Focus stays on the Fed, as central bank expected to begin to pull back stimulus

TORONTO – North American markets will be on edge this week as investors await a key announcement by the U.S. Federal Reserve on what it plans to do about its $85-billion-a-month stimulus program.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is expected to shed some light on the issue Wednesday following a two-day meeting of the central bank.

Until then, traders will be left to their own devices to gauge not only how much the Fed may begin to roll back its monthly bond purchases, but also how quickly.

For now, the word on the street is that the central bank will begin tapering anywhere between US$10 billion to US$15 billion a month on signs that the U.S. economic recovery is moving forward.

“Generally speaking, people are not making huge bets prior to the Fed announcement this week,” said Bob Gorman, chief portfolio strategist at TD Waterhouse.

Gorman said the move has the potential to move markets, depending on where along the scale the Fed chooses to begin its rollback. But the real test may be contained in the language Bernanke uses to announce the decision.

“You’ve got to remember, Bernanke is a student of economic history. He has often stated in the past that one of his concerns has been — if you look back to the Great Depression — that stimulus was removed too early,” he said.

“I would anticipate that the language … will reinforce this idea of a measured approach, that this is data dependent and this will take over a period over 18 months. Something like this. Qualitative will be as important as quantitative from the announcement.”

Besides the Fed announcement, there will be a number of economic data points released in both Canada and the U.S. this week.

In the U.S., the latest home sales figures and housing starts, the consumer price index, business inventory figures and the weekly jobless claims numbers are set for release, but all will likely be overshadowed by the Fed meeting.

Canadian investors can look forward to the latest figures on manufacturing shipments on Tuesday, wholesale trade on Thursday and the consumer price index on Friday.

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz will speak in Vancouver on Wednesday, the same day as the Fed’s announcement. His words will be closely monitored to see if he will clarify the bank’s most recent stance on interest rates.

Earlier this month, the BoC said it was holding its main interest rate at one per cent, where it has been since September 2010. Economists widely expect the central bank to hold its trendsetting rate steady well into next year, so the announcement came as no surprise.

Poloz has been governor since early June and shows no sign of breaking from the monetary policies of his predecessor, Mark Carney, who took up a new post this past summer as head of the Bank of England.

Meanwhile, it will also be a telling week in the way of developments coming out of diplomatic negotiations on Syria. Last week, the Bashar Assad government agreed to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons in a move to avoid a U.S. military strike.

Washington has accused Syria of using the weapons on its own citizens in an Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people. The Middle Eastern country has denied responsibility. Top U.S. and Russian diplomats are holding talks in Geneva to discuss the specifics.

As worries begin to dissipate over an armed conflict, the price of gold will likely continue to fall as more investors begin to regain confidence in the equities markets. Generally, people tend to buy more gold in times of crisis as a safe haven.

Gold prices continued to fall on Friday after closing at their lowest level in a month on Thursday, with bullion dropping $22 to US$1,308.60 an ounce.

December copper was down a penny at US$3.20 a pound, while the October crude contract dipped 39 cents to US$108.21 a barrel.

In corporate news, it looks to shape up as a quiet week for Canadian companies. Notable companies reporting in the U.S. include computer hardware and software giant Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) and food company General Mills (NYSE:GIS).

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