S&P 500 rallies as Fed tightens

Stocks rallied, with the S&P 500 recovering above thew former primary support level at 4300. Follow-through above 4400 would be a short-term bull signal.

S&P 500

Markets were lifted by reports of progress on a Russia-Ukraine peace agreement — although that is unlikely to affect sanctions on Russia this year — while the Fed went ahead with “the most publicized quarter point rate hike in world history” according to Julian Brigden at MI2 Partners.


The Federal Reserve on Wednesday approved its first interest rate increase in more than three years, an incremental salvo to address spiraling inflation without torpedoing economic growth. After keeping its benchmark interest rate anchored near zero since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, the policymaking Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) said it will raise rates by a quarter percentage point, or 25 basis points….. Fed officials indicated the rate increases will come with slower economic growth this year. Along with the rate hikes, the committee also penciled in increases at each of the six remaining meetings this year, pointing to a consensus funds rate of 1.9% by year’s end. (CNBC)

Rate hikes are likely to continue at every meeting until the economy slows or the Fed breaks something — which is quite likely. To say the plumbing of the global financial system is complicated would be an understatement and we are already seeing reports of yield curves misbehaving (a negative yield curve warns of recession).

Federal Reserve policymakers have made “excellent progress” on their plan for reducing the central bank’s nearly $9 trillion balance sheet, and could finalize details at their next policy meeting in May, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday. Overall, he said, the plan will look “familiar” to when the Fed last reduced bond holdings between 2017 and 2019, “but it will be faster than the last time, and of course it’s much sooner in the cycle than last time.” (Reuters)

The last time the Fed tried to shrink its balance sheet, between 2017 and 2019, it caused repo rates (SOFR) to explode in September 2019. The Fed was panicked into lending in the repo market and restarting QE, ending their QT experiment.



Equities are unlikely to be fazed by initial rate hikes but markets are highly sensitive to liquidity. A decline in the Fed’s balance sheet would be mirrored by a fall in M2 money supply.

M2 Money Supply/GDP & Fed Total Assets/GDP

And a similar decline in stocks.

S&P 500 & Fed Total Assets

Ukraine & Russia

Unfortunately, Ukrainian and French officials poured cold water on prospects of an early ceasefire.

Annmarie Horden

Neil Ellis

Samuel Ramani


Financial markets were correct not be alarmed by the prospect of Fed rate hikes. The real interest rate remains deeply negative. But commencement of quantitative tightening (QT) in May is likely to drain liquidity, causing stocks to decline.

Relief over prospects of a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire and/or any reductions in sanctions is premature.

The bear market is likely to continue.

Inflation is coming

Inflation tops investor concerns according to Fed report

Concerns over higher inflation and tighter monetary policy have become the top concern for market participants, pushing aside the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Reserve said on Monday in its latest report on financial stability. ….Roughly 70% of market participants surveyed by the Fed flagged inflation and tighter Fed policy as their top concern over the next 12 to 18 months, ahead of vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variants and a potential Chinese regulatory crackdown. (Investing.com)

The market is no longer buying the Fed’s talk of “transitory” inflation.

Fed’s Bullard expects two rate hikes in 2022

St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard on Monday said he expects the Fed to raise interest rates twice in 2022 after it wraps up its bond-buying taper mid-year, though he said if needed the Fed could speed up that timeline to end the taper in the first quarter. “If inflation is more persistent than we are saying right now, then I think we may have to take a little sooner action in order to keep inflation under control,” Bullard said in an interview on Fox Business Network……Bullard has been among the Fed’s biggest advocates for an earlier end to the Fed’s policy easing, given his worries that inflation may not moderate as quickly or as much as many of his colleagues think it will. (Reuters)

The Fed are reluctant to hike interest rates, to rein in inflationary pressures, as it would kill the recovery.

Producer Price Index

Producer prices (PPI) climbed more than 22% in the 12 months to October 2021, close to the high from 1974 (23.4%). Consumer prices have diverged from PPI in recent years but such a sharp rise in PPI still poses a threat to the economy.

Producer Price Index (PPI) & Consumer Price Index (CPI)

Iron and steel prices, up more than 100% year-on-year (YoY), will inevitably lead to price increases for automobiles and consumer durables. Other notable YoY increases in key inputs are construction materials (+30.6%), industrial chemicals (+47.3%), aluminium (+40.7%), and copper (+34.5%).

Producer Price Index: Commodities

Underlying many of the above price rises is a sharp increase in fuel, related products and power: up 55.7% over the past 12 months.

Producer Price Index: Fuel & Energy


Inflation is coming, while the Fed are reluctant to hike interest rates. Buy Gold, precious metals, commodities, real estate, and stocks with pricing power —  a strong competitive position which enables them to pass on price increases to their customers — if you can find them at reasonable prices. Avoid financial assets like bonds and bank term deposits.

