Tag Archives: Fed Funds

Yeah…But

Yeah… Barry Bonds, a Major League Baseball (MLB) player, put up some amazing stats in his career. What sets him apart from other players is that he got better in the later years of his career, a time when most players see their production rapidly decline.

Before the age of 30, Bonds hit a home run every 5.9% of the time he was at bat. After his 30th birthday, that rate almost doubled to over 10%. From age 36 to 39, he hit an astounding .351, well above his lifetime .298 batting average. Of all Major League baseball players over the age of 35, Bonds leads in home runs, slugging percentage, runs created, extra-base hits, and home runs per at bat. We would be remiss if we neglected to mention that Barry Bonds hit a record 762 homeruns in his MLB career and he also holds the MLB record for most home runs in a season with 73.

But… as we found out after those records were broken, Bond’s extraordinary statistics were not because of practice, a new batting stance, maturity, or other organic factors. It was his use of steroids. The same steroids that allowed Bonds to get stronger, heal quicker, and produce Hall of Fame statistics will also take a toll on his health in the years ahead.  

Turn on CNBC or Bloomberg News, and you will inevitably hear the hosts and interviewees rave on and on about the booming markets, low unemployment, and the record economic expansion. To that, we say Yeah… As in the Barry Bonds story, there is also a “But…” that tells the whole story.

As we will discuss, the economy is not all roses when one considers the massive amount of monetary steroids stimulating growth. Further, as Bonds too will likely find out at some point in his future, there will be consequences for these performance-enhancing policies.

Wicksell’s Wisdom

Before a discussion of the abnormal fiscal and monetary policies responsible for surging financial asset prices and the record-long economic expansion, it is important to impart the wisdom of Knut Wicksell and a few paragraphs from a prior article we published entitled Wicksell’s Elegant Model.

“According to Wicksell, when the market rate (of interest) is below the natural rate, there is an incentive to borrow and reinvest in an economy at the higher natural rate. This normally leads to an economic boom until demand drives up the market rate and eventually chokes off demand. When the market rate exceeds the natural rate, borrowing slows along with economic activity eventually leading to a recession, and the market rate again falls back below the natural rate. Wicksell viewed the divergences between the natural rate and the market rate as the mechanism by which the economic cycle is determined. If a divergence between the natural rate and the market rate is abnormally sustained, it causes a severe misallocation of capital.

Per Wicksell, optimal policy should aim at keeping the natural rate and the market rate as closely aligned as possible to prevent misallocation. But when short-term market rates are below the natural rate, intelligent investors respond appropriately. They borrow heavily at the low rate and buy existing assets with somewhat predictable returns and shorter time horizons. Financial assets skyrocket in value while long-term, cash-flow driven investments with riskier prospects languish. The bottom line: existing assets rise in value but few new assets are added to the capital stock, which is decidedly bad for productivity and the structural growth of the economy.

Essentially, Wicksell warns that when interest rates are lower than they should be, speculation in financial assets is spurred and investment into the real economy suffers. The result is a boom in financial asset prices at the expense of future economic activity. Sound familiar? 

But… Monetary Policy

The Fed’s primary tool to manage economic growth and inflation is the Fed Funds rate. Fed Funds is the rate of interest that banks charge each other to borrow on an overnight basis. As the graph below shows, the Fed Funds rate has been pinned at least 2% below the rate of economic growth since the financial crisis. Such a low relative rate spanning such a long period is simply unprecedented, and in the words of Wicksell not “optimal policy.” 

Until the financial crisis, managing the Fed Funds rate was the sole tool for setting monetary policy. As such, it was easy to assess how much, if any, stimulus the Fed was providing at any point in time. The advent of Quantitative Easing (QE) made this task less transparent at the same time the Fed was telling us they wanted to be more transparent.  

Between 2008 and 2014, through three installations of QE, the Fed bought nearly $3.2 trillion of government, mortgage-backed, and agency securities in exchange for excess banking reserves. These excess reserves allowed banks to extend more loans than would be otherwise possible. In doing so, not only was economic activity generated, but the money supply rose which had a positive effect on the economy and financial markets.

Trying to quantifying the amount of stimulus offered by QE is not easy. However, in 2011, Fed Chairman Bernanke provided a simple rule in Congressional testimony to allow us to transform a dollar amount of QE into an interest rate equivalent. Bernanke suggested that every additional $6.6 to $10 billion of excess reserves, the byproduct of QE, has the effect of lowering interest rates by 0.01%. Therefore, every trillion dollars’ worth of new excess reserves is equivalent to lowering interest rates by 1.00% to 1.50% in Bernanke’s opinion. In the ensuing discussion, we use Bernanke’s more conservative estimate of $10 billion to produce a .01% decline in interest rates.

The graph below aggregates the two forms of monetary stimulus (Fed Funds and QE) to gauge how much effective interest rates are below the rate of economic growth. The blue area uses the Fed Funds – GDP data from the first graph. The orange area representing QE is based on Bernanke’s formula. 

Since the financial crisis, the Fed has effectively kept interest rates 5.11% below the rate of economic growth on average. Looking back in time, one can see that the current policy prescription is vastly different from the prior three recessions and ensuing expansions. Following the three recessions before the financial crisis, the Fed kept interest rates lower than the GDP rate to help foster recovery. The stimulus was limited in duration and removed entirely during the expansion. Before comparing these periods to the current expansion, it is worth noting that the amount of stimulus increased during each expansion. This is a function of the growth of debt in the economy beyond the economy’s growth rate and the increasing reliance on debt to generate economic growth. 

The current expansion is being promoted by significantly more stimulus and at much more consistent levels. Effectively the Fed is keeping rates 5.11% below normal, which is about five times the stimulus applied to the average of the prior three recessions. 

Simply the Fed has gone from periodic use of stimulus to heal the economy following recessions to a constant intravenous drip of stimulus to support the economy.

Moar

Starting in late 2015, the Fed tried to wean the economy from the stimulus. Between December of 2015 and December of 2018, the Fed increased the Fed Funds rates by 2.50%. They stepped up those efforts in 2018 as they also reduced the size of their balance sheet (via Quantitative Tightening, “QT”) from $4.4 trillion to $3.7 trillion.

The Fed hoped the economic patient was finally healing from the crisis and they could remove the exorbitant amount of stimulus applied to the economy and the markets. What they discovered is their imprudent policies of the post-crisis era made the patient hopelessly addicted to monetary drugs.

Beginning in July 2019, the Fed cut the target for the Fed Funds rate three times by a cumulative 0.75%. A month after the first rate cut they abruptly halted QT and started increasing their balance sheet through a series of repo operations and QE. Since then, the Fed’s balance sheet has reversed much of the QT related decrease and is growing at a pace that rivals what we saw immediately following the crisis. It is now up almost a half a trillion dollars from the lows and only $200 billion from the high watermark. The Fed is scheduled to add $60 billion more per month to its balance sheet through April. Even more may be added if repo operations expand.

The economy was slowing, and markets were turbulent in late 2018. Despite the massive stimulus still in place, the removal of a relatively small amount of stimulus proved too volatility-inducing for the Fed and the markets to bear.

Summary

Wicksell warned that lower than normal rates lead to speculation in financial assets and less investment into the real economy. Is it any wonder that risk assets have zoomed higher over the last five years despite tepid economic growth and flat corporate earnings (NIPA data Bureau of Economic Analysis -BEA)? 

When someone tells you the economy is doing fine, remind them that Barry Bonds was a very good player but the statistics don’t tell the whole story.

To provide further context on the extremity of monetary policy in America and around the world, we present an incredible graph courtesy of Bianco Research. The graph shows the Bank of England’s balance sheet as a percentage of GDP since 1700. If we focus on the past 100 years, notice the only period comparable to today was during World War II. England was in a life or death battle at the time. What is the rationalization today? Central banker inconvenience?

While most major countries cannot produce similar data going back that far, they have all experienced the same unprecedented surge in their central bank’s balance sheet.

Assuming today’s environment is normal without considering the but…. is a big mistake. And like Barry Bonds, who will never know when the consequences of his actions will bring regret, neither do the central bankers or the markets. 

When It Becomes Serious You Have To Lie: Update On The Repo Fiasco

Occasionally, problems reveal themselves gradually. A water stain on the ceiling is potentially evidence of a much larger problem. Painting over the stain will temporarily relieve the unsightly condition, but in time, the water stain will return. This is analogous to a situation occurring within the banking system. Almost three months after water stains first appeared in the overnight funding markets, the Fed has stepped in on a daily basis to “re-paint the ceiling” and the problem has appeared to vanish. Yet, every day the stain reappears and the Fed’s work begins anew. One is left to wonder why the leak hasn’t been fixed. 

In mid-September, evidence of issues in the U.S. banking system began to appear. The problem occurred in the overnight funding markets which serve as one of the most important components of a well-functioning financial and economic system. It is also a market that few investors follow and even fewer understand. At that time, interest rates in the normally boring repo market suddenly spiked higher with intra-day rates surpassing a whopping 8%. The difference between the 8% repo rate recorded on September 16, 2019 and Treasuries was an eight standard deviation event. Statistically, such an event should occur once every three billion years.

For a refresher on the details of those events, we suggest reading our article from September 25, 2019, entitled Who Could Have Known: What The Repo Fiasco Entails.  

At the time, it was surprising that the sudden change in overnight repo borrowing rates caught the Fed completely off guard and that they lacked a reasonable explanation for the disruption. Since then, our surprise has turned to concern and suspicion.

We harbor doubts about the cause of the problem based on two excuses the Fed and banks use to explain the situation. Neither are compelling or convincing. 

As we were putting the finishing touches on this article, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) reported that the overnight repo problems might stem from the reluctance of the four largest U.S. banks to lend to some of the largest hedge funds. The four banks are being forced to fund a massive surge in U.S. Treasury issuance and therefore reallocated funding from the hedge funds to the U.S. Treasury.  Per the Financial Times in Hedge Funds key in exacerbating repo market turmoil, says BIS: “High demand for secured (repo) funding from non-financial institutions, such as hedge funds heavily engaged in leveraging up relative value trades,” – was a key factor behind the chaos, said Claudio Borio, Head of the monetary and economic department at the BIS.

In the article, the BIS implies that the Fed is providing liquidity to banks so that banks, in turn, can provide the hedge funds funding to maintain their leverage. The Fed is worried that hedge funds will sell assets if liquidity is not available. Instead of forcing hedge funds to deal with a funding risk that they know about, they are effectively bailing them out from having to liquidate their holdings. If that is the case, and as the central bank to central bankers the BIS should be well informed on such matters, why should the Fed be involved in micro-managing leverage to hedge funds? It would certainly represent another extreme example of mission creep.

Excuse #1

In the article linked above, we discussed the initial excuse for the funding issues bandied about by Wall Street, the banks, and the media as follows:

Most likely, there was an unexpected cash crunch that left banks and/or financial institutions underfunded. The media has talked up the corporate tax date and a large Treasury bond settlement date as potential reasons.”

While the excuse seemed legitimate, it made little sense as we surmised in the next sentence:

“We are not convinced by either excuse as they were easily forecastable weeks in advance.”

If the dearth of liquidity in the overnight funding markets was due to predictable, one-time cash demands, the problem should have been fixed easily. Simply replenish the cash with open market operations as the Fed routinely did prior to the Financial Crisis.

Since mid-September, the Fed has elected instead to increase their balance sheet by over $320 billion.  In addition to conducting daily overnight repo auctions, they introduced term repo that extends for weeks and then abruptly restarted quantitative easing (QE).

Imagine your plumber coming into your house with five other plumbers and a bull dozer to fix what you assumed was a leaky pipe.

The graph below, courtesy Bianco Research, shows the dramatic rise in the Fed’s balance sheet since September.

Based on the purported cash shortfall excuse, one would expect that the increase in the Fed’s balance sheet would have easily met demands for cash and the markets would have stabilized. Liquidity hole filled, problem solved.

However, as witnessed by the continuing growth of the Fed’s balance sheet and ever-increasing size of Fed operations, the hole seems to be growing. It is worth noting that the Fed has committed to add $60 billion a month to their balance sheet through March of 2020 via QE. In other words, the stain keeps reappearing and getting bigger despite increasing amounts of paint. 

Excuse #2

The latest rationale used to explain the funding problems revolves around banking regulations. Many Fed members and banking professionals have recently stated that banking regulations, enacted after the Financial Crisis, are constraining banks’ ability to lend to other banks and therefore worsening the funding situation. In the words of Randy Quarles, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Banking Supervision, in his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee:

We have identified some areas where our existing supervision of the regulatory framework…may have created some incentives that were contributors

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, is quoted in MarketWatch as saying the following:

“The turmoil may be a precursor of a bigger crisis if the Fed doesn’t adjust its regulations. He said the liquidity requirements tie up what was seen as excess reserves.”

Essentially, Quarles and Dimon argue that excess reserves are not really excess. When new post Financial Crisis regulatory requirements are factored in, banks only hold the appropriate amount of reserves and are not exceeding requirements.

This may be the case, and if so, the amount of true excess reserves was dwindling several months prior to the repo debacle in September.  Any potential or forecasted shortfalls due to the constraints should have been easily identifiable weeks and months in advance of any problem.

The banks and the Fed speak to each other quite often about financial conditions and potential problems that might arise. Most of the systemically important financial institutions (SIFI banks) have government regulators on-site every day. In addition, the Fed audits the banks on a regular basis. We find it hard to believe that new regulatory restraints and the effect they have on true excess reserves were not discussed. This is even harder to believe when one considers that the Fed was actively reducing the amount of reserves in the system via Quantitative Tightening (QT) through 2018 and early 2019. The banks and the regulators should have been alerting everyone they were getting dangerously close to exhausting their true excess reserves. That did not occur, at least not publicly.

Theories and Speculation

A golden rule we follow is that when we think we are being misled, especially by market participants, the Fed, or the government, it pays to try to understand the motive.  “Why would they do this?” Although not conclusive, we have a few theories about the faulty explanations for the funding shortage. They are as follows:

  • The banks and the Fed would like to reduce the regulatory constraints imposed on them in recent years. Disruptions demonstrating that the regulations not only inhibit lending but can cause a funding crisis allow them to leverage lobbying efforts to reduce regulations.
  • There may be a bank or large financial institution that is in distress. In an effort to keep it out of the headlines, the Fed is indirectly supplying liquidity to the institution. This would help explain why the September Repo event was so sudden and unexpected. Rumors about troubles at certain European banks have been circulating for months.
  • The Fed and the banks grossly underestimated how much of the increased U.S. Treasury debt issuance they would have to buy. In just the last quarter, the Treasury issued nearly $1 trillion dollars of debt. At the same time, foreign sponsorship of U.S. Treasuries has been declining. While predictable, the large amount of cash required to buy Treasury notes and bonds may have created a cash shortfall. For more on why this problem is even more pronounced today, read our article Who Is Funding Uncle Sam. If this is the case, the Fed is funding the Treasury under the table via QE. This is better known as “debt monetization”.
  • Between July and November the Fed reduced the Fed Funds rate by 0.75% without any economic justification for doing so. The Fed claims that the cuts are an “insurance” policy to ensure that slowing global growth and trade turmoil do not halt the already record long economic expansion. Might they now be afraid that further cuts would raise suspicion that the Fed has recessionary concerns? QE, which was supposedly enacted to combat the overnight funding issues, has generously supported financial markets in the past. Maybe a funding crisis provides the Fed cover for QE despite rates not being at the zero bound. Since 2008, the Fed has been vocal about the ways in which market confidence supports consumer confidence. 

The analysis of what is true and what is rhetoric spins wildly out of control when we allow our imaginations to run. This is what happens when pieces do not fit neatly into the puzzle and when sound policy decisions are subordinated to public relations sound bites. One thing seems certain, despite what we are being told, there likely something else is going on.

Of greater concern in this matter of overnight funding, is the potential the Fed and banks were truly blindsided. If that is the case, we should harbor even deeper concern as there is likely a much bigger issue being painted over with temporary liquidity injections.

Summary

In the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the more famous quotes is, “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

We do not accept the rationale the Fed is using to justify the reintroduction of QE and the latest surge in their balance sheet. Although we do not know why the Fed has been so incoherent in their application of monetary policy, our theories offer other ideas for thinking through the monetary policy maze. They also have various implications for the markets, none of which should be taken lightly.

We are just as certain that we are not entirely correct as we are certain that we aren’t entirely wrong. Like the water spot on the ceiling, financial market issues normally reveal themselves gradually. Prudent risk management suggests finding and addressing the source of the problem rather than cosmetics. We want to reiterate that, if the Fed is papering over problems in the overnight funding market, we are left to question the Fed’s understanding of global funding markets and the global banking system’s ability to weather a more significant disruption than the preview we observed in September.

UPDATE: To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide to QE 4

In our RIA Pro article, To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide To QE4, we studied asset performance returns during the first three episodes of QE. We then normalized the data for the duration and amount of QE to project how QE4 might affect various assets.  

With a month of QE4 under our belt, we update you on the pacing of this latest version of extreme monetary policy and review how various assets are performing versus our projections. Further, we share some recent comments from Fed speakers and analyze trading in the Fed Funds market to provide some unique thoughts about the future of QE4.

QE4

Since October 14th, when QE4 was announced by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, the Fed’s balance sheet has increased by approximately $100 billion. The graph below compares the current weekly balance sheet growth with the initial growth that occurred during the three prior iterations of QE.  

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

As shown above, the Fed is supplying liquidity at a pace greater than QE2 but slightly off the pace of QE 1 and 3. What is not shown is the $190 billion of growth in the Fed’s balance sheet that occurred in the weeks before announcing QE4. When this amount is considered along with the amount shown since October 14th, the current pacing is much larger than the other three instances of QE.

To put this in context, take a step back and consider the circumstances under which QE1 occurred. When the Fed initiated QE1 in November of 2008, markets were plummeting, major financial institutions had already failed with many others on the brink, and the domestic and global economy was broadly in recession. The Fed was trying to stop the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression from worsening.

Today, U.S. equity markets sit at all-time highs, the economic expansion has extended to an all-time record 126 months, unemployment at 3.6% is at levels not seen since the 1960s, and banks are posting record profits.

The introduction of QE4 against this backdrop reveals the possibility that one of two things is occurring, or quite possibly both.

One, there could be or could have been a major bank struggling to borrow or in financial trouble. The Fed, via repo operations and QE, may be providing liquidity either to the institution directly or indirectly via other banks to forestall the ramifications of a potential banking related default.

Two, the markets are struggling to absorb the massive amount of Treasury debt issued since July when Congress extended the debt cap. From August through October 2019, the amount of Treasury debt outstanding grew by $1 trillion. Importantly, foreign entities are now net sellers of Treasury debt, which is worsening the problem. For more read our recent article, Who Is Funding Uncle Sam?

The bottom line is that the Fed has taken massive steps over the last few months to provide liquidity to the financial markets. As we saw in prior QEs, this liquidity distorts financial markets.  

QE4 Projections and Updates

The following table provides the original return projections by asset class as well as performance returns since October 14th.  The rankings are based on projected performance by asset class and total.  

Here are a few takeaways about performance during QE4 thus far:

  • Value is outperforming growth by 1.67% (5.95% vs. 4.28%)
  • There is general uniformity amongst the equity indexes
  • Equity indices have captured at least 50%, and in the case of value and large caps (S&P 100) over 100% of the expected gains, despite being only one-sixth of the way through QE4
  • The sharp variation in sector returns is contradictory to the relatively consistent returns at the index level
  • Discretionary stocks are trading poorly when compared to other sectors and to the expected performance forecast for discretionary stocks
  • Defensive sectors are trading relatively weaker as occurred during prior QE
  • The healthcare sector has been the best performing sector within the S&P as well as versus every index and commodity in the tables
  • The yield curve steepened as expected
  • In the commodity sector, precious metals are weaker, but oil and copper are positive

Are Adjustments to QE4 Coming?

The Fed has recently made public statements that lead us to believe they are concerned with rising debt levels. In particular, a few Fed speakers have noted the sharp rise in corporate and federal debt levels both on an absolute basis and versus earnings and GDP. The increase in leverage is made possible in part by low interest rates and QE. In addition, some Fed speakers over the last year or two have grumbled about higher than normal equity valuations.

It was for these very reasons that in 2013, Jerome Powell voiced concerns about the consequences of asset purchases (QE). To wit: 

“What of the potential costs or risks of the asset purchases? A variety of concerns have been raised over time. With inflation in check, the most important potential risk, in my view, is that of financial instability. One concern is that our policies might drive excessive risk-taking or create bubbles in financial assets or housing.”

Earlier this month, Jerome Powell, in Congressional testimony said:

“The debt is growing faster than the economy. It’s as simple as that. That is by definition unsustainable. And it is growing faster in the United States by a significant margin.”

