Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fed Minutes Send Shock Waves, Stocks Plummet

Was today the day that the skeptics and shorts have been waiting for the four months? The day the market turned and rolled over, ending ridiculous speculation that the rally had more legs and major indices - S&P, Dow - would reach all-time highs?

Maybe. And to think that it would be the Fed, the very same Federal Reserve that continues relentlessly pumping money at a rate of $85 billion a month into the market, that would cause the turn is simply delicious in its irony.

Stocks were cruising along aimlessly most of the session, down slightly, until last month's Fed minutes were released at 2:00 pm ET. The initial reaction was muted, as most algos were turned off for the event, not being able to peer into the minutes from the FOMC meeting of January 29-30.

The minutes revealed extensive discussion over the current expansionary Fed policy of QE, focused around the purchase of Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds that has been in effect since September of 2012 and whether or not the Fed should continue the policy along the lines of its current stature - until unemployment targets of 6.5% are met - or modify the existing arrangement as market actions warrant.

The committee discussed its options at the January meeting, but voted in favor of keeping the current polify intact, though today's minutes show that fissures in Fed policy are beginning to appear, with not all members completely in line with Chairman Ben Bernanke's policy of unusually easy money.

Once enough wall Street experts were able to read and comprehend what the Fed was transmitting, the selling ensued and at times became quite raucous, especially in the more speculative issues on, mainly on the NASDAQ, which suffered its worst loss of the year.

The Dow lost over 100 points on the day and the S&P pulled back substantially as well. Whether or not the declines will last for more than one session is still up in the air, but what is certain is that officials at the Fed are now openly questioning policy decisions - some insisting that QE is necessary and that the economy is too fragile to change policy, others suggesting that the extraordinary measures are leading to a bubble in equity markets, a view that is beginning to gain traction.

There's little doubt anywhere that if the Fed were to substantially reduce its asset-buying-binge, the economy - and especially the equity markets - would not respond favorably and the economy could be thrust into another round of recession, a reality that is much closer than anyone wishes to believe, after last quarter's -0.1 GDP print.

At this juncture, it would appear that the Fed has tied its own hands, and that any change in policy would be damaging to markets, if not the greater economy. Mere mention of discussion about change caused a selloff, so actual change would no doubt engender more severe reactions.

Dovetailing into the government's do-nothing policy regarding the upcoming sequestration issue, Fed policy should not materially change for the next three to six months, unless the president and congress find a way toward compromise on spending cuts without raising taxes, an outcome seen as remote by most.

How the market responds tomorrow and Friday will set the stage for the final week of February, which is loaded with important economic data releases, not the least of which is the second estimate on fourth quarter GDP on the 28th. Since next Friday is the first of March, the usual non-farm payroll data will be delayed until the 8th, giving the BLS more time to analyze and massage the data.

This may or may not be a significant turn in the markets, but for certain, it's an important development heading into at least three weeks of important data and serious fiscal issues that the government has thus far been reluctant to address.

Collateral damage was done in the precious metals as gold and silver took sizable hits after the Fed minutes release.

Dow 13,927.54, -108.13 (0.77%)
NASDAQ 3,164.41, -49.18 (1.53%)
S&P 500 1,511.95, -18.99 (1.24%)
NYSE Composite 8,883.63, -120.75 (1.34%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,998,613,000
NYSE Volume 4,576,938,000
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 1519-5016
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 470-59
WTI crude oil: 94.46, -2.20
Gold: 1,562.40, -41.80
Silver: 28.51, -0.912

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