go global

Part of GAC’s international strategy is to localize production, Wei said, noting the company is using a variety of approaches such as joint ventures and technology partnerships. He said GAC opened a factory in Malaysia in April and plans to open another in Thailand in June, with Egypt, Brazil and Turkey also under consideration.

GAC plans to establish eight subsidiaries this year, including in Amsterdam, Wei said. But the U.S. isn’t part of the company’s near-term overseas expansion plans, he said.

The difference today is that the overcapacity now has come together with vehicles that are very competitive

Stephen Dyer

AlixPartners, co-leader of the Greater China Business

U.S. and European officials have in recent months emphasized the need to address China’s “overcapacity,” which can be loosely defined as state-supported production of goods that exceeds demand. China has pushed back on such concerns and its Ministry of Commerce claimed that, from a global perspective, new energy faces a capacity shortage.

“There’s always been overcapacity in the Chinese auto industry,” said Stephen Dyer, co-leader of the Greater China business at consulting firm AlixPartners, and Asia leader for its automotive and industrials practice.

“The difference today is that the overcapacity now has come together with vehicles that are very competitive,” he told CNBC on the sidelines of the auto show. “So in our EV survey I was surprised to find that about 73% of U.S. consumers could recognize at least one Chinese EV brand. And Europe was close behind.”

Dyer expects that to drive overseas demand for Chinese electric cars. AlixPartners’ survey found that BYD had the highest brand recognition across the U.S. and major European countries, followed by Nio and Leap Motor.

BYD exported 242,000 cars last year and is also building factories overseas. The company’s sales are roughly split between hybrid and battery-powered vehicles. BYD no longer sells traditional fuel-powered passenger cars.

Tech competition

In addition to price, this year’s auto show in Beijing reflected how companies — Chinese and foreign — are competing on tech such as driver-assist software.

Chinese consumers placed almost twice as much importance on tech features compared with U.S. consumers, Dyer said, citing AlixPartners’ survey.

He noted how Chinese startups are so aggressive that a car may be sold with new tech, even if the software still has problems. “They know they can use over-the-air updates to rapidly fix bugs or add features as needed,” Dyer said.

Interest in tech doesn’t mean consumers are sold on battery-only cars. Dyer said that in the short term, consumers are still worried about driving range — meaning that hybrids are not only in demand, but often used without charging the battery.

Elon Musk meets with China's Premier Li Qiang to discuss Tesla, full-self driving and restrictions

Even Volkswagen is getting in on the “smart tech” race. The German auto giant revealed at the auto show its joint venture with Shanghai’s state-owned SAIC Motor teamed up with Chinese drone company DJI’s automotive unit to create a driver-assist system for the newly launched Tiguan L Pro.

The initial version of the SUV is fuel-powered, for which the company’s tagline is: “oil or electric, both are smart,” according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese.

Battery manufacturer CATL had a more prominent exhibition booth this year, likely in the hope of encouraging consumers to buy cars with its batteries, as competitors’ market share grows, said Zhong Shi, an analyst with the China Automobile Dealers Association.

Automotive chip companies Black Sesame and Horizon Robotics also had booths inside the main exhibition hall.

What customers want

Lotus Technology, a high-end U.K. car brand acquired by Geely, found in a survey of its customers their top requests were for automatic parking and battery charging, which would allow drivers to stay in the car.

That’s according to CFO Alexious Kuen Long Lee, who spoke with CNBC on the sidelines of the Beijing auto show. He noted the company now has robotic battery chargers in Shanghai.

Lotus and Nio last week also announced a strategic partnership on battery swapping and charging.

“I think there is a handing over of the baton where the Chinese brands are becoming much bigger and much stronger, and the foreign brands are still trying to decide what’s the best energy route,” said Lee, who’s worked in China since 1998. “Are they still deciding on the PHEV, are they still thinking about BEVs, are they still thinking about the internal combustion cars? The entire decision-making process becomes so complex, with so much resistance internally, that I think they’re just not being productive.”

But he thinks Lotus has found the right strategy by expanding its product line, and going straight to battery-powered cars. “Lotus today,” he said, “is similar to what international brands’ position [was] in China, probably back in 2000.”

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China’s VC playbook is undergoing a sea change as U.S. IPO exits get tougher

A bank employee count China’s renminbi (RMB) or yuan notes next to U.S. dollar notes at a Kasikornbank in Bangkok, Thailand, January 26, 2023.

Athit Perawongmetha | Reuters

BEIJING — Venture capitalists in China that once rose to fame with giant U.S. IPOs of consumer companies are under pressure to drastically change their strategy.

The urgency to adapt their playbook to a newer environment has increased in the last few years with stricter regulations in China as well as the U.S., tensions between the two countries and slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy.

Here are the three shifts that are underway:

1. From U.S. dollars to Chinese yuan

The business model for well-known venture capital funds in China such as Sequoia and Hillhouse typically involved raising dollars from university endowments, pension funds and other sources in the U.S. — known in the industry as limited partners.

That money then went into startups in China, which eventually sought initial public offerings in the U.S., generating returns for investors.

Now many of those limited partners have paused investing in China, as Washington increases its scrutiny of U.S. money backing advanced Chinese tech and it gets harder for Chinese companies to list in the U.S. A slowdown in the Asian country has further dampened investor sentiment.

That means venture capitalists in China need to look to alternative sources, such as the Middle East, or, increasingly, funds tied to local government coffers. The shift toward domestic channels also means a change in currency.

In 2023, the total venture capital funds raised in China dropped to their lowest since 2015, with the share of U.S. dollars falling to 5.3% from 8.4% in the prior year, according to Xiniu Data, an industry research firm.

That’s far less than in the previous years — the share of U.S. dollars in total VC funds raised was around 15% for the years 2018 to 2021, the data showed. The remaining share was in Chinese yuan.

Currently, many USD funds are shifting their focus to government-backed hard tech companies, which typically aim for A share exits rather than U.S. listings

For foreign investors, high U.S. interest rates and the relative attractiveness of markets such as India and Japan also factor into decisions around whether to invest in China.

“VCs have definitely changed their view on Greater China from a couple years ago,” Kyle Stanford, lead VC analyst at Pitchbook, said in an email.

“Greater China private markets still have a lot of capital available, whether it be from local funds, or from areas such as the Middle East, but in general the view on China growth and VC returns has changed,” he said.

2. China investments, China exits

Washington and Beijing in 2022 resolved a long-standing audit dispute that reduced the risk of Chinese companies having to delist from U.S. stock exchanges.

But following the fallout over Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi’s U.S. listing in the summer of 2021, the two countries have increased scrutiny of China-based companies wanting to go public in New York.

Beijing now requires companies with large amounts of user data — essentially any internet-based consumer-facing business in China — to receive approval from the cybersecurity regulator, among other measures, before they can list in Hong Kong or the U.S.

Washington has also tightened restrictions on American money going into high-tech Chinese companies. A few large VCs have separated their China operations from those in the U.S. under new names. Last year, Sequoia most famously rebranded in China as HongShan.

