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.

 

 

stocks vs. cash

At present, cash yields zero.  Investors who hold cash receive safeguarding of their deposits but no financial return.

Stocks carry no guarantees against loss.  At present, the S&P 500 yields about 2%.  One might reasonably estimate that yearly capital gains will average, say, 6% over longer periods of time.

A guaranteed zero vs. a possible +8% per year.  To my mind, not exactly a compelling case for cash.

In theory, and in practice during the 1970s- 1980s, investors have shifted large amounts of money from stocks to cash when the returns on cash have been high enough.

Hence, the thought-experiment question:  how high would short-term interest rates have to be to trigger serious reallocation away from stocks in favor of cash?

My answer:  I don’t know for sure.

In my experience, during periods of much higher interest rates than are the norm today, when short rates would get above half of the expected return (of about +10% per year) on stocks, then money would begin to shift away from equities.  That flow would accelerate–causing stocks to begin to stall–if short rates got to 60% of the expected return on stocks.

 

My conclusion is that short rates would have to get well above 3% in today’s world before reallocation becomes a worry.

If so, a rising Fed Funds rate is something to keep an eye on but not a serious current threat to stocks, in my view.

Fed rate hike in June?

I think the Fed will raise the Fed Funds rate on overnight deposits by 25 basis points in June.

Five reasons:

–I think the economy is in considerably better shape than the consensus realizes

–We’ve been in intensive care for close to a decade.  We’re at the point where remaining in this state is more harmful than moving elsewhere in the hospital

–The Fed is, to some degree, a political animal.  It doesn’t want to be seen as attempting to influence the presidential election, which would have been a routine action by the Fed a generation ago

–Other than psychologically, it really doesn’t matter to the economy whether the cost of overnight borrowing is 0.25% or 0.50%

–Neither political party has a viable economic policy, in my view.  Leaving rates at zero prolongs the Fed’s role in enabling dysfunction in Washington (which seems to me to be the key issue in the election, whether ordinary citizens are articulating this or not).

 

the Employment Situation–now scanning the horizon for wage increases

the Employment Situation

Last Friday morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its monthly Employment Situation report for September.  The numbers were good– +248,000 new jobs added in the economy, +236,000 of them in the private sector.

Revisions were also favorable.  July figures were boosted from +212,000 to +243,000, and the worrisome +142,000 number posted for August was revised up to +180,000.

With last month’s poor employment gain showing now being interpreted as simply a hiccup in the reporting system rather than an indicator of a slowdown in hiring, the stock market’s attention is beginning to turn toward the wage gain information in the ES, rather than the employment numbers themselves.

wage gains?

what counts aw wages in the ES?

The figure itself appears to me to be pretty solid.  It’s derived from actual gross wage figures reported by the large number of substantial private sector firms who are participants in the BLS Establishment survey.  There is some government estimation, in the sense that the participating firms are thought to be representative of the economy as a whole.  But the data aren’t estimations.  They’re the real, complete salary figures.

The figures are gross, in the sense that they are before any deduction for taxes or benefits.

They’re salary figures only.  They don’t include payroll taxes that employers pay.  They also don;t include health or retirement benefits that employees may receive.

the current rate of wage gains…

…is 2% per year.

In one sense, this suits the Fed just fine.  The absence of sharp upward pressure on wages means the central bank doesn’t have to hurry to raise interest rates to stave off potentially runaway inflation (in the US, inflation is almost completely about wage gains).  The low number implies that employers can easily find all the qualified workers they need to grow their businesses either from new entrants into the labor market or from the currently unemployed.  They don’t need to poach new hires from rivals by offering very large pay increases.

On the other, it’s kind of eerie that the Fed can have had the monetary stimulus taps more wide open than ever before for over five years and not have wages be rising faster than this.

The wage gain numbers will increase in importance to Wall Street in the coming months, I think, as the Fed prepares to start raising the Federal Funds rate from the current level of zero.

My sense of the consensus belief is that:

–rates will being to rise next Spring,

–the “normal” rate is not the 4.0%-4.5% the Fed was talking about in 2012-13, but rather 2.5%-3.0%, and

–the Fed Funds rate could be halfway back to normal by the end of 2015–meaning five or six quarter-percent moves next year.