September 16, 2012
Ben Bernanke sure knows how to move a market.
He started, of course, Aug. 31 at Jackson Hole, Wyo., when he hinted that he was going to offer the sweet stimulus that investors always savor. Stocks rose in anticipation. But last Thursday was the big day, when he delivered even more than was imagined. The Dow industrials soared 206 points, and another 53.5 points on Friday.
The Dow has climbed more than 502 points in the last two weeks.
At least now, Bernanke is already fulfilling one of his objectives: He knows that stocks generally climb when investors expect stimulus from the Fed. And so if he can keep that going, he hopes it will make people feel wealthier when they look at their 401(k) plans and other investments. If that sensation goes according to the Fed's plan, people will be feeling so good about their money they will spend more. And more spending means more demand. Bernanke figures if demand picks up, companies will feel compelled to hire more people and the economy will have something to show for the Fed's extraordinary commitment to $40 billion a month in mortgage-backed bonds.
Of course, it wasn't just Bernanke who was making investors feel good last week. Apple delighted investors with a new phone launch, and Mark Zuckerberg told investors Facebook wouldn't disappoint them. Most important, the European Central Bank also fell into step with the Fed, delivering a commitment to buy bonds in Europe. The idea there is to buy bonds so interest rates stay down and provide relief to struggling countries like Spain, which has faced rates too high to afford on an ongoing basis.
Drama has been fading from the eurozone. Last week, the German Constitutional Court also took away some concerns, when it gave Germany the go-ahead to participate in bailouts through a fund known as the European Stability Mechanism. Both the bond-buying commitment and the court decision were critical moves to relax immediate pressures. Europe still has some major issues ahead, including recession and how to set up a single regulator for banks in many countries. This isn't like regulating U.S. states from Washington, D.C. This is about overseeing banks in various countries that are separate nations.
Those issues will play out for years. Now, investors are riding the trend in the stock market known as "don't fight the Fed." The Federal Reserve says it will keep buying $40 billion in bonds a month, even as unemployment declines. So there might be a long time left in the "not fighting the Fed" routine.
Still, worries will start coming up about the dollar getting debased and inflation as the U.S. prints money. You could see those concerns rising Friday as investors pounced on commodities — everything from copper to gold. Oil was climbing too, but it was difficult to sort out the impact of Middle East unrest from investors pouring money into commodities.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index is up 16.5 percent for the year, and analysts are debating just how high stocks can go while corporate profits remain under pressure from a weak Europe and slower-growing China. With the S&P 500 at 1465, JPMorgan economist Thomas Lee on Friday raised his year-end forecast to 1495 from 1475. But Brian Belski, BMO Capital Markets chief Investment strategist, noted the market has already gone higher than he would have assumed, and he's not going to raise his expectations over 1475.
"We simply do not see the economic strength near term to warrant an upgrade for our 2012 targets," he said.