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As Money Pours Down, It's No Wonder That Stocks Are Up

The markets are getting plenty of help from the world’s big central banks. Will it be enough to keep the current rally going?

The overall economy is sluggish at best, and unemployment has remained above 8 percent since early 2009. Yet despite a decline last week, stock investors have been on a roll. In the three months ended on Friday, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 5.8 percent. In Europe, stocks fared even better for the quarter, with the Euro Stoxx 50 index up 8.4 percent. Japan was a laggard, as the Nikkei index dropped 1.5 percent, but in Hong Kong the Hang Seng index rose 7.2 percent.

During much of this period, the Federal Reserve and other central banks have been flooding the planet with money. Cause and effect is hard to prove, but it seems reasonable to assume that the central banks have had something to do with the markets’ buoyancy. “Clearly central bank actions have been a major factor in the market rally,” Ethan Harris, chief North American economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, wrote in a recent report. News reports of “super dovish” announcements by the Fed and the European Central Bank correlated neatly with stock market climbs, he found.

On Sept. 6, for example, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, said that under certain conditions it would buy unlimited amounts of government bonds, a move that could lower borrowing costs for Spain and other troubled countries in the euro zone. Stocks immediately rose around the world.

The next week, the Fed met the market’s expectations, and then some. It extended its plans for maintaining near-zero short-term interest rates into the middle of 2015. And it announced that it would increase its bond-buying to a total of $85 billion a month for the rest of the year, with a focus on mortgage-backed securities, a program aimed at giving the housing market another lift. What’s more, the Fed linked the duration of its loose policies to the state of the job market. As long as the unemployment rate remained unacceptably high, the Fed planned to maintain its expansionary monetary policy, Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, said in a news conference.

“We will be looking for the sort of broad-based growth in jobs and economic activity that generally signal sustained improvement in labor market conditions and declining unemployment,” Mr. Bernanke said.

Last week, however, the markets gave up ground. The central banks aside, it’s easy to see why the bullish mood might darken quickly. A partial list of dangers includes rising tensions in the Mideast, a contentious election campaign and a looming “fiscal cliff” in the United States, an unresolved and multifaceted financial crisis in Europe, and a global economy that is far from robust.

Little of this would appear to augur well for stocks, except that the central banks have tilted the odds on the bullish side, at least for now, some analysts say.

“A modestly growing economy with the cyclically sensitive sectors at still-depressed levels is a relatively stable and safe, if not exciting, environment,” said Larry Kantor, head of research at Barclays, in a recent report. “When this is combined with a central bank committed to aggressively supporting growth through higher asset prices, it amounts to a very attractive environment for taking risk.”

In fact, Barclays calls the current version of its flagship quarterly research publication “Global Outlook: Don’t Fight the Fed.”

OF course, no one knows where the markets are going day to day. After their recent run upward, and even without the emergence of any nasty news, stocks could easily “consolidate,” that is, decline for a while before moving upward again. And because the global economy is already rather weak, an external shock — a disruptive geopolitical event — could alter perceptions abruptly.

Some analysts are not upbeat even now. The Economic Cycle Research Institute, an independent forecasting organization with an excellent record, says it believes that the United States is already in recession, and that action by the Fed won’t change that. “Unfortunately, the economy is just going to have to ride out the business cycle,” Lakshman Achuthan, chief operations officer of the institute, said recently. “The Fed’s actions have been increasingly ineffective.” The relationship between the economy and the stock market is complex, he said, and it’s not always clear whether the market is predicting the direction of the economy, reacting to it or responding to other factors.

Robert Rodriguez, managing partner and chief executive of FPA, an asset management firm in Los Angeles, says it’s possible that fund managers, seeking to bolster their returns, will “continue to pile into stocks in the remainder of this year and push them to even higher levels.” But he says he believes that the market is already overextended, and his firm has begun to reduce its stock exposure.

Mr. Rodriguez anticipated the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial crisis. But, as he acknowledged ruefully in an interview, he “was early, and got out of the market too soon, and could well be doing so again.” Still, he says he fears what he calls “the unintended consequences of the expansionary activities of the central banks.”

Another credit bubble is likely if the banks persist in trying to prop up the global economy, he said. As he sees it, the fundamental problem in the United States can’t be solved by the Fed. “We must get our fiscal house in order,” he said, “and we have only a limited amount of time to do it.”

For the next several months, though, he suspects that Wall Street’s fascination with the Fed may well keep stocks rising.


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