Can the Fed Fend Off the Ides of March?

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Ahead of this week’s FOMC meeting, look for volatility to rise as tensions mount in Ukraine on the heels of a controversial referendum. But investors should focus on fundamentals and avoid kneejerk reactions to the evolving situation.

On Sunday, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. Meanwhile, Russian troops gathered at the Ukrainian border. Stocks fell substantially, volatility increased significantly and the yield on the 10-year Treasury fell.

“Despite the conflict in Ukraine, we don’t expect the FOMC to alter its plans for tapering asset purchases.”

March Madness

The Ides of March, March 15, is a significant date in history. It was the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Caesar’s assassination was a critical turning point in Roman history, triggering events that transformed the Roman Republic into the larger Roman Empire.

Yesterday, just as the Ides of March had passed, and just as expected, Crimea voted to join Russia. Some pundits worried it would mark a turning point in Russian history, triggering events that could transform Russia into a larger Eastern European Union and materially impact the balance of power. Others believed it would be a repeat of Russia’s takeover of provinces in Georgia in 2008, an isolated event that would have limited impact on international relations. Still others suspect it was a necessary move for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who may feel increasingly threatened economically by the European Monetary Union and militarily threatened by Russia’s southern neighbors with nuclear capabilities.

For the stock market, this likely means a continuation of last week’s volatility. With Crimea’s decision to separate from Ukraine, we expect a near-term rise in risk premia, or returns above Treasury yields rewarded to investors who take on higher risk, but not necessarily a lasting destabilization of markets if the West accepts this outcome.

However, the West is calling the vote “illegitimate and forced” because there was no option on the ballot for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine. And the fact that Russia has begun to discuss concerns about the protection of ethnic Russians in other locations in Ukraine, raising the possibility of an invasion in those regions, there’s a chance this situation could worsen and have a more lasting impact on stability.

FOMC and Forward Guidance

Despite the conflict in Ukraine, we don’t expect the FOMC to alter its plans for tapering asset purchases when it meets this week. While the Fed received an additional mandate from Dodd-Frank to help ensure stability in the markets, it’s highly unlikely that the central bank would change its monetary policy on account of a geopolitical crisis. In addition, while the vote in Crimea could be the start of more uncertainty and perhaps even a reinvented Russian bloc, it’s unlikely to impact the investing landscape. We would discourage investors from changing their allocations because of the situation in Ukraine. We remain focused on fundamentals and encourage investors to do the same.

While we’ve seen some weakness in the US economy in the past few months, economic surprise indices in March have risen, suggesting much of the downturn was weather-related. We believe the Fed is unlikely to change its projections on when it will raise the fed funds rate.

Still, we expect the FOMC to continue to move to more qualitative and holistic guidance on its target interest rate. Using the unemployment rate as an indicator of when to raise the target rate is flawed, and that’s becoming increasingly obvious. The FOMC should benefit from stepping back and analyzing the state of the labor market and the economy more fully.

In short, we don’t expect any surprises when the FOMC meets this week. The Fed will surely recognize the winter economic slowdown, but will likely continue on its current, highly accommodative path. Expect looser for longer.

Kristina Hooper, CFP, CAIA, CIMA, ChFC, is US head of investment and client strategies for Allianz Global Investors. She has a B.A. from Wellesley College, a J.D. from Pace Law and an M.B.A. in finance from NYU, where she was a teaching fellow in macroeconomics.

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© Allianz Global Investors

© Allianz Global Investors

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