I have been writing a lot lately about movements in the stock market and in interest rates, trying to interpret those movements within the framework I laid out in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations.” Last week I pointed out that, over the past three months, the close correlation, manifested from early 2008 to early 2013, between inflation expectations and the S&P 500 seems to have disappeared, inflation expectations declining at the same time that real interest rates, as approximated by the yield on the 10-year TIPS, and the stock market were rising.
However, for the past two days, the correlation seems to have made a strong comeback. The TIPS spread declined by 8 basis points, and the S&P 500 fell by 2%, over the past two days. (As I write this on Wednesday evening, the Nikkei average is down 5% in early trading on Thursday in Japan.) Meanwhile, the recent upward trajectory of the yield on TIPS has become even steeper, climbing 11 basis points in two days.
Now there are two possible interpretations of an increase in real interest rates. One is that expected real growth in earnings (net future corporate cash flows) is increasing. But that explanation for rising real interest rates is hard to reconcile with a sharp decline in stock prices. The other possible interpretation for a rise in real interest rates is that monetary policy is expected to be tightened, future interest rates being expected to rise when the monetary authority restricts the availability of base money. That interpretation would also be consistent with the observed decline in inflation expectations.
For almost three weeks since Bernanke testified to Congress last month, hinting at the possibility that the Fed would begin winding down QE3, markets have been in some turmoil, and I conjecture that the turmoil is largely due to uncertainty caused by the possibility of a premature withdrawal from QE. This suggests that we may have entered into a perverse expectational reaction function in which any positive economic information, such as the better-than-expected May jobs report, creates an expectation that monetary stimulus will be withdrawn, thereby counteracting the positive expectational boost of the good economic news. This is the Sumner critique with a vengeance — call it the super-Sumner critique. Not only is the government-spending multiplier zero; the private-investment multiplier is also zero!
Now I really like this story, and the catchy little name that I have thought up for it is also cute. But candor requires me to admit that I detect a problem with it. I don’t think that it is a fatal problem, but maybe it is. If I am correct that real interest rates are rising because the odds that the Fed will tighten its policy and withdraw QE are increasing, then I would have expected that expectations of a Fed tightening would also cause the dollar to rise against other currencies in the foreign-exchange markets. But that has not happened; the dollar has been falling for the past few weeks, and the trend has continued for the last two days also. The only explanation that I can offer for that anomaly is that a tightening in US monetary policy would be expected to cause other central banks to tighten their policies even more severely than the Fed. I can understand why some tightening by other central banks would be expected to follow from a Fed tightening, but I can’t really understand why the reaction would be more intense than the initial change. Of course the other possibility is that different segments of the markets are being dominated by different expectations, in which case, there are some potentially profitable trading strategies that could be followed to take advantage of those differences.
It wasn’t so long ago that we were being told by opponents of stimulus programs that the stimulus programs, whether fiscal or monetary, were counterproductive, because “the markets need certainty.” Well, maybe the certainty that is needed is the certainty that the stimulus won’t be withdrawn before it has done its job.
PS I apologize for not having responded to any comments lately. I have just been swamped with other obligations.