“USD funds in China can still invest in non-sensitive sectors for A share IPOs, but have the challenge of local enterprise preferring capital from RMB [Chinese yuan] funds,” said Liao Ming, founding partner of Beijing-based Prospect Avenue Capital, which has focused on U.S. dollar funds.

Stocks listed in the mainland Chinese market are known as A shares.

“The trend is shifting towards investing in parallel entity overseas assets, marking a strategic move ‘from long China to long Chinese,” he said.

“With U.S. IPOs no longer being a viable exit strategy for China assets, investors should target local exits in their respective capital markets—in other words, China exits for China assets, and U.S. exits for overseas assets,” Liao said.

Read more about China from CNBC Pro

Only a handful of China-based companies – and barely any large ones – have listed in the U.S. since Didi’s IPO. The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in the summer of 2021, despite reported regulatory concerns.

Beijing promptly ordered an investigation that forced Didi to temporarily suspend new user registrations and app downloads. The company delisted later that year.

The probe, which has since ended, came alongside Beijing’s crackdown on alleged monopolistic practices by internet tech companies such as Alibaba. The clampdown also covered after-school tutoring, minors’ access to video games and real estate developers’ high reliance on debt for growth.

3. VC-government alignment, larger deals

Instead of consumer-facing sectors, Chinese authorities have emphasized support for industrial development, such as high-end manufacturing and renewable energy.

“Currently, many USD funds are shifting their focus to government-backed hard tech companies, which typically aim for A share exits rather than U.S. listings,” Liao said, noting that it aligns with Beijing’s preferences as well.

These companies include developers of new materials for renewable energy and factory automation components.

In 2023, the 20 largest VC deals for China-headquartered companies were mostly in manufacturing and included no e-commerce business, according to PitchBook data. In pre-pandemic 2019, the top deals included a few online shopping or internet-based consumer product companies, and some electric car start-ups.

The change is even more stark when compared with the boom around the time online shopping giant Alibaba went public in 2014. The 20 largest VC deals for China-headquartered companies in 2013 were predominantly in e-commerce and software services, according to PitchBook data.

… the venture capital scene has become even more state-concentrated and focused on government priorities.

Camille Boullenois

Rhodium Group

The shift away from internet apps towards hard tech requires more capital.

The median deal size in 2013 among those 20 largest China VC transactions was $80 million, according to CNBC calculations based off PitchBook data.

That’s far smaller than the median deal size of $280 million in 2019, and a fraction of the median of $804 million per transaction in 2023 for the same category of investments, the analysis showed.

Many of those deals were led by local government-backed funds or state-owned companies, in contrast to a decade earlier when VC names such as GGV Capital and internet tech companies were more prominent investors, according to the data.

“In the past 20 years, China and finance developed very quickly, and in the past ten years private [capital] funds grew very quickly, meaning just investing in any industry would [generate] returns,” Yang Luxia, partner and general manager at Heying Capital, said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC. She has been focused on yuan funds, while looking to raise capital from overseas.

Yang doesn’t expect the same pace of growth going forward, and said she is even taking a “conservative” approach to new energy. The technology changes quickly, making it hard to select winners, she said, while companies now need to consider buyouts and other alternatives to IPOs.

Then there’s the question of China’s growth itself, especially as state-linked funds and policies play a larger role in tech investment.

“In 2022, [private equity and venture capital] investment in China was cut in half, and it fell again in 2023. Private and foreign actors were the first to withdraw, so the venture capital scene has become even more state-concentrated and focused on government priorities,” said Camille Boullenois, associate director, Rhodium Group.

The risk is that science and technology becomes “more state-directed and aligned with government’s priorities,” she said. “That could be effective in the short term, but is unlikely to encourage a thriving innovation environment in the long term.”

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Stocks making the biggest moves midday: Spotify, RTX, General Electric and more

Check out the companies making headlines in midday trading.

3M – Shares of the chemical manufacturer rose 5.5% following the company’s latest earnings report. 3M posted $7.99 billion in revenue, beating analysts’ estimates of $7.87 billion, according to Refinitiv. The company also raised its full-year earnings guidance and reaffirmed its revenue guidance.

Spotify — The music streaming platform tumbled 14% following weaker-than-expected revenue and guidance. Spotify reported revenue of €3.18 billion, below the consensus estimate of €3.21 billion from analysts polled by Refinitiv. Full-year revenue guidance was also softer than analysts forecasted. The results follow the company’s announcement that it will raise prices for premium subscription plans.

Alaska Air — Shares of Alaska Air shed 12%, even as the airline beat estimates on top and bottom lines for the second quarter. The airline reported $3 in adjusted earnings per share on $2.84 billion in revenue. Analysts surveyed by Refinitiv were expecting $2.70 in earnings per share on $2.77 billion in revenue. The airline’s full-year earnings guidance of $5.50 to $7.50 per share was roughly in-line with the average analyst estimate of $6.65, according to FactSet.

RTX – Shares of the defense contractor sank more than 12% after it disclosed an issue affecting a “significant portion” of its Pratt & Whitney engines that power Airbus A320neo models. Elsewhere, RTX reported second-quarter earnings that topped Wall Street expectations, posting $1.29 in adjusted earnings per share on $18.32 billion in revenue. Analysts polled by Refinitiv called for $1.18 in earnings per share and $17.68 billion in revenue.

F5 — Shares of the cloud software company rallied 5.7%. Late Monday, F5 posted a top- and bottom-line beat in its fiscal third quarter. The company reported adjusted earnings of $3.21 per share on revenue of $703 million. Analysts called for $2.86 in earnings per share and revenue of $699 million, according to Refinitiv.

NXP Semiconductors — Shares rose 4% following the chipmaker’s quarterly earnings announcement Monday after hours. NXP reported $3.43 in adjusted earnings per share on $3.3 billion in revenue. Analysts had estimated $3.29 earnings per share and revenue of $3.21 billion, according to Refinitiv. The company’s projected third-quarter earnings also topped analysts’ estimates. 

General Electric — Shares of the industrial giant popped more than 5% to hit a 52-week high after the company posted stronger-than-expected earnings for the second quarter. GE reported adjusted earnings of 68 cents per share on revenue of $16.7 billion. Analysts called for earnings of 46 cents per share on revenue of $15 billion, according to Refinitiv. GE also boosted its full-year profit guidance, saying it’s getting a boost from strong aerospace demand and record orders in its renewable energy business.

Whirlpool — Whirlpool slid more than 3% a day after reporting weaker-than-expected revenue in its second quarter. The home appliance company posted revenue of $4.79 billion, lower than the consensus estimate of $4.82 billion, according to Refinitiv. It did beat on earnings expectations, reporting adjusted earnings of $4.21 per share, higher than the $3.76 estimate.

Biogen — Shares of the biotech company declined 3.8% after its second-quarter earnings announcement. Biogen posted adjusted earnings of $4.02 per share on revenue of $2.46 billion. Analysts polled by Refinitiv anticipated earnings of $3.77 per share and revenue of $2.37 billion. Revenue for the biotech company was down 5% year over year. The company also announced it would slash about 1,000 jobs, or about 11% of its workforce, to cut costs ahead of the launch of its Alzheimer’s drug Leqembi. 

