The Day the Fed Changed the Market


On this day in economic and financial history ...

Nov. 25, 2008, was a landmark in central bank activism. In the depths of the financial crisis, after federal policy responses had already made trillions of dollars available to floundering institutions, the U.S. Federal Reserve, in partnership with the Treasury, announced a plan to buy up to $800 billion worth of distressed financial assets. It was the beginning of quantitative easing, although the term wasn't popularized until a second round (QE2) occurred two years later.

QE1, as it's now known, allowed the Federal Reserve to acquire a tremendous amount of distressed assets. Consumer debt, including credit cards, car loans, and student loans, had its own $200 billion program as part of QE1. Up to $500 billion was allocated to shore up the toxic mortgage-backed securities of floundering government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae , Freddie Mac , and Ginnie Mae. Another $100 billion was set aside to buy debt issued by these entities directly.

Analysts and market-watchers remain bitterly divided over the impact of the Fed's quantitative easing programs. However, one indicator reacted positively: the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) . QE1 ran until the end of June 2010, by which point $2.1 trillion worth of distressed assets had been vacuumed into the Fed's coffers. Over this time frame, the Dow rose from 8,500 points to more than 10,000 before dropping into the summer sell-in-May period. The first QE also benefited mortgage REITs such as Annaly Capital Management (NYS: NLY) , although later QE efforts have undermined that industry's ability to profit because of a tighter focus on interest rate spreads.

Backing the Greenbacks
The Tea Party is far from the first political movement to arise out of an economic calamity. On Nov. 25, 1874, the Greenback Party began to form in Indianapolis, as a response to the Panic of 1873 and the resulting Long Depression that would last until 1879. This first convention was hosted by the "Independent Party," made up of reformist farmers and political activists. These men hated the recent return to a gold-backed monetary system and the abandonment of the Civil War-era "greenbacks" that were backed only by government fiat. The Greenback Party believed a return to the gold standard would cause a deflationary debt spiral that would make existing debts truly crippling.

By 1876, the "National Independent Party," nicknamed the Greenback Party, had coalesced into an organization with enough strength to nominate its first presidential candidate. It ran Peter Cooper, a steam locomotive inventor and noted epic-beard man, who received slightly less than 1% of the vote and was relegated to a minor footnote in one of the most controversial elections in American history. The elections of 1878 and 1880 were the Greenback Party's high point -- the party united with a labor reform party and claimed 13 seats in the House of Representatives.

By the late 1880s the Greenback Party was dead. Its ideals lived on in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, which pushed back against the gold standard at the end of the century. This reached its apex with William Jennings Bryan's candidacy in 1896, but his loss to William McKinley ushered in the formal adoption of the gold standard in 1900.

Protect ya neck
Remember when "massive identity theft" was measured in thousands of defrauded people rather than millions? It was only a decade ago, on Nov. 25, 2002, that "the biggest identity theft case in American history" came to light. On that day, federal authorities charged three men with stealing credit information, and at least $2.7 million, from more than 30,000 people. The key member of this operation was a former employee at a credit-processing firm used by the major commercial credit bureaus.

By 2010, about 8.6 million U.S. households, or 7% of the total, had suffered at least one incidence of identity theft, according to the Department of Justice. The overwhelming majority of these cases involved the improper use of an existing credit card. Of these cases, the average (mean) loss was nearly $1,100 per household, but the median loss was only $100 per household. All told, American households lost $13.3 billion to identity theft in 2010.

The latest "biggest identity theft case in American history" was prosecuted from 2011 to 2012 after authorities caught 111 people who had ripped off some $13 million. Its specialty was Apple (NAS: AAPL) products -- NYPD inspector Gregory Antonsen said thieves had spent most of their efforts on buying and reselling iDevices internationally, as "Apple is a big-ticket item and a very easy sell."

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