In the past few weeks, I have seen various analysts and commentators stating that either the Fed has fumbled the delivery of its message, or that even if it tapers, the effects will be minor. Here is one example from Comstock Partners:
Last week we wrote that Bernanke could not be happy with the way long bond rates reacted to his press conference answer that the Fed could begin lessening its rate of bond purchases in the next few months, and that he would attempt to sooth the market in yesterday's press conference following the FOMC meeting. Well, he tried, but ended up making things worse, at least in the perception of the markets.
The Chairman attempted to allay fears by setting specific dates and economic parameters for reducing and eventually eliminating the latest bond purchase program that, until recently, was assumed by the market to be open-ended. He further took pains to assure the markets that just reducing the amount of purchases was not the same as tightening and that the fed funds rate would not likely be increased before early in 2015. He also assured one and all that the decisions would still be data-dependent, and subject to adjustment.
Investors, however, took what Bernanke apparently thought was increased clarity to mean greater hawkishness, and, as a result, bond yields soared as stocks tanked. In addition the markets gave far greater importance to the potential reduction of bond purchases, whereas the Fed attached greater significance to the continuing expansion of their balance sheet.
A history lesson: We want you to take risk
To the contrary, I believe that the Bernanke Fed knows exactly what it is doing with its communications policy. Remember what the intent of the various quantitative easing programs were designed to do. The intent of QE is to lower interest rates, lower the cost of capital and lower the risk premium. In the wake of the Lehman Crisis of 2008, the Fed stepped in with QE1. It followed with QE2 and QE3, otherwise known as QE-Infinity. The Fed first lowered short rates, told the market that it was holding short rates down for a very long, long time. It then followed up with purchases of Treasuries further out on the yield curve and later started to buy Agencies as well in order.
The message from the Fed was: "We want you to take more risk." Greater risk taking meant that businesses would expand, buy more equipment, hire workers, etc. It hoped to spark a virtuous cycle of more sales, more consumer spending and to revive the moribund real estate market. Moreover, banks could repair their balance sheets with the cheap capital.
Imagine that you are a bank. The Fed tells you that it is lowering short rates and holding them low for a long time. That is, in essence, a signal to borrow short and lend long. In the summer of 2009, T-Bills were yielding roughly 0.5% and 10-year Treasuries were roughly 3.5%. If the bank were to borrow short and lend long with Treasury securities (no credit risk), it could get a spread of roughly 3%. Lever that trade up a "conservative" 10 times and you get a 30% return. 20 times leverages gets you 60% return. Pretty soon, you've made a ton of money to repair your balance sheet.
The banks weren't the only ones playing this game. The hedge funds piled into this trade. Pretty soon, you saw the whole world reaching for yield. The game was to borrow short and lend either long or to lower credits. Carry trades of various flavors exploded. There were currency carry trades, some went into junk bonds, others started buying emerging market paper. You get the idea.
The net effect was that not only interest rates fell, risk premiums fell across the board. The equity risk premium compressed and the stock market soared. Credit risk premiums narrowed and the price of lower credit bonds boomed.
Managing the exit
During these successive rounds of quantitative easing, analysts started to wonder how the Fed manages to exit from its QE program and ZIRP. We all knew that the day would have to come sooner or later. So on May 22, 2013, Ben Bernanke stated publicly that the Fed was considering scaling back its QE purchases, but such a decision was data dependent.
In other words, it communicated and warned the markets! Consider this 2004 paper by Bernanke, Reinhardt and Sack called Monetary Policy Altnernatives at the Zero Bound: An Empircal Assessment in which the authors discuss the tools that the Fed has available when interest rates are zero or near zero [emphasis added]:
Our results provide some grounds for optimism about the likely efficacy of nonstandard policies. In particular, we confirm a potentially important role for central bank communications to try to shape public expectations of future policy actions. Like Gürkaynak, Sack, and Swanson (2004), we find that the Federal Reserve's monetary policy decisions have two distinct effects on asset prices. These factors represent, respectively, (1) the unexpected change in the current setting of the federal funds rate, and (2) the change in market expectations about the trajectory of the funds rate over the next year that is not explained by the current policy action. In the United States, the second factor, in particular, appears strongly linked to Fed policy statements, probably reflecting the importance of communication by the central bank. If central bank "talk" affects policy expectations, then policymakers retain some leverage over long-term yields, even if the current policy rate is at or near zero.
