Is Tapering a Threat or a Good Bet?


Every time Fed chairman Ben Bernanke even hints at phasing out the federal stimulus program, the Dow Jones Industrial Average does a spit-take. Since the economy's most important figurehead keeps talking about it, the Dow is starting to look downright neurotic. Is that the right reaction to Bernanke's long-term plan?

First, let's look at the market reactions in context of Bernanke's stimulus-tapering talk. The Dow took a 0.4% dive on May 22 when Bernanke testified before Congress that the Fed might start scaling down its $85 billion-per-month bond-buying if the job market keeps improving and the economy doesn't slow down.

That dip was dramatic at the time. The comments sent stocks "sharply lower," in the words of fellow Fool Travis Hoium. These days, a 0.4% fall is hardly worth mentioning.

^DJI Chart
^DJI Chart

^DJI data by YCharts.

In the 22 market days since May 22, I see exactly four instances of the Dow trading between 0.4% and -0.4%. The other 18 full days jumped outside that range -- often by quite a distance, and usually to the downside. This sunshiny Monday looks no different, as the Dow trades down 0.95% as of this 1:50 p.m. EDT. And, yes, the biggest of these moves all come down to Bernanke's potential strategy choices.

But what, exactly, are investors worried about? Sure, it sounds scary to turn off such a large and important spigot flowing into the tentative economic recovery. But have you considered the other side of the coin?

Here are the top three reasons I see not to panic about Bernanke's tapering comments -- and perhaps even too get excited instead:

  • The end of the stimulus program would be tied to some solid metrics. Bernanke wants to see unemployment dropping below 6.5% before he turns off the stimulus engines. The alternative trigger would be inflation rising above a 2% annual rate. (Yes, reasonable inflation levels can be a good thing.) Wouldn't these be signs of a sustainable recovery that will keep the free market's blood flowing without artificial stimulus?

  • You might recall that the government is operating under a negative budget. The government spent $136 billion more than it collected in May. The "fiscal cliff" panic of 2012 focused on this metric. Now we're supposed to forget about it and keep feeding $85 billion into the stimulus program anyhow. You'd think the people who worried about the cliff would cheer the idea of reducing monthly red-ink flows by two-thirds.

  • The stimulus program was always meant to give America a quick shot of adrenalin, not a daily dose of addictive caffeine. The whole tapering plan would avoid going cold turkey, slowly easing things back to what we used to call "business as usual." Assuming that the need for stimulus has passed (see the first point about trigger thresholds), wouldn't this be a great thing?

I could go on, but these points should suffice to make any long-term investor think about the real implications of Bernanke's tapering. The sudden discounts on the Dow's premium stocks seem based on entirely backward reasoning. If I'm right, this could be the perfect time to invest in the Dow before Mr. Market wakes up to the beneficial effects of a tapered stimulus. Buy when there's blood in the streets.

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