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CNBC survey: Look out for a more aggressive Fed this year

The CNBC Fed Survey for March sees 100 percent of respondents believing the Federal Reserve will announce a rate increase on Wednesday and 70 percent saying it will do so again in June.

The 50 respondents, who include economists, fund managers and strategists, now also firmly forecast at least three rate hikes this year.

"A March rate hike makes it easier for the FOMC to hike rates three times," Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, wrote in response to the survey. "I believe that the economy can absorb a few hikes this year, with the strength of the economy being driven by the strength of U.S. consumer spending."

About 60 percent of respondents see the Fed hiking three times this year and 25 percent look for four rates hikes. Some of them some say the Fed is behind the curve when it comes to inflation.

"The Fed is now running to catch the train," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University. "Despite a multitude of uncertainties that have blocked past rate hikes, the risk of moving too slowly has grown increasingly large."

The Fed funds rate is seen rising to 1.43 percent this year, up considerably from the 1.09 percent average predicted before the November election. Next year, the funds rate is forecast to hit 2.25 percent and rise to 2.73 percent by 2019. The Fed is seen hitting its terminal rate, or final level in this rate-hike cycle, of 2.95 percent in the second quarter of 2019.

In total, survey respondents have priced in roughly 50 basis points of additional Fed tightening since the election as monetary policy hands off the reins to fiscal policy for steering the economy. The question is whether markets have priced in the additional hikes.

"I think it is possible that the FOMC could be on the cusp of raising rates more aggressively and that the market has not incorporated that possibility into valuations," said Merrill Ross, managing director at Wunderlich. "The strength of the U.S. dollar and consequent implications for importers (mostly retailers) is worrisome."

Just about half of respondents say "expected fiscal policy" now has the biggest influence on their growth forecasts, with just 13 percent picking monetary policy and 19 percent saying they have equal influence. Wall Street looks to be upbeat on the outlook for economic reforms from the Trump administration, though perhaps not as upbeat as the administration.

Respondents give positive ratings to President Donald Trump's plans to deregulate the economy and enact business and individual tax cuts but give his trade policies negative marks. "We could get some additional growth from prudent tax cuts, looser regulations and infrastructure spending, but if the U.S. becomes highly protectionist, U.S. and global growth will be severely curtailed,'' said Kurt Karl, chief economist at Swiss Re.

Sixty percent oppose the border adjustment tax proposed by House Republicans, up from 45 percent in the prior survey. The president has yet to embrace the tax.

On average, since the election respondents have raised their growth forecasts for 2017 by just 0.2 percentage points and by 0.4 for 2018, considerably below the optimistic views of the president and his team, who say their plans can add 1 or even 2 percentage points to growth. In the survey, 39 percent say fiscal stimulus is needed but 54 percent say it is not because the economy is already near full employment and stimulus risks higher inflation. That's up 6 points from the Fed Survey in January and a sign of a schism between the White House and many Wall Street forecasters over the effectiveness and necessity of tax cuts and additional spending.

Respondents are even more convinced stock market expectations for new policies from the Trump administration are too optimistic. Just a third see them as realistic, down from 39 percent in the January survey, and 64 percent say they are too optimistic, up 8 points. Wall Street is somewhat more convinced that recent stock market gains have been driven by solid economic fundamentals, including a better corporate profit outlook, but a solid majority still think policy expectations from the new administration are the main driver for the rally.

Respondents increased their forecasts for the S&P 500 this year to 2,427 for 2017 and to 2,555 for 2018. That means 2.3 percent more growth is forecast for stocks this year and 7.7 percent through the end of next year.

"Second-half headwinds for the S&P 500 include concerns about wage inflation (and general inflation) in 2018 and a Fed that might be 'behind the curve' next year," said Scott Wren, senior global equity strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

Overall, respondents have high expectations that the president's agenda will be enacted. Tax cuts are seen becoming law by the fourth quarter of this year and reform of the Dodd-Frank bank regulation bill is expected by the first quarter of 2018. Reform of Fannie and Freddie is forecast not to happen until third quarter of 2018 and a third of respondents say it will never happen.

There's more optimism for health-care reform, with the average respondent seeing it enacted in third quarter of this year, but there is more debate about its value. Thirty-eight percent say the new GOP health plan is better than Obamacare and 34 percent say it's worse. Forty-five percent say the bill would have no effect on economic growth, while 38 percent say it would improve growth somewhat.

Some advice from survey respondents for the president: Stop tweeting. Forty-seven percent say the president's missives make it less likely his economic policies will be enacted. Just 9 percent of respondents say it helps his cause, while 38 percent believe it has a negative effect.