The market misses the point
From my read of market commentaries, I believe that analysts are focusing too much on the timing and mechanics of "tapering" and not on the meta-message from the Fed. If quantitative easing is meant to lower interest rates and lower the risk premium, then a withdrawal of QE reverses that process. In effect, the Fed threw several giant parties. Now it is telling the guests, "If things go as we expect, Last Call will be some time late this year."
Imagine that you are the bank in the earlier example which bought risk by borrowing short and lending long, or lending to lower credits in order to repair your balance sheet. When the Fed Chair tells you, "Last Call late this year", do you stick around for Last Call in order to make the last penny? No! The prudent course of action is to unwind your risk-on positions now. We are seeing the start of a new market regime as risk gets re-priced.
That's the message many analysts missed. The Fed is signaling that risk premiums are not going to get compressed any further. It will now be up to the markets to find the right level for risk premiums. Watch for Ben Bernanke to elaborate on those issues on Wednesday* (see note below). In the July 4 edition of Breakfast with Dave, David Rosenberg wrote the following about the Fed's communication policy:
I actually give Bernanke full credit for giving the markets a chance to start to price that in ahead of the event, and to re-introduce the notion to the investment class that markets are a two-way bet, not a straight line up. Volatility notwithstanding, I give Berananke an A+ for shaking off the market complacency that came to dominate the market thought process of the first four months of the year (to the point where the bubbleheads on bubblevision were counting consecutive Tuesdays for Dow rallies). Ben's communication skills may be better than you think - underestimating him may be as wise as underestimating Detective Columbo, who also seems "awkward" but was far from it.
Bernanke knows exactly what he is doing when he hints about tapering in his public remarks. It's the risk premium, stupid! And it's going up.
Earnings to do heavy lifting
With this shift in tone, don't expect the Fed to push yields down anymore. The Fed won't be pushing you to take as much risk. Consider what this means for stocks. If the economy does truly take off and earnings grow, then stock prices can rise. However, don't expect stock prices to rise because P/Es are going to go up because the Fed is pushing the market to take more risk. In fact, P/Es are more likely to fall and it will be up to the E component of that ratio, namely earnings, to do the heavy lifting.
As we approach Earnings Season, the task may be more difficult. Thomson-Reuters reports that negative guidance is high compared to recent history:
As the beginning of the second-quarter earnings season approaches, the negative guidance sentiment is weighing on analyst estimates. So far, S+P 500 companies have issued 97 negative earnings preannouncements and only 15 positive ones, for a negative to positive ratio of 6.5. The guidance has contributed to the downward slide in second quarter growth estimates, with EPS currently estimated to grow 3.0%, down from the 8.4% estimate at the beginning of the year. Analysts have an even bleaker outlook for the top line. After a first quarter when S+P 500 companies reported an aggregate revenue growth rate of 0.0%, the consensus currently calls for 1.8% growth in the second quarter. With revenue growth holding back earnings for the past several quarters, we did an evaluation of company management teams' outlooks for their revenues. Over the time period evaluated, Q1 2008–present, revenue preannouncements were more balanced than were EPS preannouncements. On average, there were 1.7 negative revenue preannouncements for each positive one. This compares with an N/P ratio of 2.4 for EPS over the same period.
The stock market is facing headwinds. This is a regime shift. Markets generally don't react well to regime shifts and inflection points like these. Expect volatility and an intense focus on headlines. The path of least resistance for stock prices, notwithstanding a robust economic recovery, is down.
* Note: Ben Bernanke is expected to take questions after his speech. If anyone who is reading this happens to be there, please ask the following for me: "Mr. Chairman, it appears that the latest round of quantitative easing where the Fed bought Agencies instead of Treasuries was intended to narrow the risk premium between the two asset classes. Would it be fair to conclude that when the Fed starts to wind down its QE program, risk premiums are expected to widen their natural market determined levels?"
Disclaimer: Cam Hui is a portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd. ("Qwest"). This article is prepared by Mr. Hui as an outside business activity. As such, Qwest does not review or approve materials presented herein. The opinions and any recommendations expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or recommendations of Qwest. None of the information or opinions expressed in this blog constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security or other instrument.
Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice and any recommendations that may be contained herein have not been based upon a consideration of the investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific recipient. Any purchase or sale activity in any securities or other instrument should be based upon your own analysis and conclusions. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Either Qwest or Mr. Hui may hold or control long or short positions in the securities or instruments mentioned.