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Autumn’s Known Unknowns

NEW YORK – During the height of the Iraq war, then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke of “known unknowns” – foreseeable risks whose realization is uncertain. Today, the global economy is facing many known unknowns, most of which stem from policy uncertainty.

In the United States, three sources of policy uncertainty will come to a head this autumn. For starters, it remains unclear whether the Federal Reserve will begin to “taper” its open-ended quantitative easing (QE) in September or later, how fast it will reduce its purchases of long-term assets, and when and how fast it will start to raise interest rates from their current zero level. There is also the question of who will succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman. Finally, yet another partisan struggle over America’s debt ceiling could increase the risk of a government shutdown if the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies cannot agree on a budget.

The first two sources of uncertainty have already affected markets. The rise in US long-term interest rates – from a low of 1.6% in May to recent peaks above 2.9% – has been driven by market fears that the Fed will taper QE too soon and too fast, and by the uncertainty surrounding Bernanke’s successor.

So far, investors have been complacent about the risks posed by the looming budget fight. They believe that – as in the past – the fiscal showdown will end with a midnight compromise that avoids both default and a government shutdown. But investors seem to underestimate how dysfunctional US national politics has become. With a majority of the Republican Party on a jihad against government spending, fiscal explosions this autumn cannot be ruled out.