To say the least, it has been a bazaar year from an economic and financial perspective. The Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and Congress have collectively allowed us to poke our heads under their tents and see what they see…and it’s not pretty. Fear of a deep recession or even worse, a 1929 style depression mobilized them into action and resulted in three unprecedented actions.
First, politicians from both sides of the isle, within less than thirty days, crafted an agreement to give away over $160 billion in an effort to stimulate a faltering economy. Beginning next month, taxpayers and non-taxpayers alike will find checks worth hundreds of dollars in their mailboxes, no strings attached. What was amazing was both the speed at which the stimulus package was put together and the dollar amount of the giveaway. It’s hard to imagine, in an election year, that Republicans and Democrats could agree on anything, much less a program of this magnitude.
Next was the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department engineered the bailout of the 85 year old blue chip financial behemoth, Bear Stearns. Over the weekend of March 14th, the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, J.P. Morgan and Bear Stearns brokered the sale of Bear Stearns to J.P. Morgan for $2 per share or about $270 million (later revised to $10 per share). Bear Stearns stock had traded as high as $170 per share in January 2007. What cinched the deal was the Federal Reserve’s agreement to swap $30 billion of treasuries for $30 billion of Bear Stearns’ most questionable debt. The government’s intervention in the bailout of an individual company is highly unusual.
Finally, earlier this month, the Federal Reserve in another unprecedented move opened its discount window to non-FDIC financial institutions allowing them access to capital to shore up their weakening balance sheets and promote confidence in our financial system.
While not unprecedented, the Federal Reserve has aggressively been reducing interest rates and is expected to continue to do so in its meeting this week.
All of this strongly suggests that the brightest minds charged with the responsibility of running our country were truly concerned about not only the prospects of a deep recession, but of the possibility of a 1929 style depression. Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke is a student of the Depression and appears to be the right person in the right position at the right time.
What’s next? All signs suggest that quick action on the part of our government has averted a financial system and economic meltdown but we have not yet bottomed out. Employment continues to fall; housing prices continue to drop nationally as do housing starts. Foreclosures as a result of the sub-prime debacle that started this downward spiral are likely to accelerate this summer and may continue through 2009. Energy, food, and raw materials such as steel, like the Steel Adelaide prices are rising with no immediate relief in sight. Even more disconcerting is the reluctance of banks to loan overnight funds to other banks; an indication that banks remain very cautious of the fragility of the banking system.
Where there is confusion, fear and turmoil, there are opportunities as well. Next week, I’ll discuss where the opportunities are for those of you willing to swim against the current.