Note: Our Midweek Market Comment is actually an end of week comment this week, in order to focus on the Fed’s latest quantitative easing announcement made Thursday September 13.
The odds seemed to be on something happening, and the chorus of conventional wisdom grew louder as the week went on that it might be something big. But when it arrived, the news presented itself with a Zen-like simplicity: $40 billion every month. No cumbersome time estimates or sunset clauses. $40 billion for as long as it takes to produce results. Zero percent short term interest rates as far as the eye can see.
There are two key questions we have been focusing on in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of what the financial chattering class inevitably refers to as QE3. Those two key questions are: (1) was the Fed right to make the decision it made, and (2) having made the decision, is it likely to actually work?
Unsurprisingly that first question has been sucked into the venal vortex of partisan politics. It’s less than two months before a presidential election and the Fed – an organization independent of the three branches of Federal government – has opened the floodgates to rescue the economy (though technically the $40 billion mortgage backed buying program won’t start until after the election). Partisan reaction from both GOP and Democratic party flaks was in full view yesterday and will no doubt be woven into campaign narratives as the days go on. But that is absolutely the wrong way to look at the question of whether Bernanke’s call was the right call, which was very clearly not a political call.
The Fed has a dual organizational mandate: to undertake policies in support of full employment and price stability. That’s it. When the Fed makes its Open Market Committee decisions about whether to raise or lower or hold steady the Fed funds rate, or whether to inflate its balance sheet with more QE, it is with those two objectives in mind. Bernanke was very clear about this in his statements. The recovery continues to be anemic, unemployment is persistently high and shows no signs of budging, and is far above what any reasonable person would consider to be “full employment”. Meanwhile demand remains modest. Modest demand – reduced spending in other words – means that the threat of damaging inflation levels remains subdued. The Fed believes that a low inflation outlook gives it maneuvering room to try and stimulate the employment side of its mandate with QE. That’s what yesterday’s decision was about.
Which brings us to the second question: will it work? The task is daunting. Interest rates are already at historical lows. Credit has never been cheaper – but borrowing remains significantly below trend by both households and businesses. Is the purchase of $40 billion worth of bonds every month by the Fed going to be the act that moves the needle? It’s hard to make a compelling case – but it’s also hard to make a case for an alternative path to growth when there doesn’t seem to be one. Central banks are, sadly, the sole policymakers anywhere in the world with the ability to take remedial action to stimulate the global economy. Governments are gridlocked and political leadership is weak. It’s central bank action or nothing – and in a world where weak growth can fall back into recession in the blink of an eye, something is probably better than nothing. The markets seem to think so in the short term – but it’s the growth, consumer confidence and – yes – unemployment numbers that will provide the ultimate judgment.
After a somewhat lackluster first few days in September, global markets have rallied today on strong U.S economic reports and details on the ECB’s plans to help struggling European bond markets.
Although the August employment report will be reported on Friday (9/7), markets have reacted positively to the Private Sector jobs report, which reported numbers significantly higher than analysts’ estimates and is the largest gain in 5 months. Initial jobless claims were also lower than expected and the service-sector activity has increased from July to August, further fueling the positive market reaction. However, not all is hunky dory – despite the recent improvement in these data reports, unemployment has persistently hovered around 8%, hiring patterns have continued to be weak and US manufacturing contracted for a third straight month in August.
Tomorrow’s jobs report follows the end of the Democratic National Convention, and could potentially overshadow any warm-fuzzy feelings generated from President Obama’s bid for reelection tonight. Analysts are estimating a deceleration of 38,000 jobs from July to August and unemployment to remain at 8.3%, numbers that will likely not do the President any favors. On the flip side, should the numbers significantly outperform expectations we may see some amplification to any ‘Obamamentum’ coming out of the convention.
Meanwhile, across the pond ECB President Mario Draghi outlined a forthcoming Sovereign bond-buying program. Under the program, the ECB could potentially purchase an unlimited amount of Sovereign debt with maturities between one and three years. The program, dubbed “Outright Monetary Transactions”, is intended to provide a “fully effective backstop” against market volatility as well as reduce borrowing costs for struggling Eurozone countries.
Following Draghi’s announcement, Spain and Italy’s bond yields eased significantly and European stock markets rallied with the FTSE 100 increasing 2.04% and the DAX increasing 2.77% for the day. US stock markets have followed suit, and as of midday Thursday the S&P 500 gained 1.9% and the Dow isn’t far behind with a 1.8% increase. In contrast, Treasuries suffered with the yields on 10-year Treasury notes rising to 1.6675% by noon as the appeal of safe-haven assets diminished – as we would typically expect – in response to the positive economic data.