With more leverage in the financial system and higher valuations in the equity and credit markets, how does Fed Chairman Powell reconcile those comments with where we are today? It further serves to highlight that political expediency has thus far trumped the long-run health of the economy and the financial system.

Based on the Fed’s prior and current warnings about debt and valuations, we believe they are trying to fix funding issues without promoting greater excesses in the financial markets. To thread this needle, they must supply just enough liquidity to restore financing markets to normal but not over stimulate them. This task is much easier said than done due to the markets’ Pavlovian response to QE.

Where the fed funds effective rate sits within the Fed’s target range can be a useful gauge of the over or undersupplying of liquidity. Based on this measure, it appears the Fed is currently oversupplying liquidity as seen in the following chart. For the first time in at least two years, as circled, the effective Fed Funds rate has been consistently below the midpoint of the Fed’s target range.

If the Fed is concerned with debt levels and equity valuations and is comfortable that they have provided sufficient liquidity, might they halt QE4, reduce monthly amounts, or switch to a more flexible model of QE?

We think all of these options are possible.

Any effort to curtail QE will be negative for markets that have been feasting on the additional liquidity. Given the symbiotic relationship between markets and QE, the Fed will be cautious in making changes. As always, the first whisper of change could upset the apple cart.

Summary

Equity markets have been rising on an almost daily basis despite benign economic reports, negative trade and tariff headlines, and Presidential impeachment proceedings, among other worrisome factors. We have little doubt that investors have caught QE fever again, and they are more concerned with the FOMO than fundamentals.

As the fresh round of liquidity provided by the Fed leaks into the markets, it only further advances more misallocation of capital, such as excessive borrowing by zombie companies and borrowing to further fund unproductive stock buybacks. Like dogs drooling at the sound of a ringing bell, most investors expect the bull run to continue. It may, but there is certainly reason for more caution this time around as the contours of the economy and the market are vastly different from prior rounds. Add to this the incoherence of this policy action in light of the record expansion, benign inflation readings, and low unemployment rate and we have more questions about QE4 than feasible answers.

To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide to QE 4

In no sense is this QE” – Jerome Powell

On October 9, 2019, the Federal Reserve announced a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). Fed Chairman Jerome Powell went to great lengths to make sure he characterized the new operation as something different than QE. Like QE 1, 2, and 3, this new action involves a series of large asset purchases of Treasury securities conducted by the Fed. The action is designed to pump liquidity and reserves into the banking system.

Regardless of the nomenclature, what matters to investors is whether this new action will have an effect on asset prices similar to prior rounds of QE. For the remainder of this article, we refer to the latest action as QE 4.

To quantify what a similar effect may mean, we start by examining the performance of various equity indexes, equity sectors, commodities, and yields during the three prior QE operations. We then normalize the data for the duration and amount of QE to project what QE 4 might hold in store for the assets.

Equally important, we present several factors that are unique to QE 4 and may result in different outcomes. While no one has the answers, we hope that the quantitative data and the qualitative commentary we provide arms you with a better appreciation for asset return possibilities during this latest round of QE. 

How QE 1, 2, and 3 affected the markets

The following series of tables, separated by asset class, breaks down price performance for each episode of QE. The first table for each asset class shows the absolute price return for the respective assets along with the maximum and minimum returns from the start of each QE. The smaller table below it normalizes these returns, making them comparable across the three QE operations. To normalize the data, we annualize the respective QE returns and then scale the returns per $100 billion of QE. For instance, if the S&P 500 returned 10% annualized and the Fed bought $500 billion of assets during a particular QE, then the normalized return would be 2% per $100 billion of QE.

Data in the tables are from Bloomberg.  Click on any of the tables to enlarge.

QE 4 potential returns

If we assume that assets will perform similarly under QE 4, we can easily forecast returns using the normalized data from above. The following three tables show these forecasts. Below the tables are rankings by asset class as well as in aggregate. For purposes of this exercise, we assume, based on the Fed’s guidance, that they will purchase $60 billion a month for six months ($360 billion) of U.S. Treasury Bills.

Takeaways

The following list provides a summarization of the tables.

  • Higher volatility and higher beta equity indexes generally outperformed during the first three rounds of QE.
  • Defensive equity sectors underperformed during QE.
  • On average, growth stocks slightly outperformed value stocks during QE. Over the last decade, inclusive of non-QE periods, growth stocks have significantly outperformed value stocks.
  • Longer-term bond yields generally rose while shorter-term yields were flat, resulting in steeper yield curves in all three instances. 
  • Copper, crude oil, and silver outperformed the S&P 500, although the exceptional returns primarily occurred during QE 1 for copper and crude and QE 1 and 2 for Silver.
  • On a normalized basis, Silver’s 10.17% return per $100bn in QE 2, is head and shoulders above all other normalized returns in all three prior instances of QE.
  • In general, assets were at or near their peak returns as QE 1 and 3 ended. During QE 2, a significant percentage of early gains were relinquished before QE ended.
  • QE 2 was much shorter in duration and involved significantly fewer purchases by the Fed.
  • The expected top five performers during QE4 on a normalized basis from highest to lowest are: Silver, S&P 400, Discretionary stocks, S&P 600, and Crude Oil. 
  • Projected returns for QE 4 are about two-thirds lower than the average of prior QE. The lesser expectations are, in large part, a function of our assumption of a smaller size for QE4. If the actual amount of QE 4 is larger than current expectations, the forecasts will rise.

QE, but in a different environment

While it is tempting to use the tables above and assume the future will look like the past, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the current environment surrounding QE 4 is different from prior QE periods. The following bullet points highlight some of the more important differences.

  • As currently planned, the Fed will only buy Treasury Bills during QE 4, while the other QE programs included the purchase of both short and long term Treasury securities as well as mortgages backed securities and agency debt. 
  • Fed Funds are currently targeted at 1.75-2.00%, leaving the Fed multiple opportunities to reduce rates during QE 4. In the other instances of QE, the Fed Funds rate was pegged at zero. 
  • QE 4 is intended to provide the banking system needed bank reserves to fill the apparent shortfall evidenced by high overnight repo funding rates in September 2019. Prior instances of QE, especially the second and third programs, supplied banks with truly excess reserves. These excess reserves helped fuel asset prices.
  • Equity valuations are significantly higher today than during QE 1, 2, and 3.
  • The amount of government and corporate debt outstanding is much higher today, especially as compared with the QE 1 and 2 timeframes.
  • Having achieved a record-breaking duration, the current economic expansion is old and best described as “late-cycle”.

Déjà vu all over again?

The prior QE operations helped asset prices for three reasons.

  • The Fed removed a significant amount of securities from the market, which forced investors to buy other assets. Because the securities removed were the least risky available in the market, investors, in general, moved into riskier assets. This had a circular effect pushing investors further and further into riskier assets.
  • QE 4 appears to be providing the banks with needed reserves. Assuming that true excess reserves in the system do not rise sharply, as they did in prior QE, the banks will probably not use these reserves for proprietary trading and investing. 
  • Because the Fed is only purchasing Treasury Bills, the boost of liquidity and reserves is relatively temporary and will only be in the banking system for months, not years or even decades like QE 1, 2, and 3.

Will QE 4 have the same effect on asset prices as QE 1, 2, and 3?

Will the bullish market spirits that persisted during prior episodes of QE emerge again during QE 4?

We do not have the answers, but we caution that this version of QE is different for the reasons pointed out above. That said, QE 4 can certainly morph into something bigger and more akin to prior QE. The Fed can continue this round beyond the second quarter of 2020, an end date they provided in their recent announcement. They can also buy more securities than they currently allude to or extend their purchases to longer maturity Treasuries or both. If the economy stumbles, the Fed will find the justification to expand QE4 into whatever they wish.

The Fed is sensitive to market returns, and while they may not want excessive valuations to keep rising, they will do anything in their power to stop valuations from returning to more normal levels. We do not think investors can blindly buy on QE 4, as the various wrinkles in Fed execution and the environment leave too many unanswered questions. Investors will need to closely follow Fed meetings and Fed speakers for clues on expectations and guidance around QE 4.

The framework above should afford the basis for critical evaluation and prudent decision-making. The main consideration of this analysis is the benchmark it provides for asset prices going forward. Should the market disappoint despite QE 4 that would be a critically important contrarian signal.

QE By Any Other Name

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” – Juliet Capulet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Burgeoning Problem

The short-term repo funding turmoil that cropped up in mid-September continues to be discussed at length. The Federal Reserve quickly addressed soaring overnight funding costs through a special repo financing facility not used since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC). The re-introduction of repo facilities has, thus far, resolved the matter. It remains interesting that so many articles are being written about the problem, including our own. The on-going concern stems from the fact that the world’s most powerful central bank briefly lost control over the one rate they must control.

What seems clear is the Fed measures to calm funding markets, although superficially effective, may not address a bigger underlying set of issues that could reappear. The on-going media attention to such a banal and technical topic could be indicative of deeper problems. People who understand both the complexities and importance of these matters, frankly, are still wringing their hands. The Fed has applied a tourniquet and gauze to a serious wound, but permanent medical attention is still desperately needed.

The Fed is in a difficult position. As discussed in Who Could Have Known – What the Repo Fiasco Entails, they are using temporary tools that require daily and increasingly larger efforts to assuage the problem. Taking more drastic and permanent steps would result in an aggressive easing of monetary policy at a time when the U.S. economy is relatively strong and stable, and such policy is not warranted in our opinion. Such measures could incite the most underrated of all threats, inflationary pressures.

Hamstrung

The Fed is hamstrung by an economy that has enjoyed low interest rates and stimulative fiscal policy and is the strongest in the developed world. By all appearances, the U.S. is also running at full employment. At the same time, they have a hostile President sniping at them to ease policy dramatically and the Federal Reserve board itself has rarely seen internal dissension of the kind recently observed. The current fundamental and political environment is challenging, to be kind.

Two main alternatives to resolve the funding issue are:

  1. More aggressive interest rate cuts to steepen the yield curve and relieve the banks of the negative carry in holding Treasury notes and bonds
  2. Re-initiating quantitative easing (QE) by having the Fed buy Treasury and mortgage-backed securities from primary dealers to re-liquefy the system

Others are putting forth their perspectives on the matter, but the only real “permanent” solution is the second option, re-expanding the Fed balance sheet through QE. The Fed is painted into a financial corner since there is no fundamental justification (remember “we are data-dependent”) for such an action. Further, Powell, when asked, said they would not take monetary policy actions to address the short-term temporary spike in funding. Whether Powell likes it or not, not taking such an action might force the need to take that very same action, and it may come too late.

Advice from Those That Caused the Problem

There was an article recently written by a former Fed official now employed by a major hedge fund manager.

Brian Sack is a Director of Global Economics at the D.E. Shaw Group, a hedge fund conglomerate with over $40 billion under management. Prior to joining D.E. Shaw, Sack was head of the New York Federal Reserve Markets Group and manager of the System Open Market Account (SOMA) for the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). He also served as a special advisor on monetary policy to President Obama while at the New York Fed.

Sack, along with Joseph Gagnon, another ex-Fed employee and currently a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argue in their paper LINK that the Fed should first promptly establish a standing fixed-rate repo facility and, second, “aim for a higher level of reserves.” Although Sack and Gagnon would not concede that reserves are “low”, they argue that whatever the minimum level of reserves may be in the banking system, the Fed should “steer well clear of it.” Their recommendation is for the Fed to increase the level of reserves by $250 billion over the next two quarters. Furthermore, they argue for continued expansion of the Fed balance sheet as needed thereafter.

What they recommend is monetary policy slavery. No matter what language they use to rationalize and justify such solutions, it is pure pragmatism and expediency. It may solve short-term funding issues for the time being, but it will leave the U.S. economy and its citizens further enslaved to the consequences of runaway debt and the monetary policies designed to support it.

If It Walks and Quacks Like a Duck…

Sack and Gagnon did not give their recommendation a sophisticated name, but neither did they call it “QE.” Simply put, their recommendation is in fact a resumption of QE regardless of what name it is given.

To them it smells as sweet as QE, but the spin of some other name and rationale may be more palatable to the public. By not calling it QE, it may allow the Fed more leeway to do QE without being in a recession or bringing rates to near zero in attempts to avoid becoming a political lightening rod.

The media appears to be helping with what increasingly looks like a sleight of hand. Joe Weisenthal from Bloomberg proposed the following on Twitter:

To help you form your own opinion let’s look at some facts about QE and balance sheet increases prior to the QE era. From January of 2003 to December of 2007, the Fed’s balance sheet steadily increased by $150 billion, or about $30 billion a year. The new proposal from Sack and Gagnon calls for a $250 billion increase over six months. QE1 lasted six months and increased the Fed’s balance sheet by $265 billion. Maybe its us, but the new proposal appears to be a mirror image of QE.

Summary

The challenge, as we see it, is that these former Fed officials do not realize that the policies they helped create and implement were a big contributor to the financial crisis a decade ago. The ensuing problems the financial system is now enduring are a result of the policies they implemented to address the crisis. Their proposed solutions, regardless of what they call them, are more imprudent policies to address problems caused by imprudent policies since the GFC.

The Great LIBOR Liquidation

We are thrilled to introduce Jess L. as a new contributor to RIA. Jess started her career nearly two decades ago as a market maker at Goldman Sachs, followed by a stint at Merrill Lynch. After that, she moved over to the buy-side as a Portfolio Manager at Caxton Associates before ending her career at Millennium Partners. Throughout her career, she has had the opportunity to trade a number of different asset classes, but the one nearest & dearest to her heart is the front-end of the USD rates curve. She now lives in Malibu with two children, adoring husband, and border collie – Rosie.

Follow Jess on Twitter at @MacroMorning

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The fate of LIBOR is likely to precipitate one of the largest one-off structural changes to the interest rates market in our lifetimes. Regulators are growing increasingly concerned because we’re ill-prepared for what comes next. Thus, more ad lib experimentation by policymakers.

It’s a tectonic shift in a $400 trillion+ market.

On Monday, New York Fed President John Williams gave a speech entitled “LIBOR: The Clock is Ticking” to address the ultimate liquidation of a ubiquitous benchmark rate. He summed up the motive behind invoking time-bomb imagery as follows.

“Some say only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. But I say there are actually three: death, taxes, and the end of LIBOR.”

https://www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/speeches/2019/wil190923


Here’s what you need to know

If nothing else, there are really just a few take-away bullet points.

The shift from LIBOR to SOFR rates is happening & has massive implications.

The fate of benchmark rates will be driven by events such as last week’s move in repo. The Fed’s decision to embark on OMOs will extend far beyond October for a number of reasons. Key among them? Protect the sanctity of the incoming LIBOR replacement.

We’re talking about $400 trillion.


What’s $400 trillion between friends?

400 trillion is such a large figure, it’s really, really difficult to conceive.   

Imagine human beings began counting to 400 trillion around the time of the first discovered form of writing (about 32 centuries ago). A weary descendent today would be still counting… with 99.75% remaining.

If (in a more financial, but equally less pragmatic way) you were somehow able to cover the surface of the Earth in gold plating a meter thick, $400 trillion would get enough gold for a second copy as well – and then some.

If (while recreating a cult movie classic) you spent $400 trillion on gas, you’d have enough to drive the distance from here to Alpha Centauri – and back. About 40 times. In a Winnebago.

But perhaps that’s because we’re using the wrong yardstick, using as a basis for comparison concepts that are familiar to us in our daily lives. If we change dimensions, the idea of such a quantity becomes a little easier to picture.

If every neural synapse in the brain cost $1, $400 trillion would get you only enough for a typical NFL Quarterback. Though to be clear, in the case of the Jets, we’d be talking about Ryan Fitzpatrick – not, y’know… anybody else.

Spend a dollar programming every possible chess combination into a supercomputer? You’d only have enough for an opening of four moves (a “Fool’s Gambit” if you reach checkmate).

And if you tallied up the total notional outstanding of interest rate derivative contracts that are about to be significantly altered by coming benchmark reform… well, that’s why we’re here, you’d have about $400 trillion.

It’s a huge number, even in the scheme of other large markets outstanding. And it’s due to be transformed – one might argue – beyond a shadow of its former self.

Here’s why.


It’s (still) all about funding markets

During last week’s repo debacle, here’s how the replacement for LIBOR did (more on the distinction between these two lines below):

Lest you think I’m cherry-picking by showing an overnight rate versus a 3-month tenor, take a look at what the “overnight” LIBOR rate did by comparison. The relative shock wave is of similar magnitude.

Now, in order to combat these types of violent moves, the Fed has embarked upon a series of Open Market Operations (OMOs) to provide funding from now until Thursday October 10th. But if you think this all ends on that date, you haven’t been paying attention.

https://www.newyorkfed.org/markets/opolicy/operating_policy_190920

Last week, ISDA released their final consultation on the remaining thorny issues to be hashed out regarding fallbacks – with responses due from participants no later than October 23rd.

https://www.isda.org/2019/09/18/isda-publishes-consultation-on-final-parameters-for-benchmark-fallback-adjustments

In other words, this is an issue that is very much front & center – now.


Making LIBOR Great Again

The saga around “the end of LIBOR” aka Benchmark Reform has been ongoing for nearly a decade. Really ever since regulators determined that “asking a cabal of bank executives who could pick up a phone call from their trading desks what they’d like the daily rate to be…” underpinning the largest derivatives market in the world left open a little room for bad actors to operate. LIBOR (the “London InterBank Offered Rate”) needed to be replaced. And the replacement would need to be something that was observable & representative of conditions in money markets.

Enter SOFR – the Secured Overnight Financing Rate.

This isn’t the place to get into the minutiae around LIBOR vs SOFR, but a basic understanding is important. LIBOR is a “forecast of unsecured funding” and SOFR is an “actual measure of secured funding”.  In other words, the key is that LIBOR is only a guess at where you could borrow without having to provide collateral and SOFR is where the borrowing actually gets done that’s collateralized by US Treasuries. I’ve included links at the bottom of this article & an excellent series of blog posts on the topic, here & here.

Secured vs Unsecured

You might assume that the SOFR rate (in which you provide collateral) is always lower than the LIBOR rate (in which it’s just based on a bank’s estimate of where they could get funding, based on nothing more than a promise to return it). And, of course, because this is the world we live in – you’d be wrong.

One has to be a little cynical (or at least an active trader in today’s paradoxical market) to grasp the distinction. Banks never want to admit that funding is scarce or that they’d have a tough time tapping capital markets. Bank stocks don’t tend to like that sort of admission. So, forecasts are based on an information waterfall that, as best as we can tell, is “where have things been recently?”

PM: “Wherefore art thou Libor?” 6/28/2019

On the other hand, collateralized funding is not exactly the cheap source of financing you might have thought. Banks already have plenty of what you’re trying to offload in exchange for the cash: collateral. Much of this, however, is required due to the increase in considerations around capitalization post-crisis. Increasingly, it’s due to the fact that the Treasury is aggressively ramping up debt issuance.

Collateral supersaturation

Why this becomes problematic is the fact we’re whirling further & further into an environment where oversupply of collateral is causing these rates to become more & more volatile – see the most recent episode for a point of reference.

To say that last week’s repo debacle was precipitated by either the KSA or by the timing of corporate taxes & bills supply is a little like saying World War I was caused by Gavrilo Princip. Yes, that’s true – but the conditions had to be right & the stage appropriately set.

It’s a bit like the grade school chemistry lesson where you drop additional solute into an already supersaturated solution:

But, this is what regulators have decided we’re going with & we’re a few details away from getting a complete picture of what LIBOR’s replacement will look like.

Back to the future, part 1

Accordingly, efforts have been made to reduce the type of noise we saw last week. Regulators were aware of the fact this could happen well in advance.

For example, what was previously “3-month LIBOR” (i.e. the trimmed mean of daily bank estimates of where they could borrow unsecured cash for 3 months) will now be a daily-compounded in arrears SOFR rate (i.e. the daily fixings over that equivalent period compounded over that same period). Instead of using just one rate that covers the entire 3-month period which is set at the START of the period, we’ll take every business day during that period & compound all the fixings together at the END of the period.

Here’s a schematic from Oliver Wyman that shows the difference:

Back to the future, part 2

In other words, we’re going from an “expectations based” benchmark to a “present realized” index. While that might not exactly violate the space-time continuum, that does cause some quirks.

Again, the reason for this consideration is to remove some of the daily “noise” around the fixings. That’s “noise” due to things like holidays, reporting periods & unexpected vaporization of liquidity. This is obvious just from a cursory glance at that historical chart of the daily fixings for the SOFR rate compared to the 3-month LIBOR rate.

However, LIBOR doesn’t just have a 3-month term. An overnight term, a 1-month term, a 6-month term & so on also exist.

Consider what events like last week’s move in repo did to LIBOR’s replacement, even after the “smoothing”. Even without looking, you can probably guess it’s not good.

