Why Fed vs. markets showdown leaves Powell at disadvantage

Call it the “Clash on Constitution Avenue.”

The Federal Reserve insists rates will rise above 5% and stay there for some time. Money markets see the Fed struggling to get rates above 5% and have priced in cuts by year-end, a view that has helped fuel a tech- and growth-led rally for stocks to begin 2023.

Read: The Fed and the stock market are on a collision course this week. What’s at stake.

That’s led to expectations that Chair Jerome Powell will use his news conference to forcefully push back against expectations for cuts this year, emphasizing that rates need to say elevated and that the inflation battle is far from over.

Related: 4 ways Powell could tell markets the Fed isn’t ready to pivot

Powell and the Fed may also take aim at easier financial conditions, as represented in part by tightening credit spreads, rising stocks and a weaker dollar, which are seen working at cross purposes to the Fed’s tightening of monetary policy.

See: The Fed delivered a message to the stock market: Big rallies will prolong pain

Some market watchers, however, question whether investors and traders will respond to tough talk from Powell.

“We have been on the road a ton over recent weeks, and we feel very comfortable saying that in our sample the skew is clearly toward the market wanting to hear something dovish,” said Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets. “And when you have a bias, you are very likely to hear what you want. A little selective hearing is likely to go a long way.”

“Dovish” is market lingo for a central banker more concerned about growth than inflation.

Treasurys rallied in January, dragging down yields, which aided the stock market rally, particularly for previously beaten down tech and growth stocks that led the equity plunge in 2022. Positioning data, meanwhile, shows speculators have built up large short positions on bets yields, which move opposite to debt prices, will likely rise if the Fed and Powell deliver a hawkish, or tough on inflation, message, said Ian Lyngen and Benjamin Jeffery, rates strategists at BMO Capital Markets, in a note.

“From the perspective of both positioning and the Fed signaling prior to the premeeting radio silence, there is a clear bias for U.S. rates to end higher on Wednesday as a result of a steadfastly hawkish Committee,” they wrote.

The rub is that the “pain trade” — a term that refers to the market’s tendency to punish herd-like behavior by investors from time to time — would be for a continued Treasury rally and a fall in yields.

Others argued it may come down to just how consistent Powell is in delivering a stern message about the Fed’s resolve to keep rates elevated.

“If Powell explicitly says the market is wrong (or something to that effect) and is forceful and hits that idea over and over, that will be taken as hawkish,” said Tom Essaye, founder of Sevens Report Research, in a note.

“If he largely dismisses that and doesn’t take the opportunity to essentially “brow beat’ markets about this expectation, it’ll be taken as dovish (and stocks will rally),” he wrote.

The Federal Reserve is seen as virtually certain to raise the fed-funds rate by 25 basis points, or a quarter of a percentage point, to 4.5% to 4.75%. The Fed’s policy statement is due at 2 p.m. Eastern, with Powell to begin his news conference at 2:30 p.m.

Read: Fed set to deliver quarter-point rate hike along with ‘one last hawkish sting in the tail’

Stocks wree trading lower at midday Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average

down nearly 300 points, or 0.9%, while the S&P 500

shed 0.4% and the Nasdaq Composite

dipped 0.3%. All three indexes rallied last month, with the Nasdaq’s 10%-plus rise marking its best January since a bear-market bounce in 2001.