Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's much-anticipated speech Friday will likely disappoint investors and policy makers hoping for signs the central bank will try to rev up the weak economy, but the speech is likely to relieve gold investors who have booked big profits from that same economic malaise.
A year ago, when Bernanke last spoke at the Jackson Hole, Wyo., symposium, his speech laid the groundwork for what turned into a $600 billion buying spree of U.S. government debt. That initiative boosted the price of Treasuries and injected lots of money that energized the stock market. The buzz lasted into early 2011.
But in the past six months the stock market has fallen about 12 percent, the economy has slowed to a crawl and unemployment seems frozen above 9 percent. Worst of all, some economists see a double-dip recession coming.
For some it's time for a repeat performance of last year's Federal Reserve quantitative easing -- or what detractors call money printing.
But no one should hold their breath for Bernanke to signal any such thing.
For one thing, the market is signaling that investors don't expect more help from the Fed: It's down 13 percent in the past four weeks, a sign investors are pricing in a lack of support from the Fed.
A host of influential economists who follow the Fed and Bernanke say he'll explain why he has revised down his forecast and otherwise keep his options open.
Market participants should not expect the chairman's remarks to offer a specific course of action as either necessary or inevitable, said Nomura economist David Resler. We expect the chairman to seek to reassure the markets of his confidence that the Fed has the tools it needs to mitigate the slowdown in economic activity and to reiterate that it stands ready to use them if and when that becomes appropriate.
Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JP Morgan Chase, said Bernanke will explain what the Fed has done and the costs and benefits of its remaining policy options. But we would expect him to leave it at that, and not forcefully signal that a given course of action has already been decided upon.
Deutsche Bank chief economist Peter Cooper said any action the Fed takes at this point may give the markets no more than a temporary lift and would not resolve the more fundamental problems that are weighing on the economy.
Another indication that Friday won't produce more quantitative easing is the central bank simply lacks tools to stimulate the economy: Interest rates are already near zero and its balance sheet is already bulging with government debt that some day must be sold, a tricky move in itself.
No matter what impression Bernanke makes on Friday, gold investors should be fine, said UBS Investment Research strategist Edel Tully.
It is fair to say that gold should be one of the bigger beneficiaries of another round of quantitative easing; anticipation of such has been a driver of gold's strength recently given worries about financial stability and a deteriorating economic outlook, he said.
That yesterday's U.S. durable good data release surprised on the upside raised a red flag, along with equities trading again in positive territory, and climbing Treasury yields.
As expectations of what Fed Chairman Bernanke can say at Jackson Hole tomorrow are scaled back, gold should be one of the assets that reacts most. But there is also a positive aspect to this, in that gold appears to have already discounted disappointment at Jackson Hole, he added.
Colin Fenton, global head of commodities research for JPMorgan, which predicts the metal will rise to $2,500 an ounce by yearend, also says gold investors are in a win-win situation.
Bernanke will likely try to reassure investors that measures will be taken to avert a recession, said Fenton. If a recession is averted it is not bearish for gold. It just puts the onus back on Congress to address the long-run fiscal instability that is prompting the 'complaint' from gold and other global markets. Gold in any of those scenarios has upside.