Progressive — The insurance company’s shares lost nearly 2% following a downgrade by Morgan Stanley to underweight from equal weight. The firm cited too many negative catalysts as its reason for the downgrade. 

MSCI — Shares gained 9% after the company’s second-quarter earnings and revenue came above analysts’ estimates. The investment research company posted $3.26 earnings per share, excluding items, on revenue of $621.2 million. Analysts polled by FactSet had expected $3.11 earnings per share on $602.5 million. 

General Motors — The automaker’s stock dipped about 4.5%. GM’s latest quarterly results included a surprise $792 million charge related to new commercial agreements with LG Electronics and LG Energy Solution. Separately, he company lifted its 2023 guidance for a second time this year. GM also reported a second-quarter beat on revenue, posting $44.75 billion compared to the $42.64 billion anticipated by analysts polled by Refinitiv.

UPS – Shares of UPS rose about 1% after the Teamsters union announced a tentative labor deal with the shipping giant on Tuesday.

Invesco — The investment management firm’s shares fell 5% after it posted adjusted earnings of 31 cents per share in the second quarter, while analysts polled by FactSet estimated 40 cents per share. President and CEO Andrew Schlossberg said the company would focus on simplifying its organizational model, strengthening its strategic focus, as well as aligning its expense base. 

Xerox – Shares of the workplace products and solutions provider gained more than 7% after the company raised its full-year operating margin and free cash flow guidance. Xerox now anticipates adjusted operating margin of 5.5% to 6%, compared to earlier guidance of 5% to 5.5%. It also calls for at least $600 million in cash flow, compared to its previous outlook of at least $500 million.

Packaging Corp of America — The packaging products company’s stock surged more than 10%, reaching a new 52-week high. In the second quarter, the company posted earnings of $2.31 per share, excluding items, beating analysts’ estimates of $1.93 per share, according to Refinitiv. The company cited lower operating costs from efficiency, as well as lower freight and logistics expenses. Its revenue of $1.95 billion, meanwhile, came below analysts’ estimates of $1.99 billion, according to FactSet.

Zscaler — Shares of the IT security company popped 4.5% after a BTIG upgrade to buy from neutral. “Our fieldwork leads us to believe that demand in the Secure Service Edge (SSE) has sustainably improved and that large projects which were put on hold in late 2022/early 2023 are starting to move forward again,” BTIG said in a note.

Sherwin-Williams – Shares added more than 3% after the company reported record revenue for the second quarter to $6.24 billion. Analysts called for $6.03 billion in revenue, according to FactSet. The company notched adjusted earnings per share of $3.29, while analysts estimated $2.70 per share.

— CNBC’s Yun Li, Samantha Subin, Sarah Min, Tanaya Macheel, Brian Evans and Alex Harring contributed reporting

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Stocks making the biggest moves premarket: United Airlines, Netflix, Morgan Stanley and more

Check out the companies making headlines before the bell.

United Airlines — The airline lost 0.9% in the premarket after it announced a net loss for the first quarter. United posted a loss of 63 cents per share, which is 10 cents smaller than the 73-cent estimated loss from analysts polled by Refinitiv. The company reported $11.43 billion in revenue, slightly above the $11.42 billion estimated. 

Interactive Brokers Group — Shares of the electronic broker were down 3.7% after the company reported a miss on earnings in the first quarter. The company posted earnings per share of $1.35, which fell below the $1.41 consensus estimate from analysts polled by Refinitiv.

Netflix – Shares of the streaming giant fell more than 2% after the company reported mixed results on the delayed rollout of its crackdown on password-sharing, which was originally scheduled for the first quarter. Revenue came in slightly below the analyst consensus from Refinitiv, although earnings topped estimates.

Western Alliance – Shares of the beaten-down regional bank jumped more than 20% in premarket trading after Western Alliance said its deposits have been rebounding in April after declining 11% in the first quarter. Wedbush upgraded the stock to outperform after Western Alliance’s quarterly report despite the bank’s net income falling more than 50% from the previous quarter.

Travelers — The insurance stock added more than 3% before the bell after beating Wall Street’s expectations on both the top and bottom lines. The Dow Jones Industrial Average component reported adjusted earnings of $4.11 a share on $9.40 billion in net premiums.

Intel — Shares were down almost 2% after the semiconductor manufacturer announced it would be discontinuing its bitcoin mining chip series, Blockscale, after just a year of production. 

Abbott Laboratories — The medical device company advanced 2.8% after beating top- and bottom-line expectations and reaffirming guidance. The company reported $1.03 in earnings per share on revenue of $9.75 billion for the first quarter, while analysts polled by FactSet anticipated 99 cents in per-share earnings on $9.67 billion in revenue. The company said it still expects full-year adjusted earnings per share to come in between $4.30 and $4.50, in line with the $4.39 consensus estimate of analysts. 

U.S. Bancorp — Shares of the bank were up 1.7% after it announced an earnings and revenue beat for the first quarter. U.S. Bancorp posted $1.16 earnings per share and revenue of $7.18 billion. Analysts polled by Refinitiv had estimated per-share earnings of $1.12 and revenue of $7.12 billion. Meanwhile, the bank reported its quarter-end deposits were down 3.7% to $505.3 billion. 

Rivian Automotive — The electric-vehicle maker slipped about 2% after being downgraded by RBC Capital Markets to sector perform from outperform. The Wall Street firm remains constructive on the longer-term outlook for the stock, but sees limited catalysts to accelerate profitability in the near term. It also slashed its price target in half, to $14 from $28 per share.

ASML Holding – Shares of the chipmaker lost 2.6% in early morning trading after the company reported net bookings for the first quarter were down 46% year-over-year on “mixed signals” from customers as they work through inventory. The shares fell despite ASML reporting an earnings beat for the quarter.

Boeing — Shares of the industial rgiant dipped 0.6% in premarket after CEO Dave Calhoun said that a flaw detected in some of its 737 Max planes won’t hinder its supply chain plans for increased production of its bestselling jetliner this year. The company disclosed a flaw with some of its 737 Max planes last week and said it was likely to delay deliveries.

Morgan Stanley  — Shares were down 3.2% after the bank announced its quarterly earnings. The investment bank and wealth manager posted earnings per share of $1.70 for the first quarter, greater than the $1.62 estimate from analysts polled by Refinitiv. Overall revenue came in at $14.52 billion, above the $13.92 billion consensus estimate from Refinitiv as equities and fixed income trading units performed better than expected. One growth area was wealth management, where revenue increased by 11% from a year ago. The shares, which are outperforming most other banks this year, eased by 2% in early trading despite the results.

Ally Financial — The digital financial services company’s shares were down 1.3% after its first quarter earnings and revenue missed Wall Street’s expectations. Ally posted per-share earnings of 82 cents, while analysts had anticipated 86 cents per share, according to FactSet data. The bank’s adjusted total net revenue also fell below estimates, coming in at $2.05 billion versus the $2.07 billion consensus estimate from FactSet analysts.  

Intuitive Surgical — Shares jumped 8.1% after Intuitive Surgical reported an earnings and revenue beat. The company reported adjusted earnings per share of $1.23, topping against a consensus estimate of $1.20 per share, according to FactSet. Revenue grew 14% from the prior year, coming in at $1.70 billion, compared to estimates of $1.59 billion.

