Yesterday, the rumor turned out to be a joke. Today, there was no rumor, but as we warned four hours ago, it was only a matter of time. Less than four hours later, the time has come, and Jon Hilsenrath’s “Fed Maps Exit from Stimulus“, conveniently appearing after the close, has just been released.
From Hilsy, and one of his final attempts to remain relevant, pointing out what everyone already knew:
Federal Reserve officials have mapped out a strategy for winding down an unprecedented $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program meant to spur the economy—an effort to preserve flexibility and manage highly unpredictable market expectations.
Don’t expect an imminent announcement.
Officials say they plan to reduce the amount of bonds they buy in careful and potentially halting steps, varying their purchases as their confidence about the job market and inflation evolves. The timing on when to start is still being debated.
The whisper sellside consensus is that it will be the September FOMC meeting, just after the Jackson Hole meeting at which Bernanke will be absent, that the first details of the flow “slowdown” will be revealed. But there is certainly no consensus.
The Fed’s strategy for how and when to wind down the program is of intense interest in financial markets. While the strategy being debated leaves the Fed plenty of flexibility, it might not be the clear and steady path markets expect based on past experience.
Officials are focusing on clarifying the strategy so markets don’t overreact about their next moves. For example, officials want to avoid creating expectations that their retreat will be a steady, uniform process like their approach from 2003 to 2006, when they raised short-term interest rates in a series of quarter-percentage-point increments over 17 straight policy meetings.
That the market will obviously “overreact” is a given: for reasons why, read this. As for the rest of the WSJ piece, it is fluff.
Regarding bets when the unwind begins, a look at the change in the VIX forward curves gives us some idea:
If correct, put the date September 17-18 in your calendars.
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For those who missed it earlier, here again is the preview of the market’s “Taper” Tantrum:
From Scotiabank, on why a “tapering” may be imminent, if only for purely optical and “transitory” reasons:
The bullets below list reasons why the Fed would want to “leak” hints of a tapering now.
- On Monday morning of this week, the RBNZ (New Zealand) and BoK (Korea) intervened in the currency market to try to dull the strength of their currencies. Soon afterward, Sweden and Chile announced they might have to intervene as well. Poland cuts rates to weaken the Zloty.
- These actions and comments show that the external ramifications of QE will no longer be tolerated passively. These moves represent a tacit protest against QE. It could be argued that if QE policies do not subside soon, other governments are now willing to retaliate with counter-measures (currency wars, “a race to the bottom”, protectionism).
- When FOMC members discuss the “costs” of their policies, they are partially referring to the potential for asset bubbles and distortions to price discovery. The Fed has had its foot on the accelerator so long that easing off should provide information from how markets react.
- In the past 10 days, the yield on the Barclays High Yield Index has collapsed from 5.37% to 4.97%. A 4-handle on Junk bonds is truly remarkable. High Grade spreads have also been tightening materially.
- Credit Default Swap (CDS) premiums have been declining rapidly and plummeted the past two weeks to all-time low levels. Certainly, marginal buyers have continued to be chased into the market from fears of missing the up-trade and promises of the Fed “put” protecting the downside, but the collapse in CDS premiums represent bear capitulation and the futile results of hedging risk.
- Equities are higher by almost 15% YTD (46% on an annualized basis). The FOMC wants asset inflation (the Pigou Effect), but trading has become decidedly one way. The S&P 500 has rallied 13 out of the last 14 days. There was increasing talk of equities “melting up” and finally stated publicly by Stan Druckenmiller.
- NYSE Margin Debt has matched the highest levels in history (July 2007).
- Tobin’s Q ratio is the best predictor of market corrections (of 20%+). James Tobin won a noble prize for it. He hypothesized that the combined market value of all the companies on the stock market should be about equal to their replacement costs. The Q ratio is calculated as the market value of a company divided by the replacement value of the firm’s assets. The ratio is approaching levels similar to 1907, 1929, 1937, 1969, 2001/2, and 2008.
- The Fed has been accused of ‘enabling’ fiscal stalemate. There is an article in the WSJ today about how improving Federal finances lessens the urgency for Republicans and Democrats to negotiate. Stable and rising asset market prices have the same effect. As negotiations begin, providing a warning shot that the Fed cannot do the heavy lifting forever, may be a wise move.
- After all, the debt ceiling limit gets hit next week on May 18th, at which point the Treasury will have to invoke extraordinary measures to prevent default (something they can do until September).
- Congressional and market criticism has been increasing.
- The Treasury will probably be cutting issuance in Q3 due to an improving position. This effectively means if the Fed continues to buy at the current pace, it would be buying an even greater percentage of visible supply.
- It is possible that Bernanke made a suggestion about ‘tapering’ in his Chicago speech today, when he used the words “reaching for yield”. The dollar and the bond market are just beginning to notice and react. The other markets will likely soon follow.
Fed tapering would catch the market off-sides. At some level, FOMC members must realize they have created a moral hazard dilemma and conditions of over-promising what they can deliver. Tapering would symbolically put a dent in market sentiment and the implicit ‘put’. The many investors that have been drifting into riskier assets in a scramble for yield would begin to prudently re-focus on the downside risks to these assets.
It is possible a steep decline in financial assets would ensue with the lowest part of the capital structure being hurt the most. The Fed has chased investors all in the same direction; into risk-seeking securities. Few care about “right-tail” events, but should investors decide to pare risk in reaction to a hint of ‘tapering’, the overshoot to the downside may surprise many. The combination of too many sellers, too few buyers, and dreadful (and declining) liquidity means a down-side overshoot is highly likely. It would provide the Fed with their answer as to whether they have been creating market bubbles.