Market conditions leading up to the May rate hike were similar (if not worse) than those that triggered Powell’s late-2018 “pivot.” Free-market tightening of 2022 is apt to play into the path of policy. There’s likely a dovish “pivot” in store later this year—one that may be aggressively sold rather than bought.
Like Gonzaga in the NCAA basketball tournament, stock market bulls are set for their first real test in a very long time.
Senator Rand Paul’s annual “Festivus” report on wasteful spending makes for sobering reading to the dwindling few who care about federal finances. The “low light” for 2021 was a $465,000 grant to the National Institute of Health for a study of pigeons playing slot machines.
Yesterday, the Russell 2000 closed down 20.9% from its November 8th high, and market bulls have conceded it was “due” for a pullback after a 146% gain off the March-2020 COVID lows.
The Russell’s decline is moderate by the historical high-beta standards of Small Caps. However, this drop—combined with other developments transpiring over the last few years—has produced a shocking result: The Russell 2000 is now unchanged on an inflation-adjusted basis since its “Quantitative-Tightening Top” of August 31, 2018. But what a three-year ride it’s been!
With consumer price inflation raging at 6.2% and few indications of an imminent rollover, Jay Powell has waved the white flag and retired the ill-begotten “transitory” descriptor. The timing of Powell’s concession is intriguing—perhaps he’s a fellow follower of a simple inflation model: the Output Gap.
The extra months of QE “auto-pilot” failed to support some of the themes we’d have thought were the most likely to benefit from it—including IPOs, SPACs, Bitcoin, and the sky-high growers favored by the ARK Innovation ETF. Instead, the smart play with each of these assets was to ignore the ever-expanding Fed balance sheet and sell in February.
If NBER is correct that a new economic expansion began in mid-2020, then this cycle is unfolding in “dog years.” After limiting between-meal snacks earlier this year, champion-breeder Jay Powell has informed his pack of canines that their portions will also be reduced as of later this month.
The gap between YOY growth rates in M2 and nominal GDP just flipped negative after four quarters of record-high readings. In other words, the recovering economy is now drinking from a punch bowl that the stock market once had all to itself. Similar drinking binges occurred in 2010 and 2018, both of which then experienced corrections north of 15%.
It’s certain that today’s cyclical bout of inflation will prove “transitory,” if only because the word itself is practically meaningless. Our time on earth will also prove transitory, and so too will the current stock market mania—to the shock of most of the nearly 20 million “investors” on the Robinhood platform.
In an echo of last decade, the Fed has come under fire for keeping crisis-based monetary policies in place well after a crisis has subsided. Predictably, the Fed rationalizes its uber-accommodation by citing the slowest-to-recover data series from a set of figures that already suffer from an inherent lag (labor market indicators).
Our trusted civil servants must have found a list of our old Economic/Interest Rates/Inflation components and began to “discontinue” those once invaluable to us and other Fed watchers. It’s a hindrance, but we still have the one that is most correlated to stock prices and it’s free: The ever-expanding balance sheet.
The COVID collapse showed the Fed could abandon its clunky forward guidance and make the appropriate “pivot” when the facts changed. Now that facts have changed for the better, the Fed is right back to the rigid and dogmatic approach that characterized Fed-speak for almost all of the last economic expansion.
On May 25th, Fed Chair Jerome Powell promised to pull back emergency support “very gradually over time and with great transparency.”
“Very gradually?” No one doubts that. But “with great transparency?” Not a chance...
Equities continue to benefit from an odd combination of faith and doubt in the Federal Reserve: Faith that the “Fed put” under financial markets is struck closer to the price of the “underlying” than ever before, and doubt that limitless liquidity will trigger a dangerous rise in consumer prices. In all fairness, this glass half full assessment is hardly a theoretical one, but one based on years of empirical evidence.
The Fed is hell-bent on generating inflation of 2% or higher in an over-supplied world that we think should probably be experiencing mild deflation. Their success or failure at this mission will be critical for asset allocators. For equity managers who must remain fully invested, however, the more important question might be not whether the Fed can generate higher inflation, but where.
Several measures of U.S. economic “surprises” have soared to all-time highs in the last couple of months, showing that even economic forecasters have finally learned to play the corporate game of “under-promise then over-deliver.” Mind you, that’s only 30 years after most industrial firms eliminated the role of “staff economist.”
In 2019 and 2020, our regard for time-tested valuation tools resulted in tactical portfolios being underexposed to stocks during a pair of tremendous rallies. Now, the critique is that we don’t appreciate the brilliance of today’s policymakers and their miraculous ability to pivot just when the stocks (and, in the latest case, the economy) need it most.
The weekly covers of The Economist do a pretty good job of capturing the zeitgeist of global financial affairs, but there’s so much packed into every issue (and enough to do around our shop) that sometimes all we see are the covers. But we have to admit we’re disappointed in The Economist for the week ended July 31st. The “Free Money” theme is at least four months too late!