Could the stock market be headed for a huge fall now that central banks are removing stimulus measures?

Jerome Powell
Fed Chair Jerome Powell speaks in the Rose Garden shortly after his nomination in November, 2017

In the wake of the financial crisis over 10 years ago, the world’s largest economies were left in a precarious situation. Low growth, hampered investor sentiment, lower spending and high unemployment all combined to create an economic malaise which forced central banks to act, in an effort to stimulate the ailing economies which they served.

In the years that followed, the Federal ReserveBank of JapanEuropean Central Bank and Bank of England all took measures to deal with a major economic downturn, which had spread globally.

One way they did this was through quantitative easing, where they bought large amounts of assets from commercial banks and institutions (including government bonds) while raising the supply of money in the economy.

The overall goal was to encourage lending, borrowing and consumer spending and to improve business sentiment, but there was another side effect they were hoping for — an increase in asset prices (including stocks). This side effect was realized, though not only through QE, but also because banks slashed interest rates to historic lows, which meant that bonds became less attractive for investors (due to lower returns). Because of this, investors sought riskier assets like stocks to generate higher returns. With more money being pumped into the stock market, the price of those securities increased. Central banks also hoped that by improving returns from stocks, they could also create a ‘wealth effect’, that would lead to higher spending too.

But that was the past and now all of this is changing.

The Fed in the US and the ECB in Europe are reversing their ‘easy money’ policies, because they think that the US and Eurozone economies are strong enough to stand on their own. It has taken 10 years, but economic markers are now being dubbed healthy enough to begin a long period of ‘unwinding’. The ECB confirmed in a statement on June 14th it would end QE bond purchases by December, while the Fed has already started unwinding its massive balance sheet after ending QE and is raising interest rates as both banks move to ‘normalise’ monetary policy.

What does this mean for investors?

Could things get bad for stock prices now that central banks are removing some support for the economy? Did QE really make that much of a difference to stock market valuations and is broader policy normalisation definitely going to hurt your portfolio? Opinions differ wildly on the matter, which makes things all the more confusing!

Writer Thomas H. Kee Jr. at investment publication MarketWatch said: “We believe that bonds, stocks and real estate will experience significant repricing in the years ahead, with the stock market at greatest risk. A 40% correction in the S&P 500 is possible.” Given the fact that many stocks in that index (particularly big names in the tech sector) look overpriced relative to their peers in other markets around the world, the earlier part of the argument seems like a fair assertion.

Then we have the counter-arguments. A report from Deutsche Bank in late 2017 said that QE may have impacted stock market movements by artificially boosting corporate profitability and by raising investors’ animal spirits, but the overall message was that strong earnings potential for US corporations indicated that corporate America is strong enough to withstand the withdrawal of QE and higher interest rates, and that fears that a withdrawal of stimulus could trigger an equity market meltdown appeared overblown.

Invstr CEO and former Deutsche Bank Director Kerim Derhalli is not so optimistic. He explained: “QE worked by boosting liquidity in the economy as the central banks bought bonds and gave the sellers of those bonds dollars or other cash in return. Many people agree that the liquidity that was generated contributed to the phenomenal rise in financial asset prices. As the Fed continues to unwind its $4.3trn balance sheet, the opposite will be true. The Fed will sell bonds on its balance sheet and drain US dollars out of the economy. This will reduce the liquidity available to purchase equities.”

He added: “Four other factors also bear watching: 1) Interest rates will rise making equities relatively less attractive than bonds. 2) Companies, especially emerging market companies who have added $40trn of debt since the debt crisis (!) will find it much harder to re-finance their bonds and loans in the capital markets. They will be competing for US dollar liquidity with the Federal Reserve. That will lead to more corporate insolvency and create pressure in the equity markets. 3) The US government has massively increased its budget deficit following President Trump’s tax cuts. That means that companies will be competing against both the Fed and the Treasury for liquidity. 4) The consequence of greater competition for dollar liquidity will mean a sharp rise in the value of the US dollar. This will have negative implications for US exporters and commodity producers creating further negative feedback for equity markets.”

