Column: Have markets finally received Fed’s taper message?

Dec 21 2013, 00:09 IST
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SummaryFed tapering, near-zero interest rates and budget stability portend well for economic activity in the US

Thank goodness it’s over. Financial market behaviour ahead of Wednesday night's announcement by Ben Bernanke on a gradual reduction in US monetary stimulus has been tedious and irritating, rather like listening to whining children in the back of the car on a long journey: “Daddy, are we there yet?” In fact, impatient whining about when the Fed might start to “taper” has spoiled for many investors what should have been one of the most enjoyable financial journeys of all time, scaling previously unexplored market peaks and passing through unprecedented monetary vistas.

Imagine if everyone had simply taken Ben Bernanke at his word when he said in May that the Fed would continue buying bonds at the rate of $85 billion every month until it was absolutely confident that unemployment was on the way to 6.5% and that the scale of these purchases would only be increased or diminished if and when a change was clearly warranted by economic statistics. Investors would then have concluded, as I suggested at the time, that no significant changes in US monetary policy were likely until the end of 2013.

Stock markets around the would have enjoyed their strongest year for a decade without the trauma of the spring and summer “taper tantrum.” Nobody would have been shocked or embarrassed by the “September surprise,” when the Fed very sensibly decided to keep up the pace of monetary stimulus in the face of lacklustre economic figures, despite the howls of indignation from analysts who were wrong-footed by their own unsubstantiated predictions of early tapering. Finally, investors would have been fully prepared for the Fed’s decision to go ahead with tapering this week. After all, the recent strong run of US employment, housing and production data provided exactly the sort of strong economic background that Bernanke had posited all along as the necessary condition for tapering, especially in conjunction with the Congressional budget deal that was ratified by the Senate at the same moment Bernanke as spoke across town.

Which brings us to the implications of this week’s momentous events in Washington for economic and financial prospects. For the US economy, the combination of Fed tapering and overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for the budget deal is unambiguously good news. The uncertainties over monetary and fiscal policy that have dominated business, consumer and financial sentiment since the 2008 financial crisis are now essentially resolved. The budget deal virtually

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