In theory, the Fed could continue to print money and buy Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, or even pure junk, at the current rate of $85 billion a month until the bitter end. But the bitter end would be unpleasant even for those that the Fed represents – and now they’re speaking up publicly.
“Savers have paid a huge price in this recovery,” was how Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf phrased it on Thursday – a sudden flash of empathy, after nearly five years of Fed policies that pushed interest rates on savings accounts and CDs below inflation, a form of soft confiscation, of which he and his TBTF bank were prime beneficiaries. That interest rates were rising based on Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s insinuation of a taper was “a good thing,” he told CNBC. “We need to get back to normal.”
A week earlier, it was Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein: “Eventually interest rates have to normalize,” he said. “It’s not normal to have 2% rates.”
They weren’t worried about savers – to heck with them. They weren’t worried about inflation either. They were worried about the system, their system. It might break down if the bond bubble were allowed to continue inflating only to implode suddenly in an out-of-control manner. It would threaten their empires. That would be the bitter end.
Andy Haldane, Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England, put it this way: “We’ve intentionally blown the biggest government bond bubble in history.” The bursting of that bubble was now a risk he felt “acutely,” and he saw “a disorderly reversion” of yields as the “biggest risk to global financial stability.”
Preventing that “disorderly reversion” of yields is the Fed’s job, in the eyes of Stumpf, Blankfein, Haldane, and all the others. The Fed should let the air out gradually to bring yields back to “normal.” So the Fed hasn’t actually changed course yet. It’s keeping short-term rates at near zero, and it’s still buying bonds. But it has started to talk about changing course – and the hissing sound from the deflating bond bubble has become deafening.
Long-term Treasuries went into a tailspin. The 10-year note had the worst week since June 2009, the days of the Financial Crisis; yields jumped 39 basis points (13 bps on Friday alone), to 2.55%. Up from 1.66% on May 2. And almost double from the silly 1.3% that it briefly bushed last August.
The average 30-year mortgage rate increased to 4.17%, from 3.59% in early May. In response, the Refinancing Index crashed by almost 40%. Banks have sucked billions in fees out of the system via the refinancing bubble, but that game is over. And the Purchase Index dropped 3% for the week, a sign that higher rates might start to impact home purchases.
Then there was the junk-bond rout. They’d had a phenomenal run since the Fed started its money-printing and bond-buying binge. Average yields dropped from over 20% during the Financial Crisis to an all-time insane low of 5.24% – insane, because this is junk! It has a relatively high probability of default, and then the principal vanishes. That was on May 9, the day the rout started. The average yield hit 6.71% on Friday. Investors have started to take a gander at what they’re buying and would like to be compensated for some of the risks that they’re suddenly seeing again. The feeding frenzy for yield is over. A sea change! Some companies might not be able to find buyers for their junk. And there will be defaults.
To preserve the system, as dysfunctional as it has become, the Fed has set out to tamp down on that feeding frenzy for yield, the hair-raising speculation, and blind risk-taking that its easy money policies have engendered – that is, financial risk-taking which doesn’t create jobs and doesn’t move the economy forward but just stuffs balance sheets with explosives. With its vague and inconsistent words, the Fed pricked the bond bubble but now is scrambling to control the implosion and soften that giant hissing sound. It doesn’t want the bubble to go pop. Its strategy: sowing confusion and dissension so that investors would react in both directions, with violent swings up and down, not just down.
The first big gun to open fire on the “taper” promulgations was St. Louis Fed President James Bullard when he announced on Friday that he’d dissented with the FMOC’s decision “to authorize the Chairman” to discuss publicly “a more elaborate plan” for the taper and an “approximate timeline.” They were premature. “Policy actions should be undertaken to meet policy objectives, not calendar objectives,” he said.
As stocks were heading south, three hours before what might have been a very ugly Friday close, after Thursday’s plunge, Jon Hilsenrath was dispatched. He is considered a backchannel mouthpiece of the Fed, and markets feed on his morsels. “The markets might be misreading the Federal Reserve’s messages,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Stocks turned around on a dime. Others chimed in. The cacophony grew. And any consensus of when the Fed might actually taper its bond purchases dissolved into hot air.
That’s the plan. To accomplish its goal of preventing, as Haldane called it, “a disorderly reversion” of yields, the Fed will redouble its efforts to spread dissention and uncertainty, to intersperse periods of misery with periods of false hope, to stretch out the process over years so that big players have time to reposition themselves – and make some money doing it, or fall off the cliff and get bailed out, while others will end up holding the bag. Which is how bubbles end.