Insights & Advice

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Santa Visits Wall Street

As markets close in this holiday-shortened week, the stock market enjoyed its annual Christmas rally with all three averages reaching new highs for the year. It was the best December for the S&P since 1991 and most forecasters believe these gains indicates an even larger move in the first half of next year.

Goldman (or should I say Government) Sachs upped its forecast for the S&P 500 Index to 1,450 for 2011. That is a 16% projected gain in the index and if true would bring us within 115 points of that average’s all time high reached on October 9, 2007.

Adding to the good cheer this week was the news that existing home sales gained 5.6% in November which kindled hopes that the long awaited recovery in the housing market was at hand. But in my opinion, the real Santa Claus this year came disguised as the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman, Ben Bernanke.

Back in late August, when the first public statements from the Federal Reserve Bank surfaced on the possibility of a second quantitative easing, the stock market snapped out of its doldrums. I immediately abandoned my cautious stance and both stock and commodity prices started to move higher and have never looked back.

Most market watchers argue that QE II is a failure judging by the results in the bond market. They point to medium and long-term interest rates which have actually increased over the last two months as evidence that QE II has failed. I beg to differ. I believe the Fed’s intention was focused solely on keeping short term interest rates at a historical low level and he steepening of the yield curve (where long rates are higher than short rates) was exactly what they wanted.

In economics class I learned that a steepening yield curve is synonymous with a growing economy, but as the economy grows so does the threat of inflation. Maybe not at first, but as time progresses, the economy grows stronger and begins to overheat. The specter of rising inflation becomes almost certain. Investors who understand this begin to demand higher yields now from the bond market, especially from those who are selling long term bonds, say ten to thirty years out.

Now consider those millions of risk-adverse investors who have put their money into long term treasury bonds as the result of the recession and financial crisis. They are losing their shirt right now as their investments drop in price on almost a daily basis. Sure, they can sell and buy shorter term government maturities or CDs that promise to yield next to nothing for “an extended period of time” or they can move back into the stock market.

Most investors know that they can get a higher return in the stock market than in the bond market. But until recently they were too frightened to risk their money in an economy and a stock market that might roll over at any moment. However, thanks to QE II, commodities (an inflation play) and stocks have been roaring back to life on the heels of progressively positive economic data that promises to just get better and better.

So with bond prices down, equity and commodity prices up, and with the Fed on record as wanting the stock market higher and you now have the ingredients guaranteed to entice even the most wary individual back into the stock market. In addition, a steeper higher yield curve is actually good for the traditional players in the bond market– pensions, endowments and insurance companies.

These entities receive constant inflows of new cash because of the nature of their businesses. Investing this money in higher long term rates makes it far easier for them to meet their future obligations. It is also great for the banks that borrow short term and lend long term. With higher long term rates, the Fed is betting that even the banks may be attracted to this higher profit spread and reconsider their present stingy policy toward lending. So all in all, the Fed has accomplished a great deal with QE II, contrary to popular opinion. And like Santa Claus, no one actually catches the bearer of this gift even if it is sitting there, big as life, under the tree.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, At the Market