three steps and a stumble?

That’s the conventional wisdom (read: old wives tale) about Fed rate hikes and the stock market.  The idea is that the market absorbs the first two hikes in any rate rise series as if nothing were going on   …but reacts negatively on the third.

The third in this series of rate hikes will almost certainly come tomorrow.

The problem with this particular old saw is that there’s very little evidence from the past to support it.  Yes, there may be an immediate knee-jerk reaction downward.  But in almost all cases the S&P 500 is higher a year after a third hike than it was on the day of the rate rise.  Sometimes, the S&P has been a lot higher, once in a while a percent or two lower, but there’s no third-hike disaster on record.

Generally speaking, the reason is that rate rises occur as a policy offset to the threat of the runaway inflation that can happen during a too-rapid acceleration in economic growth.  As financial instruments, stocks face downward pressure as higher rates make cash a more attractive investment option.  On the other hand, strong earnings growth exerts contervailing upward pressure on stock prices.  In most cases, the two effects more or less offset one another.  (Bonds are a different story.  With the possible exception of junk bonds, all the pressure is downward.)

Of course, nothing having to do with economics is that simple.  There are always other forces at work.  Usually they don’t matter, however.

In this case, for example:

–I think of a neutral position for the Fed Funds rate as one where holding cash gives protection against inflation and little, if anything, more.  If so, the neutral Fed Funds rate in today’s world should be between 2.5% and 3.0%.  Let’s say 2.75%.  Three-month T-bills yield 0.75% at present.  To get back to neutral, then, we need the Fed Funds rate to be 200 basis points higher than it is now.

I was stunned when an economist explained this to me when I was a starting out portfolio manager.  I simply didn’t believe what she told me, until I went through the past data and verified what she said.  Back then, I was the odd man out.  Given the wholesale layoffs of experienced talent on Wall Street over the past ten years, however, I wonder how many more budding PMs are in the position I was in the mid-1980s.

–the bigger issue, I think, is Washington.  I read the post-election rally as being based on the belief that Mr. Trump has, and will carry out, a mandate to reform corporate taxes and markedly increase infrastructure spending.  The Fed decision to move at faster than a glacial pace in raising interest rates is based to a considerable degree, I think, on the premise that Mr. Trump will get a substantial amount of that done.  If that assumption is incorrect, then future earnings growth will be weaker than the market now imagines and the Fed will revert to its original snail’s pace plan.  That’s probably a negative for stocks …and a positive for bonds.




Shaping a Portfolio for 2017: interest rates and currency

To a great degree, changes in interest rates and changes in currency substitute for each other in an overall macroeconomic sense.  A rise in the world value of the US$ is equivalent to an increase in interest rates, in that both act to slow down overall US growth.  A decline in rates or in the dollar acts as stimulus.

What is 2017 likely to bring?

interest rates

Ignoring the mid-year lows, one-month T-bills began 2016 at a 0.17% yield and are now at 0.39%.  The 10-year bond opened the year yielding 2.24% and is closing at 2.46%.  Over the same period, the Federal Reserve has raised the overnight money rate by 0.25%.

My guess is that the Fed will raise the overnight lending rate by at least 0.50% and possibly by 0.75% in 2017.  The latter would likely translate into a rise in the 10-year to something just below 3%, the former to a yield of 2.75% or so.


I think the chances of the larger rate rise are greater if the dollar remains around today’s level.  As I’ve written recently, I think the US stock market is already trading as if long-dated Treasury bonds were yielding 4%–where I think the endpoint of restoring rates to normal will be.  That’s something that probably won’t occur until 2018.

In addition, the US stock market has typically gone sideways during past times of Fed tightening.  What would be unusual this time around would be if Congress follows through on a large, growth-stimulating, public works spending program.  This would, I think, minimize any negative effect rising rates would have on stocks.

effects on the S&P 500

If the past is prologue, the main effect of rising rates and rising currency will be on the relative performance of sectors.

The more interest rates rise, the more attractive bonds will become vs.stocks whose main appeal is their stream of dividend income.  So income stocks would be negatively affected.

The more the US$ rises, the weaker the US$ growth of foreign operations of US multinationals will be.  Import-competing businesses would be hurt as well.  Purely domestic firms would be relatively unaffected.  My guess, however, is that the bulk of the dollar rise on a more functional national government has already occurred.