Why the Market Is Holding Its Breath

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  )  is holding steady as the stock market awaits the Federal Open Market Committee's statement at 2 p.m. EDT and Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen's press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT. The Dow and the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) are flat a half-hour before the FOMC statement.

There is really only one big story today, but another is getting blown out of proportion. Iraq's main oil refinery is under attack today by ISIS. At first glance you may expect oil prices to be rising, but it's important to remember that this refinery only processes oil for use in Iraq. The main oil fields in the Northeast (controlled by the Kurds) and the Southeast (controlled by the Iraqi government) are where exports come from, and those have not been affected. Still, the situation is looking worse after ExxonMobil and BP began evacuating some staff.

The real news today will come from the Federal Reserve. To review, the Federal Reserve has been pursuing two policies to stimulate the economy. The first is the Federal Reserve's zero-interest-rate policy, also known as ZIRP, which has the Fed lending to banks in the short term basically interest-free.

The second policy is the Federal Reserve's long-term asset purchase program, which is an effort to keep long-term interest rates down in order to boost the housing market and economy. At one point the Fed was buying $85 billion a month in long-term assets -- $40 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities and $45 billion in long-term Treasury bonds, not including reinvestments. Since the start of this year, the Fed has been "tapering" its purchases, reducing them at an average of $10 billion per meeting. At the last meeting in April, the Fed lowered its purchases by another $10 billion down to $45 billion per month. With all of its purchases, the Federal Reserve now has a balance sheet of $4.34 trillion.

US Federal Reserve Total Assets Chart

US Federal Reserve Total Assets data by YCharts.

The Federal Reserve releases its statement at 2 p.m EDT. You can review a dissected version of the April Fed statement here. Investors expect the Federal Reserve to announce a further taper of its asset purchases. The key consideration will be what the Fed says about interest rates. The U.S. started out the year with its highest growth prospects in years, but estimates continue to be pared back, and now the U.S. is only expected to grow at a 2% rate. At the same time, inflation has been picking up to near the Fed's target of 2%-2.5%.

The current expectation is that rates will start to rise in mid-2015. While I doubt the Fed statement will suggest any change, if Janet Yellen suggests otherwise in her press conference, the market could move quickly.

Macro themes don't generally change much from day to day, so I'll end with my usual reminder: Try to stay sober while everyone around you is drunk on Fed-stimulus punch, telling you to join in on the fun. Keep learning, focus on your goals, have an investing plan, stick to it, and ignore the crowds.

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