There have been no more major bombshells from financial institutions, a sign that the Fed's six rate cuts since last September and massive injections of liquidity into the banking system may be working. In fact, Merrill Lynch (MER, Fortune 500) indicated yesterday that it would pay its dividend this quarter, relieving investors who were anticipating a cut.
For the first time in a while, there seems to be cause for optimism about the markets. The Dow is trading at its highest level since Jan. 10. The bond market is acting as if it's not as worried about a recession anymore either. Bonds have fallen in recent weeks, sending the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury to about 3.86%, up from a year-to-date low of 3.28% in January. Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions and lower yields are usually associated as a sign of economic weakness. And for consumers, even though it's still a painful time because of rising food and gas prices, help is on the way as well. The first of the government's tax rebate checks will be hitting mailboxes on Monday.
Of course, it still is a rough economic environment. The surging price of food threatens to disrupt not just U.S. consumer spending patterns but the overall global economy. That's where the Federal Reserve will hopefully step in.
The Fed's policy-setting committee holds a two-day meeting next week and will announce its next step regarding interest rates on Wednesday. Many fear that more rate cuts could lead to a further weakening of the dollar, which in turn, could fuel more speculation in the commodities markets and drive food and gas prices even higher.
"The Fed's intention to pause...may be part of an international effort to stabilize the falling value of the dollar in light of the deteriorating state of world food prices. Indeed, the falling value of the dollar has been an integral component of soaring commodity prices," wrote Ashraf Laidi, chief currency strategist with CMC Markets U.S. in a report Friday morning.
I doubt the Fed will be so bold to pause just yet though. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, like his predecessor Alan Greenspan, likes to telegraph the central bank's moves well in advance and not surprise the markets. And according to the latest federal funds futures price on the Chicago Board of Trade, investors are pricing in an 80% chance of a quarter-point cut.
"For American consumers, a lower federal funds rate could do more harm than good," wrote Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank in a report Thursday.
So as strange as this may sound, higher interest rates, or at the very least, not more cuts, might be exactly what this market and economy needs. Hopefully, the Fed will send a strong signal to investors Wednesday that it is getting ready to sit tight.