September 19, 2022
When it comes to the stock market, it seems that Jerome Powell’s Federal Reserve has but two modes of operation: Either provide seemingly unlimited support (as the Fed did last year), or try to beat it into submission by an overly hawkish monetary policy stance — as the central bank is doing right now.
This swing from one extreme to the other is unlikely to end well for our economy.
In early 2020, in response to the COVID-induced recession, the Fed opened its monetary policy spigots on an unprecedented scale. Not only did it reduce and then maintain its policy interest rate at its zero bound till the end of last year, it bought US Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities at a staggeringly rapid pace.
Whereas it took the Ben Bernanke Fed some six years to increase the size of the Fed’s balance sheet by over $4 trillion after the 2008 crisis, it took the Powell Fed barely nine months to do the same thing.
The net result of the Fed’s monetary policy largesse in 2020-21 was the strongest stock market rally in the post-war period. It also led to a situation where by the end of last year, stock market valuations had reached nosebleed levels experienced only once before in the last hundred years.
Fast forward to this year and the Fed seems to be doing everything it can to burst the stock-market bubble. Not only is it raising interest rates in 75-basis-point steps in a belated effort to regain control over inflation (something that it has not done in the past 30 years), it’s also withdrawing market liquidity at an unprecedented pace by choosing not to roll over its maturing bond holdings.
Whereas last year the Fed was buying bonds at the pace of $120 billion a month, today it is allowing its balance sheet to shrink by $95 billion a month. And it’s doing so at the very time that financial markets are on the back foot.
An unfortunate consequence of the Fed’s abrupt shift to monetary-policy hawkishness has been the fastest onset of a bear market in the postwar period. Since the start of the year, the NASDAQ has fallen some 25%; the S&P 500 index, 20%. That represents the evaporation of around $9 trillion, or 40 percent of GDP, in household financial wealth.
Unfortunately for stocks, the Fed is showing no sign of backing off its hawkish stance anytime soon. Indeed, with inflation remaining stubbornly close to a 40-year high, Powell is priming the market for another series of larger-than-normal interest-rate hikes by indicating that the Fed won’t ease policy until the job of reducing inflation is done.
He is also showing no sign of concern about the stock market’s weakness or of any intention to reintroduce the so-called “Fed put” that has in the past provided a floor to the stock market.
To be sure, contrary to what Donald Trump would have us believe, the stock market is not the economy. However, trouble in the market can have a negative impact on the economy. Notably, it can cause households to pull back on spending as their financial situation deteriorates.
That in turn can set us up for a vicious cycle: A weakening in the economy can cause further market losses that can send the economy even lower.
We have to hope that the Fed is alert to this risk. If not, we should brace ourselves for an economically rough 2023.