The press has framed Ben Bernanke's valedictory press conference last week in heroic terms. It's as if a veteran quarterback engineered a stunning come-from-behind drive in his final game, and graciously bowed out of the game with the ball sitting on the opponent's one-yard line. In reality, Bernanke has merely completed a five-yard pass from his own end zone, and has left Janet Yellen to come off the bench down by three touchdowns, with no credible deep threats, and very little time left on the clock.
The praise heaped on Bernanke's swan song stems from the Fed's success in initiating the long-anticipated (and highly feared) tapering campaign without sparking widespread anxiety. So deftly did the outgoing chairman thread the needle that the market actually powered to fresh all-time highs on the news.
There can be little doubt that the Fed's announcement was an achievement in rhetorical audacity. In essence, they told us that they would be tightening monetary policy by loosening monetary policy. Surprisingly, the markets swallowed it. I believe the Fed was forced into this exercise in rabbit-pulling because it understood far better than Wall Street cheerleaders that the economy, despite the soaring gains in stocks and real estate, remains dependent on continued stimulus. In my opinion, the seemingly positive economic signs of the past few months are simply the statistical signature of QE itself. Even Friday's upward revision to third-quarter GDP resulted largely from gains in consumer spending on gasoline and medical bills. Another major driver was increased business inventories fueled perhaps by expectations that QE supplied cheap credit (and the wealth effect of rising asset prices) will continue to encourage consumer spending.
But to many observers, the increasingly optimistic economic headlines we have seen over recent months have not squared with the highly accommodative monetary policy, making the arguments in favor of continued QE untenable. Even taking the taper into account, the Fed is still pursuing a more stimulative policy than it had at the depths of any prior recession. As a result, as far as the headline-grabbing taper decision, the Fed's hands were essentially tied. But they decided to coat this seemingly bitter pill in an extremely large dollop of honey.