Ignore the Cheerleader-in-Chief

Saturday, October 16, 2004 | 11:39 AM
in Media


My latest Street.com column is up: "Ignore the Cheerleader-in-Chief". It is a slightly cynical look at the Fed Chief's rather undistinguished history of financial predictions. For those of you without a subscription, here's a rather lengthy excerpt:

"In a speech at the National Italian American Foundation in Washington, D.C., Friday, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said he's not worried by the rise of crude oil prices to a record $55 a barrel. "The impact of the current surge in oil prices, though noticeable, is likely to prove less consequential to economic growth and inflation than in the 1970s," he said.

Once the cheerleading crossed the tape, equity markets rallied while Treasuries slumped.

Pardon my cynicism, but I am grabbing my hat and leaving before the curtain falls. I know how this will turn out: The cheerleader-in-chief will cost the unwary a healthy chunk of change"

"Forgive me for not being similarly inclined to genuflect toward the chairman's pronouncements. Despite Greenspan's sanguine attitude toward oil prices, I remain long-term bullish on the sector.

I find traders' knee-jerk responses to Greenie's views on oil endlessly amusing. I guess they already forgot that on July 20, Greenspan testified before Congress that rising energy prices "should prove short-lived"; crude prices have risen nearly 15% since. Then there was Greenspan's amazingly bad call on natural gas in May 2003, when he warned of potential shortages; natural gas prices tumbled shortly thereafter. And let's not forget his advice to would-be home owners this summer, praising the virtues of adjustable-rate mortgages when fixed-rate loans were near half-century lows.

If you're thinking there's a pattern here, you're right. Consider the Road Runner routine the Fed chief pulled last year on fixed-income traders, which parallels what he did to equities traders in the '90s. I guess oil would complete the hat trick.

A quick review of the handiwork of this master bridge salesman: In a now infamous 1996 speech, Greenspan said, "How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions?"

That was widely perceived as a warning that stocks had gotten too pricey for the Fed chief's taste. But only a year later, he started waxing eloquent on the majesty of productivity gains. Thereafter, the "productivity miracle" became a fixture in Fed speeches, white papers and FOMC meetings. It culminated in the massive 1999 liquidity infusion by the Fed in (erroneous) anticipation of a Y2K run on the banks. That surge in money supply effectively doubled the Nasdaq Composite from October 1999 to March 2000; I assume you recall how that ended.

Fast forward to summer 2003. The newest Fed concern was deflation. For a while the central bank seemed to have successfully jawboned the Treasury market into believing that rates would stay low for a long, long time. Greenspan even suggested that the Fed stood ready to make open market purchases to ensure rates stayed low.

As bond buyers then discovered to their chagrin, this statement turned out to be false. The fixed-income crowd became Wile E. Coyote to Greenspan's Road Runner. The Fed chief painted a tunnel entrance on a wall, and the bond boys ran face first into it. Forgive the equity crowd their snickering, as they had already paid their tuition to learn that costly lesson. Hey, it's the Fed chief's perogative to change his mind ... but in doing so, he caused massive dislocation in one of the world's largest capital markets.

It now seems to be a regular cycle. Today, we heard the Fed chief's pearls of wisdom on oil and commodities. One of the phrases that caught my ear was this one: "Obviously, the risk of more serious negative consequences would intensify if oil prices were to move materially higher."

Interesting observation. Of course, Greenspan could have said the exact same thing when oil was at $40? How about $50? Hmmmm . . . I wonder if he will be saying something similar if and when oil hits $60?

Pardon my cynicism, but I am grabbing my hat and leaving before the curtain falls. I know how this will turn out: The cheerleader-in-chief will cost the unwary a healthy chunk of change.

Quite frankly, anyone who buys or sells anything based on Greenie's prognostications is very likely to get what he deserves."

Ignore the Cheerleader-in-Chief
Barry Ritholtz
TheStreet.com, 10/15/2004 3:00 PM EDT

Saturday, October 16, 2004 | 11:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (3)
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» Crude Rhetoric from Different Opinion
...But what do you have, beyond the rhetoric ...? A crude oil market at $55 a barrel, only slowly getting cheaper to $35 a barrel out in 2010. ...Could we now please see any central bank actually using these figures for macroeconomic prognosis work ins... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 17, 2004 5:41:18 PM

» Carnival of the Capitalists - October 25 2004 from The Big Picture
Hello and welcome to this week's Carnival of the Capitalists! We have an exciting and wide ranging line up, which I have tried to categorize (a mostly futile exercise, I might add) for your reading pleasure. If I missed anyone's trackback, please email... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 25, 2004 1:20:55 PM

» Blame Greenspan from The Big Picture
A few articles pulled from the weekend linfest tell the story of how Housing ended up in its present slide and ongoing challenging circumstances. What is frightfully revealing in the entire mess is the role former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan played in the... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 11, 2007 7:28:10 AM


"The fixed-income crowd became Wile E. Coyote to Greenspan's Road Runner. The Fed chief painted a tunnel entrance on a wall, and the bond boys ran face first into it."

Well, technically, in the cartoons what happened was that Wile E. would paint the tunnel entrance. The Road Runner would somehow manage to run through the tunnel, as if it were a real tunnel, but the Coyote, following, would run smack into the wall.

At least, that's my recollection.

Posted by: Jon H | Oct 16, 2004 1:20:59 PM

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