Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

Stormy markets, smooth seas

Zachary Karabell
Jun 28, 2013 13:23 UTC

You could be forgiven for missing the latest installment of market panic over the past ten days. It came and went like a summer thunderstorm — passing over the global financial landscape quickly and violently. But unlike meteorological events that inflict actual harm, the sharp gyrations of financial markets have increasingly less relationship to real-world economies and exist in their own never-never land of self-fulfilling prophecies and conventional wisdom.

The proximate cause of the swoon was June’s monthly statement from the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke’s comments that the Fed might taper its purchases of bonds sooner than many market players had anticipated. The exact quote wasn’t exactly dramatic (so few Fed quotes are!):

“The Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year. And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear.”

The hint that the Fed would slow or even halt its monthly purchases of $85 billion of government and mortgage bonds was enough to send bond yields substantially higher and stocks substantially lower. It also made market bears substantially cockier. The most notable example was the ever-opinionated Rick Santelli on CNBC whose weekly rant took Bernanke to task not just for how he communicates, but for soft-pedaling the weak and tenuous U.S. and global financial system.

The bond market response was particularly dramatic. Yields on U.S. 10-year Treasuries went from just over 2 percent to 2.6 percent, still historically low but a substantial move in a short time. Emerging market bonds were even more eviscerated, and the ripple effects for pension funds and retirement accounts will be felt for some time as the value of supposedly safe bond holdings declined as much or more than supposedly riskier stocks.

Central bankers are saving the world because politicians won’t

Zachary Karabell
Dec 13, 2012 13:17 UTC

The Federal Reserve just announced a new round of measures designed to keep the money flowing. Central bankers – not to be confused with the heads of private banks that have received so much opprobrium for their role in the financial crises of the past years – are not noted for their charisma or their communication skills, but their role in shaping today’s world, shadowy at times, could hardly be greater. The question is: Are they helping or harming?

Almost exactly a year ago, on the night of Nov. 30, 2011, the world’s central bankers acted swiftly to stave off yet another near-collapse of the global financial system. In the weeks before, equity markets had sold off hard as the eurozone continued to simmer, but that was a mere warning. The real crisis was soaring costs of borrowing for Italy and Spain combined with a nearly complete halt of lending between banks. That too had been the critical moment in the fall of 2008 – once banks stop lending to one another, there is only so much cash on hand. Once depleted, that’s it. No checks cleared, no money at ATMs, nada. You can easily imagine what happens then.

The actions the bankers took in the dark of night were relatively simple: They told the world’s banks that they would be able to go to each central bank and get funds. That may not seem like much, but in the world of finance, it was enough, and it was everything.

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