The Inexplicable Divergence
After the closing bell last Thursday, four heavyweights in the S&P 500 index (NYSEARCA:SPY) reported results that disappointed investors. The following morning, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) and Visa (NYSE:V) were all down 4% or more in pre-market trading, yet the headlines read “futures flat even as some big names tumble post-earnings.” This was stunning, as I can remember in the not too distant past when a horrible day for just one of these goliaths would have sent the broad market reeling due to the implications they had for their respective sector and the market as a whole. Today, this is no longer the case, as the vast majority of stocks were higher at the opening of trade on Friday, while the S&P 500 managed to close unchanged and the Russell 2000 (NYSEARCA:IWM) rallied nearly 1%.
This is but one example of the inexplicable divergence between the performance of the stock market and the fundamentals that it is ultimately supposed to reflect – a phenomenon that has happened with such frequency that it is becoming the norm. It is as though an indiscriminate buyer with very deep pockets has been supporting the share price of every stock, other than the handful in which the selling is overwhelming due to company-specific criteria. Then again, there have been rare occasions when this buyer seems to disappear.
Why did the stock market cascade during the first six weeks of the year? I initially thought that the market was finally discounting fundamentals that had been deteriorating for months, but the swift recovery we have seen to date, absent any improvement in the fundamentals, invalidates that theory. I then surmised, along with the consensus, that the drop in the broad market was a reaction to the increase in short-term interest rates, but this event had been telegraphed repeatedly well in advance. Lastly, I concluded that the steep slide in stocks was the result of the temporary suspension of corporate stock buybacks that occur during every earnings season, but this loss of demand has had only a negligible effect during the month of April.
The bottom line is that the fundamentals don’t seem to matter, and they haven’t mattered for a very long time. Instead, I think that there is a more powerful force at work, which is dictating the short- to intermediate-term moves in the broad market, and bringing new meaning to the phrase, “don’t fight the Fed.” I was under the impression that the central bank’s influence over the stock market had waned significantly when it concluded its bond-buying programs, otherwise known as quantitative easing, or QE. Now I realize that I was wrong.
The Monetary Base
In my view, the most influential force in our financial markets continues to be the ebb and flow of the monetary base, which is controlled by the Federal Reserve. In layman’s terms, the monetary base includes the total amount of currency in public circulation in addition to the currency held by banks, like Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) and JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM), as reserves.
Bank reserves are deposits that are not being lent out to a bank’s customers. Instead, they are either held with the central bank to meet minimum reserve requirements or held as excess reserves over and above these requirements. Excess reserves in the banking system have increased from what was a mere $1.9 billion in August 2008 to approximately $2.4 trillion today. This accounts for the majority of the unprecedented increase in the monetary base, which now totals a staggering $3.9 trillion, over the past seven years.
The Federal Reserve can increase or decrease the size of the monetary base by buying or selling government bonds through a select list of the largest banks that serve as primary dealers. When the Fed was conducting its QE programs, which ended in October 2014, it was purchasing US Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, and then crediting the accounts of the primary dealers with the equivalent value in currency, which would show up as excess reserves in the banking system.
A Correlation Emerges
Prior to the financial crisis, the monetary base grew at a very steady rate consistent with the rate of growth in the US economy, as one might expect. There was no change in the growth rate during the booms and busts in the stock market that occurred in 2000 and 2008, as can be seen below. It wasn’t until the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented monetary policy intervention that began during the financial crisis that the monetary base soared, but something else also happened. A very close correlation emerged between the rising value of the overall stock market and the growth in the monetary base.
It is well understood that the Fed’s QE programs fueled demand for higher risk assets, including common stocks. The consensus view has been that the Fed spurred investor demand for stocks by lowering the interest rate on the more conservative investments it was buying, making them less attractive, which encouraged investors to take more risk.
Still, this does not explain the very strong correlation between the rising value of the stock market and the increase in the monetary base. This is where conspiracy theories arise, and the relevance of this data is lost. It would be a lot easier to measure the significance of this correlation if I had proof that the investment banks that serve as primary dealers had been piling excess reserves into the stock market month after month over the past seven years. I cannot. What is important for investors to recognize is that an undeniable correlation exists, and it strengthens as we shorten the timeline to approach present day.
