(Hint: It isn't fundamentals)
The run-up in the stock market (the SPX for purposes of this article) has been nothing short of stunning. Since hitting a sell-off bottom on October 4, 2011, the SPX has run-up a nearly non-stop 47.8%. In just the last month, the SPX has run up 7.5%. This is in the face of deteriorating economic indicators and declining corporate revenues. The stock market has for sure taken most observers and professionals by surprise, except for maybe the most passionate "perma-bulls."
Given this incredible move higher in stocks, I wanted to investigate a couple of possibilities for what is fueling this near-parabolic stock rally. Based on what I've been able to come up with, it's pretty clear that stocks are rocketing higher on Fed fuel and not fundamentals. But don't take it from me, it seems that some high profile billionaire investors are unloading their big positions, especially anything related to consumption: Billionaires Are Dumping Stocks. Let's take a look "under the hood" of the economic and financial system and see if we can figure out why.
While Bernanke was giving his report on the economy and monetary policy to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress today, in which he pretty much laid to rest any fears that the Fed would "taper" its monetary policy and bond purchase program anytime soon, I decided to look into some of the Fed's monetary data as reported on the St. Louis Fed website. Specifically I wanted to look at the Adjusted Monetary Base, which is the sum of the currency in circulation plus the commercial bank reserves held at the Fed, because this monetary account is the one directly affected by the QE program.
Here's the most current snap-shot of the Monetary Base going to back to 1984, when the data-series began:
Close to $2.8 trillion in money has been printed and used to purchase assets from the banking system, ranging from highly distressed toxic waste to short-term Treasury notes.
Next I decided to "blow up" the chart above and look at just the last twelve months and compare it to the same time period for a chart of the S&P 500:
As you can see, there is nearly a 1:1 correlation between the near-parabolic growth in the Monetary Base since the end of November 2012 and the near-parabolic trajectory of the SPX since mid-November (marked by the vertical red lines). I don't have time to run the data, but my University of Chicago B-School training visually tells me that the correlation is probably around .8, if not higher, meaning 80% of the move in stocks since November can be attributed to the increase in the Fed's Monetary Base.
Without doing a data dump of recent corporate earnings reports, we know that regardless of the net income being reported (net income being potentially subjected to many forms of GAAP accounting manipulations), that the revenues being reported by the largest of the SPX companies are flat to down. This is not the sign of an economy that is capable of growth and true earnings expansion. To give one example, Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) recently reported its April revenues. Globally sales were down 9% from March, but they were down a shocking 18% in North America: CAT April revenues. This is primarily heavy machinery related to construction and homebuilding. If CAT's sales are plunging like this, it means that construction and homebuilding are likely getting ready to drop pretty hard.
My point here is that economic and corporate fundamentals are not supporting the rapid move higher in the stock market and the concomitant rapid expansion in the market values of individual companies. To reinforce this point, I wanted to show a chart that I sourced from Zerohedge, which maps out the accelerating decline in the per share operating income of the S&P 500 over the last 12 months:
In other words, based on economic and corporate earnings reports which are suggestive of a slow down in the economy, combined with the fact that corporate operating income is plunging, there can be no doubt that the run-up in the stock market is unequivocally not supported by fundamental factors.
That leaves only the money being printed by the Fed. Wall Street analysts can crow all they want about how the economy is improving and corporate earnings will improve, but the proof so far is in the numbers, which show that just the opposite is occurring.
Moreover, Fed officials can talk all they want about tapering QE, but if you look at their actions based on the recent move in the trailing twelve month Monetary Base above, not only are they not tapering, they are actually increasing the rate at which they are injecting liquidity into the banking system. In my mind, at least, there can be no doubt that the money being printed by the Fed is what is fueling the stock market.
Now we can debate whether or not the Fed is serious about "tapering" its printing. But I have no doubt based on the evidence I presented today that if the Fed were indeed to "taper," the stock market suffer a serious and rapid decline.
The real question now is for how long can this stock market "melt up" last? No one can possibly know that answer for certain, but at this point buying stocks right now is not about analyzing fundamentals and value, but more akin to playing stock market roulette. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take advantage of being long the stock market should seriously consider hedging or taking a significant portion of their investment off the table.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.