With next week’s calendar full of economic data releases and speeches by economic policymakers, investors have been poised to watch the Federal Reserve for clues about the U.S. central bank’s next move, but an unexpectedly hot reading on inflation on Friday will further sharpen that focus.
After coming into 2016 with an expectation of three or four interest rate hikes through the year, market participants recently were viewing the Fed as likely raising interest rates once, if at all, in light of weak inflation and global volatility.
But Friday’s data showed the core consumer price index (CPI), a measure of underlying U.S. inflation, rose in January by the most in nearly 4-1/2 years to a 2.2 percent annualized rate. It drew particular attention as the number was above the Fed’s 2.0 percent target, though it is not the central bank’s benchmark inflation measure.
The uptick in price pressures has already shifted the market’s expectations on the Fed’s next move.
The dollar rose alongside Treasury yields shortly after the data, as markets saw the higher inflation as nudging the Fed toward tightening policy. The euro hit its lowest since Feb. 3.
Equity markets have also closely followed expectations on Fed policy. Lower rates tend to support stocks in general, with high-paying dividend names like utilities gaining investors’ favor. In an environment of rising rates, banks tend to take the lead.
The expectation of higher interest rates has been cited as one of the reasons for stocks having fallen as much as 11 percent this year. The S&P 500 .SPX is down 6 percent so far in 2016, and on track for its third positive week of the year.
The inflation numbers add to recent economic data, including a stronger job market and consumer spending, that will force the Fed to seriously reconsider more rate hikes, said Jim Paulsen, chief investment officer at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis.