The media are telling us that U.S. stocks have been under pressure this January due to global growth fears and an accompanying rout across the entire commodity space. Yet that only tells a small part of the story. After all, the S&P 500 SPDR Trust (SPY) has performed quite admirably over the past three years, blissfully unresponsive to the global growth woes reflected in ETFs like Vanguard Emerging Markets (VWO) and iPath SJ-UBS Commodity Index (DJP).
If foreign economic stagnation and commodity price depreciation is an old story, then why are U.S. equities suddenly responding as though the U.S. economy might be in danger? Where’s the enthusiasm for the enormous stimulus associated with cheap oil and gas? What happened to the euphoria over the best job growth since 1999?
In truth, the daily volatility over the last 10 weeks is primarily attributable to the Federal Reserve terminating its third iteration of “QE” back in October – an electronic money creating, bond-buying program that resulted in the Fed acquiring trillions in U.S. debt. Consider the reality that when the Fed removed a large portion of the supply of treasuries, investors who would have bought those treasuries had to buy assets like instead. This reduced the borrowing costs for corporations and allowed many of them to refinance debts as well as buy back shares of their own stock. Up went the stock market. Similarly, the Fed removed a large portion of the supply of mortgage-backed securities, ultimately lowering the mortgage costs for real estate. Up went the housing market.
An increase in the net worth of corporations, small businesses as well as wealthier families did create an atmosphere for greater economic confidence. However, with the Federal Reserve hinting that overnight lending rates might go up as soon as April, butterflies flapping their wings in Rio de Janeiro and Beijing have been creating tremors for U.S. equities. In essence, the stock market is not so sure that our “booming” domestic economy is a self-sustaining wonderland in the absence of central bank stimulus.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the relatively tranquil progress of the FTSE Custom Multi-Asset Stock Hedge Index. In the ten weeks since QE ended (through Jan 14), the index has quietly gained 2.5% while the S&P 500 has fluctuated wildly on its way to being flat. (Note: These results do not yet account for Wednesday’s stock declines.)