Herd mentality can be as frustrating as it is inexplicable. Once a crowd starts moving, momentum can be all that matters and clear signs and warnings are often totally ignored. Financial markets are currently following this pattern with respect to the unshakable belief that the Federal Reserve is ready, willing, and most importantly, able, to immediately execute a wind down of its quantitative easing program. How this notion became so deeply entrenched is a mystery, but the stampede it has sparked is getting more violent, and irrational, by the day.
The release last week of the minutes of the October Fed policy meeting was a case study in dangerous collective delusion. Although the report did not contain a shred of hard information about the certainty or timing of a "tapering" campaign, most observers read into it definitive proof that the Fed would jump into action by December or March at the latest.
But while the Fed was gaining much attention by saying nothing, the Chinese made a blockbuster statement that was summarily ignored. Last week, a deputy governor of the People's Bank of China said that buying foreign exchange reserves was now no longer in China's national interest. The implication that China may no longer be accumulating U.S. government debt would amount to the "mother of all tapers" and could create a clear and present danger to the American economy. But the story barely rated a mention in the American media.
Instead, the current environment is all about the imminent Fed taper: the process of winding down the Fed's monthly purchases of $85 billion of treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities. However, the crowd fails to grasp that the Fed has embarked on an impossible mission. The herd is blissfully unaware that the Fed may not be able to reverse, or even slow, the course of QE without immediately sending the economy back into recession.
In an interview this week, outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke likened the QE program to the first stage in a multiple stage rocket that gets the spacecraft off the ground and accelerates it to the point where it is close to achieving permanent orbit. Like a first stage that has spent its fuel and has become dead weight, Bernanke seems to concede that QE is no longer capable of providing positive thrust, and as a result can now be jettisoned (like a first stage) so that the remainder of the spacecraft/economy can now move higher and faster. The Chairman's nifty metaphor provides some inspiring visuals, but is completely flawed in just about every way imaginable.