History Says: Rising Interest Rates Rarely Sink Stocks

The news-reporting powers to be have determined that rising interest rates are the bull market’s worst enemy.

In fact, the looming threat of rising rates is as unwelcome as the dreaded QE taper used to be. But wait, QE ended many months ago, and stocks are still near their all-time high (see here for detailed analysis of QE effect on stocks).

Could rising interest rates be a moot point (just like the end of QE was)? As we will see in a moment, rising rates are not as scary as many believe.

But first off, how does the Federal Reserve raise interest rates and which interest rate is the one being ‘manipulated’?

What’s the ‘Interest Rate’?

When the Federal Reserve (or the media) talks about raising (or lowering) interest rates, it is talking about the federal funds rate.

The federal funds rate is the central interest rate in the U.S. financial system. It is the interest rate at which depository institutions trade balances held at the Federal Reserve with each other overnight.

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How Does the Fed ‘Manipulate’ the Interest Rate?

The Federal Reserve sets the target rate. The target rate is currently 0 – 0.25%. The Fed ‘manipulates’ this rate via government bond purchases (i.e. the Federal Reserve reduces liquidity and raises the federal funds rate by selling government bonds).

The actual rate is determined by trading between banks. The weighted average of bank transactions is considered the effective federal funds rate (currently 0.11%).

What Really Matters: How Do Interest Rates Affect Stocks

But what really matters is how the federal funds rate affects stocks.

Here’s what the data says:

The chart below plots the S&P 500 (NYSEArca: SPY) against the federal funds rate going back to 1954.

Periods of rising interest rates are highlighted in green.

More often than not, the S&P 500 moved higher (or didn’t decline significantly) when interest rates rose. The few exceptions are marked with a red box.

Most recently, the S&P 500 rallied when rates were buoyed starting in 2004 and 1998.

The green areas clearly show that rising rates are not bearish for stocks.

However, it needs to be pointed out that when the stock market rolled over in 2000 and 2007, the Federal Reserve had a lot of room to lower rates and stimulate growth.

That is not the case today. If this economic recovery does not stick, and stocks fall, the Federal Reserve won’t have much room to lower rates. It would take several rate hikes to build up a ‘cushion,’ that would allow the Fed to lower rates if the economy relapses.

Perhaps that’s why the Federal Reserve has been so hesitant to raise rates, and thereby spook the market.

Rather than focusing on rate hikes, I will continue to monitor the indicator that correctly foreshadowed the 1987, 2000 and 2007 market tops. It also ‘told’ us consistently since 2010 that this bull market is alive and healthy. Here’s what this indicator, which I dubbed ‘secret sauce’ is telling us right now. Is the S&P 500 Carving Out a Major Market Top?

Simon Maierhofer is the publisher of the Profit Radar Report. The Profit Radar Report presents complex market analysis (S&P 500, Dow Jones, gold, silver, euro and bonds) in an easy format. Technical analysis, sentiment indicators, seasonal patterns and common sense are all wrapped up into two or more easy-to-read weekly updates. All Profit Radar Report recommendations resulted in a 59.51% net gain in 2013 and 17.59% in 2014.

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What’s Next? Bull or Bear Market? Try Gorilla Market

Right or wrong? The QE bull market will last as long as the Federal Reserve keeps QE going. A majority of investors say ‘Yes,’ but a curiously sophisticated experiment and powerful data suggest a surprise outcome.

In 2004 Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University conducted a fascinating experiment.

If you want to be part of the experience take a minute (it literally only takes a minute) and watch this video before you continue reading.

To get the full effect, watch the video first and don’t read ahead.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here’s a quick summary:

Truth in Simplicity

The experiment is quite simple. There are two groups of three people each. One group is wearing black shirts, the other group white shirts.

The three people wearing black shirts are passing one ball to fellow black shirts; the ones wearing white shirts are doing the same. So there are six people, passing two balls.

The assignment is to watch how many times the players wearing white, pass the basketball.

It’s a simple assignment that requires some concentration and a clear mind.

The answer: The white shirts pass the ball 15 times.

But wait, there’s more. Many viewers get the number of passes right, but completely overlook a woman dressed in a gorilla suit. The gorilla walks slowly across the scene, stops to face the camera, and thumps her chest.

Half of the people watching the video did not see the gorilla. After watching the video for a second time, some of them refused to accept that they were looking at the same tape and thought it was a different version of the video.

“That’s nice, but what’s your point Simon?” Good question.

The Invisible 800-Pound Gorilla

The experiment was supposed to illustrate the phenomenon of unintentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness. This condition prevents people from perceiving things that are in plain sight (such as the bear markets of 2000 and 2008).

Much of the media has zeroed in on one singular cause for higher or lower prices. Sample headlines below:

Reuters: Wall Street climbs as GDP data eases fear of Fed pullback
Reuters: Brightening jobs picture may draw Fed closer to tapering
Reuters: Wall Street slips amid Fed caution

The media is busy ‘counting passes,’ or watching Bernanke’s every word and interpret even the slightest variation of terminology.

