A rate rise on the ides of March?

"Beware the ides of March". This quote had always been imbued with a sense of foreboding because this day marked the assassination of Julius Caesar back in 44 BC.

It shouldn't be for the "ides" was just the fancy way Romans termed the 15th day of March, May, July and October and the 13th day of the other months of the year.

Ides of March 2017 corresponds with the conclusion of the US Federal Reserve's two-day meeting (14-15 March) - the day when financial markets expect the Fed to give interest rates another gentle lift.

Rate hike speculations gathered momentum after Fed Chair Janet Yellen testified before the Senate Banking Committee (14 Feb) and the House Financial Services Committee (15 Feb).

In her testimony before the Senate, Yellen stressed that, "Waiting too long to remove accommodation would be unwise, potentially requiring the FOMC to eventually raise rates rapidly, which could risk disrupting financial markets and pushing the economy into recession".

But how long a wait?

"At our upcoming meetings, the Committee will evaluate whether employment and inflation are continuing to evolve in line with these expectations, in which case a further adjustment of the federal funds rate would likely be appropriate."

Barring unforeseen shocks, the latest updates on employment and inflation suggest that "a further adjustment of the federal funds rate" WILL BE "appropriate". It also won't unsettle financial markets for the Fed would merely be fulfilling their expectations.

When the FOMC meets next month, they'll already have the non-farm payrolls report for February - consensus expectations centre around a 180K increase over the month and for the unemployment rate to remain unchanged at 4.8%.

The risk to these forecasts is to the upside - i.e. better than expected results given the improvement in other indicators in recent times - similar to the upside surprise in the January payrolls report. US employment increased by 227,000 in January following a 157,000 addition in December and beating market expectations for a gain of 157,000.

The sharp jump in the Empire State manufacturing index provides an early clue to this upside surprise. The general business conditions index surged to 18.7 in February - the highest since September 2014. The survey showed the employment component turned positive in February: number of employees rose to a reading of 2 from -1.7 in January; and average workweek increased to 4.1 from -4.2.

The Empire State manufacturing survey revealed increases in both input prices (37.8 in Feb from 36.1 in Jan) and selling prices (19.4 from 17.6).

This is the same indication given by the much broader measure of US inflation. Headline CPI inflation accelerated to 2.5% in the year to January, from 2.1% in the previous month. This is higher than expectations for a 2.4% rate, the fastest rate since March 2012 and the six straight month of quickening inflation rate.

Core inflation lifted to 2.3% in January - the highest level since August last year - from 2.2% in the previous month and beating expectations for a 2.1% increase.

The strength in consumer spending is testament to the robust labour market that, at the same time, suggests further pick up in prices. Headline and core retail sales picked up pace in the year to January, up 5.6% and 5.3%, respectively.

However, Janet noted in her testimony that fiscal policy represents an uncertainty, that it's "too early" to gauge the impact of future changes on the economy.

Read more: US Federal ReserveEmpire StateFOMCFed Chair Janet YellenSenate Banking CommitteeHeadline CPIHouse Financial Services CommitteeJulius CaesarRomansRetail sales
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