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A Broad Historical Context for the Bond and Stock Market

CAMS Weekly View from the Corner – Week ending 2/25/2022

February 28, 2022

There are a wealth of developments via economic releases, geo-political issues and corresponding market interactions with each passing trading session here in 2022. We will focus on high level observations in an attempt to more clearly see the proverbial forest rather than the individual trees.

In keeping with focusing on the larger view and similar to our recent editions, today we will attempt to succinctly place our current economic and market landscapes in a multi-decade context.

The Most Difficult Bond Market Backdrop in 70 Years

In our previous two editions we had focused on the bond market relative to how far behind the price inflation curve our Federal Reserve has been over the previous year-plus.

Through the lens of a multi-decade view our bond market is the most unattractive it has been than in the previous seven decades when looked at through real yields.

This is simply the current interest rate (yield) bonds are providing compared to our current price inflation level. Real yields are deeply negative, meaning when factoring in price inflation bond holders are losing wealth, i.e. purchasing power.

The antidote for this is higher interest rates to compensate for higher price inflation unless price inflation can drop rapidly to offer a better landscape for bond holders. If not the bond market can increase interest rates by selling bonds and in so doing said bonds deflate in price and with this their yields rise.

In recent months the Federal Reserve has informed market participants they will be ending their money printing operations and will begin to increase their Fed Funds interest rate soon. To date money printing has continued (albeit at a reduced pace) but is expected to end in March.

For months we have termed the above as “coming tighter financial conditions” in order to succinctly label our overall monetary/interest rate backdrop.

Tighter financial conditions overlaid onto asset markets (stocks/bonds/housing etc) that are registering multi-decade extreme high valuation levels do not get along well when looking at their pricing.

In early November the Fed began speaking in earnest about said tightening financial conditions and with this notable areas of the stock market have not been the same since. Their downside behavior, in various areas of the stock market, has been notable if not incredibly harsh dating back to early November.

Let’s Take a Hundred Year View of the Stock Market (because we have to)

Below is a hundred year view of the total value of the stock market compared to the size of the underlying economy. In our toolbox this is an important, high level, valuation measure.

It reflects how high stock prices have been pushed compared to the overall size of economic activity. 

The red horizontal line identifies the previous high water mark dating back to late 1999.  The red vertical arrow emphasizes the launch in stock prices as compared to the size of the economy.  Simply, stock prices increased rapidly while the underlying economy did not.

The launch point was shortly after the initial Covid wave with the corresponding policy decisions of printing money, exploding the already high national debt, reducing interest rates to zero percent and then fanning money throughout society. With these policies remaining long after the initial Covid wave we have seen stocks continue to rise rapidly as compared to the economy.

Realize the stock market is a collection of businesses that conduct their business activities within the overall economic backdrop. With this, when the total value of the businesses comprising the stock market are over two times the size of the economy you know it is crazy time, pricewise, in stock market land.

Per this valuation measure – in the previous hundred years – we have not seen anything like it – hence, why we have to take a hundred year view to attempt to place this market into a pricing/valuation context.

Overlaying onto this the aforementioned bond market/price inflation/Fed quandary and we are left with a century long highly valued stock market just as financial conditions will be getting tighter – not a good recipe.

Highly valued stock markets with a central bank that is behind the price inflation curve while bond markets are pushing lower in price (higher in yield) leaves a trail of concern in its wake.

Stock market valuations are historically high all-the-while companies are experiencing profit margin pressure in light of the price inflation backdrop. Profit margin pressure while simultaneously carrying historically high valuation levels is yet another challenge added to the stock market backdrop.

The Peace Dividend Post-Soviet Collapse

“The peace dividend” type of language was often bandied about thirty years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The view was with the end of the Cold War peace would overtake our planet and with this human harmony would increase peaceful interactions and economic interactions as a follow-on would flourish.

The downstream for this, relative to stock markets, is their valuations could be expected to go higher as investors, with the breakout of peace for as far as the eye could see, would feel more comfortable bidding share prices higher than they would otherwise be.

With history under our belt clearly we experienced anything but a breakout of human harmony but what we did see was a massive increase in valuation measures for the stock market, as depicted above, which was fueled by our Federal Reserve and other global central bank money printing operations far more than peace overtaking the planet.

In addition to all of the above and with this “peace dividend” historical thought process in mind are we now embarking on the inverse whereby the blatant lack of peace will further add to market participant’s willingness to exit stage left on their stock market holdings?

This seems to be a fair question, in particular when adding that coming tighter financial conditions as a general economic landscape is added to the mix.

All told – caution is warranted.

I wish you well…

Ken Reinhart

Director, Market Research & Portfolio Analysis

Footnote:

H&UP’s is a quick summation of a rating system for SPX9 (abbreviation encompassing 9 Sectors of the S&P 500 with 107 sub-groups within those 9 sectors) that quickly references the percentage that is deemed healthy and higher (H&UP). This comes from the proprietary “V-NN” ranking system that is composed of 4 ratings which are “V-H-N-or NN”. A “V” or an “H” is a positive or constructive rank for said sector or sub-group within the sectors.

This commentary is presented only to provide perspectives on investment strategies and opportunities. The material contains opinions of the author, which are subject to markets change without notice. Statements concerning financial market trends are based on current market conditions which fluctuate. References to specific securities and issuers are for descriptive purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will work under all market conditions. Each investor should evaluate their ability to invest for the long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market. PERFORMANCE IS NOT GUARANTEED AND LOSSES CAN OCCUR WITH ANY INVESTMENT STRATEGY.

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