Stock prices are due for a fall in the first half of 2014, and how incoming Fed chief Janet Yellen decides a very difficult question will heavily influence the fate of the balance of the year, and beyond.
Why this is so emerges from a layered and subtly argued economic outlook by American Enterprise Institute economist John Makin, whose key insight is based on a term few in finance are likely to be familiar with: “endogeneity.”
The concept, which describes an ecosystem with internal causes of change, can most readily be understood in the well-known problem of antibiotics losing their potency as bacteria develop genetic resistance to antibiotic treatment after repeated use.
“Medical science ends up in a race to develop new antibiotics at an accelerated pace, running faster and faster just to stay in place,” says Makin, and the same phenomenon occurs in the economic sphere.
That is because like bacteria, economic actors such as firms and households, respond to predictable rules such as those followed by the Fed to determine interest rates. Or as Makin puts it, “The Fed’s antibiotic — changes in the federal funds rate — is rendered powerless by the anticipatory adaptation to such changes by the households and firms it is trying to impact.”
In normal times, that might not be so problematic, but when quantitative easing became the new “rule” it quickly became “endogenized” such that increasingly larger rounds of monetary stimulus were having diminishing effects over time.
The federal funds rate, which was as high as 5.25% as recently as September 2007, was cut to 2% by September 2008, then just three months later (following the Lehman crisis), to virtually zero, where it has remained.
Firms and households have so adapted to that policy regime that it has been called “the Bernanke put” — a contracted options price putting a floor beyond which the stock market cannot fall.