Fed anticipation and snow storm could put temporary freeze on market action

Wall Street Bull Blizzard
Andriy Prokopenko | Getty Images

The Fed begins its two-day meeting Tuesday, as a major snow storm blasts the East Coast.

The market is awaiting the Fed's third interest rate hike in 10 years, and that and the blizzard could mean stocks stall out in a light trading day. Wall Street is broadly expecting a quarter point hike, after a parade of Fed officials, including Fed Chair Janet Yellen, talked up the fact that the Fed could raise interest rates at its March meeting.

The market is most focused on what the Fed will say not only in its Wednesday afternoon statement but in its forecasts for interest rates, inflation and economic growth.

Stocks were quiet Monday, with the Dow down 21 at 20,881 and the S&P 500 up less than a point at 2,373. Oil prices were barely moved Monday, after last week's 9 percent decline. West Texas Intermediate crude futures were 9 cents lower at $48.40 per barrel. Treasury yields trended higher, with the 10-year at 2.62 percent in late trading.

"Volume probably will be light," said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA, of Tuesday's snow bound trading day. "But it shouldn't be a big deal. So much trading is done globally and electronically. People will trade from home."

There were no signs the storm would interrupt the Fed's meeting. Analysts are divided on whether the Fed will stir up markets with a more aggressive stance on rates. The Fed currently projects three hikes for this year, including the anticipated move Wednesday, but Friday's strong jobs report raised speculation the Fed could add in another hike.

"There would have to be four or five people on the high to raise up their projections. If they do that Fed Chair Yellen's task gets harder. I think their biggest fear is trying to keep expectations down," said Luke Tilley, Wilmington Trust chief economist. Tilley said Yellen will use her press briefing to emphasize that the Fed is not going to raise rates quickly.

The Fed shows its interest rate forecasts in a "dot plot," a chart that shows anonymous projections for the Fed funds rate. If that and the Fed inflation expectations move up much, the market will take notice.

"I think she'll be using the press conference to try to tamp down those expectations," Tilley said.

"I actually think the market will probably end up trading higher, if the Fed does what everyone expects and raises by 25 basis points and doesn't sound overly agressive with their statement or and press conference," Stovall said.

Stovall said as the Fed meeting ends Wednesday, market focus will be on the status of tax reform and other pro-growth policies in Washington.

"We're watching to see if the health care is derailing tax reform," he said, adding that if the market starts to get concerned tax reform will get dragged out that would be a negative.

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office said the Republican health care replacement plan means insurance premiums could temporarily spike and 24 million more people would be without health care by 2026 than under Obamacare.

"I think because earnings are done, because the Fed will be behind us, really the only two things the markets could focus on are Washington and Europe," he said.

There is little data Tuesday, but markets will focus on the Producer Price Index, expected to be flat in February after it jumped twice as much as expected in January in its biggest move in more than four years. PPI inflation was pushed higher by energy prices in January.

PPI is reported at 8:30 a.m. ET and NFIB small business sentiment is released at 6 a.m.