The Biggest Risk to Financial Markets (It is Not What Most Investors Think)

 In Strategy Updates

When investors consider risk today they think of North Korea, elevated stock prices, Trump, or maybe even Bitcoin!  However, the real risk to today’s financial markets is something bigger and that is rarely mentioned. It is also something that has caused most of the big stock market declines over the past five decades.  What might that be?

Historically, most significant and longer term stock market declines (beyond 20%) have been a result of Federal Reserve policy and its corresponding negative effect on economic growth – namely a policy of raising interest rates too much in an effort to ward off inflation, particularly during a period of strong economic growth.

As you may know, when the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) lowers interest rates, it has a tendency to spur economic growth as businesses and individuals become enticed to borrow and invest for future projects creating greater good for the economy as a whole.  The most recent and historic case was in 2008-09 when the Fed reduced rates to near zero in an effort to bring the global economy back to life – which eventually, and thankfully, worked!  On the other hand, during periods of strong economic growth Federal Reserve policy becomes more “tight” as they begin to raise interest rates back to more normal levels.  Over the past 12 months we have seen the Fed raise rates three times and the general consensus is that they will raise rates one more time by year’s end.  The Fed’s main objective in raising rates is to mitigate the economy from growing too strong. What’s wrong with an economy that is growing too strong?  It creates inflation which causes the prices of goods and services to skyrocket, eventually choking off growth and causing economic havoc.  Once inflationary spirals begin they can go on for years, as any of us who recall the mid-70s-mid-80s can attest. So when economies are growing the Fed is caught in a very fine balancing act: raising rates gently enough to allow growth to continue while keeping inflation at bay; and simultaneously being sure not to raise rates too much or too fast to avoid halting economic growth and tipping the economy into recession.

If this balancing act sounds challenging, believe us, it is!  When you keep in mind that the Federal Reserve Board is comprised of smart, experienced, individuals, it is important to remember that they, too, are prone to error – hence their track record of causing many of the past recessions and market plunges over the past few decades.  Often when economies have been perceived to be growing too strong, their policy of raising rates has not just slowed, but stopped, the economy in its tracks and caused recession.  Is Fed Policy a risk right now? NO.  Is it a risk coming in the next few years? YES.

Our research suggests that the risk of Fed Policy error will become higher over the next 2-4 years.  Though we have confidence in Janet Yellen and her most likely replacement, Jerome Powell, both are prone to error given that they, like us, are human.  This economy is just shaking off a mild recession in 2015-16, so we believe it is still in its early stages (hence the rapid rise in stock prices this year).  However, as economic growth over the next few years continues, finding that right balance – the Goldilocks’ formula of “not too hot” and “not too cold” – may become a challenge and will be a risk today’s investors should prepare for in their investment portfolio.

The Big Risk for Most Investors…But Not You!
Strangely, the biggest risk of an error in Fed policy will be in the bond market – more so than the stock market – particularly for holders of bond funds as opposed to those that own individual bonds.  As you know we do not invest in bond funds or bond products only individual bonds.  As we have written many times in the past, because bond funds have no maturity date, they will decline in value every time rates rise, and will not return to their original value until rates eventually come back to earlier levels.  This recovery time could take many years, if not a lifetime, given that we are at a historically low level of interest rates.  This risk is compounded given the nature of today’s demographics and the advent of bond “products.”  A quick peek at where most bond assets are held today, and one quickly realizes that there are trillions of dollars in bond mutual funds, bond exchange traded funds (ETFs), and other Wall Street products.  None of these have maturity dates and once rates rise in earnest, investors will begin to experience declines – those with longer maturity funds will be the worst.  The sheer amount of assets held in these products begets a bigger problem.  Should investors try to sell their bond funds and other bond “products” (which investors always do when prices fall more than normal!) there will not be enough liquidity (buyers) to support the underlying bond prices and interest rates could likely skyrocket, causing bond funds to fall even more significantly!  We have seen smaller versions of this throughout history, but never has there been so much money tied to bond products in the past, which threatens to make this time a real doozy!  Since we only invest in individual bonds this Big Risk should not significantly affect you.

Though we think that the next few quarters should be good for corporate profits, the economy and stocks, a significant rise in interest rates could have a negative impact on the stock market or parts of it.  Therefore, as always, we will be continually applying our Active Risk Management Process through your asset allocation, sector management and carefully placed stop loss orders.

Again, we believe that the current level of stock prices is justified based on economic and corporate profit growth.  There will be some corrections along the way, but until the Fed gets heavy handed, we should see financial markets embrace this better growth environment.  If you have any questions about your portfolio, or if your financial circumstances have changed, please let us know.

Thanks from all of us for your vote of confidence over the years! If you have any friends or colleagues who you feel may benefit from our services, we would be happy to introduce ourselves to them with a no-obligation introductory meeting.

Happy Holidays from Your Team at Main Street Research!