Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Washington Today: End Game in Afghanistan, No End Game in Financial Markets

The war in Afghanistan will wind down for NATO troops. That's clear from today's news. Leon Panetta will take over the Defense Department from Robert Gates. Gen. David Petraeus will get Panetta's job running the CIA. Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn't eligible to be renominated. The chain of command that presided over last year's surge in Afghanistan is being dismantled. That's one of the easiest ways in Washington to change policy. Top officials don't have to change their minds; they just change jobs.

By drawing down forces in Afghanistan, President Obama would keep a campaign promise, and satisfy the wishes of the majority of Americans who recent polls indicate want the U.S. out of the war. Besides, there's more than one way to skin this cat. Today's Wall Street Journal reports on P. 1 that the Pakistani government has urged the Afghan government to join in an alliance with Pakistan and China. The Pakistanis, who may be worse enemies of America than the Afghans, are now more aggressively undermining America than ever before. America's relations with India are improving, and we may be better off easing out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and exercising influence in South Asia by strengthening ties with New Dehli.

Meanwhile, back at the Fed, Chairman Bernanke did a fairly decent imitation of Alan Greenspan at the Fed's first ever press conference. Bernanke said . . . well, try to figure out what he said. The reaction of most listeners was to parse, then parse some more, and then parse some more. Greenspan was famous for lengthy vocalizations that meant little except, "I'm keeping my options open." Looks like Bernanke prepared for today by watching old game films from the Greenspan era.

The Fed itself released a statement earlier today, following its April meeting, in which it said it would stay the course. So the sum total of this month's Fed meeting and today's press conference is we know pretty much what we knew before. The stock market took it all positively, assuming that the Fed will keep the monetary printing presses rolling 24/7. Maybe. But Bernanke did keep all options open. His remarks that could mean QE3 is coming could also mean that the Fed will drain liquidity, depending on circumstances.

And that's the problem with today's Fed. Even though Ben Bernanke has said he wants to provide greater transparency, the tendency of the markets to pop or swoon over a lifted eyebrow or a hint of a frown has forced him to be measured, and then cautious, and today, simply ambiguous. He ends up telling us very little, which lets the markets interpret his remarks as they wish and force the Fed to follow their lead. Today's positive market reaction highlights the financial system's dependence on subsidies from the Fed, and increases the cost to the Fed of changing its policies. A fall in the stock market is virtually guaranteed whenever the Fed changes policies, and that puts enormous political pressure on the Fed to keep printing money indefinitely. By purporting to provide transparency, but not actually doing so, the Fed is losing control over monetary policy. All this is fine if no amount of money printing leads to significant inflation. If only we lived in Wonderland, where one can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

No comments: