WASHINGTON – Until a couple of days ago, most economists bet that the US Federal Reserve would finally begin to raise interest rates at its December 2015 meeting, this way ending the anomaly of the longest era of zero interest in modern history.
The general picture looked propitious for such a move. The US economy just added 271,000 jobs in October, many more than expected. Wages are going up a bit. Unemployment is down. Overall, it seemed that the new data indicated that a strong economy would fuel more inflation. And this new trend would justify raising interest rates.
What will happen to stocks?
And what about the consequences? Well, here it gets tricky. This Fed move on interests would signal to stock investors that the ground may begin to shift. Higher rates mean that in a short while, (depending on how fast the Fed moves to bring interest rates from zero back to a historic norm of about 4%), other investment instruments like savings accounts or bonds will become once again more attractive.
In short, if it is indeed true that this unprecedented era of zero interest created a stock market bubble because it forced people to move away from other forms of investments, then we can expect that its end may bring about a stock market decline, or worse.
Right now, people have an extra incentive to invest in stocks because –thanks to zero interest rates decreed by the Fed– it is the only game in town. You cannot make any money by placing your funds in savings accounts. When interest rates go up again, people will have choices.
Because of all this, these days markets move up or down mostly on the basis of what analysts believe the Fed will or will not do, and how soon. This happens because stocks are sensitive to interest rates moves, and also because there is no action on any other economic policy front that may trigger market reactions.
Paralysis in Washington
Washington is paralyzed by political dissent. Therefore, no chance of anything happening there that would influence economic policies and therefore economic and investment decisions. No serious public spending reform plan on the agenda, no changes to major entitlements, and no tax reforms that would modify economic incentives.
In other words, nothing is coming from Washington that would signal markets that soon it will be easier to go into business, create new companies, invest in them and profit from them.
Will the Fed move?
So, we are left with Fed watching. As noted above, looking at the positive signs from the US economy that were streaming in in the last few days, it looked as if the Fed would finally have the margin to move.
Indeed, on the surface, the US is doing fine. The stock market is buoyant. Lots of new jobs added in October. More Americans are employed. Higher interest rates, phased in a little bit at a time, would not smother this fairly solid economy.
Outlook not so good anymore
Well, this was only a few days ago. But now things do not look so good anymore. For example, let’s take a look at commodities. By any measure the sector, a close proxy of industrial activities, looks awful. The Bloomberg Commodity Index is now down to its lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis. The price of copper, widely used in all sorts of industries, is now down to a six-year low. Most commodity prices are back to where they were before China engaged in its gigantic domestic investment program that drove up the cost of everything. As a minimum, this serious decline means that most industrial economies, and not just China, are slowing down.
Commodities down, world trade down
And it gets worse. Because of sharply lower demand for their products, many emerging markets that produce and export commodities are either in a recession or close to it, (think of Brazil and South Africa). Besides, despite the official statistics pointing to lower but still significant growth, China is exporting and importing less of everything. This affects all its trading partners, from Australia to South Korea.
And there are more bad signs. Maersk, the Denmark based leading maritime shipping company, recently announced that it canceled several orders for new vessels. In other words, a giant player that manages a large chunk of world trade does not believe that current and projected global traffic volumes justify buying more container ships. (Incidentally, recent data about the movement of goods in and out of major US ports also indicate a sustained decline).
More Americans are working, but few good jobs
Back in the US, while more people have jobs, most of the recent additions are in leisure and hospitality, health care, and other services. Most of these jobs are low paying. In many cases they are not full-time. In other words, there are no new jobs in critical wealth creating sectors such as oil and gas, mining and manufacturing.
Sure, more American are employed, and this is good news. But their jobs depend on government spending (health care), and on the spending of other Americans employed in wealth producing sectors.
So, here is the thing. While we have more bartenders and waiters, we have had zero growth or declines in manufacturing, oil and gas, and mining. This is not a sign of a robust economy, going forward.
If the global economy slows down significantly, many US exporters will be hurt. Some, like Caterpillar, are already doing poorly. And this is because fewer foreign customers are engaged in new construction projects. Hence no need to buy more earth moving equipment from Caterpillar.
Other Central Banks not about to raise rates
Last but least, you have to consider what the other monetary authorities are doing. The Bank of England just decided not to raise rates. The European Central Bank is engaged in Quantitative Easing and plans to have more of it, largely on account of disappointing growth within the Eurozone, (only 0.3% in the last quarter). The Japanese economy is (once again) sputtering. Finally, China is trying to stimulate its economy by easing credit and lowering the amount of reserves banks need to keep. Therefore you can expect more, not less, monetary easing in the rest of the world.
So, here is the global picture. The US may be doing almost OK –for now. But the rest of the developed and developing world is slowing down. For this reason all other central banks will keep interest rates at zero or close to zero.
If the US acts on its own
In this context, if the US will raise rates all by itself, as a minimum we can expect a massive flood of foreign capital seeking higher rewards into America. This would drive the US dollar further up, significantly hurting US exporters, including all major manufacturing companies. And remember that the newly added US jobs in leisure and hospitality largely depend on other gainfully employed people having the discretionary income to spend on restaurants and holidays.
Stampede out of stocks?
And it gets worse. Everybody agrees that the US stock market is overvalued on account of zero interest rates that drove people away from other forms of investments. What we do not know is how overvalued.
Assuming even a modest Fed move on interest rates in December, we cannot expect rational, measured reactions. Foreign investors, fearing that the Fed might get aggressive, may flee from higher risk countries. The dollar shoots up. US exporters are hurt, badly. Their stocks sink, dragging down their vendors and suppliers. Other vulnerable stocks follow. Can this become a rout that drags down “everything”? Yes, this can happen.
Is the US economy rather weak, after all?
Therefore, the odds are now against the Fed raising rates. But, wait a minute. If the Fed does not raise rates, then it signals to Wall Street that the US economy, contrary to its earlier analyses, is not that strong. If even a modest Fed move on interest rates might upset the whole thing, this means that the economy has no strong foundations.
For this reasons, some investors are likely to sell stocks anyway, finally realizing that they are holding stuff of dubious, most likely artificially inflated value.
Preserve your capital, stay out of over valued assets
Either way, we lose. If investors were wise, they would give up the notion of making any money in stocks, given this weird environment characterized by a slow-moving US, a weak global economy, and expensive assets.
US stock are over valued. Therefore it is not smart to keep buying them. Of course, if you go into cash, you make no money, we know that. Still, better to make zero profit than losing your capital. As I said, if investors were wise…