Fed minutes back on market's radar

The last time the Fed released minutes from an FOMC meeting, the stock market had its biggest rally of the year.

That was because the market heard that day in early October a more dovish tone than it had expected after the September meeting. Now, the October meeting minutes are expected Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST.

"The statement three weeks ago was a little more hawkish. It wasn't very hawkish. It was just a little more hawkish than people are used to," said Peter Boocvkar, chief market analyst with the Lindsey Group.

Fed watchers have said they are looking for elaboration on several points including on the Fed's two mandates of employment and inflation. The Fed tweaked language in its post-meeting statement on the employment situation, saying labor underutilization was improving. It also said that falling energy prices are holding down inflation in the near term, and the committee views the chances of inflation staying persistently below 2 percent as diminished.

Trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

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"If they are going to be consistent, they should be hawkish minutes, but I don't think they're going to be," said Arthur Bass, Societe General/Newedge co-head financial futures and options. "I think that may part of the reason we've really had subdued activity yesterday and today. It was such a shock last time we had these minutes that people are a little on edge."

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Of course, any comments on how labor, inflation or the economy are progressing could be taken as hints to help traders in handicapping when the Fed could begin to raise interest rates from zero. The Fed maintained the language in its October statement that said it would keep rates low for a "considerable" time. So any discussion of that phrase may also be read as a clue about the timing on rate hikes.

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"I would expect them to be a little more dovish than the statement, but I wouldn't be surprised at anything, given the lack of consistency we've seen with the Fed," Bass said. "I think the bond market is positioned a little long going into the minutes expecting them to be slightly dovish. I wouldn't say overly dovish."

In the September meeting minutes, the Fed added some of the concerns it saw for the economy. Stocks rallied on the belief the Fed would keep rates low for longer. The Dow rose 1.6 percent, and the S&P 500 was up 1.8 percent on Oct. 8, then the best day of the year to date. The market has since had a better day—Oct. 21 when the S&P was up nearly 2 percent.

On Tuesday, both the Dow an S&P 500 rallied to new highs, the 43rd of the year for the S&P. The S&P ended the day at 2,051, up 10 points and the Dow was up 40 points at 17,687.

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"Last time they were talking about the weakness in Europe and the strong dollar and how that would keep inflation down. That's what people really lighted on last time," Burns said.

But Boockvar said the market isn't used to the Fed's more hawkish tone, and he thinks it has ignored it.

"You had (New York Fed President William) Dudley and (Fed Chair Janet) Yellen in speeches over the last couple of weeks raising the potential for heightened volatility when they go to raise interest rates. If you think it's going to be the middle or end of the next year, that's a mistake.

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"The unemployment rate is falling 0.1 every month on average. If you continued on this path, you're going to have 5.5 to 5.4 percent unemployment rate by February or March of next year," Boockvar said.

Besides the Fed minutes, there are housing starts and building permits, both at 8:30 a.m. EST. Earnings are expected from Lowe's, JM Smuckers, Staples, and Target before the bell. Keurig Green Mountain, L Brands, Williams-Sonoma, Salesforce.com and Jumei report after the close.