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Taper Hits Bonds and Stocks But Growth Accelerates

12:00 AM, Jun 22, 2013 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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The bad news is that there is good news. At least, that’s how many skittish investors in shares and bonds see the increasingly cheery view of the Federal Reserve Board’s monetary policy gurus who concluded last week that downside risk to the economy has diminished since the Fall, and guessed that by the middle of next year the unemployment rate will have fallen from its current level of 7.6 percent to 7 percent, and then to between 6.8 percent and 6.5 percent by the end of 2014. If the 7 percent level is reached and the trend is downward by mid-2014, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke might end the $85 billion monthly asset purchases that have tripled the Fed’s balance sheet. Meanwhile, he will “taper”—reduce his buying. Those who regularly study the entrails of Fed forecasts fall into three groups.

Wall Street

·     Some Fed-watchers expect the taper to cut monthly buying by about $20 billion, starting in September;

·     Others believe the taper won’t begin until December, after Bernanke sees the third-quarter GDP estimates;

·     And a cautious few point to the chairman’s statement that his decision will depend on incoming data which, if they show a slowdown in the economy, or that tapering is causing a dangerous market upheaval, might prompt him to step up rather than cut back on bond-buying.

The markets are betting on the first of these forecasts, or at least on the second. Even before the chairman confirmed the worst fears of bond holders, investors pulled almost $18 billion from bond funds in just two weeks, foreign private sellers prominent among those headed for the exits, if trends recorded in earlier months persist.

If you are interested in what all of this might mean for the performance of the economy, best to chalk this off to the madness of crowds, the lemming-like behavior of investors, irrational despondency. Not being an expert on short-term movements of stock and bond prices, I can’t say with certainty that the end of the week turmoil was mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. But as an economist I should raise the possibility that the fuss over the huge drop in share prices, and rise in interest rates that followed Bernanke’s reiteration of an oft-stated position concerning tapering, obscures the longer term prospects for the U.S. economy.

It is just possible that economic growth will accelerate, the Bernanke taper notwithstanding. For one thing, the economy has withstood the shock of tighter fiscal policy. The combined effect of tax increases and spending cuts has cut the deficit sharply, yet consumer buying, which accounts for two-thirds of total demand, was up 4.3 percent in May over last year’s level, perhaps buoyed by the rise in household wealth that is now higher than before the recession hit. But as is always the case, not all of the data point in one direction: Americans dipped into savings to pay for their purchases, among them the big-ticket items that go along with the purchase of new homes.

Which they have been buying in large numbers, such large numbers that construction of new homes rose as home builders, more confident than in years, rushed to fill the demand that shrinking inventories of already-built homes cannot satisfy. Over the past twelve months, total housing starts are up 28.6 percent, and single-family starts are up 16.3 percent. Applications for permits to build single-family homes are at their highest level since May 2008, suggesting that new construction is not likely to slow, a guess supported by the fact that small trucks favored by construction workers are flying off the dealers’ lots. Even so, many analysts point out that the recession-induced construction slowdown has left supply seriously lagging demand, so seriously that neither rising prices nor the Fed-induced upcreep in mortgage rates that has hammered builders’ shares is likely to slow demand. Estate agents from Phoenix to Washington, D.C. report selling homes only days after they come on the market, and this when fixed rates on 30-year mortgage have risen at the fastest pace since 2010, taking them from 3.35 percent early last month to above 4 percent now. So much for economic theory that tells us that rising interest rates will dampen the demand for housing. In fact, rising interest rates have been taken by potential home buyers as a signal to buy now to avoid further interest rate increases—markets are all about expectations.  

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