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.




a steadily rising Fed Funds rate into 2019

That’s the thrust of Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s remarks yesterday about rates in the US.

She said that there would be “a few” increases in the Fed Funds rate in each of 2017 and 2018.  Assuming that a few = three and that each increase will be 0.25%, Yellen’s statement implies that the rate will rise steadily until it reaches 2.0% sometime next year.

In one sense, two years of rising interest rates sounds like a lot–I know that’s what I thought the first time I was facing this prospect as a portfolio manager.  But if the neutral target rate for overnight money is the level that achieves inflation protection but no real return, 2% should be the target.  If anything, it’s a bare minimum.

In my view, two surprises to the Yellen forecast are possible:

–if President Trump is able to launch a significant fiscal stimulus program, the rate rise timetable will likely be accelerated, and

–if the inflation rate rises above 2%, which I think is a good possibility, then the Fed Funds rate may need to rise above 2% (2.5%?) to keep inflation in check.

Typically, a time of rising rates is one in which stocks–buoyed by increasing corporate earnings–go sideways, while bonds go down.  In the present case, earnings growth will likely depend on an end to dysfunction in Washington.



refinancing/repricing bank loans

One way that an investment bank can win merger and acquisition business is to offer financing to bidders through what are called bank loans.  These are essentially long-term corporate bonds that carry high variable-rate coupons based on libor.   The successful bidding company issues them to the bank to pay for an acquisition.  The bank resells the loans to institutional investors.

There has been strong interest in such loans over the past couple of years for two reasons:  yielding, say libor +4%, they offer high current yields; and, at least in theory, there’s the possibility of rising income as libor increases.  Some of these bonds have the further fillip that the variable (libor) portion can’t go below a fixed amount, say 1%, no matter what the actual libor rate is.

Three-month libor is now approaching 1%, up from as low as 0.2% in 2015.  This benchmark rate is certainly heading higher.

Fro the perspective of holders, one flaw with these bank loans, however, is that they offer little call protection.  What’s now happening on a massive scale is that banks are approaching institutional customers who bought high-yielding bank loans and offering to replace a loan yielding, say,  libor +4% with an equivalent loan from the same borrower yielding libor +3%.

Customers are taking up such deals in droves.  How so?  Technicially, the original loan instruments are being called, meaning the issuer is exercising its right to pay the loans off at par.  The customer can either get his money back in cash–and therefore be forced to find a new place to invest the funds–or accept payment in a new, less lucrative, loan.

The customer has two incentives to take the latter:  the new terms are still attractive; and the borrower will have developed deeper confidence in the issuer through continuing study of company operations and a history of on-time coupon payments.


The real winners here are the banks, who collect another round of fees for providing this service. In all likelihood, this won’t be the last round of repricing, either.


stocks in a 4% T-bond world

There are two questions here:

–what happens to stocks as interest rates rise? and

–what should the PE on the S&P 500 be if the main investment alternative for US investors, Treasury bonds, yield something around 4%?

On the first, over my 38+ year investment career stocks have gone mostly sideways when the Fed is raising short-term interest rates.  The standard explanation for this, which I think is correct, is that while stocks can show rising earnings to counter the effect of better yields on newly-issued bonds, existing bonds have no defense.

Put a different way, the market’s PE multiple should contract as rates rise, but rising earnings counter at least part of that effect.

The second question, which is not about how we get there but what it looks like when we arrive, is the subject of this post.

in a 4% world

The arithmetic solution to the question is straightforward.  Imagining that stocks are quasi-bonds, in the way traditional finance academics do, the equivalent of a bond coupon payment is the earnings yield. It’s the portion of a company’s profits that each share has a claim on ÷ the share price.  For example, if a stock is trading at $50 a share and eps are $2, the earnings yield is $2/$50 = 4%.  This is also 1/PE.

A complication:  Ex dividends, corporate profits don’t get deposited into our bank accounts; they remain with management.  So they’re somewhat different from an interest payment.  If management is a skillful user of capital, that’s good.  Otherwise…

If we take this proposed equivalence at face value, a 4% earnings yield and 4% T-bond annual interest payment should be more or less the same thing.  In the ivory tower universe, stocks should trade at 25x earnings if T-bonds are yielding 4%.  That’s almost exactly where the S&P 500 is trading now, based on trailing 12-months “as reported” earnings (meaning not factoring out one-time gains/losses).  Why this measure?   It’s the easiest to obtain.

More tomorrow.


interest rates: how high?

the speed of interest rate rises

The best indicator of how fast the Fed will raise the Fed Funds rate will likely be the pace of wage gains and new job creation, as shown in the monthly Employment Situation report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Infrastructure investment legislation that may be passed by the new Congress next year may also factor into the Fed’s thinking.  On the other hand, the continuing example of Japan, whose quarter-century of no economic growth is due in part to premature tightening of economic policy is also likely to play a part in decision making.

Much of that will be hard to be certain about in advance.  Current Wall Street thinking, for what it’s worth, is that the pace will be north of glacial but not fast at all–maybe a move of +0.50% next year, after a boost of +0.25% later this month.

The endpoint of policy, however, may be somewhat easier to forecast.

the final policy goal


Fed policy is aimed at holding inflation at +2.0% per year.  Its main problem recently is that it can’t get inflation that high, in spite of having flooded the economy with money for the past eight years.  So let’s say we’ll have inflation at 2%, but not higher, some time in the future.


If so, and if the return on cash-like investments during normal times continues to provide protection against inflation and little else, then the final target for the Fed Funds rate is 2%.


If we consider the 30-year bond and say that the normal annual return should be inflation protection + 2% per year, then the target yield for it would be 4%–vs slightly over 3% today.

The 10-year?  subtract 50 basis points from the 30-year annual yield.  That would mean 3.5% as the target yield.

If this is correct, the important thing about the domestic bond market since the US election is the substantial steepening of the yield curve.  While cash has another 150 bp to rise to get to 2%, the long bond is within 100bp of where I think it will eventually settle in.

In other words, a substantial amount of readjustment has already occurred.







The Employment Situation, November 2016

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its monthly Employment  Situation report at 8:30 est this morning, as usual.

The results were good.  178,000 net new positions were filled during the month, which is right at the average monthly gain so far this year.  Net revisions were slightly negative, subtracting -2000 positions from prior months’ employment estimates.  The BLS also said wages made no upward progress during November, after having jumped a lot the month before.

The only out-of-the-ordinary figure was the unemployment rate, which fell to 4.6% from 4.9% in October.  We’ll likely find next month that the November figure comes from transitory statistical strangeness that will have already disappeared.

What to make of this ES?

Nothing, really.  In fact, I think that as stock market investors, we should no longer be monitoring the ES for signs of potential labor market weakness.  Instead, we should be on the lookout for indications of surprising strength, possibly in the number of new hires, but more likely in the rate of wage gains.

That’s because I think we’re well past the point where we’ve got to guard against economic weakness.  Instead, we’ve got to be alert for signs of the more likely threat–that the pace of interest rate rises will accelerate from the currently anticipated once-in-a-long-while pace..

The first step in adopting this new mindset, I think, is to consider what the endpoint for increases in the Fed Funds rate–and the resulting terminal interest rate point for 10-year Treasuries, which is the closer substitute for stocks in long-term investors’ portfolios–will be.

More on this topic on Monday.