“Lost in a gloom of uninspired research.” — William Wordsworth
As soon as I started joking about the stock market’s slumber party, we should have known something was up. In last week’s CWS Market Review, I said that trading had become dead boring; intraday volatility had fallen to a 26-year low. Sure enough, the bears woke up from their hibernation this week and feasted on freshly grilled bull.
On Wednesday, the S&P 500 dropped 19 points—its biggest drop this year. The selling continued on Thursday, when the index lost another 9.53 points and briefly dropped below the crucial 1,500 barrier. In just two days, the S&P 500 shed more than $250 billion.
No, the Fed’s Bond Buying Isn’t about to End
So what went wrong? As is often the case, we can turn our eyes towards the Federal Reserve. On Wednesday, the central bank released the minutes from their late-January meeting. You think the jargon-packed minutes of a meeting of economists can’t evoke excitement? Well, welcome to Planet Wall Street, my friend.
What happened is that several members of the policy committee said the Fed should alter the size of its bond purchases in response to the economy. In other words, some of Bernanke’s posse are talking about pulling back on all the bond buying they’ve been doing.
It’s not exactly a state secret that Wall Street loves Quantitative Easing. In the Street’s eyes, the more the better, and that’s certainly been a major factor in causing the S&P 500 to double in less than four years. So once there was any hint that it might come to an end, the bears rushed in to take charge.
Here’s what we know:
Fact one: The Fed is buying tons of bonds to prop the economy. Fact two: To borrow from LTC Kilgore, someday this policy is going to end. What we don’t know is when. All the Fed has said is that there should be “substantial” improvement in the labor market. While there’s been some improvement in the labor market, in my opinion, we’re still a long, long, loooong way from calling it substantial. As far as 0% interest rates go, the Fed has said that it’s pledged to that as long as unemployment is above 6.5% and inflation is below 2.5%. That’s at least a year away. Probably more.
What the minutes told us is that there are some voices within the Fed talking about a QE Exit Strategy. This really shouldn’t be a surprise. Instead of a sudden halt, they’re considering scaling back some of the purchases. Let me make something clear, something which has been overlooked: There was nothing in the Fed minutes about ending QE.
Here’s my take: The Fed minutes weren’t a reason to sell. Instead, they were a reason for people who had already been looking for a reason to sell to sell. Given that the S&P 500 has climbed for seven weeks in a row, I certainly understand that there are folks looking to clear out some positions.
Here’s the odd part: The Fed minutes were basically a dumb reason to make some smart moves. There’s no reason to fear that the Fed is going to pull the rug out from under the economy. But there is a good reason for investors to expect a modest pullback, which I’ve talked about for a few weeks. Earnings expectations are probably too high. I’ve also been disturbed by the fact that the low-quality stocks are leading the rally. This isn’t so troubling for us, since we concentrate on high-quality names, but our Buy List has lagged the broader market this month. That tends to happen when the market gets ahead of itself.
There’s really nothing in the Fed’s minutes that anyone should find surprising, at least anyone who’s been paying attention. As far as inflation goes, that’s not a worry at all. Last week’s CPI report was very tame. In fact, there’s some emerging evidence that spiraling healthcare costs might finally be coming under control. Of course, the irony of the Fed minutes is that they’re talking about reining in QE because the economy is doing well (or at least better).