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!
We can’t count the number of times in the last week we’ve heard analysts worry about “what the Fed might know that we don’t.” In the words of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”
Bulls who fashion themselves as contrarians argue that the public is nowhere near as infatuated with the stock market as they were in the late 1990s. It may come as a shock to our readers, but we agree with them.
Based largely on the bearish trends in our monetary and liquidity measures, we were correctly negative on stocks throughout most of 2018. It’s therefore especially painful for us that 2019’s market rebound has been credited almost entirely to the “pivot” in most of those measures.
After last year’s spectacularly successful pivot following the December 2018 plunge, the thinking is that future rate hikes are the bull market’s only threat. Perhaps that will be the case; the belief is certainly well-supported by postwar U.S. economic history, but it also reveals a shocking lapse in short-term memory.
Among six major monetary gauges, five are now graded bullish, compared with just three a few months ago, and zero at the end of 2018.
With all the excitement over the Fed’s shift in rhetoric and the excellent subsequent market action, there’s a danger of losing sight of the broader cyclical backdrop for U.S. stocks. Remember, the economy is still operating beyond government estimates of its full-employment potential, and it’s not as if the Fed has actually eased policy—as it did successfully at a similar late-cycle juncture in the fall of 1998 and (ultimately unsuccessfully) in the summer of 2007.
The Fed has long claimed itself to be “data dependent” while providing less and less information on those data points it considers most relevant. We can’t know what’s on that list, but we certainly know what isn’t: the ISM Manufacturing Composite, which (prior to the current cycle) provided an excellent gauge of the Fed’s policy bias.
We don’t think the current stock market upleg is over.
In recent years the Fed has been more forthright than ever about the importance of the wealth effect as a transmission mechanism of monetary policy. But this (or any) policy effect hardly exists in a vacuum, and the Fed would do well to recognize that stock market swings have played an increasingly important role in the country’s fiscal balance.