Fed chairs have historically been inscrutable when talking in public, leaning on something called “Fedspeak.” By talking in riddles, financial markets don’t overreact to your every word.
But speaking in riddles is different than acting in riddles. And that’s exactly what the Biden administration and Fed chair Jerome Powell are doing.
That’s why we had wild, nearly 2,000-point swing in the Dow in two days. Up 932 on Wednesday, it closed 1,063 down on Thursday — because Powell conducts a monetary policy that appears to have no firm mission.
Does Powell really want to clamp down on inflation that is raging toward double digits and eating away at the incomes of working-class Americans? A couple of weeks ago he said he did, with a vengeance. Inflation is after all the most important part of the Fed’s dual mandate (price stability traditionally comes before promoting economic growth). Stocks began to sell off; bond yields rose.
Then Wednesday he revealed that it really wasn’t top of mind and that he doesn’t want to be too hawkish. He favors 50 basis point increases to interest rates rather than, say, 75 basis points.
There will also be no massive unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet, which further reduces the money supply and squeezes excesses out of an inflated economy and speculative markets.
That’s because Powell now claims the inflationary threat is being overblown; the economy and the markets can remain in overdrive with just a few tweaks. Markets rallied on the “relief” that Powell had become a more dovish chief, who was willing to accept inflation and not do anything to disrupt asset prices.
Something changed Thursday again, and that something is the realization among many investors that Powell doesn’t have a clue. Was he downplaying inflation for financial reasons or as a political calculation for President Biden? Powell has a lousy track record in this regard. He got bullied by then-President Trump to back off interest rate increases when the economy was roaring a few years ago and the Fed had a shot at finally normalizing rates that have been kept absurdly low since the financial crisis.
By not raising rates, he left the central bank with few monetary tools other than the sledgehammer of out-right printing of money (known as quantitative easing) when he needed it during the early days of the COVID shutdowns.
More recently, he went all in on Biden’s pandemic relief spending sprees, the trillions of fiscal stimulus Sleepy Joe tried to push through when the pandemic was largely over, and the economy was humming again.
Some of Biden’s fiscal waste got passed by Congress and thankfully some didn’t, but Powell supported it nonetheless and kept the money-printing machine going full blast.
His claim at the time: The initial spike in prices was merely transitory, he told us, and the markets could use some more juicing so people can keep buying all those meme stocks and crypto.
Powell, in other words, is a two-time (and possibly three-time) loser on the interest rates and gauging inflation, investors signaled Thursday, which is why they took profits on their Wednesday gains.
Maybe the Fed will have to raise rates 75 basis points because inflation isn’t abating no matter what Powell now says. After all he’s been wrong before.
Powell on Wednesday said he sees a soft landing for the economy with no stiff recession. Then he said there could be a “softish” landing, whatever that means.
The uncertainty and whipsawing markets will likely continue for some time because no one knows what to expect: The second coming of the legendary inflation hawk Paul Volcker or Powell contorting himself into the free-spending Janet Yellen
It would be nice if he picked one or the other so investors know what to expect.