02 March 2018

Will Interest Rates kill the recovery?

In my "103 Months" post last week, I specifically mention seven areas that could bring about the end of the Bear market, and result in the end of this business cycle. First on the list was Interest Rates. I also specifically stated that none of the seven areas could take sole credit for a fall in the markets (and flow on negativity and economic contraction), and that each may be impacted by others, and impact others. Which will come first, an Interest Rate hike generated collapse in house sales, or a collapse in house sales spreading uncertainty resulting in an interest rate spike?

Markets exist to facilitate the effective application of capital. As such, capital will flow to the markets in which capital can be expected to deliver the greatest return to the owners of the capital. Capital will flow to assets with the greatest probability or generating the highest risk-weighted return. And while markets do not get this right all the time, generally markets sense where returns will be achieved, high or low, and move capital to those asset classes. The result has been capital allocation distortions. (It was interesting to write that first sentence, then to google the exact words - first place returned was the SEC

The mythical Rational Market Hypothesis tells us that open access to information ensures that capital will flow efficiently. This or course does not and cannot happen, as there is not free and open access to all information relevant to investment decision making. Different players have and always will have access to market moving information that is not available to all investors. In addition, a range of human and even algorithmic factors will ensure a different weighting of information by different market participants, ensuring a less than efficient market.

What does this have to do with interest rates?

Each time the Fed or the BoE talks rate hikes, the markets pause (for milliseconds sometimes) and asks if the higher rate will have a negative impact of economic activity, and thus on market value, or if Treasury Bills will deliver a higher capital growth, and therefore, is it time to leave one market and enter another (leave stocks, enter treasuries or other bonds). Business and investors have become so numbed to ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy) that they have come to see any hikes as potential speed bumps on the economic highway.

Continued ZIRP has resulted in behavioural distortions, with a new set of assumptions, including current market reactions reinforcing self-delusional assumptions of market rationality. In the middle 2000s we were convinced that we had become expert at managing risk, now we believe in the power of monetary policy to ensure ever-expanding market value. This cannot end well.

In the UK, the change in the "Ogden rate" (the discount rate applied to large insurance claims, predicated on the assumption that large claims will be invested in the most conservative manner) in early 2017 provides a wonderful example of a political decision designed to reinforce the "end of boom and bust" narrative. A change in a long term discount rate from 2.5% to -.75% both boosted insurance pay-outs and imposed massive loses on the insurance industry (The rate is now under review). The political nature of the decision was in effect a reiteration of the UK government’s assumption or expectation that interest rates would remain in the ZIRP range for the foreseeable future.

ZIRP ensured a limiting of the range of options for capital, be effectively removing treasuries, US, British Gilts, Japanese, from the portfolios of available return generating assets.

The end of ZIRP has seen a steady increase in the retail cost of money. At some stage, that increase will be perceived as reaching a point at which users of credit will begin to make decisions to not invest, or not spend. Owners of capital will begin to ask if the markets will therefore continue to increase at a rate significantly higher than "safe haven" investments.

So what is that interest rate number that will move the markets?

Only this past week the Chairman of the Federal Reserve presented to Congress for the first time, with his upbeat assessment of the US economy having quite a strange impact. The Wall Street Journal reported: "On Tuesday, Mr. Powell made his first Capitol Hill appearance since taking over as Fed chief this month, where he underscored the improvement in economic prospects, which many investors took as a suggestion that the central bank will lift borrowing costs four times this year. “It now looks more likely that the Fed is going to tighten more quickly,” said Peter Elston, chief investment officer at Seneca Investment Managers."

The markets seem to be at a point where positive economic news itself causes concerns about interest rates, upsetting the fragile balance between shares as the probably area of best return on capital, and fear that shares will fall resulting in negative returns.

That fragility could tip either way, although the messaging would suggest a greater probability of a negative shock. Bad economic news (such as the reported fall in new housing starts) could hint at a slower pace of rate hikes while at the same time undermining confidence. Alternatively, stronger economic news could cement more rate hikes sooner, again undermining confidence in the markets as the source of future capital appreciation.

Further, that fragility is all about perceptions and perceptions of perceptions. Will rates increase? If rates increase, will shares fall? If shares fall, will that force rates higher, or will a continued fall in shares erase gains. Should gains be "locked in" by selling now and putting the capital into "safe" options, and ride out a fall in share values, while earning more interest on the bonds / treasuries?

The Fed rate after all flows through into mortgage rates, auto loan rates, student loans, and credit card interest rates. All of these have a direct impact on individuals' economic behaviours and choices.

So if we game this situation, it looks something like:

  1. Fed increases interest rates, reaching an eye-watering 2.5% by mid-2018.
  2. Following a Fed rate rise event, markets expect reduction in mortgage lending, increase in credit card interest, reduction in auto loans.
  3. Market data is released showing a drop in new mortgage applications.
  4. Home builder and real estate stocks hit.
  5. REITs drop on expectation that housing prices will stabilize or fall.
  6. Contagion across industries creates further falls in equities.
  7. Holders of capital determine that treasuries will provide a "no loss of capital" position and that shares have created a "capital at risk" situation.

As the "rational" market distributes and creates information with an inequitable and non-transparent distribution, individual market participants reach widely different conclusions, ultimately coalescing into a consensus that the stock markets are no longer the best place to hold or invest capital for a time long enough for stable bottom to be found.

In this way Interest Rates may provide one of the catalysts for a substantial and sustained drop in market values. This is only one of the seven situations that I discussed last week. Next week we'll look at another of the seven.

What remains clear is that in a world with so many potential contributors or drivers of a change from Bull to Bear, there is no single non-interconnected economic or political situation that will be "the cause" of the coming end of this expansion. The big question will be which, through the lens of history, will carry the "blame".

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