The Fed Panics and Cuts Rates

by: Michael Panzner

Although the initial reaction is one of euphoria, today's surprise discount rate cut by the Federal Reserve may have unintended consequences. In fact, it will likely be the trigger for the next leg down in the unfolding bear market.

For one thing, the move suggests that policymakers are worried - really worried - about the state of the economy, despite repeated assertions to the contrary. That is likely to force a rethink by nervous bulls in corporate America and elsewhere who have reluctantly accepted the party line that all is well.

The abrupt shift in stance, following meeting after meeting where policymakers expressed concerns over the pace of inflation, may also signal that thinking has become muddled at the Fed. Or that monetary policy is now in the hands of investment bankers and hedge funds. Some might even start wondering whether Bernanke & Co. have lost their way, at least in the near term. Not exactly a reason for optimism at a time when credit markets are under siege and risk is being dramatically repriced.

Clearly, the bears were caught off guard by the surprise cut. However, while a burst of short-covering and speculative buying can heighten the drama and paint a picture of benevolent central bankers riding to the rescue, it will also add to confusion about where policymakers stand. What happened to the new, more transparent Fed? Worse still, is this a sign that we returning to the bad old bubble-blowing days of the Greenspan era?

Finally, although equity markets have been under a great deal of pressure lately, the S&P 500 index is still basically up on the year. What’s more, the latest reading on gross domestic product signaled to many that U.S. growth remained on track. The big risk in shooting off a round of monetary bullets this early in the game is that the effect doesn’t last very long. In that case, the mood is likely to be even uglier during the next round of liquidation and de-leveraging.

All in all, today’s move, while positive for sentiment in the short run, is unlikely to represent anything more than a temporary shot of adrenalin for wounded markets. Once the injection wears off, the bearish disease will likely be back in force.