Fed brings out the big bazooka

The Fed is on a war footing.

The FOMC announced that it will cut the funds rate to zero. Timing of the announcement — Sunday, March 15th at 5:00 p.m. — signals the level of urgency.

“Consistent with its statutory mandate, the [FOMC] Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The effects of the coronavirus will weigh on economic activity in the near term and pose risks to the economic outlook. In light of these developments, the Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate to 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee expects to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.”

Bond markets have been anticipating this cut since March 4th, when the 3-month T-bill rate plunged to 33 basis points.

Fed Funds Rate, Interest on Excess Reserves and 3-Month T-bills

The Fed also announced further QE of $700 billion, expanding its balance sheet by $500 billion in Treasury securities and $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS). This is in addition to the $1.5 trillion repo operations announced earlier in the week.

Fed Balance Sheet: Total Assets and Excess Reserves on Deposit

In a related announcement, the Fed is also encouraging banks to use the discount window, cutting the primary credit rate by 150 basis points to 0.25 percent, effective March 16, 2020.

“Narrowing the spread of the primary credit rate relative to the general level of overnight interest rates should help encourage more active use of the window by depository institutions to meet unexpected funding needs. To further enhance the role of the discount window as a tool for banks in addressing potential funding pressures, the Board also today announced that depository institutions may borrow from the discount window for periods as long as 90 days, prepayable and renewable by the borrower on a daily basis. The Federal Reserve continues to accept the same broad range of collateral for discount window loans…”

Not all the $1.5T repo facility is likely to be taken up — the Fed just used a big number for dramatic effect, to get everyone’s attention — but we expect the Fed’s balance sheet expansion to get close to $6 trillion (compared to $4.3T on March 11th) before this is over.

While these rescue operations are normally announced as temporary, they soon become permanent as the market resists any efforts to unwind the Fed’s role.

As I said on Saturday: “To infinity and beyond…

Serious plumbing problems at the Fed

Fed activities in repo markets are growing. They have already expanded their balance sheet by $335 billion since the beginning of September and the party is just getting started. Former Fed repo expert Zoltan Pozsar, now at Credit Suisse, warns that major banks are heavily overweight in US Treasuries and underweight in excess reserve deposits at the Fed. The result is likely to be a major liquidity squeeze over the December year-end, with the Fed balance sheet expected to expand to more than $4.5 trillion by mid-January – a total injection of close to $750 billion in little more than 3 months!

S&P 500 and Fed Assets

Pozsar is critical of the Fed’s strategy, warning that purchases of short-term T-bills (done to avoid flattening the yield curve) will not solve the problem as the banks need to sell longer-term Treasuries in order to improve liquidity. Current operations have failed to lift excess reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Excess Reserves on Deposit and Fed Assets

The result, according to Pozsar, is that the Fed may be forced to commence QE4 — purchasing longer-term Treasuries despite its reluctance to do so. The alternative could be far worse:

“….the dismal liquidity situation within the US commercial bank sector is so dire, that the shortage of reserves will start a cascade of liquidations beginning in the FX swap market, progressing to Treasurys, and culminating in stocks… and a full-blown market crash.”

Underlying the repo crisis are the usual suspects, according to Zero Hedge:

….massively levered hedge funds engaging in Treasury relative value trades (think of these as a modern twist on the LTCM trade)

“High demand for secured (repo) funding from non-financial institutions, such as hedge funds heavily engaged in leveraging up relative value trades,” was a key factor behind the chaos according to Claudio Borio at the BIS.

The BIS’s finding was novel, and surprising, as it highlighted the “growing clout of hedge funds in the repo market” echoing something we pointed out one year ago: hedge funds such as Millennium, Citadel and Point 72 are not only active in the repo market, they are also the most heavily leveraged multi-strat funds in the world, taking something like $20-$30 billion and levering it up to $200 billion. They achieve said leverage using repo.

As baseball icon Yogi Berra said:

“It’s like deja-vu, all over again.”

Trade deal bearish for Gold

Donald Trump is talking up the prospects of a trade deal, while China remains non-commital, but experience has taught us to judge the two parties more by their actions than the rhetoric.

The Chinese Yuan is strengthening against the US Dollar, testing resistance at 14.35 US cents. A strengthening Yuan means lower USD reserves, driving US Treasury yields higher.

Chinese Yuan CNY/USD

10-Year Treasury yields are likely to again test 2.0%, weakening demand for Gold (higher yields increase the opportunity cost of holding precious metals).

10-Year Treasury Yields

The one counter to this scenario is if the Fed takes up the slack — left by low PBOC purchases — through its repo activity which is expected to reach $500 billion by the end of the year. The Fed is not buying Treasuries but instead may finance purchases by primary dealers and hedge funds at very low rates.

