I remember once buying the stock of a small company and I couldn't believe my luck. Every time my fund bought more shares the stock would go up. So we bought even more and the stock kept climbing. When we finally built our full position and stopped buying the stock started dropping, ending up at a price below where we started buying it. We were the market.
Just about every policy move to right the U.S. economy after the subprime sinking of the banking system has been a bust. We saved Bear Stearns. We let Lehman Brothers go. We forced Merrill Lynch, Wachovia and Washington Mutual into the hands of others. We took control of Fannie and Freddie and AIG and even own a few car companies, pumping them with high-test transfusions. None of this really helped.
We have a zero interest-rate policy. We guaranteed bank debt. We set up the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to buy toxic mortgage assets off bank balance sheets. But when banks refused to sell at fire sale prices, we just gave them the money instead. Dumb move. So we set up the Public-Private Investment Program to get private investors to buy these same toxic assets with government leverage, and still there are few sellers. Meanwhile, the $1 trillion federal deficit is crowding out private investment and the porky $787 billion stimulus hasn't translated into growth.
At the end of the day, only one thing has worked -- flooding the market with dollars. By buying U.S. Treasuries and mortgages to increase the monetary base by $1 trillion, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't put money directly into the stock market but he didn't have to. With nowhere else to go, except maybe commodities, inflows into the stock market have been on a tear. Stock and bond funds saw net inflows of close to $150 billion since January. The dollars he cranked out didn't go into the hard economy, but instead into tradable assets. In other words, Ben Bernanke has been the market.
The good news is that Mr. Bernanke got the major banks, except for Citigroup, recapitalized and with public money. June retail sales rose 0.6%. Housing starts jumped 17% month to month in May and will likely be flat for June. Second quarter GDP may be slightly up. And he was successful in spreading a "green shoots" psychology throughout the media. But the real question is, now what? Government interventions are only meant to light a fire under the real economy and unleash what John Maynard Keynes called our "animal spirits." But government dollars can't sustain growth.
The dollars he cranked out didn't go into the hard economy, but instead into tradable assets. In other words, Ben Bernanke has been the market.
Like it or not, the stock market is bigger than the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury. The stock market anticipates only future profits and prosperity, not government-funded starter fluid. You can only fool it for so long. Unless there are real corporate profits from sustainable economic growth, the stock market is not going to play along. It's the ultimate Enforcer.
In mid-May, Mr. Bernanke's outlook seemed to change. Maybe he didn't approve of the sharp housing rebound -- like we need more houses! Maybe he saw inflation in commodity prices -- oil popping to $72 from $35. Or, more likely, he finally realized that he was the market and took his foot off the money accelerator, as evidenced in the contracting monetary base (see nearby chart). Sure enough, things rolled over -- the market dropped 7.5% from its peak, oil prices dropped almost 17%, and even gold has lost some of its luster. But in July, the Fed started buying again and the market rallied.
Can the U.S. economy stand on its own two feet without Mr. Bernanke's magic dollar dust? Eventually, but apparently not yet. Unemployment stubbornly hit 9.5% in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Housing prices are still dropping, albeit at a slower pace, and foreclosures are still rampant.
But I think what really bothers the market is that the structural problems that got us into trouble in the first place still exist. We took the easy way out and, with the help of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's loose "stress tests," swept banking problems under the carpet. We waved off mark-to-market accounting and juiced bank stock prices to help them recapitalize, but all those toxic mortgage assets on bank balance sheets are still there as anchors on lending. All the pump priming and stock market flows didn't get rid of them.
Hats off to Mr. Bernanke for getting the worst behind us. He'll be pressured politically to keep pumping out dollars, but he should resist the urge. The stock market will ignore his dollars if it doesn't believe they'll turn into real profits. Green jobs and government health-care clerks do not make a productive, sustainable economy. That can only come from innovative companies with access to growth capital. The stock market won't turn bullish until it sees that type of economy.
Again, when it's clear that you are the market you have to stop buying and begin tackling the hard stuff. By not restructuring banks, by not getting bad loans off bank balance sheets, by not standing up to the massive increases in government debt crowding out private capital, the Fed and Treasury are holding back real economic growth.