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FA Center: Why a Fed rate hike could be just the medicine stocks need to keep this bull market going

How should stock market investors react when the U.S. Federal Reserve begins to raise the Federal Funds rate? That question, in one form or another, is being asked by almost all investors these days. While no one knows for sure when the Fed’s rate hike cycle will begin, it could happen soon —perhaps by the end of the year. With the Fed funds rate near zero and the U.S. economy growing, the question is when, not if.

Conventional wisdom dictates that rate increases are bad news. Higher rates mean that stocks face stiffer competition from bonds. It also means that stocks are worth less, according to standard discounted cash flow analysis: Higher rates mean that the present value of stocks’ future earnings and dividends are lower.

Yet it’s surprisingly difficult to support this conventional wisdom with historical data. In fact, the S&P 500
SPX,
-0.08%

has performed better in the wake of Fed decisions to raise the Fed funds rate than in the wake of rate cuts, on average.

I reached this conclusion upon analyzing all rate hike increases and decreases announced by the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) dating back to 1990. For each rate change decision I calculated the S&P 500’s total return from the date of the increase, either over the subsequent 12 months or until the date of the FOMC’s next rate change decision, whichever came first. The results are summarized in the table below.

If other things were equal, these results would suggest that investors actually prefer higher rates. But, as is so often the case, things are not equal. For example, as Eric Swanson told me in an interview, the Fed raises rates when it worries that the economy may be overheating. Swanson is a finance professor at the University of California, Irvine. Since the stock market typically does well when the economy is firing on all cylinders, it’s not particularly surprising that the stock market will do well, on average, during a rate-hike cycle.

For similar reasons, it’s not surprising that the stock market will struggle during a rate-cut cycle. That’s because the FOMC will cut the Fed funds rate when it is worried that the economy is in danger of contracting. For a recent example of that, just think back to the waterfall decline in February and March of 2020 that was precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other tools in the Fed tool chest

There are two other big reasons why the stock market doesn’t react to rate hikes in the way conventional wisdom would suggest. The first is that the Federal Reserve in recent years has become increasingly transparent, telegraphing to the markets well in advance about when it may change the Fed funds rate. This means that the stock market will have had plenty of time to react by the time a rate hike actually occurs.

This certainly has been the case this year, for example. For a number of months now, the Fed has explicitly announced its intention to begin tapering its monetary stimulus. In addition, the Fed circulates a “dot plot” after each rate-setting meeting showing FOMC members’ projections of where the Fed funds rate will be in coming months. 

Advisers often say: “Buy the rumor, sell the news.” This appears to apply here, making it difficult to measure the stock market’s reaction to higher rates. What appears to be the poor performance during a rate-cutting cycle might in fact be anticipation of the beginning of a rate-hike cycle.

The other reason the stock market doesn’t always react in predictable ways to rate hike decisions: The Fed in recent years has increasingly relied on large-scale asset purchases in addition to changing the Fed funds rate —otherwise known as quantitative easing (QE).

Indeed, according to research from UC Irvine’s Swanson, QE appears to have just as much impact on the stock market as cutting the Fed funds rate used to have in the decades before any of us had ever heard of QE. The study, “Measuring the Effects of Federal Reserve Forward Guidance and Asset Purchases on Financial Markets,” appeared in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of Monetary Economics. In fact, Swanson reports that, in a zero-Fed-funds world, QE may have even more impact on the stock market than rate changes.

The bottom line? It’s not the case that a Fed funds rate hike is good news. But, at the same time, there is no easy, straightforward or mechanical way in which you can use changes to the Fed funds rate to time the stock market.

Mark Hulbert is a regular contributor to MarketWatch. His Hulbert Ratings tracks investment newsletters that pay a flat fee to be audited. He can be reached at mark@hulbertratings.com

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