Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fed Watch: What Did Today's Policy Statement Really Say?

"Strikes and gutters, ups and downs..."

I have not seen this much anticipation ahead of a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in I don't know how long. This component of the Federal Reserve meets for a 2 day session every 6 weeks, and makes a formal policy statement at around 11:15 (pacific) on the 2nd day. Generally, there are a lot of eyes on the markets in this moment, as the Fed's statement will contain an update to or reassertion of the Federal Funds rate, a key short term rate with implications for the economy and longer term rate outlook. But there are also a few carefully constructed sentences released to justify their rate-setting decision, and the markets try to read between the lines for hints at what the Fed might be thinking.

When investors buy bonds, the values increase, and rates get lower.

We entered this week's meeting in a state of uncertainty. During the spring months, the bond market had been flat for several months, rates for mortgages remaining relatively calm. Then, a few weeks ago, after a few economic reports indicated a potential recovery beginning to take place in the economy. This caused bond investors to pull some money out of the market in favor of other vehicles - like the stock market. The momentum gained traction until the levee broke, and a lot of the 'safe haven' money that goes into bonds during bad economic times started to flood its way out, causing rates on mortgages to rise - and rise quickly.

Just as quickly, the 'confidence rally' came to a halt, and the markets seemed to be reconsidering the idea that we were about to come out of the woods of The Great Recession. And that's where we were today - caught in the middle, unsure of whether we are going to head into recovery, and bump right into hyper-inflation, or another wave of economic pessimism, causing bonds to regain their appeal.

All eyes were on Ben Bernanke and the Fed's policy statement. The markets wanted to be reassured that inflation was not an imminent threat. They wanted confirmation that the Fed has an 'exit strategy' in place to unwind some if the excess reserves that have been pumped into the economy to fight deflation. Funds which if left unchecked, should lead to inflation again at some point. But there are as many critics of the inflation treat theory as there are proponents. And this causes the market to be uncertain. They wanted something to chew on today...

Here is a link to the policy statement. It was all old news. Nothing new. Just a subtle reference to the idea that they expect inflation to remain low, and that they are committed to their campaign to keep participating in market stabilization efforts.

The bond market made an initial sell-off, but knee-jerk reactions are typical. By the end of the session, the market for Mortgage Bonds (underlying instrument affecting mortgage rates) were dead flat on the day. I'll give credit to Bernanke for playing it cool, and effectively managing the expectations of the market. By not responding directly to the wishes of the market, he reasserts the impression that he is in control. It may not be what the market was asking for, but the market abides.