Not exactly “easing”

Let’s play this out. The LIBOR fixing that was delivered on the morning of June 17th was the one which covered an “effective” period that started T+2 (June 19th) for 3-months. Therefore, that rate would pick up all the fixings from last week. That caused the “rate” from nearly 3-months ago to increase a little over 3 basis points. Previously, you wouldn’t have cared much about what happens in the 3-months following your LIBOR fixing. Now, you care quite a bit about any significant moves in SOFR underlying that might transpire over the ensuing period.

The VaR-Shock to rule them all

What’s even more important is that the shorter LIBOR rates are the ones that underpin things like Student Loan Securitizations & Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securitizations. Well, those happen to be two areas of the market precariously balanced at the moment.

Here’s what the 1mL rate & its replacement did…

Consider: the magnitude of the move works out to a little over 12.5bps – or half of what the Fed just cut rates by. That’s a pretty big difference – in the opposite direction of what the Fed’s intending to do as they “ease” policy.

Now, this past week’s episode won’t do much since LIBOR is still clinging on. It won’t even affect the proposed spread adjustment, since that will most likely use a trimmed mean or median observation of the last 5-10 years. Stay tuned: it’s one of the biggest outstanding decisions remaining.

But, it’s a good example of how policymakers have designed a replacement benchmark to take over the largest derivatives market in the world which could deviate from the original. Best summed up in the words of Job & George Bluth.

Trillion Dollar PNL Implications

In the context of a $400 trillion market it’s a lot. Especially, since you’ve just caused the entire index to shift up by 12.5bps when it should have been shifting lower as the Fed “eases” policy. For a 1-month coupon, that difference is $42bn in PNL terms for just this one episode. That episode lasted only about 3 days.

Over a longer period (a few weeks, for example), implications are north of a trillion dollars in market PNL.

Imagine if regulators enacted by decree an instantaneous drop of $1 trillion in market PNL from US equities. You’d take notice.

Furthermore, the index jumped 12.4bps on the day that the 1mL rate moved 1.5bps. A 1.5bps move for 1mL is barely a half a standard deviation move on the long-term history, going back to 1998. That 12.4bps move for SOFR? An 8+ standard deviation event.

Regulators take heed

We live in a world where risk has been increasingly calibrated to historical VaR. That’s a seismic shock that poses a serious threat to future position concentration.

Regulators have told us in no uncertain terms that this is happening. Williams’ speech on Monday is an example of their determination to enact a shift. But, the Fed knows in order to make it stick, one must have a reliable fallback instrument.

Reliable fallback instruments for a $400 trillion market don’t move 8+ standard deviations because of a regularly scheduled tax date. Even if it just so happens to compound a number of other structural issues.

So, it’s in the Fed’s best interests to lean against such moves. That’s yet another reason why we should expect OMOs are really Permanent (with a capital “P” = POMOs). They’re due to extend well beyond the October date that’s currently on the calendar.

With that, regulators are more than happy to issue one final valediction to LIBOR.

LINKS

ARRC FAQ: https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/Microsites/arrc/files/ARRC-faq.pdf

ISDA Fallback Consultation: https://www.isda.org/2019/09/18/september-2019-consultation-on-final-parameters/

CALCULATION METHODOLOGY

Disclosure/Disclaimers:

This material may contain indicative terms & there is no representation that any transaction could have been executed at such terms. Proposed terms are for discussion purposes only.

OTC Derivatives Risk Disclosures:

Understand clearly the terms of any OTC derivative transaction you may enter into. You should carefully review these terms with your counterparty.

Also, understand the nature of your exposure. Consequently, you should be satisfied that such transactions are appropriate. In addition, you may be required to post margin.

This post was written by me & the material is my own, except where sourced. I am not receiving compensation for it.

Who Could Have Known: What The Repo Fiasco Entails

Imagine approaching a friend that you think is very wealthy and asking her to borrow ten thousand dollars for just one night. To entice her, you offer as collateral the title to your 2019 Lexus parked in her driveway along with an interest rate that is 5% above that which she is earning in the bank. Shockingly, your friend says she can’t. Given the risk-free nature of the transaction and excellent one-day profit, we can assume that our friend may not be as wealthy as we thought.

On Monday, September 16th, 2019, a similar situation occurred in the overnight repurchase agreement (repo) funding market. On that day, banks were unwilling or unable to lend on a collateralized basis, even with the promise of large risk-free profits. This behavior reveals something very important about the banking system and points to the end of market stimulus that has been around for the past decade.

The Plumbing of the Banking System and Financial Markets

Interbank borrowing is the engine that allows the financial system to run smoothly. Banks routinely borrow and lend to each other on an overnight basis to ensure that all banks have ample funds to meet daily cash flow needs and that banks with excess funds can earn interest on them. Literally, years go by with no problems in the interbank markets and not a mention in the media.

Before proceeding, what follows is a definition of the funding instruments used in the interbank markets.

  • Fed Funds are uncollateralized interbank loans that are almost exclusively done on an overnight basis. Except for a few exceptions, only banks can trade Fed Funds.
  • Repo (repurchase agreements) are collateralized loans. These transactions occur between banks but often involve other non-bank financial institutions such as insurance companies. Repo can be negotiated on an overnight and longer-term basis. General collateral, or “GC,” is a term used to describe Treasury, agency, and mortgage collateral that backs certain repo loans. In a GC repo, the particular securities backing the loan are not determined until after the transaction is agreed upon by the counterparties. The securities delivered must meet certain pre-defined criteria.

On September 16th, overnight GC repo traded as high as 8%, almost 6% higher than the Fed Funds rate, which theoretically should keep repo and other money market rates closely tied to it. The billion-dollar question is, “Why did a firm willing to pay a hefty premium, with risk-free collateral, struggle to borrow money”?  Before the 16th, a premium of 25 to 50 basis points versus Fed Funds would have enticed a mob of financial institutions to lend money via the repo markets. On the 16th, many multiples of that premium were not enticing enough.

Most likely, there was an unexpected cash crunch that left banks and/or financial institutions underfunded. The media has talked up the corporate tax date and a large Treasury bond settlement date as potential reasons. We are not convinced by either excuse as they were easily forecastable weeks in advance.

Regardless of what caused the liquidity crunch, we do know, that in aggregate, banks did not have the capacity to lend money. Given the capacity, they would have done so in a New York minute and at much lower rates.

To highlight the enormity of the aberration, consider the following:

  • Since 2006, the average daily difference between the overnight GC repo rate and the Fed Funds effective rate was .025%.
  • Three standard deviations or 99.5% of the observances should have a spread of .56% or less.
  • 8% is a bewildering 42 standard deviations from the average, or simply impossible assuming a traditional bell curve.

What was revealed on the 16th?

The U.S. and global banking systems revolve around fractional reserve banking. That means banks need only hold a fraction of the cash deposits that they hold in reserve accounts at the Fed. For example, if a bank has $1,000 in deposits (a liability to the bank), they may lend $900 of those funds and retain only 10% in reserves. This is meant to ensure they have enough funding on hand to make payments during the day and also as a buffer against unanticipated liquidity needs. Before 2008, banks held only just as many reserves as were required by the Fed. Holding anything more than the required minimum was a drag on earnings, as excess reserves were unremunerated at the time.

Quantitative Easing (QE) and the need for the Fed to pay interest on newly formed excess reserves changed that. When the Fed conducted QE, they bought U.S. Treasury, agency, and mortgage-backed securities and credited the selling bank’s reserve account. The purpose of QE1 was to ensure that the banking system was sufficiently liquid and equipped to deal with the ramifications of the ongoing financial crisis. Round one of QE was logical given the growing list of bank/financial institution failures. However, additional rounds of QE appear to have had a different motive and influence as banks were highly liquid after QE1 and had shored up their capital as well. That is a story for another day.

The graph below shows how “excess” reserves were close to zero before 2008 and soared by over $2.5 trillion after the three rounds of QE. Before QE, “excess” reserves were tiny, measured in the hundreds of millions. The amount is so small it is not visible on the graph below. The reserves produced by multiple rounds of quantitative easing may have been truly excess, meaning above required reserves, on day one of QE. However, on day two and beyond that is not necessarily true for any particular bank or the system as a whole, as we are about to explain.

Data courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The Fed, having pushed an enormous amount of reserves on the banks, created a potential problem. The Fed feared that once the smoke cleared from the financial crisis, banks would revert to their pre-crisis practice of keeping only the minimum amount of reserves required. This would leave them an unprecedented surplus of excess funds to buy financial assets and/or create loans which would vastly increase the money supply with inflationary consequences. To combat this problem, they incentivized the banks to keep the reserves locked down by paying them a rate of interest on the reserves that were higher than the Fed funds rates and other prevailing money market rates. This rate is called the IOER or the interest on excess reserves.

The Fed assumed banks would hold excess reserves because they could make risk free profits at no cost. This largely worked, but some reserves were leveraged by the banks and flowed into the financial markets. This was a big factor in driving stock prices higher, credit spreads tighter, and bond yields lower. This form of inflation the Fed seemed to desire as evidenced from their many speeches talking about generating household net worth.

From the banks’ perspective, the excess reserves supplied by the Fed during QE were preferential to traditional uses of excess reserves. Historically, excess bank reserves were invested in the Treasury market or lent on to other banks in the Fed Funds market. Purchasing Treasury securities had no credit risk, but banks are required to mark their Treasury holdings to market and therefore produce unexpected gains and losses. Lending reserves in the interbank market also incurred counterparty risk, as there was always the chance the borrowing bank would be unable to repay the loan, especially in the immediate post-crisis period. Additionally, as QE had produced trillions in excess reserves, there was not much demand from other banks. Therefore, the banks preferred use of excess reserves was leaving them on deposit with the Fed to earn IOER. This resulted in no counterparty risk and no mark to market risk.

Beginning in 2018, the Fed began reducing their balance sheet via QT and the amount of excess reserves held by banks began to decline appreciably.

Solving Our Mystery

It is nearly impossible for the public to figure out how much in excess reserves the banking system is truly carrying. Indeed, even the Fed seems uncertain. It is common knowledge that they have been declining, and over the last six months, clues emerged that the amount of “truly excess reserves,” meaning the amount banks could do without, was possibly approaching zero.  

Clue one came on March 20th, 2019 when the Fed said QT would end in October 2019. Then, on July 31st, 2019, as small problems occurred in the funding markets, the Fed abruptly announced that they would halt the balance sheet reduction in August, two months earlier than originally planned. The QT effort, despite assurances from Bernanke, Yellen, and Powell that it would be uneventful, ended 22 months after it began. The Fed’s balance sheet declined only $800 billion as a result of QT, less than a quarter of what the Fed added to their balance sheet during QE.

Clue two was the declining spread between the IOER rate and the effective Fed Funds rate as the level of excess reserves was declining, as seen in the chart below. The spread between IOER and the Fed Funds rate was narrowing because the Fed was having trouble maintaining the Fed Funds rate within the targeted range. In March 2019, the spread became negative, which was counter to the Fed’s objectives. Not surprisingly, this is when the Fed first announced that QT would end.

Data courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The third and final clue emerged on September 16, 2019, when overnight repo traded at 7%-8%. If banks truly had excess reserves, they would have lent some of that excess into the repo market and rates would never have gotten close to 7-8%. It seems logical that banks would have been happy to lend on a collateralized basis at 3%, much less 7-8%, when their alternative, leaving excess reserves to the Fed, would have earned them 2.25%.   

Further confirmation that something was amiss occurred on September 17th, 2019, when the Fed Funds effective rate was above the upper end of the Fed’s target range of 2-2.25% at the time. This marked the first time the Fed Funds rate traded above its target since 2008.

On September 17th, the Fed entered the repo markets with a $53 billion overnight repo operation, whereby banks could pledge Treasury collateral to the Fed and receive cash. The temporary liquidity injection worked and brought repo rates back to normal. The following day the Fed pumped $75 billion into the markets. These were the first repo transactions executed by the Fed since the Financial Crisis, as shown below.

These liquidity operations will likely continue as long as there is demand from banks. The Fed will also conduct longer-term repo operations to reduce the amount of daily liquidity they provide.

The Fed can continue to resort to the pre-QE era tactics and use temporary daily operations to help target overnight borrowing rates. They can also reduce the reserve requirements which would, at least for some time, provide the system with excess reserves. Lastly, they can permanently add reserves with QE. Recent rhetoric from Fed Chairman Powell and New York Fed President Williams suggests a resumption of QE in some form may be closer than we think.

Why should we care?

The QE-related excess reserves were used to invest in financial assets. While the investments were probably high-grade liquid assets, they essentially crowded out investors, pushing them into slightly riskier assets. This domino effect helped lift all asset prices from the most risk-free and liquid to those that are risky and illiquid. Keep in mind the Fed removed about $3.6 trillion of Treasury and mortgage securities from the market which had a similar effect.

The bottom line is that the role excess reserves played in stimulating the markets over the last decade is gone. There are many other factors driving asset prices higher such as passive investing, stock buybacks, and a broad-based, euphoric investment atmosphere, all of which are byproducts of extraordinary monetary policies. The new modus operandi is not necessarily a cause for concern, but it does present a new demand curve for the markets that is different from what we have become accustomed to.

Summary

Short-term funding is never sexy and rarely if ever, the most exciting part of the capital markets. A brief recollection of 2008 serves as a reminder that, when it is exciting, it is usually a harbinger of volatility and disruption.

In a Washington Post article from 2010, Bernanke stated, “We have made all necessary preparations, and we are confident that we have the tools to unwind these policies at the appropriate time.”

Much more recently, Jay Powell stated, “We’ve been operating in this regime for a full decade. It’s designed specifically so that we do not expect to be conducting frequent open market operations to keep fed fund [sic] rates in the target range.” 

Today, a decade after the financial crisis, we see that Bernanke and Powell have little appreciation for the inner-workings of the financial system. 

In the Wisdom of Peter Fisher, an RIA Pro article released in July, we discussed the insight of Peter Fisher, a former Treasury, and Federal Reserve official. Unlike most other Fed members and politicians, he discussed how hard getting back to normal will be. As we are learning, it turns out that Fisher’s wisdom from 2017 was visionary.

“As Fisher stated in his remarks, The challenge of normalizing policy will be to undo bad habits that have developed in how monetary policy is explained and understood.” He continues, “…the Fed will have to walk back from their early assurances that the “exit would be easy.”

Prophetic indeed.

Surging Repo Rates- Why Should I Care?

A subscriber emailed us regarding our repurchase agreement (repo) analysis from Tuesday’s Daily Commentary. Her question is, “why should I care about a surge in repo rates?” The commentary she refers to is at the end of this article.

Before answering her question, it is worth emphasizing that it is rare for overnight Fed Funds or Repo rates to spike, as happened this week, other than at quarter and year ends when bank balance sheets have little flexibility. Clearly, balance sheet constraints due to the end of a quarter or year are not causing the current situation.  Some say the current situation may be due to a lack of bank reserves which are used to make loans, but banks have almost $2 trillion in excess cash reserves. Although there may likely be an explanation related to general bank liquidity, there is also a chance the surge in funding costs is due to a credit or geopolitical event with a bank or other entity that has yet to be disclosed to the public.

Before moving ahead, let us take a moment to clarify our definitional terms.

Fed Funds are daily overnight loans between banks that are unsecured, or not collateralized. Overnight Repo funding are also daily overnight loans but unlike Fed Funds, are backed with assets, typically U.S. Treasuries or mortgage-backed securities. The Federal Reserve has the authority to conduct financing transactions to add or subtract liquidity to ensure overnight markets trade close to the Fed Funds target. These transactions are referred to as open market operations which involve the buying or selling of Treasury bonds to increase or decrease the amount of reserves (money) in the system. Reserves regulate how much money a bank can lend. When reserves are limited, short-term interest rates among and between banks rise and conversely when reserves are abundant, funding costs fall. QE, for instance, boosted reserves by nearly $3.5 trillion which enabled banks to provide liquidity to markets and make loans at low interest rates.

Our financial system and economy are highly leveraged. Currently, in the U.S., there is over $60 trillion in debt versus a monetary base of $3.3 trillion. Further, there is at least another $10-15 trillion of dollar-based debt owed outside of the U.S. 

Banks frequently have daily liquidity shortfalls or overages as they facilitate the massive amount of cash moving through the banking system. To balance their books daily, they borrow from or lend to other banks in the overnight markets to satisfy these daily imbalances. When there is more demand than supply or vice versa for overnight funds, the Fed intervenes to ensure that the overnight markets trade at, or close to, the current Fed Funds rate.

If overnight funding remains volatile and costly, banks will increase the amount of cash on hand (liquidity) to avoid higher daily costs. To facilitate more short term cash on their books, funds must be conjured by liquidating other assets they hold. The easiest assets to sell are those in the financial markets such as U.S. Treasuries, investment-grade corporate bonds, stocks, currencies, and commodities.  We may be seeing this already. To wit the following is from Bloomberg:  

“What started out as a funding shortage in a key U.S. money market is now making it more costly to get hold of dollars globally. After a sudden surge in the overnight rate on Treasury repurchase agreements, demand for the dollar is showing up in swap rates from euros, pounds, yen and even Australia’s currency. As an example, the cost to borrow dollars for one week in FX markets while lending euros almost doubled.”

A day or two of unruly behavior in the overnight markets is not likely to meaningfully affect banks’ behaviors. However, if the banks think this will continue, they will take more aggressive actions to bolster their liquidity.

To directly answer our reader’s question and reiterating an important point made, if banks bolster liquidity, the financial markets will probably be the first place from which banks draw funds. In turn, this means that banks and their counterparties will be forced to reduce leverage used in the financial markets. Stocks, bonds, currencies, and commodities are all highly leveraged by banks and their clientele. As such, all of these markets are susceptible to selling pressure if this occurs.

We leave you with a couple of thoughts-

  • If the repo rate is 3-4% above the Fed Funds rate, the borrower must either not be a bank or one that is seriously distressed. As such, is this repo event related to a hedge fund, bank or other entity that blew up when oil surged over 10% on Monday? Could it be a geopolitical related issue given events in the Middle East? 
  • The common explanation seems to blame the massive funding outlays due to the combination of Treasury debt funding and corporate tax remittances. While plausible, these cash flow were easy to predict and plan for weeks in advance. This does not seem like a valid excuse.

In case you missed it, here is Tuesday’s RIA repo commentary:  Yesterday afternoon, overnight borrowing costs for banks surged to 7%, well above the 2.25% Fed Funds rate. Typically the rate stays within 5-10 basis points of the Fed Funds rate. Larger variations are usually reserved for quarter and year ends when banks face balance sheet constraints. It is believed the settlement of new issue Treasury securities and the corporate tax date caused a funding shortage for banks. If that is the case, the situation should clear up in a day or two. Regardless of the cause, the condition points to a lack of liquidity in the banking sector. We will follow the situation closely as it may impact markets if it continues.

UPDATE: Profiting From A Steepening Yield Curve

In June we wrote an RIA Pro article entitled Profiting From A Steepening Yield Curve, in which we discussed the opportunity to profit from a steepening yield curve with specific investments in mortgage REITs. We backed up our words by purchasing AGNC, NLY, and REM for RIA Advisor clients. The same trades were shared with RIA Pro subscribers and can be viewed in the RIA Pro Portfolios under the Portfolio tab.

We knew when we published the article and placed the trades that the short term risk to our investment thesis was, and still is, a further flattening and even an inversion of the yield curve. That is precisely what happened. In mid to late August the curve inverted by four basis points but has since widened back out.

The graph below compares the 2s/10s yield curve (blue) with AGNC (orange) and NLY (green). Beneath the graph is two smaller graphs showing the rolling 20-day correlation between AGNC and NLY versus the yield curve.

Since writing the article and purchasing the shares, the securities have fallen by about 5%, although much of the price loss is offset by double digit dividends (AGNC 13.20%, NLY 10.73%, and REM 9.06%). While we are not happy with even a small loss, we are emboldened by the strong correlation between the share prices and the yield curve. The trade is largely a yield curve bet, so it is comforting to see the securities tracking the yield curve so closely.

We still think the yield curve will steepen significantly. In our opinion, this will likely occur as slowing growth will prompt the Fed to be more aggressive than their current posture. We also think that there is a high probability that when the Fed decides to become more aggressive they will reduce rates at a faster clip than the market thinks. As we discussed in Investors Are Grossly Underestimating the Fed, when the Fed is actively raising or reducing rates, the market underestimates that path.

To wit:  If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.

Heading into the financial crisis, it took the Fed 15 months to go from a 5.25% Fed funds rate to zero. Given their sensitivities today, how much faster might they respond to an economic slowdown or financial market dislocation from the current level of 2.25%?”

Bolstering our view for a steeper yield curve is that the Fed, first and foremost, is concerned with the financial health of its member banks. The Fed will fight an inverted yield curve because it hurts banks profit margins and therefore reduces their ability to lend money. Because of this and regardless of the economic climate, the Fed will use words and monetary policy actions to promote a steeper yield curve.

