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Fed's role in fueling asset bubbles poses important questions

WASHINGTON--The Federal Reserve's super-low interest-rate policies have inflated a slew of dangerous asset bubbles. Or so critics say.

They say stocks are at unsustainable prices. California homes are fetching frothy sums. Same with farmland, Bitcoins and rare Scotch.

Under Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Fed has aggressively bought bonds to try to cut borrowing rates and accelerate spending, investing and hiring. Its supporters say low rates have helped nourish the still-modest economic rebound.

Yet some say the Fed-engineered rates have produced an economic sugar high that risks triggering a crash akin to the tech-stock swoon in 2000 and the housing bust in 2006.

On the eve of the Fed's latest policy meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, here's why — or why not — these five assets might be in a bubble:

Stocks

The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index has jumped about 26 percent since the Fed announced a year ago that it would buy US$85 billion in bonds each month. And since the Fed's first round of bond buying at the end of 2008, stocks have soared 124 percent. Stocks outside the United States have also surged as other central banks have followed the Fed with their own low-rate policies. Germany's DAX is up 20 percent, Japan's Nikkei index 46 percent.

Why it's a bubble:

By artificially depressing bond yields, the Fed has led more investors to shift money into stocks. Such a flood of cash can swell share prices without regard to corporate earnings. Once the Fed unwinds its support, many investors could abandon stocks and send shares tumbling. “I am most worried about the boom in the U.S. stock market” because of its disconnect from a “weak and vulnerable” economy, Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist, told the German magazine Der Spiegel a few weeks ago. Shiller knows a bubble when he sees one. He accurately warned of both the tech and housing bubbles before they burst.

Why it isn't:

One key measure assesses stock prices relative to corporate profits. A healthy price-earnings ratio is around 15 — or US$15 a share for each dollar of profit. The current P/E ratio is about 18.4, slightly above average but probably no cause to panic. Janet Yellen, nominated to succeed Bernanke, said last month: “If you look at traditional valuation measures ... you would not see stock prices in territory that suggests bubble-like conditions.”

Housing

The last housing bubble ignited the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Home prices became inflated in part from an influx of cash and low rates driven by the Fed and other central banks. And in recent months, prices have again soared in some hot U.S. markets.

Why it's a bubble:

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From left, Janet Yellen, President Barack Obama's choice to head the Federal Reserve Board, former Chairman Paul Volcker, former Chairman Alan Greenspan, and outgoing Chairman Ben Bernanke participate in the ceremonial signing of a certificate commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Federal Reserve Act at the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, Monday, Dec. 16.

(AP)



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