Stocks: Winter is coming

GDP grew by a solid 10.64% for the 12 months ended March ’22 but that is in nominal terms.


GDP for the quarter slowed to 1.58%, while real GDP fell to -0.36%. Not only is growth slowing but inflation is taking a bigger bite.

GDP & Real GDP

The implicit price deflator climbed to 1.94% for the quarter — almost 8.0% when annualized.

GDP Implicit Price Deflator

Growth is expected to decline further as long-term interest rates rise.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Moody's Baa Corporate Bond Yield

Conventional monetary policy would be for the Fed to hike the funds rate (gray below) above CPI (red). But, with CPI at 8.56% for the 12 months to March and FFR at 0.20%, the Fed may be tempted to try unconventional methods to ease inflationary pressures.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI

That includes shrinking its $9 trillion balance sheet (QT).

During the pandemic, the Fed purchased almost $5 trillion of securities. The resulting shortage of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) caused long-terms yields to fall and a migration of investors to equities in search of yield.

The Fed is expected to commence QT in May at the rate of $95 billion per month — $60 billion in Treasuries and $35 billion in MBS — after a phase-in over the first three months. Long-term Treasury yields are likely to rise even faster, accompanied by a reverse flow from equities into bonds.

S&P 500 & Fed Total Assets

S&P 500 breach of support at 4200, signaling a bear market, would anticipate this.


Fed rate hikes combined with QT are expected to drive long-term interest rates higher and cause an outflow from equities into bonds.

A bear market (Winter) is coming.

RBA tapers

From Bill Evans at Westpac:

The Governor of the Reserve Bank has announced the intention to reduce the weekly purchases from $5 billion to $4 billion and not to extend its Yield Curve Target from the April 2024 bonds to the November 2024 bonds – two clear signs that policy is tightening…..

The decision to not extend the Yield Curve Target program to the November 2024 bonds….Giving up the option to extend the purchases at 0.1% to a 3 year 4 month bond from a 2 year 9 month bond, is effectively tightening policy.

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…

Irrational Exuberance

I believe this warrants a separate post:

The market is running on more stimulants than a Russian weight-lifter. Unemployment is near record lows but the US Treasury is still running trillion dollar deficits.

Federal Deficit & Unemployment

While the Fed is cutting interest rates.

Fed Funds Rate & Unemployment

And again expanding its balance sheet. More than twelve years after the GFC. The blue line reflects total assets on the Fed’s balance sheet, mainly Treasuries and MBS, while the orange line (right-hand scale) shows how shrinking excess reserves on deposit at the Fed have helped to create a $2 trillion surge in liquidity in financial markets since 2009. Even when the Fed was supposedly tightening, with a shrinking balance sheet, in 2018 to 2019.

Fed Totals Assets & Net of Excess Reserves on Deposit

The triple boost has lifted stock valuations to precarious highs. The chart below compares stock market capitalization to profits after tax over the past 60 years.

Market Cap/Profits After Tax

Ratios above 15 flag that stocks are over-priced and likely to correct. Peaks in 1987 and 2007, shortly before the GFC, are typical of an over-heated market. The Dotcom bubble reflected “irrational exuberance” — a phrase coined by then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan — and I believe we are entering a second such era.

Recovery of the economy under President Trump is no economic miracle, it is simply the triumph of monetary and fiscal stimulus over rational judgement. Trump knows that he has to keep the party going until November to win the upcoming election, so expect further excess. Whether he succeeds or not is unsure but one thing is certain: the longer the party goes on, the bigger the hangover.

William McChesney Martin Jr., the longest-serving Fed Chairman (1951 to 1970), famously described the role of the Fed as “to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.” Unfortunately Jerome Powell seems to have been sufficiently cowed by Trump’s threats (to replace him) and failed to follow that precedent. We are all likely to suffer the consequences.

S&P 500 bearish as Fed forced to expand

Juliet Declercq at JDI Research maintains that the normal business cycle has been replaced by a liquidity cycle, where market conditions are dictated by the ebb and flow of money from central banks. Risk will remain elevated for as long as natural price discovery is suppressed and risk-reward decisions are made in an artificial environment controlled by central bankers.

The Fed is again expanding its balance sheet (commonly known as QE) in response to the recent interest rate spike in repo markets.