Stock markets in the US in particular saw a large correction back in February this year, but relative stability has remained since then. Even with the knowledge that the era of QE and ultra low interest rates is beginning to come to an end, the S&P500 index is still up over 14% since June last year, with a slew of strong corporate earnings for bluechip companies through 2018 thus far too. It seems for most of the year, investors were betting that Jerome Powell and his fellow central bankers across the world would not make any significant missteps and that stock prices could remain high in the face of gradual policy normalisation.

Overall though, as billionaire investor Howard Marks put it to The Irish Times late last year: “We are in uncharted territory with all these central bank policies. We can’t say what will happen.” He added, “Anyone who says ‘I am completely confident in my understanding of the situation’ is really not that smart.”

A smart move for investors would be to keep an eye on this narrative as it develops. Whether the outcome of the withdrawal of stimulus measures is a huge correction in the markets, or whether it’s relatively minor in comparison, the end of the ‘easy money’ era is definitely going to have some impact on global stock indices.

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The US Senate has voted to roll back Dodd-Frank rules for banks – what does this mean?

Last week the US Senate passed a bank deregulation bill that would begin the process of rolling back parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, passed during Barack Obama’s tenure. The original bill in 2010 placed restrictions on banks in order to try and prevent another meltdown like the world had seen during the financial crisis.

The new bill passed with 67 votes to 31, but was met with stern opposition from house Democrats, who argued that Republicans were undermining financial stability by voting in favor of reducing rules for lenders.

The new legislation would raise the threshold at which banks become subject to tighter oversight. Under the original Dodd-Frank act, a bank with assets greater than $50 billion is subject to stricter regulation, including stress tests. Now though, the proposed legislation would raise that threshold to $250 billion, a change that affects 25 of the 38 largest banks in the country.

The change would mean mid-level banks such as BB&T would not have to submit to the Federal Reserve’s stress tests (which were designed to make sure a bank could withstand a major financial crisis). Specifically, banks with less than $100 billion in assets would be immediately exempt from the current SIFI rules. SIFI stands for a ‘systematically important financial institution’, one whose failure may trigger a financial crisis. This basically points to a large scale relaxing of the rules and limits on the behaviour of small and mid-level banks.

Crucially, the new legislation gives banks with assets under $10 billion and limited trading assets a pass on the Volcker rule. This rule was put in place to stop banks from using their own accounts for short-term proprietary trading of securities, derivatives, and commodity futures, as well as other instruments. Derivatives in particular are known as riskier investments. 

The concern is that a rolling back of regulations (a common talking point for Trump in his speeches about the American economy) may lead to another financial crisis. The reasons for the crash in 2007/8 were many, but one key driver was deregulation in the financial sector before the crisis, which allowed banks to take on more and more risk, as well as becoming extremely highly leveraged.

It was a lack of oversight of the financial sector that encouraged banks to shift toxic financial products onto consumers, as well as between eachother.

The argument in favour of the changes to Dodd-Frank is that cutting red-tape could spur banks, especially local ones in smaller communities, to lend more, encouraging businesses and individuals to take on projects and generally put their money to work.

Some think the new changes to the bill are overstated. In a note to clients, Jaret Seiberg, an analyst at Cowen & Co said: “We believe this bill is broadly positive for regional banks and trust banks while offering little help to the mega banks.”

Whether or not the bill will really affect the bottom line of the ‘mega’ banks is yet to be seen, but it’s pretty clear investors think it will. Some big bank ETF’s saw record inflows this week. Bloomberg reported that 2 funds run by State Street Corp saw their biggest one-day inflows ever, with the SPDR S&P Regional Banking ETF taking in $606 million, and the SPDR S&P Bank ETF taking in $323 million, thanks to excitement about what deregulation could mean for bank stocks.

However we shouldn’t forget that these ETF’s have been on the up and up for the last year anyway because the Federal Reserve made clear it was raising interest rates, and that’s good news for bank profits. With 3 or 4 rate hikes forecasted for 2018, it’s unlikely investors will be disappointed.