We are very comfortable with the premise behind our trades, and in fact in mid-August we doubled our position in AGNC. We will also likely add to NLY soon.

For more on this investment thesis, please watch the following Real Vision interview Steepening Yield Curve Could Yield Generational Opportunities.

The Fed Continues To Make Policy Mistakes

“During the last year, the Federal Reserve has hinted that the period of ‘ultra-accommodative monetary policy’ was coming to an end. The Fed started that process last October by terminating the latest ‘Quantitative Easing’ program, which induced massive amounts of liquidity into the financial markets. Subsequently, the Fed has turned its focus towards the near ZERO level of the ‘Fed Funds’ rate.” – July 6, 2015

It seems like an eternity ago now, but I warned then the Fed was too late in the cycle to tighten monetary policy due to the impact higher rates have on economic growth.

“While the Federal Reserve hopes that they can effectively raise interest rates without cratering economic growth, the problem is that the bond market may have already beaten them to the punch.

While I do not expect Treasury rates to rise very much, the increase in borrowing costs in an already weak economic environment has an almost immediate impact. The chart below shows the periods in history where Treasury rates have risen and the impact of subsequent rates of economic growth.”

As we suggested, the rise in rates to 3.25% was all the economy could withstand at the time.

I followed up that previous analysis in October 2015 suggesting the Fed had missed its window to hike rates. To wit:

“The problem for the Federal Reserve is that getting caught in a liquidity trap was not an unforeseen outcome of monetary policybut rather an inevitable conclusion. The current low levels of inflation, interest rates, and economic growth are the result of more than 30-years of misguided monetary policies that have led to a continued misallocation of capital.”

“From our cyclical vantage point, we have long been aware of the truism that ‘recessions kill inflation.’ Therefore, when the next recession arrives, it is more likely to push inflation below zero at a time when the Fed has no obvious policy response. The resulting deflation will be the stuff of policy nightmares.”

Why am I reminding you of this?

It is becomingly increasingly clear from a variety of inputs that deflationary pressures are mounting in the economy. Recent declines in manufacturing, and production reports, along with the collapse in commodity prices, all suggest that something is amiss in the production side of the economy.

As shown in the chart below, the Fed should have started lifting rates as the spike in economic growth occurred in 2010-2011 as both the Fed and Government flooded the economy with liquidity. While hiking rates would have slowed the advance in the financial markets, the excess liquidity sloshing around the system would have offset tighter monetary policy.

If they had hiked rates sooner, interest rates on the short-end of would have risen giving the Fed a policy tool to combat economic weakness with in the future. However, assuming a historically normal response to economic recoveries, the yield curve has been negative for quite some time. This explains why “financial conditions” remain at historically low levels despite higher Fed Funds rates.

The chart above also explains the delay in the “yield curve” turning negative earlier in this cycle.

  1. As shown in the chart above, the 2-year Treasury has a very close relationship with the Effective Fed Funds Rate. Historically, the Federal Reserve began to lift rates shortly after economic growth turned higher. Post-2000 the Fed lagged in raising rates which led to the real estate bubble / financial crisis. Since 2009, the Fed has held rates at the lowest level in history artificially suppressing the short-end of the curve.
  2. The artificial suppression of shorter-term rates has skewed the effectiveness of the yield curve as a recession indicator.
  3. Lastly, negative yield spreads have historically occurred well before the onset of a recession. Despite their early warnings, market participants, Wall Street, and even the Fed came up with excuses each time to why “it was different.” Historically, it has never been the case.

However, the Fed is now trapped in a difficult position and is making a “policy mistake” once again.

Given the Fed waiting so long into the economic cycle to hike rates to begin with, they weren’t able to gain much of a spread before the economy was negatively impacted. There have been absolutely ZERO times in history when the Federal Reserve began an interest-rate hiking campaign that did not eventually lead to a negative outcome. To wit:

While the Federal Reserve clearly should not raise rates in the current environment, there is a possibility they will, regardless of the outcome. 

The Fed understands that economic cycles do not last forever, and we are closer to the next recession than not. While raising rates would likely accelerate a potential slowdown and a significant market correction, from the Fed’s perspective, it might be the ‘lesser of two evils. Being caught at the ‘zero bound’ at the onset of a recession leaves few options for the Federal Reserve to stabilize an economic decline.”

The problem for the Fed is that the bond market was NEVER worried about inflation.

Only the Fed saw an “inflation-monster under the bed.” All the bond market needed was the Fed to come out and indicate a “shift” in their stance to worrying about “deflation” to seal the deal.

Despite the many arguments to the contrary, we have repeatedly stated that the rise in interest rates was a temporary phenomenon as “rates impact real economic activity.” 

The “real economy,” due to a surge in debt-financed activity, was not nearly strong enough to withstand substantially higher rates. Of course, such has become readily apparent in the recent housing and auto sales data. Consequently, the Fed was unable to gain much clearance between the current level of rates and the “zero-bound.” 

Navarro’s Naivety 

On Tuesday, Peter Navarro, who is the White House trade advisor, called on the Federal Reserve to lower rates.

“The Federal Reserve before the end of the year has to lower interest rates by at least another 75 basis points or 100 basis points to bring interest rates here in America in line with the rest of the world. We have just too big a spread between our rates and that costs us jobs.’

While Peter, and President Trump, both want an “aggressive rate-cutting cycle” to sustain economic growth while he fights an unwinnable “trade war,” the reality is that rate cuts, and even additional measures of quantitative easing, or Q.E., are likely to have a muted effect. As I explained previously, the effectiveness of QE, and zero interest rates, is based upon the point at which you apply the stimulus.

“In 2008, when the Fed launched into their “accommodative policy” emergency strategy to bail out the financial markets, the Fed’s balance sheet was only about $915 Billion. The Fed Funds rate was at 4.2%.

If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with roughly a $4 Trillion balance sheet with interest rates 2% lower than they were in 2009. In other words, the ability of the Fed to ‘bailout’ the markets today, is much more limited than it was in 2008. But there is more to the story than just the Fed’s balance sheet and funds rate. The entire backdrop is completely reversed. The table below compares a variety of financial and economic factors from 2009 to the present.”

“The critical point here is that QE and rate reductions have the MOST effect when the economy, markets, and investors have been ‘blown out,’ deviations from the ‘norm’ are negatively extended, confidence is hugely negative.

In other words, there is nowhere to go but up.”

A simple analogy is throwing gasoline on a raging bonfire. The fire will burn for a bit longer, but it won’t burn any hotter. However, throwing gasoline on a pile of dry wood and hitting it with a match provides a better outcome.

Such was the case in 2009. Even without Federal Reserve interventions, it is highly probable the economy would have begun a recovery as the normal economic cycle took hold. No, the recovery would not have been as strong, and asset prices would be about half of where they are today, but an improvement would have happened nonetheless.

The extremely negative environment that existed, particularly in the asset markets, provided a fertile starting point for monetary interventions. Today, as shown in the table above, the economic and fundamental backdrop could not be more diametrically opposed.

This suggests that the Fed’s ability to stem the decline of the next recession, or offset a financial shock to the economy from falling asset prices, may be much more limited than the Fed, and most investors, currently believe.

The Fed has a long history of making policy mistakes which have led to negative outcomes, crisis, bear markets, and recessions.

As I showed, above, the Fed made a mistake not using the flood of liquidity to lift rates. Instead, the Fed opted to create an asset bubble instead. Or, should I say, “again.”

While another $2-4 Trillion in QE, and a return to the “zero bound,” might indeed be successful in further inflating asset prices, there is a finite ability to continue to pull forward future consumption to stimulate economic activity. In other words, there are only so many autos, houses, etc., which can be purchased within a given cycle. 

Currently, there is evidence the cycle peak has been reached.

If I am correct, and the effectiveness of rate reductions and QE are diminished due to the reasons detailed herein, the subsequent destruction to the “wealth effect” will be far larger than currently imagined. There is a limit to just how many bonds the Federal Reserve can buy and a deep recession will likely find the Fed powerless to offset much of the negative effects. 

If more “accommodation” works, great.

But as investors, with our retirement savings at risk, what if it doesn’t?

Steepening Yield Curve Could Yield Generational Opportunities : Michael Lebowitz on Real Vision

On July 1st, Michael Lebowitz was interviewed by Real Vision TV. In the interview he discussed our thoughts on the yield curve, corporate bonds, recession odds, the Federal Reserve, and much more. In particular, Michael pitched our recent portfolio transactions NLY and AGNC, which were both discussed in the following RIA PRO article: Profiting From a Steepening Yield Curve.

Real Vision was kind enough to allow us to share their exclusive video with RIA Pro clients. We hope you enjoy it.

To watch the Video please click HERE

Investors Are Grossly Underestimating The Fed – RIA Pro UNLOCKED

 If you think the Fed may only lower rates by .50 or even .75, you may be grossly underestimating them.  The following article was posted for RIA Pro subscribers two weeks ago.

For more research like this as well as daily commentary, investment ideas, portfolios, scanning and analysis tools, and our new 401K manager sign up today at RIA Pro and test drive our site for 30 days before being charged.


Currently, the December 2019 Fed Funds futures contract implies that the Fed will reduce the Fed Funds rate by nearly 75 basis points (0.75%) by the end of the year. While 75 basis points may seem aggressive, if the Fed does embark on a rate-cutting policy and history proves reliable, we should prepare ourselves for much more.

The prospect of three 25 basis point rate cuts is hard to grasp given that the unemployment rate is at 50-year lows, economic growth has begun to slow only after a period of above-average growth, and inflation remains near the Fed’s 2% goal.  Interest rate markets are looking ahead and collectively expressing deep concerns based on slowing global growth, trade wars, and diminishing fiscal stimulus that propelled the economy over the past two years. Meanwhile, credit spreads and stock market prices imply a recession is not in the cards.

To make sense of the implications stemming from the Fed Funds futures market, it is helpful to assess how well the Fed Funds futures market has predicted Fed Funds rates historically. With this analysis, we can hopefully avoid getting caught flat-footed if the Fed not only lowers rates but lowers them more aggressively than the market implies.

Fed Funds vs. Fed Funds Futures

Before moving ahead, let’s define Fed Funds futures. The futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), reflect the daily average Fed Funds interest rate that traders, speculator, and hedgers think will occur for specific one calendar month periods in the future. For instance, the August 2019 contract, trades at 2.03%, implying the market’s belief that the Fed Funds rate will be .37% lower than the current 2.40 % Fed Funds rate. For pricing on all Fed Funds futures contracts, click here.

To analyze the predictive power of Fed Funds futures, we compared the Fed Funds rate in certain months to what was implied by the futures contract for that month six months earlier. The following example helps clarify this concept. The Fed Funds rate averaged 2.39% in May. Six months ago, the May 2019 Fed Funds future contract traded at 2.50%. Therefore, six months ago, the market overestimated the Fed Funds rate for May 2019 by .11%. As an aside, the difference is likely due to the recent change in the Fed’s IOER rate.

It is important to mention that we were surprised by the conclusions drawn from our long term analysis of Fed Funds futures against the prevailing Fed Funds rate in the future.

The graph below tracks the comparative differentials (Fed Funds vs. Fed Fund futures) using the methodology outlined above. The gray rectangular areas represent periods where the Fed was systematically raising or lowering the Fed funds rate (blue line). The difference between Fed Funds and the futures contracts, colored green or red, calculates how much the market over (green) or under (red) estimated what the Fed Funds rate would ultimately be. In this analysis, the term overestimate means Fed Funds futures thought Fed Funds would be higher than it ultimately was. The term underestimate, means the market expectations were lower than what actually transpired.

To further help you understand the analysis we provide two additional graphs below, covering the most recent periods when the Fed was increasing and decreasing the Fed Funds rate.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Looking at the 2004-2006 rate hike cycle above, we see that the market consistently underestimated (red bars) the pace of Fed Funds rate increases.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

During the 2007-2009 rate cut cycle, the market consistently thought Fed Funds rates would be higher (green bars) than what truly prevailed.

As shown in the graphs above, the market has underestimated the Fed’s intent to raise and lower rates every single time they changed the course of monetary policy meaningfully. The dotted lines highlight that the market has underestimated rate cuts by 1% on average, but at times during the last three rate-cutting cycles, market expectations were short by over 2%. The market has underestimated rate increases by about 35 basis points on average.

Summary

If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.

Heading into the financial crisis, it took the Fed 15 months to go from a 5.25% Fed funds rate to zero. Given their sensitivities today, how much faster might they respond to an economic slowdown or financial market dislocation from the current level of 2.25%?

We remind you that equity valuations are at or near record highs, in many cases surpassing those of the roaring 1920s and butting up against those of the late 1990s. If the Fed needs to cut rates aggressively, it will likely be the result of an economy that is heading into an imminent recession if not already in recession. With the double-digit earnings growth trajectory currently implied by equity valuations, a recession would prove extremely damaging to stock prices.

Treasury yields have fallen sharply recently across the entire curve. If the Fed lowers rates and is more aggressive than anyone believes, the likelihood of much lower rates and generous price appreciation for high-quality bondholders should not be underestimated.

The market has a long history of grossly underestimating, in both directions, what the Fed will do. The implications to stocks and bonds can be meaningful. To the extent one is inclined and so moved to exercise prudence, now seems to be a unique opportunity to have a plan and take action when necessary.

Shelton, The Fed, & The Realization Of A Liquidity Trap

Last week, President Trump nominated Judy Shelton to a board seat on the Federal Reserve. Shelton has been garnering a lot of “buzz” because of her outspoken and alternative stances, including “zero interest rates” and a “gold standard” for the U.S. dollar.

But, Shelton is full of inconsistent and incongruous views on monetary policy. For instance, in 2017 she stated:

“When governments manipulate exchange rates (by changing interest rates) to affect currency markets, they undermine the honest efforts of countries that wish to compete fairly in the global marketplace. Supply and demand are distorted by artificial prices conveyed through contrived exchange rates. Businesses fail as legitimately earned profits become currency losses,”

In short, when the Fed, or any central bank/government, lowers or raises interest rates it directly affects the currency exchange rates between countries and, ultimately, trade.

However, when recently asked on her views about whether the Fed should cut rates to boost economic growth, she said:

“The answer is yes.”

So, the U.S. should lower rates as long as it is beneficial for the U.S., but no one else should be allowed to do so because it is “unfair” to U.S. businesses.

Hypocritical?

This is also the same woman who supports a return to the “gold standard” for the U.S. dollar. With a limited supply of gold and a massive level of global trade based on the U.S. dollar reserve system, the value of the dollar would skyrocket effectively collapsing the entire global trade system. Zero interest rates and “gold back dollar” can not co-exist.

Shelton’s nomination by Trump is not surprising as he has been lobbying the Fed to cut rates in the misguided belief it will support economic growth. Shelton, who has been supportive of Trump’s views, recently stated her support to the WSJ which again shows her ignorance as to the actual workings of the economy.

“Today we are seeing impressive gains in productivity, which more than justify the meaningful wage gains we are likewise seeing—a testimonial to the pro-growth agenda. The Fed’s practice of paying banks to keep money parked at the Fed in deposit accounts instead of going into the economy is unhealthy and distorting; the rate should come down quickly as the practice is phased out.”

Well, this is the point, as we say in Texas, “We call Bulls**t.” 

As shown, the U.S. is currently running at lower levels of GDP, productivity, and wage growth than before the last recession. While this certainly doesn’t confirm Shelton’s analysis, it also doesn’t confirm the conventional wisdom that $33 Trillion in bailouts and liquidity, zero interest rates, and surging stock markets, are conducive to stronger economic growth for all.

However, what the data does confirm is the Fed is caught in a “liquidity trap.” 

The Liquidity Trap

Here is the definition:

“A liquidity trap is a situation described in Keynesian economics in which injections of cash into the private banking system by a central bank fail to lower interest rates and hence fail to stimulate economic growth. A liquidity trap is caused when people hoard cash because they expect an adverse event such as deflation, insufficient aggregate demand, or war. Signature characteristics of a liquidity trap are short-term interest rates that are near zero and fluctuations in the monetary base that fail to translate into fluctuations in general price levels.

Let’s take a moment to analyze that definition by breaking it down into its overriding assumptions.

There is little argument that Central Banks globally are injecting liquidity into the financial system.

However, has the increase in liquidity into the private banking system lowered interest rates?  That answer is also “yes.”  The chart below shows the increase in the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, since they are the “buyer” of bonds, which in turn increases the excess reserve accounts of the major banks, as compared to the 10-year Treasury rate.

Of course, that money didn’t flow into the U.S. economy, it went into financial assets. With the markets having absorbed the current levels of accommodation, it is not surprising to see the markets demanding more, (The chart below compares the deviation between the S&P 500 and the Fed’s balance sheet. That deviation is the highest on record.)

While, in the Fed’s defense, it may be clear the Fed’s monetary interventions have suppressed interest rates, I would argue their liquidity-driven inducements have done much to support durable economic growth. Interest rates have not been falling just since the monetary interventions began – it began four decades ago as the economy began a shift to consumer credit leveraged service society.  The chart below shows the correlation between the decline of GDP, Interest Rates, Savings, and Inflation.

In reality, the ongoing decline in economic activity has been the result of declining productivity, stagnant wage growth, demographic trends, and massive surges in consumer, corporate and, government debt.

For these reasons, it is difficult to attribute much of the decline in interest rates and inflation to monetary policies when the long term trend was clearly intact long before these programs began.

There is also no real evidence excess liquidity and artificially low interest rates have spurred economic activity judging by some of the most common measures – Real GDP, Industrial Production, Employment, and Consumption.

While an argument can be made that the early initial rounds of QE contributed to the bounce in economic activity it is important to also remember several other supports during the latest economic cycle.

  1. Economic growth ALWAYS surges after recessionary weakness. This is due to the pent up demand that was built up during the recession and is unleashed back into the economy when confidence improves.
  2. There were multiple bailouts in 2009 from “cash for houses”, “fast cash loans”, “cash for clunkers”, “cash l” to direct bailouts of the banking system and the economy, etc., which greatly supported the post-recessionary boost.
  3. Several natural disasters from the “Japanese Trifecta” which shut down manufacturing temporarily, to massive hurricanes and wildfires, provided a series of one-time boosts to economic growth just as weakness was appearing.
  4. A massive surge in government spending which directly feeds the economy

The Fed’s interventions from 2010 forward, as the Fed became “the only game in town,” seems to have had little effect other than a massive inflation in asset prices. The evidence suggests the Federal Reserve has been experiencing a diminishing rate of return from their monetary policies.

Lack Of Velocity

Once again, we find Judy Shelton completely clueless as to how monetary policy actually translates into the economy. She recently stated:

“When you have an economy primed to grow because of reduced taxes, less regulation, dynamic energy, and trade reforms, you want to ensure maximum access to capital. The Fed’s practice of paying banks to keep money parked at the Fed in deposit accounts instead of going into the economy is unhealthy and distorting; the rate should come down quickly as the practice is phased out.”

Poor Judy.

There is absolutely no evidence that the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” spurred a dramatic increased in lending over the last decade. Monetary velocity has been clear on this point.

The definition of a “liquidity trap” states that people begin hoarding cash in expectation of deflation, lack of aggregate demand or war. As the “tech bubble” eroded confidence in the financial system, followed by a bust in the credit/housing market, and wages have failed to keep up with the pace of living standards, monetary velocity has collapsed to the lowest levels on record.

The issue of monetary velocity is the key to the definition of a “liquidity trap.”  As stated above:

“The signature characteristic of a liquidity trap are short-term interest rates that are near zero and fluctuations in the monetary base that fail to translate into fluctuations in general price levels.” 

The chart below shows that, in fact, the Fed has actually been trapped for a very long time. The “economic composite” indicator is comprised of 10-year rates, inflation (CPI), wages, and the dollar index. While the BEA measure of GDP ticked up (due to consistent adjustments to calculation) the economic composite has not. More importantly, downturns in the composite lead the BEA measure.

The problem for the Fed has been that for the last three decades every time they have tightened monetary policy it has led to an economic slowdown or worse. More importantly, each rate hike cycle has continued to start at a lower rate level than the previous low, and has stopped at a level lower than the previous low as economic weakness set in.

While, in the short term, it appeared such accommodative policies aided in economic stabilization, it was actually lower interest rates increasing the use of leverage. However, the dark side of the increase in leverage was the erosion of economic growth, and increased deflationary pressures, as dollars were diverted from productive investment into debt service.

No Escape From The Trap

The Federal Reserve is now caught in the same “liquidity trap” that has been the history of Japan for the last three decades. With an aging demographic, which will continue to strain the financial system, increasing levels of indebtedness, and unproductive fiscal policy to combat the issues restraining economic growth, it is unlikely continued monetary interventions will do anything other than simply continuing the boom/bust cycles in financial assets.

