Are we fighting the Fed now?

The stock market has rallied sharply since mid-July, while long-term bond yields have been stable to lower. Even the mighty US dollar has paused a bit in its uptrend. But inflation remains high (though likely peaking) and Fed officials continue to say they will continue to raise rates (and reduce the balance sheet) well into next year. The old market adage says “don’t fight the Fed” (i.e., be cautious when the Fed is tightening policy, and more aggressive when they are loosening), but it looks like markets have in fact  been rallying in spite of the Fed lately.

Bond market in turmoil as stocks outperform

While all markets have been volatile recently, the normally “safe” Treasury bond market has been especially volatile, and is giving mixed signals. This means that even in a generally “risk off” backdrop, the normally riskier stock market (S&P 500) has outperformed long-term Treasury bonds by a historically wide margin over the last month.

The US bond market has had a rough time lately. The ICE/BofA Long-Term (10 year+) Treasury Total Return index (i.e., which includes coupon payments and price changes) has fallen 16% from its latest November 2021 peak, and is down 23% from its latest cycle peak in July 2020 (excluding the spike in March 2020). Thus bonds are clearly in a bear market by the unscientific “down 20% or more” rule of thumb. And from a volatility standpoint, bonds are at more extreme readings relative to their normal range than stocks are, based on the VIX (S&P 500 implied volatility) and the MOVE index (Treasury bond implied volatility).

Shifting to neutral on equities

Our intermediate-term (3-6 month) indicators have deteriorated enough recently to argue for shifting from overweight equities in our asset allocation framework to neutral. While stocks are still favored over bonds on a longer-term relative valuation basis, the prospect for further consolidation and volatility means that easing back equity exposure and holding somewhat more cash makes sense in our view.

Reviewing current stock vs bond sentiment

Despite what you might hear or read some places, investor surveys do not show an extreme level of optimism toward US stocks. Bullishness on stocks has in fact declined somewhat recently and is not far from long-term average readings.

Sentiment toward bonds, by contrast, has moved quite sharply and is now approaching extreme bearishness by the standards of recent years. This is not too surprising, given that long-term Treasury bond yields have recently risen to their highest levels since COVID hit early last year. The result has been that investors in long-term (20+ year) Treasury bonds have lost about 13% since the end of November and about 18% since the end of July.

Recent rally in “junk stocks” is not unusual

Financial headlines have been captivated recently by explosive behavior in certain “meme stocks” that have been the subject of intense speculation by online retail traders as well as some hedge funds. This has been accompanied by a general trend of outperformance by smaller, money-losing, heavily-shorted, and volatile stocks (sometimes referred to as “junk stocks”, similar to risky high-yield “junk bonds”).

Risk on? Not really since early June

In financial markets, it seems like “everything” is going up recently. Stocks, bonds, precious metals, even Bitcoin. Perhaps that should not be surprising given the huge amount of liquidity being produced by global central banks in addition to the fiscal stimulus earlier this year. That tends to have the effect of pushing asset prices up generally.

But when we look at relative returns of some key assets, it looks more like the “risk on” trend has not really gone anywhere since early June. That is, owning the riskier option within various asset classes has not generated excess returns to compensate for that extra risk since the recent peak in risk about June 8th.