Here’s the worry though – what happens if banks start taking on more risks again? What happens if the aspects of their business that involve trading riskier financial instruments get overlooked by regulators? The world economy is still only just recovering from a crash that was caused by the banks 10 years ago. It’s taken years of low interest rates, quantitiative easing and austerity measures to try and get markets back on an even keel. We are only just seeing central banks begin to talk about rolling back QE and start to push interest rates higher to ‘normal’ levels, yet now the Senate has decided to lower the safeguards 10 years after a crisis in which American households lost roughly $16 trillion in net worth.

Many will argue they have done so in error, but memories are short, and last year’s stock market rally has fuelled an irrational exuberance in the markets which has fuelled more risk taking. These changes to Dodd-Frank could undermine the system again before it’s even recovered, putting investors portfolios at risk.

The prospect of bank deregulation has helped financial stocks to rally over the last year, including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, BB&T and Bank of America

The world economy is stronger but tensions are rising – a look at the OECD’s latest report

The OECD says the global economy will see its strongest growth in seven years in 2018 thanks to a rebound in trade and investment, though it also warned today that a trade war could threaten the recovery.

In its March 2018 interim economic outlook which used the subtitle ‘Getting stronger, but tensions are rising’, the organisation updated its outlook for G20 economies and raised its global growth forecast for 2018 and 2019 to 3.9 percent – the highest since 2011, from previous forecasts of 3.6 percent for both years.

The raised forecast is partly due to expectations that U.S. tax cuts will boost the American economy.

Here were the key positive takeaways from the report:

– Growth is improving or steady in most G20 economies

– Trade and private investment are bouncing back

– New fiscal stimulus in the United States and Germany will further boost short-term growth

– Inflation (a concern for Central Banks) is set to rise slowly

– Consumer confidence, particularly in BRIICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa) has risen sharply

The key negatives and risks were as follows:

– Income gains, particularly for median and low income households have barely improved over the last decade

– Public and private debt in G20 nations is very high, with China leading the way at over 200 percent of GDP

– The pace of structural reform is slow, in emerging market countries especially

– An escalation of trade tensions would be damaging for growth and jobs

Regardless, the overall picture is healthier. Acting OECD Chief Economist Alvaro Pereira said: “We think that the stronger economy is here to stay for the next couple years,” He added, “We are getting back to more normal circumstances than what we’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

This is good news for investors the world over, as a more robust global economy will create a better environment in which companies can grow and expand more easily, boosting corporate results and shareholder returns.

The American oil industry is booming and that may undermine OPEC

America may well become the world’s leading energy producer by next year, according to the International Energy Agency.

The latest IEA report said that in the 3 months to November last year, U.S. crude output was seen increasing by 846,000 barrels a day.

The data revealed how fast rising production in non-OPEC countries (led by the U.S.) is likely to grow by more than demand this year. The relentless rise of American crude supply could undermine OPEC efforts to re-balance the global oil market, and may see the U.S. overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia (two of the world’s largest producers) in oil production by the end of 2019.

Head of the oil industry and markets division at the IEA Neil Atkinson said: “We are seeing United States production rising very, very dramatically before our very eyes and that’s likely to continue in 2018.”

One reason this trend looks set to continue may be due to the Trump administration’s willingness to open up more areas in the U.S. to oil production. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it may conduct 16 auctions to open new oil and gas wells along the Atlantic and Pacific continental shelves. It will also sell 31 new leases near Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. energy exports now compete with Middle East oil for buyers in Asia, and daily trading volumes of U.S. oil futures contracts have doubled in the past 10 years, according to the CME Group. This indicates just how much America has grown as a major player in world energy markets.

Conversely, the latest OPEC report showed production for the members of the group was little changed in January as they continued to limit their output for a second year in order to balance an oversupplied market. However, key members like Iraq raised their output in the first month of 2018.

Crude prices have jumped nearly 50 per cent since mid 2017 reaching highs of over $70 a barrel but have since lost steam, now sitting at around $62 p/b.

