Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fed Funds Hits the Upper Limit

On Tuesday June 16th we pointed out the banks don't think they need bailing out any more as no one asked for any money through the CMBS TALF operations. On Thursday, "Effective Fed Funds" hit the upper limit set by current monetary policy of 0.25%. The Federal Reserve provides daily Fed Funds Data. For many weeks now the high of the day has been 1/8 point above the effective rate (a type of average), with the effective rate steadily rising. On Thursday that affective rate "hit the limit." So what?

To the extent that people believe Fed Funds are important, and to the extent computer models make decisions based on interest rates, monetary policy, and the fed funds rate in particular, it's very important to the direction of your stocks, bonds, and currencies.

Prognosticators and speculators have been suspecting the Fed would raise the fed funds rate.
Traders’ expectations of a Fed rate increase in November surged to more than 70 percent on June 5, according to federal-funds futures contracts traded on the Chicago Board of Trade. Expectations have since fallen to show a 32 percent probability of an increase. (Source: Bloomberg, June 17)
Now you know why. The bank's reserve requirements are dictating that it should, and futures traders know what that means to interest rates, just as bond market king Bill Gross pointed out in his November 2008 Investment Outlook "So CQish". Furthermore, if the fed funds rate rises, it indicates diminishing excess reserves. In a nutshell, that means either bank lending or loan loss write offs have returned. In absence of news about the latter, we conclude it must be the former. The natural expectation then is that GDP, interest rates, inflation, and bond market prices will soon be returning to normal, and by normal we mean 10 and 20 year time frames, not 2006.

But you don't have to speculate on what the Fed will do. Their hands are tied by the market place as far as Fed Funds go. John P. Hussman, Ph.D., President, Hussman Investment Trust, pointed out years ago that market prices of federal funds force the hand of policy planners. While we can't find the exact article, we were able to find a compelling discussion of the market mechanics from 2006 titled "Superstition and the Fed":
I should note at the outset that yes, as long as investors believe the Fed matters, it is important to consider the Fed. The real issue, however, is whether the Fed actually has any impact, and my argument is that it does not. It's an argument that goes against what we're conditioned to take for granted (and even what I once used to teach my own economics students). Nonetheless, the evidence against an effective Fed, when you scrutinize the data, is fairly compelling.
We encourage you to read the full article carefully and apply it to a market moving in the opposite direction. Most notably, the federal reserve has been building its inventory of bonds like never before. We all know it's part of the Quantitative Easing policy to stimulate the economy and provide liquidity to refinance the comatose mortgage markets. The side effect is that it provides more assets to help them become more effective. Unfortunately, Congress is working against that benefit by creating a huge mountain of new debt.

Now you understand what Bernanke means when he tells Congress their deficit spending puts stress on the economy and monetary policy. Just when he has a chance to get a leg up on controlling the marketplace with a larger SOMA inventory, Congress provides Bernanke's market competition with a massive new influx of inventory of their own. One of the points Hussman made is that the size of foreign bondholders inventory outweighs The Fed's inventory 3-to-1. That was yeas ago. Only time will tell which way that ratio changes in the coming months.

If we are right and the fed funds rate continues rising, the fed will raise their target this year. The only other possibility in light of rising fed funds rates would be an announcement of yet another 'facility'. With the RMBS market still under pressure from a high level of mortgage resets on the horizon, Bernanke can't afford to let rates rise this year. Our bet is on a new facility or policy announcement that doesn't involve a target rate increase giving them some additional influence on fed funds that they desperately need.

For more on the Federal Reserve's ineffectiveness to control the marketplace, read Hussman's special study on the topic from their Investment Research and Insight, "Why the Federal Reserve is Irrelevant". First published in 2001, he provides in depth discussion of the history of American policy and the effects on the influence of The Fed on the marketplace. It may be even more important than ever as the size of other market forces grow larger. China's Treasury inventory is the most obvious, and the huge inflow of new reserves provided by quantitative easing, but those are topics for another day.

It is a common saying, one who does not learn from history is prone to repeat it. The ever-analytical C. S. Lewis explains why in his essay titled Learning in War-Time:
... the scholar has lived in many times and is therefor in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
Don't be duped by the cataract of nonsense. Check back with us often, learn how to see below the nonsense that pours from the press, and post your insights and data sources here at Stocks, Bonds, and Currencies, Oh My!

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