Stock prices and yields are key indicators of economic vitality. In healthy markets they move together higher during expansions, and lower during downturns. These are both choreographed moves from central government planners as well as natural results from free market activity.
Investors are naturally pulled towards higher rewards – and nothing outperforms the stock market during economic booms. As a result, capital leaves the bond market and enters the stock market during sturdy expansions. In order to lure that capital back to the bond market, borrowers (those who issue bonds) must raise interest rates, or sell their low interest rate bonds at a discount (thus causing the yield to rise), to incentivize those with capital to acquire debt rather than stocks.
In addition to the natural momentum of rising yields during expansions, central bankers add further impetus by raising core interest rates to control growth and thwart inflation. Core government rates drive all other interest rates, so a rise in them pushes all other yields higher than they would otherwise be.
Government action to raise interest rates is known as a "tightening" event. Tight money and higher interest rates are generally associated with "strong dollar" conditions.
Rising interest rates and the tightening of money makes a country’s exports more expensive to foreign customers. Such a dynamic causes foreign demand to fall by some measure, which in turn causes corporate profits to fade by a correlating metric. That’s the reason there has been so much ruckus surrounding the "strengthening" U.S. dollar.
But that’s not the whole concern facing American multi-nationals.
First a quick reiteration of the international environment. The entire Euro Zone has been in a no growth condition for a very long time and Japan (the world’s third largest economy) isn’t much better, growing at a sluggish 1% clip per year. China (the world’s largest economy) has been slowing for several consecutive quarters and recently downgraded their growth target; and Russia is a total mess (more on that a little later). But none of this – repeat, none of it – is new news. American export activity has been weak and unreliable for a long, long time.
So what’s different now – why all the hubbub?
It is important to note that Japan, and more recently Europe, have initiated multi-billion quantitative easing programs – and that is the fly in the ointment.
In America, quantitative easing (QE) was born from the subprime mortgage debacle termed "the financial crisis" which ended with the crash of the financial system in the fall of 2008. An emergency measure called TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) was installed just before President G. W. Bush left office – and that’s when the monetary ponzi scheme began. So TARP is the forefather of QE, and the last QE effort in the United States ended in late 2014.
The point here: QE lingers around for a long time once initiated.
QE is monetary technique used to lower yields and devalue currency. QE is a "loosening" monetary event. So it should be no surprise that currencies who deploy it depreciate against those that don’t – as the U.S. depreciated against the Euro when its QE began in 2008, and how Europe is now depreciating against the dollar with its new QE effort.
And let there be no mistake, Europe and Japan are devaluing their currencies with reason. They want to make their products cheaper in their country, for their constituents, and their consumers. Their hope, without question, is for their producers to grow at the expense of foreign competitors like the U.S. and China. It’s quite logical really, and can be tied directly to the U.S. stock market.
Will newly installed QE programs in foreign countries start to steal profits from American producers – and if so, how will that affect the U.S. economy and stock market?
It is important to note that while Europe is the latest to join the QE folly, not every country is playing the same kind of game. China does things much differently, but has recently injected billions of dollars into their banking system to loosen things up. Russia, a country with a $2 trillion GDP, doesn’t know what to do. After raising rates sharply they’re now cutting interest rates to fight inflation and recession at the same time. They’re losing the money game – which is the reason they’re picking on the Ukraine, but that’s another story.
The point here: all major economies have engaged in the first money war of the 21st century – so the ending can’t be good.
Up until now central bankers have been in a collective race to the bottom. The U.S. led the world by aggressively devaluing the dollar with TARP, QE, aggressive interest rate cuts and massive central government spending. Most major countries followed suit with ambitious interest rate cuts and central government stimulus programs, but all opted to stay away from schemes like QE – until recently, that is.
The U.S. was first-in and now it is trying to be first-out of the money pyramid. It is widely expected that the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates in just a few months (June 2015) – this after exiting QE a similar short time ago. These tightening events are taking place while the rest of the world is loosening monetary policy.
This opposing dynamic adds fuel to the export fire.
Consider that U.S. exports are roughly 14% of GDP. At that contribution a 10% drop would cut U.S. growth in half for 2015. That’s the economic issue to consider – and as we know, economic threats factor greatly into stock price speculation.
Another speculative threat to prices is the strange new trading environment for stocks. It has been so long since the U.S. operated in a rising yield, tight money environment – especially one that follows such a prolonged period of inflation induced by QE intoxication. This historical first will be interesting to watch.
And since so many foreign countries waited so long to loosen monetary policy as aggressively as the U.S. did, an equally long delay to their tightening events should be expected. That means the pricing disadvantage for U.S. exports will last for some time. Call it a new normal.
Investors need to realize that a tightening monetary event totally changes the stock market dynamic.
Strong expansions like the tech-boom and housing-boom were able to handle strong dollar and tight money dynamics – higher yields and taxes, and costlier exports – and still produce solid growth rates. But this expansion isn’t like those. This economic expansion is centrally levered and directed. The other two were consumer driven, which is the reason GDP growth was so much stronger then than it is today – which is also the reason this economy, corporate profits, and stock prices are so vulnerable.
Confusion about the market’s susceptibility festers because the U.S. economy appears to be strong when it really isn’t. Unemployment is 5.5% – but labor participation is at a 40 year low; the stock market is at all-time highs – but economic growth is weak and uneven; the dollar is strengthening – but that’s only because major global currencies are aggressively devaluing.
These are the same reasons the Dow Jones Industrial Average has been scared away from the 18,500 top, the 10 year yield remains near the basement at 2%, and gold appears weak, down 10% in the most recent month. Below is a two year chart.
Weak and strong are only appearances in these crazy and unprecedented times. After all, we live in a world where the mass media is consumed with speculation about the condition of corporate exports when the root cause of the problem isn’t even mentioned, let alone in proper context. That could lead some investors to question what they’re seeing and believing.
Indeed, American goods are going to get a lot more expensive overseas for a long period of time. Demand for U.S. products over there should fall, and corporate profits and stocks prices here should follow to a correlating metric. And it will be one U.S. export -- a government product called QE – that will cause it all.