Fed Assets and Excess Reserves on Deposit

Jeff Snider from Alhambra Partners maintains that the Dollar shortage has been signaled for some time. First by an inverted yield curve in Eurodollar futures, well ahead of in US Treasuries. Then in March 2019, the effective Fed Funds Rate (EFFR) stepped above the interest rate paid by the Fed on excess reserves (deposited by commercial banks at the Fed). According to Jeff, this showed that primary dealers were willing to pay a premium for liquidity. The likely explanation is that they anticipated a severe contraction in inter-bank markets, similar to 2008.

Effective Fed Funds Rate - Interest on Excess Reserves

When the spread spiked upwards in late September, the Fed finally woke up and started pumping money into the system, expanding their balance sheet by over $200 billion in the past few weeks.

Fed balance sheet expansion is normally welcomed by financial markets but broad money (MZM plus time deposits) is surging. Far from a reassuring sign, a similar surge occurred ahead of the last two recessions.

Broad Money

Bearish divergence between the S&P 500 and Trend Index on the daily chart warns of secondary selling pressure. An engulfing candle closed below 3000, strengthening the bear signal. Expect a test of secondary support at 2840.

S&P 500

Volatility (21-day) remains elevated. Volatility spikes at close to, or above, 2% normally accompany market down-turns signaled by arrows on the index chart. Note how rising troughs precede most down-turns and culminate in a trough above 1%. We are not there yet but Volatility above 1% is an amber-level warning.

S&P 500 Volatility

CEO Confidence is falling and normally precedes a fall in the S&P 500 index. What is more concerning is that confidence is at the same lows (right-hand scale) seen in 2001 and 2009.

CEO Confidence

Exercise caution. Probability of a down-turn is high and we maintain a reduced 34% exposure to international equities.

Gold’s hidden correction

There is a lot going on in global financial markets, with a Dollar/Eurodollar shortage forcing the Fed to intervene in the repo market. The Fed will not, on pain of death, call this QE. But it is. The only difference is that the Fed is purchasing short-term Treasury bills rather than long-term notes and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). The effect on the Fed’s balance sheet (and on Dollar reserves held by primary dealers) is the same.

Fed Assets

The effect on the Dollar has been dramatic, with a sharp dip in the Dollar Index. Interesting that this was forewarned by a bearish divergence on the Trend Index since June this year. Financial markets knew this was coming; they just didn’t shout it from the rooftops.

Dollar Index

Gold and precious metals normally surge in price when the Dollar weakens, to be expected as they are priced in USD, but Gold was already weakening, testing support at $1500/ounce.

Spot Gold in USD compared to Real 10-Year Treasury Yields

Silver was similarly testing support at $17.50/ounce.

Spot Silver

The falling Dollar has supported Gold and Silver despite downward pressure from other sources. In effect we have a “hidden” correction, with falling precious metal values obscured by falling unit values. Just as surely as if we had reduced the number of grams in an ounce….

Support for the Dollar would likely result in Gold and Silver breaking support, signaling a correction.

Australia’s All Ordinaries Gold Index, where the effect of the weakening greenback is secondary, has already broken support at 7200 after a similar bearish triangle (to Gold and Silver). Breach warns of another decline. Expect support at 6000.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

Patience is required. Gold is in a long-term up-trend, with a target of the 2012 high at $1800/ounce. A correction would offer an attractive entry point.

Gold: Reasons for the up-trend

Gold is in a medium- to long-term up-trend. Apart from record central bank purchases of bullion and a weakening Chinese Yuan, real long-term interest rates are declining.

The chart below highlights the inverse relationship between gold and real long-term interest rates (10-year Treasury yield minus CPI YoY%). When LT interest rates fall, gold prices surge.

Spot Gold in USD compared to Real 10-Year Treasury Yields

Treasury yields are falling because the Fed is cutting short-term interest rates but, more importantly, because QE has resumed. With the ECB driving bond yields into the negative, demand for Treasuries is surging.

The Fed has also reversed course, expanding their balance sheet after the recent liquidity squeeze forced them to resume overnight repos.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves on Deposit

Our target for Gold is the 2012 high of $1800/ounce.

A weak rally strengthens the bearish argument for China’s Yuan, suggesting continuation of the primary down-trend.


