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The market now loves Jay Powell

Myles Udland
Markets Reporter

And now, the stock market loves Jay Powell.

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell spoke before the Economic Club of New York and the reaction from investors was practically exuberant.

Stocks were higher across the board with the Dow rising more than 600 points while the S&P 500, Nasdaq, and Russell 2000 all gained more than 2.3%. Bonds also rallied, the dollar fell, and the overall market reaction was full-on risk-on.

Here’s the key line from Powell investors latched onto: “Interest rates are still low by historical standards, and they remain just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy‑‑that is, neither speeding up nor slowing down growth.”

The “just below” language stands in contrast to Powell’s October comments that interest rates were a “long way” from neutral, a remark some had blamed for triggering the sell-off in stocks that have shaken investors over the last two months.

Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks at a meeting of the Economic Club of New York in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. Powell said he and other policy makers continue to see a ‘solid’ outlook for the U.S. economy, while noting that interest rates are ‘just below’ the so-called neutral range. Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In his speech Wednesday, Powell spoke directly to the stock market volatility and somewhat downplayed the recent action. “It is important to distinguish between market volatility and events that threaten financial stability,” Powell said. “Large, sustained declines in equity prices can put downward pressure on spending and confidence. From the financial stability perspective, however, today we do not see dangerous excesses in the stock market.”

Following Powell’s comments, some economists argued that the market’s reaction to his speech somewhat misunderstood his point. “[Powell] was very careful to present both upside and downside risks [to the economy],” said Torsten Sløk, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank. “The market is putting too much weigh on the dovish arguments here; I don’t think that is what he intended to signal.”

Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, said Wednesday that, “I think we should refrain from an overly dovish interpretation” of Powell’s comments. Daco said Powell’s comments — coupled with comments from Fed vice chair Richard Clarida on Tuesday — show a “growing desire by the Fed to move the landing zone for the federal funds rate, and signal less cumulative tightening ahead.” 

In other words, the Fed is going to be doing fewer rate hikes in the coming years than they’ve done over the last few, but Powell’s comments do not necessarily indicate the overall path for policy will be revised down.

These more measured reads on Powell’s comments, however, are not what Wall Street says it heard on Wednesday. On this count the market speaks loud and clear — Powell blinked and the Fed will be sensitive to market swings going forward.

How long the market’s new love for Powell lasts will be tested in just a few weeks’ time when Powell speaks following the Fed’s next policy meeting, scheduled for December 19. Next year, investors will hear from Powell after all 8 of the Fed’s policy meetings, giving the markets even more chances to test their faith in the Fed chair.

But whether the markets are correctly assigning a new future policy path to the Fed given Powell’s comments on Wednesday or not, there are two certainties when it comes to the next few years of Fed communications. The first is that we will hear from Powell more often. The second is that as the Fed gets closer to a neutral policy stance those communications might grow a little more muddled, leading to more days like Wednesday. Both up and down.

Myles Udland is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MylesUdland