As of the writing of this post the major markets are all in 2%-plus territory for no particularly solid reason – in other words, business as usual for the tea leaves readers who are back in the saddle as the world of risk on / risk off solidifies its return to front and center of daily market forces. The rumor of the day has it that something of a plan may be forming around a bailout for the Spanish financial system that would forego some of the bitter-pill austerity the Continent’s policymakers have tried to feed down the throats of other ailing economies in the Eurozone crisis. As usual the details, such as they exist, are foggy and nothing is fundamentally different in terms of solving the root problems plaguing the troubled sovereigns. But no matter – we are back in the world of risk on / risk off that dominated for most of the second half of last year, and it is reasonable to take the view that this paradigm may continue to play itself out. Meanwhile noises have been wafting out of top US Fed members to the effect that a new round of quantitative easing is by no means off the table for ongoing central bank policy formation.
The willingness of investors to trade solely on the basis of speculative rumors that may or may not become actual news headlines, let alone clear and constructive policy decisions, may have something to do with a measure that has become more a talisman than a barometer. The S&P 500 is hovering a bit above its 200-day moving average, having briefly dipped below that average during the sell-off last week. Now there is nothing particularly special about the 200-day average – it is a simple rolling average calculation, nothing more. In normal times it can serve a role as one more useful data point for market observers who hold stock in momentum theories. But looking at the performance charts over the past twelve months it is kind of easy to see what may be driving investors to play a careful 200-day average game. During this time there have only been two decisive moves through the average. One was at the end of July last year when the markets plunged in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle. The other was right at the end of the year when the ECB began the first phase of its €1 trillion restructuring program to relieve banks of short term obligations coming due by deferring maturity for three years. That action confirmed the (response to policy-driven) uptrend that had started at the beginning of October.
When the S&P 500 dipped below the 200-day average last week you could almost hear the brakes squealing as investors paused to take stock of what might or might not precipitate another sustained fall through that support level. Much of the buying we have seen since then, particularly today’s strong moves, are probably attributable to short covering in fear of “announcement risk”. This would take the form of the latest incarnation of platitudes and paeans to unity and solidarity along with some broad-brush outlines of a plan – just enough to kick the can down the road one more time. You don’t want to be doubling down on your bet against the market if the policymakers successfully pull that one off one more time.
The big question we continue to monitor is when the specter of announcement risk ceases to cause fear and trembling. Remember, this has been going on for two solid years now. Everything starts to go pear-shaped, investors panic, the central banks come to the rescue with a mix of soothing platitudes and occasional policy actions – just enough to provide the reassurances that they will always be there as a buyer of last resort. The Greenspan Put of old is the Universal Central Bank Put of new. The problem is that apart from goosing up risk asset markets for awhile until the next bad thing comes along, these policy tools appear to have had a very minimal effect on the actual economy. With 10-year US Treasury notes yielding 1.5% and German Bunds at historical lows, exactly what kind of central bank stimulus can provide the incentive for companies to aggressively move to extend more credit? With Europe enduring what seems more and more like a repeat of its painful withdrawal from the gold standard in the first half of the 20th century, how much can piecemeal platitudes accomplish if not supported by realistic plans that get at the fundamental core of the region’s problems?
Investors are crowded around the S&P’s 200-day moving average wondering the same things, hesitant to be on the wrong side but ready to place their bets when they have enough directional confirmation. We can’t imagine this play can pull off too many more acts without something substantial changing that confirms whether today’s valuation levels are screaming “buy” or screaming “run for the hills”.
As of this writing it is too early to tell how the most recent curve ball thrown in the ongoing Eurozone debacle will turn out. The referendum proposed earlier this week by Greek premier George Papandreou caught the world by surprise. Actually, to employ the terminology now in vogue and quite relevant to the idea behind this referendum, the 1% were caught unawares and displayed much consternation, while the 99% looked on and said “hmmm, okay then”. The referendum itself looks like it won’t see the light of day, and despite surviving a vote of confidence today neither may Papandreou himself in the not too distant future. At this point we do not know. But here is a prediction: this is likely not to be the last time in this saga that the messiness of democracy clashes with the efficiency of a financial bailout. Occupy Eurozone has arrived. Whether one supports the “Occupy” mindset or not, there is another voice at the table in the Eurozone as on Wall Street, in Oakland and many points elsewhere. It will have to be reckoned with regardless of the imminent fate of the Greek government.
At the end of last week Eurozone leaders finally reached the end of a physically and emotionally taxing round of negotiations on the terms of a deal that would, at least for the time being, mitigate the prospect of a chaotic Greek default that could take other sovereigns down with it. Markets responded to the deal with unconcealed jubilation while expert commentators tended to accord it the “two cheers” treatment – good for what it accomplishes for now, but far from being any kind of deep solution to the long-term problems that the Eurozone faces. The elite consensus was that this was good enough, now let’s move on. Negotiators no doubt looked forward to the prospect of seeing their families again after weeks upon weeks of brutal round-the-clock haranguing and consensus-building.