The Yuan is in a long-term down-trend against the Dollar that shows no signs of easing. Resolution of trade tensions is unlikely. Trade is merely the tip of the iceberg in a far wider clash between two global powers with conflicting ideologies which is likely to continue for decades.

Gold is testing support at $1495/ounce. Breach would warn of a correction.

Spot Gold in USD

Silver is similarly testing support. Breach of $17.50/ounce is likely and would warn of a correction, with Gold expected to follow.

Spot Silver in USD

The All Ordinaries Gold Index is trending lower. Breach of 7200 would warn of another decline, with a short-term target of 6500.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

Patience is required. Gold remains in a long-term up-trend and a correction may offer a sound entry point.

The Fed and Alice in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland a young Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures after falling down a rabbit hole. The new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will similarly have to lead global financial markets through a series of bizarre, unprecedented experiences.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Bros, financial markets were in complete disarray and in danger of imploding. The Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, embarked on an unprecedented (and unproven) rescue attempt — now known as quantitative easing or QE for short — injecting more than $3.5 trillion into the financial system through purchase of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

The Fed aimed to drive long-term interest rates down in the belief that this would encourage private sector borrowing and investment and revive the economy. Their efforts failed. Private sector borrowing did not revive. Most of the money injected ended up, unused by the private sector, as $2.5 trillion of excess commercial bank reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Fed Excess Reserves

Richard Koo pointed out that the private sector will under normal cirumstances respond to lower interest rates with increased borrowing but during a financial crisis, when their balance sheets have been destroyed and their liabilities exceed their assets, their sole focus is to restore their balance sheet, using surplus cash flow to pay down debt. The only way to prevent a collapse is for the government to step in and plug the gap, borrowing surplus capital and investing this in infrastructure.

One Pill Makes you Larger

Fortunately Bernanke got the message.

US and Euro Area Public Debt to GDP

… and spread the word.

Japan Public Debt to GDP

And One Pill Makes you Small

Unfortunately, other central banks also followed the Fed’s earlier lead, injecting vast sums into the financial system through quantitative easing (QE).

ECB and BOJ Total Assets

Driving long-term yields to levels even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to imagine.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Pool of Tears

Then in 2014, another twist in the tale. Long-term yields continued to fall in Europe and Japan, while US rates stabilised as Fed eased off on QE. A large differential appeared between US and European/Japanese rates (observable since 2014 on the above chart), causing a flood of money into the US, in pursuit of higher yields.

….. with an unwanted side-effect. The Dollar strengthened. Capital inflows caused the trade-weighted value of the US Dollar to spike upwards beween 2014 and 2016, damaging US export industries and local manufacturers facing competition from foreign imports.

US Trade-Weighted Dollar Index

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

A jobless recovery in manufacturing and low wage growth in turn led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promising increased protectionism against global competition.

US Manufacturing Jobs

Then in 2017, to the consternation of many, despite rising interest rates the US Dollar began to fall.

US TW Dollar Index in 2017

Learned analysis followed, ascribing the weakening Dollar to rising commodity prices and a recovery in emerging markets. But something doesn’t quite add up.

International bond investors are a pretty smart bunch. When they look at US bond markets, what do they see? The new Fed Chairman has inherited a massive headache.

Donald Trump is determined to stimulate job growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. This will certainly create jobs. But when you stimulate an economy that is already at full employment you get inflation.

Who Stole the Tarts?

Jerome Powell is sitting on a powder keg. More than $2 trillion of excess reserves that commercial banks can withdraw without notice. Demand for bank credit is expected to rise as result of the Trump stimulus. Commercial banks, not known for their restraint, can make like Donkey Kong with their excess reserves provided by the Bernanke Fed.

Under Janet Yellen the Fed mapped out a program to withdraw excess reserves from the market by selling down Treasuries and MBS at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion each year thereafter. But at that rate it will take 10 years to remove the excess.

Bond markets are worried about what will happen to inflation in the mean time.

Off With His Head

The new Fed Chair has made all the right noises about being hawkish on inflation. But can he walk the talk? Especially with his $2 trillion headache.

….and the Red Queen, easily recognizable from Lewis Carroll’s tale, tweeting “off with his head” if a hawkish Fed threatens to spoil the party.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

….When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low….

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

~ White Rabbit by Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane (1967)