Why the Fed is Such a Lousy Wizard of Oz
By Susan C. Walker, Elliott Wave International
September 7, 2007
Central bankers who "follow the yellow brick road" end up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, every Labor Day weekend for their annual symposium sponsored by – who else? – the Kansas City Fed. (Who can forget Judy Garland saying to her little dog, "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," in the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz?)
The Jackson Hole Resort serves as the Federal Reserve's equivalent of the Emerald City, as Fed governors and presidents meet with central bankers and economists from around the world to discuss economic issues. This year, the symposium focused on housing and monetary policy. Usually, the Fed chairman kicks off the symposium and, this year, the new chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, did the honors. He closed his speech with these words:
"The interaction of housing, housing finance, and economic activity has for years been of central importance for understanding the behavior of the economy, and it will continue to be central to our thinking as we try to anticipate economic and financial developments."
Then came the other speeches. And it seems that some of the guests in Emerald City were waiting for their chance to pull back the curtain and prove that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn't such a wizard after all. Bloomberg reported that "Federal Reserve officials, wrestling with a housing recession that jeopardizes U.S. growth, got an earful from critics at a weekend retreat, arguing they should use regulation and interest rates to prevent asset-price bubbles." Apparently, one academic paper presented at Jackson Hole graded the Fed an 'F' for the way it has handled the repercussions from the rise and fall of the housing market.
Truth be told, these folks are a little late to the table as critics of the Fed. We're glad they're joining us, but here's what they still haven't learned: It isn't because the Federal Reserve messes up by allowing credit, asset and stock bubbles to form that it's not a wizard. The Federal Reserve isn't a wizard for one particular reason that it doesn't want anybody to know – and that is that the Fed doesn't lead the financial markets, it follows them.
People everywhere want to believe in the Fed's wizardry. But all this talk about how the Fed will be able to help the U.S. economy and hold up the markets by cutting rates now is as much hooey as the Wizard of Oz promising Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion that he could give them what they wanted: a return to Kansas, a brain, a heart, and courage. Because when the Fed does do something, it always comes after the markets have already made their moves.
If you don't believe it, you should look at one chart from the most recent Elliott Wave Financial Forecast. It compares the movements in the Fed Funds rate with the movements of the 3-month U.S. Treasury Bill Yield. What does it reveal? That the Fed has followed the T-Bill yield up and down every step of the way since 2000. And the interesting question becomes this: Since the T-bill yield has dropped nearly two points since February, how soon will the Fed cut its rate to follow the market's lead this time?
[Editor's note: You can see this chart and read the Special Section it appears in by accessing the free report, The Unwonderful Wizardry of the Fed.]
We've got our own brains, heart and courage here at Elliott Wave International, and we've used them to explain over and over again that putting faith in the Fed to turn around the markets and the economy is blind faith indeed.
"This blind faith in the Fed's power to hold up the economy and stocks epitomizes the following definition of magic offered by Teller of the illusionist and comedy team of Penn and Teller: a 'theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that – in our hearts – ought to be.'" [September 2007, The Elliott Wave Financial Forecast]
Because, you see, what makes the markets move has less to do with what the unwizardly Fed does and more with changes in the mass psychology of all the people investing in those markets. The Elliott Wave Principle describes how bullish and bearish trends in the financial markets reflect changes in social mood, from positive to negative and back again. To extend the metaphor: The Fed can't affect social mood anymore than the Wonderful Wizard of Oz could change the direction of the wind that brought his hot air balloon to the Land of Oz in the first place.
As our EWI analysts write, "With respect to the timing of the Federal Reserve Board rate cuts, we need to reiterate one key point. The market, not the Fed, sets rates." Being able to understand this information puts you one step closer to clicking your ruby red shoes together and whispering those magic words: "There's no place like home." Once you land back in Kansas, your eyes will open, and you will see that an unwarranted faith in the Fed was just a bad dream.
Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Her columns also appear regularly on FoxNews.com.