To Taper or Not to Taper?

It’s going to be a notable week for the Federal Reserve, with a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by Chairman Ben Bernanke’s last press conference in that position.

It’s going to be a notable week for the Federal Reserve, with a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by Chairman Ben Bernanke’s last press conference in that position. At that time he might make an announcement about the central bank’s bond-buying program, currently set at $85 billion a month. If there’s tapering to be done, Bernanke would likely say it involves chipping away at the program—taking it down to, say, $75 or $80 billion a month for the time being.

Or he might kick the tapering can down the road to his successor, Fed vice chairman Janet Yellen, who is all but assured confirmation for the top job by the U.S. Senate this week, meaning she would take office at the end of January. Last summer, the chairman said that the FOMC would consider a troika of factors in making its tapering decision: employment, growth and inflation.

In recent months, employment has dropped (the headline number is now 7 percent), and the U.S. economy has grown according to various metrics. That would seem to point to a pro-tapering decision this week by the Fed. On the other hand, inflation has been dragging its heels lately, staying below the central bank’s target rate of 2 percent, which indicates sluggish sales of consumer goods and slow wage growth, and that would seem to support anti-tapering. So this week’s decision is something of a tossup.

Wholesale prices drop again in November

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday that the U.S. producer price index for finished goods edged down 0.1 percent in November. That decline followed on the heels of recent monthly declines. Prices for finished goods decreased 0.2 percent in October and 0.1 percent in September. Compared with November 2012, wholesale prices for finished goods (including energy) were up 0.7 percent.

The monthly downward movement might mean deflation is on the way, but on the other hand most of the drop in wholesale prices has been because of the energy sector, which is notorious for its yo-yo pricing motion. In November, the overall decrease in the finished goods index can be traced to a 0.4 percent decline in prices for finished energy goods.

Nearly three-quarters of the November energy price decrease was due to gasoline prices, which moved down 0.7 percent for the month. Prices for finished goods, not counting food and energy, advanced 0.1 percent for November, according to the BLS, so while inflation isn’t very robust, most prices are still eking out some gains.

Total bank failures nearly at ’08 level

Over the weekend, the FDIC closed Texas Community Bank, National Association, in Houston suburb of The Woodlands, Texas. It was the 24th FDIC-insured bank to fail nationwide this year, and if it’s the last one, that would represent the lowest number of bank failures since 2007, when only three institutions went under. In 2008, 25 banks failed, while in 2012 the number was 51.

Wall Street had a tepid day on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 15.93 points, or 0.1 percent. The S&P 500 lost a minuscule 0.01 percent, and the Nasdaq dropped 0.11 percent.