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Phasing out 'easy money'
U.S. markets sank after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted that the Fed might end its bond-buying program
Pumping money into the economy won't solve our underlying problems.
Pumping money into the economy won't solve our underlying problems. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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he end of "cheap money" has to come sometime, said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. Yet that very thought sent U.S. markets into a tailspin last week, after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted that the Fed might back away from the bond-buying program known as quantitative easing. For years now, central banks, led by the Fed, "have aggressively pumped money into their economies to stimulate faster revival." The QE strategy is meant to reduce interest rates, boost markets, and ultimately lead to stronger economic growth. But there are big downsides. As we now see, it "is hard to reverse gracefully." And flooding the market with free cash doesn't solve our economy's underlying problems. "It can't erase the memories of the financial crisis. It can't create technologies. It can't make older people younger. At best, cheap money aided the housing recovery; at worst, it became a stock-market narcotic that can't be withdrawn painlessly."

Granted, "the party cannot last forever," said Robin Wigglesworth and Stefan Wagstyl in the Financial Times. But it "could keep rolling for some time." The Fed, after all, isn't raising interest rates, and other banks — the Bank of Japan, for instance — will continue to aggressively buy bonds. Nonetheless, the mere prospect of "the withdrawal of central bank money" spooks investors, who have fled to emerging markets in pursuit of better returns. That's why last week's worldwide sell-off was "sharp, deep, and indiscriminate." Investors may be overreacting, but this premonition of QE's end raises a sensitive question. When the process begins in earnest, "will it prove a temporary spell of turmoil — painful but fleeting — as investors and countries adjust to a new monetary era? Or will it herald a more testing period for emerging markets?"

We should be glad this happened, said Elizabeth MacDonald at Fox Business. The Fed's slowdown, after all, is "a sign the economy is getting stronger." It's just that the markets have gotten ahead of the recovery, which explains some of their recent volatility. Still, "ending artificial stimulus is a good thing. Investors can figure out which companies have solid earnings growth, so it's back to fundamentals." Just look at the numbers: The economy is growing, housing is recovering, and unemployment is shrinking. And if the recovery stays too sluggish for the Fed, remember: It "can always restart its bond buying again." No harm, no foul.

It should surprise no one that the stock market is reacting irrationally, said Stephen Gandel in Fortune. Even after last week's drop, the U.S. market is up 72 percent in the last four years — but "have the past few years felt like we are in an economy 72 percent better than it was?" The fact is, the stock market is entirely divorced from the health of our economy. Stocks reflect corporate profits and interest rates, and "neither is going the market's way." That's why the mere idea of ending quantitative easing gives Wall Street traders such a bad case of the jitters. Unless you're on the Street, "by all means, carry on. The economy is improving. But don't expect the stock market to stay calm."

Sergio Hernandez is business editor of The Week's print edition. He has previously worked for The DailyProPublica, the Village Voice, and Gawker.

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