Tesla – Shares dropped more than 2% in the premarket after Tesla slashed prices on some of its Model Y and Model 3 electric vehicles in the U.S. The cuts come ahead of Tesla’s earnings report after the bell on Wednesday and is the sixth time the EV maker has lowered prices in the U.S. this year.

 Zions Bancorporation — The regional bank stock jumped nearly 4% in premarket before its earnings report after the bell Wednesday. Investors could be getting optimistic after its peer Western Alliance said in its first-quarter that deposits have stabilized since last month’s collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

CDW — The IT company’s shares plunged 10.6% after it reported a weaker-than-expected preliminary quarterly earnings report. CDW issued quarterly revenue guidance of $5.1 billion, falling below the FactSet analysts’ consensus estimate of $5.58 billion. The company said it was significantly impacted by more cautious buying amid economic uncertainty. It also issued guidance for its full-year earnings to fall “modestly below” 2022 levels.

Citizens Financial Group — Shares were down almost 4% after the company’s first-quarter earnings disappointed investors. Citizens Financial’s earnings per share came in at $1, while analysts had estimated $1.13, according to Refinitiv data. The company’s revenue of $2.13 billion also came below analysts’ expectations of $2.14 billion. Citizens Financial reported a 4.7% decline in deposits to $172.2 billion.

— CNBC’s Alex Harring, Tanaya Macheel, John Melloy, Michelle Fox, Yun Li, Jesse Pound and Kristina Partsinevelos contributed reporting

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The Fed is likely to hike rates by a quarter point but it must also reassure it can contain a banking crisis

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates Wednesday by a quarter point, but it also faces the tough task of reassuring markets it can stem a worse banking crisis.

Economists mostly expect the Fed will increase its fed funds target rate range to 4.75% to 5% on Wednesday afternoon, though some expect the central bank could pause its hiking due to concerns about the banking system. Futures markets were pricing in a roughly 80% chance for a rate rise, as of Tuesday morning.

The central bank is contemplating using its interest rate tools at the same time it is trying to soothe markets and stop further bank runs. The fear is that rising rates could put further pressure on banking institutions and crimp lending further, hurting small businesses and other borrowers.

“The broader macro data shows some further tightening is warranted,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America. He said the Fed will have to explain its double-barreled policy. “You have to show you can walk and chew gum at the same time, using your lender-of-last-resort powers to quell any fears about deposit flights at medium-sized banks.”

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell addresses reporters after the Fed raised its target interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point, during a news conference at the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, February 1, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Federal regulators stepped in to guarantee deposits at the failed Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and they provided more favorable loans to banks for a period of up to one year. The Fed joined with other global central banks Sunday to enhance liquidity through the standing dollar swap system, after UBS agreed to buy the embattled Credit Suisse.

Investors will be looking for assurances from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell that the central bank can contain the banking problems.

“We want to know it’s really about a few idiosyncratic institutions and not a more pervasive problem with respect to the regional bank model,” said Gapen. “In these moments, the market needs to know you feel you understand the problem and that you’re willing and capable of doing something about it. … I think they are exceptionally good at understanding where the pressure is that’s driving it and how to respond.”

A month of turmoil

Markets have been whipsawed in the last month, first by a hawkish-sounding Fed and then by fears of contagion in the banking system.

Fed officials begin their two-day meeting Tuesday. The event kicks off just two weeks after Powell warned a congressional committee that the Fed may have to hike rates even more than expected because of its battle with inflation.

Those comments sent interest rates soaring. A few days later, the sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank stunned markets, sending bond yields dramatically lower. Bond yields move opposite price. Expectations for Fed rate hikes also moved dramatically: What was expected to be a half-point hike two weeks ago is now up for debate at a quarter point or even zero.

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The 2-year Treasury yield is most sensitive to Fed policy.

Messaging is the key

Gapen expects Powell to explain that the Fed is fighting inflation through its rate hikes but then also assure markets that the central bank can use other tools to preserve financial stability.

“Things going forward will be done on a meeting-by-meeting basis. It will be data dependent,” Gapen said. “We’ll have to see how the economy evolves. … We’ll have to see how financial markets behave, how the economy responds.”

The Fed is scheduled to release its rate decision along with its new economic projections at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. Powell will speak at 2:30 p.m. ET.

The issue is they can change their forecast up to Tuesday, but how does anyone know?

Diane Swonk

Chief economist at KPMG

Gapen expects the Fed’s forecasts could show it expects a higher terminal rate, or end point for rate hikes, than it did in December. He said it could rise to about a level of 5.4% for 2023, from an earlier projection of 5.1%.

Jimmy Chang, chief investment officer at Rockefeller Global Family Office, said he expects the Fed to raise interest rates by a quarter point to instill confidence, but then signal it is finished with rate hikes.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a rally because historically whenever the Fed stops hiking, going to that pause mode, the initial knee-jerk reaction from the stock market is a rally,” he said.

He said the Fed will not likely say it is going to pause, but its messaging could be interpreted that way.

“Now, at the minimum, they want to maintain this air of stability or of confidence,” Chang said. “I don’t think they’ll do anything that could potentially roil the market. … Depending on their [projections], I think the market will think this is the final hike.”

Fed guidance could be up in the air

Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG, said she expects the Fed is likely to pause its rate hiking because of economic uncertainty, and the fact that the contraction in bank lending will be equivalent to a tightening of Fed policy.

She also does not expect any guidance on future hikes for now, and Powell could stress the Fed is watching developments and the economic data.

“I don’t think he can commit. I think he has to keep all options on the table and say we’ll do whatever is necessary to promote price stability and financial stability,” Swonk said. “We do have some sticky inflation. There are signs the economy is weakening.”

Fed needs to 'call a timeout' and stop hiking rates, says Bleakley's Peter Boockvar

She also expects it will be difficult for the Fed to present its quarterly economic forecasts, because the problems facing the banks have created so much uncertainty. As it did during the Covid pandemic in March 2020, the Fed might temporarily suspend projections, Swonk said.

“I think it’s an important thing to take into account that this is shifting the forecast in unknown ways. You don’t want to overpromise one way or the other,” she said. Swonk also expects the Fed to withhold its so-called dot plot, the chart on which it shows anonymous forecasts from Fed officials on the path for interest rates.

“The issue is they can change their forecast up to Tuesday, but how does anyone know? You want the Fed to look unified. You don’t want dissent,” said Swonk. “Literally, these dot plots could be changing by the day. Two weeks ago, we had a Fed chairman ready to go 50 basis points.”

The impact of tighter financial conditions

The tightening of financial conditions alone could have the clout of a 1.5 percentage point hike in rates by the Fed, and that could result in the central bank cutting rates later this year, depending on the economy, Swonk said. The futures market is currently forecasting much more aggressive rate cutting than economists are, with a full percentage point — or four quarter-point cuts — for this year alone.

“If they hike and say they will pause, the market might actually be okay with that. If they do nothing, maybe the market gets nervous that after two weeks of uncertainty the Fed’s backing off their inflation fight,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “Either way we still have a bumpy road ahead of us.”

