However, the revelation that Societe Generale is taking a $7 billion write-down due to the activities of one rogue trader — and additional reports that the French bank may have been unwinding those positions on Monday, a thinly traded, volatile day when Asian and European markets were rocked with losses, puts the Fed’s move in a new light. Namely, that they were taken in.
“They were sucker punched,” says Barry Ritholtz, director of equity research at Fusion IQ. “What we see now is that it was a very ill-considered attempt to intervene in equity prices.”
Officials at Societe Generale admitted that the firm was in the markets, trying to close these positions in the last few days before telling people what was going on. FT.com’s Alphaville blog did a nice live-blog of the firm’s conference call, where officials reportedly said that “with the chance of good fortune, it was possible to liquidate these positions over three days, which was quite exceptional.”
This isn’t to say, necessarily, that Societe Generale’s trading caused the market turmoil of Monday and Tuesday, but it certainly contributed. Officials there said the firm “discovered this at the same time as the market was plummeting…we really had to settle those positions as fast as we could and we did so during the three day crisis which you all witnessed.”
That three-day crisis, of course, was the one that prompted the Fed to react in dramatic fashion, pushing through its largest one-day decrease in the funds rate since the Fed started announcing its policy changes in 1994, one now that looks awkward.
“I think Mr. Bernanke is clearly a very bright guy but he lacks the market savvy” that former Fed head Paul Volcker had, says Jeff Saut, head of investment strategy at Raymond James. He believes the Fed should have cut rates — but only after the markets had their chance to fall apart.
Trading in the federal-funds futures suggests a less aggressive move by the Fed next week as a result. As of yesterday, the market was still pricing in 100% odds on a half-point cut at next week’s Fed meeting and even a decent chance of another 0.75-point cut - but the odds on a half-point drop have declined to 91%.
But who knows? Those odds may increase if the stock market has another hissy fit, or if there’s another trader lurking out there who can beat the $7 billion in Soc Gen losses.