David Stockman: When The Fed Capitulated To Financial Hoodlums

David Stockman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan, made headlines recently with his pungent, excellent, and hotly debated bestseller, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America. The stunning Chapter 23, “The Rant That Shook The Eccles Building: How the Fed Got Cramer’d,” may well be prescient once the imploding bond bubble takes down the stock market far enough. Here is the beginning of Chapter 23 (with permission):

After climbing steadily for four and a half years, the stock market weakened during August 2007 under the growing weight of the housing and mortgage debacle. Yet in response to what was an exceedingly mild initial sell-off, the Fed folded faster than a lawn chair in a desperate attempt to prop up the stock averages. The “Bernanke Put” was thus born with a bang.

The frenetic rate cutting cycle which ensued in the fall of 2007 was a virtual reenactment of the Fed’s easing panics of 2001, 1998, and 1987. As in those episodes, the stock market had again become drastically overvalued relative to the economic and profit fundamentals. But rather than permit a long overdue market correction, the monetary central planners began once more to use all the firepower at their disposal to block it.

The degree to which the Bernanke Fed had been taken hostage by Wall Street was evident in its response to Jim Cramer’s famous rant on CNBC on August 3, 2007, when he denounced the Fed as a den of fools: “They are nuts. They know nothing . . . the Fed is asleep. . . . My people have been in the game for 25 years . . . these firms are going out of business . . . open the darn [discount] window.”

In going postal, Cramer was not simply performing as a CNBC commentator, but functioning as the public avatar for legions of petulant day traders who had taken control of the stock market during the long years Greenspan coddled Wall Street. What the Fed utterly failed to realize was that these now-dominant Cramerites had nothing to do with free markets or price discovery among traded equities.

The idea of price discovery in the stock market was now an ideological illusion. The market had been taken over by white-collar financial hoodlums who needed a trading fix every day. Through Cramer’s megaphone, these punters and speculators were asserting an entitlement to any and all government policy actions which might be needed to keep the casino running at full tilt.

If that had not been clear before August 2007, the truth emerged on live TV. The nation’s central bank was in thrall to a hissy fit by day traders. In a post the next day, the astute fund manager Barry Ritholtz summarized the new reality perfectly: “I have two words for Jim: Moral Hazard. Contrary to everything we learned under Easy Alan Greenspan, it is not the Fed’s role to backstop speculators and guarantee a one way market.”

Yet that is exactly what it did. Within days of the rant which shook the Eccles Building, the Fed slashed its discount rate, abruptly ending its tepid campaign to normalize the money markets. By early November the funds rate had been reduced by 75 basis points, and by the end of January it was down another 150 basis points. As of early May 2008 a timorous central bank had redelivered the money market to the Wall Street Cramerites. Although the US economy was saturated with speculative excess, the Fed was once again shoveling out 2 percent money to put a floor under the stock market.

This stock-propping campaign was not only futile, but also an exercise in monetary cowardice; it only intensified Wall Street’s petulant bailout demands when the real crisis hit a few months later. Indeed, on the day of Cramer’s rant in early August 2007, the S&P 500 closed at 1,433. The broad market index thus stood only 7 percent below the all-time record high of 1,553, which had been reached just ten days earlier in late July.

Ten days of modest slippage from the tippy-top of the charts was hardly evidence of Wall Street distress. Even after it drifted slightly lower during the next two weeks, closing at 1,406 on August 15, the stock market was still comfortably above the trading levels which prevailed as recently as January 2007.

Still, the Fed threw in the towel the next day with a dramatic 50 basis point cut in the discount rate. Although no demonstration was really needed, the nation’s central bank had now confirmed, and abjectly so, that it was ready and willing to be bullied by Cramerite day traders and hedge fund speculators. The latter had suffered a “disappointing” four weeks at the casino; they wanted their juice and wanted it now.

Needless to say, the stock market cheered the Fed’s capitulation, with the Dow rising by 300 points at the open on August 17. The chief economist for Standard & Poor’s harbored no doubt that the Fed’s action was a decisive signal to Wall Street to resume the party: “It’s not just a symbolic action. The Fed is telling banks that the discount window is open. Take what you need.”

The banks did exactly that and so the party resumed for another few months. By the second week of October the market was up 10 percent, enabling the S&P 500 to reach its historic peak of 1,565, a level which has not been approached since then.

Pouring on the monetary juice and signaling to speculators that it once again had their backs, the Fed thus wasted its resources and authority for a silly and fleeting prize: it was able to pin the stock market index to the top rung of its historic charts for the grand duration of about six weeks in the fall of 2007. There was no more to it, and no possible excuse for its panic rate cutting. By David Stockman.

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