All eyes still on the Fed

Short-term movements in stocks, bonds, and currencies continue to be driven primarily by changes in investor perceptions about the Fed’s likely course of action over the next 6-12 months. In response to client questions, the following are some comments and charts reviewing recent history and the current backdrop.

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).

Market impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

While we hesitate to comment too much on the situation in Russia/Ukraine given how fast conditions are changing, many investors are naturally interested in the market impacts of the recent invasion and the resulting sanctions.

The first order impact is clearly volatility, in many different markets. Stocks, bonds, currencies, and commodities are all seeing increased volatility recently amid extreme uncertainty surrounding the unprecedented global response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And of course, Russian assets of all kinds have seen their prices plunge, if they are still being traded at all — the Russian stock market has remained closed since February 25th.

Volatility returns as investors adjust to policy outlook

Equities, and asset prices in general, have seen a return of volatility during January, following over a year of very subdued volatility and strong returns. Why, especially in a historically favorable seasonal period? In our view, markets are adjusting to the indications of moderately tighter monetary and fiscal policy following a period of extraordinary support from both US macro policy drivers. Investors are debating whether policy makers will be able to reduce stimulus and inflation pressures without provoking excessive economic weakness, and this debate is showing up as volatility in markets.

Macro uncertainty is provoking volatility

Tilting toward Growth over Value

One of the themes in our sector/style work recently has been to tilt somewhat more toward Growth over Value and Cyclical areas within the US market.

Why? Three key factors support Growth over Value, while one remains a concern.

 Our bottom-up aggregated earnings estimate revisions trends continue to favor Growth
 The relative performance trend has been shifting back to Growth over Value
 However . . . relative valuation of Growth versus Value remains stretched versus historical norms, though the interest rate backdrop is arguably a structural reason for that
 Also, the relative risk (volatility) differential of Growth vs Value has moved back in favor of Growth (i.e., Growth is now less volatile than Value on a rolling six-month basis).

Supportive and predictable policy helping keep equity volatility low

Major equity indices globally have been remarkably stable in recent months, pushing realized volatility readings to very low levels.

Our own research along with that of many others has shown that volatility in equities tends to be persistent in the shorter-term, while tending to mean-revert in the long-term.

Beyond the movements of a single index like the MSCI ACWI or S&P 500, we can also see that the average three-month volatility across a broad array of major developed markets individually is extremely low (chart below). This average of 18 countries’ volatility (based on their respective MSCI country equity benchmark index) is in the bottom decile of its 10-year range right now. This means that it is not just the dominant US market that has had low volatility, nor is it only the diversification effects that can dampen volatility in a broad global index, it is in fact a global pattern of low equity market volatility across many markets.

Market volatility vs Style volatility

Equity market volatility has been declining this year and has recently been below the long-run average. However, under the surface of the calm at the major index level, style rotation between Growth and Value has been extremely high.

The first chart below plots two rolling volatility series: the top section is the six-month annualized volatility of the S&P 500 index, while the bottom section is the volatility of the daily difference between the S&P 500 Pure Growth and Pure Value index returns. The dashed horizontal lines indicate the long-run average for each series.

Still a risk-on environment, but option traders remain nervous

Markets globally continue to show strong risk-seeking behavior, a continuation of the broader trend in place for much of the time since late March 2020. That was the point at which monetary and fiscal policy activity surged to produce enormous stimulus in the US and globally.

Recent US legislation that included a total of about $900 billion in new fiscal support is now starting to be felt, and recent political developments have increased the odds of further fiscal support this year. Alongside this persistent fiscal support to counteract the severe economic impacts of COVID-19, monetary policy remains extremely accommodative. Near-zero policy rates and heavy bond buying programs are expected to be maintained for many months if not years, putting both monetary and fiscal policy firmly in the “highly stimulative” category at the same time.

Small-caps are gaining traction as light appears at the end of the COVID tunnel

After a long period of either underperformance or mixed relative returns, small-caps in the US are now finally gaining meaningful traction relative to large-caps.

As shown below, the relative return of the small-cap Russell 2000 index versus the large-cap Russell 1000 index has broken out of the range it has been in since June. The latest move started after the Pfizer vaccine news hit on November 9th, after making an initial move in early October.

Relative volatility risk in US small-caps remains high

Among the various asset allocation decisions for which we provide guidance to clients is whether to favor small-caps or large-caps (i.e., the “size” factor) within the US equity market. In our view, small-caps do not reliably outperform large-caps consistently over time (as some models and studies might suggest), and instead view the “size premium” (outperformance of small-caps) more as a cyclical phenomenon that tends to show up under certain macroeconomic and market conditions.