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When an easy Fed doesn't help stocks (and when it does)
By Advisor Perspectives
Last week, the Federal Reserve chose to do nothing to move short-term interest rates away from zero after nearly 6 years of extraordinary policy distortion. As detailed below, the inaction of the Fed, and the failure of the stock market to advance in response, follows the script that I detailed in February. Policy makers at the Fed actually appear to believe – contrary to historical evidence and contrary even to the recent experience of numerous countries around the world – that activist monetary policy has meaningful and reliable effects on subsequent economic activity. It’s lamentable that otherwise thoughtful policy makers, much less journalists who cover these actions, show no interest in how weak these correlations are in actual data, and seem incapable of operating even the most basic scatterplot. Despite the spew of projectile money creation around the world, the global economy is again deteriorating. The main defense of the Fed’s inaction seems to be that years of zero interest rate policy have been hopelessly ineffective, so continued zero interest rate policy is necessary.
As we’ve demonstrated previously, there’s no statistical evidence in the historical record to suggest that activist monetary policy has any relationship to actual subsequent economic activity (see The Beauty of Truth and the Beast of Dogma). Historically, monetary policy variables themselves can be largely predicted by previous changes in output, employment and inflation. That “systematic” component of monetary policy does have a weak correlation with subsequent economic changes. It’s unclear whether that’s purely incidental, or whether those systematic changes in monetary variables (such as short-term interest rates) are actually necessary for the weak effects that follow. I should be careful to note that monetary policy also seems to weakly influence confidence expressed in certain survey-based questionnaires. But that correlation emphatically does not translate into changes in actual output, income, or employment. Put simply, massive activist deviations from systematic monetary policy rules provide no observable economic benefit, but instead create fertile ground for speculative bubbles and crashes.
Despite its wild grandiosity, Fed intervention was not what ended the global financial crisis. Recall that the global financial crisis ended – and in hindsight ended precisely – on March 16, 2009, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board abandoned FAS 157 “mark-to-market” accounting, in response to Congressional pressure from the House Committee on Financial Services on March 12, 2009. That change immediately removed the threat of widespread insolvency by making insolvency opaque. This might not have meant much if regulators had continued to insist on mark-to-market when evaluating bank solvency. But with regulators willing to go along, the global financial crisis ended with the stroke of a pen.
Those who hail the March 2009 replacement of mark-to-market with mark-to-unicorn as a “necessary” response miss the point (though Iceland has actually done quite well relative to the rest of the world, despite initial disruption, by insisting on massive bank restructuring rather than playing extend-and-pretend). The point is that Fed intervention did not end the