Sunday, October 7, 2012

How Government Adds Risk to Risk Assets

The Federal Reserve has been on a tear, squashing interest rates in order to coerce investors into risk assets.  But investors, especially individual investors, have been zigging where the Fed wants them to zag.  They have succumbed to post traumatic stock disorder, and abandoned equities with abandon. 

Fear of stocks isn't just a product of the market busts of recent years.  It's also driven by too many known unknowns.  The role of government in pumping up asset prices has become so great that it receives more attention from financial news services than economic fundamentals.  But, as mandated by the law of unintended consequences, government actions have made risk assets less attractive.  Here's how.

The Fed has become less predictable.  In years past, the Federal Reserve was slow to reveal its thinking and the reasons for its policy actions.  Chairman Ben Bernanke has endeavored to be more transparent.  And he has been more transparent about the workings of the Open Market Committee and its thinking.  But what has been revealed only confounds.  The Fed is quite open about its intention to provide monetary stimulus in order to boost employment.  But no one knows what level of employment will cause the Fed to ease back, or what rate of inflation will lead it to move interest rates up.  No one knows what type or form of additional quantitative easing the Fed will employ if employment levels remain unsatisfactory (however unsatisfactory may be defined).  Will it buy car loans, credit card debt, bankers acceptances, commercial paper, corporate bonds, junk bonds, common stocks, or something else?  Whether or not, why, when, how, how fast, and how much are important, but unanswered, questions concerning the Fed's potential unwinding of its massive $3 trillion plus balance sheet. Any purchaser of risk assets would want answers to these questions.  But answers are unavailable.

The Fed is relentlessly driving its monetary wagon train under the motto "full employment or bust."  By acting so vigorously and creatively, however, it has created a lot of uncertainty even as it has stabilized the financial system.  There are so many uncertainties about the route the Fed is taking that individual investors don't want to hitch up their wagons and join the trek.  What the Fed will do next is anybody's guess, and because of its outsized impact on risk asset prices, this unpredictability makes risk assets riskier.

Fiscal funk.  Congress's dysfunction was on full display last year when those freakin' idiots--excuse me, the esteemed members of Congress--almost blew up America's creditworthiness in the debt ceiling debacle.  Things haven't changed.  Forecasting fiscal policy is like peering into a black hole.  It's impenetrable.  Whatever happens could make things worse.  Also, consider the permanently temporary nature of the Bush II tax cuts, which have fallen into the habit of being extended a year at a time.  The analysis of risk assets becomes labyrinthine when the tax system is established for only a year at a time. Another big, bad black hole is known as the fiscal cliff, which is huffing and puffing furiously.  Yet we don't know if we're in a house of straw, wood or brick.  All these fiscal foulups accentuate the risk in risk assets. 

Rational investors trying to reason their way to well-founded decisions haven't got a popsicle's chance in hell of figuring out the upsides and downsides of risk assets.  They just know that these known unknowns heighten the risks.  In such circumstances, digging the fox hole deeper and hunkering down all the more make sense.

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