It’s a challenge to put a finger on what was the most significant event that took place in financial markets this past week. It might have been the price of crude oil further deteriorating to touch below 80 dollars a barrel for a brief instance on Wednesday, or the volatility index, the VIX coming within a hair of a 30 print. For certain, the most revealing of all markets was for US Treasury bonds as investors in a herd fashion reached for the safe haven and saw yields dip below the 2 handle and touch a low of 1.85 per cent. It is uncertainty that continues to be the theme that casts a shadow over economic growth prospects, but as commentators noted this week, investor complacency amongst the masses leading to excessive risk taking is what is fundamentally shifting these markets.
This correction we are witnessing in the equity markets almost seemed long overdue, and the supply glut in the global oil market was perhaps the catalyst that acted to push these markets over the edge. The S&P500 moving over 1000 trading sessions without seeing that down move of 10 per cent or greater has left behind a number of investors waiting to participate in the rebound of US equity markets, and as the buying that took place on Thursday and Friday of this week, and the speedy rebound (for the time being) highlighted how welcomed this correction was.
But perhaps there was another factor contributing to the turnaround we saw towards the end of the week, and it was inspired by comments from St. Louis Fed President James Bullard. Bullard made the point that the FOMC should remain adaptive to when they choose to end their bond purchase program, and even hinted that an end to Quantitative Easing, expected to be announced at the end of this month, could only be temporary as they stand ready to support financial markets and continue to artificially boost asset prices. Bring on the speculation for QE4.
Former PIMCO CEO, Mohammed El-Erian comments that investors should be careful what they wish for. One of Ben Bernanke’s famous quotes when justifying the Fed’s accommodative policy was that the benefits were always outweighing the costs and risks. If the Fed was to embark on QE4, it would become incrementally harder for their policy committee to justify whether the benefits would outweigh the increasing costs and risks.
The US economy continues to experience record low interest rates. Falling oil prices will ultimately create yet another significant boost to an economy that is 70 per cent consumer driven and now sees gasoline prices 25 percent off their summer highs. And employment as a whole continues to see strong and stable growth above 220 thousand new positions a month. The takeaway though is not what’s driving the US economy via Fed policy. It’s how Fed policy is impacting financial markets, and that’s the reason for concern.
As has always been, the single biggest risk of the Fed’s accommodative policy is how investors have become dependent on their asset purchases in order to see risk assets trade higher. Thursday and Friday are further evidence of this. A sobering reminder comes with this, which is how overcrowded consensus trades have become, and really a question about how deep the liquidity or support in these markets really is when the majority of investors with the same mentality are all selling.