by Nomi Prins, Daily Reckoning:
In the land of the Federal Reserve and its market-manipulating mechanisms, there’s now an unofficial market term called the “Powell Put” or the “Powell Pivot.”
It is in direct reference to Fed chairman Jerome Powell. Before he became chairman, Wall Street referred to prior heads’ policies with terms like the “Greenspan Put” the “Bernanke Put” and the “Yellen Put.”
In layman’s terms, what the term means is that if the markets fall by too much, the Fed will swoop in and try to save the day, the month, or the year. A “put” in options terminology is insurance against a drop in prices. Nowadays, the “Powell Put” is the market’s insurance that the Fed will act to stimulate the markets if necessary.
Markets had been waiting for it to materialize. But Powell had previously talked about the need to raise rates to give the Fed “enough ammunition to fight the next crisis.” The size of the Fed’s balance sheet would also have to be reduced enough to provide it enough room to grow if needed.
Markets began to worry the Powell Put might never materialize when he raised interest rates in December, when the market was in the middle of a severe correction (that nearly culminated in a bear market). He also said the balance sheet reductions, or quantitative tightening, would run on “autopilot.”
Markets tanked on his comments. But then on Jan. 4, after stocks fell nearly 20%, the “Powell Put” finally materialized.
In comments addressing the American Economic Association, Powell said he was “prepared to adjust policy quickly and flexibly.”
And about the balance sheet reduction policy that was on autopilot in November, he said
“We wouldn’t hesitate to change it.
Powell has subsequently emphasized the need for “patience.” The Dow has continued to rally behind his newfound dovishness. In fact, this January was the best January in 30 years. If the rally continues, the market could soon be testing its early October highs.
What this means is that the Fed isn’t going to raise rates anytime soon. As my colleague Jim Rickards has explained, “patience” isn’t just a word. It’s a signal to markets that the Fed will not be raising rates anytime soon, and that it will give them notice when it is.
The Fed is also unlikely to reduce the size of its balance sheet in a bold way, as long as economic headwinds from around the world continue. That in turn, means dark money will remain available to boost markets.
There are two main ways the Federal Reserve can unleash dark money into the financial system. One is by keeping interest rates (or the cost of money) low or at zero percent. The other is through quantitative easing (QE) or bond-purchasing, where the Fed creates money electronically and uses it to give to banks to buy Treasury or mortgage bonds from them.
Reducing the cost of money, or interest rates to zero, was done for the first time by the Fed in the wake of the financial crisis. The Fed did this supposedly as an emergency measure to inject money into the system because banks had stopped lending. In addition, QE was enacted because interest rate policy wasn’t effective enough. Again, supposedly, it was supposed to be an emergency measure.
But we saw how the stock market reacted when Powell said QT would run on autopilot. Now the Fed is ready to finalize plans that would leave the balance sheet at a much higher level than it previously envisioned. Again, that means additional support for markets.
In the latest development, as Brian Maher discussed in yesterday’sDaily Reckoning, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President Mary Daly suggests that the Fed could decide to use its balance sheet as a routine part of how it guides the economy, not just as a last-ditch measure to deploy in emergencies.