Central bankers on both sides of the Atlantic could stir the markets Thursday.
The European Central Bank and Bank of England both meet ahead of the U.S. open, and while there's speculation the ECB could move to cut rates, many U.S. strategists think it will stand pat. More interesting to them are the comments expected from two Fed hawks - Kansas City Fed President Esther George and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard. Both are voting members on the Federal Open Market Committee, and they speak in the afternoon.
While always of interest, Fed speakers are even more important since the Fed's meeting minutes last week revealed more dissention than expected on the FOMC about its quantitative easing programs. The Fed is purchasing $85 billion mortgage and Treasury securities a month, adding to its already sizeable balance sheet. The minutes noted that several members at the last meeting either though the program should slow or stop by the end of the year, while the markets had believed the programs could go well into next year.
George speaks at 1:10 p.m. ET on the economic outlook, and Bullard speaks at 2 p.m. on the economy and monetary policy. Non-voting member Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota also speaks at 8 p.m. Neither George or Bullard were voting members when the FOMC last met in December.
"I would not be surprised if she (George) is one of the people that's going to be making a powerful, convincing case for issues related to financial stability with regard to this open-ended quantitative easing," said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. "The economy in the last four quarters has grown at a 2.6 percent year-over-year rate, and that's not a boom by many means, and it's probably about 150 basis points lower than where it's been historically…But the economy is getting a little better and growth would be strong in the fourth quarter if not for the hurricane and yet the Fed is pledging unlimited easing."
"I think we'll hear some of these presidents make a persuasive case that that cannot continue endlessly," he said.
Bullard, meanwhile, spoke on CNBC last week and said the Fed's action should be driven by the economy, not the calendar.
The Fed's minutes last week did stir up markets, sending rates higher. While they have since backed down, rates are still higher than they were at the end of the year. That makes the 30-year auction at 1 p.m. particularly interesting.
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Ian Lyngen, senior Treasury strategist at CRT Capital, expects the $13 billion auction to go smoothly. "The hawks don't speak until after the auction. There becomes a very strong argument that after the auctions are out of the way, having gone reasonably well, the Treasury market has room to rally," he said.
As for the ECB, it releases a statement at 7:35 a.m. ET and ECB President Mario Draghi then briefs the press.
While some analysts think the ECB might take its zero deposit rate to a negative number to spur activity, Brown Brothers Harriman senior currency strategist Win Thin said the ECB is unlikely to move. "I think they're keeping their powder dry. Things have calmed down. The economy is weak, but they expected that. The press conference will be more interesting. I think he'll be pretty cagey. He's not going to box himself in. He said the right stuff to calm markets down without doing anything."
What Else to Watch
There is also some early morning data, including weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. and wholesale trade at 10 a.m. Economists expect to see jobless claims of 365,000.
"We have to be careful not to read too much into it if the claims go up or down much. There's major seasonal issues this time of year," said LaVorgna. "I still think claims are trending lower but I'd be very careful to read too much into these next couple of weeks."
There is also natural gas inventory data, which traders will be watching at 10:30 a.m. after a 3 percent decline in natural gas futures Wednesday.
Herbalife, targeted as a short by investor Bill Ackman, holds an analyst day, starting at 9 a.m. Dan Loeb of Third Point Partners Wednesday took the opposite position, reporting an eight percent stake in the company. There were also reports Wednesday that the Securities and Exchange Commission has launched an inquiry into Herbalife.