How Rates AND Stocks Can Go Higher


September 13, 2016, 4:00pm EST

Global markets continue to swing around today.  Remember, the past couple of days we’ve looked at the three most important markets in the world right now: U.S., German and Japanese 10-year government bonds.

In recent days, German and Japanese debt have swung back into positive territory.  That’s a huge signal for markets, and it’s sustaining today – with German 10-year yields now at +8 basis points, and Japanese yields hanging around the zero line, after six months in negative territory.

Stocks are on the slide again, though.  And the volatility index for stocks is surging again.  Those two observations alone would have you thinking risk is elevated and perhaps a “calling uncle” stage is upon us and/or coming down the pike, especially if it’s a bubbly bond market.  If that’s the case, gold should be screaming.  It’s not. Gold is down today, steadily falling over the past five days.

So if you have a penchant for understanding and diagnosing every tick in the markets, as the media does, you will likely be a little confused by the inter-market relationships of the past few days.

That’s been the prevailing message from the Delivering Alpha conference today in New York:  Confusion.  Delivering Alpha is another high profile, big investor/best ideas conference.  There are several conferences throughout the year now that the media covers heavily.  And it’s been a platform for big investors to talk their books and, sometimes, get some meaningful follow on support for their positions.

Interestingly, one of the panelist today, Bill Miller, thinks we’ll see continued higher stocks, but lower bonds (i.e. higher yields/rates). Miller is a legendary fund manager. He beat the market 15 consecutive years, from the 90s into the early 2000s.
Miller’s view fits nicely with the themes we talk about here in my daily notes.  Still, people are having a hard time understanding the disconnect between this theme and the historical relationship between stocks and bonds.

Let’s talk about why …

Historically, when rates go up, stocks go down — and vice versa.  There is an inverse correlation.

This see-saw of capital flow from stocks to bonds tends to happen, in normal times, when stocks are hot and the economy is hot and the Fed responds with a rate hiking cycle.  The rate path cools the economy, which puts pressure on stocks.  That’s a signal to sell.  And rising rates creates a more attractive risk-adjusted return for investors, so money moves out of stocks and into bonds.

But in this world, when the Fed is moving off of the zero line for rates, with the hope of being able to escape emergency policies and slowly normalize rates, they aren’t doing it with the intent of cooling off a hot economy (as would be the motive in normal times).  They’re doing it and praying that they don’t cool off or destabilize a sluggishly growing economy.  They’re hoping that a slow “normalization” in rates can actually provide some positive influence on the economy, by 1) sending a message to consumers and businesses that the economy is strong enough and robust enough to end emergency level policy.  And by 2) restoring some degree of proper function in the financial system via a risk-free yield.  Better economic outlook is good for stocks.  And historically, when rates are lower than normal (under the long term average of 3% on the Fed Funds rate), P/E multiples run north of 20 – which gives plenty of room for multiple expansion on expected earnings (i.e. supports the bullish stocks case).

That’s why I think stocks go higher and rates go higher in the U.S.  I assume that’s why Bill Miller (the legendary fund manager) thinks so too. It all assumes the ECB and the BOJ do their part – carrying the QE torch, which translates to, standing ready to act against any shocks that could derail the global economy.

But even if the Fed is able to carry on with a higher rate path, they continue to walk that fine line, as we discussed yesterday, of managing a slow crawl higher in key benchmark market rates (like the 10-year yield). An abrupt move higher in market rates would undo a lot of economic progress by killing the housing market recovery and resetting consumer loans higher (killing consumer spending and activity).

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