The Correlation Cuts Both Ways
Notice that the monetary base (red line) peaked in October 2014, when the Fed stopped buying bonds. From that point moving forward, the monetary base has oscillated up and down in what is a very modest downtrend, similar to that of the overall stock market, which peaked a few months later.
What I have come to realize is that these ebbs and flows continue to have a measurable impact on the value of the overall stock market, but in both directions! This is important for investors to understand if the Fed continues to tighten monetary policy later this year, which would require reducing the monetary base.
If we look at the fluctuations in the monetary base over just the past year, in relation to the performance of the stock market, a pattern emerges, as can be seen below. A decline in the monetary base leads a decline in the stock market, and an increase in the monetary base leads a rally in the stock market. The monetary base is serving as a leading indicator of sorts. The one exception, given the severity of the decline in the stock market, would be last August. At that time, investors were anticipating the first rate increase by the Federal Reserve, which didn’t happen, and the stock market recovered along with the rise in the monetary base.
If we replace the fluctuations in the monetary base with the fluctuations in excess bank reserves, the same correlation exists with stock prices, as can be seen below. The image that comes to mind is that of a bathtub filled with water, or liquidity, in the form of excess bank reserves. This liquidity is supporting the stock market. When the Fed pulls the drain plug, withdrawing liquidity, the water level falls and so does the stock market. The Fed then plugs the drain, turns on the faucet and allows the tub to fill back up with water, injecting liquidity back into the banking system, and the stock market recovers. Could this be the indiscriminate buyer that I mentioned previously at work in the market? I don’t know.
What I can’t do is draw a road map that shows exactly how an increase or decrease in excess reserves leads to the buying or selling of stocks, especially over the last 12 months. The deadline for banks to comply with the Volcker Rule, which bans proprietary trading, was only nine months ago. Who knows what the largest domestic banks that hold the vast majority of the $2.4 trillion in excess reserves were doing on the investment front in the years prior. As recently as January 2015, traders at JPMorgan made a whopping $300 million in one day trading Swiss francs on what was speculated to be a $1 billion bet. Was that a risky trade?
Despite the ban on proprietary trading imposed by the Volcker Rule, there are countless loopholes that weaken the statute. For example, banks can continue to trade physical commodities, just not commodity derivatives. Excluded from the ban are repos, reverse repos and securities lending, through which a lot of speculation takes place. There is also an exclusion for what is called “liquidity management,” which allows a bank to put all of its relatively safe holdings in an account and manage them with no restrictions on trading, so long as there is a written plan. The bank can hold anything it wants in the account so long as it is a liquid security.
My favorite loophole is the one that allows a bank to facilitate client transactions. This means that if a bank has clients that its traders think might want to own certain stocks or stock-related securities, it can trade in those securities, regardless of whether or not the clients buy them. Banks can also engage in high-frequency trading through dark pools, which mask their trading activity altogether.
As a friend of mine who is a trader for one of the largest US banks told me last week, he can buy whatever he wants within his area of expertise, with the intent to make a market and a profit, so long as he sells the security within six months. If he doesn’t sell it within six months, he is hit with a Volcker Rule violation. I asked him what the consequences of that would be, to which he replied, “a slap on the wrist.”
Regardless of the investment activities of the largest banks, it is clear that a change in the total amount of excess reserves in the banking system has a significant impact on the value of the overall stock market. The only conclusion that I can definitively come to is that as excess reserves increase, liquidity is created, leading to an increase in demand for financial assets, including stocks, and prices rise. When that liquidity is withdrawn, prices fall. The demand for higher risk financial assets that this liquidity is creating is overriding any supply, or selling, that results from a deterioration in market fundamentals.
