Artful Dodger

On some level you have to respect, even admire, Ben Bernanke for his clever announcement of the taper yesterday. The Fed surprised many long-time Fed watchers who figured that a major change in policy wouldn’t happen with an outgoing Chairman in the illiquid end-of-year period when the economic backdrop is essentially the same as it was at the prior meeting. I am one of those who was surprised, and I was not planning to write an article today because I didn’t think there would be much to write about! (But do be sure to tune in for the “reblogging best-of” series, which continues through month-end).

I was fascinated at the widespread confusion about the ultimate meaning of the FOMC statement, which seemed quite clear to me. This state of confusion is itself a very good thing. When investors are confused, they tend to keep a wider margin of safety. As long-time readers know, probably the biggest complaint I have with Fed policy of the last twenty years is the movement to transparency, which has made our markets no more predictable but dramatically less safe, with more-frequent small moves and much larger tails when highly-levered investors are surprised by something – Fed policy, banking crises, hedge fund failures, etc. So if this were to kick off a new period of opacity in Federal Reserve communications, it would be terrific. But I am not hopeful on this point.

But I have to have grudging respect for the people who formed the new “communications policy.” They used a practice long used by companies who see one of their jobs being to manage the stock price (personally I agree with Buffett here and think management’s job is to manage the company value and let Mr. Market set the price, but this is no longer a widespread view at least in the money management community). A company that is reporting “disappointing” earnings will very often simultaneously “guide higher” in future earnings. It is very rare, with certain companies – and you know who you are – to have poor earnings and poor guidance. The point is to blunt the market price reaction to real news that is bad – “the company made less money for shareholders” – with squirrelly expectations that are good – “but we’ll probably make lots more money in the future!” Incredibly, this seems to work even though we all know that the positive guidance will get battered down repeatedly before the next report.

And that’s what the Fed did. And here is what the statement said:

  1. The Fed is going to be buying fewer Treasuries going forward. This is real. There are going to be fewer purchasers of US Treasuries than we expected there to be just a few days ago. To be sure, they didn’t pledge to continue the taper, and made it data dependent, etc…but everything the Fed does is data dependent. In all likelihood the taper will continue, but I don’t know that. What I know is this: after no move in September and October, I didn’t expect one until March. So I thought there was a 3-month fuse. Now I know the fuse has already been lit. That’s meaningful in ways we will shortly discover.
  2. The Fed said they expect to keep interest rates really low for a really long period of time, based on their projections of how inflation and employment will evolve over the next couple of years. This is entirely “forward guidance,” but it’s not even for next quarter. The Fed knows no more about what inflation will be in one year – and even less, growth – than they knew two months ago. So any promise along these lines should, and shall, be overtaken by events. That is, the guidance will be watered down into the next meeting if it behooves the Fed to do so. And they will tighten when they feel the need to do so, and make up the reason to do so at that time.

That’s it. That’s what the statement says. There should be no confusion here. The $10bln taper was at the hawkish end of expectations and it matters to asset markets (year end and reluctance to take profits rather than let it ride for a week may delay asset market reactions, but it matters). The “communications” were dovish but…who cares? We already knew we have a very dovish Chairman coming in next year. No surprise there, and anyway if you’re leaning on the Fed for your two-year forecasts – good luck and Godspeed.

One final note and reminder: none of this affects the inflation outlook at all. The Fed is increasing excess reserves still, and more slowly than before. The transfer of excess reserves to required reserves and to money, by the making of loans, is a decision in the hands of the banks. Not until the Fed starts operating on required reserves, years from now, with reserves be constraining on banks. Higher interest rates will help banks make loans that are more additive to value relative to the cost of equity capital, and so money growth will stay too high and velocity will rise going forward. But none of this has anything to do with the Fed, for quite some time.

What the Fed action does do is affect the market-clearing levels of assets such as stocks and bonds because of the decline in Fed buying. I would expect interest rates to rise from here, and that will eventually get the attention of equity investors.

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