Global investors say Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s bond-swap program, known as Operation Twist, will fail to reduce unemployment as the world’s largest economy slows.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents say the Fed’s plan to replace $400 billion of short-term debt with longer-term Treasuries won’t create jobs for the nation’s 14 million unemployed, according to the quarterly Bloomberg Global Poll of 1,031 investors, analysts and traders who are Bloomberg subscribers.
“There’s probably nothing monetary policy can do except keep the psychology of the market positive,” poll respondent Jonathan Sadowsky, chief investment officer of Vaca Creek Asset Management in San Francisco, said in a follow-up interview. “The Fed is actually trying something while the politicians are doing nothing except squabbling.”
Investors are evenly divided on whether Operation Twist is a good idea or a bad one, and Bernanke remains very popular among them, more so than other American figures such as President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
The central bank, announcing the move last week, said it was designed to “support a stronger economic recovery,” and it cited “significant downside risks” to the outlook. The decision provoked three dissents for the second straight meeting, posing the most opposition within Federal Open Market Committee in almost 19 years.
Sixty percent of respondents see the U.S. economy deteriorating, and 50 percent said it will relapse into recession in the next year. Nineteen percent expect another financial meltdown in that period. Over the next two to five years, an additional 26 percent expect a crisis.
Record Balance Sheet
The Fed’s efforts so far to support the economy --including holding its benchmark rate near zero since December 2008 and expanding its balance sheet to a record $2.88 trillion -- have done little to reduce unemployment that has hovered near 9 percent since April 2009 or to revive the housing market.
“They’re trying to pump air into a balloon that has a big hole in it, and that balloon is called housing,” said poll respondent Richard Bennett, senior vice president of trading at Stamford, Connecticut-based Rochdale Securities. “It’s not working.”
Sales of existing homes came to 5.03 million at an annual rate in August, down from a peak of 7.25 million in September, 2005, before the housing boom turned into a subprime-mortgage bust that dragged the economy into an 18-month recession. Home prices fell 4.1 percent in July from a year earlier, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values in 20 cities.
Market of Choice
For all the pessimism, the U.S. is still seen as the most attractive market for many investors. Asked which one or two countries offer the best opportunities, 30 percent of respondents identified the U.S. as one of their selections. China and Brazil were picked by 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively. The European Union was picked as one of the worst two locations by 53 percent of investors, compared with 21 percent for the United States.
American society is also seen less vulnerable to upheaval than Europe’s. Asked if economic troubles would lead to “social instability including riots or other unrest” in the next year, 56 percent said yes for Europe, compared with 14 percent for the U.S. Eighty-one percent of respondents foresaw European unrest in the next five years, compared with 43 percent for the U.S.
Outlook for Apple
Investors were polled about how the world’s most valuable technology company, Apple Inc., would fare now that Steve Jobs has retired as chief executive officer. Forty-five percent were “generally bullish” on the company while 40 percent were “generally bearish.”
Asked to compare whether the U.S. or the euro zone had done a better job of handling its economic problems, 67 percent said the U.S. and 11 percent Europe.
Investors have flocked to U.S. government debt, with Treasuries due in 10 or more years returning 23.8 percent as of Sept. 28, almost matching the 24.4 percent gain in all of 2008 during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes.
Long-term Treasuries have returned 20.8 percent since June 30, the best quarterly performance since the securities gained 23 percent in the period from April through June 1980.
The 10-year yield fell to a record 1.67 percent on Sept. 23, two days after the Fed’s Sept. 21 announcement of Operation Twist. The yield has since risen to 2 percent as of 4:59 p.m. yesterday in New York. Low Treasury yields have helped reduce the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage to 4.01 percent, the cheapest on record in an index from Freddie Mac.
Unlikely to Default
Consistent with the low Treasury yields, 94 percent of investors say the U.S. is unlikely to default on its debt. At the same time, the yields reflect the outlook for slow economic growth: 56 percent of respondents said a Japan-like lost decade is “very” or “fairly” likely, up from 38 percent when the question was asked in September 2010.
Bernanke notched his lowest approval and highest disapproval levels in investor surveys going back to 2009. Sixty percent have a favorable view of Bernanke, down from 64 percent in May. Thirty-seven percent have an unfavorable view, up from 31 percent.
Still, the Fed chief posts higher ratings than Geithner, with 47 percent; European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, 45 percent; President Obama, 39 percent; Democrats in Congress, 25 percent and Republicans, 21 percent.
“The chairman’s popularity remains consistently high,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the survey. “His policies are sometimes panned, but his image remains untarnished to most investors.”
The quarterly Bloomberg Global Poll of investors, traders and analysts has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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