The spectator sport that is witnessing
Alan Greenspan deliver testimony to various members of
reaches its apex Wednesday with the speech that used to be known as
Now, it's just the "Monetary Policy Report to the Congress." But considering the naming rights plastered on most stadiums and events these days, corporate sponsorship can't be far behind.
One of the
Federal Reserve's pressing concerns has been its attempt to help corporate profitability with its
rapid-fire interest-rate cuts. Recognizing the weakness in the economy this year, the Fed aggressively cut the short-term lending rate to 3.75% from 6.5%. But in recent weeks, official Fed comments have shifted toward neutrality.
A more definitive statement about the future isn't likely to come from Greenspan when he addresses Congress in the morning, but the market at least is hoping he'll clarify recent remarks that suggest some Fed members feel their work is largely done.
What's making the Federal Reserve's job more difficult is that it has to gauge whether enough weakness exists to warrant further rate cuts and whether to slow the pace of easing.
Attention Must Be Paid
Despite observers who acknowledge that the Fed is close to finishing up, the market is undoubtedly going to have trouble accepting that. The stock market generally believes that when the Fed is raising rates, gradualism is fine, but when it's cutting rates, the mantra is a perverse reworking of
Thornton Melon's directive: "Cut rates every seven minutes until somebody passes out. Then cut rates every 10 minutes."
The most telling developments in the Fed's deliberations were the
minutes from the May 15 meeting, when the Fed cut rates by 50 basis points for the fifth time. Even then, some members of the committee were concerned about overstimulating the economy, saying that they could foresee a time when they believed economic risk was neutral, rather than tilted toward further weakness.
The minutes say "members noted that the lagged effects of the monetary policy easing implemented earlier this year were still very hard to discern, though they should be felt increasingly over the year ahead .... Excessive monetary stimulus had to be avoided to avert rising inflation expectations and added inflation pressures over time."
Having had that discussion, and following it by cutting rates by 25 basis points at the June 27 confab, there's some talk the Fed might not lower rates at all at the Aug. 21 meeting. So far, the market believes the Fed is going to cut rates once more. Greenspan is expected to address this in his report on the economy.
Despite the Fed's election to slow its pace of cutting rates, the economic situation hasn't really changed -- the business sector, if it is stabilizing, is barely doing so, while the consumer is pushing along. In February, when Greenspan delivered the Fed's
first forecast for the year, the expectation was for 2% to 2.5% growth, which would have assumed a dramatic second-half improvement from the projected 1% growth the economy experienced in the first half of the year.
The Kindness of Strangers
As the country moves deeper into the back half of the year, there's a growing realization that the expectations of earlier this year haven't materialized. The stock market's decline hasn't doomed the economy, and the country hasn't fallen into recession, but it also hasn't bounced back much. The Fed's going to revise its forecast downward, while still knowing it may not have much more room to cut rates.
"Greenspan has talked about the speed of the easing process, but we'll have to see how (the report) characterizes current conditions," said Mickey Levy, chief economist at Bank of America. "It may reflect a general uncertainty about the forecast."
Monetary policy officials are dealing with an economic situation that, while not quite intractable, is certainly more difficult than the growth of 1998 and 1999. The Fed's efforts may bolster spending, but the lack of business demand and squeezed profits may persist for several more quarters. The economic growth produced by that may not get anybody's stock portfolio excited for some time, and profits, compared with the latter half of the last decade, probably will continue to suffer.
Ultimately, that kind of growth -- 2.5% or so -- after several years of 4% growth is a reasonable expectation when the alternative scenario seemed to be a recession. But the Fed has created expectations after bailing out the market on more than one occasion. They can only do so much after already doing a lot, something the members have hinted at in their own deliberations. But that hasn't been fully explored in public speeches by Chairman Greenspan. Of course, it might be too much to ask Greenspan to do this in his public comments -- the market will probably just end up having to figure it out on its own.