As much as investors might like to believe that the U.S. stock market is still “grinding higher” in 2015, the reality is that it may be grinding to a halt. S&P 500 stocks have been stuck in a 4% trading ranged for the last 10 weeks; they’ve been stuck in a 2% trading range for approximately one month.
The reasons for the range-bound entanglement? One might point to rising bond yields. Others might see an economy that is inching perilously close to contraction – an economy that would only be hampered further by rising borrowing costs. Still others fear super-sized strength in the U.S. dollar and its adverse impact on the profits of U.S. corporations.
Each of these concerns certainly has something to do with the narrow trading range for U.S. stocks. Yet the argument can be made that none of these issues is as powerful as the expressed desires of the Federal Reserve. They want to be seen as accommodating as they maintain historically low overnight lending rates and they want to be seen as proactive in hiking borrowing costs ever so slightly at some point in 2015. Unfortunately, the high-wire act may be more difficult than members of the Fed bargain for. First of all, the U.S. economy has shown few signs of being able to handle the removal of any borrowing cost stimulus. Secondly, the mere expression of an intent to “normalize” rate policy has already created mini temper-tantrums in bonds and currencies.
Ironically enough, the big story in 2015 may not even be the Fed’s hope for tightening monetary policy in the summer or fall. On the contrary. Judging by the relative strength of international stock ETFs in 2015 – a four-and-a-half month period where central banks across the rest of the world have slashed rates/engaged in policy easing nearly 50 times already – investors have been chasing the stimulus train.