The Fed Is Spooking the Markets Not China

Fasten your seat belts, this ride is getting interesting. Last week the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 1,000 points, notching its worst weekly performance in four years. The sell-off took the Dow Jones down more than 10% from its peak valuations, thereby constituting the first official correction in four years. One third of all S&P 500 companies are already in bear market territory, having declined more than 20% from their peaks. Scarier still, the selling intensified as the week drew to a close, with the Dow losing 530 points on Friday, after falling 350 points on Thursday. The new week is even worse, with the Dow dropping almost 1,100 points near the open today before cutting its losses significantly. However, no one should expect that this selling is over. The correction may soon morph into a full-fledged bear market if the Fed makes good on its supposed intentions to raise interest rates this year. Have no illusions, while most market observers are quick to blame the sell-off on China, this market was given life by the Fed, and the Fed is the only force that will keep it alive.

The Dow has now blown through the lows from October 2014, when fears over life without quantitative easing and zero percent interest rates had caused the markets to pull back about 5%. Back then when market fear began spreading, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard publically issued a few choice words which reassured the markets that the Fed stood ready to reignite the QE engines if the economy really needed a fresh dose of stimulus. By the end of the year the Dow had rallied 10%.

Amid last week’s carnage, Mr. Bullard was at it once again. But instead of throwing the market a much needed life preserver, he threw it an unwanted anchor. He offered that the economy was still strong enough to warrant a rate increase in September. He was careful to say, however, that the Fed is still “data dependent” and will therefore base its decision on information that will come out over the next three weeks. So after nearly seven years of zero percent interest rates, the most momentous decision the Fed has made since the Great Recession will be dictated by a few weekly data points that have yet to emerge. Haven’t seven years of data provided them enough information already? What’s next? Will they have to check the five-day forecast to insure that there will be no rain before they pull the trigger?

As I have been saying for years, the Fed has always known that the fragile economy created through stimulus might prove unable to survive even the most marginal of rate increases. But in order to instill confidence in the markets, it has pretended that it could. Wall Street has largely played along in the charade, insisting that rate increases were justified by an apparently strengthening economy and needed to restore normalcy to the financial markets.

But the recovery Wall Street had anticipated never arrived, and traders who had earlier demanded that the Fed get on with the show, have now panicked that the rate hikes are about to occur in the face of a weakening economy. As a result, we are seeing a redux of the 2013 “taper tantrum” when stocks sold off when the Fed announced that it would be winding down its QE purchases of bonds.

The question now is how much further the markets will have to fall before the Fed comes to the rescue by calling off any threatened rate increase? What else could pull the markets out of the current nose dive?

If the Fed were to do what it pretends it wants to do (embark on a tightening campaign that brings rates to about 2.0% in 18 months), and in the process ignore the carnage on Wall Street, I believe we would see a consistent sell off in which most of the gains made since 2009 would be surrendered. After all, how much of those gains came from bona fide improvements in the economy? It was all about the twin props of Quantitative Easing and zero percent interest rates. The Fed has already removed one of the props, and it’s no accident that the markets have gained no ground whatsoever in the eight months since the QE program was officially wound down.

As the market considers a world without the second prop, a free fall could ensue. Now that we have broken through the October 2014 lows, there is very little technical support that should come in to play. A free fall in stocks could be an existential threat to an already weak economy.  It should be clear the Janet Yellen-controlled Fed would not want to risk such a scenario. This is why I believe that if the sharp sell off in stocks continues, we will get a clear signal that rate hikes are off the table.

Unfortunately for the Fed, it won’t be able to get away with doing nothing for too much longer. Events may soon force it to show its hand. Then perhaps some may notice that the Fed is holding absolutely nothing and has been bluffing the entire time.

Full article: The Fed Is Spooking the Markets Not China (Euro Pacific Capital)

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