Investors in the US are about to be bitterly disappointed

Investors are hoping the US Federal Reserve will pump a load of new money into the economy. But anyone betting on more money printing is set for a big disappointment. John Stepek explains why.

Every year around this time, the world's most powerful market movers gather in a US holiday resort and make their plans for the global economy.

I'm not talking about some conspiracy-theory-laden offshoot of the Bilderberg Group here. I'm talking about the annual central bankers' shindig in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

This Friday, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke will be delivering his big speech.

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Plenty of investors are holding their breath, hoping he'll make some hint at injecting a load of new money into the US economy.

But I think they're in for a big disappointment...

The Fed needs to keep its powder dry

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) last met to discuss the state of the US economy at the start of this month. The minutes from that meeting came out last week, and got everyone very excited. That's because the FOMC suggested that it might be ready to do more "fairly soon" unless the US economy improved.

By more', everyone assumes they mean more money printing. So they're hoping that this Friday, Fed chief Ben Bernanke might give a hint about just how much more printing they plan to do.

But there are many reasons why anyone betting on a third batch of quantitative easing (QE3) from the Fed this year might be disappointed.

There's Europe, for starters. Plenty of tripwires lie ahead of the eurozone in the next month or so. There's the German constitutional court's decision on whether or not the eurozone's big bail-out mechanism is legal or not. And there's the usual to-ing and fro-ing over Greece's financial situation.

Any nasty surprises on these fronts could send the markets into a spasm of panic. So it strikes me that the Fed will probably want to keep its powder dry, in case of emergencies.

Also, the Fed will want to keep the pressure up on Europe. If the European Central Bank (ECB) follows through on its promise to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro, more QE in the US may be unnecessary.

But if the US prints more money, it takes some of the pressure off the Europeans to get their act together.

The US stock market doesn't justify QE3

However, the main reason I don't think we'll see a full-blown QE3 is because the US stock market is in remarkably good health. Previous bouts of QE have been announced at points where investors have been screaming for the Fed to "just do something!" That's not the case now. The S&P 500 recently hit a four-year high.

It also doesn't help that food price and oil price inflation are back on the radar. QE is meant to be an emergency measure, to prevent the economy from sliding into deflation. With neither deflation nor a stock market collapse panicking investors, it'll be hard to justify any extreme action.

In other words, the stage is being set for a big disappointment. When Bernanke speaks at Jackson Hole at the end of this week, people will read what they want into his speech. But if the next Fed meeting in September delivers little more than a commitment to "keep interest rates low", then US markets could take a tumble.

The good news is, if you are a genuine long-term investor, you don't have to fret too much about what's going to happen with QE.

We've said it before a number of times, but it bears repeating. When it comes to the long-term which is what we all claim to be investing for the key to success is to buy stocks when they represent good value.

History shows that if you buy a market when it's at a historically cheap level, you'll make a decent return if you hold for the long term (five years or more). If you buy a market when it's already expensive, then yes, it might get more expensive. But you don't have much room for error. And you have to make sure that you get out before everyone else realises that it's expensive, or you'll lose money when the bubble bursts.

The point is that stocks tend to get cheap when the outlook is gloomy. There's an argument to be made that the US has better prospects than many developed economies. Its housing market has suffered a proper crash. Its banks are closer to having healthy balance sheets than most other developed nations. And it has the wild card of shale oil and gas up its sleeve.

But it's in the price. The S&P 500 trades on a CAPE (cyclically-adjusted p/e ratio which smoothes out earnings over ten years) of around 22. That compares to the long-run average of around 16. So if a strong recovery doesn't materialise, there's a lot of room for disappointment.

Both European and Japanese markets, on the other hand, are cheap by historical standards, based on the CAPE. So they are pricing in a lot of misery. If things get even a little less worse, then their markets will benefit. For more on the CAPE, and the markets we favour in Europe specifically, read our recent MoneyWeek magazine cover story here: Buy low how to spot the markets that have hit bottom. (If you're not already a subscriber, you can subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.)

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John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.