The Fed’s action is the only thing that matters, but amidst ‘counting passes,’ many overlook the gorilla.

Gorilla Sightings

It’s believed that a rising QE liquidity tide lifts all boats. This was impressively demonstrated in 2010 and 2011 when various asset classes and commodities reached all-time highs. It only conditionally applies to 2012 and 2013 though.

In 2011 gold and silver rallied to nominal all-time highs. Why?

  1. The Fed pumped money into the system (aka banks) and all that excess liquidity had to be invested somewhere, anywhere, including precious metals.
  2. Fear of inflation. Gold is known is the only real currency and inflation hedge. Silver rode gold’s coattail and became known as the poor-man’s gold. From 2008 – 2011 gold prices nearly tripled and silver went from $8.50 to $50/ounce.

Since its 2011 high, the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (NYSEArca: GLD) has fallen as much as 38.29% and the iShares Silver Trust (NYSEArca: SLV) was down as much as 63.41%.

This doesn’t make (conventional) sense or does it. QE or the fear of inflation didn’t stop in 2011. In fact, QE (and the associated risk of inflation) is stronger than ever. Based on the above rationale, the gold and silvers meltdown is inconceivable and unexplainable.

The QE ‘Crown Jewel’

Initially QE was limited to government bonds or Treasury bonds. In other words, the Federal Reserve would buy Treasuries of various durations from banks and primary dealers with freshly printed money.

The effect was intentionally twofold:

  1. The Fed would pay top dollars to keep Treasury prices artificially inflated and interest rates low.
  2. The banks would have extra money to ‘play’ with and drive up asset prices, a process Mr. Bernanke dubbed the ‘wealth effect.’

With that thought in mind, take a look at the iShares 20+ year Treasury ETF (NYSEArca: TLT) chart above.

From the May peak to June trough TLT tumbled 14.56%, more than twice as much as the S&P 500 (7.52%).


The lessons are simple:

  1. QE doesn’t always work and can misfire badly.
  2. We don’t see every gorilla (or looming bear).

All this doesn’t mean that the market will crash tomorrow. In fact, the stock market doesn’t exhibit the tell tale signs of a major top right now and higher highs seem likely.

Unintentional blindness is real and often magnified by the herding effect. The investing crowd (or herd) is convinced that stocks will go up as long as the Fed feeds Wall Street.

The above charts suggests that we shouldn’t follow this assumption blindly.

Operation Twist about to Expire – Will it be Replaced by Outright QE?

The Federal Reserve’s $45 billion a month Operation Twist program is scheduled to expire at the end of this month. Based on the sound bites of several Reserve presidents, there will be a replacement. Will it be more outright QE?

Operation Twist is circling the drain, set to expire on December 31, 2012.

Will Operation Twist be extended or even be replaced by outright QE?

What’s the difference between Operation Twist and Quantitative Easing (QE)?

Operation Twist Basics

Since September 2011, the Federal Reserve has been buying about $45 billion of longer-term Treasuries per month with the proceeds from sales of a like amount of shorter-term debt.

Unlike outright QE purchases, the Operation Twist asset reshuffle does not add to the Fed’s balance sheet.

Will Operation Twist be Replaced by Outright QE?

Boston Federal Reserve Bank president Eric Rosengren, one of the most vocal proponents of Fed asset purchases, advocates to continue spending $45 billion a month buying long-term Treasuries.

St. Lois Federal Reserve Bank president James Bullard has a different opinion. He said that the expiring Operation Twist program should not be replaced on a dollar-for-dollar bases, because asset purchases that expand the balance sheet (like QE) have a bigger effect than Twist.

QE Tally

So far the Federal Reserve has purchased about $2.4 trillion worth of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities.

During QE1, the Fed spent about $78 billion a month.

During QE2, the Fed spent about $75 billion a month.

During QE3, the Fed is spending about $40 billion a month.

Concurrent to QE2 and QE3 the Fed is reinvesting the proceeds of maturing securities. Based on a balance sheet of $2.4 trillion, this is a significant amount.
Abount $25 billion a month.

For the month of December, the Fed will spend about $65 billion buying Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. This is “new” money.

An additional $45 billion of the proceeds from selling short-term Treasuries is re-invested in long-term Treasuries.

QE’s Effect on Treasury Prices

What does all of this artificial demand for long-term Treasuries mean for Treasury prices and corresponding ETFs like the iShares Barclays 20+ year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT)? It appears that the effect of QE3 on Treasury prices has been muted. It certainly hasn’t driven prices up as should be expected.

In fact, 30-year Treasury prices have been stuck in a trading range capped by two long-term resistance lines and buoyed by an 18-month support line. As long as prices remain in that range the stalemate is likely to continue.

With strong seasonality for stocks straight ahead (and an inverse correlation between stocks and long-term Treasuries), I assume that price will break down.

Simon Maierhofer shares his market analysis and points out high probability, low risk buy/sell recommendations via the Profit Radar Report. Click here for a free trial to Simon’s Profit Radar Report.