Friday, August 26, 2011

Passing The Baton?

The Economist Free Exchange blog laments, Passing the baton (HT: Frank):
In his Jackson Hole speech a year ago, Ben Bernanke wanted to leave no doubt that the Federal Reserve could and would act more aggressively to boost America’s flagging economy. This year he wanted to leave no doubt that the politicians could and should do more.

The most highly anticipated central banker’s speech in months gave no hint of bold new initiatives from the Fed. He repeated the mantra that the “Fed has a range of tools that could be used to provide additional monetary stimulus”, but there was no discussion of them and not a whiff of imminent QE3, a third round of bond buying. Mr Bernanke promised that the Fed’s policy-setting committee would have a “fuller discussion” of other tools it could use at its September meeting, which has been extended a day. But he chose to use this speech to give Washington a lecture on fiscal policy, arguing that while America urgently needed a credible plan to reduce long-term deficits, it shouldn’t overdo the short-term tightening.

For investors who had been hoping for a repeat of August 2010, when Mr Bernanke’s signaling of QE2 sent stocks soaring, the speech was surely a disappointment. But it was hardly unexpected. The hints from the Fed in recent days were well-telegraphed and unambiguous: Mr Bernanke wouldn’t be signaling new actions in Jackson Hole.

From Mr Bernanke’s perspective, there is a clear logic to his reticence. Although there are economic parallels between this year and last (things starting to look a lot worse during the summer), the central bank is in a rather different position. A year ago the Fed had taken relatively little action in response to the weakening economy. This year the central bank has only just signaled that short-term interest rates are likely to stay at zero until at least 2013. Since Mr Bernanke has already laid out other steps the Fed could take (for instance, in last year’s speech), discussing them again in detail now could be tantamount to launching them. That’s why he chose buy time by promising a fuller debate in September. Tactically at least, that is understandable. Strategically, given the weakness of the economy, it may be a timid choice.

Mr Bernanke’s decision to weigh in on fiscal policy is more obviously right. The Fed’s task is made considerably more difficult by Washington’s fiscal choices. America’s current trajectory—virtually no progress on medium-term deficit reduction and a hefty tightening next year unless temporary tax cuts are extended—is daft. And though he put it far more politely, Mr Bernanke’s basic message was just that. “Although the issue of fiscal sustainability must urgently be addressed, fiscal policymakers should not, as a consequence disregard the fragility of the current recovery”, he said, adding that “the country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions”.

All eminently sensible. Nonetheless there is something a little disconcerting about the Fed chairman talking to a gathering of the world’s top central bankers at a time of extraordinary uncertainty and focusing on fiscal policy. “Don’t rely on us alone” may be an accurate and important message to send, but given Washington’s recent record on fiscal negotiations, it is hardly a comforting one.

Even more unnerving was the dissonance between Mr Bernanke’s focus and tone, and the palpable sense of nervousness amongst the Jackson Hole attendees. The mood in the meeting’s corridors is grim, largely thanks to the mess in the euro-zone (of which more in later posts). It’s not uncommon to hear that today’s situation is more dangerous, and intractable, than 2008. Mr Bernanke said virtually nothing about the financial risks from Europe. “I have confidence that our European colleagues fully appreciate what is at stake in the difficult issues they are now confronting and that, over time, they will take all necessary and appropriate steps to address those issues effectively and comprehensively”, he said. He might just as well have said, “It’s a big mess and I’m crossing my fingers that they can sort it out”.

I don't know about you, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence when the most powerful man in global finance is quoted saying “It’s a big mess and I’m crossing my fingers that they can sort it out”. The Fed, the ECB, US and European politicians better be on the same page and sort this European mess out as quickly as possible or else Soros is right, we're heading into a global depression.

Of course, the Fed is just hedging here. I have a feeling things aren't as dire and drastic as the folks over at Zero Hedge and all their short selling supporters make them out to be. Maybe the Fed sees an improvement in the financial system which is why he wasn't in a rush to dole out more goodies to traders in the form of QE3. As I predicted, after initially selling off, stocks took off and the VIX plummeted after the speech as most traders bought the dip. High beta stocks really took off. It was a RISK ON day and why not? Nothing new or unexpected came out of Jackson Hole speech.

The Fed has already given prop traders at big banks and hedge funds a long green light to trade risk assets. They have two years before the Fed raises rates again. So while everyone is bracing for Hurricane Irene, I plan on having fun this weekend looking at high beta stocks that are ripe for trading. In this wolf market, if you can't beat the wolves on Wall Street, you're better off joining them (see video below). Have a great weekend.

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