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Optimism on Wall Street: A Contrarian Indicator, though not the Mother of All Contrarian Indicators

This is an amended version of today’s Daily Contrarian. This briefing and accompanying podcast are made available to premium subscribers every market day morning before 0700.

What will 2024 bring? Last year at this time we were all preparing for imminent recession. This year things are far more optimistic. The venerable Wall Street Journal yesterday reported how “optimism abounds on Wall Street.” That’s the kind of thing that gives The Contrarian cause for concern.

It’s not the mother of all contrarian indicators though. Yeah, Wall Street analysts have horrific records at predicting, well, anything. But the mother of all contrarian indicators, if you must know, is the mother in law indicator.

It doesn’t have to be your mother in law (parents, taxi drivers, baristas, high school classmates, cousins, gym buddies, etc. all work), the key is for it to come from somebody who is a complete novice at investing and has zero clue about stocks or bonds — or for that matter even knows the difference between the two (or that there is a difference). When these people come out of the woodwork asking for “stock tips” then the bull market is truly on its very last legs.

We aren’t there yet. We could get there in a couple of months if the buying continues. But then, why should it? The prevailing reason provided is that the Federal Reserve is about to cut interest rates. While this would indeed provide a short-term boost to stocks, the bigger gains would likely come in the bond market.

And that’s assuming the Fed can cut rates to begin with. Remember that the Fed needs the annualized CPI to be at 2% or lower before it can declare victory over inflation. At its current level of 3.1%, it’s still a ways off. Until you get to 2% (or ideally below), the Fed runs the very real risk of igniting inflation anew — and destroying whatever is left of its credibility with it. Remember, too that Fed rate cuts are intended as economic stimulus. One could argue that they should be reserved only used in such instances. Judging by labor markets and consumer behavior, the economy is a long way from needing any kind of stimulus.

So be careful what you wish for. Yes, the economy still looks fine and that should be a positive where corporate earnings are concerned. But without a clear turn for the worse in the economy, the Fed runs a very real risk of causing all kinds of problems should it still decide to cut rates. Not just inflation, but very real concerns with the Fed’s credibility.

Listen to the audio here, courtesy of our YouTube channel:

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Trouble in the Bond Market

Bonds are getting beat up again. The 10-year Treasury yield today rose to its highest level since 2007. It is joined by the 30-year, which also crossed the 2007 rubicon. The short end of the curve is hardly looking any better, with the 2-year also selling off — though at the time of this writing still a couple of bps below its level from 16 years ago.

Two things appear to be driving this:

  1. Fears of ‘higher for longer’ interest rates. Inflation remains too big of an issue for the Fed to ignore and Jay Powell & Co. are forced to continue their hawkish path when it comes to monetary policy.
  2. Fiscal concerns, specifically that escalating US budget deficits will create more supply of bonds than can be absorbed by investors.

The first issue is not new at all. It has very much been the driving force in markets for about two years. So much for our assessment that Fed fears had peaked. Maybe it will turn out to be early. Or perhaps just dead wrong. The point is, these concerns have not gone anywhere. If anything, they’ve intensified.

The fiscal concerns are a new wrinkle, clearly not helped by the developments in Washington. There is a lot of very dramatic language over this in the financial media. On some level the question does need to be asked as to who will buy all these bonds.

The Fed

This brings us back to the Fed, as the central bank is the largest single holder of US treasuries. And therein lies the problem because the Fed is reducing its purchases of treasuries through quantitative tightening.

With the largest holder/purchaser of bonds effectively leaving the game (at least for now), it creates a big hole from the demand side of the equation. Mutual funds are the second-largest holder of treasuries. Maybe they will step in and buy, though surely many funds are already sitting on substantial losses in their bond portfolios. Can they keep buying the dip? Maybe?

Other major holders — depository institutions (ie banks), state and local governments, pensions, and sovereign nations like Japan, the UK, and China — are not exactly equipped to pick up the slack when it comes to bond buying. Banks are constrained by new restrictions brought by the bank failures this spring and don’t exactly have the balance sheet prowess to expand their treasury holdings. State and local governments can at best expected to maintain the pace of their treasury purchases. Japan and China have their own fiscal problems to deal with (and bail out, when it comes to China). The UK is facing a recession and can be counted out for its own fiscal issues.

That’s all worrisome and could indeed create more pressure on bond prices in the short term.

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Fed Fears Show Signs of Peak

The following is an amended version of the Sept. 21 Daily Contrarian. This briefing and accompanying podcast are released to premium subscribers each market day morning by 0700. 

The Federal Reserve yesterday kept its key interest rate unchanged as expected but made enough noise about “higher for longer” to scare investors. Stocks and bonds sold off.

chart of 2-year yield on Sept. 21, 2023

In the case of 2-year bonds, yields spiked to a level not seen since 2006 (see chart on left).

So clearly the market was not prepared for this hawkish language from the Fed. Meanwhile, all Powell really did is just reiterate what the inflation data is telling us, which is that there is more work to do before monetary policy can be loosened. Yes, the dot-plots did move a bit, but that just tells us how FOMC members feel right now. New data can and will change their views.

The Opportunity

Whether they’re justified or not, there is a sense now that maybe Fed fears have reached a bit of a fevered pitch. Just look at the headline in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Higher Interest Rates Not Just for Longer, but Maybe Forever.”

WSJ headline: Higher Interest Rates Not Just for Longer, but Maybe Forever

Ignoring for a minute that “forever” is a pretty long time, this take conveniently forgets that we’re talking about the same Powell Fed that flooded the system with liquidity during Covid and then kept rates too low for too long. The Fed may have to keep raising rates now (thanks to its own doing), but there is no way in hell this continues “forever.”

This is the kind of language you look for to indicate a turning point. And if fears of Fed are indeed at a peak, then fear of fixed income — specifically short-term bonds — could be at a peak as well. And that could be a buying opportunity for bonds. At some point the economy will slow, inflation will ease, and the Fed will cut rates. Then investors will pour money into bonds as they abandon the riskiness of the equity market. We aren’t there yet. But we’re a day closer.

The only way the Fed doesn’t eventually pivot is if we get stagflation. And even then: That will just force the Fed to choose between protecting purchasing power (price stability) and sending the global economy flying off a cliff or flooding the market with liquidity again to spur economic growth. If you’ve been paying attention to the Fed these last 30 years it will be pretty obvious what path it chooses — especially if it’s faced with this conundrum during an election year.

Here’s short audio where the host gets into this a little bit:

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