Highlights

  • We decompose the fed funds rate cycle into four phases based on the interaction between the level of the fed funds rate and its direction to examine monetary policy's impact on equities.
  • The policy backdrop matters for equity returns. All of the S&P 500's price gains over the last six decades have accrued while policy settings have been accommodative.
  • From a policy perspective, equities have been in an extended sweet spot ever since the Fed began aggressively cutting rates to combat the crisis. We estimate that they will remain there for close to another year.
  • The fed funds rate cycle is only one of the variables we consider when calibrating investment strategy. Its bullish message faces resistance from decelerating growth, full valuations, and trade tensions between China and the U.S. The net impact of the individual crosscurrents is subject to spirited debate within BCA.

Feature

You really can't fight the Fed. As longtime U.S. Investment Strategy readers know, the fed funds rate cycle has been a consistently robust predictor of the direction and magnitude of equity returns. Over nearly six decades, the S&P 500 has risen at a 10% annualized clip when policy is easy; it's scratched out just a percentage point a year when it's tight. Adjusted for inflation, the easy/tight performance disparity has been even wider.

In this Special Report, we update and revise the full-scale analysis we first performed nearly five years ago. In this iteration, we evaluate performance for each phase of the cycle on the basis of chained aggregate returns, rather than in terms of means and medians. That tweak expands our sample size to 685 months from 60 cycle phases, and eliminates the individual phases' sensitivity to short-term outliers. We have also revised the demarcation of the cycle phases to correct for a flaw in our historical effective fed funds rate data feed.1

The Fed Funds Rate Cycle

We decompose the fed funds rate cycle into four phases based on the interaction between the level of rates and their direction, as follows:

  • Phase I represents the early stage of the withdrawal of monetary stimulus. This phase begins with the first rate hike of a new tightening cycle and ends when the fed funds rate crosses above our estimate of the equilibrium rate2 (shown as a dashed line in Chart 1 and Chart 2).

Chart 1
It's Easiest To Be Easy
Chart 1

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Chart 2
The Fed Funds Rate Cycle
Chart 2

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  • Phase II represents the latter stages of the tightening cycle, when the Fed hikes its target rate above equilibrium in a deliberate effort to cool an overheating economy.
  • Phase III represents the early stage of the easing cycle. It begins with the first rate cut from the peak and lasts until the Fed cuts its target rate below equilibrium.
  • Phase IV represents the late stage of the easing cycle. It encompasses both the period when the fed funds rate breaks below its equilibrium level, and the subsequent adjustment period when the Fed remains on hold at the cycle trough in an effort to kick start an economic recovery.

What Is The Equilibrium Fed Funds Rate?

The equilibrium fed funds rate is the policy rate that neither encourages nor discourages economic activity. That is a simple enough idea, but we note that the equilibrium rate is just a concept. No one can put a blood pressure cuff around the economy's arm, or stick a thermometer in its mouth, to determine the rate objectively and precisely. Our equilibrium rate, which uses potential GDP growth to adjust a smoothed and filtered long-run series of the actual fed funds rate, is simply the modeled estimate of a concept.

Why Bother Pursuing Such Elusive Quarry?

70 years ago, BCA sprang from our founder's insight that investors might be able to intuit a good deal about the future direction of the economy and financial markets by studying the flow of credit through the banking system. The Bank Credit Analyst owes its name and existence to the proposition that money flows matter. Tracking monetary conditions is in our DNA, and the fed funds rate is the foremost input into standard monetary conditions models. The empirical record suggests that the monetary backdrop holds such powerful sway over financial markets that tracking the equilibrium rate's relationship to the actual fed funds rate is worthwhile even if our ability to pin it down in real time is limited.

Stocks And The Fed Funds Rate Cycle

History convincingly demonstrates that the monetary backdrop matters, and that the level of rates (accommodative or restrictive) exerts far more influence on equity returns than their direction (higher or lower). Table 1 presents annualized price returns for the S&P 500 by fed funds cycle phase for the nearly 60 years covered by our equilibrium fed funds rate estimate. When policy is easy, as in Phases I and IV, the S&P has appreciated at a 10% annual rate; when it's tight, as in Phases II and III, it's barely advanced. Table 2 adjusts the nominal returns for inflation, making the easy/tight policy divide even starker - in real terms, the S&P 500 has lost considerable ground when the fed funds rate has exceeded our estimate of equilibrium.

Table 1
Tight Policy Is Hazardous To Stocks' Health, ...
Table 1

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Table 2
... Especially In Real Terms, ...
Table 2

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Estimated Earnings And Forward Multiples

Although overall equity returns are a function of the level of rates, their underlying components - earnings growth and the multiple investors are willing to pay for future earnings - are more sensitive to rates' direction. Earnings estimates are directly related to rate moves - they rise more when rates rise than they do when rates fall (Table 3). The direct relationship follows from the countercyclical nature of monetary policy. If the Fed is cutting rates, it must anticipate a softer growth environment in which estimates should be revised lower, whereas if it's hiking them, it must foresee such robust growth that it fears the economy could overheat.

