Investors and the Fed on Hold

Federal Reserve policymakers will make a decision on interest rates this afternoon at 2:15 p.m. ET and it’s widely expected to keep interest rates near zero as previously indicated. In January, the Fed said it will keep rates steady through 2014.

But the central bank has had a mixed bag of economic signals to sift through recently, including an encouraging February jobs report. The Labor Department said Friday that the economy added 227,000 new jobs last month. But many economists at the large institutions that trade directly with the Fed believe the central bank could still launch another massive bond-buying spree. That’s because the 8.3% unemployment rate is still uncomfortably high despite recent improvements in the job market; the housing market is still sick; and demand for American goods is modest at best.

Fed officials may also offer a cautionary note on high energy prices, mindful that a jump in gasoline prices can snuff out any recovery.

The Obama Administration mentioned those high pump prices in a “progress report” released yesterday. The White House touted its ability over the past year to cut U.S. imports of foreign oil by 10%, or one million barrels per day.  It also mentioned in its “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” that both domestic oil and natural gas production are unusually strong.

Still, drivers are shelling out a record amount to fill up the gas tank for this time of year; AAA puts the national average at $3.80.

Morgan Stanley economists note that high gas prices are a major headwind to stocks. If crude oil prices rise by $10 a barrel, motorists typically see a 45 cent jump when they fill up at the gas pump.  But the correlation isn’t as strong the other way around: Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) notes that if crude falls $10, gas prices only dip by 3 cents. That’s why it is so hard to isolate gas-price shocks from the overall market. Morgan Stanley says industries most affected by rising energy costs include automobiles, specialty retail, and the hotel and restaurant business.

Main Street also makes some changes. Commuters start ditching the car for the train, bus, and ferry. The American Public Transport Association says mass-transit ridership rose 2% last year to 10.4 billion trips made. That is the highest was in 2008, when gas prices hit an all-time high of $4.11 a gallon.

The banks will also be in focus this week. When the market closes on Thursday, the Federal Reserve will release the results of  its latest “stress tests” to the public.  It wants to know if 19 of the nation’s biggest financials can withstand the following criteria: (1) national unemployment of 13%; (2) a 50% fall in stocks; and (3) a 21% dip in home prices.

In the meantime, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) settling with the Department of Justice for $45 million.  It was accused back in 2006 of bilking many military veterans out of millions of dollars through hidden fees and other shoddy mortgage and foreclosure practices. The DoJ still has lawsuits pending against seven other banks.

And talk about the luck of the Irish -- St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday this year and will likely boost retail sales across the country. The National Retail Federation says 54% of us will participate, spending $35 each, for total spending of $4.6 billion, up 11% over last year.