Financial services investors face a long summer of hunting for clues about the strength and direction of the economy after last week's interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve.
Data released last week indicated economic strength that, if maintained, would probably lead the central bank to raise rates again at its next monetary policy session eight weeks from today, on Aug 24.
Notably, last Friday the U.S. Labor Department reported that 268,000 new jobs were created in June. That was significantly more than expected, but at the same time the unemployment rate, which is calculated separately, edged upward to 4.3%, from 4.2% in May.
Data on the nonmanufacturing parts of the economy are due today, and on Thursday the latest figures for consumer credit will be released. Many observers think credit rebounded in May after a short-lived slowdown in April.
That would not be surprising, given that consumer confidence recently hit a 30-year high while the personal savings rate in May dropped to a record low of minus-1.2%.
"It will not be easy to persuade such confident people to trim their spending," said Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y. Consumer spending is the principal force behind the surge in economic growth that the Fed fears could set off inflation.
As Mr. Shepherdson sees it, Fed officials have raised rates a notch and are waiting to see what happens, "eyeball to eyeball with the nation's voracious consumers. We hope consumers blink first."
Interest rates and the state of the stock market principally determine the level of consumer confidence, the economist said. In fact, the stock market may have become paramount, "which makes the Fed's task all the more difficult."
With the market assuming such an unprecedented role, the Fed has no real way of knowing what combination of interest rates and stock prices would produce the desired slowing of consumer spending, he said.
Many economists think the Fed is heading toward further rate hikes, despite the central bank's statement that it is no longer leaning toward a tighter policy and has returned to a neutral monetary posture.
"Remember that in 1994 the Fed raised rates five times, including at three successive meetings," Mr. Shepherdson said, "and dropped the tightening bias after each one."
Some observers think the economy's powerful forward momentum may even accelerate through the summer.
"The economy could gain considerable momentum from the personal savings rate falling to 1.5% in the third quarter," said David A. Levy, forecasting director at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in Annandale-on- Hudson, N.Y.
If so, "the central bank would be under pressure to aggressively raise rates until either the economy slowed or the stock market fell sharply," he said. "Merely the perception that the Fed was ready to execute multiple rate hikes might severely damage stock prices."
And Mr. Levy asserted that "the stock market is no longer a subplot in this economy. It is the central story.
"The enormous amount of wealth created by the market in just four years has increased personal consumption, home building, nonresidential construction, equipment investment, and employment," he said. "These wealth effects are stronger and more widespread than they appeared just a few months ago."
On the other hand, inflationary pressure, the usual stimulus for higher rates, is hard to find. It was not a major factor in the latest jobs report.
"Wage pressure remains tame," said Stan Shipley, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co. "Hourly wages rose 0.4% for June and were up 3.7% from a year ago, exactly in line with the performance of the past four years."
"Productivity growth has accelerated during the past year," he said, "so unit labor costs, the raw ingredient of inflation, have actually decelerated. At the same time, the capacity utilization rate is only 79.7%.
"It is hard to see where inflation is supposed to come from under those circumstances."