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What’s Bad About the Fed Put…and Does Powell Have One?

January 8, 2019 3 comments

Note: Come hear me speak this month at the Taft-Hartley Benefits Summit in Las Vegas January 20-22, 2019. I will be speaking about “Pairing Liability Driven Investing (LDI) and Risk Management Techniques – How to Control Risk.” If you come to the event I’ll buy you a drink. As far as you know.

And now on with our irregularly-scheduled program.


Have we re-set the “Fed put”?

The idea that the Fed is effectively underwriting the level of financial markets is one that originated with Greenspan and which has done enormous damage to markets since the notion first appeared in the late 1990s. Let’s review some history:

The original legislative mandate of the Fed (in 1913) was to “furnish an elastic currency,” and subsequent amendment (most notably in 1977) directed the Federal Open Market Committee to “maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.” By directing that the Federal Reserve focus on monetary and credit aggregates, Congress clearly put the operation of monetary policy a step removed from the unhealthy manipulation of market prices.

The Trading Desk at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York conducts open market operations to make temporary as well as permanent additions to and subtractions from these aggregates by repoing, reversing, purchasing, or selling Treasury bonds, notes, and bills, but the price of these purchases has always been of secondary importance (at best) to the quantity, since the purpose is to make minor adjustments in the aggregates.

This operating procedure changed dramatically in the global financial crisis as the Fed made direct purchase of illiquid securities (notably in the case of the Bear Stearns bankruptcy) as well as intervening in other markets to set the price at a level other than the one the free market would have determined. But many observers forget that the original course change happened in the 1990s, when Alan Greenspan was Chairman of the FOMC. Throughout his tenure, Chairman Greenspan expressed opinions and evinced concern about the level of various markets, notably the stock market, and argued that the Fed’s interest in such matters was reasonable since the “wealth effect” impacted economic growth and inflation indirectly. Although he most-famously questioned whether the market was too high and possibly “irrationally exuberant” in 1996, the Greenspan Fed intervened on several occasions in a manner designed to arrest stock market declines. As a direct result of these interventions, investors became convinced that the Federal Reserve would not allow stock prices to decline significantly, a conviction that became known among investors as the “Greenspan Put.”

As with any interference in the price system, the Greenspan Put caused misallocation of resources as market prices did not truly reflect the price at which a willing buyer and a willing seller would exchange ownership of equity risks, since both buyer and seller assumed that the Federal Reserve was underwriting some of those risks. In my first (not very good) book Maestro, My Ass!, I included this chart illustrating one way to think about the inefficiencies created:

The “S” curve is essentially an efficient frontier of portfolios that offer the best returns for a given level of risk. The “D” curves are the portfolio preference curves; they are convex upwards because investors are risk-averse and require ever-increasing amounts of return to assume an extra quantum of risk. The D curve describes all portfolios where the investor is equally satisfied – all higher curves are of course preferred, because the investor would get a higher return for a given level of risk. Ordinarily, this investor would hold the portfolio at E, which is the highest curve he/she can achieve given his/her preferences. The investor would not hold portfolio Q, because that portfolio has more risk than the investor is willing to take for the level of expected return offered, and he/she can achieve a ‘better’ portfolio (higher curve) at E.

But suppose now that the Fed limits the downside risk of markets by providing a ‘put’ which effectively caps the risk at X. Then, this investor will in fact choose portfolio Q, because portfolio Q offers higher return at a similar risk to portfolio E. So the investor ends up owning more risky securities (or what would be risky securities in the absence of the Fed put) than he/she otherwise would, and fewer less-risky securities. More stocks, and fewer bonds, which raises the equilibrium level of equity prices until, essentially, the curve is flat beyond E because at any increment in return, for the same risk, an investor would slide to the right.

So what happened? The chart below shows a simple measure of expected equity real returns which incorporates mean reversion to long-term historical earnings multiples, compared to TIPS real yields (prior to 1997, we use Enduring Investments’ real yield series, which I write about here). Prior to 1987 (when Greenspan took office, and began to promulgate the idea that the Fed would always ride to the rescue), the median spread between equity expected returns and long-term real yields was about 3.38%. That’s not a bad estimate of the equity risk premium, and is pretty close to what theorists think equities ought to offer over time. Since 1997, however – and here it’s especially important to use median since we’ve had multiple booms and busts – the median is essentially zero. That is, the capital market line averages “flat.”

If this makes investors happy (because they’re on a higher indifference curve), then what’s the harm? Well, this put (a free put struck at “X”) is not costless even though the Fed is providing it for free. If the Fed could provide this without any negative consequences, then by all means they ought to because they can make everyone happier for free. But there is, of course, a cost to manipulating free markets (Socialists, take note). In this case the cost appears in misallocation of resources, as companies can finance themselves with overvalued equity…which leads to booms and busts, and the ultimate bearer of this cost is – as it always is – the citizenry.

In my mind, one of the major benefits that Chairman Powell brought to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve was that, since he is not an economist by training, he treated economic projections with healthy and reasonable skepticism rather than with the religious faith and conviction of previous Fed Chairs. I was a big fan of Powell (and I haven’t been a big fan of many Chairpersons) because I thought there was a decent chance that he would take the more reasonable position that the Fed should be as neutral as possible and do as little as possible, since after all it turns out that we collectively suck when it comes to our understanding of how the economy works and we are unlikely to improve in most cases on the free market outcome. When stocks started to show some volatility and begin to reprice late last year, his calculated insouciance was absolutely the right attitude – “what Fed put?” he seemed to be saying. Unfortunately, the cost of letting the market re-adjust is to let it fall a significant amount so that there is again an upward slope between E and Q, and moreover let it stay there.

The jury is out on whether Powell does in fact have a price level in mind, or if he merely has a level of volatility in mind – letting the market re-adjust in a calm and gentle way may be acceptable to him, with his desire to intervene only being triggered by a need to calm things rather than to re-inflate prices. I’m hopeful that is the case, and that on Friday he was just trying to slow the descent but not to arrest it. My concern is that while Powell is not an economist, he did have a long career in investment banking, private equity, and venture capital. That might mean that he respects the importance of free markets, but it also might mean that he tends to exaggerate the importance of high valuations. Again, I’m hopeful, and optimistic, on this point. But that translates to being less optimistic on equity prices, until something like the historical risk premium has been restored.

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