The chart below shows the 10-year Japanese Government Bond yield as compared to their quarterly economic growth rates and the BOJ’s balance sheet. Low interest rates, and massive QE programs, have failed to spur sustainable economic activity over the last 20 years. Currently, 2, 5, and 10 year Japanese Government Bonds all have negative real yields.

The reason you know the Fed is caught in a “liquidity trap” is because they are being forced to lower rates due to economic weakness.

It is the only “trick” they know.

Unfortunately, such action will likely have little, or no effect, this time due to the current stage of the economic cycle.

While Judy Shelton may certainly have the President’s ear, her recent statements clearly show inconsistencies and a lack of understanding about how the economy and monetary policies function in the real world.

Of course, as we learned from Jerome Powell, what officials say before they are appointed, and do afterward, tend to be two very different things particularly when they have become “political animals.”

Are Fireworks Coming July 31st?

As a portfolio manager and fiduciary, it is vital that we constantly assess the risks to our market and economic forecasts. To better quantify risk we must frequently go a step further and understand where the markets may be neglecting to appreciate risk. While tricky, those that properly detect when the market is offside tend to either protect themselves and/or profit handsomely. It is with contrarian glasses on that we look beyond July 4th and towards July 31st for fireworks.

Through June the stock and bond markets priced in, with near certainty, a 50 basis point rate cut at the July 31, 2019, Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. In doing so, volatility in many markets could surge if the Fed does not follow the market’s lead.

Given this concern, we ask what might cause the Fed to disappoint the markets. We approach the answer from two angles, economic and political.

Economic

On the economic front, there are a growing number of indicators that point to slowing domestic economic growth. The following graph from Arbor shows seven important leading indicators (surveys and outlooks).

While the graph is concerning, hard economic data which tends to lag the survey data graphed above has yet to weaken to the same degree. If the weakening in the indicators graphed above prove to be a false signal or transitory, the Fed might cut rates less than expected or even delay taking policy actions.

A second reason the Fed might delay or not take action would be an increase in inflation expectations. The Fed has been outspoken about the need to bolster inflation expectations which have recently drifted lower. Given that unemployment is at 50 years lows and inflation close to their target, inflation expectations seems to be the rationale the Fed is using to justify action. If inflation expectations were to increase the Fed may not be able to defend reducing rates. The following events could temporarily increase inflation expectations:

  • Weaker dollar due to perceived easy monetary policy.
  • Iran tensions could push oil prices higher.
  • Excessive weather conditions in the Midwest are affecting consumer prices for certain commodities.
  • Tariffs are likely to increase prices paid by businesses and consumers.
  • Fed independence compromised (as discussed in the following paragraph).

Political

Beyond economics, politics is playing a role in the Fed’s thought process. The Fed was set up as an independent organization to insulate monetary policy from the often self-serving demands of the executive and legislative branches. Despite the Fed’s independence, many Presidents have bullied the Fed to take policy actions. Such tactics always occurred behind closed doors with the media and public having little idea that they were occurring.

Currently, President Trump is taking his criticism to the public airways and has gone as far as threatening to demote or fire Chairman Powell. A Fed Chairman has never been fired or demoted, leading many to question whether Trump has the legal authority to do so. The Federal Reserve Act states that the Chairman shall serve his stated term “unless sooner removed for cause by the President.” That sentence opens the door to much uncertainty under this President. The language is even less vague about demotion, which, in our opinion, is more likely.

If the Fed wants to assert its independence from the executive branch, they may be inclined to cut by 25 basis points or possibly not cut at all.  Anything short of a 50 basis point rate cut would inevitably irritate the President and increase the risk that Trump fires or demotes Powell. If such an unprecedented action were to transpire the markets would likely react violently. For more on how certain asset classes might perform in this scenario, please read our article Market Implications for Removing Fed Chair Powell.

Beyond the initial market responses to the news, a greater problem could arise. The peril of openly piercing the veil of independence at the Fed could impair many of the communication tools the Fed uses to influence policy and markets. In turn, the Fed will be limited in their ability to coax or pacify markets when needed.

While this spat may be brushed off as Beltway politics aired for the public in the Twittersphere and media, the consequences are large, and as such we must pay attention to this political soap opera.

Summary

We believe a 50 basis point cut is likely on July 31st and afterward the markets will renew their focus on the next few months and what that may have in store. However, unlike the vast majority, we believe that there are factors that may cause the Fed to sit on their hands. If the Fed disappoints the market, especially if not accompanied by warnings, the July fireworks this year may be coming 27 days late.

Market Implications For Removing Fed Chair Powell

  • John Kelly – White House Chief of Staff
  • James Mattis – Secretary of Defense
  • Jeff Sessions – Attorney General
  • Rex Tillerson – Secretary of State
  • Gary Cohn – Chief Economic Advisor
  • Steve Bannon – White House Chief Strategist
  • Anthony Scaramucci – White House Communications Director
  • Reince Priebus – White House Chief of Staff
  • Sean Spicer – White House Press Secretary
  • James Comey – FBI Director

Every week is shark week in the Trump White House,” wrote The Hill contributing author Brad Bannon in August of 2018.  A recent Brookings Institution study shows that the turnover in the Trump administration is significantly higher than during any of the previous five presidential administrations. The concern is that for a president without government experience, a rotating cast of top administration officials and advisors presents a unique challenge for the effective advancement of U.S. policies and global leadership. Bannon (no relation to former White House Chief Strategist Steve) adds, “Inexperience breeds incompetence.”

Although the sitting president has broken just about every rule of traditional politics, it is irresponsible and speculative to assume either ineffectiveness or failure by this one argument. One area of politics that falls within our realm of expertise is a “rule” that Donald Trump has not yet broken; firing the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Following the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in which the Fed raised rates and the stock market fell appreciably, Bloomberg News reported that President Trump was again considering relieving the Fed Chairman of his responsibilities. This has been a continuing theme for Trump as his dissatisfaction with the Fed intensifies.

Not that Trump appears concerned about it, but firing a Fed Chairman is unprecedented in the 106-year history of the central bank. Having tethered all perception of success to the movements of the stock market, it is quite apparent why the president is unhappy with Jerome Powell’s leadership. Trump’s posture raises questions about whether he is more worried about his barometer of success (stock prices) or the long-term well-being of the economy. Acquiescing to either Trump or a genuine concern for the economic outlook, Chairman Powell relented in his stance on rate hikes and continuing balance sheet reduction.

Clamoring for Favor

Notwithstanding the abrupt reversal of policy stance at the Fed, President Trump continues to snipe at Powell and express dissatisfaction with what he considers to have been policy mistakes. Before backing out of consideration, Steven Moore’s nomination to the Fed board fits neatly with the points made above reflecting the President’s irritation with the Powell Fed. Moore was harshly critical of Powell and the Fed’s rate hikes despite a multitude of inconsistent remarks. Shortly after his nomination, Moore and the President’s Director at the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, stated that the Fed should immediately cut interest rates by 50 basis point (1/2 of 1%). Those comments came despite rhetoric from various fronts in the administration that the economy “has never been stronger.”

Now the Kudlow and Moore tactics are coming from within the Fed. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard dissented at the June 19th Federal Open Market Committee meeting in favor a rate cut. Then non-voting member and Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari publicly stated that he was an advocate for a 50-basis point rate cut at the same meeting.

All this with unemployment at 3.6% and GDP tracking better than the 10-year average of 2.1%. Given Trump’s stated grievance with Powell, Bullard and Kashkari could easily be viewed as trying to curry favor with the administration. Even if that is not the case, to appear to be so politically inclined is very troubling for an institution and board members that must optically maintain an independent posture. It is unlikely that anyone has influence over Trump in his decision to replace or demote Powell. He will arrive at his conclusion and take action or not. If the first two years of his administration tells us anything, it is that public complaints about his appointed cabinet members precede their ultimate departure. Setting aside his legal authority to remove Powell, which would likely not stand in his way, the implications are what matter and they are serious.

For more on our thoughts on the ability of Trump to fire the Fed Chairman, please read our article Chairman Powell You’re Fired.

Prepare For This Tweet

Given Trump’s track record and his displeasure with Powell, we should prepare in advance for what could come as a surprise Tweet with little warning.

Ignoring legalities, if Trump were to demote or fire Powell, it is safe to assume he has someone in mind as a replacement. That person would certainly be more dovish and less prudent than Powell.

Under circumstances of a voluntary departure, a replacement with a more dovish disposition might be bullish for the stock market. However, the global economy is a complex system and there are many other factors to consider.

The first and largest problem is such a move would immediately erode the perception of Fed independence. Direct action taken to alter that independence would cast doubts on Fed credibility. Other sitting members of the Federal Reserve, appointed board members, and regional bank presidents, would likely take steps to defend the Fed’s independence and credibility which could create a functional disruption in the decision-making apparatus within the FOMC. Further, there might also be an active move by Congress to challenge the President’s decision to remove Powell. Although the language granting Trump the latitude to fire Powell is obtuse (he can be removed for “cause”), it is unclear that Presidential unhappiness affords him supportable justification. That would be an argument for the courts. Financial markets are not going to patiently await that decision.

With that in mind, what follows is an enumeration of possible implications for various key asset classes.

FX Markets

The most serious of market implications begin with the U.S. dollar (USD), the world’s reserve currency through which over 60% of all global trade transactions are invoiced.  The firing of Powell and the likely appointment of a Trump-friendly Chairman would drop the value of the USD on the expectations of a dovish reversal of monetary policy. The question of Fed independence, along with the revival of an easy money policy, would likely cause the dollar to fall dramatically relative to other key currencies. An abrupt move in the dollar would be highly disruptive on a global scale, as other countries would take action to stem the relative strength of their currencies versus the dollar and prevent weaker economic growth effects. The term “currency war” has been overused in the media, but in this case, it is the proper term for what would likely transpire.

Additionally, the weaker dollar and new policy outlook would heighten concerns about inflation. With the economy at or near full employment and most regions of the country already exhibiting signs of wage pressures, inflation expectations could spike higher.

Fixed Income

The bond market would be directly impacted by Fed turbulence. A new policy outlook and inflation concerns would probably cause the U.S. Treasury yield curve to steepen with 2-year Treasuries rallying on FOMC policy change expectations and 10-year and 30-year Treasury bond yields rising in response to inflation concerns. It is impossible to guess the magnitude of such a move, but it would probably be sudden and dramatic.

Indecision and volatility in the Treasury markets are likely to be accompanied by widening spreads in other fixed income asset classes.

Commodities

In the commodities complex, gold and silver should be expected to rally sharply.  While not as definitive, other commodities would probably also do well in response to easier Fed policy. A lack of confidence in the Fed and the President’s actions could easily result in economic weakness, which would lessen demand for many industrial commodities and offset the benefits of Fed policy changes.

Stock Market

The stock market response is best broken down into two phases. The initial reaction might be an extreme move higher, possibly a move of 8-10% or more in just a few days or possibly hours. However, the ensuing turmoil from around the globe and the potential for dysfunction within the Fed and Congress could cause doubt to quickly seep into the equity markets. Two things we know about equity markets is that they do not like changes in inflation expectations and they do not like uncertainty.

Economy

Another aspect regarding such an unprecedented action would be the economic effects of the firing of Jerome Powell. Economic conditions are a reflection of millions of households and businesses that make saving, investing, and consumption decisions on a day-to-day basis. Those decisions are dependent on having some certitude about the future.

If the disruptions were to play out as described, consumers and businesses would have reduced visibility into the future path for the economy. Questions about the global response, inflation, interest rates, stock, and commodity prices would dominate the landscape and hamstring decision-making. As a result, the volatility of everything would rise and probably in ways not observed since the financial crisis. Ultimately, we would expect economic growth to falter in that environment and for a recession to ensue.

Summary

Although economic growth has been sound and stocks are once again making record highs, the market and economic disruptions we have recently seen have been a long time coming. Market valuations across most asset classes have been engineered by excessive and imprudent monetary policy. The recent growth impulse is artificially high due to unprecedented expansion of government debt in a time of sound economic growth and low unemployment. In concert, excessive fiscal and monetary policy leave the markets and the economy vulnerable.

The evidence this year has been clear. Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s role in constructing this false reality, President Trump has not served the national interest well by his public criticism of the Fed. If Trump were to remove Powell as Fed chair, the prior sentence would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Investors Are Grossly Underestimating The Fed

Currently, the December 2019 Fed Funds futures contract implies that the Fed will reduce the Fed Funds rate by nearly 75 basis points (0.75%) by the end of the year. While 75 basis points may seem aggressive, if the Fed does embark on a rate-cutting policy and history proves reliable, we should prepare ourselves for much more.

The prospect of three 25 basis point rate cuts is hard to grasp given that the unemployment rate is at 50-year lows, economic growth has begun to slow only after a period of above-average growth, and inflation remains near the Fed’s 2% goal.  Interest rate markets are looking ahead and collectively expressing deep concerns based on slowing global growth, trade wars, and diminishing fiscal stimulus that propelled the economy over the past two years. Meanwhile, credit spreads and stock market prices imply a recession is not in the cards.

To make sense of the implications stemming from the Fed Funds futures market, it is helpful to assess how well the Fed Funds futures market has predicted Fed Funds rates historically. With this analysis, we can hopefully avoid getting caught flat-footed if the Fed not only lowers rates but lowers them more aggressively than the market implies.

Fed Funds vs. Fed Funds Futures

Before moving ahead, let’s define Fed Funds futures. The futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), reflect the daily average Fed Funds interest rate that traders, speculator, and hedgers think will occur for specific one calendar month periods in the future. For instance, the August 2019 contract, trades at 2.03%, implying the market’s belief that the Fed Funds rate will be .37% lower than the current 2.40 % Fed Funds rate. For pricing on all Fed Funds futures contracts, click here.

To analyze the predictive power of Fed Funds futures, we compared the Fed Funds rate in certain months to what was implied by the futures contract for that month six months earlier. The following example helps clarify this concept. The Fed Funds rate averaged 2.39% in May. Six months ago, the May 2019 Fed Funds future contract traded at 2.50%. Therefore, six months ago, the market overestimated the Fed Funds rate for May 2019 by .11%. As an aside, the difference is likely due to the recent change in the Fed’s IOER rate.

It is important to mention that we were surprised by the conclusions drawn from our long term analysis of Fed Funds futures against the prevailing Fed Funds rate in the future.

The graph below tracks the comparative differentials (Fed Funds vs. Fed Fund futures) using the methodology outlined above. The gray rectangular areas represent periods where the Fed was systematically raising or lowering the Fed funds rate (blue line). The difference between Fed Funds and the futures contracts, colored green or red, calculates how much the market over (green) or under (red) estimated what the Fed Funds rate would ultimately be. In this analysis, the term overestimate means Fed Funds futures thought Fed Funds would be higher than it ultimately was. The term underestimate, means the market expectations were lower than what actually transpired.

To further help you understand the analysis we provide two additional graphs below, covering the most recent periods when the Fed was increasing and decreasing the Fed Funds rate.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Looking at the 2004-2006 rate hike cycle above, we see that the market consistently underestimated (red bars) the pace of Fed Funds rate increases.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

During the 2007-2009 rate cut cycle, the market consistently thought Fed Funds rates would be higher (green bars) than what truly prevailed.

As shown in the graphs above, the market has underestimated the Fed’s intent to raise and lower rates every single time they changed the course of monetary policy meaningfully. The dotted lines highlight that the market has underestimated rate cuts by 1% on average, but at times during the last three rate-cutting cycles, market expectations were short by over 2%. The market has underestimated rate increases by about 35 basis points on average.

Summary

If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.

Heading into the financial crisis, it took the Fed 15 months to go from a 5.25% Fed funds rate to zero. Given their sensitivities today, how much faster might they respond to an economic slowdown or financial market dislocation from the current level of 2.25%?

We remind you that equity valuations are at or near record highs, in many cases surpassing those of the roaring 1920s and butting up against those of the late 1990s. If the Fed needs to cut rates aggressively, it will likely be the result of an economy that is heading into an imminent recession if not already in recession. With the double-digit earnings growth trajectory currently implied by equity valuations, a recession would prove extremely damaging to stock prices.

Treasury yields have fallen sharply recently across the entire curve. If the Fed lowers rates and is more aggressive than anyone believes, the likelihood of much lower rates and generous price appreciation for high-quality bondholders should not be underestimated.

The market has a long history of grossly underestimating, in both directions, what the Fed will do. The implications to stocks and bonds can be meaningful. To the extent one is inclined and so moved to exercise prudence, now seems to be a unique opportunity to have a plan and take action when necessary.

Chairman Powell – You’re Fired (Update)

Since President Trump first discussed firing Jerome Powell, out of a sense of frustration that his Fed Chair pick was not dovish enough, he has regularly expressed his displeasure at Powell’s lack of willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the economy booming beyond its potential. Strong economic growth serves Trump well as it boosts the odds of winning a second term.

This thought of firing the Fed Chair took an interesting turn yesterday when Mario Draghi, Jerome Powell’s counter-part in the ECB, commented that he was open to lowering interest rates and expanding quantitative easing measures if economic growth in the E.U. didn’t start to pick up soon.

This led to the following Trump tweet:

The bottom line is that the ECB will push Trump harder to lean on the Fed to be more aggressive with lower rates and QE. Trump’s urgency for Fed action also increases the odds that Powell could be replaced or demoted, as such a discussion was rumored to have been discussed. Look for fireworks on Trumps Twitter page today if the Fed does not take a dovish tact. We remind you:

“[Powell]’s my pick — and I disagree with him entirely,” Trump said last week in an interview with ABC News.

“Frankly, if we had a different person in the Federal Reserve that wouldn’t have raised interest rates so much we would have been at least a point and a half higher.”

The following article was published last October and is even more relevant today. If Powell becomes an impediment to aggressive Federal Reserve policy and therefore hurts Trump’s chances of winning in 2020, we might just see Chairman Powell get fired or demoted. Is that possible?


On Donald Trump’s hit TV show, The Apprentice, contestants competed to be Trump’s chief apprentice. Predictably, each show ended when the field of contestants was narrowed down by the firing of a would-be apprentice. While the show was pure entertainment, we suspect Trump’s management style was on full display. Trump has run private organizations his entire career. Within these organizations, he had a tremendous amount of unilateral control. Unlike what is required in the role of President or that of a corporate executive for a public company, Trump largely did what he wanted to do.

On numerous occasions, Trump has claimed the stock market is his “mark-to-market.” In other words, the market is the barometer of his job performance. We think this is a ludicrous comment and one that the President will likely regret. He has made this comment on repeated occasions, leading us to conclude that, whether he believes it or not, he has tethered himself to the market as a gauge of performance in the mind of the public. We have little doubt that the President will do everything in his power to ensure the market does not make him look bad.

Warning Shots Across the Bow

On June 29, 2018, Trump’s Economic Advisor Lawrence Kudlow delivered a warning to Chairman Powell saying he hoped that the Federal Reserve (Fed) would raise interest rates “very slowly.”

Almost a month later we learned that Kudlow was not just speaking for himself but likely on behalf of his boss, Donald Trump. During an interview with CNBC, on July 20, 2018, the President expanded on Kudlow’s comments voicing concern with the Fed hiking interest rates. Trump told CNBC’s Joe Kernen that he does not approve [of rate hikes], even though he put a “very good man in” at the Fed referring to Chairman Jerome Powell.

“I’m not thrilled,” Trump added. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again. I don’t really — I am not happy about it. But at the same time I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”

“As of this moment, I would not see that this would be a big deal yet but on the other hand it is a danger sign,” he said.

Two months later in August of 2018, Bloomberg ran the following article:

Trump Said to Complain Powell Hasn’t Been Cheap-Money Fed Chair

“President Donald Trump said he expected Jerome Powell to be a cheap-money Fed chairman and lamented to wealthy Republican donors at a Hamptons fundraiser on Friday that his nominee instead raised interest rates, according to three people present.”

On October 10, 2018, following a 3% sell-off in the equity markets, CNBC reported on Donald Trump’s most harsh criticism of the Fed to date.  Trump said, “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They’re so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy.”

Again-“I think the Fed has gone crazy

These comments and others come as the Fed is publicly stating their preference for multiple rate hikes and further balance sheet reduction in the coming 12-24 months. The markets, as discussed in our article Everyone Hears the Fed but Few are Listening, are not priced for the same expectations. This is becoming evident with the pickup in volatility in the stock and bond markets.  There is little doubt that a hawkish tone from Chairman Powell and other governors will increasingly wear on an equity market that is desperately dependent on ultra-low interest rates.

Who can stop the Fed?

We think there is an obstacle that might stand in the Fed’s way of further rate hikes and balance sheet reductions.

Consider a scenario where the stock market drops 20-25% or more, and the Fed continues raising rates and maintaining a hawkish tenor.

