Insights & Advice

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Rising rates create headwinds for stocks

The saga of rising interest rates in the long end of the U.S. Treasury market continued this week. Investors, fearing runaway inflation, sold both bonds and stocks. Will the selling continue, or is this a buying opportunity?

It depends upon which asset class we are talking about. Yields on the 10, 20, and 30-year U.S. Treasury Bonds, I believe, will continue to rise. How far? It is possible that the benchmark “Tens” could finish the year at 2%. In the short-term, however, I expect yields to fall a bit on profit-taking.

Last week, I warned readers that the rise in rates was not over. I expected yields on the U.S. Ten Year Treasury Bond to hit the 1.70% level or higher. Currently, they are yielding 1.75%, which is a fairly steep move in less than a week. It is the speed of the ascent in yields that is spooking equity investors.

But where is the Fed in all of this? The simple answer is that the Federal Reserve Bank controls short-term interest rates, while long term rates are determined by the buying and selling of you and me. But it goes further than that.

Investors have been conditioned over many years to expect the Fed to be pre-emptive in guiding monetary policy. If, for example, the FOMC board members believe inflation might be getting out of hand in the future, they will nudge rates higher now to head off that danger.

Not this time. The Fed, and its Chairman Jerome Powell, want inflation to rise and plan to wait until that happens before reacting. This is a new concept for market participants.

For the first time in a long time, the Fed is making employment its priority, not Wall Street. The real unemployment rate in this country is thought to be about 9%, depending on what data you look at. The Fed wants to let the economy grow until that number drops dramatically. If that means the economy grows “hot” and inflation rises for a quarter or two to achieve that goal, so be it.

The Fed believes that any sustained, long term rise in the inflation rate will only become a problem if wages start to rise and rise substantially. Consider that back in 2019, when the unemployment rate was as low as 3.5% (the lowest since 1969), the inflation rate was only 1.81%, despite wage growth of 4.6%.  Given the still-high rate of unemployment, it is hard to imagine that wage growth and any potential inflation it might cause will occur any time soon.

But what about the record rise in commodity prices, like food and energy? Isn’t that inflationary?  The Fed considers these price movements short-term aberrations. Consider the oil price, which can fluctuate by as much as 4-5% in a day. On Thursday, for example, crude fell 7%. The Fed is concerned with the long-term trends, while you, me, and Wall Street are focused on today, tomorrow, and at the latest, next week.

But who is to say that if the Fed waits to react to a 2.5%-3.5% uptick in the inflation rate, they will be able to put the genie back in the bottle?  Can we trust the Fed to let the economy grow hot enough to employ America’s workers without unleashing a new and damaging multi-year trend of inflation? The market seems to doubt that.

In February, I advised investors to raise some cash in highflyers, mostly in the new tech area, because I believed this month would be volatile at best. That is proving to be the case. Over the next few weeks, readers should start putting that cash back to work on the market’s down days.

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