By Christmas Eve in 2018, the U.S. equity market was set for its worst December since 1931, having dropped 16 per cent. Monetary policy was among the main culprits, as new-ish Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell had signaled that the unwinding of quantitative easing was ‘on autopilot’ during the month.
Just before year end, however, Mr. Powell reversed course, announcing that the central bank had heeded market volatility and would be flexible with monetary tightening. The S&P 500 would subsequently jump 25 per cent in the first four months of 2019.
This series of events is perhaps the clearest evidence of the market’s dependence on easy money.
Mohamed El-Erian, former co-head of asset management giant PIMCO (along with Bill Gross), recently explained that current market volatility was a related phenomenon, writing: “For a long time, markets were powered through unchartered and choppy waters by the strong force of central bank liquidity injection. Now the force is losing power [because of the Fed slowing of Quantitative Easing] and the waters are choppier [due to Omicron, China, less fiscal support, etc].”
As 2022 begins, central banks have less freedom to save the day for investors, thanks to inflation. Earlier this month, BofA Securities asset allocation analyst Abhinandan Deb wrote that the “Fed put” – a degree of decline in asset markets that would push the central bank to stabilize prices by easing monetary policy – was being pushed lower by inflation pressure. In other words, the Federal Reserve wouldn’t be able to halt a decline in equities with loosening financial conditions because it would exacerbate inflation pressure.
Mr. Deb went on to warn investors that the current market backdrop “increases the chances of a rude wake-up call when [buy the dip investment strategies] stumbles, causing the market to look to the Fed for help that may not come easily.”
This all sounds dire, but it’s only one piece on the puzzle. There are positive forces for equities – the global economic recovery and the easing of supply chain pressures are expected even if delayed by Omicron – that should offset the negative effects of monetary tightening and inflation.
Investors should, however, expected volatility in early 2022, and if markets get really weird, they should not expect immediate help from central banks.
-- Scott Barlow, Globe and Mail market strategist
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Compiled by Globe Investor Staff