As financial markets adjust to a new, higher, level of volatility, it is worth considering what the central banks might be thinking longer term. Many commentators have been blaming geopolitical tensions for the recent fall in stocks, but the central banks, led by the Fed, have been signalling clearly for some while. The sudden change in the tempo of the stock market must have another root.
Whenever one considers the collective views of central banks it behooves one to consider the opinions of the central bankers’ bank, the BIS. In their Q4 review they discuss the paradox of a tightening Federal Reserve and the continued easing in US national financial conditions. BIS Quarterly Review – December 2017 – A paradoxical tightening?:-
Overall, global financial conditions paradoxically eased despite the persistent, if cautious, Fed tightening. Term spreads flattened in the US Treasury market, while other asset markets in the United States and elsewhere were buoyant…
Chicago Fed’s National Financial Conditions Index (NFCI) trended down to a 24-year trough, in line with several other gauges of financial conditions.
The authors go on to observe that the environment is more reminiscent of the mid-2000’s than the tightening cycle of 1994. Writing in December they attribute the lack of market reaction to the improved communications policies of the Federal Reserve – and, for that matter, other central banks. These policies of gradualism and predictability may have contributed to, what the BIS perceive to be, a paradoxical easing of monetary conditions despite the reversals of official accommodation and concomitant rise in interest rates.
This time, however, there appears to be a difference in attitude of market participants, which might pose risks later in this cycle:-
…while investors cut back on the margin debt supporting their equity positions in 1994, and stayed put in 2004, margin debt increased significantly over the last year.
At a global level it is worth remembering that whilst the Federal Reserve has ceased QE and now begun to shrink its balance sheet, elsewhere the expansion of central bank balance sheets continues with what might once have passed for gusto.
The BIS go on to assess stock market valuations, looking at P/E ratios, CAPE, dividend pay-outs and share buy-backs. By most of these measures stocks look expensive, however, not by all measures:-
Stock market valuations looked far less frothy when compared with bond yields. Over the last 50 years, the real one- and 10-year Treasury yields have fluctuated around the dividend yield. Having fallen close to 1% prior to the dotcom bust, the dividend yield has been steadily increasing since then, currently fluctuating around 2%. Meanwhile, since the GFC, real Treasury yields have fallen to levels much lower than the dividend yield, and indeed have usually been negative. This comparison would suggest that US stock prices were not particularly expensive when compared with Treasuries.