Over the last two weeks, after making good on the four-rate interest hike of 2018, Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, became more dovish to start 2019.
His change in tone is worth considering because of his historical stance on reducing the amount of artificial stimulus coming from the Fed. Last week, after the required five-year holding period for Fed transcripts were up, we got a glimpse into Powell’s thoughts from 2013, before he was Chairman.
Powell tried to persuade then-Chairman, Ben Bernanke, to reduce the Fed’s stimulus, even though it would lead to greater near-term market volatility. That was when the third round of the Fed’s asset-buying program (QE3) was in full swing. The Fed was purchasing an estimated $85 billion per month mix of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities.
To indicate that the Fed wouldn’t buy bonds forever, Bernanke floated the idea of slowing down its program, or “tapering,” at some non-defined future date.
Powell, on the other hand, believed the market needed a specific “road map” of the Fed’s intentions. He said that he wasn’t “concerned about a little bit of volatility” though he was “concerned that there may be more than that here.”
Indeed, once Bernanke publicly announced the possibility of the Fed’s bond-buying program slowing down, the market tanked, in a response that became known as a “taper tantrum.” As a result, Bernanke backed off the tapering idea.
Fear of more taper tantrums kept the Fed in check after that. The Fed ultimately waited until it had raised rates sufficiently, before starting to cut the size of its balance sheet. But now Powell is the Chairman. And it seems that he is much less comfortable with volatility than he was under Bernanke, as his most recent remarks indicate.
But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Fed chairman has modified his views when he was in control. Alan Greenspan, for example, was a staunch advocate of the gold standard when he was younger (and as presented in Foreign Affairs). But once he was Fed head, suddenly he thought a gold standard wasn’t such a hot idea after all. Go figure.
In the case of Jerome Powell, his new sensitivity to volatility means the Fed will be watching the markets for high volatility that causes sell-offs, even if also espousing their “data driven” mentality. And that he is prepared to act should that happen by backing off the Fed’s current forecast for reducing its balance sheet.
I’ve argued before that the Fed isn’t reducing its balance sheet as aggressively as it would have you believe. And I certainly expect it to dial back even more so in light of the recent volatility.
The reason is obvious.
The main catalyst for the bull market that surfaced over the past 10 years since the financial crisis in 2008 was stimulus that was fueled by the Fed and other leading central banks. This money acted as an artificial stimulant or “drug” to financial asset prices.
The world’s leading central banks have been following the Fed’s lead in withdrawing liquidity. And even though global liquidity really began drying up late last year to a minimal degree relative to its size, it should come as no surprise that markets have threw a tantrum.
Since early October, we’ve seen a lot of price volatility, with several hundred-point daily swings in the markets becoming the norm. Powell calmed the waters with his dovish comments on January 4 and the following week as well. But make no mistake, the waters are still choppy.
Many on Wall Street expect to see more volatility ahead and are forecasting that 2019 will be rocky for the stock market. But others on Wall Street are, in direct contrast, forecasting a continued bull market.
That’s the other driver of volatility — clashing opinions and wildly divergent market forecasts. We haven’t had much volatility in recent years because nearly everyone was on the same side of the bet. That’s all changed now.
To add to the market turmoil, the federal government shutdown has now officially entered its fourth week. It is now the longest shutdown on record. But the shutdown also has real economic ramifications outside of the DC beltway.
First, in a climate where the expansion of business activity is already slowing down, the shutdown is causing economists to further lower first-quarter GDP estimates. That puts a lid on expansion and hiring plans for both psychological and actual risk reasons.
More than 800,000 federal workers have missed paychecks, which means less money to pay bills and purchase goods and services that contribute to the American economy. But that’s not the only problem, although it might seem far more important, especially to those missing paychecks.
From an information standpoint, the state of the economy is tough to predict without data produced by agencies like the Department of Commerce. For instance, farmers, already hurting from trade wars, won’t be able to get key data on figures like monthly international shipments to plan crop schedules.
Then there’s the Federal Reserve itself. Whether you think it should or not be setting interest rates at all, the Fed determines interest rates while considering factors such as market volatility, slowing economic figures and trade wars. The best way to do that is to access real data. Now, business conditions will be hard to gauge accurately if reports aren’t available due to the shutdown.
That means the shutdown will stoke volatility in the markets until an agreement is reached. And when that will be is anybody’s guess right now. No real progress has been made and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.
But this week, the markets will be getting new information to digest. The release of fourth-quarter earnings reports will begin with big banks. These will provide more insight into how companies performed during the year-end volatility in 2018.
The corporate earnings outlook on Wall Street is fairly negative. Companies have been managing expectations downward. Apple, for instance, chopped its forecasted revenue figures last month, citing the slowdown in China’s economic growth as a reason for less iPhone sales. Apple stock lost about 10% on the day of the announcement, taking the overall market down with it.
Analysts are now estimating fourth quarter profit growth of 14.5% for the S&P 500 companies. That’s down from the 20.1% they forecast at the start of the quarter. But that could actually be a good thing for share prices.
The lower the bar, the greater the possibility it can be exceeded. There’s more upside potential in that case, in other words. That means if earnings begin to outperform prior forecasts next week, it could very well lift the markets. This tension of negative and positives factors will foster a see-saw of a quarter in the markets mixed with volatility, so being aware and nimble will be the best strategy.
But the volatility could present a great trading opportunity. Wall Street knows that it doesn’t matter if information is positive or negative — there are still ways to profit from the right information.
Something called the Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) is widely considered a “fear gauge.” That’s because it’s supposed to reflect what swings in the S&P 500 index could be over the next month.
The VIX computes its levels based on outstanding options contracts which are supposed to indicate the price that investors, or speculators, are willing to pay for protection against their positions going bad.
Currently, the VIX should be higher than it is. It recently spiked, but then settled down much lower than what the real volatility of the S&P has been this past month.
Usually, options tend to over-price volatility. That’s because people buy options in order to place bets on the future, or to protect themselves from wild swings in share prices. The less certain they are, the more they are willing to pay for that protection.
Yet, right now, the cost of protection is cheap. That’s like your health insurance premium all of a sudden dropping just when you catch a major illness. It doesn’t quite make sense.
That means that while fourth-quarter earnings season reports are emerging, it’s a good time to take advantage of buying these cheap options. Buying them on certain companies can protect you against adverse swings in share prices due to earnings announcements. It’s a form of portfolio insurance. And again, it’s relatively cheap.
That’s one pivotal key to being a great investor — accessing information. Sure, the more insights and information you have, the more overwhelming it can seem. However, if you can stay focused, your portfolio will thank you.
for The Daily Reckoning