Investors are gearing up for a massive week for the markets. Between the 138 companies scheduled to report earnings, Wednesday's Q2 GDP report and Friday's employment report, the data watchers will have plenty to chew on. But the key event could actually be one that investors are paying less attention to: Wednesday's Federal Reserve announcement.
The policy changes announced on Wednesday are expected to be few. It is all but guaranteed that the Fed will reduce quantitative easing by another $10 billion, dropping the size of the asset purchasing program down to $25 billion per month. Further, investors got a chance to hear Fed Chair Janet Yellen's take on the widely watched federal funds rate just last week when she testified before Congress.
"It's rare these days to have a week that includes an FOMC meeting where it is not the headliner, but that's exactly the case in the coming week," RBC Capital Markets' chief U.S. economist, Tom Porcelli, wrote in a Friday note. "This may be one of the more unanticipated meetings we've had in quite a while."
"In terms of their economic assessments, they don't have to tweak anything at all, because everything still holds," echoed Aneta Markowska, chief U.S. economist at Societe Generale, in a phone interview. "They could almost just repeat their last statement verbatim."
On the other hand, some contend that Thursday's employment data put the Fed in a somewhat tight position. Initial jobless claims fell to 284,000 in the week ended July 19, which is the lowest level since February 2006. While the week-to-week data can be noisy, the smoothed four-week moving average dropped to the lowest level in seven years.
In fact, the reading led Peter Boockvar of The Lindsey Group (a seasoned Fed critic) to proclaim that "the Fed is in denial," given that the central bank "still won't acknowledge that zero interest rates, let alone QE, are way out of whack with the reality of economic data."
Yellen has long held that even as the unemployment rate falls, "slack" in the labor market remains. This is significant, because it means that gains in employment will not necessarily lead to higher wages and thus increasing inflation.
And if there is a decreased risk of inflation, the Fed is under less pressure to curtail stimulative measures such as the ultralow fed funds rate (which could be expected to increase inflation, especially in a growing economy).
Boockvar thinks the Fed is unlikely to acknowledge that the labor market may be growing faster than previously anticipated. But others say the Fed could shift its tone.
"It is possible the Fed will begin to alter its view on how much slack remains in the labor force and start the Internet debate on how to amend its pledge that the first rate hike won't occur until a 'significant time' after the asset purchases have ended," Paul Dales of Capital Economics wrote in a recent note.
"Our view that there is less slack that the Fed believes goes a long way to explaining why we think the first interest rate hike will take place in March, even though the current consensus on the FOMC seems to favor June."
The positive trend in job growth could be extended on Friday, when the employment report is expected to show that 231,000 jobs were added in July, according to economists polled by Reuters.
In fact, if the number comes in closer to the 288,000 jobs that were created in June, then the concern that the fed funds rake hike will come closer to the beginning of 2015 than to the middle of the year might become more salient—even if the Fed's Wednesday statement is indeed more or less a carbon copy of the one released in June.