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The Fed could also make a surprise move by stopping the runoff of securities from its balance sheet. As Treasurys and mortgages mature, the Fed no longer replaces them as it did during and after the pandemic to provide liquidity to financial markets. Gapen said changing the balance sheet runoff would be unexpected. During January and February, he said about $160 billion rolled off the balance sheet.

But the balance sheet recently increased again.

“The balance sheet went up by about $300 billion, but I think the good news there is most of that went to institutions that are already known,” he said.

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A recession could come sooner on cooling bank lending

Plummeting bond yields, steep drops in oil and stock prices, and a sharp jump in volatility are all signaling that investors fear a recession is now on the near horizon.

Stocks were down Wednesday, as worries about Credit Suisse spooked markets already concerned about U.S. regional banks following the shutdown of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank

“What you’re really seeing is a significant tightening of financial conditions. What the markets are saying is this increases risks of a recession and rightfully so,” said Jim Caron, head of macro strategy for global fixed income at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. “Equities are down. Bond yields are down. I think another question is: it looks like we’re pricing in three rate cuts, does that happen? You can’t rule it out.”

Bond yields came off their lows and stocks recovered some ground in afternoon trading, following reports that Swiss authorities were discussing options to stabilize Credit Suisse.

Wall Street has been debating whether the economy is heading into a recession for months, and many economists expected it to occur in the second half of this year.

But the rapid moves in markets after the regional bank failures in the U.S. has some strategists now expecting a contraction in the economy to come sooner. Economists are also ratcheting down their growth forecasts on the assumption there will be a pullback in bank lending.

“A very rough estimate is that slower loan growth by mid-size banks could subtract a half to a full percentage-point off the level of GDP over the next year or two,” wrote JPMorgan economists Wednesday. “We believe this is broadly consistent with our view that tighter monetary policy will push the US into recession later this year.”

Bank stocks again helped lead the stock market’s decline after a one-day snap back Tuesday. First Republic, for instance was down 21% and PacWest was down nearly 13%. But energy was the worst performing sector, down 5.4% as oil prices plunged more than 5%. West Texas Intermediate futures settled at $67.61 per barrel, the lowest level since December 2021. 

At the same time, the Cboe Volatility Index, known as the VIX, rocketed to a high of 29.91 Wednesday before closing at 26.10, up 10%.

The S&P 500 closed down 0.7% at 3,891 after falling to a low of 3,838.

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“Bear market bottoms are usually retested to ensure that the low is truly in. The rising risk of recession is now being exacerbated by the increased likelihood that banks will limit their lending,” noted Sam Stovall, chief market strategist at CFRA. “As a result, the outstanding question is whether the October 12 low will hold. If it doesn’t, we see 3,200 on the S&P 500 being another likely target, based on historical precedent and technical considerations.”

Treasury bonds, usually a more staid market, also traded dramatically. The 2-year Treasury yield was at 3.93% in afternoon trading, after it took a wild swing lower to 3.72%, well off its 4.22% close Tuesday. The 2-year most closely reflects investors’ views of where Fed policy is going.

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“I think people are rightfully on edge. I guess when I look at the whole thing together, there’s a component of the rally in the [Treasury] market that is flight-to-quality. There’s also a component of this that says we’re going to tighten credit,” said Caron. “We’re going to see tighter lending standards, whether it’s in the U.S. for small- and mid-sized banks. Even the larger banks are going to tighten lending standards more.”

The Federal Reserve has been trying to slow down the economy and the strong labor market in order to fight inflation. The consumer price index rose 6% in February, a still hot number.

But the spiral of news on banks has made investors more worried that a credit contraction will pull the economy down, and further Fed interest rate hikes would only hasten that.

For that reason, fed funds futures were also trading wildly Wednesday, though the market was still pricing about a 50% chance for a quarter point hike from the Fed next Wednesday. The market was also pricing in multiple rate cuts for this year.

“Long term, I think markets are doing the right kind of thing pricing out the Fed, but I don’t know if they’re going to cut 100 basis points either,” said John Briggs, global head of economics and markets strategy at NatWest Markets. Briggs said he does not anticipate a rate hike next week. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“Credit is the oil of the machine, even if the near-term shock was alleviated, and we weren’t worried about financial institutions more broadly, risk aversion is going to set in and remove credit from the economy,” he said.

Briggs said the response from a bank lending slowdown could be deflationary or at least a disinflationary shock. “Most small businesses are banked by community regional banks, and after this, even if your bank is fine, are you going to be more or less likely to offer credit to that new dry cleaner?” he said. “You’re going to be less likely.”

CFRA strategists said the Fed’s next move is not clear. “The recent downticks in the CPI and PPI readings, as well as the retrenchment of last month’s retail sales, added confidence that the Fed will soften its rigid tightening stance. But nothing is clear or certain,” wrote Stovall. “The March 22 FOMC statement and press conference is just a week away, but it will probably feel like an eternity. Waiting for tomorrow’s ECB statement and response to the emerging bank crisis in Europe also adds to uncertainty and volatility.”

The European Central Bank meets Thursday, and it had been expected to raise its benchmark rate by a half percent, but strategists say that seems less likely.

JPMorgan economists still expect a quarter-point rate hike from the Fed next Wednesday and another in May.

“We look for a quarter-point hike. A pause now would send the wrong signal about the seriousness of the Fed’s inflation resolve,” the JPMorgan economists wrote. “Relatedly, it would also send the wrong signal about ‘financial dominance,’ which is the idea that the central bank is hesitant to tighten, or quick to ease, because of concerns about financial stability.”

Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, however, said he expects the Fed to hold off on a rate hike next week, and the central bank could signal the hiking cycle is done for now.

He has not been expecting a recession, and he thinks there could still be a soft landing.

“I don’t think people should underestimate the impact of those lower rates. Mortgages will go lower and that should be a lift to the housing market,” he said. Zandi said he does not expect the Fed to turn around and cut rates, however, since its fight with inflation is not over.

“I’m a little confused by the markets saying there’s a 50/50 chance of a rate hike next week, and then they’re going to take out the rate hikes. We have to see how this plays out over the next few days,” he said.

Zandi expects first-quarter growth of 1% to 2%. “But the next couple of quarters could be zero to 1%, and we may even get a negative quarter, depending on timing,” he said.

Goldman Sachs economists Wednesday also lowered their 2023 economic growth forecast, reducing it by 0.3 percentage points to 1.2%. They also pointed to the pullback in lending from small- and medium-sized banks and turmoil in the broader financial system.

Correction: This story was corrected to accurately reflect Jim Caron’s remarks that markets are pricing in three rate cuts.

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The Russia-Ukraine war remapped the world’s energy supplies, putting the U.S. at the top for years to come

An LNG import terminal at the Rotterdam port in February 2022.

Federico Gambarini | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine a year ago has shifted global energy supply chains and put the U.S. clearly at the top of the world’s energy-exporting nations.

As Europe struggled with threats to its supply of natural gas imports from Russia, U.S. exporters and others scrambled to divert cargoes of liquified natural gas from Asia to Europe. Russian oil has been sanctioned, and the European Union no longer accepts Moscow’s seaborne cargoes. That has resulted in a surge in U.S. crude and refined product shipments to Europe.

