Markets on Edge as Inflation Jitters Spark Volatility

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The red hot U.S. economy has financial markets caught between fears of overheating versus overtightening, leading to a tense environment of volatility and angst. U.S. stocks fell sharply on Tuesday, reversing early gains, as investors grew nervous ahead of this week’s critical inflation report that could help shape the Federal Reserve’s policy path.

All eyes are on Wednesday’s March Consumer Price Index (CPI) data, with economists forecasting headline inflation accelerated to 3.4% year-over-year, up from 3.2% in February. The more closely watched core measure excluding food and energy is expected to ease slightly to 3.7% from 3.8%.

The CPI print takes on heightened importance after a slate of robust economic data has traders quickly recalibrating expectations for Fed rate cuts this year. At the start of 2024, markets were pricing in up to 150 basis points of easing as worries about a potential recession peaked. But those easing bets have been dramatically pared back to just around 60 basis points currently.

The shift highlights how perspicacious the “no landing” scenario of stubbornly high inflation forcing the Fed to remain restrictive has become. Traders now only see a 57% chance of at least a 25 basis point cut at the June FOMC meeting, down from 64% just last week.

“Given the strength of the economic data, it’s getting easier and easier to defend the notion that we might be closer to an overheating economy than one nearing recession,” said Dave Grecsek at Aspiriant. “At the moment, three rate cuts this year seems a little demanding.”

Tuesday’s market turmoil underscored this increased skittishness around the inflation trajectory and its policy implications. Major U.S. indices fell, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 0.38%, the S&P 500 off 0.32%, and the Nasdaq Composite declining 0.17%.

The sell-off was broad-based, impacting many of the high-growth tech leaders that have powered the market’s gains so far in 2024. Megacap growth stocks including Nvidia, Meta Platforms, and Microsoft fell between 0.2% and 2.9%. Financial stocks, among the most rate-sensitive sectors, were the worst performers on the day with the S&P 500 Financials index down 0.8%.

The heightened volatility and economic uncertainty has been particularly punishing for the small and micro-cap segments of the market. These smaller, higher-risk companies tend to underperform during turbulent periods as investor appetite for risk diminishes. The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks fell 1.2% on Tuesday and is down over 5% from its highs just two weeks ago.

Cryptocurrency and blockchain-related stocks also got caught up in the downdraft, with Coinbase Global and MicroStrategy dropping sharply as bitcoin prices tumbled. Moderna bucked the bearish trend with a 6.9% surge after positive data for its cancer vaccine developed with Merck.

Geopolitical tensions around Iran’s threat to potentially close the critical Strait of Hormuz shipping lane added another layer of anxiety.

While some might view the market jitters as a buying opportunity, the unease is unlikely to dissipate soon given the Fed uncertainty. Investors will be closely scrutinizing the minutes from the March FOMC meeting due out on Wednesday as well for additional clues on policymakers’ latest thinking.

With inflation proving stickier than expected, the Fed has increasingly pushed back against market pricing for rate cuts this year. Several Fed officials have emphasized that any cuts in 2024 are far from assured if inflation does not moderate substantially. That will keep all eyes laser-focused on each CPI print going forward.

Markets have been whipsawed by conflicting economic signals and rampant volatility as investors try to game the unpredictable path ahead. With high stakes riding on the inflation trajectory and its policy implications, intense swings are likely to persist as markets grapple with this high-wire act between overheating and overtightening.


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