Patrick Jones

UBS say Worries on China’s Debt are Overblown as it Sets Up Exclusive Investment Fund

Swiss banking giant UBS is introducing a new private fund for institutional and high net-worth individuals with an interest in investing in China’s booming equity markets.

Having obtained a new permit granting them increased access to stock markets in the country, UBS is introducing the first mainland China stock fund owned by a company outside China. The UBS China Equity Private Fund Series 1 has completed it’s initial offering, and will help its members to invest in China’s thriving stock markets, which for many years were available only to Chinese citizens.

China’s markets are dominated by state-owned businesses, but private companies are starting to make headway too, particularly in sectors like healthcare. Not only this, but the central government has made reforms in order to let foreign investors trade on more-restricted stock exchanges like the Shenzhen and Shanghai exchanges (which contain so called ‘A-Shares’ – the stocks that this new fund from UBS is mostly interested in).

Historically, these shares were only available for purchase by mainland citizens, due to China’s skepticism about foreign investment, but the country is continuing to open up its markets to overseas wealth.

UBS has a long history in China. UBS AG was China’s first qualified foreign institutional investor, as approved by the China Securities Regulatory Commission in 2003 – a massive deal for a foreign bank!

The fund’s manager, Zizhen Wang, said “From a long-term perspective, UBS sees sustainable growth in the Chinese economy and opportunities in the A-share market,” he added, “Blue-chip stocks are fairly valued and leading companies across numerous sectors are enhancing their international competitiveness.”

In another vote of confidence for the economy, UBS also said they were less worried about China’s debt burden than other banks. Speaking to Bloomberg, Jason Bedford, a Hong Kong-based UBS analyst, said a financial systemic credit event in China is “very unlikely”. He added that a lot of the items on China’s balance sheet were less risky than many thought, even the asset-backed securities.

He said “A significant portion of off-balance sheet exposures are composed of benign, no-risk or low-risk items.” He added, “The failure to distinguish the risk between these items has often led to an exaggerated risk perception among many market watchers.”

It’s no secret that the Chinese economy is hooked on debt, especially in its state-owned enterprises. Lending in the country has grown rapidly over recent years, as household and corporate wealth has ballooned. China’s citizens and businesses have been looking for higher returns in a system where bank interest rates have been held down.

The government is aware of this, and looks to be taking steps to deleverage the economy by cracking down on certain problem-areas, including the booming online lending market.

Just this week, CNBC reported that a top-level Chinese government body issued an urgent notice on Tuesday to provincial (local) governments, urging them to suspend approval for the setting up of new internet micro-lenders. They also apparently told local regulators to restrict granting new approvals for micro-loan firms to conduct lending across regions.

These kinds of businesses have grown massively in popularity over recent years, by giving credit to people who couldn’t get loans at state banks, which tend to favour bigger corporate clients instead.

Xi Jinping has made clear that he backs the idea of deleveraging so as to ‘cleanse risk’ from China’s financial system, and the governments actions so far have been applauded by analysts. But though reforms are clearly in motion, whether this will be enough to offset China’s already hugely leveraged economy is less certain.

As we saw in the case of the financial crisis in 2008 where top Wall Street firms were leveraged (indebted) to an obscene degree, a high amount of total debt can signal systemic financial fragility. When everyone owes everyone else money, a negative shock to the economy, or even just a spontaneous panic can upset the system, by causing a lot of borrowers to default at the same time. When financial firms are highly leveraged, it also makes it easier to have a bank run or a similar liquidity crisis. During the financial crisis, this was certainly the case. China must avoid this kind of situation at all costs.

Though UBS are bullish, other data shows the future looks bleak for the world’s second largest economy. Bloomberg economists Fielding Chen and Tom Orlik estimate that China’s total debt will reach 327% of GDP by 2022, a staggering level which could make it harder for the country to avoid a financial crisis, especially considering actual economic expansion is set to slow to 5.8% in 2022 from 6.7% in 2016, compounding matters further, and as growth continues to slow while debt continues to rise, the risk of a collapse in asset prices looms. This would spell big trouble for an economy that the world depends on for so much.

Patrick Jones