We believe this scenario is well within the realm of possibilities. Powell does not appear to be like Yellen, Bernanke or Greenspan with a finger on the trigger ready to support the markets at early signs of disruption. In his most recent press conference on September 26, 2018, Powell mentioned that the Fed would react to the stock market but only if the correction was both “significant” and “lasting.”

The word “significant” suggests he would need to see evidence of such a move causing financial instability. “Lasting” implies Powell’s reaction time to such instability will be much slower than his predecessors. Taken along with his 2013 comments that low rates and large-scale asset purchases (QE) “might drive excessive risk-taking or cause bubbles in financial assets and housing” further seems to support the notion that he would be slow to react.

Implications

President Trump’s ire over Fed policy will likely boil over if the Fed sits on their hands while the President’s popularity “mark-to-market” is deteriorating.

This leads us to a question of utmost importance. Can the President of the United States fire the Chairman of the Fed? If so, what might be the implications?

The answer to the first question is yes. Pedro da Costa of Business Insider wrote on this topic. In his article (link) he shared the following from the Federal Reserve Act (link):

Given that the President can fire the Fed Chairman for “cause” raises the question of implications were such an event to occur.  The Fed was organized as a politically independent entity. Congress designed it this way so that monetary policy would be based on what is best for the economy in the long run and not predicated on the short-term desires of the ruling political party and/or President.

Although a President has never fired a Fed Chairman since its inception in 1913, the Fed’s independence has been called into question numerous times. In the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson is known to have physically pushed Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin around the Oval Office demanding that he ease policy. Martin acquiesced. In the months leading up to the 1972 election, Richard Nixon used a variety of methods including verbal threats and false leaks to the press to influence Arthur Burns toward a more dovish policy stance.

If hawkish Fed policy actions, as proposed above, result in a large market correction and Trump were to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, it is plausible that the all-important veil of Fed independence would be pierced. Although pure conjecture, it does not seem unreasonable to consider what Trump might do in the event of a large and persistent market drawdown. Were he to replace the Fed chair with a more loyal “team player” willing to introduce even more drastic monetary actions than seen over the last ten years, it would certainly add complexity and risk to the economic outlook. The precedent for this was established when President Trump recently nominated former Richmond Fed advisor and economics professor Marvin Goodfriend to fill an open position on the Fed’s Board of Governors. Although Goodfriend has been critical of bond buying programs, “he (Goodfriend) has a radical willingness to embrace deeply negative rates.” –The Financial Times

Such a turn of events might initially be very favorable for equity markets, but would likely raise doubts about market values for many investors and raise serious questions about the integrity of the U.S. dollar. Lowering rates even further leaves the U.S. debt problem unchecked and potentially unleashes inflation, a highly toxic combination. A continuation of overly dovish policy would likely bolster further expansion of debt well beyond the nation’s ability to service it. Additionally, if inflation did move higher in response, bond markets would no doubt eventually respond by driving interest rates higher. The can may be kicked further but the consequences, both current and future, will become ever harsher.

Profiting From A Steepening Yield Curve

What is the yield curve and what does it mean for the economy and the markets?

Over the last few months, the financial media has obsessed on those questions. Given the yield curve’s importance, especially considering the large amount of debt being carried by individuals, corporations, and the government, we do not blame them. In fact, we have given our two cents quite a few times on what a flattening and inversion of various yield curves may be signaling. Taking our analysis a step further, we now look at investment ideas designed to take advantage of expected changes in the yield curve.

An inversion of the 2yr/10yr Treasury yield curve, where yields on 10-year Treasury notes are lower than those of 2-year Notes, has accurately predicted the last five recessions. This makes yield curve signaling significant, especially now. It is important to note that in the five prior instances of yield curve inversions, the recession actually started when, or shortly after, the yield curve started to steepen to a more normal positive slope following the inversion. In our opinion, the steepening, and not the flattening or inversion of the curve, is the recession indicator.  

As discussed in Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You, we believe the 2yr/10yr curve may not invert before the next recession. It may have already troughed at a mere 0.11 basis points on December 19, 2018. If we are correct, the only recession warning investors will get could be the aforementioned curve steepening. Another widely followed curve spread, the yield difference between 3-month Treasury bills and 10-year Treasury notes, recently inverted and troughed at -25 basis points, which makes the likelihood of a near-term recession significant.

The remainder of this article focuses on REITs (real-estate investment trusts). Within this sector lies an opportunity that should benefit if the yield curve steepens, which we noted has occurred after an initial curve inversion and just before the onset of the last five recessions.  

What is an Agency Mortgage REIT?

REITs are companies that own income-producing real estate and/or the debt backing real estate. REITs tend to pay higher than normal dividends as they are legally required to pay out at least 90% of their taxable profits to shareholders annually. Therefore, ownership of REIT common equity requires that investors analyze the underlying assets and liabilities of the REIT to assess the potential flow of income, and thus dividends, in the future.  

The most popular types of REITs are called equity REITs. These REITs own equity in apartments and office buildings, shopping centers, hotels and a host of other property types. There is a smaller class of REITs, known as mortgage REITs (mREITs), which own the debt (mortgages) on real-estate properties. Within this sector is a subset known as Agency mREITs (AmREITs) that predominately own securitized residential mortgages guaranteed against default by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Ginnie Mae and ultimately the U.S. government.

From an investor’s point of view, a key distinguishing characteristic between equity REITs and mREITs is their risk profiles.  The shareholders of equity REITs are chiefly concerned with vacancy rates, rental rates, and property values.  Most mREIT shareholders, on the other hand, worry about credit risk and interest rate risk. Interest risk is the yield spread between borrowing rates and the return on assets. AmREITS that solely own agency guaranteed mortgages assume no credit risk as timely payment of principal and interest is advanced by the security issuer (again either Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Ginnie Mae, all of whom are essentially government guaranteed). Therefore, returns on AmREITs are heavily influenced by interest rate risk. Almost all REITs employ leverage, which enhances returns but adds another layer of risk.

Agency mREITs

Earnings for AmREITs are primarily the product of two sources; the amount of net income (yield on mortgages they hold less the cost of debt and hedging) and the amount of leverage.

A typical AmREIT is funded with equity financing and debt. The capital is used to purchase government-guaranteed mortgages. Debt funding allows them to leverage equity. For example, if a REIT bought $5 of assets with $1 of equity capital and $4 of debt, they would be considered 5x leveraged (5/1). Leverage is one way REITs enhance returns.

The second common way they enhance returns is to run a duration gap. A duration gap means the REIT is borrowing in shorter maturities and investing in long maturities. A 2-year duration gap implies the REIT has an average duration of their liabilities that is two years less than the duration of their assets. To better manage the duration gap and the associated risks, REIT portfolio managers hedge their portfolios. 

The Fed’s Next Move and AmREITs

With that bit of knowledge, now consider the Fed’s quickly changing policy stance, how the yield curve might perform going forward, and the potential impact on REITs.

Recent speeches from various Fed members including Chairman Powell and Vice Chairman Clarida are leading us and most market participants to believe the Fed could lower rates as early as the July 31st FOMC meeting. Most often, yield curves steepen when, or shortly before, the Fed starts lowering rates. While still too early to declare that the yield curve has troughed, it has risen meaningfully from recent lows and is now the steepest it has been since November of 2018.  

If we are correct that the Fed reduces the Fed Funds rate and the yield curve steepens, then AmREITs should benefit as their borrowing costs fall more than the yields of their assets. Further, if convinced of a steepening event, portfolio managers might reduce their hedging activity to further boost income. The book value of AmREITs have a strong positive correlation with the yield curve, and as a result, the book value per share of AmREITs should increase as the curve steepens.

The following two graphs compare the shape of the 2yr/10yr yield curve versus the book value per share for the two largest AmREITs, Annaly Capital Management (NLY) and AGNC Investment Corporation (AGNC). The third and fourth graphs below show the same data in scatter plots to appreciate the correlation better. The current level of book value per share and yield curve is represented by the orange blocks in each scatter plot. Statistically speaking, a one percent steepening of the yield curve should increase the book value per share by approximately $2 for both stocks. Given both stocks have dividend yields in the low double-digits, any book value appreciation that results in price appreciation would make a good return, great.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

While a steepening yield curve will likely create more spread income and thus a higher book value for these REITs, we must also consider the role of leverage and the premium or discount to book value that investors are currently paying.  

  • NLY is employing 8.2x leverage, which is slightly higher than their average of 7.6x since 2010, but less than their 20+ year average of 9.94.
  • AGNC uses more leverage at 10.2x, which is higher than their average of 8.8x since 2010. The REIT was formed in late 2008, therefore we do not have as much data as NLY. 
  • NLY trades at a discounted price to book value of .94, slightly below their historical average
  • AGNC also trades at a discounted level of .92 and below their historical average.

The risks of buying AGNC or NLY are numerous.

  • We may be wrong about the timing of rate cuts and the curve may continue to invert, which would decrease book value. In such a case, we may see the book value decline, and potentially even more damaging, the discount to book value decreases further, harming shareholders.
  • Even if we are right and the yield curve steepens and the REITs asset/liability spreads widen, we run the risk that investors are nervous about real-estate going into recession and REITs trade to deeper discounts to book value and effectively offset any price appreciation due to the increase in book value.
  • Leverage is easy to maintain when markets are liquid; however, as we saw a decade ago, REITs were forced to sell assets and reduce leverage which can also negatively affect earnings and dividends. It is worth noting that NLY had an average of 12.90x leverage in 2007, which is significantly larger than their current 8.20x.

Summary

Despite double-digit dividend yields and the cushion such high dividends provide, buying NLY or AGNC is not a guaranteed home run. The two REITs introduce numerous risks as mentioned.  That said, these firms and other smaller AmREITs, offer investors a way to take advantage of a steepening yield curve while avoiding an earnings slowdown that may hamper many stocks in an economic downturn.

While NLY and AGNC are in the same industry, they use different portfolio tactics to express their views. As such, if you are interested in the sector, we recommend diversifying among these two companies and others to help reduce idiosyncratic portfolio risks. We also recommend investors assess the IShares Mortgage Real ETF (REM). Its two largest holdings, accounting for over 25% of the ETF, are NLY and AGNC.  It is worth noting however, this ETF introduces risks not found in the AmREITs. The ETF holds the shares of mortgage REITs that contain non-guaranteed mortgages as well as mortgages on commercial properties.

Quick Take: The Treasury Bill Yield Curve Says A Recession Is Imminent

We have discussed yield curves in quite a few commentaries and articles over the last few months. The reason we stress the topic is that yield curve inversions are not only uncommon, but their occurrence is highly correlated with recessions.

Typically, when people use the phrase “the yield curve,” they are referring to the 10 year/2 year Treasury curve spread. While that curve is important, there are other curves that are predictive of future Fed rate policy as well as the prospects of a coming recession.

For example, the graph below shows the 6month/3month Treasury bill curve. Because the maturities making up this curve are so short, its usefulness is in providing an outlook for what the Fed might do and how soon they might do it.

As shown above, the 6m/3m curve now sits at negative 13 basis points, meaning 6 month T-bills now yield .13% less than 3 month T-bills. The 3 month bill is currently priced at a yield of 2.26 which is about 14 basis points below where it traded earlier this year prior to when the market thought the Fed would ease in 2019.  

Given the yield decline, the timing of the Fed’s meetings, and the term to maturity, the current 3 month bill implies nearly a 100% chance that the Fed will reduce rates by 25 basis points at the July 31st meeting. The yield on the 6 month bill implies the same rate cut plus a 50% chance of another rate cut at the September 18th meeting which is the next meeting after the July 31st meeting.

Essentially the graph highlights that the last two recessions occurred shortly before or after the T-bill market implied a greater than 50% chance of consecutive rate cuts by the Fed, as it is now.

The bond markets for the moment are signaling that a recession is imminent as the chances of Fed rate cuts becomes more likely by the day. At the same time, the stock market appears to think that easier Fed policy will protect the value of the stock market. Based on historical precedence and current valuations in stocks and bonds, we would argue they cannot both be right.

Six of the last seven times the Fed has lowered rates a recession followed. August of 1998, the one instance it did not occur, was Fed action to minimize the effect of the failure of Long Term Capital Management, one of the world’s largest hedge funds at the time. It is worth noting, their actions, along with Y2K spending, likely forestalled the recession which followed two years later. 

The table below shows the previous seven times the Fed reduced rates by 75 basis points or more and the maximum drawdowns that occurred in the S&P 500 over various time frames.  Needless to say, heed the message of the bond market and trade with care.

Fixed Income Review – April 2019

The positive trends of the first quarter extended into April with broad-based total return gains across nearly every major fixed-income category. Only the safest corners of the bond markets posted negative returns last month, albeit those losses were quite minor in contrast with the positive returns since the end of 2018.

Returns in April, across the spectrum of indices, were not as impressive as those seen in the first three months of the year. No one expected those types of moves nor would anyone, having enjoyed them, expect them indefinitely. The performance for the rest of the year no doubt depends more on coupon than price appreciation as spreads are tight and headwinds, especially in credit-sensitive sectors, are becoming more obvious as we will discuss below.

As mentioned, the only two modest losers in April were Treasuries and securitized products (mortgages, asset-backeds, and commercial mortgages). Otherwise, the high yield sector again won the day head and shoulders above investment grade corporates, the next closest performer. According to the heat map below, like last month, all sectors are green across all longer time frames adding emphasis to the impressive rally seen since Christmas.

We would not speculate on the likelihood of this trend continuing, as odds favor a weaker performance trajectory. That does not mean poor performance, but risks rise with prices and spreads perched at historically tight levels.

The charts below illustrate the option-adjusted spreads (OAS) for the major categories in the corporate universe. They have all tightened dramatically since the end of the year. If we are correct that the spread tightening is largely done, then the preference would be to play for safety, and some interest carry for the next few months. In doing so, one may miss another unexpected move tighter in very risky high yield bond spreads; however, given current spread levels, one may also avoid increased odds of poor performance and possible losses.

Understanding that compounding wealth depends on avoiding large, damaging, emotional losses we would prefer to accept the risk of lower returns with high-grade securities while reducing our exposure to the riskier, more volatile sectors.

Although cheapening more dramatically than the Investment Grade (IG) sector in the fourth quarter, High Yield (junk) bonds recaptured much of that in the first four months of this year and in doing so returns junk bonds to (more than) full-value status.

The same can also be said for the lower credit sectors within the IG population. A long-term perspective offers proper context for where valuations are today relative to the past 25 years. The risk is clearly skewed to wider credit spreads and cheaper valuations (losses).

The Trend Continues

The recent tightening of spreads offers little new to discuss other than some deceleration of price and spread action. Importantly, and as recent articles have emphasized, this is a very late stage cycle rally. Risks are rising that corporate margin headwinds, slowing global economic activity, and a high bar for rate cuts given the optical strength of the economy limit the scope for price and spread gains in credit.

Overweighting lower rated credit sectors of the fixed income market is currently akin to the well-known phrase “picking nickels up in front of a steam roller.”

All Data Courtesy Barclays

Fixed Income Review – March 2019

The first quarter of 2019 offered one of the most powerful surges in risky asset valuations seen in history. Closing at 2506 on December 31, 2018, the S&P 500 proceeded to rise 328 points (14.37%) to 2834 in the first quarter. The near vertical leap skyward corresponds directly to the abrupt change in posture from the Federal Reserve (Fed) as they eliminated all threats of rate hikes in 2019. They took the further step of announcing a schedule to halt quantitative tightening (QT).

As might be expected, high yield credit was the best performing sector for the quarter with a total return of 7.26%. Somewhat counter-intuitively, U.S. Treasuries (+2.11%) also rallied for the quarter although they lagged all other major fixed-income sectors as shown in the table below.

For March, risk markets stalled slightly after the big run in the prior two months. Although posting returns of nearly 1%, high yield was the worst performer while investment grade was the best.

The contrast in performance between high-quality and low-quality bonds may be telling. In what could be a related issue, interest rate volatility in the U.S. Treasury market as measured by the MOVE Index spiked higher mid-month and had implications for the credit markets.

As shown in the tables below, only the BBB spread tightened slightly with all others widening by 1-3 basis points. Putting it together, despite solid total returns for the month, the spread widening tells us that corporate credit did not keep pace with falling Treasury yields in March, particularly at the end of the month.

From a macro perspective, the changes in Treasury yields and the yield curve raise broad concerns. Namely, are we nearing the end of the current expansion? As discussed in far more detail in our prior article, Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You, the yield curve has a durable track record of signaling major changes in the economic cycle especially when it inverts (longer-term interest rates drop below short-term rates). When an inverted curve is considered with the end of a Fed rate hike cycle, the evidence becomes even more compelling. The Fed abruptly altered their outlook for monetary policy in March putting to rest any concern for further hikes. The market is now pricing for 1 or 2 rate cuts in 2019.

The last time we observed this combination of circumstances, an inverted curve and a market implying fed funds rate cuts, was ominously in late 2006. In October of last year, when the yield curve spread was decidedly positive, most economists including National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow pointed to this barometer and said we were nowhere near recession. The current market narrative now claims we should not pay too much attention to this important historical precedent. As opposed to trying to shape the narrative to suit our interests, we prefer instead to heed history. The odds are that this time is not different.

Time will tell.

All data sourced from Bloomberg and Barclays

Jerome Powell on 60 Minutes: Fact Check

On Sunday, March 11, 2019, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell was interviewed by Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes. We thought it would be helpful to cite a few sections of their conversation and provide you with prior articles in which we addressed the topics discussed.

We have been outspoken about the role of the Fed, their mission and policy actions over the last ten years. We are quick to point out flaws in Fed policy for a couple of reasons. First, is simply due to the enormous effect that Fed policy actions and words have on the markets. Second, many in the media seem to regurgitate the Fed’s actions and words without providing much context or critique of them. The combination of the Fed’s power over the market coupled with poor media analysis of their words and actions might expose investors to improper conclusions and therefore sub-optimal investment decision-making.

With that, we review various parts of the 60 Minutes interview and offer links to prior articles to help provide alternative views and insight as well as a more thorough context of Chairman Powell’s answers.  

Click the following links for the interview TRANSCRIPT and VIDEO.

Can the Fed Chairman be fired?

PELLEY: Do you listen to the president?

POWELL: I don’t comment on the president or any elected official.

PELLEY: Can the president fire you?

POWELL: Well, the law is clear that I have a four-year term. And I fully intend to serve it.

PELLEY: So no, in your view?

POWELL: No.

Our Take: Yes, the Federal Reserve Act which governs the Fed makes it clear that he can be fired “for cause.”- Chairman Powell You’re Fired

Does the Fed play a role in driving the growing income and wealth inequality gaps?

PELLEY: According to federal statistics, the upper half of the American people take home 90% of income, leaving about 10% for the lower half of Americans. Where are we headed in this country in terms of income disparity?

POWELL: Well, the Fed doesn’t have direct responsibility for these issues. But nonetheless, they’re important.

Our Take:  Inflation hurts the poor and benefits of the wealthy. The Fed has an inflation target and therefore takes direct policy action that fuels the wealth divide. – Two Percent for the One Percent

Will Chairman Powell know when a recession is upon us?

PELLEY: This is the longest expansion in American history. How long can it last?

POWELL: It will be the longest in a few months if it continues. I would just say there’s no reason why it can’t continue.

PELLEY: For years?

Our Take: In January of 2008 Chairman Bernanke said a recession was not in the cards. It turns out the official recession started a month earlier.– Recession Risks Are Likely Higher Than You Think

How healthy is the labor market?

POWELL: So, the U.S. economy right now is in a pretty good place. Unemployment is at a 50-year low.

Our Take: We continually hear about the strength of the labor market. While that may seem to be the case, wages and the labor participation rate paint a different picture. – Quick Take: Unemployment Anomaly (RIA Pro – Unlocked)

Do record high stock valuations represent healthy financial conditions?

PELLEY: We have seen big swings in the stock markets in the United States. And I wonder, do you think the markets today are overvalued?

POWELL: We don’t comment on the valuation of the stock market particularly. And we do though, we monitor financial conditions carefully. Our interest rate policy works through financial conditions. So we look at a very broad range of financial conditions. That includes interest rates, the level of the dollar, the availability of credit and also the stock market. So we look at a range of things. And I think we feel that conditions are generally healthy today.

Our Take: We beg to differ with over 100 years of history on our side. – Allocating on Blind Faith (RIA Pro – Unlocked)

Is the Fed Chairman aware of the burden of debt and its economic consequences?

PELLEY: But the overarching question is are we headed to a recession?

POWELL: The outlook for our economy, in my view, is a favorable one. It’s a positive one. I think growth this year will be slower than last year. Last year was the highest growth that we’ve experienced since the financial crisis, really in more than ten years. This year, I expect that growth will continue to be positive and continue to be at a healthy rate.

Our Take: The record amount of debt on an absolute basis and relative to economic activity is a burden on the economy. Expectations should be greatly tempered. – The Economic Consequences of Debt and Economic Theories – Debt Driven Realities

Does Chairman Powell bow at the altar of the President and Congress?

