Inflation, Interest Rates and Oil Prices Have Jolted the Markets

The markets are mercurial but their tone has thoroughly changed — from the sky-is-the-limit bullishness that dominated only a month ago to a mood of heightened uncertainty and measured self-restraint.

Big shifts have taken place this month. Bonds have taken a beating but are becoming increasingly attractive. Stocks are no longer rocketing straight to the heavens. The dollar has strengthened and there are new reasons to worry about a steep increase in the price of oil.

Behind many of these changes are two familiar culprits: inflation and interest rates. Lurking in the background are heightened geopolitical risks. The possibility of a widening conflict in the Middle East — and of rising oil prices feeding into inflation in the United States — surfaced again on Friday when Israel struck Iran.

None of this is terribly alarming for markets at this point — at least not for long-term investors who can handle a bit of turmoil. But consider this: For the first three months of 2024, U.S. stocks rose relentlessly, while bonds posted modest gains, amid expectations of a series of cuts in the short-term interest rates controlled by the Federal Reserve. Now, successive months of high inflation readings have dashed those hopes — or, at the very least, deferred them.

“It’s appropriate to allow restrictive policy further time to work and let the data and the evolving outlook guide us,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, said on Tuesday. In plain English, barring an emergency, you can now expect short-term interest rates to remain at elevated levels for months to come.

At the same time, the market-based interest rates that rule the world of bonds have generally moved higher. The benchmark 10-year Treasury note — perhaps the most important single benchmark in the global bond universe — jumped 0.7 percentage points since the start of the year. That’s a colossal gain in the staid world of bonds, pushing yields this week above 4.65 percent, their highest point since November.

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