Trading Desk: How Long Before The Fed Flinches?

A lot of investors intuitively realize that rising interest rates themselves aren’t necessarily a problem as long as they shock the economy out of its inflationary spiral fast enough to turn the Fed around. The pain comes if rates stay high for an extended period.

That’s why stocks eventually surged yesterday after long-term bond yields pushed a little further back above 4% early on. While higher rates sting, they also signal that Wall Street is still taking the Fed seriously.

The Fed has all but promised at least two more rate hikes before a pause is even possible. That means the short-term end of the yield curve is probably going above 5% in three weeks and might easily hit 5.5% before the end of July.

Most of us have survived that kind of rate environment in the past and come out smiling. The short end rarely got below 5.3% from late 1994 to late 1998 . . . a period punctuated by currency crisis, hedge fund implosions and ultimately one of the greatest stock market rallies in history.

It took a final push from the Fed to drive overnight rates above 6.5% and drive a stake through the bull’s heart in late 2000. Literally nobody on Wall Street is even contemplating that prospect seriously right now.

Instead, there’s a distinct “tell” in the rate markets now. Big money investors are betting that one way or another, the Fed will declare at least short-term victory with one last rate hike in July or, at the very latest, September.

After that, the odds of at least a small rate cut start going up. By December, futures trading tells me that the Fed is likely to go back on any tightening that happens beyond June, which makes that the effective peak.

The Fed won’t rewind unless the job market crumples. Even if inflation recedes, that’s only a scenario that leads to a pause.

And in that light, it’s only going to take 4-6 months for “peak rates” to  cross the line from a mere drag on the economy to full toxicity. In that scenario, inflation will quickly cease to be a problem.

My suspicion is that the fourth quarter could get a little cold for the job market. That’s when we might see layoffs. But after that, the Fed will be quick to admit it went too far and bring relief.

At least that’s what they’re saying in the rate market. Just 4-6 months. That’s all the time we’ll need to bear any tightening that takes the short end of the curve beyond 5.25%.

As I’ve said, the dot-com boom proves that we can survive rates at that level for years and stocks can rally. The important thing is what happens across the yield curve.

Remember, an inverted curve is a signal of a recession ahead. Because the curve reflects expectations about specific points in the future, you can get a sense of when investors think that recession is coming.

Big shock: the curve currently looks healthy until about six months out. That’s actually a good thing. As recently as six weeks ago, the first inversions were visible starting around four weeks out on the curve.

To heal the curve, you either need the Fed to pull the short end down or for investors to sell enough on the long end to raise those yields back where they need to be to reflect a healthy economy.

We’re a long way from that point now. But in September, we should have clarity . . . and if all goes well, that will be roughly as bad as it gets. Of course, if inflation drops in the meantime, we’ll get there a little faster.

Can we survive 5.5% for that length of time without the world lurching to an end? History proves that we can.

And the rate markets are watching the Fed, but the Fed is also watching the markets. Powell and company know what the market can tolerate. They’ll respect that limit.