Tag: Fed taper

The Stock Market’s Embarrassing Fall after the Fed Reneged on the Taper

Unlike nearly everyone else, I have argued that the Fed’s latest round of “quantitative easing” is not why stock prices went up until recently, and that “tapering” Fed bond purchases would have had only a negligible effect on long-term interest rates.   

This was a testable hypothesis. If I was wrong, the Fed’s unexpected decision to back away from its previously-expected tapering of bond purchases would have been greeted by a significant, sustained rally in stock and bond prices. That didn’t happen. Instead, stocks fell for at least five days in a row and bond yields barely budged until stocks swooned (triggering a modest flight toward safe havens).

Before the Federal Reserve’s “surprise” at 2 p.m. on Wednesday September 18, nearly every financial reporter was confident the yield on 10-year Treasuries had increased to 2.86 percent from 1.66 percent in early May, simply because Fed officials hinted in May that they might begin to slow the pace of bond-buying by September. If that story had been true, we should have expected bond yields to retrace most of their rise as soon as the Fed removed that fear of the taper. Instead, the 10-year bond yield ended the week of the Fed announcement at 2.75 percent – no lower than the average yield in August (2.74) and merely a trivial 11 basis points lower  than the day before the Fed’s surprise.

Financial analysts and reporters were likewise certain the stock market had been terrified about the possible taper before September 18. If that was true, stocks should have soared for days or weeks on the supposedly terrific news that a taper was off the table. On the contrary, U.S. stocks were rising briskly for many days before the Fed meeting, but have since fallen persistently. A few hours of speculative stock gains on Wednesday the 18th were more than erased by Friday the 20th and stocks kept falling the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Reporters and analysts who claimed stocks had been shored up by quantitative easing were logically obligated to expect a stock boom from the Fed’s message of no change. When stocks instead moved in the wrong direction, baffled reporters tried to blame their bad forecasts on mysterious “uncertainties” about the taper although there is obviously less uncertainty now than before.

Anyone who bases investment decisions on trendy theories that fail to predict what actually happens is either a poor journalist or a poor investor who pays undue attention to poor journalists. The market’s thumbs down vote on the Fed’s gutless decision to stick with quantitative easing provides added evidence that QE never helped stocks or the economy, and that ending such an obviously unsustainable policy will one day be welcomed as the good news that it really will be.

The Reynolds Model of Stock Prices

Mark Hulbert’s latest Wall Street Journal column criticizes

the so-called Fed Model, which holds that P/E ratios should rise as interest rates decline, and vice versa. The strategy got its name in 1997, following a reference in a Federal Reserve report to the tendency of the S&P 500’s earnings yield—the inverse of its P/E ratio—to rise and fall with long-term interest rates.  During the 15 years before the Fed made that observation, the U.S. stock market’s P/E ratio did indeed tend to be higher when interest rates were low, and vice versa, Mr. [Javier] Estrada concedes. But, he points out, that relationship hasn’t held up as well since then, raising the possibility that the apparent correlation might have been just a coincidence.  Further doubts came when Mr. Estrada analyzed U.S. experience over the 100 years before 1980.

I may have discovered “the Fed Model” in March 1991– long before Ed Yardeni gave it that name after July 22,1997. The relationship between the inverted P/E ratio and bond yields was first depicted in the letter below to consulting clients (institutional investors), where I probably should have labeled it the “Reynolds Model.”

I agree with Estrada that it did not work very well before August 15, 1971, when the last remnants of the gold standards were abandoned. The gold standard did not permit the extreme gyrations in bond yields we have seen between Fed Chairmen Volcker and Bernanke.  Relatively steady bond yields of 2-5 percent from 1789 to 1970 under a gold standard obviously tell us little about stock market booms and busts at that time. Contrary to Hulbert and Estrada, however, the U.S. relationship between the e-p ratio and the 10 year bond yield remained remarkably tight from 1970 to 2008. From 1988 to 2008, the e-p ratio averaged 4.9 and the 10-year bond averaged 6 percent.

For reasons I recently discussed in Barron’s, the Reynolds Model also failed during recent years of “quantitative easing,” when the Fed began massive purchases of government bonds.  Today, the e-p ratio is slightly higher than the 1988-2008 average (5.4), which means the p-e ratio is lower, even though the 10-year bond is only half the recent norm. What the Reynolds Model tells us is the e-p ratio is not low, and the p-e ratio is likewise not high, unless the interest rate on 10-year bonds rises to at least 5 percent (which seems unlikely so long as nominal GDP keeps growing more slowly than that).

Stock prices have risen because of rising earnings, not because of a high multiple of stock prices to earnings.  Any downside risks are far more likely to come from shocks to earnings (such as another oil price spike) rather than some spontaneous decline in multiples.