In my last post on equity risk premiums and the market, I argued that the equity markets have been priced on the presumption that the Fed has the power to control where interest rates will go in the next few years. Wednesday’s press conference by Ben Bernanke was a perfect example of how the Fed has become the center of the equity market universe and how every signal (intentional, implied or imagined) of what the Fed plans to do in the future causes large market gyrations.

Investors cannot fight the Fed, but the Fed cannot fight fundamentals

The Fed speaks and markets react

Ben Bernanke’s press conference was at the end of the meetings of the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) and it provided an opportunity for the market to observe the Fed’s views of the state of theeconomy and its plans for the foreseeable future. The Fed’s optimistic take on the economy (that it was on the mend) and Bernanke’s statement that the Fed could start winding down its bond buying program (and by extension, its policy of keeping interest rates low) was not viewed as good news by the market. The reaction was swift, with stocks collapsingin the two hours of trading after the Bernanke news conference and rippleeffects spreading to other global markets over night.

Implicit in this reaction is the belief that the Fed is an all-powerful entity that can choose to keep interest rates (short term and long term) low, if it so desires, for as long as it wants. While this belief in the Fed’s power to set interest rates is touching, I think it is at war with both history and fundamentals. In fact, if there is blame to be assigned for the market collapse, it has to to rest just as much on investors who have priced contradictory assumptions into stock prices as it does on the Fed for encouraging them to do so.

Rest via aswathdamodaran