Fed, ECB, BOJ and Co. Need You To Buy Stocks

10/22/15

This morning, the European Central Bank primed global stocks by telegraphing more action (more stimulus) to respond to the recent shake up in global economic activity and sentiment.

It had to happen. In the grand scheme of things, the ECB’s sentiment manipulation this morning was the bare minimum of what had to be done.

The global central banks (led by the Fed) have spent, committed and promised trillions of dollars to manufacture the tepid recovery that’s underway, in hopes that they can bridge their way to the point where economies begin to organically grow again. That bridge has not yet reached the point of organic growth. And it’s not even that close. With that said, the recent collapse in oil prices, and the threat to an implosion of the energy sector was getting narrowly close to undoing what the central banks have done to this point. And, not only is another downturn unpalatable, but it’s apocalyptic. The bullets have all been fired. Fiscal and monetary policy would have no shot to ward off another global destabilization.

The plan for the continuation of the global central bank-led (and manufactured) economic recovery has been clear. And the evolution, where the U.S. economy began leading global growth, while Europe and Japan were just embarking on big and bold stimulus is likely the reason Bernanke felt comfortable enough to exit. Think about it, the Fed hands off of the QE baton to the ECB (Europe) and the BOJ (Japan). Meanwhile, the Fed can make the first step in moving away from emergency policies. Europe and Japan have all of the ingredients to execute on their big QE promises to continue providing fuel for global growth and stability (they need a weaker currency).

The Fed’s exit from emergency policies shows their confidence in the economic recovery. And the ECB and BOJ can “print away”, suppressing global market interest rates (which helps the Fed), fueling higher global stock prices (which helps everyone), and fueling capital flows into the U.S. to further bolster U.S. recovery.

The question is often asked, when referring to QE, “what is the transmission mechanism?”

Here’s the answer: 1) Stability – QE assures people that the central bank(s) are there, acting, and ready to do more, if needed, to defend against any further shocks to the global economy and financial system. That creates stability. And with that stability backdrop, major central banks promote incentives for people to borrow again, to spend again, to hire again. 2) Risk-Taking - Ultra-low interest rates and a stable environment promotes the rebirth of housing activity, and encourages investors to reach further out on the risk curve for more return. That means more demand for stocks, and higher stock prices. Higher stocks and higher housing prices create paper wealth. Paper wealth gives people comfort to borrow again, to spend again and to hire again.

That has been the recipe. And it has worked! The key ingredients continue to be higher stocks and higher housing prices (even if at a modest growth rate).

Central Banks Need You To Buy Stocks

With the ECB doubling down on their commitment to do “whatever it takes” and with the architect of the massive
QE program in Japan, Prime Minister Abe, uttering those same words in the past month, the pressure valve on the Fed has been released and should clear the path for the Fed to make its first move on interest rates in nine years this coming December.

When we consider where we’ve been (fighting back from what was potentially the Great Apocalypse of economic crises), and how the economy is performing now, the fact that the Fed thinks the economy is robust enough to remove emergency policies is, indeed, a time for celebration.

And with that, there are plenty of reasons to buy stocks, not just because central banks need you to. But frankly, most people don’t seem to understand this central bank dynamic anyway. And that’s precisely why sentiment has been gloomy on stocks for the entire recovery, dating back to the 2009 bottom.

Given this negative sentiment, with respect to the economic outlook and the outlook for stocks, it’s not surprising that the declines in stocks along the way have been sharper and more slippery because of this pervasive fear in the investment community. Along the way that has created great buying opportunities. This recent decline is no different. Often market sentiment tends to over emphasize events. And it tends to be wrong (contrarian). Nonetheless, when events pass, as we’ve seen along the way, regardless of the outcome, the fog lifts, and the underlying fundamentals return to dictate performance.

From a valuation standpoint, when rates are “low,” historically, the P/E ratio of the stock market tends to run north of 20. And, of course, we are not just in a low interest rate environment; we are in the mother of all low interest rate environments, even with the Fed ready to begin moving. North of 20 is precisely where the valuation on stocks has gone in the past year. Now, based on next year’s earnings estimate, the market is valued at just 15x. A move to 20x earnings would mean an S&P 500 around 2,600 by next year. That’s 30% higher than current levels.

Why would a low rate environment tend to mean higher valuations for stocks?

Economics are about incentives, and when rates are ultra-low, people are incentivized to switch out of bonds and into stocks, to seek higher yield/higher returns. When we think about the direct implications of this incentive dynamic, we look no further than the amount of cash that big funds are holding, and where that might find a home.

Historically, one of the most predictive indicators of stock market bottoms is how much cash fund managers are holding. Right now, cash is at levels only seen during the 2008-2009 Great Recession period. Fund managers are holding 5.5% of their portfolio in cash and their allocation to stocks are at the lowest levels since 2012. Furthermore, 35% of all funds are now overweight cash.

When you see fund managers so pessimistic on stocks, while holding so much cash, it has historically been a signal for a huge move in stocks. These managers are paid to invest, and cash has always been the dry powder that’s fueled every rally in stocks throughout history. When fund managers are not holding cash and are fully invested, they have no powder left to buy stocks. The only way they can buy a stock is to sell another stock, which usually occurs at market tops.

The last two times fund managers held this much cash while being so underweight stocks was 2009 and 2012.

What happened? A huge rally! Between 2009 and 2011, the S&P rose 41%. Between 2012 and 2014, the S&P 500 rose 46%.

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