When Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan speaks, the market listens. What they are listening for, as I explained before, is not his views on fiscal policy but some hint about how long the Fed will try to keep the fed funds rate at 1 percent -- a feat never before accomplished for even a single postwar year.
After the Fed's meeting in late January, a subtle shift away from talking about keeping rates down for "a considerable period" toward using the word "patient" had a surprisingly negative effect on stocks. Greenspan's last two appearances before Congress, by contrast, were thought to signal an inclination to keep rates down for a considerable period.
The market's anxiety about the inevitable cyclical upturn of interest rates has little to do with economics. Investors know interest rates cannot remain this low forever and that they will rise only in a rising economy. In early February, 91 percent of the blue chip forecasters thought the Fed would raise interest rates this year (and 9 percent were wrong). Most thought rates would start rising after the June 30 or Aug. 10 meetings.
Whatever the timing, we all know the Fed will let rates rise only if and when the economy is expanding at a decent clip. Higher interest rates will then be the consequence of good economic news, not the cause of bad economic news. So why has the stock market been so hypersensitive to any hint that the Fed may start letting interest rates drift up, even by a quarter point?
The most likely explanation is politics. In Susan Lee's Jan. 12 Wall Street Journal column, "Will Greenspan Seal the Bush Re-Election?" she suggested that "a considerable period" was "a phrase that most players read as until after the November elections."
That echoes a widespread assumption that rising interest rates hurt an incumbent President's chances of re-election. The election outcome would not matter much were it not for the fact that the leading Democratic contenders have been pushing an agenda far more hostile to investors than Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" campaign of 1992. Kerry and Edwards threaten even more regulation and litigation expenses for business, protectionist retreat from global competition, grandiose new spending schemes, and abusing the tax and transfer systems to penalize extraordinary effort and entrepreneurship.