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Bill Schmick: Financial contagion spooks markets

Financial Markets Wall Street

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday. Financial markets swooned this week as worries worsened about the strength of banks on both sides of the Atlantic.

The global banking sector took center stage as three U.S. banks bit the dust and a fourth large bank in Europe floundered. This puts the Fed between a rock and a hard place.

The Federal Open Market Committee meets this coming Wednesday and before the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank was expected to raise interest rates by 25 to 50 basis points. Today, expectations are split between no rate hikes at all, and maybe one more hike of 25 basis points and then a pause.

Investors large and small held their breath last weekend in the wake of three bank failures. Fears of financial contagion swept the country throughout the week. Regulators acted on several fronts to contain the potential fallout. The FDIC announced that they would fully protect all depositors, while President Biden assured the nation that U.S. banks were solid.

The Federal Reserve bank also announced a new $25 billion bank term funding program that offers one-year loans to banks under easier terms than it typically provides.

Investors on Monday responded positively to the news, but the near collapse of yet another bank later in the week, this one a large European bank, Credit Suisse, had traders once again running for the hills. Banking stocks tumbled again.

Most Wall Street pundits blamed the Fed's rapid rate hikes over the last year for the banking fallout. As such, a rising chorus of alarmists is insisting that the Fed, needs to back off from any more rate hikes immediately. Over in the bond market, the vigilantes are betting that the new scenario is a "one and done" 25 basis- point hike in March and then a pause. Some strategists are even expecting the Fed to begin easing its' tight money policies by the middle of the year if not sooner.

The easing argument is that regulators (because of the bank failures) will soon be increasing the number of banking regulations in the financial sector, which will reduce their ability to lend money. If so, that would slow the economy, reduce inflation, and therefore do the Fed's job for them. In that environment, there would be no need to raise interest rates further.

As it stands, both the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Producer Price Index (PPI) for last month indicated some small progress toward slowing inflation. However, the data is not enough to dissuade the Fed from backing off its program. The economy is still growing, and employment is still much stronger than the Fed would like to see.

The question on many investors' minds is whether the Fed will back off at next week's meeting or risk further financial contagion and continue its interest rate hikes.

One indication that they will continue their program was the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) on Thursday. Beleaguered Credit Suisse was given a $54 billion liquidity lifeline by the Swiss National Bank. It may not solve the Swiss bank's problems, but for now, it appears sufficient. investors still expected that the ECB's planned interest rate hike of 50 basis points would be delayed or even canceled.

Instead, the ECB hiked rates a half point and assured investors that the eurozone banking sector was resilient, adding that they stood ready to supply liquidity to banks if needed.

It was no accident, in my opinion, that U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told members of the Senate Finance Committee almost the same thing assuring them that the U.S. banking system remains sound.

I am sure the Fed and the Treasury discussed the ECB's intended actions. In times of turmoil in the global banking system, central bankers confer with each other regularly, as do their counterparts in the Treasury. It seems to me that the odds favor Chairman Jerome Powell and the Fed following the ECB's lead and continuing with its tightening program.

Stocks have had a mountain of bad news this week and tested the 3,800 level on the S&P 500 Index, which was my downside target. From there, we bounced more than 160 points before falling back again. I expect markets will continue to trade in these wide swings until the Fed meeting in the middle of next week. From there, the market’s direction will be Powell-dependent. I am betting it is up.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative of Onota Partners Inc. in the Berkshires. He can be reached at 413-347-2401, or email him at billiams1948@gmail.com.

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