Put down and Fed up

August 14, 2012

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

What could possibly go wrong?? Well, lots — obviously. As Vanguard’s European CIO Jeff Molitor told us here this week: “No one can see around corners.” And the euro crisis of course remains top of the list of bogeymen. But here too the ECB has constructed its own “policy put” of sorts as ECB chief Draghi has pledged to bolster euro sovereign debt markets via the banks’ first ever bout of QE in the event of a request for a support progamme from ailing giants such as Spain and Italy.  What else? Hard landing signs in China? Fresh banking stress globally? All possible. But — all likely to be met with substantial policy reaction from the Fed at least if they hit the US economy badly again and threaten to  push already-high unemployment back up.

So calm is justified then?

Enter November’s U.S. Presidential election. The “Bernanke put”, as with the “Greenspan put” before it,  is rooted in the Fed’s dual mandate to pursue both full employment as well as price stability — a critical post-Depression orientation of the country’s entire macroeconomic policy approach that many economists insist has served the United States well over the past half century but which also riles many others, not least Paul Ryan, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s newly-appointed running mate for the position of Vice President.

Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, has many criticisms of the Fed, feels QE is storing up inflation for the future and is a supporter of some form of congressional oversight of audit of Fed policymaking. But, crucially, he’s also in favour of removing the full employment part of the Fed’s dual mandate — leaving it with a sole focus on price stability and inflation.

To the extent that investors faith in the “Bernanke put” is rooted in the Fed’s pursuit of both its current mandates, then the outcome of November’s poll may have much more impact on the economic and investment horizon than dealing with the “fiscal cliff”.



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