On December 17 & 18 of 2019 President Trump tweeted the following: 

“It is incredible that with a very strong dollar and virtually no inflation, the outside world blowing up around us, Paris is burning and China way down, the Fed is even considering yet another interest rate hike. Take the Victory!”

I hope the people over at the Fed will read today’s Wall Street Journal Editorial before they make yet another mistake. Also, don’t let the market become any more illiquid than it already is. Stop with the 50 B’s. Feel the market, don’t just go by meaningless numbers. Good luck!”

PELLEY: Your Fed is apolitical?

POWELL: Strictly non-political.

Considering the Fed made an abrupt U-Turn of policy following the Tweets above, a sharp market decline and very little change in the data to justify it, we think otherwise. – The Fed Doesn’t Target The Market

Summary

The Fed has a long history of talking out of both sides of their mouths. They make a habit of avoiding candor about policy uncertainties in what appears to be an effort to retain credibility and give an appearance of confidence. The Fed’s defense of their extraordinary actions over the past ten years and reluctance to normalize policy is awkward, to say the least and certainly not confidence inspiring. As evidenced by his responses to Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes, Jerome Powell is picking up where Bernanke and Yellen left off.

This article aims to contrast the inconsistencies of the most current words of the Fed Chairman with truths and reality. Thinking for oneself and taking nothing for granted remains the most powerful way to protect and compound wealth and avoid large losses.

How Inflation Drives Interest Rates

 

The Bond Rally Was No Surprise, published December 13, 2018, described how the long-term economic and demographic trends along with the burden of excessive debt all but ensure that interest rates will not rise much further.

While there is little room left for interest rates to fall in the current environment, there is no ability for rates to rise before you push the economy back into recession. Of course, you don’t have to look much further than Japan for a clear example of what I mean.”

This sad dynamic reminds us of the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. Higher rates are a drain on the economy which stymies growth, lessening demand to borrow, and as a result, rising interest rates get hammered back down.

In addition to the level of economic growth and activity, the rate of inflation is also a key determinant of demand for money and therefore plays a large role in influencing the level of interest rates.

The Value of Money

Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate, once famously stated: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

In The Fed’s Mandate To Pick Your Pocket we provide an example of what Milton Friedman is conveying.

To better appreciate this thought, let’s use a simple example of three people stranded on a deserted island. One person has two bottles of water, and she is willing to sell one of the bottles to the highest bidder. Of the two desperate bidders, one finds a lonely one-dollar bill in his pocket and is the highest bidder. But just before the transaction is completed, the other person finds a twenty-dollar bill buried in his backpack. Suddenly, the bottle of water that was about to sell for one-dollar now sells for twenty dollars. Nothing about the bottle of water changed. What changed was the money available among the people on the island.

As we discussed in What Turkey Can Teach Us About Gold, most people think inflation is caused by rising prices, but rising prices are only a symptom of inflation. As the deserted island example illustrates, inflation is caused by too much money sloshing around the economy in relation to goods and services. What we experience is goods and services going up in price, but inflation is actually the value of our money going down.

The last sentence bears repeating as it is the truest understanding of inflation. Inflation is not the price of things going up but the value of money going down.

Before we explain how the price (interest rates) and value of money are affected by inflation, the graphs below put the relationship between interest rates and inflation in a statistical context.

The first graph compares CPI and the two-year U.S. Treasury yield. The difference shaded gray, is what is known as the real rate, or the yield after inflation.  The second graph plots the same data in a scatter plot format. As shown the R-squared is .5708, which denotes that 57% of the change in the two-year U.S. Treasury is attributed to changes in the CPI.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Supply and Demand for Money

A high rate of inflation is beneficial to those with fixed-rate debt. In such a scenario the value of assets rises while the cost of the debt stays the same. To put this in personal terms, think about how the value of your house tends to rise while the amount of the mortgage payment stays fixed. The ability to pay off the mortgage and take capital gains becomes easier due to inflation At the same time, that environment is detrimental for prudent savers who choose to live within their means and do not incur debt. Their value of their savings deteriorates as the value of the dollar declines.

A deflationary environment has the opposite effect as the burden of debt rises relative to stagnant or falling prices. Those conditions are unfavorable for borrowers (households, corporations, and the government) especially when debt is not used for productive purposes which aim for investment returns greater than the inflation rate. Because most outstanding debt is not productive today, sinister perceptions of deflationary conditions are peddled by the Fed and the government.

Given the effects mentioned above of inflation or deflation on the borrower, the demand for money rises when the current and expected rate of inflation is greater than the cost of money or interest rates. Conversely, demand declines when the level of interest rates is greater than the current and expected rate of inflation. This is due to the expectations of borrowers. Holding interest rates below the rate of inflation pulls demand forward which helps explain the inclination of central bankers and the government in a world that desires “growth at all cost”.

To help with this concept, we show basic supply and demand curves below. The first graph shows a hypothetical scenario in which the level of interest rates and the rate of inflation are in equilibrium.  The second graph shows the same curves, along with the shift in the demand curve when the rate of inflation is lower than interest rates. As shown by the yellow equilibrium points, the price of money, or interest rate, declines in this scenario. The third graph highlights the opposite effect when the rate of inflation is greater than interest rates.

The Federal Reserve aims to maintain steady economic growth. It accomplishes this by manipulating the supply of money via their Fed Funds interest rate policy (monetary policy). Since the financial crisis, they have used monetary policy to push interest rates lower than economic growth rates and inflation to stimulate borrowing. This can be seen in the negative real rate as shown in the first graph.

As we showed in the last supply/demand graph above when interest rates are below the level of inflation and expected inflation, demand for borrowing rises. This pulls demand forward and encourages the consumption of goods and services today which temporarily boosts economic growth.

Summary

Habitually using the Fed Funds rate to spur current levels of economic growth causes debt to grow faster than the natural economic growth rate of the economy. The risk is that debt growth eventually eclipses the pace of economic growth. That is precisely the current circumstance in the United States. As such, the marginal effectiveness of new debt in spurring economic growth declines as the burden of servicing that debt rises. To foster similar levels of growth in such an environment requires that the Fed be ever more aggressive in lowering interest rates. As we see in the U.S. economy, weaker growth resulting from rising levels of debt is self-reinforcing.

Thus far the Fed’s actions have not caused observable levels of inflation to rise in a manner that would cause concern among policy-makers. Traditional measures of price inflation such as the consumer price index (CPI) remain benign. However, the manifestation of their control over the price of money is showing up other ways. For instance, inflation in financial asset prices, as opposed to real assets, has never been higher. The visual evidence shows up in a chart of the ratio of stock prices to crude oil, copper, cotton or a dozen other “real assets.” Those with access to leverageable capital choose to speculate in stocks and bonds as opposed to investing in productive projects that would help the economy grow. Not surprisingly, when speculation appears to produce easy and predictable returns, the incentive to invest in productive ventures is weak. As such the current dynamic will likely continue to produce low levels of traditional inflation and allow the Fed to rationalize artificially low-interest rates.

If, however, the economy slips into a recession and low, or even negative, interest rates are not enough to generate growth, the Fed may take even more extreme measures to combat the downturn. In what would be yet another advancement of extraordinary monetary policy, the Fed may elect to print money for direct distribution into the economy. Although the effect may be temporarily beneficial for a struggling economy, such a move would be more likely to eventually cause inflation over which the Fed could easily lose control.

In that instance, we will be fortunate if a bottle of water only costs $20.

Preview: Federal Reserve Meeting 12/19/2018

In our article, Everyone Hears the Fed But Few Listen we showed the divergence between the market (Fed Funds Futures) and Federal Reserve members in regards to the future path of the Fed Funds rate. We believed at the time we wrote the article, and still do, that the differing views could be setting the stock market up for extreme volatility. This opinion does not necessarily mean an extreme sell-off but the potential for large movements up or down.

In July, when the article was published and Fed Funds stood at 2.00%, market levels implied that Fed Funds would average 2.50% in 2019 and 2.625% in 2020. In September, with the stock market on firm footing, approaching record highs, and the economy humming along, the market’s estimates rose by 0.125% for both years. At that time, the market implied levels were 0.32% and 0.44% lower than current average forecasts from the members of the Federal Reserve. Said differently, the market thought the Fed would raise rates twice in quarter point increments while the Fed was leaning to between three and four more hikes.

On September 20, 2018, the stock market peaked and has since declined over 10%. Further, global economic growth has weakened measurably with Germany, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland all reporting a negative rate of economic growth in the last quarter. Possibly more important, China, has reported a sharp slowdown in economic activity. While the U.S. economy has only shown vague signs of economic weakness, the number of economists issuing growth warnings has increased.

The clouding of the economic skies along with trade concerns and a host of geopolitical issues has certainly affected the market’s Fed Funds expectations. Before the Fed meeting on Wednesday December 19, 2018, the market is expecting a 0.25% increase and a tiny chance of another 0.25% hike by summer of next year. In other words, over the last two months, the market has taken a 0.25% hike off the table. More interesting, the market is also implying that the Fed starts lowering rates in 2020. The graph below charts the changes in the Fed Funds implied curve today versus September 2018. The orange dot on the orange line shows when the market implied levels begin declining and Fed rate cuts become more probable.

Given the decline in the market-based implied Fed Funds rate, the difference between market opinion and the Fed’s forecast has widened to 0.43% in 2019 and 0.76% in 2020. When we wrote the article in July the gap between the market and the Fed members was concerning. Our concern is only heightened given the stark increase in the gap.

What to Expect

If the Fed does not change their hawkish tone at Wednesday’s meeting it is likely the stock market will continue to head lower and possibly in a disorderly fashion. The yield curve would likely continue to flatten in this scenario as the Fed continues to signal rising rates despite growing signs of economic weakness. Therefore, short-term interest rates would track Fed rate hikes higher while longer term interest rates would decline on recession concerns.

Alternatively, if the Fed relents and uses more dovish language, short-term interest rates may rally as they reverse out prior expected rate hikes. While we do not expect a surge in equity prices to new highs, we do think, given the oversold conditions, stocks could rally on the order of 3-5%. As we have said, such a scenario is likely an opportunity to reduce equity exposure. Our chief concern in this short-term bullish situation is that the market begins to worry about the sudden change in the Fed’s language and the rising implications for a recession.

What Caused Chairman Powell To Flinch

Clues from the Fed II, an RIA Pro article from November 28, 2018, provided important insight into one of Jerome Powell’s most important speeches as the Federal Reserve Chairman. We share the article to provide context to this article as well as to demonstrate the benefits of subscribing to RIA Pro.

Since the latter stages of Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s term and including the beginning of Powell’s term, the Fed has been on monetary policy autopilot. As a result of policy actions taken following the financial crisis, the fed funds rate was so far below the rate of inflation and economic growth that they felt comfortable raising rates on a steady basis without much regard for economic, inflationary and financial market dynamics. In Fed parlance, they were not “data dependent.”

Based on Powell’s most recent speech and policy trial balloons floated in the media, the fed funds rate is now much closer to the expected rate of economic growth, therefore it is much closer to what is known as the neutral fed funds rate. As a result, future Fed rate moves are expected to be increasingly influenced by incoming economic data. If true, this change in monetary policy posture is one to which the market is far less accustomed.

Powell’s Abrupt Change

On October 3, 2018, Jerome Powell stated the following: “We may go past neutral. But we’re a long way from neutral at this point, probably”

On November 28, 2018, he said: “Funds rate is just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy.”

In less than two months, the Fed Chairman’s perspective about the proximity of the fed funds rate to neutral shifted from a “long way” to “just below.” Clearly, something in Mr. Powell’s assessment shifted radically. We have some thoughts about what it might be, but we decided to canvas the opinions of others first.

We created a Twitter poll to gauge our follower’s thoughts on Powell’s pivot, which came despite very little evidence that economic conditions have meaningfully changed in the interim.

The poll results from over 1,400 respondents are telling. Accordingly, we provide a brief discussion of the respective implications for monetary policy and the stock market.

“Trump persuaded Powell”

President Donald Trump, a self-described “low-interest rate guy”, has been openly displeased with Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve for raising rates. To wit:

  • CNBC 11/27/2018– Trump told the Post, “So far, I’m not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay,” whom he appointed earlier this year. The president told the newspaper that he thinks the U.S. central bank is “way off-base with what they’re doing.” — “I’m doing deals and I’m not being accommodated by the Fed,” Trump told the Post. “They’re making a mistake because I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
  • WSJ 10/23/2018– “Every time we do something great, he raises the interest rates,” Mr. Trump said, adding that Mr. Powell “almost looks like he’s happy raising interest rates.” The president declined to elaborate, and a spokeswoman for the Fed declined to comment. — Asked an open-ended question about what he viewed as the biggest risks to the economy, Mr. Trump gave a single answer: the Fed.
  • NBC 10/16/2018– “I’m not happy with what he’s doing because it’s going too fast,” Trump said of Powell. “You look at the last inflation numbers, they’re very low.”
  • AP News 10/16/2018 – Stepping up his attacks on the Federal Reserve, President Donald Trump declared Tuesday that the Fed is “my biggest threat” because he thinks it’s raising interest rates too quickly.– Last week, in a series of comments, Trump called the Fed “out of control,”

The Fed is under increasing pressure from the White House to halt interest rate hikes. While we like to think Fed independence means something and the President’s pressure is therefore futile, there is a long history of Presidents taking explicit steps to influence the Fed and alter their actions.

29% of poll respondents believe that Trump’s comments made in the open, and those we are not privy to, are the cause for Powell’s change in tone. If this is the case, it likely means that Powell will shift towards a more dovish monetary policy going forward. This would entail fewer rate hikes and a reduced pace of Fed balance sheet normalization. Since the financial crisis, the precise combination of low interest rates and expanded balance sheet (QE) has proven extremely beneficial for stocks. Looking forward, excessive monetary policy amid a smoothly running economy is a recipe for inflation or other excesses which would not bode well for stocks.

We think this scenario is short-term bullish, but it could easily be diminished by higher interest rates or growing inflationary pressures.

Before moving on, it is important to note that Trump’s remarks above (and many other of his comments) are a first of their kind. This isn’t, because other Presidents haven’t said similar things but because Trump’s comments are in the public for all to see.

Economy Slowing Quickly

Votes that a quickly slowing economy produced Powell’s shift represented 42% of all responses. If correct, this is the worst case scenario for the stock market. Global economic growth is already decelerating as witnessed by the declining GDP growth posted by Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan and Switzerland in the most recent quarter. Further, China, the main engine for global economic growth since the financial crisis, is sputtering.

In addition to the global forces affecting the economy, the growth benefits seen over the last year from a massive surge in fiscal spending and corporate tax cuts are waning. Lastly, higher interest rates are indeed taking their toll on our debt-burdened economy.

It goes without saying that stocks tend to do very poorly during recessions, regardless of whether the Fed is dovish and lowering rates. During the past two recessions, the S&P 500 dropped over 50% despite aggressive interest rate cuts.

We think this scenario is decidedly bearish.

Stock market woke him up

The “Greenspan Put” is a phrase that was used to describe Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s preemptive policy moves to save the stock market when it was headed lower. While Greenspan’s name is on the term, it goes back even further. Following the crash of 1929, for instance, the Fed made enormous efforts to halt stock market declines to no avail. In recent years, the Greenspan Put has taken on more significance as Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen followed in his footsteps and spoken repeatedly about a beneficial wealth effect caused by higher share prices.

In the past, Powell has expressed reservations about the policy measures taken by his predecessors and has openly worried about the risk of high stock valuations and other potential imbalances. He has generally demonstrated less concern for protecting the stock market. With the market falling and the proverbial rubber hitting the road, we are about to find out if a 10% decline from record highs is enough to scare Powell into a dovish stance. If so the Greenspan, Bernanke, Yellen, Powell put is alive and well.

As previously mentioned, there have been several occasions in years past when the market suffered steep declines despite the presence of the Fed Put.

We think this scenario is bullish on the margin, but it may not be enough to save the market.

Summary

As judged by the voting, the most likely explanation accounting for Powell’s sudden and aggressive change in tone involves some combination of all three factors. Like most central bankers, he probably believes that he can engineer a “soft landing.” In other words, he can allow the current global and domestic economic pressures to reduce economic growth without causing a recession.

While such a plan sounds ideal, the ability to execute a soft landing has eluded central bankers for decades. Some will say the Fed, by delaying plans for rate hikes and reducing their balance sheet, avoided a hard landing in 2015 and 2016. They may have, but since then global economic and political instabilities have risen markedly. This makes a repeat execution of a soft landing much more difficult. A second concern is that the Fed, with rates still historically very low, does not have enough fire power to engineer a soft landing.

We will continue to pay close attention to the Fed for their reaction to what increasingly looks like a changing economic environment. We also leave you with a reminder that, while the Fed is powerful in igniting or extinguishing economic activity, they are simply one of many factors and quite often throughout their 105-year history they have fallen well short of their goals.

The market is a highly complex global system influenced more by the unseen than by the obvious. Jay Powell, like most of his predecessors who thought they could control market outcomes, apparently suffers from this same critical handicap. Of all the moral hazards the Fed sponsors, their hubris is certainly the most destructive. The stability of the last ten years and the shared perception of Fed control will lead many to forget the sheer panic that occurred only a decade ago.

Chairman Powell – You’re Fired

I’m a low interest rate person – Donald Trump 2016

On Donald Trump’s hit TV show, The Apprentice, contestants competed to be Trump’s chief apprentice. Predictably, each show ended when the field of contestants was narrowed down by the firing of a would-be apprentice. While the show was pure entertainment, we suspect Trump’s management style was on full display. Trump has run private organizations his entire career. Within these organizations, he had a tremendous amount of unilateral control. Unlike what is required in the role of President or that of a corporate executive for a public company, Trump largely did what he wanted to do.

On numerous occasions, Trump has claimed the stock market is his “mark-to-market.” In other words, the market is the barometer of his job performance. We think this is a ludicrous comment and one that the President will likely regret. He has made this comment on repeated occasions, leading us to conclude that, whether he believes it or not, he has tethered himself to the market as a gauge of performance in the mind of the public. We have little doubt that the President will do everything in his power to ensure the market does not make him look bad.

Warning Shots Across the Bow

On June 29, 2018, Trump’s Economic Advisor Lawrence Kudlow delivered a warning to Chairman Powell saying he hoped that the Federal Reserve (Fed) would raise interest rates “very slowly.”

Almost a month later we learned that Kudlow was not just speaking for himself but likely on behalf of his boss, Donald Trump. During an interview with CNBC, on July 20, 2018, the President expanded on Kudlow’s comments voicing concern with the Fed hiking interest rates. Trump told CNBC’s Joe Kernen that he does not approve [of rate hikes], even though he put a “very good man in” at the Fed referring to Chairman Jerome Powell.

“I’m not thrilled,” Trump added. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again. I don’t really — I am not happy about it. But at the same time I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”

“As of this moment, I would not see that this would be a big deal yet but on the other hand it is a danger sign,” he said.

Two months later in August of 2018, Bloomberg ran the following article:

Trump Said to Complain Powell Hasn’t Been Cheap-Money Fed Chair

“President Donald Trump said he expected Jerome Powell to be a cheap-money Fed chairman and lamented to wealthy Republican donors at a Hamptons fundraiser on Friday that his nominee instead raised interest rates, according to three people present.”

On October 10, 2018, following a 3% sell-off in the equity markets, CNBC reported on Donald Trump’s most harsh criticism of the Fed to date.  Trump said, “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They’re so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy.”

Again-“I think the Fed has gone crazy

These comments and others come as the Fed is publicly stating their preference for multiple rate hikes and further balance sheet reduction in the coming 12-24 months. The markets, as discussed in our article Everyone Hears the Fed but Few are Listening, are not priced for the same expectations. This is becoming evident with the pickup in volatility in the stock and bond markets.  There is little doubt that a hawkish tone from Chairman Powell and other governors will increasingly wear on an equity market that is desperately dependent on ultra-low interest rates.

Who can stop the Fed?

We think there is an obstacle that might stand in the Fed’s way of further rate hikes and balance sheet reductions.

Consider a scenario where the stock market drops 20-25% or more, and the Fed continues raising rates and maintaining a hawkish tenor.

We believe this scenario is well within the realm of possibilities. Powell does not appear to be like Yellen, Bernanke or Greenspan with a finger on the trigger ready to support the markets at early signs of disruption. In his most recent press conference on September 26, 2018, Powell mentioned that the Fed would react to the stock market but only if the correction was both “significant” and “lasting.”

The word “significant” suggests he would need to see evidence of such a move causing financial instability. “Lasting” implies Powell’s reaction time to such instability will be much slower than his predecessors. Taken along with his 2013 comments that low rates and large-scale asset purchases (QE) “might drive excessive risk-taking or cause bubbles in financial assets and housing” further seems to support the notion that he would be slow to react.

