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Bill Schmick: Fed-fueled gains support markets

California-Electric Vehicles (copy)

Tesla cars are loaded onto carriers in 2020 at the Tesla electric car plant in Fremont, Calif. If signed into law, the $430 billion Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 would provide consumers a $7,500 tax credit to purchase new electric vehicles.

The markets embraced another 75-basis point interest rate hike by the Fed, even as the U.S. economy contracted for the second quarter in a row. Bad news became good news in today’s markets.

It was not so much the hike in the Fed funds rate announced as part of the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) meeting on Wednesday, as it was the words of Chair Jerome Powell in the Q&A session afterward. Although he really did not say anything new, the markets and the media interpreted his stance as more dovish, if not pivotal.

The bulls’ argument is that the economy is slowing, inflation is peaking, and therefore the Fed is likely to slow, if not stop, its interest rate hikes altogether in the months ahead. This argument carries more weight now that the nation’s economy fell by 0.9 percent in the second quarter, while economists expected a gain of 0.4 percent.

But the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index announced for June 2022 came in hotter than expected (6.8 percent versus the 6.7 percent expected). It is a key variable the Fed watches closely, which would indicate inflation is still climbing.

Now depending on your politics, we are technically in a recession, defined by two negatives quarters in a row of declining growth. The Biden administration denies that is the official definition. Economists, according to their argument, evaluate the state of the business cycle based on a slew of variables such as the labor market, consumer and business spending, industrial production, and incomes. None of those items conclusively prove we are in a recession.

My take is if it looks like a duck, fand feels like a duck, then mostly likely, it is a duck. If we are not in a recession, then the alternative would be stagflation.

Corporate earnings seem to indicate a slowing of the economy. Social media stocks, which depend on advertising for a great deal of their revenues, are seeing a strong decline in spending. Those companies that have been able to pass on higher cost through price rises are doing okay, but few companies are hitting results out of the park.

Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft earnings, while not great, were at least less bad than many expected. Their share prices gained (some substantially), which buoyed the market and has allowed the relief rally to continue to climb.

A surprise breakthrough between Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Joe Manchin on a whittled-down $430 billion spending program cheered the markets. The agreement would increase corporate taxes, lower the cost of prescription drugs, reduce the national debt, and invest in energy technologies that will focus on reducing climate change.

The bill is touted to reduce the deficit by $300 billion over 10 years, and lower carbon emissions by about 40 percent by 2030. It has been dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, although nothing in the bill except its title would have any impact on inflation this year or even next. For individuals, it would provide a $7,500 tax credit to buy new electric vehicles. It would also provide a $410 billion tax credit to manufacturing facilities for things like electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels.

The cost of the compromise bill is much lower than the multi-trillion, “Build Back Better” plan originally proposed by the Biden administration. The thinking is that no Republicans in either the House or Senate will vote for the bill, so the reconciliation process is the direction Democrats will use to pass the bill. If Democrats are to be believed, the bill should pass as early as next week

It was no surprise that the sectors that would benefit most from this spending plan rose on the announcement. The alternative energy sectors gained on the news, as did oil and gas stocks. By Friday, the S&P 500 Index broke the 4,100 level and some think 4,200 will be the next level that the bulls are targeting.

Could we get there, given the belief that the Fed may pause in its tightening program? Sure, but we are already over extended. We are running on empty as far as buying juice is concerned, so if we are going to get there, we need to pull back first. That may happen early next week but for now things look good at least into mid-August, and then down again.

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 e-mail him at billiams1948@gmail.com.

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