Gold continues to test support at $1450, while lower Trend Index peaks warn of selling pressure. Breach of support would offer a target of $1350/ounce.

Gold (USD/ounce)

Silver made a false break through support at $16.80/ounce but declining Trend Index peaks similarly warn of continued selling pressure.

Silver (USD/ounce)


Australia’s All Ordinaries Gold Index broke support at 6500, signaling continuation of the downward trend channel. Declining Trend Index peaks again warn of continued selling pressure

All Ordinaries Gold Index


Gold is in a long-term up-trend and the current correction may offer an attractive entry point. But we first need a breakout from the trend channel to confirm that the up-trend is intact.

NY Fed conducts first overnight repo in 10 years as rates surge

The last time that the New York Fed had to inject liquidity into financial markets via overnight repo operations was during the 2008 global financial crisis, when concerns over Bear Sterns and Lehman Bros were threatening to bring the financial system to its knees. From The Street:

The New York branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve said Tuesday that it was prepared to add as much as $75 billion in cash to broader markets in order to hold the Fed’s key rate inside its target range.

The so-called Repo operation, during which twenty four Primary Dealers in the Fed system can exchange eligible collateral, such as U.S. Treasury bonds or mortgage-backed securities, for cash. The move comes amid a massive surge in the price of what is known as ‘general collateral”, which is normally the cheapest batch of securities that banks use to pledge against cash, or other assets.

The costs for borrowing general collateral, often referred to as GC, spiked by 2.5% on Monday, and was followed by a 6% surge today, taking the price to as high as 8.75% at one point, some 6.5% higher than the upper-end of the Fed’s target rate range.

The Fed’s announced operation, however, pushed that overnight rate back down to 0% shortly after it was launched….

Steven Bartholomeusz at The Age suggests that the liquidity squeeze may be an anomaly:

There was an unusual confluence of events in the past few days that may have exacerbated underlying structural problems within the market.

US companies paid their quarterly taxes on September 15. They often prepare for the payment by parking the funds in short term money market fund accounts to generate a return.

The payments of those taxes, estimated at more than $US100 billion, meant a large amount of cash was withdrawn from those funds, which are a source of the cash for repo deals.

At almost the same time there was a settlement of auctions of about $US78 billion of Treasury bonds. With only about $US24 billion of bonds maturing at the same time that meant about $US54 billion of net cash was drained from the market to pay for those bonds.

The Financial Times’ Alphaville blog posited another strand to the explanation for the dollar shortage, albeit one it described as “highly speculative,’’ suggesting that the severe spike in oil prices after the drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s most important oil processing complex might have triggered margin calls in oil futures markets, forcing a frantic scramble for US dollar-denominated cash.

Quarterly tax payments are a regular occurrence and the markets are accustomed to dealing with them as part of the quarterly cycle. Large fiscal deficits causing a net issue of $54 billion in Treasuries is a more likely culprit. The first rule of margin calls is never meet a margin call, so that seems an unlikely cause, but the spike in oil prices may have impacted elsewhere on financial markets.

We need to be on the lookout for a repeat. Demand for cash is surging. The graph of broad money (MZM plus time deposits) below shows a surge in broad money ahead of the last two recessions. And another worrying rise this year.

Broad Money: MZM plus Time Deposits

Buybacks, interest rates and declining growth

The Fed did a sharp about-turn on interest rates this week: a majority of FOMC members now expect no rate increases this year. Long-term treasury yields are falling, with the 10-Year breaking support at 2.55/2.60 percent. Expect a test of 2.0%.

10-Year Treasury Yields

While the initial reaction of stocks was typically bullish, the S&P 500 Volatility Index (21-day) turned up above 1.0%, indicating risk remains elevated.

S&P 500

The reason for the Fed reversal — anticipated lower growth rates — is also likely to weigh on the market.

Stocks are already over-priced, with an S&P 500 earnings multiple of 21.26, well above the October 1929 and 1987 peaks. With earnings growth expected to soften, there is little to justify current prices.

S&P 500 Price-earnings (PEmax)

The current rally is largely driven by stock buybacks ($286 billion YTD) which dwarf the paltry inflow from ETF investors into US equities ($18 billion YTD). We are also now entering the 4 to 6-week blackout period, prior to earnings releases, when stock repurchases are expected to dip.

Why do corporations continue to repurchase stock at high prices? Warren Buffett recently reminded investors that buybacks at above a stock’s intrinsic (fair) value erode shareholder wealth. If we look at the S&P 500 in the period 2004 to 2008, it is clear that corporations get carried away with stock buybacks during a boom and only cease when the market crashes. They support their stock price in the good times, then abandon it when the market falls.

S&P 500 Buybacks
source: S&P Dow Jones Indices

Shareholders would benefit if corporations did the exact opposite: refrain from buying stock during the boom, when valuations are high, and then pile into the stock when the market crashes and prices are low. Why doesn’t that happen?

