Crossing Wall Street Review – May 26, 2017
By Eddy Elfenbein, editor of Crossing Wall Street and portfolio manager of the AdvisorShares Focused Equity ETF (NYSE Arca: CWS)
On Thursday, the S&P 500 closed at yet another all-time high. The index is already up 7.8% this year, and we’re still in the merry month of May. Last week, the market had a slight jitter, and I thought the recent quiet period might be coming to an end.
On Wednesday, in fact, the S&P 500 was on track for one of its narrowest days (meaning the difference between the daily high and low) in decades, but an afternoon surge put that off. Last week, Wall Street was alarmed when the Volatility Index jumped above 16. But once again, the index collapsed. On Thursday, the VIX closed at 9.99. That’s only the seventh sub-10 close in the last 20 years.
It’s as if the low-volatility, slowly upward-trending market is reasserting itself after a momentary disruption. No matter what happens, we keep returning to a market of micro changes that are mostly rising.
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve released the minutes of its last meeting. The minutes revealed largely what Wall Street had expected, and I feared. The Fed acknowledged the weak spots in the economy, but it still sees the need for another rate hike. I just don’t get it.
If the rate hike happens, and I’m afraid it will, then this would be the fourth hike of this cycle. The Fed seems to believe that the sluggishness in the economy during the first quarter will soon pass. I sincerely hope they’re right, but I haven’t seen the evidence just yet. I think the Fed has become overly concerned about the idea of being “behind the curve.” Chairwoman Yellen has said that if we don’t raise rates beforehand, then we’ll require faster rate increases later. What’s so awful about that?
I should be clear that one rate hike probably won’t sink the economy. Even after a fourth hike, real interest rates will still be quite low by historical standards. The facts are clear: wage growth is iffy, inflation isn’t a problem, and there are few signs of an economy overheating.
I like to keep an eye on the spread between the two- and ten-year Treasury yields. Over the last 30 years, whenever the spread turns negative, the economy has soon gotten bad. The current spread suggests the Fed can raise rates four more time. That would be three after a rate hike in June. I suspect that means that a rate increase wouldn’t hurt the economy, but it decreases our breathing room for further hikes.
What was interesting about these Fed minutes is that they give us a preview of what the Fed intends to do with its massive balance sheet. Let me rephrase that: the Fed’s gigantic, massive, world-devouring, $4.5 trillion balance sheet. The central bank has been reinvesting the proceeds of its bond holdings into still more bonds. The plan presented at the FOMC meeting is to pull the plug on all that reinvesting. In other words, just let the current holdings mature.
According to Binyamin Appelbaum at the New York Times, the Fed “would begin by keeping a fixed amount of the monthly proceeds and then increase the cap every three months until proceeds were no longer being reinvested.” What’s the downside of this? Probably not much, assuming the economy avoids a recession. That’s even more reason why the Fed should hold off raising interest rates next month.