|Market volatility spiked starting at the end of February and continues today at extreme levels. Long time readers of our updates know that we have been warning about asset bubble and Central Banks’ recent actions since last year.|
On March 3rd, The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) cut the federal funds rate by 0.5 percentage points to a 1 to 1.25% range. An emergency interest rate cut between regular meetings is very rare. The last such cut was during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) in October 2008. In fact, there have only been 7 emergency actions since October 1998. Interestingly, the FOMC took this action after only a -8.2% decline in February for the S&P 500 Total Return Index(1). Similarly other markets around the world showed “orderly” selling – the MSCI EAFE Net index of Developed Markets was down only -9.0% while Emerging Markets, as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Net Index, lost only -5.3% during the month(2).
How have stocks performed in the past after the FOMC cuts rates unexpectedly? The answer in the table below(3) is that they tend to go lower the following 12 months. The average one year return on the S&P 500 following an emergency cut is -7.3%. The October 15, 1998 emergency cut was in reaction to a hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), imploding. Excluding the LTCM cut, the average one year return after the other six actions was much worse, -12.5%.
On February 20 and 21, FOMC speakers were cheerleading the market and saying that no rate cuts were necessary. We must ask ourselves, why did the Federal Reserve deem it necessary to act so suddenly? Ultimately, fears intensified over the new coronavirus (COVID-19) turning into a pandemic given that the number of new cases appearing outside of China were outpacing those within China, all this without adequate testing in many places.
However, we remain skeptical that monetary policy can solve the global economic issues. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are now pushing working from home(6). All, in addition to Apple, JP Morgan, Proctor & Gamble and others, have limited employee travel(6). Major events such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin have been cancelled, and forthcoming cancellations will be likely, too. Corporate management teams know that they will be forgiven if they lump as much bad news as possible into the first half of 2020 whether it is COVID-19-related or not. The bad news is likely to keep coming and the economic damage may be significant.
It is possible that that Central Banks can regain control as Central Banks have managed to restrain volatility for the six previous times issues arose since the GFC. However, with the VIX at 60+, they appear to be more challenged than ever post-2008. Already, Treasury yields have reached record lows in February. Accordingly, the Barclays U.S. Long Treasury Index increased 6.7% during the month(4). Market participants are now anticipating three interest rate cuts to occur in 2020(5) and in March, Treasury yields have reached unprecedented low levels! The 30-year Treasury is below 1% as we write(1).
In this high volatility environment, anything is possible and we are watching the markets and economy like a hawk. The CIG-managed portfolios have benefited from being positioned for late cycle volatility since October, with the Dynamic portfolios even more so since late February. There is massive risk to the downside as well as the upside. On the plus side, we may get a global fiscal stimulus package which would in turn boost markets. In that case, markets are very oversold, meaning assets that have traded lower/ gotten cheaper have the potential for a price bounce. On the other hand, the constant subsidy of the markets and the economy has led us to a large bond and stock market bubble and very high debt levels while the Federal Reserve has left themselves with way fewer tools. We have plans for both scenarios.
CIG has a robust business continuity plan to lessen any interruption to service and allow us to remain fully operational at all times. We can accommodate a fully remote staff if necessary. We believe the communication procedures that we have in place will help ensure that there is no disruption to your service. We remain committed to meeting your expectations regarding meeting attendance and recognize that some clients may prefer conference calls or videoconferencing in lieu of in-person gatherings. Finally, we are persistently following the investment markets and repercussions of COVID-19 and will continue to communicate with you when appropriate about the portfolio impact and opportunities that are created.
Until then, please stay well and support your friends and neighbors. The elderly who are deeply concerned now and neighbors without alternative childcare will need our help. As long as it is advisable, please visit your service vendors like restaurants and tip generously. We also ask that you generously give to local organizations who support the needs of lower-income families who might rely on travel, retail and hospitality sources of income. They will suffer disproportionately. Even if COVID-19 burns out in the coming months, as we hope it will, the economic issues could possibly linger for some time.
This report was prepared by CIG Asset Management and reflects the current opinion of the authors. It is based upon sources and data believed to be accurate and reliable. Opinions and forward-looking statements expressed are subject to change without notice. This information does not constitute a solicitation or an offer to buy or sell any security.
1. Calculated from data obtained from Yahoo Finance, as of February 28, 2020.
2. MSCI, as of February 28, 2020
3. Deutsche Bank report using Bloomberg Data
5. https://www.cmegroup.com/trading/interest-rates/countdown-to-fomc.html as of March 9, 2020.