Table 3
... But Earnings Thrive When The Fed Hikes
Table 3

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Multiples are inversely related to the direction of rates; they contract in the aggregate when rates rise, and expand when they fall (Table 4). Although multiples are constrained by their mean-reverting properties, their movement around the mean adheres to a tidal pattern: ebbing when the Fed's trying to rein in the economy with rate hikes (and future earnings are subject to an increasing discount factor), and rising when it's trying to give it a boost (and the discount factor is falling). Multiples' action vis-à-vis the rate cycle suggests that they are forward-looking - moving in accordance with the Fed's intentions - while estimates are backward-looking, primarily extrapolating from actual results. In terms of S&P 500 returns, estimates' and multiples' tendency to counter one another when policy is tight has maintained the overall easy/tight dynamic over the four decades covered by forward earnings data (Table 5).

Table 4
Stocks De-Rate When Rates Rise,
And Re-Rate When They Fall
Table 4

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Table 5
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats, But Easy Phases Still Lead The Way
Table 5

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Why Does The Fed Funds Rate Cycle Work?

For all of its import, monetary policy is a blunt instrument that works with indeterminate lags. Its shortcomings heavily influence the way the Fed deploys it, and impose a predictable pattern on its economic and market impacts. In this analysis we focus on the Fed's inability to make targeted, precise adjustments; its uncertainty over when its effects will take hold; and its mandate's explicit focus on managing inflation, a lagging indicator. All of these factors come into play when the Fed embarks on a rate-hiking campaign, kicking off a new iteration of the policy rate cycle.

New rate cycles begin from the previous cycle's trough level, when the Fed's primary concern is to avoid revisiting the adversity that inspired accommodation. It does not want to induce a double-dip by being too aggressive, especially when inflation readings are tame (Table 6). The Fed does not begin Phase I, or proceed very far with it, until it is all but certain that the economy can withstand higher rates. It therefore predictably embarks upon Phase I with a bias to err on the side of being too easy.

Table 6
Has The Tail Been Wagging The Dog?
Table 6

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This bias gives the economy a chance to build up momentum in Phase I, consonant with a cycle peak in earnings growth (Chart 3, third panel). In markets, that momentum helps to feed meaningful excess returns in spread product,3 and sizable outperformance among late-cyclical equity sectors at home and abroad,4 as well as outsized returns in the S&P 500. Left unchecked, the momentum could promote higher inflation. Inflation can move stealthily because of its lagging nature, and the Fed is often compelled to intervene forcefully to counter it.

Chart 3
Monetary Policy Matters, A Lot
Chart 3

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Forceful intervention brings about Phase II of the cycle, when economic activity may still be expanding at a good clip, as indicated by double-digit earnings growth. Wielding a blunt instrument that works with a lag, however, the Fed is at risk of going too far, and Phase II hikes often induce a recession. Investors begin to sniff out the looming downturn and de-rate equities. By the time the Fed backs off and initiates a new easing campaign (Phase III), earnings growth has stalled out and measured inflation is peaking (Chart 3, bottom panel). Equities mark time (Chart 3, first and second panels) and spread product generates negative excess returns until, with the recession plainly evident and measured inflation sliding, there is nothing stopping the Fed from full-on accommodation (Phase IV), and it maintains market-friendly settings until the economy begins to look too strong, and the Fed intervenes to hold it back (Phase II).

This stylized example focused on the Fed and markets, but monetary policy impacts all aspects of the real economy. Consumer demand for homes and other durable goods that have to be financed, along with businesses' appetite for investment, are keenly sensitive to monetary conditions. There is a powerful self-reinforcing dynamic that joins corporate earnings, business expansion and hiring, and consumption. The links between equity performance and the fed funds rate cycle are real and lasting.

Investment Implications

In its current setting, the fed funds rate cycle is issuing a risk-friendly signal. Even if it were our only guide to asset allocation and investment strategy, however, we would need to heed a couple of caveats before rushing out to overweight equities and other risk assets. First of all, estimates of the equilibrium fed funds rate are notoriously imprecise - equilibrium is a concept that can only be observed after the fact. Secondly, there is no guarantee that asset returns in this iteration of the fed funds rate cycle will continue to hew closely to the historical record. Following 10-plus years of accommodation, equity valuations are at fairly demanding levels.

We continue to have a constructive view of the business, market and policy cycles, but the current environment carries significant risks. Activity is broadly decelerating outside of the U.S., public-market valuations are full nearly everywhere around the world, and the unsettled trade picture has the potential to upend financial markets. BCA is closely monitoring China to see whether or not it will provide monetary or fiscal stimulus that might help mitigate the forces threatening to undermine global trade and the economies that rely upon it. We remain on hold, recommending a benchmark equity allocation, while underweighting bonds and overweighting cash, in line with the house view.

Doug Peta, Senior Vice President
U.S. Investment Strategy
dougp@bcaresearch.com

  • 1 A bug in our third-party provider's conversion of daily effective fed funds rate data into monthly data slightly skewed our previous phase definitions.
  • 2 Potential GDP growth is the key input to our model estimating the equilibrium policy rate level.
  • 3 Please see the May 27, 2014 U.S. Investment Strategy Special Report, "Bonds and the Fed Funds Rate Cycle." Available at usis.bcaresearch.com.
  • 4 Please see the July 3, 2017 Global ETF Strategy Model Portfolios Review, "Overhauling the U.S. Equity Exposures," and the May 11, 2018 Global Alpha Sector Strategy Special Report, "Global Equity Sectors and the Fed Funds Rate Cycle."Available at getf.bcaresearch.com and gss.bcaresearch.com.