Will the second half of the year be as good as the first half for the markets?

The S&P 500 Index finished up 18% for the six months ending June 30th. That was the best first half since 1997. Historically, that kind of return is three times the gains investors can normally expect from the market in an average year. The chance of a repeat performance in the next six months is, at best, remote.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this is as good as it gets for stock investors. My near-term target for the S&P 500 Index is somewhere around 3,050, which is a further 4% gain from here. From my vantage point, as long as interest rates continue to decline and the Fed stays at least neutral, we go higher.

For the time being, the China trade tariff worries are off the table. As I predicted last week before the G-20 meeting, Donald Trump adhered to his “speak loudly, but carry a little stick” foreign policy. He relented on a number of issues, including holding off on any further tariffs on China, at least for the time being.

While the markets rallied on Monday as a result, they quickly gave back their gains since investors are beginning to learn that not everything that our president says will necessarily be accurate, or when it is, his statements are almost always an exaggeration of reality. The Fed, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish.

You might ask why the markets are continuing to rise when economic growth here and abroad continues to slow. First, recognize that the economy and the stock market are two different entities. What may not be good for Main Street (slowing employment gains, sluggish business investments, weakening quarterly earnings), in this case, increases the chances that the Fed will cut interest rates as early as this month and that would be good for the markets.

At this point, despite the Fed’s refusal to confirm or deny an interest rate cut, the financial markets are convinced they will cut. The odds of a Fed interest rate cut by July 31 have surged to 100%. While 72% of traders are counting on a quarter point cut, almost 28% of traders are expecting a half point cut. That in itself is astounding, since the Fed has not cut rates by that much in many years. Over 60% of bond traders are also counting on another rate cut as early as September, according to CME Fedwatch..

Whenever the markets are unanimous about anything, I usually feel the hairs on my neck begin to tingle. Given that the stock markets are climbing, based on that interest rate assumption, it behooves the investor to ask what will happen if everyone has it wrong and the Fed doesn’t cut? The short answer would be look out below.

And as we close out this holiday-shortened week, remember that when we get back second quarter earnings season will be upon us. Right now, consensus for second quarter earnings results for the S&P 500 is a scant 0.2%. Third quarter estimates are not much better ( 0.7% gains). What is concerning to me is how corporate managements are going to spin the impact of the existing tariffs on their bottom line.

In past quarters, analysts have ratcheted down their earnings expectations to such a low levels that investors were pleasantly surprised when companies announced better than expected earnings and sales guidance. It could happen again, so let’s say I am neutral on earnings results until we see how many beats versus misses happen early on.

In any case, it appears the administration is bringing out the Big Guns to pressure the Fed into cutting rates this month. Don’t underestimate Trump’s ability to influence events in that area. Trump believes that the Fed should be his policy instrument and an extension of his presidential power in the financial arena. He has already threatened to fire, replace, or demote the Fed’s Chair, Jerome Powell (his appointee), several times.

In a further attempt at bringing the Fed under his control, this week Trump has proposed two more additions to the Federal Reserve Board, Christopher Waller and Judy Shelton. Both candidates appear to be far less independent than past candidates for the job. One of the two (Ms. Shelton) has already expressed a desire to see interest rates in the U.S. at 0% within the next year or two. That should be music to the ears of the president.

In any case, enjoy the markets, enjoy the Fourth of July, and I’ll see you after the holiday.

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