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Wednesday Testimonial Signals Another Rate Cut

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress Wednesday of a period of sluggish business growth, sending a fresh signal of another cut in interest rates.

"The economic situation has become distinctly less favorable" since the summer, Bernanke testified. Since his previous such assessment last summer, the housing slump has worsened, credit problems have intensified and the job market has deteriorated. Bernanke said the confluence of these factors has turned people and businesses alike toward a more cautious attitude toward spending and investment. This, he said, has further weakened the economy.

Incoming barometers continue to "suggest sluggish economic activity in the near term," Bernanke said in an appearance before the House Financial Services Committee. At the same time, he added, the Fed must keep a close eye on inflation given the recent run-up in energy and other prices paid by consumers and businesses.

For now though, the No. 1 battle is shoring up the economy. And Bernanke pledged anew to slice a key interest rate to steady the wobbly economy, which many fear is on the verge of a recession or possibly has already toppled into one.

The Fed "will act in a timely manner as needed to support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks," Bernanke said, hewing closely to assurances he offered earlier this month.

The central bank, which started lowering a key interest rate in September, has recently turned much more aggressive. Over the span of just eight days in January, it slashed rates by 1.25 percentage points -- the biggest one-month reduction in a quarter century. Economists and Wall Street investors predict the Fed will cut rates again at its next meeting on March 18.

There are dangers that the economy will weaken even further. "The risks include the possibilities that the housing market or labor market may deteriorate more than is currently anticipated and that credit conditions may tighten substantially further," Bernanke cautioned.

The Fed chief was hopeful that previous rate reductions along with a $168 billion stimulus package of tax rebates for people and tax breaks for business will energize the economy in the second half of this year.

Even as the Fed tries to shore up the economy, it must remain mindful of inflation pressures, Bernanke said.

Record high oil prices -- topping $100 a barrel -- are pushing consumer prices upward. That's shrinking paychecks, and with people feeling less well off because the values of their homes have dropped, consumer spending "slowed significantly" toward the end of the year, the Fed chief said.

The Fed forecasts that inflation will moderate this year compared with last year. But the Fed's recently revised inflation projection of an increase between 2.1 percent and 2.4 percent is higher than its old forecast from the fall.

Bernanke said there are "slightly greater upside risks" that inflation could turn out to be higher than the Fed currently anticipates, given the recent run-up in energy and food prices.

"Should high rates of overall inflation persist, the possibility also exists that inflation expectations could become less well anchored," Bernanke warned. If people, companies and investors think inflation will move higher, they will act in ways that could turn inflation even worse, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. And Bernanke said that could complicate the Fed's job of trying to nurture economic growth while also keeping inflation under control.

With the economy slowing and prices rising, fears are growing that the country could be headed for a bout of stagflation, a dangerous economic brew not seen since the 1970s.

The Fed for now is focused on bolstering the economy through interest rate reductions. To combat inflation, the Fed would raise rates.

At some point over the course of this year, the Fed will need to "assess whether the stance of monetary policy is properly calibrated" to foster the Fed's objectives of price stability "in an environment of downside risks to growth," Bernanke said.

Canadian Loonie Defies Logic

Over the last few years, commodity prices, equity values, and interest rate differentials all favored Canada. By no coincidence, the Loonie rallied to such an extent that it soon reached parity with the USD. The relationship between these trends and the Canadian Dollar seemed so cut-and-dried that few analysts paid attention to anything else. In the last couple months, however, these relationships seem to have suddenly dissolved.

For example, as the price of oil has begun to rise again, the Loonie has unexpectedly lost value. Meanwhile, the inverse correlation between risk aversion and the Loonie has lost all validity, such that if the S&P 500 increases, the odds that the Canadian Dollar will also appreciate is essentially an even money bet.

USD Slumps on Dismal Data

By Korman Tam of forexnews.com

The dollar fell across the board, slumping to a two-week low against the euro to 1.4837 and relinquishing the 1.96-level versus the sterling. The catalyst for the greenback’s losses was another round of weak US data reigniting fears that the economy is headed into recession.

The Philadelphia Fed manufacturing index plunged to its lowest level since 2001 to minus 24 in February deteriorating further from the minus 20.9 reading a month earlier and defying expectations for an improvement to minus 11. The January leading economic indicators index was in line with expectations, down 0.1% versus a 0.2% decline from the previous month. Meanwhile, weekly jobless claims came in at 349k, versus a revised 358k from the previous week.

Given the current scenario of deteriorating fundamentals and lingering inflationary pressure, we expect the Fed to maintain its focus on growth with inflation reports taking a secondary role. Yesterday’s stronger than expected consumer price index reports failed to deter markets from pricing in further aggressive rate cuts by the FOMC. We look for the Fed to cut rates by 50-basis points when they meet next month, taking their benchmark lending down to 2.5%.

Bernanke Hints Rate Cuts

In testifying before the Senate Budget Committee, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of America's Federal Reserve Bank, hinted strongly that further rate cuts would be necessary to stabilize the US economy. Last week, the Forex Blog covered an editorial which suggested that Bernanke knew something about the state of the economy that the American public did not, which his testimony seemed to confirm. Bernanke testified that the Fed is also committed to fighting inflation, but the emphasis was clearly on spurring economic growth. As a result, futures markets are pricing in a rate cut of 50 basis points, projected for the next month. The forex markets were unambiguous about the implications of this development for the Dollar.

Fed cutting rates doesn't mean USD will recover in near term. But the long term effect of it will benefits those carry pairs that rely much on overnight interest rate earnings, it will benefit those hedging correlated pairs, trading strategies that are sensitive to stock prices and yields. Cutting rates will present some nice long term opportunities. I'm not saying that global crisis is over, but it is looking like daylight may be ahead.

Risk Aversion Benefits the Dollar

While most of the currency pairs are in a loose range bound as talk and evidence of a US economic recession builds, the Dollar has witnessed a slight upswing. How to explain these seemingly contradictory trends? The rationale is surprisingly simple. While a US recession would predictably hit the US harder than other countries, it would still hamper growth abroad, especially in emerging markets that have come to depend on exports to the US to drive growth. Accordingly, investing in such emerging markets becomes relatively more risky than investing in the US, which is still considered to have the world's most stable investing climate from a long-term perspective. Thus, as risk aversion rises, so does the Dollar.

Currency Trader Magazine February 2008 issue

February issue of the Currency Trader Magazine is now available to download.

Inside this issue. There are 2 good read articles concerning the last month Fed's drastic rate cuts and how it will affect the USD.

Download it HERE.

Why the Fed Cut Rates

It seems self-evident that the Fed is easing monetary policy because it is trying to stimulate the economy and shore up confidence in capital markets by making credit less expensive. Dig a little deeper, however, and a more nuanced picture begins to emerge. Conspiracy theorists believe that the Fed knows something that investors don't, perhaps that the subprime mortgage situation is more serious than the public is being led to believe. Accordingly, the theory goes, it is trying to prevent a complete collapse of the financial system. Another theory holds that the Fed is cutting rates because it has nothing to lose by doing so. Inflation is still low, from a historical standpoint, and the Fed may be trying to inject liquidity into the financial markets before it is too late. Yet another theory holds that the Fed is deliberately targeting a weak Dollar and high commodity prices, as the former benefits the US directly by narrowing the trade imbalance, and the latter benefits the US indirectly by helping emerging market economies, which are relatively more dependent on commodities.