Stocks are poised to closed out March with their best month in almost five years. But for the quarter, the Dow and S&P should record very modest gains and the NASDAQ will be a small loser. Stock traders and equity managers are going to be very happy with the meager results this quarter given what might have been, and you don’t have to dread opening up your next 401k statement.
On the bonds side, March looks like a wash at best if not a small loss. But the quarterly gain for bonds will be very good. With stocks almost unchanged, average monthly payroll gains over 200,000, and rising inflation indexes, you would expect that rates would have risen, but the world’s central bankers quashed any rise in rates in the first quarter.
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Japan went to negative rates in January, ECB’s Draghi dug deeper into negative rates early this month, and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen used words that fed into the minds of the already bullish bond market.
Looking ahead, the markets will start the quarter much better than the beginning of the first quarter, but the quarterly outlook is far from certain. Yellen essentially relegated economic data to nothing but table talk, but if the data does surprise consistently to the upside over the quarter (most particularly inflation news), we could find ourselves in a position where the Fed’s credibility is questioned. The bond market would suffer a sharp reversal. If the data weakens, Yellen will be hailed as a leader with great foresight and rates will hit new lows for 2016.
That sounds like I’m expecting a decisive quarter ahead, and I am. I think by the end of the next quarter we’ll know whether to plan for several more years of ultra-low rates or to plan for rising rates in an erratic and unsettling pattern. The first quarter of 2016 was interesting, but the second quarter just might set the course for a long time to come.
Dwight Johnston is the chief economist of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues and president of Dwight Johnston Economics. He is the author of a popular commentary site and is a frequent speaker at credit union board planning sessions and industry conferences.