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Stock bulls score longest weekly win since 2019

An electronic stock board is shown outside a securities firm in Tokyo, Japan, on June 1.  (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)
By Rita Nazareth Bloomberg

A pair of solid economic readings shook markets on Friday, with stocks closing higher on speculation the U.S. will be able to skirt a recession. Now the flip side to that story is that bond traders ended up being forced to trim their bets on rate cuts in 2024 – sending yields soaring.

All around Wall Street, the prevailing view is: While economic strength makes many investors less apprehensive about a hard landing, it also implies the Federal Reserve might have to hold rates higher for longer.

For Treasuries, that means an unwinding of the massive dovish trade that pointed to a Fed pivot as early as March. For equities, jobs and consumer resilience it bodes well when it comes to Corporate America.

“Just when you think the economy is finally softening, it continues to show signs of strength,” said Chris Zaccarelli at Independent Advisor Alliance. “We remain bullish on the market because we are bullish on the economy.”

Following a slew of figures underscoring a slowdown on the jobs front, Friday’s jobs report showed an unexpected pickup. Nonfarm payrolls increased 199,000 last month, the unemployment rate fell to 3.7% and monthly wage growth topped estimates.

A separate report showed U.S. consumer sentiment rebounded sharply in early December – topping all forecasts – as households dialed back their year-ahead inflation expectations by the most in 22 years.

The S&P 500 saw its sixth straight week of gains – its longest winning streak since November 2019. Wall Street’s “fear gauge” – the VIX – hovered near prepandemic levels.

U.S. two-year yields jumped 12 basis points to 4.72%. Swap contracts now show a 40% probability of a March rate cut – from over 50% prior to the economic data.

To Callie Cox at eToro, the strong jobs data could be a “heat check for Wall Street” after markets rallied significantly on the rate-cut trade. Hopes have gone a little too far, she noted.

“The U.S. economy continues to perform well,” said John Leiper at Titan Asset Management. “The aggressive decline in U.S. Treasury yields we saw last month, which already looked a little overdone, is going into reverse with bond yields jumping. With markets pricing out rate cuts next year, higher-for-longer is back in vogue.”

Softening inflation and employment data in the past month have convinced investors that the Fed is done raising interest rates and ignited bets that cuts of at least 125 basis points of cuts were in store over the next 12 months. Traders scaled back those wagers to about 110 basis points of easing.

“People saying recession need to have their heads examined,” said Neil Dutta at Renaissance Macro Research.

Traders are preparing for another busy week, with readings for the U.S. consumer price index and retail sales, a compressed schedule of Treasury auctions – and the Fed’s final meeting of the year on the docket.

Fed officials are widely expected to keep borrowing costs at the highest level in two decades on Wednesday.

Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly pushed back against growing bets of rate cuts early next year, stressing that policymakers will move cautiously but retain the option to hike again.

While labor market strength implies fewer rate cuts, investors should applaud the jobs report as it suggests the Fed is delivering a “Goldilocks” scenario of lower inflation without recession – which is the best outcome for risk assets, said Ronald Temple at Lazard.

“The Fed has been stymied by better-than-expected data releases,” said Quincy Krosby at LPL Financial. “As long as inflation continues to edge lower, the Fed will likely remain on hold.

“But if today’s report is a harbinger of continued consumer spending, the Fed may have to issue a considerably more hawkish message and telegraph that they still cannot declare victory on their campaign to quell inflation.”

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said the Fed should hold off on a shift toward lowering interest rates until there’s decisive evidence showing that inflation is back under control or that the economy is entering a slump.

While a soft landing, where prices come under control without a recession, is looking “more in play,” it’s not an outcome to be confident about at this point, he added.

To Brian Rose at UBS, given that the market is already pricing in a lot of rate cuts in 2024, the Fed will possibly avoid sounding “overly dovish.”

The Fed is likely to keep policy restrictive until mid-2024 – at which point inflation should have subsided sufficiently to warrant a modest easing cycle, according to Ronald Temple at Lazard.

“While labor market strength implies fewer rate cuts, investors should applaud the report as it suggests the Fed is delivering a ‘goldilocks’ scenario of lower inflation without recession – which is the best outcome for risk assets,” he noted.

A key gauge of stock-market worry will climb in 2024 after tumbling this year to the lowest since before the pandemic struck, and the magnitude depends on the strength of the economy, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. strategists.

The Cboe Volatility Index will “generally trade higher in 2024 than in 2023, and the extent of the increase depends on the timing and severity of an eventual recession” and potential wider swings that could curb selling of short-term volatility, the bank’s Americas equity derivatives strategists, led by Bram Kaplan, wrote in a note Friday.

Stock markets will suffer in the first quarter of 2024 as a rally in bonds would signal sputtering economic growth, according to Bank of America Corp.’s Michael Hartnett.

The narrative of “lower yields = higher stocks” would flip to “lower yields = lower stocks,” Hartnett wrote.

Sentiment indicators are also no longer supportive of further gains in risk assets, Hartnett said. BofA’s custom bull-and-bear signal surged to 3.8 from 2.7 in the week through Dec. 6, its biggest weekly jump since February 2012. A reading below 2 is generally considered to be a contrarian buy signal.

Money-market funds attracted their largest inflows since March, while U.S. equities had an eighth straight week of inflows, BofA said, citing EPFR Global data.

David Bailin, Citi Global Wealth’s chief investment officer and head of investments, said stocks are ripe for further gains in 2024 as inflation trends lower, the economy remains resilient and earnings rebound – increasing the opportunity cost for investors still sitting on the sidelines, clinging to their cash.

“I’m not sure what investors are waiting for,” he said. “The U.S. economy is going to stay strong and, eventually, money-market rates are going to come down, so why are people not buying core 60/40 portfolios?”

Elsewhere, oil rebounded as technical levels provided support and the US sought to refill its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but still remained on course for the longest weekly losing streak since 2018 on concerns about a global glut.