After nearly eight years of trying to make the Federal Reserve more transparent, in one stroke Chairman Ben Bernanke has undone much of that effort. In May, he telegraphed the “taper” of the Fed’s “Large Scale Asset Purchase” program (known as LSAP to Fed economists and quantitative easing, or QE, to Wall Street) based on a strengthening economy and labor market.
The market reacted by pushing 10-year Treasury yields to nearly 3% from 1.6%, one of the most rapid backups in yields on record. Then, in the face of that strengthening economy and labor markets, last Wednesday, Bernanke pulled the rug out.
The Data: Except for the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) August unemployment report, almost all of the underlying data underscore a strengthening economy. Both ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing indexes for August were strong, with the non-manufacturing index setting a record high. The employment sub-indexes were no exceptions. Initial unemployment claims have been in a steady and steep downtrend since 2010.
The week of Sept. 7 saw this number at 294,000, a number not seen since April 2006. The four-week moving average, considered more reliable, at 314,750, hasn’t been this low since October 2007. The Fed’s own economists have indicated that concerns over “structural” employment issues (i.e., labor force drop-outs) have been overdone. Job openings in the private sector are higher than at any time since 2008, and employers complain they cannot find qualified candidates.
Thus, based on labor market conditions, which Bernanke indicated was key, in conjunction with the lack of success of the LSAP programs in stimulating economic growth (also according to the Fed’s own economists), the “taper” should have occurred.
After months of “taper” talk and years of trying to promote transparency, last Wednesday, something else happened. We don’t know what it was — yet. Maybe we will find out soon, or maybe we will have to wait for Bernanke’s memoirs.
Here are some possibilities: •The Fed misread the August employment report. This doesn’t seem possible. As outlined above, all of the underlying employment data are much stronger, not weaker than last spring. Also, the Fed knows that the BLS heavily massages the employment releases. The concurrent seasonal adjustment process used by the BLS, where each month the entire year’s series is recalculated but not released to the public, makes it not only possible but highly probable that the weaker August release simply reflected catch-up from the frail first and second quarters. So, while the August BLS numbers could be used as an excuse, they surely cannot be the underlying reason.
•The market reaction to the May “taper” announcement was more than the Fed anticipated and interest rates backed up too fast. The Fed may be concerned over the impact of higher rates on the nascent housing recovery. After all, the QEs seem to be aimed squarely at housing (the purchase of Mortgage Backed Securities in QE3) and the equity markets. But if this were the case, the Fed could easily jawbone rates lower, even in the face of the initial taper. In fact, many market pundits thought that rates would fall if the “taper” amount was as anticipated ($10 billion to $15 billion). •There is a third possibility, one that is purely speculative on my part: Bernanke has decided that he wants another four-year term as chairman. Of course, that requires a White House nomination. Recognizing that nothing happens in Washington that isn’t manipulated or controlled, the events of the past 10 days surrounding the Fed seem too coincidental not to be related. It is clear that while the markets want Janet Yellen to be the next Fed chair, the White House is not keen on her. Perhaps the “no-tapering” announcement was the quid pro quo between Bernanke and the White House and that Lawrence Summers’ formal withdrawal of his name from consideration (quite unusual, since there was no formally announced candidate list) was part and parcel. After all, a rising stock market is always desirable for the White House’s occupant.
Conclusion: History will eventually sort all of this out. Meanwhile, one thing is clear: The eight years of effort to make the Fed more transparent and credible have been dealt a serious blow. Last Wednesday, with the “no-taper” announcement, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 147 points. Since then, it has fallen 226 points, with a loss of 185 on Friday, as the markets have begun to rethink the implications.
In the end, without Fed credibility, markets will be more uncertain and, therefore, more volatile.
Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee.
Contact Robert Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone and Andrea Knapp) who are available to discuss client investment needs. Call them at 775-284-7778.
Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.