Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”
Investor speculation is once again running rampant. Trading activity and the number of new brokerage accounts has spiked in 2020. Options trading among individual investors has jumped and eye-popping IPOs have arrived. Tesla and Bitcoin are signs of something concerning, not to mention the surging market valuations of all things tech-related. This type of investor frenzy doesn’t usually end well.
Under most measures, both the stock and bond markets appear to be significantly overvalued. Fundamental metrics, such as sales, earnings and cash flow almost uniformly point to frothy financial markets. Coldly weighing fundamentals and finances, as opposed to simply chasing market momentum, is what separates investment from speculation. The line is blurry, for sure.
A common explanation of the market’s stunning rebound since March centers on the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury. Since the virus struck, the financial support by these two government bodies totals about $7 trillion and growing. The Fed is buying bonds at an annual pace of about $1.5 trillion and President-Elect Biden describes the latest $1 trillion aid package as just a “down payment.”
About half of the $7 trillion is meant to prop up consumer spending through direct payments to people and businesses. The goal is to fill the income holes left behind by Covid. The other half of that $7 trillion has been used to prop up stocks and bonds by mercilessly driving down interest rates and prodding investors to take on risk. Think of this part as filling asset holes created by Covid. Arguably, it’s not hard to view this part as market manipulation.
The documentary, The Flaw, convincingly argued the underlying cause of the financial and housing crisis of 2008 was a combination of anemic income growth and growing wealth inequality in America. Not surprisingly, the central villain in that story was the Federal Reserve.
As the story was told, for the poor and middle-class who don’t tend to own a lot of investments, the equity in their homes represented their primary path to wealth creation. For the rich who have lots of financial assets, the Fed’s super-low interest rate policy in response to the tech-stock bust drove them to provide toxic mortgages to everyone with a pulse.
The story described a symbiotic relationship where the rich chased after some yield and the poor gained easy access to rising home equity to keep spending beyond their income. It worked beautifully, until the merry-go-round stopped. As if trapped with no other way out, what came next was a doubling down on zero interest rates by the Fed along with deficit spending by Congress.
As I eagerly turn the page of my calendar to 2021, today’s pumping of trillions into the economy has me contemplating the impact on the tomorrows yet to come. I’m hearing history’s rhyme. I sincerely hope this time the Federal Reserve has finally devised a way out of the trap they’ve created for conservative, income-starved investors. In the meantime, I’d suggest you prudently rebalance.
Jason P. Tank, CFA is both the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a purely fee-only advisory firm and the founder of the Money Series, a non-profit program committed to providing open-access to financial education, for all. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com