Why the Fed Is the Only Game in Town

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.

Week two of the government shutdown begins today with no meetings planned between the major players in this fiasco, according to Bloomberg Television this morning. In that context, it's little wonder investors may be feeling a bit jittery, as U.S. stocks opened lower on Monday. The S&P 500 and the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) are down 0.45% and 0.86%, respectively, at 10:40 a.m. EDT.

Last Friday, the shutdown prevented the release of arguably the most important economic data release of the month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' September employment report. Further darkening the lens through which we view the economy, this week we'll probably be forced to do without Thursday's initial jobless claims and Friday's retail sales report for September.

The current data outage boosts the visibility of a release that traders and pundits will already have been hotly anticipating: the minutes from last month's meeting of the Fed's rate-setting committee, at which members decided not to scale back the pace of the central bank's bond-buying program -- to widespread surprise. Indeed, the Federal Reserve does not receive funding through the congressional budgetary process, so the shutdown does not affect it. In fact, the Fed is currently a huge profit center for the U.S. -- last month, billionaire investor Warren Buffett called it "the greatest hedge fund in history."

As the shutdown begins to take a genuine toll to the economy and ushers in some sense of malaise (not to mention a creeping fear of a technical default by the U.S. on its debt), the Fed's decision not to taper appears obvious in retrospect. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to understand why the notion that the Fed would pull back achieved such a consensus.

Nevertheless, investors will be curious to know the specific reasoning behind Fed policymakers' decision, as it may provide clues concerning the likely calendar for the withdrawal of the bond-buying program ("quantitative easing"). That's not critical with regard to realizing long-term stock values (i.e., returns), but it could have an impact on the way in which we get there (i.e., volatility).

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