Since 2009, both the stock market and the broad U.S. economy have been dependent on perpetual support from massive federal deficits and unprecedented money creation. Meanwhile, Wall Street is content to ignore the extent of this support, and looks on every movement of the economy as a sign of intrinsic health – which is a lot like admiring the graceful flight of a dead parrot swinging by a string from the ceiling fan.
To put some numbers on this, it’s worth noting that since 1940, the S&P 500 has achieved an average annual total return of 14.5% in weeks where it was above its 200-day moving average as of the prior week’s close, and just 4.4% when it was below its 200-day moving average (only slightly more than the 4.2% average Treasury bill yield during that time, and with deep drawdowns usually concentrated in this partition). By contrast, since 2009, the S&P 500 has achieved an average total return of just 5.4% annually when it has been above its 200-day average, versus 36.7% when it has been below. Put another way, advancing trends above the 200-day average have repeatedly failed, making limited net progress overall, but declines have been halted and often breathtakingly reversed with each intervention. This pattern also reflects an unfinished cycle, the completion of which is likely to significantly damage the appeal of reflexively “buying the dip.”
The recent pattern isn’t just an artifact of the rebound from the 2009 low. Even since 2010, the S&P 500 has gained just 1.5% annually when it has been above its 200-day moving average, versus a striking 46.3% annual return when it has been below. Needless to say, this pattern is not necessarily indicative of how the S&P 500 will behave in the future, and is in fact contrary to the historical pattern. Policy makers have committed a staggering amount of fiscal and monetary resources to kick-the-can strategies, following policies that ultimately cannot be sustained, in order to prevent outcomes that ultimately cannot be prevented. The eventual restructuring of unserviceable mortgage, sovereign, and financial debt is among those outcomes.
A quick look at how the deleveraging of the U.S. economy is going - total credit market debt has now reached $55 trillion, including government, corporate and household sectors, representing 3.5 times GDP (down only slightly from the 3.8 multiple observed at the recession trough of early 2009). To put this in perspective, every 100 basis point change in interest rates on maturing and refinanced debt now implies a redistribution of income between borrowers and lenders on the order of $500 billion annually. The Fed has worked tirelessly to ensure that borrowing is as cheap as possible – the risk being that any departure from that would give every interest rate change of one percent an annual economic effect the same size as the “fiscal cliff.”