Beware The Federal Reserve’s Deadly Game of Poker

There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep, never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body, and never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city.

Solid advice there from ‘Coach Finstock’ in that highbrow movie classic Teenwolf.

But, sorry Coach, we must persist with ‘playing cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city’.

You see, for five years now, I’ve been playing cards against ‘Washington Ben’ – though you may know him as Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. ‘Washington Ben’ has been king of the casino, running the whole show – and sometimes in our favour. Anyone in the markets has had no choice but to play him.

He’s made damn sure many years of ‘poker nights’ with the boys turned out as useful as my formal financial qualifications. Because bluffs, double bluffs, and forced tells regarding the Fed’s next move have the power to bulldoze fundamentals and turn all global markets on a dime.

And the bulldozer is at a crossroads. Never have I seen the markets more anxious than they are today, waiting, and furtively twitching, in readiness for 4.30am AEST on Thursday morning.

This is when ‘Washington Ben’ delivers a press conference where he’s set to play his most important hand in years…

After starting quantitative easing almost half a decade ago in October 2008, Washington Ben has recently tested the water with talk about ‘tapering’ the current $85 billion in monthly asset purchases.

That’s all. He hasn’t said it’s definite.

And he hasn’t said ‘stop’ either, just ‘taper’.

The online dictionary defines ‘taper’ as ‘making gradually smaller at one end’. So this could imply dropping QE from $85 billion to $80 billion per month for all we know.

But even just a suggestion of a possible and gradual reduction in QE has sent markets worldwide into a hissy fit. If Washington Ben wanted to know how dependent the casino was on his QE, well now it’s clear as day that it’s totally addicted.

As soon as he mumbled the word taper, money flew out of emerging markets, pulling down their stock markets as it left. The Emerging Markets ETF, which covers stocks in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) along with South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa, crashed 12% in a few weeks.

But the big market moves also hit the US Federal Reserve where it hurts too. Bond yields have spiked. The 10-year bond yield for example has jumped from 1.6% to 2.2% in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t sound like much I know, but it’s a serious move and takes the yield to a twelve month high.

What Will the US Federal Reserve Do?

The last thing the Federal Reserve wants is for yields to suddenly spike. Their whole recovery thesis is about low rates encouraging borrowing. Rising rates would knock the insipid US recovery on the head pretty fast; there would be no natural economic growth to seamlessly transition to as QE finished.

Frankly I don’t envy Washington Ben. There’s no way to gently wind down QE without the market throwing its teddy out of the pram, in the same way that there’s no way of nicely asking our dear Prime Minister to quietly move on and seek alternative employment.

So for what it’s worth, odds are Washington Ben will back-peddle on the tapering talk for now. The US economy is just too weak, and the Fed knows it.

At the end of last year their stated target for unemployment was 6.5%. At last count, the actual figure jumped from 7.5% to 7.6% as more job hunters came back into the market. So on the unemployment front alone (which has been Washington Ben’s main focus) the Fed has a reason to stop using the word ‘taper’.

The other focus is inflation. The low official inflation rate gives the Fed scope to keep QE going. The headline rate is 1.4%, when their informal target is 2%.

The inflation measure the Fed bang on about more is the ‘Personal Consumption Expenditures Index’. This is now down to just 1.1%. If they believe their own data, then domestic inflation gives them no reason to take their foot off the gas today.

I’d say there is good reason for Washington Ben and his cronies to keep juicing the casino for time being, but who knows what they’ll do. It’s not all up to Ben of course. It’s voted on by twelve people. Eight of them are pro-QE, and the rest are anti-QE or neutral. The vote should be a foregone conclusion.

But what happens behind closed doors isn’t half as important to the market as what Washington Ben says at the press conference afterwards. That matters more because sound-bites travel faster than the official minutes which the Fed won’t release for three weeks.

We can only hope that he articulates the Fed’s plans better than at last month’s press conference when he mixed his messages and left the market as confused as a goat on Astroturf.

So leading up to Thursday morning, expect a bumpy ride. Traders have been jumping at imaginary bogeymen in recent days. An article in the Financial Times on Monday suggesting tapering was enough to send the markets plunging.

Last week it was a story in the Wall Street Journal from a journo (with rumoured close ties to the Fed) who said tapering was off, sending the markets soaring. It’s a total farce.

Rumblings from the China Bears Grows Louder

That’s not the only reason to expect a bumpy ride on Thursday. The Bank of England has a press conference soon after, and just before lunch the monthly Purchasing Managers Index for China (HSBC flash) comes out. China in particular has the scope to hit our market if the news is bad.

My mate and colleague Greg Canavan, of Sound Money Sound Investments, has been banging the China-bear drum again recently. His view of the market was pretty chilling when we had a chat the other day.

It’s not all about China, but his overall view of global markets is that they’re about to crash. Look out for Greg’s new video on the subject tomorrow.

Maybe a negative, or plain unrevealing, press conference from Washington Ben tomorrow could be the trigger for what Greg sees coming?

After all, you got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em…

Dr Alex Cowie
Editor, Diggers & Drillers

From the Port Phillip Publishing Library

Special Report: The Sixth Revolution Has Just Begun

Markets and Money: The Pressure is Building in China’s Economy

Money Morning: Why Thursday Could Be a Key Day for Silver…

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