The dull days are almost over.
For the last couple of weeks, markets slipped into a late summer lull, with investors seemingly nodding off in their beach chairs. The only thing to get excited about was a long-awaited speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday.
In his annual talk in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Bernanke signaled that the Fed can provide more support for the plodding U.S. economy but stopped short of laying out any new steps. The talk proved less exciting — or market-moving — than many had hoped. But, get ready, the next two weeks promise to make up for it.
The calendar is brimming with events that could send markets soaring or plunging, depending how they turn out. The European Central Bank is expected detail plans to support the region's troubled countries at its meeting Thursday. The U.S. employment report for August comes out the next day.
"We've had a quiet August," said David Kelly, chief global strategist for J.P. Morgan Funds. "It's been really nice. But all hell could break loose next week."
The following week, Germany's Constitutional Court will rule on whether it's legal for the country to participate in a bailout fund, and the Federal Reserve holds its monthly meeting.
The Associated Press asked three experts Friday for their views on Bernanke's speech, the direction of markets in the coming weeks and the perils that may lie ahead
Here are excerpts of what they had to say:
Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial in Boston, one of the country's largest brokerages:
The minutes from the last Fed meeting (Jul. 31 to Aug. 1) said they needed to see more economic growth or an improvement in the labor market or they would take more action. In the speech, he acknowledged that there were limits to what the Fed can accomplish. It can't fix the fiscal cliff. Congress needs to do that. But I think it's all lined up for him to unveil some form of quantitative easing (bond-buying) on Sept. 13.
Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at the brokerage BTIG in New York:
There was nothing surprising. It was in line with the Fed minutes, and they clearly showed the Fed was ready to ease further. How much more could he add to that?
The odds of additional quantitative easing are 50-50. We absolutely expect the Fed to extend the low rate guidance out for another year at the September meeting. You know how after the meetings they say, "Conditions warrant that we keep rates exceptionally low through late 2014?" That'll become 2015.
David Kelly, chief global strategist for J.P. Morgan Funds in New York, part of JPMorgan Chase's money-management
Bernanke's speech made it quite clear he believes he's justified in further unconventional moves, even if there's no crisis, as long as the unemployment rate is high.
At the next Fed meeting, I expect them to say they'll keep short-term rates low for longer. Quantitative easing is quite possible in small doses. I wouldn't be surprised by an announcement that the Fed plans to buy, for instance, $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities and then go from there, from meeting to meeting. In baseball terms, it's called small-ball. You just try to advance the runner one base at a time.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN THE COMING WEEKS
Kleintop: The consensus is that the Fed is going to do a third round of quantitative easing, and many think that Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, is going to unveil a big bond-buying program, too. It's not a done deal yet, a lot of work still has to be done to make it happen. The German Constitutional Court ruling Sept. 12 on whether or not Germany can participate in Europe's rescue fund is huge, too. They're all important, but I think they're going to go the way the market expects.
Kelly: The most important thing is that all the Europeans come back from vacation in September. Unlike Americans, Europeans really take a vacation, and it's hard to have a European debt crisis if everybody is on vacation. That's one reason we've had a nice calm August.
The key date is Sept. 6, when the European Central Bank meets. There's widespread expectation that the ECB will purchase sovereign debt. What I hear is that they'll make an example of Portugal and drive their interest rates down. They'll flex their muscles in the bond market and convince the world that they have the ability to control the situation. They can't fix the countries. The question is: Can they fix the financial turmoil that bubbles up now and then? My guess is that they'll succeed because they can't afford to fail. That could really help the markets.
Greenhaus: There's a lot coming up but developments in Europe are the biggest events as far as we're concerned. They're the most dangerous risk. If you're expecting the ECB to announce that they'll start supporting the region's bond markets on Sept. 6, you're going to be disappointed. It's more likely that they wait for the German Constitutional Court ruling one week later and also wait for Spain to formally ask for help. The next three weeks are really crucial.
Kleintop: What could be a surprise? If the elections keep the same balance of power in Washington, the status quo. Within the market, there's an assumption that there's going to be a quick compromise on avoiding the fiscal cliff, because the stakes are so high. Democrats are expected to retain their hold on the Senate, and you're looking at a 56 percent chance that President Obama retains the presidency, according to Intrade. But the bottom line is that I don't think you're going to get the House, under the control of the GOP, to compromise very easily.
If elections line up the same players in the White House and in Congress, I don't think it's going to go very smoothly. Gridlock isn't good.
Kelly: The wild card is the fiscal cliff. What we really need to see is a fiscal ladder: You have to bring the deficit down, sure, but you need to bring it down gradually. Republicans and Democrats should be able to lower the deficit by 1 percent of gross domestic product each year. That's a ladder.
My greatest fear is we go off the fiscal ledge. If Congress is so unaware of the danger in cutting the deficit too fast, the economy will really suffer. They've got to get the dosage right.
Greenhaus: The biggest risk is the German Constitutional Court ruling. Although there's a low probability it says Germany can't participate in the European rescue fund, the ESM, there's still the potential for a global calamity here. The ESM needs everybody in, and Germany is the most important.
Another risk is the fiscal cliff. On Wall Street, the assumption is that it will be kicked down the road another six months. Almost nobody on the Street thinks anything else. They just don't believe Washington is that dumb.
People assume everything will work out. As you saw last summer, not everything works out.