When Q Magazine questioned R.E.M.’s lead singer about the lyrical density of his 1987 hit single, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” Michael Stipe responded by saying, “The words come from everywhere. I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day to day life.” Our investment committee’s cerebral activity – both of the conscious and unconscious variety – has also been more active of late. Of course, the subject is different (and does not have a hip drummer and bass player to back our musings).
The key questions at Hahn Investment Stewards are these: With the Federal Reserve’s third quantitative easing program (QE) set to expire this month, what are the implications for global ETF asset allocators? And, can we expect an encore or simply a return to monetary policy as we knew it before?
Easy come, not so easy go
These are weighty questions. Since QE’s entrance onto the world stage, capital markets have soared on the Fed’s wings. To be sure, not all gains were government-sponsored. Some factors, unrelated to QE, helped drive economic recoveries and corporate profit booms.
But easy money, like champagne, removes inhibitions. QE – clearly a crowd-pleasing elixir – was no different, lowering the penalties for imprudence and uncorking a flood of speculative enthusiasm.
Looking ahead, what are the key considerations?
1. A seamless transition away from QE is unlikely
So-called policy normalization comes with risks. Recently, many point out that previous onsets of interest-rate-hiking cycles coincided with rising stock markets. This is accurate, but not relevant. The range of policy tools prior to those periods were mainly limited to manipulating overnight lending rates. Exiting from large-scale asset purchases is another matter altogether.
Crucially, the behavioral effects of QE should not be underestimated. Take corporate incentives as just one example. It is quite simple to identify a route by which QE-funded cash finds its way from the Fed into the hands of corporate executives.
What do they do with the cash? They purchase company equity, reducing the dilutive effect of stock options while boosting earnings per share. It’s no surprise that U.S. corporations have actually been the major net buyer of U.S. equity in recent years, purchasing more than $500 billion in 2013 alone.
Now, imagine a world without QE facilitating the above transactions. Buybacks would be severely reduced – they are already down by more than 20% in the second quarter of 2014 versus the first quarter – undermining a key support for rising share prices.
2. Monetary policy divergence
Secondly, monetary policy among the world’s major central banks is now entering a period of divergence. After years in which globally coordinated monetary easing suppressed volatility, asset markets have much less capacity to absorb any reverberations caused by a policy split. Volatile swings in sentiment will almost surely make a swift comeback. This is good news for tactical asset allocators who rely on shifting psychology to generate alpha.
Policy divergence will also create winners and losers in global currencies. In the past, when European and U.S. monetary policies moved in different directions, markets have adjusted significantly.
In those instances, the European Central Bank (or the Bundesbank) was tightening while the Fed was easing, increasing risks for the dollar. Roles are reversed this time. As long as divergence continues, the dollar will remain chronically strong versus countries that continue pursuing QE. In these cases, investors should use ETFs that hedge those domestic currencies back to the dollar.
3. Anticipate exit scenarios
Thirdly, investors need to anticipate likely central bank exit scenarios for reducing QE-bloated balance sheets. The Fed’s balance sheet has expanded to about 25% of U.S. gross domestic product today from 6.5% in 2008. If this fourfold expansion were reversed by 2020, the Fed would become a larger seller of bonds than the U.S. government.
Clearly that will not happen. In fact, balance-sheet contraction anytime soon is also unlikely. After the Fed’s drive in recent years to extend the duration of its balance sheet (remember “Operation Twist”?), almost none of those assets will mature in the coming year – only $2 billion of its $2.4 trillion in Treasurys will expire in the next 12 months.
The most likely path then is for the Fed to maintain its massive balance sheet and slowly reduce it as maturity dates are hit.
Still, no change is a big change. While the Fed’s balance sheet will be stable, its significance as a marginal buyer will also fade and more bonds will be purchased by price-sensitive investors. Perhaps “fundamentals” rather than just liquidity will finally count for something again!
A prescription for feeling fine
When R.E.M first played its hit single live, the audience reacted with a vibe that caught the band by surprise. Band members were convinced the apocalyptic lyrics would create a more subdued response, but instead the audience was energized.
Similarly, some have expected that anticipation of the end of QE3 would have had more sobering effects on the market. Remarkably, it has not generated market instability. Rather, for the most part, the appetite for “risk” assets that QE engendered has continued.
However, more often than not, policymaker attempts to cushion volatility of the economic cycle ends up increasing volatility of financial markets down the road. That does not necessarily mean markets will weaken after the Fed’s retreat from an unprecedented policy-easing experiment, but that a realignment of asset values and market leadership will get underway.
Tactical asset allocators should remain alert and have their playbooks ready.
Tyler Mordy, CFA, is President and Co-CIO for HAHN Investment Stewards, engaged in top-down strategy, investment policy, and securities selection. He specializes in global investment strategy and ETF trends. This article first appeared in ETF.com. Used with permission. You can reach Tyler by phone at HAHN Investment Stewards, toll-free 1-888-419-6715, or by email at email@example.com.
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