Implications

President Trump’s ire over Fed policy will likely boil over if the Fed sits on their hands while the President’s popularity “mark-to-market” is deteriorating.

This leads us to a question of utmost importance. Can the President of the United States fire the Chairman of the Fed? If so, what might be the implications?

The answer to the first question is yes. Pedro da Costa of Business Insider wrote on this topic. In his article (link) he shared the following from the Federal Reserve Act (link):

Given that the President can fire the Fed Chairman for “cause” raises the question of implications were such an event to occur.  The Fed was organized as a politically independent entity. Congress designed it this way so that monetary policy would be based on what is best for the economy in the long run and not predicated on the short-term desires of the ruling political party and/or President.

Although a President has never fired a Fed Chairman since its inception in 1913, the Fed’s independence has been called into question numerous times. In the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson is known to have physically pushed Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin around the Oval Office demanding that he ease policy. Martin acquiesced. In the months leading up to the 1972 election, Richard Nixon used a variety of methods including verbal threats and false leaks to the press to influence Arthur Burns toward a more dovish policy stance.

If hawkish Fed policy actions, as proposed above, result in a large market correction and Trump were to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, it is plausible that the all-important veil of Fed independence would be pierced. Although pure conjecture, it does not seem unreasonable to consider what Trump might do in the event of a large and persistent market drawdown. Were he to replace the Fed chair with a more loyal “team player” willing to introduce even more drastic monetary actions than seen over the last ten years, it would certainly add complexity and risk to the economic outlook. The precedent for this was established when President Trump recently nominated former Richmond Fed advisor and economics professor Marvin Goodfriend to fill an open position on the Fed’s Board of Governors. Although Goodfriend has been critical of bond buying programs, “he (Goodfriend) has a radical willingness to embrace deeply negative rates.” –The Financial Times

Such a turn of events might initially be very favorable for equity markets, but would likely raise doubts about market values for many investors and raise serious questions about the integrity of the U.S. dollar. Lowering rates even further leaves the U.S. debt problem unchecked and potentially unleashes inflation, a highly toxic combination. A continuation of overly dovish policy would likely bolster further expansion of debt well beyond the nation’s ability to service it. Additionally, if inflation did move higher in response, bond markets would no doubt eventually respond by driving interest rates higher. The can may be kicked further but the consequences, both current and future, will become ever harsher.

Why Fed’s Monetary Policy Is Still Very Accommodative

Here are two statements from the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) immediately following their interest rate decisions of August 1, 2018 and September 26, 2018.

August 1, 2018 – In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1.75-2.00%. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.

September 26, 2018 – In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2.00-2.25%. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.

As you can see, the second statement eliminated language around its belief that monetary policy remained accommodative, which it clearly stated in the August release. Since the media and analysts closely track changes in Fed statements to glean intent with regards to future rate increases and current and future economic conditions, the natural conclusion was that the 25 bps rate hike in September moved the Fed from “accommodative” to “not accommodative”, though not necessarily “restrictive”.

Interestingly, Chairman Powell’s subsequent comments to PBS six days after the September FOMC meeting seem to cast doubts on that conclusion.

“The really extremely accommodative low interest rates that we needed when the economy was quite weak, we don’t need those anymore. They’re not appropriate anymore,” Powell said.

Interest rates are still accommodative, but we’re gradually moving to a place where they will be neutral,” he added. “We may go past neutral, but we’re a long way from neutral at this point, probably.”

So, is monetary policy currently accommodative or not?

This article provides a few charts aimed toward making sense of the contradictory statements from Fed officials so you can decide for yourself if policy is accommodative. Given the importance that monetary policy plays in asset pricing, a clear understanding of the Fed’s intent is extremely valuable. For more on our latest thoughts regarding Fed policy intentions and market expectations, please read our article Everyone Hears the Fed, But Few Listen.

Fed Funds

The Fed manages the level of the fed funds rate to influence other interest rates and thus meet their congressionally mandated employment and price objectives for the U.S. economy. To do so, the Fed conducts various operations in the money markets.

The graph below shows fed funds rate and its long-term average.  Since the end of 2015, the fed funds rate has risen 2% from its level near 0% that persisted for many years in the wake of the financial crisis.  Yet, the fed funds rate is still at a level that has only been experienced in a few short-lived instances in the last 70 years.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Comparing the fed funds rate over time is not the best determinant of whether policy is accommodative or restrictive. Better context is gained by looking at the fed funds rate relative to the rate of nominal economic growth (GDP) and inflation (CPI).

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

As shown in the graphs, the current fed funds rate is 3.69% below the rate of nominal economic growth (based on Q2 2018 data) and 0.95% below the rate of inflation. It is also worth noting that longer-term real (adjusted for inflation) Treasury yields, as shown in the second graph, are all near zero. This means that the current yields on Treasury securities are about equal with the current rate of inflation. While real rates have finally risen from financial crisis-era levels, history shows us that real rates remain far from normal.

To better understand why this is important, please read our article Wicksell’s Elegant Model.

The bottom line is that, while the fed funds rate is on the rise, it is far below absolute and relative levels that serve as historical norms. Based on the data shown above, further increases of 2-4% would put the fed funds rate on par with historical comparisons.

Balance Sheet

In 2009, with the fed funds rate pinned at zero percent, the Fed introduced Quantitative Easing (QE). Through three separate acts of buying U.S. Treasuries and mortgage backed securities (QE 1,2, and 3) the Fed’s balance sheet rose five-fold from about $800 billion to $4.3 trillion. The graph below charts the monetary base, which soared as a direct result of QE and has recently begun to decline due to Quantitative Tightening (QT), the Fed’s active effort to reduce the amount of assets on their balance sheet.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Quantifying Stimulus

The next graph marries the two methods the Fed uses to conduct policy to quantify the amount of stimulus in interest rate terms. The amount of excess fed funds rate stimulus (teal) is calculated as nominal GDP growth less the fed funds rate. QE related stimulus (orange) is based on a rule Ben Bernanke laid out in 2010. He approximated that every additional $6-10bn of excess reserves held by banks (a byproduct of QE) was roughly equivalent to lowering interest rates one basis point. Together the total represents the amount of interest rate stimulus.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Currently, between QE and a historically low fed funds rate, the amount of stimulus being applied would, under normal conditions, be equivalent to dropping the Fed Funds rate by 6.08%. While that figure may seem beyond belief, consider that excess reserves are currently $1.9 trillion as compared to near zero for the decades preceding the financial crisis and the fed funds rate is currently 3.69% below nominal GDP.

Essentially, the combination of an abnormally low fed funds rate coupled with the still outsized, but declining gradually, effects of QE argue that stimulus is still grossly accommodative. Incredibly, this is all occurring at a point in time when most economists believe the economy to be at full employment, growth is improving, stocks are at all-time highs and all sentiment indicators are at or near record high levels.

Global Accommodation

Thus far, we have only focused on the amount of accommodation provided by the Fed. Also worthy of consideration, the policies of the world’s largest economic powers have an impact on the U.S. economy. The following graph demonstrates the amount of stimulus being provided by the largest central banks.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve and Bloomberg

Summary

Is Fed policy accommodative?

YES!

If you believe, as we do, that it is not only accommodative but irresponsibly accommodative, you will also appreciate the fact that the Fed has room to raise interest rates far more than investors are currently pricing in. Furthermore, any threats of inflation will likely push the Fed to restrain rising prices by acting more aggressively. This too falls outside the realm of current market expectations.

What we know is that financial asset prices have been the primary beneficiary of years of accommodative monetary policy at the expense of economic and social stability. As Stanley Druckenmiller said in his recent interview on RealVision TV:

“You know, intuitively, you can make a case that we’re going to have a financial crisis bigger than the last one because all they (the central bankers) did was triple down on what, in my opinion, caused it. I don’t know who the boogeyman is this time. I do know that there are zombies out there. Are they going to infect the banking system the way they did the last time? I don’t know. What I do know is we seem to learn something from every crisis, and this one we didn’t learn anything. And in my opinion, we tripled down on what caused the crisis. And we tripled down on it globally.”

Given the boost to asset prices caused by Fed policy, investors would be well-advised to pay close attention to the Fed’s words, their actions and critically, their inconsistencies.

Quick Take: Bulls Attempt A “Jailbreak”

Yesterday, I discussed the “compression” of the market being akin to a “coiled spring” that when released could lead to a fairly decent move in one direction or another. To wit:

“As you can see in the ‘reddish triangle,’ prices have been continually compressed into an ever smaller trading range. This ‘compression’ is akin to coiling a spring. The more tightly the spring is wound, the more energy it has when it is released.”

As shown, the bulls are “attempting a jailbreak” of the “compression” that has pressured markets over the last two months. While the breakout is certainly encouraging, there isn’t much room before it runs into a more formidable resistance of the 100-day moving average. Furthermore, with interest rates closing in on 3% again, which has previously been a stumbling point for stock prices, it is too soon to significantly increase equity risk in portfolios.

This is just one day.

As I stated previously, as a portfolio manager I am not too concerned with what happens during the middle of the trading week, but rather where the market closes on Friday. This reduces the potential for “head fakes” as we saw last week with the break of the of the 200-dma on Thursday which was quickly reversed on Friday. The weekly close was one of the two outcomes as noted in our previous Quick-Take:

“If the market closes ABOVE the 200-dma by the close of the market on Friday, we will simply be retesting support at the 200-dma for the fourth time. This will continue to keep the market trend intact and is bullish for stocks.”

This breakout will provide a reasonable short-term trading opportunity for portfolios as I still think the most probable paths for the market currently are the #3a or #3b pathways shown above.

If we get a confirmed break out of this “compression range” we have been in, we will likely add some equity risk exposure to portfolios from a “trading” perspective. That means each position will carry both a very tight “stop price” where it will be sold if we are wrong as well as a “profit taking” objective if we are right.

Longer-term investments are made when there is more clarity about future returns. Currently, clarity is lacking as there are numerous “taxes” currently weighing on the markets which will eventually have to be paid.

  • Rising oil and gasoline prices (Tax on consumers)
  • Fed bent on hiking rates and reducing their balance sheet. (Tax on the markets)
  • Potential trade wars (Tax on manufacturers)
  • Geopolitical tensions with North Korea, Russia, China and Iran (Tax on sentiment)
  • Traders all stacked up on the “same side of the boat.” (Tax on positioning)

We continue to hold higher levels of cash, but have closed out most of our market hedges for now as we giving the markets a bit more room to operate.

With longer-term indicators at very high levels and turning lower, we remain cautious longer-term. However, in the short-term markets can “defy rationality” longer than anyone can imagine. But it is in that defiance that investors consistently make the mistake of thinking “this time is different.”

It’s not. Valuations matter and they matter a lot in the long-term. Valuations coupled with rising interest rates, inflationary pressures, and weak economic growth are a toxic brew to long-term returns. It is also why it is quite possible we have seen the peak of the market for this year.

I will update this “Quick Take” for the end of the week data in this coming weekend’s newsletter. (Subscribe at the website for email delivery on Saturday)

The Myth Of “Buy & Hold” – Why Starting Valuations Matter

If you repeat a myth often enough, it will eventually be believed to be the truth.

“Stop worrying about the market and just buy and hold stocks.”

Think about this for a moment. If it were true, then:

  • Why do major Wall Street firms have proprietary trading desks? (They aren’t buying and holding.)
  • Why are there professional hedge fund managers? (They aren’t buying and holding either)
  • Why is there volatility in the market? (If everyone just bought and held, prices would be stable.)
  • Why does Warren Buffett say “buy fear and sell greed?” (And why is he holding $115 billion in cash?)
  • Why are there financial channels like CNBC? (If everyone bought and held, there would be no viewers.)
  • Most importantly, why isn’t everyone wealthy from investing?

Because “buying and holding” stocks is a “myth.”

Wall Street is a business. A very big business which generates huge profits by creating products and selling it to their consumers – you. Just how big? Here are the sales and net income for some of the largest purveyors of investment products:

  • Goldman Sachs – Sales: $45 Billion / Income: $8.66 Billion
  • JP Morgan – Sales: $67 Billion / Income: $26.73 Billion
  • Bank Of America/Merrill Lynch – Sales: $59.47 Billion / Income: $20.71 Billion 
  • Schwab – Sales: $9.38 Billion / Income: $2.45 Billion
  • Blackrock – Sales: $13.25 Billion / Income: $4.02 Billion

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. It is simply “the business.”

It is just important to understand exactly which side of the transaction everyone is on. When you sell your home, there is you, the buyer and Realtor. It is clearly understood that when the transaction is completed the Realtor is going to be paid a commission for their services.

In the financial world the relationship isn’t quite as clear. Wall Street needs its customers to “sell” product to, which makes it less profitable to tell “you” to “sell” when they need you to “buy the shares they are selling for the institutional clients.”

Don’t believe me?  Here is a survey that was conducted on Wall Street firms previously.

“You” ranked “dead last” in importance.

Most importantly, as discussed previously, the math of “buy and hold” won’t get you to your financial goals either. (Yes, you will make money given a long enough time horizon, but you won’t reach your inflation-adjusted retirement goals.)

“But Lance, the market has historically returned 10% annually. Right?”

Correct. But again, it’s the math which is the problem.

  1. Historically, going back to 1900, using Robert Shiller’s historical data, the market has averaged, more or less, 10% annually on a total return basis. Of that 10%, roughly 6% came from capital appreciation and 4% from dividends.
  2. Average and Annual or two very different things. Investors may have AVERAGE 10% annually over the last 118 years, but there were many periods of low and negative returns along the way. 
  3. You won’t live 118 years unless you are a vampire.

The Entire Premise Is Flawed

If you really want to save and invest for retirement you need to understand how markets really work.

Markets are highly volatile over the long-term investment period. During any time horizon the biggest detractors from the achievement of financial goals come from five factors:

  • Lack of capital to invest.
  • Psychological and behavioral factors. (i.e. buy high/sell low)
  • Variable rates of return.
  • Time horizons, and;
  • Beginning valuation levels 

I have addressed the first two at length in “Dalbar 2017 Investors Suck At Investing” but the important points are these:

Despite your best intentions to “buy and hold” over the long-term, the reality is that you will unlikely achieve those promised returns.

While the inability to participate in the financial markets is certainly a major issue, the biggest reason for underperformance by investors who do participate in the financial markets over time is psychology.

Behavioral biases that lead to poor investment decision-making is the single largest contributor to underperformance over time. Dalbar defined nine of the irrational investment behavior biases specifically:

  • Loss Aversion – The fear of loss leads to a withdrawal of capital at the worst possible time.  Also known as “panic selling.”
  • Narrow Framing – Making decisions about on part of the portfolio without considering the effects on the total.
  • Anchoring – The process of remaining focused on what happened previously and not adapting to a changing market.
  • Mental Accounting – Separating performance of investments mentally to justify success and failure.
  • Lack of Diversification – Believing a portfolio is diversified when in fact it is a highly correlated pool of assets.
  • Herding– Following what everyone else is doing. Leads to “buy high/sell low.”
  • Regret – Not performing a necessary action due to the regret of a previous failure.
  • Media Response – The media has a bias to optimism to sell products from advertisers and attract view/readership.
  • Optimism – Overly optimistic assumptions tend to lead to rather dramatic reversions when met with reality.

The biggest of these problems for individuals is the “herding effect” and “loss aversion.”

These two behaviors tend to function together compounding the issues of investor mistakes over time. As markets are rising, individuals are lead to believe that the current price trend will continue to last for an indefinite period. The longer the rising trend last, the more ingrained the belief becomes until the last of “holdouts” finally “buys in” as the financial markets evolve into a “euphoric state.”

As the markets decline, there is a slow realization that “this decline” is something more than a “buy the dip” opportunity. As losses mount, anxiety increases until individuals seek to “avert further loss” by selling.

This is the basis of the “Buy High / Sell Low” syndrome that plagues investors over the long-term.

However, without understanding what drives market returns over the long term, you can’t understand the impact the market has on psychology and investor behavior.

Over any 30-year period the beginning valuation levels, the price you pay for your investments has a spectacular impact on future returns. I have highlighted return levels at 7-12x earnings and 18-22x earnings. We will use the average of 10x and 20x earnings for our savings analysis.

As you will notice, 30-year forward returns are significantly higher on average when investing at 10x earnings as opposed to 20x earnings or where we are currently near 25x.

For the purpose of this exercise, I went back through history and pulled the 4-periods where valuations were either above 20x earnings or below 10x earnings. I then ran a $1000 investment going forward for 30-years on a total-return, inflation-adjusted, basis.

At 10x earnings, the worst performing period started in 1918 and only saw $1000 grow to a bit more than $6000. The best performing period was not the screaming bull market that started in 1980 because the last 10-years of that particular cycle caught the “dot.com” crash. It was the post-WWII bull market than ran from 1942 through 1972 that was the winner. Of course, the crash of 1974, just two years later, extracted a good bit of those returns.

Conversely, at 20x earnings, the best performing period started in 1900 which caught the rise of the market to its peak in 1929. Unfortunately, the next 4-years wiped out roughly 85% of those gains. However, outside of that one period, all of the other periods fared worse than investing at lower valuations. (Note: 1993 is still currently running as its 30-year period will end in 2023.)

The point to be made here is simple and was precisely summed up by Warren Buffett:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” 

This is shown in the chart below. I have averaged each of the 4-periods above into a single total return, inflation-adjusted, index, Clearly, investing at 10x earnings yields substantially better results.

So, with this understanding let me return once again to those that continue to insist the “buy and hold” is the only way to invest. The chart below shows $3000 invested annually into the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted, total return index at 10% compounded annually and both 10x and 20x valuation starting levels. I have also shown $3000 saved annually in a mattress.

The red line is 10% compounded annually. You won’t get that, but it is there so you can compare it to the real returns received over the 30-year investment horizon starting at 10x and 20x valuation levels. The shortfall between the promised 10% annual rates of return and actual returns are shown in the two shaded areas. In other words, if you are banking on some advisors promise of 10% annual returns for retirement, you aren’t going to make it.

I want you to take note of the following.

When investing your money at valuations above 20x earnings, it takes 22-years before it has grown more than money stuffed in a mattress. 

Why 22 years? 

Take a look at the chart below.

Historically, it has taken roughly 22-years to resolve a period of over-valuation. Given the last major over-valuation period started in 1999, history suggests another major market downturn will mean revert valuations by 2021.

The point here is obvious, but difficult to grasp from a mainstream media that is continually enticing young Millennial investors to mistakenly invest their savings into an overvalued market. Saving your money, and waiting for a valuation based opportunity to invest those savings in the market, is the best, safest way, to invest for your financial future. 

Of course, Wall Street won’t like this much because they can’t charge you a fee if you are sitting on a mountain of cash awaiting the opportunity to “buy” their next misfortune.

But isn’t that what Baron Rothschild meant when quipped:

“The time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.”

Quick Take: Market Breaks Important Support

I have often discussed that as a portfolio manager I am not too concerned with what happens during the middle of the trading week. The reason is daily price volatility can lead to many false indications about the direction of the market. These false indications are why so many investors suggest that technical analysis is nothing more than “voo doo.”

For me, price analysis is more about understanding the “trend” of the market and the path of least resistance for prices in the short and intermediate-term. This analysis allows for portfolio positioning to manage risk.

Over the last several weeks, I have been mapping out the ongoing correction in the market and have noted the important support that has been provided by the running 200-day moving average. The chart below is updated through this morning.

The break of the 200-dma today is not a good sign. Consolidation processes are much akin to the “coiling of a spring.”  As prices become compressed, when those prices break out there is a “release of energy” from that compression which tends to lead to rather sharp moves in the direction of the breakout.

Importantly, the break of support today is NOT a signal to run out and sell everything.  It is, however, a worrisome warning that should not be entirely dismissed.

As stated, nothing matters for me until we see where the market closes on Friday.

Here is what we are wanting to see:

  • If the market closes ABOVE the 200-dma by the close of the market on Friday, we will simply be retesting support at the 200-dma for the fourth time. This will continue to keep the market trend intact and is bullish for stocks. 
  • If the market closes BELOW the 200-dma on Friday, the break of support will be confirmed, suggesting a downside failure of the consolidation pattern over the last couple of months. This break is bearish for the market and suggests higher levels of caution. Such will lead to two other options:
    • With the market oversold on a short-term basis, any rally that fails at the 200-dma will further confirm the downside break of the consolidation. This would suggest lower prices over the next month or so.
    • If the market recovers by early next week, above the 200-dma, positioning will remain on hold.

I am often asked why I don’t just take ONE position and make a call.

Because we can not predict the future. We can only react to it.

After having raised cash over the last couple of months on rallies, there isn’t much we need to do at the moment.

However, the weakness in the market, combined with longer-term sell signals as discussed on Tuesday, is suggesting the market has likely put in its top for the year.

We remain cautious and suggest the time to “buy” has not arrived yet.