“The U.S. used to supply a military arsenal. Now it supplies an energy arsenal,” said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital.

Not since the aftermath of World War II has the U.S. been so important as an energy exporter. The Energy Information Administration said a record 11.1 million barrels a day of crude and refined product were exported in the week ended Feb. 24. That is more than the total output of either Saudi Arabia or Russia, according to Citigroup, and compares with 9 million barrels a day a year ago.

However, exports averaged about 10 million barrels a day over the four-week period ended Feb. 24. That compares with 7.6 million barrels a day in the year-ago period.

“It’s amazing to think of all those decades of concern about energy dependence to find the U.S. is the largest exporter of LNG and one of the largest exporters of oil. The U.S. story is part of a larger remapping of world energy,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of S&P Global. “What we’re seeing now is a continuing redrawing of world energy that began with the shale revolution in the United States. … In 2003, the U.S. expected to be the largest importer of LNG.”

Yergin said the changing role of the U.S. oil and gas industry in the world energy order will be a topic of conversation among the thousands attending the annual CERAWeek by S&P Global energy conference in Houston from March 6-10. Among the speakers at the conference are CEOs from Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Baker Hughes and Freeport McMoRan, among others.

“One of the ironies, from an energy perspective, is if you only looked straight back, where we were the day before the invasion … if you look at price, you would say not much has happened,” said Daniel Pickering, chief investment officer at Pickering Energy Partners. “The price of global natural gas spiked but came back down. Oil is lower than where it was before the invasion. … The reality is we certainly have set in motion a rejiggering of global supply chains, particularly on the natural gas side.”

According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. has been an annual net total energy exporter since 2018. Up to the early 1950s, the U.S. produced most of the energy it consumed, but in the mid-1950s the nation began to increasingly import greater amounts of crude and petroleum products.

U.S. energy imports totaled about 30% of total U.S. consumption in 2005.

“There’s a global LNG boom that has become much more apparent and visible to the market,” said Pickering. “We’ve shifted around who consumes what kind of crude and products. We’ve meaningfully changed where Russian oil moves to.”

India and China are now the biggest importers of Russia’s crude. “You look at those things, and to me, we very clearly adjusted the way the world is thinking about supply for the next four or five years.”

But a year ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, it was not clear that the world would have sufficient supply or that oil prices would not spike to sharply higher levels. That is particularly true in Europe, where supplies have been sufficient.

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RBC commodities strategists said there were a number of factors at play that helped Europe get by this winter.

“A combination of warm weather, mandated conservation measures, and additional supplies from alternative producers such as the United States, Norway and Qatar, helped stave off such a worst-case scenario for Europe this winter,” the strategists wrote. “Countries that had relied on low cost Russian gas to meet their economic needs, such as Germany, raced to build new LNG import infrastructure to prepare for a future free from Moscow’s molecules.”

But they also point out that Europe is not in the clear, especially if the military conflict continues. “Key gas producers have warned that it could be difficult for Europe to build storage this summer in the absence of Russian gas exports and a colder winter next year could cause considerable economic hardship,” the strategists added.

Qatar has promised to send more gas to Europe, and the U.S. is building out more capacity. “In gas, we’re going to be a very real player. We’re trustworthy. We have rule of law. We have significant resources, and our projects are reasonably quick, compared to a lot of other potential projects around the world,” said Pickering. “My guess is we will go from [capacity of] 12 [billion cubic feet] of exports a day to close to 20, and we will be a big supplier to Europe.”

Pickering said U.S. exports are currently around 10 Bcf a day.

Among the companies he finds attractive in the gas sector are EQT, Cheniere, Chesapeake Energy and Southwestern Energy.

The oil story is different. Pickering said the U.S. industry chose not to be the global swing producer. “We’re not the swing producer because we decided not to be with our capital discipline,” he said.

Energy companies now have earnings visibility that they did not have before, and that could be the case for another five years or so, Pickering said. Oil companies have not been overproducing, as they had in the past, and they did not jump in to crank up production despite calls from the White House in the past year.

The White House has also been critical of the energy industry’s share repurchase programs, which many have.

“They’re generating a lot of cash. They’re being rewarded by shareholders for being disciplined with that cash,” Pickering said. “You did see companies signal their optimism, like with Chevron’s $75 billion share repurchase.” 

“The Russia, Ukraine dynamic may have ushered in an era where it’s cool to bash big oil, but my expectation is you can bash all the way to the bank and the political dynamic is very different than the financial and economic dynamic,” he said.

The U.S. now produces about 12.3 million barrels of oil a day, and Pickering does not expect that number to race higher. Producer discipline has helped support their share prices. The S&P energy sector is up 18% over the past 12 months, the best-performing sector and one of just three of 11 sectors that are showing gains. The next best was industrials, up 1.7%.

“Our absolute production levels are as high as they’ve been when you combine oil and natural gas. We were a net importer, and we’ve dramatically reduced that. It’s a massive shift,” said Pickering. “The shale boom benefited the energy sector. It benefited U.S. consumers. It was a terrible stretch for producers. They did their jobs too well. They overproduced. When we went from 5 million barrels a day to 13 million barrels a day, we were taking the most barrels away from OPEC. That was when we were most influential. We were the swing producer.”

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Fed expected to slow rate hiking to a quarter point but will stay unrelenting in inflation battle

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates by just a quarter point but also likely signal it will stay vigilant in its fight against inflation even as it reduces the size of the hikes.

The Fed releases its latest rate decision Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, and Fed Chair Jerome Powell briefs the media at 2:30 p.m. The expected quarter-point hike follows a half percentage point increase in December, and would be the smallest increase in the federal funds target rate range since the first hike of the cycle last March.

While the meeting is expected to be relatively uneventful, strategists say it could be a challenge for the Fed chief to temper the reaction in financial markets. The markets have been rising as investors expect the central bank might succeed in a soft landing for the economy while also snuffing out inflation sufficiently to move back to easing policy.

“How is he going to tell people to calm down, chill out and don’t get so excited by us getting close to the end of the interest rate increases?” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “He’s going to do that by still saying the Fed’s going to stay tight for a while. Just because he’s done doesn’t mean it’s a quick bridge to an ease.”

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference following the announcement that the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by half a percentage point, at the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2022. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

The Fed’s rate hike Wednesday would be the eighth since last March. It would put the fed funds target rate range at 4.50% to 4.75%. That is just a half percentage point away from the Fed’s estimated end point, or terminal rate range of 5% to 5.25%.

“I think he will push back on financial conditions. I think the markets are expecting that. I think people realize how much credit spreads have moved, how much the equity market has moved, how much tech stocks have moved. This month has been extraordinary,” said Rick Rieder, BlackRock’s chief investment officer for global fixed income.

A rally that could dampen the Fed’s efforts

Easy credit and a stock market that is rising too quickly could defeat the Fed’s efforts to chill the economy and crush inflation.

Stocks rallied Tuesday as the Fed began its two-day meeting, capping January’s gain of nearly 6.2% for the S&P 500. The tech sector was up 9.2% for the month. Rates have fallen since the end of the year, with the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield at roughly 3.5%, after it ended December at about 3.9%.

