The Fed in September: Will It or Won't It?

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

It was a quiet day for U.S. stocks, but Secretary of State John Kerry did manage to throw a small firecracker in the ring late in the session with some comments on Syria that had no flip-flop to them. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) and the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) both ended the day down 0.4%, after spending most of the day in positive territory.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) (VOLATILITYINDICES: ^VIX  ) , Wall Street's "fear index," registered the pick-up in ambient tension, with a 7.2% gain, closing just below 15. (The VIX is calculated from S&P 500 option prices and reflects investor expectations for stock market volatility over the coming 30 days.)

Fed watch: Handicapping the "taper"
The Kansas City Fed's annual Jackson Hole conference wrapped up over the weekend, and analysts and pundits are trying to read the tea leaves on whether the central bank will begin reducing its monthly bond purchases -- "quantitative easing," in the lingo -- next month. Scotiabank has compiled brokers' forecasts into a handy graph (courtesy of Sober Look), and September is the most popular choice (although the consensus on Wall Street is certainly less broad than I had imagined):

Note that November is "empty," as the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets monetary policy, including asset purchases, doesn't convene in November.

Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank president Dennis Lockhart told CNBC that he "would be supportive in September as long as the data that comes in between now and then basically confirm the path we're on." But while Lockhart is reportedly a moderate and, as such, a good barometer of sentiment on the Federal Open Market Committee, he isn't a voting member this year.

While the anticipation between now and the Sept. 18, date on which the FOMC's September meeting concludes, will be enormous, it's worth remembering that if you're a long-term investor, whether the "taper" begins in September, October, December, or even in 2014 makes absolutely no difference to long-term business values. The only thing you ought to be looking for in regard to the taper is the potential for volatility that would create a disconnect between stock prices and intrinsic values -- that would spell opportunity for genuine investors.

Follow-up: After the penny dropped, Ackman drops the Penney
Pershing Square Capital Management, the hedge fund led by high-profile activist investor Bill Ackman, has sold its entire 39.1 million-share stake in troubled retailer J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) . CNBC estimates the associated loss at roughly $470 million, or about half the value of the initial investment. Pershing Square had been J.C. Penney's largest shareholder, with an 18% stake.

The exit puts an end to a miserable saga for Ackman and the company. Less than two weeks ago, after having just resigned from Penney's board, Bill Ackman told Charlie Rose flatly: "Humbleness comes from mistakes. J.C. Penney has been a big disappointment, and you learn from mistakes like that." He might easily have added, "and you move on."

Bill Ackman may have proved disruptive at J.C. Penney, but the company's fundamental challenge lies ahead of it. The retail space is in the midst of the biggest paradigm shift since mail order took off at the turn of last century. Only the most forward-looking and capable companies will survive, and they'll handsomely reward investors who understand the landscape. You can read about the 3 Companies Ready to Rule Retail in The Motley Fool's special report. Uncovering these top picks is free today; just click here to read more.


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