Interest rates are moving higher, bond prices are collapsing, and fear regarding a stock market plunge is palpable. Sound like a recent news headline or is this a description of a 1994 financial market story? For those with a foggy, double-decade-old memory, here is a summary of the 1994 economic environment:
- The economy registered its 34th month of expansion and the stock market was on a record 40-month advance
- The U.S. Federal Reserve embarked on its multi-hike, rate-tightening monetary policy
- The 10-year Treasury note exhibited an almost 2.5 percent jump in yields
- Inflation was low with a threat of rising inflation lurking in the background
- An upward sloping yield curve encouraged speculative bond carry-trade activity (borrow short, invest long)
- Globalization and technology sped up the pace of price volatility
Many of these listed items resemble factors experienced today, but bond losses in 1994 were much larger than the losses of 2013 — at least so far. At the time, Fortune magazine called the 1994 bond collapse the worst bond market loss in history, with losses estimated at upwards of $1.5 trillion. The rout started with what might have appeared as a harmless 0.25 percent increase in the Federal Funds rate (the rate that banks lend to each other) from 3 percent to 3.25 percent in February 1994. By the time 1994 came to a close, acting Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had jacked up this main monetary tool by 2.5 percent.
Rising rates may have acted as the flame for bond losses, but extensive use of derivatives and leverage acted as the gasoline. For example, over-extended Eurobond positions bought on margin by famed hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt of Steinhardt Partners lead to losses of about-30 percent (or approximately $1.5 billion). Renowned partner of Omega Partners, Leon Cooperman, took a similar beating.
Cooperman’s $3 billion fund cratered -24 percent during the first half of 1994. Insurance company bond portfolios were hit hard too, as collective losses for the industry exceeded $20 billion, or more than the claims paid for Hurricane Andrew’s damage. Let’s not forget the largest casualty of this era — the public collapse of Orange County, California. Poor derivatives trades led to $1.7 billion in losses and ultimately forced the county into bankruptcy.
There are plenty of other examples, but suffice it to say, the pain felt by other bond investors was widespread as a massive number of margin calls caused a snowball of bond liquidations. The speed of the decline was intensified as bond holders began selling short and using derivatives to hedge their portfolios, accelerating price declines.
Just as the accommodative interest rate punch bowl was eventually removed by Greenspan, so too is Ben Bernanke (current Fed Chairman) threatening to do today. Even if Bernanke unleashes a cold-turkey tapering of the $85 billion per month in bond-purchases, massive losses in bond values won’t necessarily mean catastrophe for stock values. For evidence, one needs to look no further than this 1994-1995 chart of the stock market:
Volatility for stocks definitely increased in 1994 with the S&P 500 index correcting about -10 percent early in the year. But as you can see, by the end of the year the market was off to the races, tripling in value over the next five years. Volatility has been the norm for the current bull market rally as well. Despite the more than doubling in stock prices since early 2009, we have experienced two -20 percent corrections and one -10 percent pullback.
What’s more, the onset of potential tapering is completely consistent with core economic principles. Capitalism is built on free trading markets, not artificial intervention. Extraordinary times required extraordinary measures, but the probabilities of a massive financial Armageddon have been severely diminished. As a result, the unprecedented scale of quantitative easing will eventually become more harmful than beneficial.
The moral of the story is that volatility is always a normal occurrence in the equity markets, therefore any significant stock pullback associated with potential bond tapering (or fed fund rate hikes) shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the world, nor should a temporary weakening in stock prices be viewed as the end to the bull market in stocks.
Why have stocks historically provided higher returns than bonds? The short answer is that stocks are riskier than bonds. The price for these higher long-term returns is volatility, and if investors can’t handle volatility, then they shouldn’t be investing in stocks.
If you are an investor who thinks they can time the market, you wouldn’t be wasting your time reading this article. Rather, you’d be spending time on your personal island while drinking coconut drinks with umbrellas (see Market Timing Treadmill).
Although there are some distinct similarities between the economic backdrop of 1994 and 2013, there are quite a few differences also. For starters, the economy was growing at a much healthier clip then (+4.1 percent GDP growth), which stoked inflationary fears in the mind of Greenspan. Moreover, unemployment was quite low (5.5 percent by year-end vs. 7.6 percent today) and the Fed did not communicate forward looking Fed policy back then.
It’s unclear if the recent 50 basis point ascent in 10-year Treasury rates was just an appetizer for what’s to come, but simple mathematics indicate there is really only one direction left for interest rates to go…higher. If history repeats itself, it will likely be bond investors choking on higher rates (not stock investors). For the sake of optimistic bond speculators, I hope Ben Bernanke knows the Heimlich maneuver. Studying history may help bond bulls avoid indigestion.
Wade Slome, CFA CFP is President and Founder of Sidoxia Capital Management and shares his investing insights at Investing Caffeine.
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