Then came Papandreou’s bombshell, just in time to roil asset markets on Tuesday. From the birthplace of democracy came a fairly straightforward notion: since the terms of the deal will involve deep, painful austerity measures that will have far-reaching effects on Greece’s citenzry, should not the citizenry have the opportunity to make their voice heard? After all they are going to have to live with the outcome – one way or another – for quite some time to come. No, no! cried the exhausted policy leaders. They pointed to irrationality revealed in the polls – a majority of Greeks appear to want all the benefits that the stability of the Eurozone confers without any of the spending cuts, tax increases and other measures that will be required to get their economy back on track. They’ll just cut of their nose to spite their face, went the conventional wisdom, and the outcome will be lose-lose all around.
The polls do reveal a lack of logical thinking, to be true. Popular-voice polls often do. But that is not really the point. What Papandreou – wittingly or not – stumbled onto was the idea that the voice of real people who are not policymakers or financial executives at large European banks should be a part of whatever decisions are made about the economic future of the countries in which they live. In short that is what the whole Occupy phenomenon is about – a voice, not a specific set of demands or policy prescriptions (few of which are in evidence). Vox clamantis in deserto – a voice crying in the wilderness. Referendum or not, that voice is not going to disappear wispily into the ether.
There are no easy answers to any of the problems the world is facing now – anemic growth, crushing debt, dysfunctional politics and discredited institutions. If you will, neither the 1% nor the 99% can supply the answers. What seems clear, though, is that the days where the single answer to each successive financial crisis is to throw enough money at the institutions caught up in the mess to bail them out of their woes (and create successive asset bubbles in the process) are numbered. This will very likely make for an even bumpier ride in the near to intermediate term (if such a thing is even possible given the daily market gyrations that have already become the norm). In the long term, however, it may turn out to be the less disruptive road to take. Major pillars of the social contract that Europeans have come to expect from their governments will in just about all likelihood have to change dramatically. This will probably be more stable if the 99% feel some ownership in the process and its ultimate results.
We humans are generally in the habit of marking off the annual calendar by milestone events that help give some structure to the otherwise random passage of time. At this time of year back-to-school vibes are in the air. But before we get to Labor Day there is another Big Important Date fast approaching. That’s “Ben Week”, and it’s this week, when Fed chairman Bernanke heads out west to give a speech at a central bank conference organized by the Kansas City Fed. Against a backdrop of soaring peaks and skies of deep azure Ben Bernanke will say something about the present state of things – we don’t know what that something will be, but it will likely move markets in one fashion or another, perhaps decisively, perhaps locking in a sustainable directional trend that so far has been largely absent in 2011, or then again perhaps not. The actual “event” of Ben Week will last for maybe 30 minutes or so, this Friday, August 26. Between now and then, in marketland it’s all Ben Week prognostications and divinations. Quid facies o Bernanke magne?
It was just a year ago that the Fed chair used the same picturesque opportunity to announce the launch of QE2. Right on cue risk asset markets embarked on a fall rally that powered through the tricks or treats of October and the cheery festoonery of Christmastime portfolio window dressing right into 2011. And then…something right out of the movie “Groundhog Day” as a burgeoning spring rally ran into the headwinds of a European debt crisis and weaker-than-expected macroeconomic indicators. Markets turned south, volatility spiked and now, one year to the day later, all eyes are again on the Fed. Listen carefully and you may hear that same refrain of “I Got You Babe” that dragged Bill Murray out of his sleep over and over again on that never-ending February morning.
But that may be where the déjà vu ends. Markets are already trading up strongly ahead of Friday, but given the extent to which they have been beaten down over the past several weeks it is not altogether surprising to see a swell of bargain-hunting taking a position ahead of the announcement. The thinking is fairly sound: if Bernanke does take bold action in the form of some kind of QE3 that expands the Fed’s balance sheet again or something of equal import, then shares are likely to rise dramatically from today’s low levels. On the other hand, if he merely makes mildly encouraging utterances about how the “Fed stands ready” then one may see a bit of selling but the downside would be limited. Along this line of thinking it would be not unusual to see solid buying continue over the remainder of the week.
The larger question is whether even a bold QE3 program would produce the kind of sustained market effect it did last year. After all, one could argue that QE2 did little other than to prop up asset prices for awhile. Unemployment hasn’t budged, consumer confidence remains low, the housing market is stuck and manufacturing indicators have turned down. Corporate profits are strong but the effects of that strength have yet to be felt much in the US economy. Sure, a Fed asset buying program could juice up prices for a few days, but eventually there has to be some connection between asset price growth and real economics. Right? Anyone? Bueller?