Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ben's Soothing Tonic

It seems Dr. Ben decided that the patient was best served by having the patient down his medicine in big gulps rather than sips.

With short-term Treasury rates near 4.2% at the end of last week, the markets were pricing a full percentage point cut in the Fed's reference rate over the next few months. So today's decision was merely a question of how quickly the Fed would deliver. Apparently, it is alarmed enough (not surprisingly given the run on Northern Rock in the U.K.) to prescribe a large, 50 basis point dose, even if that means losing some face.

The statement offered little insight. More surprising was the massive reaction in stock prices (the S&P 500 ended 2.9% higher). I think there are two possible explanations for this reaction:

1) Lowering the cost of credit will ease losses and restore liquidity to the markets. Everything will be sunny and it'll be like the two past months never happened.

2) The economy is in danger due to the woes in the housing sector. It's good that the Fed recognizes the magnitude of the threat and is beginning to act accordingly.

Obviously, numero 1 is mucho more likely than 2, as far as investor opinion is concerned. Needless to say, I'm in the #2 camp.

Actually, make that #3: the economy is in much worse shape than generally assumed and things will get a lot worse before Ben's Magic Tonic begins to take effect in a few months. Today's reaction in stock prices was not warranted.

Before calling me Dr. Tangible Gloom, chew on this: everyone has massively, consistently underestimated the problems in the real and financial sides of the housing market, as well as their impact, over the last couple of years. I don't see that changing, yet.