The Fed, computer trading, and hedge funds: Do they rule the market

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 12 2011 2:19 PM

Risk On!

Do the Fed, computer trading, and a few hedge funds rule the market? That might explain why it's lost its mind.

New York Stock Exchange. Click image to expand.
What's ruling the stock market?

After the madness of last week and the rollercoaster at the beginning of this week, the stock market recovered from its Aug. 10 rout to bounce 423 points on Aug. 11. It was the fourth day in a row in which the index moved by more than 400 points, which has never happened before in history. As I write this, stock prices are leveling off, but the big swings may not be over. Has the market gone mad? Actually, yes.

Bethany  McLean Bethany McLean

Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the co-author of All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.

Bethany McLean writes a weekly business column for Slate and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. She is the author (with Joe Nocera) of All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis and (with Peter Elkind) "The Smartest Guys In The Room."

In theory, the stock market is supposed to reflect the prospects for the economy—the earnings potential of the stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But there's more than one reason to believe that what's going on now has little to do with any rational view of the future, and a lot to do with the market itself. "Dip your toes into any risk asset right now and understand that you are not entering into anything remotely resembling a normal market environment," wrote David Rosenberg, the well-respected former Merrill Lynch analyst who is now the chief economist at Canadian firm Gluskin Sheff, in his recent newsletter. "Dysfunctional is more like it."

The first factor to consider is that the huge rebound in stocks and in all sorts of risk assets from the spring of 2009 until May of this year wasn't necessarily driven by a belief that better times were coming. It was driven by a belief that investors had to buy riskier assets given the Fed's determination to hold interest rates near zero. Because investors can't get a return in "safe" assets—indeed, a small return will get chewed up by inflation—they are driven to riskier assets. As more investors pile in, everyone is driven further out along the risk curve.

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This is what traders call "risk on." What they mean is that you'll be rewarded for buying risk, regardless of reality. The Fed's second round of quantitative easing ("QE2"), in which it bought $600 billion of Treasuries in order to keep interest rates low, encouraged this investment strategy. "We had a nice two-year rally in risk assets and something close to an economic recovery, but as we had warned, it was built on sticks and straw, not bricks," wrote Rosenberg. "This isn't much different than the financial engineering in the 2002-07 cycle that gave off the appearance of prosperity."

The Fed intended this to end happily. The fake wealth created by a soaring market was supposed to turn into real wealth, because rich people, who control much of the economy and who have much of their money in the market, were supposed to spend more. But it hasn't worked, partly because of problems in the rest of the world—the tsunami in Japan, the financial crisis that's brewing in Europe—and partly because our own economy is too deep in hock to achieve the necessary stimulus. As Howard Marks, the chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, put it in his recent letter, "The world has awakened to the undesirability of ever-growing government debt."

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