Why Is The Stock Market Crashing?

Such an annoying question to ask, isn’t it? The correct answer is because people desire to hold stocks less and prefer to hold cash more than they did prior to the crash. The reasons for this are ultimately unknown but we can speculate.

The value of a stock to an investor is the present value of all future expected cash flows, discounted by the risk free rate. If you wanted to be 100% accurate you’d need to use the expected rate from now through the day of each individual cash flow, respectively, but I like to use the 20 year t-bond rate for simplicity’s sake.

Based on this there are two major reasons for stocks to crash: a drop in future expected earnings and/or a previously unexpected increase in the risk free rate.

Market action from Feb 1-8 has basically been marked by the following factors:

  • crashing stocks
  • slightly falling gold prices
  • falling/stable short term Treasury rates, rising long term Treasury rates, with a shift occurring around the 3-5 year duration (see graphic below)

Falling/stable gold prices indicate that investor expectations of future inflation haven’t fundamentally changed in recent days.

There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that indicates that corporate profit expectations are collapsing, in fact, the recent earnings season was upbeat, with positive news & expectations all over the place. But it’s also important to point that after the recent tax reform which is expected to expand deficits (a net positive on corporate profits, as I’ve explained before) one big factor towards rising corporate profits is now 100% priced in, whereas before it wasn’t.

Furthermore, there’s currently no evidence that the Fed is planning on accelerating the expected schedule of 3 rate hikes this year. In fact, at this very moment CME Fedwatch probabilities even slightly lean towards only 2 vs the widely expected 3 rate hikes!

In my opinion, this kind of action more than anything hints at a sudden change in investor expectations in the schedule of Federal Reserve interest rate increases over the coming years.

The one significant factor that I’ve been able to pinpoint is the seemingly subtle change in language in the most recent FOMC statement from January 1 2017. Minor shifts early on in the future schedule of expected rate hikes can have a huge impact on long term rates, since long term rates are basically just a bet on the average rate of short term rates inbetween.

If you do a text compare with previous FOMC statements, the following changes in verbiage stand out:

  • While most previous Fed statements said that “Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low”, the most recent one states that “Market-based measures of inflation compensation have increased in recent months but remain low”.
  • Furthermore, most previous statements said that “Inflation on a 12‑month basis is expected to remain somewhat below 2 percent in the near term”, while the most recent one states that “Inflation on a 12‑month basis is expected to move up this year and to stabilize around the Committee’s 2 percent objective over the medium term”.
  • And finally, another subtle difference is that statements recently always said “The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant gradual increases in the federal funds rate”, while the most recent one stated that “The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant further gradual increases in the federal funds rate”.

These changes could indicate that the Fed is beginning to prepare markets for an acceleration in the pace of raising interest rates, not immediately this year, but in the coming years.

This could explain why there hasn’t been a big shift in the rates on 3-5 year bonds, but after that the rates have increased substantially, with the 20 and 30 year Treasury rate (the one I like to use to discount future expected profits) rising by 13 basis points over just a few days. Such an adjustment in the medium to long term schedule of expected rate hikes, without corresponding changes in future profit expectations, can absolutely lead to significant adjustments in current stock market valuations, after which things should continue at the usual pace. For simplicity’a sake you could run a simplified model of present value at constant growth using different discount rates to get an idea of the possible magnitude of such adjustments.


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