The U.S. economy has been posting some monster numbers, and this week's data might be the final blow to wipe out any resistance lingering among Federal Open Market Committee members towards starting the tapering of its stimulus program later this month. All of this hinges on tomorrow's monthly barnburner of a statistic: the U.S. non-farm payrolls report. A robust number will make it hard for the Fed to resist a small taper, if for no better reason than to get it out of the way before Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke exits and traders close their books on 2013.
In this context, the jobs report has never been more crucial to markets. The Fed's been itching to cut back on bond purchases since the summer, but opted to delay tapering until the data improved. And the data has delivered solid results. Unemployment claims have stabilized in the low 300,000 range, a very positive signal for the labor market. Third quarter GDP surprised with an initial read of 2.8 per cent, well above the pessimistic forecasts of 2 per cent or lower, and was revised up to a healthy 3.6 per cent Thursday.
Most notably to traders this week, ADP's employment report showed 215,000 private jobs added, well above expectations and lifting hopes for a big number tomorrow.
The Fed has hinted that December is a "live" meeting for tapering. The October FOMC minutes emphasized that a taper is possible over the "next several meetings." Just today, Atlanta Fed president Dennis Lockhart said scaling back asset purchases should be "on the table" in December.
This puts a laser-like focus on tomorrow's payrolls number, which is also the last big number the Fed will mull over before its Dec. 18 meeting. Economists project a gain of 185,000 jobs for non-farm payrolls, and that the unemployment rate will dip to 7.2 per cent.
Here are predictions for three scenarios we could see when the non-farm payrolls numbers are released, and how they'll affect the likelihood of a December tapering:
250,000 or more jobs = 60 per cent chance of December taper
It's still a close call, but a robust number, considered alongside other strong data, will tip the odds in favor of a small taper in December. This will push markets to re-price the possibility of tapering . U.S. 10-year yields, already at their highest level since September, might test the 3 per cent hurdle.
200,000 jobs = 30 per cent chance of December taper
A figure only slightly above consensus is murkier water – it's a decent number and builds upon some solid reads this year, but won't light any fires within the Fed. It will leave the debate open, and shouldn't shift market expectations too far from the current consensus.
150,000 jobs = 10 per cent chance of December taper
A miss wouldn't be terrible, but it gives the Fed no good reason to pull on the reins just yet, unless they really do want to start tapering before Janet Yellen takes the helm next year.
So, if tapering does become a reality before the end of the month, which asset class will take the biggest hit? Market behavior indicates that it would likely be stocks.
Stocks and bonds both suffered deep losses in June, when the Fed first broke the news that its quantitative easing program would be scaled back soon. The securities continued to mirror each other throughout the summer on the taper-trade, and then again in September as the Fed's lack of tapering prompted a relief rally across markets.
But over the past month, treasury prices have remained anchored while stocks shot higher, breaking all-time records and prompting talk of a bubble. Equities appear to be counting on Ben Bernanke to put off tapering until next year, but if we see a blockbuster number tomorrow, stocks around the world will be in for a rude awakening.