stock prices in a rising interest rate world (I)

Jim Paulsen

I’ve been a fan of Jim Paulsen of Wells Capital Management (part of Wells Fargo) for a while.  My only caution is that his thoughts and mine usually run along the same optimistic lines.  So he provides me more confirmation of my own views than a radically different viewpoint to test them against.

stocks should be okay

His latest Economic and Market Update, dated June 25th, talks about what happens to stocks when interest rates begin to rise after a recession.  He focuses on consumer confidence as the key variable to watch.  So far it’s signaling that stocks should be okay even as interest rates rise (and bond prices fall).

my thoughts

Up until now, I’ve been mostly satisfied with the argument that over the past thirty years stocks have always gone sideways to up as the Fed raises rates from recession-induced emergency lows.  Recently, though, I’ve been trying to think through what might go wrong this time.  All I can come up with is:

–the Baby Boom is older and has different investment preferences

–the road back to normal rates is an especially long one (in keeping with the severity of the Great Recession)

–market participants seem to me to be less thoughtful and more emotional (maybe the result of using cable tv as an information source).

None of these is enough to change my mind that stocks will be basically okay.  But I’ve also been looking for positive arguments that reach this conclusion–not just lack of strong reasons to be suspicious of past investor behavior in similar circumstances.

one key distinction to make…

…before we go any farther.

What we’re talking about is Fed action that brings money policy from accommodative (loose) to normal, not normal to restrictive (tight).  The difference?

–the Fed fights recession by setting short-term interest rates below the rate of inflation.  In other words, it more or less gives the money away to anyone who promises to spend it!!  It does this to simulate investment and consumption.  Ending the giveaway by moving rates back up to slightly above inflation and giving lenders a real return on their funds, is the move from loose to normal.

–on the other hand, when the economy is expanding too quickly and creating inflation, the Fed moves rates substantially higher than inflation.  Its intention is to slow economic activity back down to a sustainable rate.  That’s not what the Fed is doing now.  (In fact, it’s not even talking about stopping the giveaway.  It’s only suggesting it may slow down the rate at which it shovels the money out the door.

Paulsen’s observation

Paulsen’s main point in his June 25th strategy piece is that during periods when interest rates are rising, there’s a strong positive link between consumer confidence and stock market performance.  Historically, the S&P has advanced on average at a 12.8% annual rate during months when bond prices were falling but consumer confidence was rising.  However, when bonds were falling and confidence was dropping as well, the S&P also declined, at a 6.4% annual rate.

Paulsen cites two consumer confidence measures, the monthly Consumer Confidence Present Situation Index from the Conference Board, which has been advancing steadily since late 2011, and the daily Rasmumssen Consumer Confidence Index, which has also been rising since August 2012.  Both indices have continued to go up, despite the recent rise in Treasury bond yields.

In his strategy update, Paulsen is a little vague about what he thinks is in store for stocks.  He says, “Yes, yields are rising.  But the key is that improving confidence seems to be at the core of what is driving them higher.  If this continues, higher interest rates should not materially impact economic activity and the stock market may continue to provide favorable results.”

In a slightly earlier (June 18th) piece, Dr. Paulsen is more specific.  There, he says his guess is the S&P will move in a 1550 – 1750 range through yearend, before beginning to advance higher in 2014.

That’s providing consumer confidence continues to be strong.

More tomorrow.

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