It is called “Quantitative Tightening,” or QT, a term used to describe how momentary authorities are planning to shrink an $8.9 trillion balance sheet. The U.S. Federal Reserve is the only central bank in the world (and in history) that has attempted to implement a reduction in assets. The first time they tried, things did not go so well.
“Quantitative Easing,” or QE, may be a more familiar concept to readers since we have been experiencing some form of QE (monetary stimulus) since the Financial Crisis of 2008. QT is the opposite. The Fed first tried to reduce its balance sheet back in 2018-2019. The stock market had such a hissy fit that the double-digit melt down that ensued convinced the central bankers to back down in their attempt to normalize their balance sheet. By the end of 2018, the Fed was allowing $50 billion/month to run off its balance sheet. Market turbulence erupted almost immediately and by March 8, 2019, the Fed under Jerome Powell, turned the money spigots back on and reversed the easing that “no longer seemed necessary.” The crisis was over, and so was QT.
The problem, however, is that investors have become accustomed to the low interest rate environment that the Fed engineered through asset purchases and low interest rates. It has become an essential prop holding up equity values, which have climbed higher and higher.
Every time the Fed has sought to drain liquidity from the banking system, the stock market has reacted by staging a Taper Tantrum. There was one in 2013, another in 2019, and we are in one now.
Fast forward to the Coronavirus Pandemic, when the Federal Reserve Bank bought a massive $3.3 trillion in U.S. Treasuries and $1.3 trillion in mortgage-backed securities to support the markets. Those Fed purchases have not only contributed to the massive gains in the stock market in 2021, but also contributed to the present explosion in the inflation rate.
On April 6, 2022, the FOMC minutes of the Fed’s March 15-16, 2022, meeting became available. The notes showed deepening concern among members that inflation had broadened throughout the economy. Most policymakers were prepared to raise interest rates in May by 50 basis points and continue these half-percentage-point hikes in coining policy meetings.
They also supported a second try at reducing the Fed’s holdings of Treasury bonds. Up to $60 billion per month of U.S. Treasury bonds will be sold as well as reducing $35 billion per month in mortgage-backed bond holdings. That is nearly double the Fed’s QT program from 2017 to 2019. By reducing the balance sheet, while moving the short-term, Fed funds rate higher in 50-basis-point increments. The Fed is again taking away the punch bowl for equity investors.
The news may have shocked most investors, but unfortunately it was part and parcel of why I have remained relatively bearish throughout the year thus far. Will investors double down on dumping equities or will they calmly go to the slaughter ahead?
I fear that an even worse sell-off may be ahead of us sometime in May 2022 when the Fed begins implementing QT. The stock market has been practically straight down most of the week on news of this plan. I advised readers last week that the stock market had become too “frothy” after the bear market rally of last month. I wrote that we could see a pullback to “between 4,400-4,500 level on the S&P500 Index.” We have accomplished that, and I am now looking for a relief rally that should continue for a week or two. After that, we face earnings season and the next Fed meeting. Strap in.