Bitcoin mania, big Fed news and more

11-12-2017

Bitcoin mania, big Fed news and more

Wall Street will be watching bitcoin this week as futures trading, which allows traders to bet against the cryptocurrency, began on Sunday evening. Plus, a lot of news coming out of Washington this week: There's a big Federal Reserve meeting, a critical deadline for the government's spending powers and one really big vote that big media companies everywhere will be watching closely.

Bitcoin mania

Bitcoin mania hit a fevered pitch in the past week, with the cryptocurrency hitting $19,340 on Thursday, before falling back to around $14,000. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about bitcoin, from hedge-fund traders to the local barber. Bitcoin futures began trading on Sunday night, which some said could be disastrous for the cryptocurrency as traders would finally have a chance to bet against this runaway train. "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer actually said futures trading would "annihilate" bitcoin. "I think the short selling is just going to annihilate people when you can start trading it," Cramer said after speaking with sources in the bitcoin community. But that didn't happen on the first day. Bitcoin futures surged in the first hours of trading on the Cboe Futures Exchange, triggering two brief trading halts — one after it had surged 10 percent and a second when it was up 20 percent. There are surge protectors in place for bitcoin futures, similar to how it works on stock exchanges. There was so much interest in bitcoin futures that it seemed to overload Cboe's website, with the exchange warning of slowness. Bitcoin also jumped as futures began trading. The digital currency rose above $16,000, according to CoinDesk's Bitcoin Price Index. It was still trading above that level on Monday morning.

Yellen's swan song

Pretty much everyone expects the Federal Open Market Committee, which makes policy for the central bank, to approve a quarter-point rate increase. That will take the Fed's benchmark interest rate up to a 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent range. It will be the third move this year. A couple things will be more interesting, though. This is a meeting where FOMC members provide their forecasts for GDP growth, the unemployment rate and inflation. Investors will be watching for how the policy makers view the economy, particularly with tax reform imminent, and as it's become clear that the economy is growing beyond the ho-hum post-recession rate. In addition, this will be the last press conference for Fed Chair Janet Yellen. She gets one final opportunity to address the media, likely providing some reflection on her four-year term and what she thinks the future holds. Yellen leaves the Fed in February when her term expires, with Fed Governor Jerome Powell expected to receive Senate confirmation as her replacement.

The debt deadline

Friday brings an important milestone in the seemingly endless brinkmanship battle between the warring factions in Congress. As of midnight that day, the government will run out of money and be unable to operate. The government has been running on fumes for months, using unconventional measures from the Treasury and legislative stop-gap measures to continue its spending authority. OK, so no one actually expects a government shutdown. But in a year when the unexpected has become commonplace, it's worth pondering what would happen should the worst-case scenario transpire.

Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global Ratings, paints a bleak picture.

"While we believe the Senate will pass its deal to raise the debt ceiling, the impact of a default by the U.S. government on its debts would be worse than the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, devastating markets and the economy," Bovino writes. "Should a default occur, the resulting sudden, unplanned contraction of current spending could see government spending cut by about 4% of annualized GDP. The economy would fall back into a recession, wiping out much of the progress made by the recovery." So, yes, this is serious.

Net neutrality

Of all the Obama-era rollbacks that the Trump administration is targeting, net neutrality is probably the least understood, but its impact is substantial. The principle seeks to force internet providers to allow equal access from all sources, apps and content providers. Repealing the net neutrality concept would, at least theoretically, allow providers to create fast and slow lanes on the internet, charging customers more to access popular providers, particularly streaming services. Big media companies have been lobbying Congress to roll back the regulations. They contend that net neutrality is government overreach that forces unnecessary burdens on them. Critics also say providers will actually be able to offer consumers more choices while allowing companies to invest more for infrastructure improvements. They also contend that net neutrality costs more, with consumers forced to fork over the extra charges. The Federal Communications Commission will be voting on the measure Thursday. Consumers and investors will be watching closely.

The last word

Professional investors remain flummoxed at the relentlessness of this year's stock market rally, as low volatility persists despite any number of factors present that normally would disrupt momentum. This week, Paul Hickey at Bespoke Investment Group tells investors to calm down and keep riding: "As we approach the end of 2017, we're capping off yet another year of strong gains for the S&P 500. We harp on this continuously, but as long as the major US indices remain inside of their long-term uptrend channels, and as long as US economic data isn't foretelling recession, there's no reason to try to 'fight the tape' and move out of equities. We'll be the first to admit that we're not super bullish on forward returns for the stock market at current levels, but we're also not going to fight the trend and bet against it until the path of least resistance turns lower."