News flow has refocused on the virus lately as the Delta variant spreads around the world. Meanwhile, the broad stock market took a unilateral hit from last Thursday through Monday, with the S&P 500 dropping around 3.5% peak to trough. Naturally, many are quick to blame the virus.
The more likely truth is that the fast-spreading COVID variant has been playing a role in the market for much of the past month. First, let’s remind ourselves that COVID has proven to be a net positive to the stock market. The S&P just had a great month, and it was led by some of the big tech and growth companies that were the hallmark of last year’s rally. The work-from-home ETF WFH surpassed the travel fund AWAY in year-to-date performance last month as reopening trades were obliterated. If it looks like a COVID rally and walks like a COVID rally…
Of course, it’s never just one thing. At the same time as all that, Treasury yields dove, and the dollar took flight. One could argue those moves fit within a COVID paradigm, but the catalyst for these major regime changes are easily observable on the chart: June 15, the June FOMC, in which the Fed embraced a more hawkish tone than the market had gotten used to. Investors must not lose sight of this.
The index-level breakout thanks to big tech is an important development, but we also know that the Nasdaq has been trading in lockstep with bonds for much of this year. That means bonds alone may be as good an explanation for the equity market strength of the past two months as anything. Moreover, Treasuries were proven to be the higher conviction trade, as bond prices continued to march upward the past week even as the Nasdaq and S&P ran out of gas.
There’s been a lot of debate about what exactly the move in bonds means, but let’s make the assumption (not a bold one, in my opinion), that the yield curve flattening represents some combination of tighter Fed policy – due to inflation – and lower growth than was priced in pre-FOMC. Tighter policy and warmer inflation are forces that remove liquidity from the economy and the market. This is the most important issue because there are signs the market is already having trouble sustaining itself at record valuations.
Breadth in the stock market has been deteriorating since February, with the number of companies making one-year highs steadily declining. Since then, the correlation between a stock’s earnings multiple and its performance is clear: the more expensive it is, the worse it’s done. The least-expensive quintile of companies in the Russell 3000 are up a median 20% since the February high in the Nasdaq, compared with a decline of 9.2% for the most-expensive stocks. In another realm, the highly speculative crypto market is in tatters.
These things point to an unwind in speculative froth across asset classes since February. It’s probably not a coincidence that the annual change in M2 money supply also peaked in February. Stocks do not by definition have to be tied to that, but it’s reasonable to expect their relationship to be closer after a period of record trading and speculative activity due in no small part to an influx of cash into bank accounts. This will only get worse if the Fed tilts more hawkish.
Bottom line: investors should be wary of over-committing to COVID investment themes that have already been priced into the market. More likely is a snap-back in the reflation trade or a broader liquidity-driven rollover in the market as a whole.
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