Rieder expects Powell to deliver his comments with a hawkish tone. “I think if he’s hawkish, I think the markets have built that in. I think if he’s not, the market could make another leg,” he said.

In the futures market, fed funds futures continued to price a terminal rate of less than 5%. The futures also show investors expect the Fed to actually reverse policy and cut rates by at least 25 basis points by the end of 2023. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“I think he’s going to be hawkish relative to market pricing,” said Jim Caron, head of macro strategies for global fixed income at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Caron said the Fed’s downsizing of its rate hikes will be seen dovish in itself. Prior to December’s 50 basis point hike, the central bank raised rates by 75 basis points four times in a row.

“He wants to defend the validity of the 5% to 5.25% terminal rate [forecast],” said Caron. “At the same time, he sees record housing prices are coming down. Wage inflation is coming down. The auto sector is not doing great. Retail’s not doing so great. The jobs market is doing OK. Wage inflation is coming down but it’s still above comfort levels.”

Listening carefully to the Fed’s messaging

Caron said Powell also wants to be careful not to sound too hawkish. “It’s very easy for there to be a mistake in the communication from the Fed or there could be a mistake in the way the market initially interprets things as well,” he said. “That tells me there’s going to be a lot of volatility.”

Investors will be attuned to any comments Powell makes about the economy and whether he expects it to dip into recession, as many economists forecast. The central bank has not projected a recession in its forecast, but it expects very sluggish flat growth, and it sees the unemployment rate rising sharply to 4.6% later this year, from its December level of 3.5%.

The Fed is not expected to make any major changes in its policy statement when it announces the rate hike. Its last statement said that “ongoing increases” in the target rate range will be appropriate in order to reach a policy position that can send inflation back to 2%.

The Fed is making headway against inflation. Personal consumption expenditure core inflation rose by 0.3% in December and was at 4.4% on an annual basis from 4.7% in November, the slowest increase since October 2021

Strategists say the Fed needs more data and will likely wait until at least March to signal how long it could continue to raise interest rates. If it stays at the same pace, there could be two more quarter-point hikes.

The Fed will not be releasing any new forecasts or economic projections Wednesday. Its next forecast is the quarterly release of economic projections at the March meeting, and that is one way markets will get more clues on the intended rate path.

“They don’t want financial conditions to ease all that much, and they don’t have a new set of forecasts to give, so I think what that means is you have fewer changes in the statement and that line about ‘ongoing increases’ is going to stay the same,” said Michael Gapen, Bank of America’s chief U.S. economist.

Gapen said it will be difficult for Powell to sound too hawkish. “Actions speak louder than words. If they decelerate [the size of rate hikes] for the second straight meeting in a row, it’s hard to back that up with overtly hawkish language,” he said.

Boockvar said Powell should emphasize how the Fed will keep rates at higher levels, despite the market view that it will soon cut rates. “Powell is more focused on inflation going down and staying down than trying to help the S&P 500,” said Boockvar. “His legacy is not going to be determined by where credit spreads are or where the S&P is going. It’s going to be determined by whether he slayed inflation and it stayed down.”

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Inflation is expected to have declined in December, but it may not be enough to stop the Fed

A woman shops in a supermarket as rising inflation affects consumer prices in Los Angeles, California, June 13, 2022.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The pace of consumer inflation is expected to have fallen slightly in December from the prior month because of a sharp drop in gasoline and energy prices, but the annual rate is still likely to remain uncomfortably high.

According to Dow Jones, economists now expect a decline of 0.1% in the consumer price index on a monthly basis, but inflation is still expected to climb at a 6.5% rate from the prior year. That compares to a gain of 0.1% in November, and a 7.1% pace year over year. However, the CPI is well off the 9.1% peak rate in June.

Core CPI, excluding energy and food, is expected to be up 0.3% in December, gaining 5.7% on a year-over-year basis. Core CPI rose 0.2% in November and 6% on a yearly basis.

“We welcome it with open arms. It’s good news,” said KPMG chief economist Diane Swonk of the expected decline. “It’s great and it helped to fuel consumer spending in the fourth quarter. … But it’s still not enough.”

The consumer price index is expected Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET. It is the final CPI report before the Federal Reserve’s Feb. 1 interest rate decision. For that reason, the inflation number has become a major event for financial markets, and now some traders are betting it will show inflation slowing even more than economists forecast. They also point to weaker-than-expected wage growth in December’s jobs report, as well as other data that reflects lower inflation expectations.

Stocks rallied on Wednesday ahead of the report. “The market is looking at it as glass half full. Inflation is rolling over, and the Fed is almost done raising interest rates,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “I think they remember the last two months when you had numbers that were well below expectations. They’re just assuming that’s going to be the case again.”

Expected impact on the Fed

In the futures market, traders continued to bet the central bank will raise rates by just a quarter point at its next meeting. Meanwhile, some economists continue to expect policymakers will increase the fed funds target rate by a half percentage point. Market expectations are just 20% for a 50 basis point hike. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“It’s amazing how much reaction and overreaction there is for one single data point,” said Simona Mocuta, chief economist at State Street Global Advisors. “Clearly the CPI is very important. In this particular case, it does have fairly direct policy implications, which are about the size of the next Fed rate hike.”

Mocuta said a cooler CPI should influence the Fed. “The market has not priced the full 50. I think the market is right in this case,” she said. “The Fed can still contradict the market, but what the market is pricing is the right decision.”

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Wilmington Trust chief economist Luke Tilley said a 12% decline in gasoline prices in December and other decreases in energy prices — for expenses like home heating — helped drive inflation lower.

“Shelter is the main focus because of the lag,” he said. Rental market data shows a slowing in rates, but the CPI has not yet reflected it. “Everyone is familiar with the lag that it takes for the data to show up in the CPI,” Tilley added. “We think there could be a sharper slowdown.” Shelter costs are 40% of core CPI.

Shelter is expected to be up 0.6% month over month. Tilley said with the decline in the real estate market, he is hearing from landlords that they are having a more difficult time raising rents. “We’re penciling in slower increases in January and February and March on that shorter lag,” he said.

A focus on inflation in services

Economists are watching closely to see how much inflation related to services rises in CPI, since goods inflation is expected to continue to come down now that supply chains are operating more normally.

“The headline monthly changes over the last two, three months overstate the improvement. We’re not going to get the same help from gasoline in the next report. I don’t want to see an acceleration in shelter. I want to see some of the discretionary areas show deceleration,” said State Street’s Mocuta. “I think right now the focus is very much on the services side.”

The market is laser focused on inflation since the Fed’s progress in fighting it could determine how far the central bank will go on its rate hiking path. The rate increases are slowing the economy, and how much more it chooses to do so could be the difference between a soft landing or a recession.

“The hope is that basically we are now in a position where you could envision a soft landing. That requires the Fed to not only stop raising rates but ease up sooner and that doesn’t seem to be where they’re at,” said Swonk. “The Fed is hedging a different bet than the markets are. … This is where nuance is really hard. You’re in this position where you’re improving. It’s like a patient is getting better, but they’re not out of the hospital yet.”

