The key question - in view of extreme credit market strains in Europe, and accelerating economic deterioration in the U.S. – is why the S&P 500 continues to trade within a few percent of its April bull market high. The answer is simple: investors are scared to death of missing the widely anticipated market advance that they expect to follow a widely anticipated third round of quantitative easing. Good economic news may be a relief for investors, but bad economic news in this context is just as much of a relief because it brings forward the anticipated delivery date of the sugar. The follow-up question, however, is that if more QE is widely anticipated, and a market advance is widely anticipated to result, isn’t that the precise definition of an event that is already priced into the market?
If you look at the Federal Reserve’s own research on quantitative easing – large scale asset purchases (LSAPs) – nearly every paper emphasizes the “portfolio balance” effect. Put simply, as the Fed removes longer-term Treasury securities from the menu of portfolio choices available to investors, it forces investors to consider alternative securities, raising their prices and lowering their yields – with a particular impact in driving down the risk premiums of risky securities. Indeed, as we’ve noted, QE has generally been effective in helping stocks to recover the peak-to-trough loss that they have suffered in the prior 6-month period (though the most recent LSAPs in the UK and Europe have been failures in that regard).
Still, once risk premiums are already deeply depressed (we estimate the likely 10-year prospective total nominal return for the S&P 500 to be only 4.8% annually), once stocks are trading near their bull market highs, and once Treasury debt already sports the lowest yield in history, should investors really expect much of a portfolio-balance effect from further attempts at QE? Frankly, I doubt it, but in the eventuality of a third round of QE, we’ll focus on our own measures of market action – not on any blind faith in the Fed.