@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital
Equity market investors expressed concern last week after the release of the minutes from the latest FOMC meeting suggested that the Federal Reserve is considering slowing down the pace of the current quantitative easing (QE) program. The Fed is currently purchasing $85 billion of U.S. Treasury and Agency mortgage-backed securities per month.
The Fed has changed its stance on when policy would potentially move to a tightening bias, from emphasizing a calendar date to basing it on economic data. The Fed has stated that it would not raise short-term rates until the unemployment rate fell to 6.5% as long as inflation is not expected to rise above 2.5%. With inflation currently running well below their threshold and with the unemployment rate elevated at 7.9%, it is likely the Fed is more focused on bringing down the employment rate, potentially at the expense of higher inflation.
With short-term interest rates already at the zero bound, the asset purchases are attempting to promote the same result as additional cuts to the fed funds rate. Even if the Fed tapers off their asset purchases in the next few months, any QE is still easing. They would just be taking their foot off of the accelerator. We feel that economic growth should remain tepid in the first half of the year and not strong enough to bring down the unemployment rate significantly, so the Fed is likely to keep their accommodative stance. In addition, the key members of the FOMC – Bernanke, Yellen and Dudley – all lean to the dovish side with respect to monetary policy.
Before actual tightening occurs, the Fed will first have to end QE. When the Fed stops asset purchases, it would be in the context of an improving economy. An improving economy is typically a positive for asset prices. As ISI Group shows in the following charts, equity prices have eventually increased in past episodes of policy tightening.
The Fed raised interest rates from 1.00% to 5.25% from June 2004 to June 2006. After a modest correction, equity prices moved up substantially.
The Fed tightened in more aggressive increments during the 1994-1995 period. The equity markets moves sideways for a period of time, and then ultimately moved higher.