Home > Analogy, Behavioral, Economy, Federal Reserve, Government, Stock Market > Half-Mast Isn’t Half Bad

Half-Mast Isn’t Half Bad

As I watch the stock market, implausibly, rise to levels no one expected so soon after the crash, I am also sickened by the cheerleading from those whose fortunes – not to mention egos – are wrapped up in the level at which the Dow trades. Stock market fetishism always fascinates me as much as it repels me. Although my experience as a trader (and a short-term options trader, at that) would seem to suggest otherwise, my makeup is as a long-term investor. I want to buy value, and the mathematics of investing for me is that I want (a) high intrinsic value at (b) a low price. While people who are buy-and-hold investors of a certain age clearly benefit from higher prices, young investors clearly benefit from lower prices since they’re going to be net buyers for a long time. And the price at which you acquire intrinsic value matters. So does the price at which you sell, but not until you sell.

So to me, there’s nothing great about a price that’s high relative to intrinsic value, unless I am preparing to sell. In a broader sense, the idea that we should cheer for higher prices (as opposed to higher intrinsic values) is not only unseemly, but destructive and I’ll explain why in a minute. I will note that the fascination with watching prices ticking every second goes back a long ways: you can read in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator about the bucket shops of the early 1900s where speculators would watch and trade the stock market tape. The general increase in investor twitchiness and short-termism that has accompanied the growth of financial news TV, online investing, and the development of ETFs to trade broad market exposures intraday certainly adds numbers to the cheerleading crowd. But it isn’t new. Depressing, but not new.

The most fascinating example of this belief in the (non-intuitive, to me) connection between the value of the stock market and the value of ‘Merica was presented to me in the aftermath of 9/11. When we first trudged back to lower Manhattan, there were people handing out these cards:

Fight Osama! Buy Cisco! I never did see the connection, and it seemed to me at the time either delusional (the terrorists win if my investment in Lucent goes down) or nakedly self-serving. Certainly the way I feel about my country has nothing to do with where I’m able to buy or sell eBay today. And actually, they really weren’t coming for our 401(k)s, they were coming for our lives. But I digress.

The point I actually want to make is that when the Fed works to stabilize market prices, they’re having a negative effect by destabilizing economic variables. An analogy from manufacturing might be an entry point to this explanation: a truism in manufacturing is that you can stabilize inventory, or you can stabilize production, but you can’t stabilize both (unless your customers are accommodating and provide very smooth demand). If you want to stabilize inventory levels, then you need to produce more when business is high and less when business is low, so you’re on the production roller-coaster. If you want to keep production level, then inventory will be low when business is high and high when business is low, so you’re on the inventory roller-coaster. Only if business itself is stable – which is rare – can you do both.

A similar thing happens in capital markets. You can stabilize the cost of capital, but then you destabilize growth rates. Or you can stabilize growth rates, and the cost of capital (stock and bond prices) will fluctuate. This is true unless you can do away with the business cycle. If you choose, as the Fed has in recent years, to try and stabilize market prices at very high levels (stabilizing the cost of capital at very low levels), then when underlying activity is strong you’ll get a ton of speculative investment in capacity, new ventures that depend on the availability of cheap capital, and strong growth. And then when economic activity heads lower, you’ll find that lots of businesses go bust and the recession is deeper. In fact, it’s not just the speculative businesses that go bust, but the overbuilding in the expansion can cause even prudent enterprises to have more difficulties in the downturn.

The Fed’s historical response to this has been to let the speculative activity happen when the cost of capital is held too low, but not let companies go bust when economic activity wanes…so they lower the cost of capital even further.

I’m obviously not the first person to point out that the Fed’s constant intervention has deleterious effects and tends to increase the amplitude of boom and bust. And, for what it’s worth, I’m not blaming the current recession on the Fed. Clearly, the proximate cause of this recession was COVID-19 and the global economic shutdown. What made it worse was that the Fed, by holding down the cost of capital, had previously precipitated the development and preserved the success of many more speculative enterprises. And the fetishism about stock prices, and about how important it is to have lots of money “working for you” in the stock market, is also one of the reason that people don’t save enough.

Of course, right now is probably not the time for the Fed and Congress to pull back and let huge numbers of people and companies go bankrupt. There’s a case to be made for the sort of government response we are having in this episode, in which personal income is being replaced by money creation while workers are ordered to stay home. There will be a piper to pay for that policy – a loss of price stability which is a consequence of trying to preserve output stability, but a consequence that it’s arguably acceptable to pay. Afterwards, though, I hope that central banks can start to let natural rhythms replace the autocratic ones. I am not hugely optimistic on that score, but one place to start is this: stop lowering the bar for central banks to intervene in markets. Stop targeting equity prices and interest rates. It’s okay to let the Dow trade at half-mast, and the bull will come back without the Fed’s help.

In fact, if we don’t keep trying to artificially increase the length of the mast, the Dow might never need to trade down to half-mast in the first place. Certainly, intrinsic values don’t retrace 50% in a recession!

  1. April 28, 2020 at 11:40 am

    During a wonderful 9-year bull run, no one on CNBC was screaming “The Fed needs to step in and halt this euphoria! Interest rates and easy money are setting us up for disaster!” Then came December 2018 and the Fed dared to notch short-term interest rates to nearly 2.5%, very low by historical standards. The stock market swooned (and the CNBC commentators went nuts). The Fed is allowed — or should I say is required? — to move the stock market in one direction: Up. And Up. And Up.

    At this point (April 28) the S&P 500 is down only 11.1% year to date. That is just more than a correction. You can thank the Federal Reserve, in combination with massive government borrowing to support any market that actually deserves to fail.

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