There is one aspect of excess reserves that is important to understand. If a bank uses excess reserves to buy a security, that transaction does not reduce the total amount of reserves in the banking system. It simply transfers the reserves from the buyer to the seller, or to the bank account in which the seller deposits the proceeds from the sale, if that seller is not another bank. It does change the composition of the reserves, as 10% of the new deposit becomes required reserves and the remaining 90% remains as excess reserves. The Fed is the only institution that can change the total amount of excess reserves in the banking system, and as it has begun to do so over the past year, I think it is finally realizing that it must reap what it has sown.
In order to tighten monetary policy, the Federal Reserve must drain the banking system of the excess reserves it has created, but it doesn’t want to sell any of the bonds that it has purchased. It continues to reinvest the proceeds of maturing securities. As can be seen below, it holds approximately $4.5 trillion in assets, a number which has remained constant over the past 18 months.
Therefore, in order to drain reserves, thereby reducing the size of the monetary base, the Fed has been lending out its bonds on a temporary basis in exchange for the reserves that the bond purchases created. These transactions are called reverse repurchase agreements. This is how the Fed has been reducing the monetary base, while still holding all of its assets, as can be seen below.
There has been a gradual increase in the volume of repurchase agreements outstanding over the past two years, which has resulted in a gradual decline in the monetary base and excess reserves, as can be seen below.
I am certain that the Fed recognizes the correlation between the rise and fall in excess reserves, and the rise and fall in the stock market. This is why it has been so reluctant to tighten monetary policy further. In lieu of being transparent, it continues to come up with excuses for why it must hold off on further tightening, which have very little to do with the domestic economy. The Fed rightfully fears that a significant market decline will thwart the progress it has made so far in meeting its mandate of full employment and a rate of inflation that approaches 2% (stable prices).
The conundrum the Fed faces is that if the rate of inflation rises above its target of 2%, forcing it to further drain excess bank reserves and increase short-term interest rates, it is likely to significantly deflate the value of financial assets, based on the correlation that I have shown. This will have dire consequences both for consumer spending and sentiment, and for what is already a stall-speed rate of economic growth. Slower rates of economic growth feed into a further deterioration in market fundamentals, which leads to even lower stock prices, and a negative-feedback loop develops. This reminds me of the deflationary spiral that took place during the financial crisis.
The Fed’s preferred measurement of inflation is the core Personal Consumption Expenditures, or PCE, price index, which excludes food and energy. The latest year-over-year increase of 1.7% is the highest since February 2013, and it is rapidly closing in on the Fed’s 2% target even though the rate of economic growth is moving in the opposite direction, as can be seen below.
If you have been wondering, as I have, why the stock market has been able to thumb its nose at an ongoing recession in corporate profits and revenues that started more than a year ago, I think you will find the answer in $2.4 trillion of excess reserves in the banking system. It is this abundance of liquidity, for which the real economy has no use, that is decoupling the stock market from economic fundamentals. The Fed has distorted the natural pricing mechanism of a free market, and at some point in the future, we will all learn that this distortion has a great cost.
Alan Greenspan once said, “how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values?” Open your eyes.
What you see in the chart below is a bubble. It is much different than the asset bubbles we experienced in technology stocks and home prices, which is why it has gone largely unnoticed. It is similar from the standpoint that it has been built on exaggerated expectations of future growth. It is a bubble of the Fed’s own making, built on the expectation that an unprecedented increase in the monetary base and excess bank reserves would lead to faster rates of economic growth. It has clearly not. Instead, this mountain of money has either directly, or indirectly, flooded into financial assets, manipulating prices to levels well above what economic fundamentals would otherwise dictate.
The great irony of this bubble is that it is the achievement of the Fed’s objectives, for which the bubble was created, that will ultimately lead it to its bursting. It was an unprecedented amount of credit available at historically low interest rates that fueled the rise in home prices, and it has also been an unprecedented amount of credit at historically low interest rates that has fueled the rise in financial asset prices, including the stock market. How and when this bubble will be pricked remains a question mark, but what is certain is that the current level of excess reserves in the banking system that appear to be supporting financial markets cannot exist in perpetuity.
Article by Lawrence Fuller | Seeking Alpha