Investors are rethinking their expectations for
interest-rate increases this year, converging on a view that the Federal
Reserve is unlikely to raise rates in March and possibly not even for the rest
of the year. The shift was evident in a broad decline in the dollar on
Wednesday and in the sharp drop this year in U.S. Treasury yields. Futures
markets now are predicting there is little chance that the Fed will raise
interest rates at its meeting next month and a less-than-even chance that it
will raise rates this year, a sharp reversal from six weeks ago.
Some analysts have been rolling back their predictions for
Fed rate increases, a gauge closely followed by investors because of its
implications for the health of the U.S. economy. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economists
on Wednesday said that they no longer think the Fed will raise rates next
month, citing soft economic data and tighter financial conditions as a result
of the rise over the past year of the dollar.
The U.S. currency on Wednesday posted its biggest
declines in months against the euro and yen, while also losing ground
against the Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, British pound, and a host of
emerging-market currencies such as Russia’s ruble. The WSJ Dollar Index, which
measures the greenback against a basket of 16 currencies, dropped to its lowest
level since late December. Oil, which has fallen as the dollar strengthened
over the past year, shot up 8% in New York. A stronger dollar typically
weakens crude prices by making the dollar-denominated commodity more expensive
in other currencies.
The selloff in the dollar marked a break in the currency
market’s long-held view that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates
several times this year. Traders had been betting heavily that the Fed’s
inclination to raise rates at a time when central banks in Europe and Japan are
rolling out new measures to stimulate their economies would boost the dollar.
Wednesday’s decline followed weak data from the U.S. service
sector and dovish comments from a Fed official. Some investors now believe that
rate increases may come at a much slower-than-expected clip this year, if at
all. The Fed lifted short-term interest rates by a quarter percentage point in
December and penciled in four more increases this year. This latest round of
data seemed to undermine signs, such as recent U.S. job growth, that pointed
toward a stronger recovery.
After Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William
Dudley said recent market turmoil may alter the U.S. growth outlook, Fed
governor Lael Brainard told The Wall Street Journal in remarks
published Wednesday that market volatility and weak emerging-market
growth strengthen the case for going slowly on further interest-rate
Yields on two-year Treasurys, which are sensitive to
expectations of Fed rate moves, fell Wednesday to their lowest level
since October, indicating little confidence the Fed can raise rates soon. More
broadly, the sharp move in the dollar underscored the central role that the $5
trillion currency market has played in this year’s volatility. China’s moves to
depreciate the yuan sent markets spiraling downward in January and drove
investors into the haven of the Japanese yen. The Bank of Japan surprised
markets last week by adopting negative interest rates—charging banks to deposit
their cash—sending the yen back down. Central bankers in the U.S. and Europe have
expressed concern about the strengthening of the dollar and euro.
Fed-funds futures, used by investors and traders to place
bets on central-bank policy, showed Wednesday that they expect only a
14% likelihood of a rate increase from the Fed at its March policy meeting,
according to data from CME Group Inc. Late last year, it
was more than 50%. Investors expect only a 40% probability that the Fed
will raise interest rates by next December, the data showed.
To be sure, investors could pile back into the dollar on
indications that the U.S. economy is on solid ground, such as rising consumer
prices or jobs growth. Investors will be watching Friday’s employment numbers,
which many believe offer a reliable snapshot of the economy’s performance. Still,
many investors are braced for amplified volatility in a world in which the Fed
is acting less as a shock absorber than before it began tightening monetary
policy. The payrolls data could realign expectations about the Fed’s likely
moves yet again.
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