Last Wednesday’s prepared testimony by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress seemed to start with an effort to silence recent chatter about the Fed’s so-called "exit strategy", i.e. the "tapering" off of its quantitative easing program.
"A premature tightening of monetary policy could lead interest rates to rise temporarily, but would also carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery and causing inflation to fall further". Obviously. Pretty much an undeniable truism.
But then, in response to a question from the Committee, he stunned the markets with what seemed like a complete volte face, when he commented that the Fed could cut the pace of asset purchases,"in the next few meetings", sending 10 –Yr US Treasury yields through the 2 per cent barrier for the first time since they fell through the floor on 15th March on news of the first, ill-conceived version of the Cypriot bail-in.
Then, later that evening, the minutes of the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee, the FOMC, informed us that, "…. a number of participants favored tapering, (of Quantitative Easing), as early as June if incoming information suggested sufficiently strong and sustained growth at the time", although "views differed on the likelihood of that outcome".
It’s certainly the case then that the FOMC as a body has tilted towards removal of the "punch bowl’", as evidence that the "party" is hotting up becomes more widespread. Sure, the big-guns, Bernanke, New York Fed President Dudley and Vice-Chairperson Yellen are inveterate doves, but there is a vociferous contingent of more-hawkish voters, (and non-voters), and when the Committee undergoes its annual rotation of regional Fed President voters next January, the balance will become distinctly more "hair-shirt"; if you assign a rating to each voter using a scale with 0 for dovish, to 5 for hawkish, and aggregate the changes, then I’d say it’s 10 "out"and 16 "in". Markets will begin to discount this soon.
This may all seem pretty arcane stuff and you may think that unless you’re a bond trader you needn’t really pay too much attention to such detail. ABSOLUTELY NOT; if you have investments of any sort in stocks, bonds, (of course), or commodities, then you should be acutely interested, as there is nothing which has contributed to rallies since March 2009 so much as the Federal Reserve’s largesse.
So what is the Fed up to? My view would be that they know QE has played a highly significant role in powering markets higher, they fear bubbles, they fear the reaction when they start to tighten, but they know it’s much like a visit to the dentist-the longer you put it off, the more painful the consequences.
Above all perhaps, they fear a repeat of 1994, when unexpected tightening caused a bond market rout.
So they’re trying to let us know as subtly as possible that they’re thinking about making a dentist’s appointment, and that means the rallies probably only have a month or two to run.