Pavlov Rang the Bell

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Pavlov Rang the Bell

Excerpt from Stock World Weekly

Last week we wrote in To QE3 or Not to QE3, “The biggest hope for the markets may be another round of quantitative easing. Investors and traders have been carefully listening to the words of Fed officials, looking for clues of an impending announcement for QE3. Such a move might be bullish for the markets, at least in the short term.” On Friday, Ben Bernanke gave his much anticipated speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He expressed mild optimism for the U.S. economy and did not explicitly announce a third round of quantitative easing. 

Bernanke acknowledged that while the housing market is bad, and the current rate of unemployment is unacceptably bad, the economy is not in terrible shape and can grow normally again. However, the U.S. government and European governments are going to need to step up to the plate and get involved. For as Bernanke put it, “most of the economic policies that support robust economic growth in the long run are outside the province of the central bank.” The market initially sold off, but soon recovered as people realized that more easing is likely on the way. 

While Bernanke didn’t promise to announce QE3 at the September Fed policy meeting, he dropped enough hints to make the markets respond as if he had done so. The response of the market makes sense from the perspective of Pavlovian conditioning. First you ring the bell, then you give the food. After some repetition, all you have to do is ring the bell to make the subject salivate in anticipation of the food. While Bernanke may not have served the QE3 food to the hungry markets, he did “ring the bell” by dropping broad hints about how the Fed is “prepared to employ its tools as appropriate to promote a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability.”  

So Bernanke laid the groundwork for justifying more easing at the Fed’s September policy meeting. That meeting had originally been scheduled for one day, but was expanded to two days so members could enjoy a “fuller discussion” of their options. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard pointed out that adding a second day to the September meeting would allow more time to review easing options. “If the economy is weaker and the inflation picture moderates, we could consider more action. The call is much more difficult this year than last year. We have a much different inflation situation than last year.” 

Bernanke was probably telegraphing to the market that some form of QE3 would be announced in September. As Bruce Krasting surmised, “This is a heads up to the insiders that more monetary gas is in the works. The stock market’s first reaction to today’s nonevent was to sell off hard. But after the word got around that this was just a delay (and a short one at that) stocks caught a bid. Basically, the plan by Bernanke to leak his intentions worked..." (My read on the speech

Commenting on the media’s response to Bernanke’s speech, Phil wrote, “What more can the guy say – they WILL do what they can – we DO have problems that the Fed is able to address. They think inflation is under control, but unemployment is too high and liquidity needs to be improved. How can someone read this and not conclude QE3 is coming?...CNBC has stopped saying no QE3 and is now saying that Bernanke has ‘kicked the stimulus can into September.’ I guess enough people finally pointed out to them how ridiculous they sounded saying that there was no QE3 in that speech.” 

Bruce Krasting made the point he felt obligated to repeat - and we agree:  "I flat out hate that this Fed is conducting monetary policy through leaks, a wink and a nod and innuendo.

“It feels like we should just put up a tent, because a three-ring circus is what we are getting nonstop. And Bernanke is the strong man in the middle ring.” (My read on the speech

As reported by Zero Hedge, Jeff Snider of Atlantic Capital Management wrote, “His statement spoke volumes without saying anything. Yes, he disappointed the hardcore debasement enthusiasts called stock investors, but only at first. In between the lines of what he did say, it was crystal clear: Chairman Bernanke wants to do more QE. ‘Want’ is not really the right word because it doesn’t really go far enough into Bernanke’s canon. I think it is abundantly clear he believes the Fed needs to do it as soon as operationally possible... 

“He said QE 3.0, without really saying it.  The markets, seeing the enlarged schedule for the September meeting and interpreting the likelihood of heavy discussions, have gotten the message. Stocks threw off the daily mortal struggle that is life as Bank of America and bid for the QE future that is now September (good riddance to August apparently). Gold prices followed on those expectations of a resumption to the willful and wanton dollar destruction that QE purely represents.

“If the Chairman can influence a major market rally without ever having to face the growing dissent within the FOMC ranks, then his speech has proven to be a stroke of genius.  That is the essence of rational expectations, making others believe you have magical powers so that they do your bidding without any actual work or direct engagement on your part.”  (Bernanke In A Box)

Not everyone expects QE3 to be delivered at the September meeting. According to Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial Inc. in Chicago, “The move to a two-day meeting means [Bernanke] will work to build consensus. They will end up with QE3, but probably not in September. They will edge closer to it in the September statement.” (Bernanke May Seek Consensus on Easing)

Regardless of what eventually happens in September, expectations for more easing have now been established. The markets may now rise in Pavlovian anticipation of more free money from the Fed (or fall less than it may have otherwise). 

 

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