The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.
Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Federal Reserve has a big meeting on tap next week, one that will be held under the cloud of an ethical dilemma and will be run by a policymaking committee that finds itself with fairly pronounced divisions about the path ahead.

Markets largely expect the Fed to follow the two-day session with no major decisions, but rather just the first but significant nods that the historically easy pandemic-era accommodation is coming to an end soon if slowly.

“Tapering” will be the word of the day when the post-meeting statement is issued Wednesday, at which time individual officials also will release their forecasts on the future arc of interest rates as well as economic growth and inflation.

All of that will be set against a backdrop of controversy: News reports in recent days indicate that Fed officials have been trading stocks and bonds that could be influenced at least indirectly by their policy decisions.

At the same time, speeches over the past several weeks indicate a schism between those who say the time is now to start tightening policy and those who’d rather wait.

For the normally staid Fed, the present circumstances are unusual and could yield some interesting dynamics.

“I think it’s embarrassing for the Fed. It had such a squeaky-clean reputation,” Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist at AGF Investments, said of the trading controversy that largely involved regional presidents Robert Kaplan of Dallas and Eric Rosengren of Boston. “But I don’t think it’s going to change policy in any regard at all. I think it will be rearview mirror pretty soon, assuming there’s no other shoe to drop.”

Valliere did note the issue will help fuel Fed critics such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who had been a vocal detractor of the Fed’s looser regulatory approach in the years since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

A matter of credibility

More than that, though, the Fed lives on its credibility, and some of the recent problems could dent that.

There’s the market credibility issue – Wall Street and investors need to believe that the Fed is at least mostly unified in its monetary policy approach to setting interest rates and associated moves that have market impact. Then there’s the public credibility – at a time when faith in Washington’s institutions has plunged, ethical missteps only add to that and can have repercussions, especially at such a delicate time.

“The ethics here look bad. They should have known better,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist for the Americas at Natixis and former chief economist of the National Economic Council during the Trump administration. “Once you lose that moral authority, it’s a problem.”

Rosengren, Kaplan and any other Fed officials who traded stocks didn’t violate laws or policies. In fact, that’s become part of the criticism leveled in some circles – that following the financial crisis the Fed didn’t do a housecleaning when it came to internal rules to make sure it avoided the kinds of conflicts that came to light during the crisis.

“Keep in mind, they already have [trading] rules they imposed on banks, for example, and yet the Fed’s governors don’t live by those same rules,” said Christopher Whalen, a Fed veteran and now chairman of Whalen Global Advisors. “After Dodd-Frank [the post-crisis banking reforms], every agency in Washington tightened up little conflicts like insider trading. And yet the Fed is somehow exempt from those rules? They look ridiculous.”

For its part, the Fed has noted that it is following rules for other government agencies and has supplemental rules as well.

Jerome Powell, nominee to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, shakes hands with US Senator Elizabeth Warren (R), Democrat of Massachusetts, prior to testifying during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Still, a spokesman for the central bank said Thursday that Chairman Jerome Powell has directed Fed staff “to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the ethics rules around permissible financial holdings and activities by senior Fed officials.”

“This review will assist in identifying ways to further tighten those rules and standards. The Board will make changes, as appropriate, and any changes will be added to the Reserve Bank Code of Conduct,” the official added.

The controversy comes against a delicate set of circumstances for the Fed.

The central bank is preparing to take its first steps to normalize policy again, after slashing benchmark interest rates to zero and doubling the size of its balance sheet through more than $4 trillion in bond purchases.

Fed officials are divided on policy: By Goldman Sachs’ count, six officials who have spoken publicly on the issue of tapering asset purchases are for it and six are against. On inflation, while Powell has said he expects price pressures to recede fairly soon, at least six Fed officials, including Governor Christopher Waller, have said they anticipate inflation to remain above the central bank’s 2% target beyond 2021.

One more complication thrown into the mix is that Powell’s term is set to expire in February, and President Joe Biden is expected to announce soon his preferred choice to lead the bank ahead. Most on Wall Street expect Powell to be nominated again, but there’s growing sentiment that Biden will move out Randal Quarles as vice chairman in charge of bank supervision and replace him with Governor Lael Brainard, who likely would use a heavier hand in bank regulation.

Amid all those pressures, Powell will have to make sure the Fed gets policy right and is able to clear away some of the contentiousness of late.

“It’s not a fait accompli that Jerome Powell is reappointed,” said LaVorgna, the Natixis economist. “The administration is understandably going to wait and see how the Fed handles the taper and what the markets do. That could be the determining factor in whether he’s reappointed.”

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Retail sales posted a surprise gain in August despite fears that escalating Covid cases and supply chain issues would hold back consumers, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.

Sales increased 0.7% for the month against the Dow Jones estimate of a decline of 0.8%.

A separate economic report showed that weekly jobless claims increased to 332,000 for the week ended Sept. 11, according to the Labor Department. The Dow Jones estimate was for 320,000.

Economists had expected that consumers cut back their activity as the delta variant continued its tear through the U.S. Persistent supply chain bottlenecks also were expected to hold back spending as in-demand goods were hard to find.

The pandemic’s impact did show up in sales at bars and restaurants, which were flat for the month though still 31.9% ahead of where they were a year ago.

However, sales were strong for most areas during the month, when back-to-school shopping generally results in a pickup in activity, especially so this year as schools prepared to welcome back students after a year of remote learning.

The headline number would have been even better without a 3.6% monthly drop in auto-related activity; excluding the sector, sales rose 1.8%, also well above the 0.1% expected gain.

With fears rising over the pandemic, shoppers turned online, with nonstore sales jumping 5.3%. Furniture and home furnishing also saw a healthy 3.7% increase, while general merchandise sales rose 3.5%.

Electronics and appliances stores saw a 3.1% drop, while sporting goods and music stores fell 2.7%.

The numbers overall reflected a more resilient consumer, with sales up 15.1% from the same period a year ago.

The retail upside surprise was tempered slightly with a disappointing read on jobless claims.

Initial filings increased 20,000 from a week ago after posting a fresh pandemic-era low. Still, the four-week moving average, which accounts for weekly volatility, declined to 335,750, a drop of 4,250 that brought the figure to its lowest point since March 14, 2020, at the pandemic’s onset.

The claims total came under heavy seasonal adjustments, as the unadjusted figure showed a drop in filings of 23,331 to 262,619.

Continuing claims also declined, falling by 187,000 to 2.66 million, also a new low since Covid hit. The four-week moving average nudged lower to about 2.81 million.

However, those receiving compensation under all programs actually increased just ahead of the expiration of enhanced federal jobless benefits. That total, through Aug. 28 and thus before the expiration, rose by 178,937 to 12.1 million.

In a separate economic report, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve reported its manufacturing activity index rose 11 points to 30.7, representing the percentage difference between firms reporting expanding activity against those seeing contraction. That number was well ahead of the Dow Jones estimate of 18.7.

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