The fed funds rate range is currently at 4.25% to 4.5%, and the central bank has forecast a final high rate of 5.1% for this year.

“The Fed is also worried about a second round of supply shock, whether it’s China’s abrupt abandonment of its zero-Covid policy or something else from Russia. They don’t want to declare victory too soon,” said Swonk. “They’re making that very clear. They’ve said it over and over again and nobody listens.”

Economists expect another key metric — the personal consumption expenditure deflator — could show core inflation slowing even below the Fed’s forecast of 3.5% by Dec. 31. Some economists who expect a recession predict rate cuts before year-end, as the markets expect. But the Fed has no forecast for rate cuts until 2024.

Some strategists expect Fed officials to begin to sound more dovish and less at odds with the market view. Boston Fed President Susan Collins said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday that she was leaning toward a quarter-point hike at the next meeting.

“We think one of the changes in coming months is the Fed will soon realize it is cheaper to change the inflation narrative than reverse a recession leading to millions of lost jobs,” writes Fundstrat founder Tom Lee in a note Wednesday.

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Why everyone thinks a recession is coming in 2023

People who lost their jobs wait in line to file for unemployment following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas, U.S. April 6, 2020.

Nick Oxford | File Photo | REUTERS

Recessions often take everyone by surprise. There’s a very good chance the next one will not.

Economists have been forecasting a recession for months now, and most see it starting early next year. Whether it’s deep or shallow, long or short, is up for debate, but the idea that the economy is going into a period of contraction is pretty much the consensus view among economists. 

“Historically, when you have high inflation, and the Fed is jacking up interest rates to quell inflation, that results in a downturn or recession,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “That invariably happens — the classic overheating scenario that leads to a recession. We’ve seen this story before. When inflation picks up and the Fed responds by pushing up interest rates, the economy ultimately caves under the weight of higher interest rates.”

Zandi is in the minority of economists who believe the Federal Reserve can avoid a recession by raising rates just long enough to avoid squashing growth. But he said expectations are high that the economy will swoon.

“Usually recessions sneak up on us. CEOs never talk about recessions,” said Zandi. “Now it seems CEOs are falling over themselves to say we’re falling into a recession. … Every person on TV says recession. Every economist says recession. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Fed causing it this time

Ironically, the Fed is slowing the economy, after it came to the rescue in the last two economic downturns. The central bank helped stimulate lending by taking interest rates to zero, and boosted market liquidity by adding trillions of dollars in assets to its balance sheet. It is now unwinding that balance sheet, and has rapidly raised interest rates from zero in March — to a range of 4.25% to 4.5% this month.

But in those last two recessions, policymakers did not need to worry about high inflation biting into consumer or corporate spending power, and creeping across the economy through the supply chain and rising wages.

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The Fed now has a serious battle with inflation. It forecasts additional rate hikes, up to about 5.1% by early next year, and economists expect it may maintain those high rates to control inflation.

Those higher rates are already taking a toll on the housing market, with home sales down 35.4% from last year in November, the 10th month in a row of decline. The 30-year mortgage rate is close to 7%. And consumer inflation was still running at a hot 7.1% annual rate in November.

“You have to blow the dust off your economics textbook. This is going to be be a classic recession,” said Tom Simons, money market economist at Jefferies. “The transmission mechanism we’re going to see it work through first in the beginning of next year, we’ll start to see some significant margin compression in corporate profits. Once that starts to take hold, they’re going to take steps to cut their expenses. The first place we’re going to see it is in reducing headcount. We’ll see that by the middle of next year, and that’s when we’ll see economic growth slowdown significantly and inflation will come down as well.”

How bad will it be?

A recession is considered to be a prolonged economic downturn that broadly affects the economy and typically lasts two quarters or more. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the arbiter of recessions, considers how deep the slowdown is, how wide spread it is and how long it lasts.

However, if any factor is severe enough, the NBER could declare a recession. For instance, the pandemic downturn in 2020 was so sudden and sharp with wide-reaching impact that it was determined to be a recession even though it was very short.

“I’m hoping for a short, shallow one, but hope springs eternal,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG. “The good news is we should be able to recover from it quickly. We do have good balance sheets, and you could get a response to lower rates once the Fed starts easing. Fed-induced recessions are not balance sheet recessions.”

The Federal Reserve’s latest economic projections show the economy growing at a pace of 0.5% in 2023, and it does not forecast a recession.

“We’ll have one because the Fed is trying to create one,” said Swonk. “When you say growth is going to stall out to zero and the unemployment rate is going to rise … it’s clear the Fed has got a recession in its forecast but they won’t say it.” The central bank forecasts unemployment could rise next year to 4.6% from its current 3.7%.

Fed reversal?

How long policymakers will be able to hold interest rates at high levels is unclear. Traders in the futures market expect the Fed to start cutting rates by the end of 2023. In its own forecast, the central bank shows rate cuts starting in 2024.

Swonk believes the Fed will have to backtrack on higher rates at some point because of the recession, but Simons expects a recession could run through the end of 2024 in a period of high rates.

 “The market clearly thinks the Fed is going to reverse course on rates as things turn down,” said Simons. “What isn’t appreciated is the Fed needs this in order to keep their long-term credibility on inflation.”

The last two recessions came after shocks. The recession in 2008 started in the financial system, and the pending recession will be nothing like that, Simons said.

“It became basically impossible to borrow money even though interest rates were low, the flow of credit slowed down a lot. Mortgage markets were broken. Financial markets suffered because of the contagion of derivatives,” said Simons. “It was financially generated. It wasn’t so much the Fed tightening policy by raising interest rates, but the market shut down because of a lack of liquidity and trust. I don’t think we have that now.”

That recession was longer than it seemed in retrospect, Swonk said. “It started in January 2008. … It was like a year and a half,” she said. “We had a year where you didn’t realize you were in it, but technically you were. …The pandemic recession was two months long, March, April 2020. That’s it.”

While the potential for recession has been on the horizon for awhile, the Fed has so far failed to really slow employment and cool the economy through the labor market. But layoff announcements are mounting, and some economists see the potential for declines in employment next year.

“At the start of the year, we were getting 600,000 [new jobs] a month, and now we are getting about maybe 250,000,” Zandi said. “I think we’ll see 100,000 and then next year it will basically go to zero. … That’s not enough to cause a recession but enough to cool the labor market.” He said there could be declines in employment next year.

“The irony here is that everybody is expecting a recession,” he said. That could change their behavior, the economy could cool and the Fed would not have to tighten so much as to choke the economy, he said.

“Debt-service burdens have never been lower, households have a boatload of cash, corporates have good balance sheets, profit margins rolled over, but they’re close to record highs,” Zandi said. “The banking system has never been as well capitalized or as liquid. Every state has a rainy day fund. The housing market is underbuilt. It is usually overbuilt going into a recession. …The foundations of the economy look strong.”

But Swonk said policymakers are not going to give up on the inflation fight until it believes it is winning. “Seeing this hawkish Fed, it’s harder to argue for a soft landing, and I think that’s because the better things are, the more hawkish they have to be. It means a more active Fed,” she said.

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