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Here's How the Fed May Finally Lose Its Power

Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images

If the fiscal impasse in Washington is as big of a deal as it's made out to be, somebody forgot to tell investors.

Sure, stocks and bonds have shown volatility in recent weeks as politicians bandy their various proposal back and forth.

But equity gains for the year have largely held up and the CBOE Volatility Index, a popular gauge of market fear, is at a relatively somnabulant 20.

Perhaps more importantly, the government's benchmark debt instrument, the 10-year Treasury, is yielding a paltry 1.74 percent - hardly a level reflecting panic in the streets.

So what's to account for the general Wall Street apathy regarding the so-called "fiscal cliff"?

You might have to thank all the money-printers at the Federal Reserve.

That's the theory, at least from Mohamed El-Erian, co-CEO at the Pacific Investment Management Company, or PIMCO, which manages $1.92 trillion for clients.

El-Erian, also the chair of the president's Global Development Council, said central banking largess is helping prevent a market meltdown. (Read More: 'New Normal': Low Growth, Few Jobs, El-Erian Says)

"A lot of investors have confidence in the Fed," he said during a morning appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box." "They respect the Fed. If you have an institution that has a printing press in the basement, you respect it."

The Fed has willingly used its balance sheet to prop up the U.S. economy in the past, but has taken that to unprecedented levels in the past four years. It has created $2.9 trillion of money, using it to buy various government debt instruments - mostly Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities - in an attempt to push liquidity into the financial system.

So that's a good thing, right?

Maybe not.

"The Fed has been willing to do more and more and they don't seem to worry about the cost and unintended consequences of what they're doing," El-Erian said in what amounted to a fairly harsh assessment of the U.S. central bank's policies.

"They're just going forward," he continued. "At some point, however, the Fed is going to become ineffective in terms of what it can do both for markets and for the ultimate policy objectives."

When that day may come, when the stock market begins a selloff and debt yields begin to rise significantly, is a question without an easy answer.

How it will come, though, isn't as difficult to decipher.

"That decision largely is not up to Americans. That decision is largely up to our foreign creditors," said Alan Tonelson, research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council in Washington, D.C. "After all, it is their continued lending to the U.S. economy that is largely if not exclusively responsible for the Fed's ability to continue to print money and keep interest rates so low. That's been the key."

Indeed, foreign central banks continue to step up to the plate to help the Fed buy up U.S. debt, which is now in excess of $16 trillion. (Read More: Will 'Fiscal Cliff' Accelerate Millionaire Deaths?)

China has maintained its position as the largest holder of government debt at $1.16 trillion, though that number has fallen consistently through the year, down fully 7.5 percent from year-ago levels.

The void has been filled by Japan, which now holds $1.13 trillion - up 12.7 percent - as well as a cadre of smaller countries such as Taiwan, Switzerland and Hong Kong, all of which substantially added to their positions through the course of 2012.

Ireland, for instance, holds just $93 billion, but that's a 40 percent increase in a 12-month period.

It's hard to tell what might dissuade foreign interest in U.S. debt, and that might be the scariest part.

"It may well turn out to be one of those black-swan events," Tonelson said. "It will be upon us before we know it and before there's time to react."

One possible timeline: The Fed continues its policies, Congress plays kick-the-can with the fiscal cliff issues and foreign buyers decide Treasury yields are too low to guard against inflation risk, causing borrowing costs for the government to surge and disaster to strike. (Read More: What Pimco's Bill Gross Sees Going Higher in 2013)

Such a scenario is in the offing - but might not happen until 2015, said Fed critic Michael Pento.

"That will occur," said Pento, an economist and head of Pento Portfolio Strategies. "It doesn't have to be a watershed moment on the part of foreign creditors. All they have to do is demand a much higher yield at much lower prices - and that is going to occur by 2015 - and that sets off a death spiral where you have bond prices falling and yields rising."

As Washington tries to find a way to avoid both a debt crisis and a recession that will come with the full cliff effects, investors may be missing the bigger point.

After all, the market essentially has been flat over the past seven months, indicating that the Fed has been successful primarily only in plugging the dam.

"The fiscal cliff was not a curse sent to Earth by an asteroid," Pento said. "This was an attempt by Washington to finally control our spending and our nasty habit of raising the debt ceiling at our every whim."

With the Fed underwriting the debt and the market going on its merry way, fiscal restraint could prove elusive.

So while asset prices rise and yields stay low, the Fed's market support could yet give way to the "unintended consequences" to which El-Erian referred.

"We're heading to a bond market and dollar crisis over the next decade," Pento said. "The Fed has been very effective in enabling that to happen."