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S&P 500 up 2% as bets ‘Fed is done’ sink U.S. yields

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

Stocks climbed while bond yields sank as an unexpected inflation slowdown bolstered bets the Federal Reserve’s aggressive hiking cycle is now over – and the next move will be a cut in mid-2024.

About 95% of the S&P 500 companies rose, with the gauge up nearly 2%.

Tesla Inc. led gains in megacaps and Nvidia Corp. rallied for a 10th straight session.

Regional banks jumped almost 6%. The Russell 2000 index of small caps added over 5%.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s basket of the most-shorted stocks beat the broader market in a sign some traders are preparing to cover bearish wagers.

Five-year yields plunged 24 basis points to 4.42%. The dollar fell 1.2%.

While Wall Street’s rally could risk further easing of financial conditions – and ultimately complicate the Fed’s job – bets on a “pivot” next year have increased.

Fed swaps indicate the odds of another hike have fallen to almost zero – with the market pricing in a 50 basis-point rate cut by July.

“The last of investors not convinced the Fed is done are likely ‘throwing in the towel’,” said Bryce Doty at Sit Fixed Income Advisors. “The next Fed action is more likely to be a cut next summer than another rate increase.”

To Chris Larkin at E*Trade from Morgan Stanley, while the cooler-than-expected numbers will likely encourage some investors to start planning for 2024 rate cuts, the Fed will probably continue to fight that narrative.

“They’ve run a long race, and they won’t quit just because the finish line appears to be a little closer,” Larkin noted.

To Chris Zaccarelli at Independent Advisor Alliance, whether or not the economy can stay out of recession remains to be seen, but the market should continue to rally as investors begin to accept the view that higher rates are off the table.

The drop in inflation suggests that recent monetary policy has been doing its job, which makes the prospect of a “soft landing” ever more likely, according to Richard Flynn at Charles Schwab UK.

The news reinforces the probability that officials will “hold off” from further rate hikes, he noted.

“With the U.S. economy holding up, the inflation data are ‘soft-landing nirvana’ for the equity markets,” said Neil Dutta, head of economics at Renaissance Macro Research.

An intact disinflationary process means that the Fed can “sit tight for now” - which would lower the risk of an “overly restrictive policy”, according to Lauren Goodwin at New York Life Investments.

Still, she cautions investors who are getting “too enthusiastic” as “financial conditions are now easing again, which keeps the Fed on guard and highly data dependent.”

The Fed’s challenge is that the market tries to jump to the “endgame” – risking a larger or sooner easing in financial conditions than the Fed itself would like to see, said Krishna Guha at Evercore ISI.

“So expect Fed officials to maintain a very cautious and relatively hawkish tone.”

Citadel founder Ken Griffin said the Fed risks a hit to its reputation if it cuts interest rates too quickly.

Cathie Wood, the head of ARK Investment Management, said that deflation is already underway in the U.S. across industries and will force the central bank to kick off a big interest-rate cutting cycle.

Fed officials welcomed the latest data showing receding U.S. inflation, while adding that there’s still a way to go before it reaches the central bank’s 2% target.

“Our base case remains that the Fed will not raise rates further,” said Brian Rose at UBS Global Wealth Management.

“However, inflation is still too high and the labor market still too tight for the Fed to declare victory and announce an end to the rate-hiking cycle.”

In Rose’s view, such an announcement is likely to be at least three months away unless the data takes a sudden turn toward the weaker side.

Once an announcement is made, markets may quickly focus on the timing of the first rate cut, leading to lower bond yields and a weaker US dollar, he noted.

Equities have rallied in November on bets the Fed is done with rate hikes, with the S&P 500 up more than 7% in the span – and heading toward its best month since October 2022.

In the past 22 years, when the S&P 500 was up 5% or more by mid-November, the remainder of that year was positive every single time, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. 

Go back 50 years, and that setup was positive 26 out of 30 times, with the decline in the four exceptions being 1% or less.

Meantime, investors turned the most bullish on bonds since the global financial crisis amid “big conviction” that rates will move lower in 2024, according to the latest Bank of America Corp. fund manager survey.

The poll showed investors were dumping cash to hold the biggest overweight position in bonds since 2009.

Pacific Investment Management Co. – among the many whose expectations for a rally this year were disappointed – is renewing the call for 2024.

Bonds “have rarely been as attractive as they appear today” relative to stocks, Pimco managers Erin Browne, Geraldine Sundstrom and Emmanuel Sharef said in a report predicting “prime time” for the asset class in 2024.