The culprit is typically low interest rates. It is hard for management to resist when stock returns are more than double the cost of debt. Buybacks are an easy way of boosting stock performance (and executive bonuses).

Treasury Yields: 3-Month & 5-Year

Corporations are using every available cent to buy back stock. Dividends plus buybacks [purple line below] exceed reported earnings [green] in most quarters over the last five years.

S&P 500 Buybacks & Dividends compared to Earnings

That means that capital expenditure and acquisitions were funded either with new stock issues or, more likely, with debt.

Corporate debt has been growing as a percentage of GDP since the 1980s. The pace of debt growth slowed since 2017 (shown by a down-turn in the debt/GDP ratio) but continues to increase in nominal terms.

Corporate Debt/GDP

Low interest rates mean that stock buybacks are likely to continue — unless there is a fall in earnings. If earnings fall, buybacks shrink. Declining earnings mean there is less available cash flow to buy back stock and corporations become far more circumspect about using debt.

S&P forecasts that earnings will rise through 2019.

S&P 500 Earnings

But forecasts can change. Expected year-on-year earnings growth for the March 2019 quarter has been revised down to 3.5%. Forecasts for June and September remain at 12.0% and 11.4% (YoY growth) respectively.

S&P 500 Year-on-Year Earnings Growth Forecast

If nominal GDP continues to grow at around 5% (5.34% in Q4 2018) and the S&P 500 buyback yield increases to 3.0% (2.93% at Q3 2019 according to Yardeni Research) then earnings growth, by my calculation* should fall to around 8.2%.

*1.05/0.97 -1.

With an expected dividend yield of 2%, investors in the S&P 500 can expect a return of just over 10% p.a. (dividend yield plus growth).

But the Fed now expects growth rates to fall by about 1.1% in 2019 and 1.2% in 2020, which should bring investor returns down to around 9% p.a. Not a lot to get excited about.

I knew something was wrong somewhere, but I couldn’t spot it exactly. But if something was coming and I didn’t know where from, I couldn’t be on my guard against it. That being the case I’d better be out of the market.
~ Jesse Livermore

“Stocks rebound but sentiment soft”

From Bob Doll at Nuveen Investments. His weekly top themes:

1. We think the odds of a U.S. recession are low, but we also believe growth will remain soft for a couple of quarters. U.S. growth may bottom in the first half of 2019 following a relatively disappointing fourth quarter and the recent government shutdown. We expect growth will improve in the second half of the year.

Agreed, though growth is likely to remain soft for an extended period. The Philadelphia Fed Leading Index is easing but remains healthy at above 1.0% (December 2018).

Leading Index

2. Inflation remains low, but upward pressure is mounting. With unemployment under 4% and average hourly earnings rising to an annual 3.6% level, we may start to see prices rise. So far, better productivity growth has kept the lid on prices, but this trend bears watching.

Agreed. Average hourly earnings are rising and inflation may follow.

Hourly Earnings Growth

3. Trade issues remain a wildcard. The U.S./China trade dispute appears to be making progress, but the timeline is slipping and significant disagreement remains over tariff levels and intellectual property protections.

This is the dominant issue facing global markets. Call me skeptical but I don’t see a happy resolution. There is too much at stake for both parties. Expect a drawn out conflict over the next two decades.

4. We do not expect Brexit to cause widespread market issues. We think the risk of a hard Brexit is low, since no one wants to see that outcome. Some sort of soft separation or even a Brexit vote redo appears more likely.

Agreed. Hard Brexit is unlikely. Soft separation is likely, while no Brexit is most unlikely.

5. The health care sector may remain under pressure due to political rhetoric. Health care stocks in general, and managed care companies in particular, have struggled in light of talk about ending private health care coverage. We think Congress lacks the votes to enact such legislation. But this issue, as well as drug pricing policies, are likely to remain at the center of the political dialogue through the 2020 elections.

Health care is a political football and may take longer to resolve than the trade war with China.

6. Downward earnings revisions may present the largest risk for stocks. As recently as September 30, expectations for first quarter earnings growth were +7%. That slipped to +4% by January 1 and has since fallen to -3%.

A sharp fall in earnings would most likely spring from a steep rise in interest rates if the Fed had to combat rising inflation. That doesn’t seem imminent despite rising average hourly earnings. The Fed is maintaining money supply growth at close to 5.0%, around the same level as nominal GDP, keeping a lid on inflationary pressures.

Money Supply & Nominal GDP growth

7. Equity returns may be modest over the next decade compared to the last. Since the bull market began 10 years ago, U.S. stocks have appreciated over 400%. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that pace will be met again, but we feel confident that stocks will outperform Treasuries and cash over the next 10 years.

Expect modest returns on stocks, low interest rates, and low returns on bonds and cash.