Watch yields if Fed minutes reveal taper talk
Minutes from the Federal Reserve's October meeting could help determine the course of interest rates for the rest of the year.
The minutes, due at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, will be watched for clues about the Fed's $85-billion-a-month bond-buying program. Some strategists do not expect to see much, if any, discussion of slowing bond purchases, but traders have been handicapping whether the minutes will show more Fed members leaning toward tapering.
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The Fed surprised markets with its decision not to taper its quantitative easing program in September, and it is believed spotty economic data coupled with the partial U.S. government shutdown and debt ceiling debate in Washington kept the Fed sidelined in October.
"I think the minutes can move the ball if it was a close call in October," said John Briggs, who heads cross asset strategy at RBS. "…If it was a close call, and the economy handled the fiscal issues in stride then that's going to point toward December."
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to the National Associations of Business Economists Tuesday evening and repeated that the asset purchases are not on a preset course, noting they depend on the economic outlook. Bernanke also emphasized that the end of QE does not mean higher a Fed funds rate, and he once more emphasized that those policies could be on separate paths.
To reinforce that, he stressed that short-term rates could also remain near zero even after the 6.5 percent threshold on unemployment is crossed. Bernanke said economic progress has been made, but not enough.
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"I agree with the sentiment, expressed by my colleague Janet Yellen at her testimony last week that the surest path to a more normal approach to monetary policy is to do all we can today to promote a more robust recovery," a dovish Bernanke told the economists.
Barry Knapp, head of equity portfolio strategy at Barclays, said one thing to watch in the minutes will be whether Fed officials discussed lowering the unemployment threshold from 6.5 percent, which has been cited by the Fed as a target for when they would begin to raise the Fed funds rate.
"If the minutes talk about lowering the unemployment rate to 6 percent, that's probably a sign they're closer to tapering," Knapp said.
"I still don't think they'd be in a position to taper in December," he added.
If the October minutes show Federal Reserve officials were concerned about the longer-term impact of the government shutdown and fiscal debate, and there was no big push by members for tapering, then the November jobs report Dec. 6 will become the next metric for the Fed and also for Fed watchers.
"That's the largest event between now and the (Dec. 17) meeting. I think the minutes can move the ball one way or the other but it won't solidify the decision," Briggs said.
He said yields moved higher Tuesday ahead of the minutes as traders speculated the Fed's release could point to a tapering in December. The 10-year Treasury was yielding 2.71 percent late in the day. "I tend to think we're going to be a little higher in here into the (Dec. 6) employment report because people will fear a repeat of more strong data," he said.
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MacNeil Curry, chief technical strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said the move in rates may be signaling something bigger. "I think we're ultimately headed to the 2.95/3 percent area," he said. Curry said he was looking for a base into 2.669/2.63 percent.
—By CNBC's Patti Domm. Follow here on Twitter