U.S. markets eye Fed minutes for hints of end to bond buyin program

TORONTO – North American markets will focus this week on the release of the latest minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve for any clues on when the world’s largest economy will taper off its aggressive monetary stimulus program.

The Fed minutes from the central bank’s April 30 to May 1 meeting will be released on Wednesday, amid a relatively quiet week for major economic data in both the U.S. and Canada.

“Markets are sort of overly addicted to QE (quantitative easing) and Fed stimulus so if there are signs that the hawks were more hawkish or more members were uncomfortable with the continuation (of the program) — that’s what they’re going to look for,” said Tom O’Gorman, a portfolio manager at Bissett Investment Management.

Through quantitative easing, the Fed has been buying US$85 billion a month in Treasurys and mortgage bonds in an attempt to keep long-term borrowing rates down. The move has pushed the prices of bonds up, while sending their yields lower and encouraged more consumer spending and investment.

It has also lifted U.S. markets to record-highs by renewing confidence and making stocks more attractive by keeping interest rates low.

But investors worry that once the Fed ends its monetary stimulus, the markets will experience a major pullback.

“Any sign that they’re going to taper that program, or extend that program, or the numbers are beating expectations or not beating expectations — that’s all the markets care about,” said O’Gorman.

Investors will also be listening carefully to a speech by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke who will comment Wednesday prior to the release of the minutes.

Last week, a number of Fed members hinted that the central bank should consider ending its spending program as early as this summer, as signs of a recovery in the housing market continue.

In Canada, traders will have a shortened week due to the markets being closed on Monday for the Victoria Day long weekend.

On Wednesday, the country’s latest retail trade numbers will be released. The March figures were expected to be lower for the first time in three months, due to lower gasoline prices despite a predicted small uptick in vehicle sales.

TD Bank (TSX:TD) will lead off earnings for the country’s big banks when it reports its second-quarter results on Thursday.

In other U.S. economic news, existing home sales data is expected Wednesday.

Recent figures from the U.S. Commerce Department said there was a 16.5 per cent drop in the seasonally adjusted annual rate of housing starts to 853,000 in April.

While the previous month, March, had seen that figure at 1.02 million. The department also reported that applications for building permits rose 14.3 per cent to a rate of 1.02 million, the highest in five years.

Weekly jobless claims figures will come out on Thursday, while key numbers on the durable goods orders will cap off the week of economic news in the U.S.

Economists were expecting the figures, excluding the volatile transportation sector, to decline for the third straight month, on continued to soften on computing and electronic orders but be boosted by a possible rebound in aircraft orders.