The world is tipping into the mother of all recessions. And yet the stock markets are on a tear like nothing’s happened.
As I mentioned in COVID-19 is a Black Swan, but not for the reason you think, this is the state of the real economy in the US:
And here’s the S&P 500, halfway back to its previous highs.
The stock market back home in India is not as exuberant. But it has also risen, after a dip in March. Although the situation has only gotten worse.
What the hell is going on with the stock markets?
Over the last weeks, I’ve come across three hypotheses for this strange behavior. I don’t know which is right – I’m not a stock market expert. Truth be told, I’d guess it’s a combination of all three.
Hypothesis #1: What kills you makes me stronger.
Maybe the stock market is still efficient. We actually expect large companies to do well. And we expect a real divergence between equities and the broader economy.
As Bryne Hobart says in V-Shaped Recovery for Me, L-Shaped Recovery for Thee:
Large companies are unusually well-equipped to survive, and they’re better able to benefit from monetary interventions—which have been far faster and more effective than fiscal ones.
Meanwhile, small companies, individuals, and municipalities just don’t have the cash reserves or flexibility to react.
There are two ways in which this could play out:
The pessimistic scenario is front-end corporatization: small businesses just evaporate, their real estate is taken over by big companies.
Amazon and Walmart (and Jiomart in India) are the villains of this story.
The optimistic view is back-end corporatization: that software companies and lenders launch an all-out sprint to modernize and recapitalize small businesses, applying the scale advantage of big companies to solving the problems of local ones.
In that happier outcome, small companies hang on for dear life, and come back leaner and ready to fight. Unlike big companies, they won’t necessarily respond to efficiency growth with layoffs.
Shopify, Square, and fintech lenders are the heroes of this story. As are the SMEs that struggle through and survive.
Hypothesis #2: Everyone’s buying ETFs.
The Relentless Bid, Explained posits a different model. It’s an article from 2014, but it’s rung true throughout the crazy bull run of the last decade.
The [stock market] dips have become shallower and the buyers have rushed in more quickly each time. Sell-offs took months to play out during 2011 – think of the April-October peak-to-trough 21% decline for the S&P. In 2012, these bouts of selling ran their course in just a few weeks, in 2013 a few days and, thus far in 2014, just a few hours.
Why is that?
75% of the wealth business in this country [US] is largely driven toward fee-based strategies and accounts.
The vast majority of this snowballing asset base being reported by both wirehouse firms and RIAs is being put to work in a calm and methodical fashion: long-term mutual funds, tax-sensitive separately managed accounts (SMAs) and, of course, index ETFs.
What does this mean for the character of the stock market?
It means that, almost no matter what happens, each week advisors of every stripe have money to put to work and they’re increasingly agnostic about the news of the day. They’re well aware that their clients are living longer than ever – hence, a gently increased proportion of their managed accounts are being allocated toward equities. And so they invariably buy and then buy more.
In short, it means a relentless bid as the torrent of assets comes flowing in every day, week and month of the year.
The lighter volume on the NYSE in recent years also suggests this. Trades are only taking place at the margin and about half of it is ETF creation-redemption related.
Hypothesis #3: Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP for the hip crowd).
Money is always swimming towards yield. All of Capitalism rests on this constant flow – of investments in search of return.
As Ranjan Roy says in ZIRP explains the world, strange things happen when the risk-free rate nears zero.
At an individual level, most of us have become accustomed to bank savings accounts effectively returning zero. That wasn’t enough for us though. Our money felt antsy, so it found index funds and other passive funds, to once again, find a bit of yield.
That same, tiny behavioral shift takes place at every level of the risk curve, from your savings account to the trillions of dollars managed by large pension funds.
So all these dollar-organisms all start swimming towards riskier waters. Treasury investors shift to corporate debt. Public equity hedge funds shift to late-stage private equity. Late-stage private equity shifts to mid-stage, mid-stage to early stage. Seed rounds become bigger. Angel investors become a thing. Unicorns, unicorns, and more unicorns. Ashton Kutcher.
Blackrock gets jealous of KKR who gets jealous of a16z who gets jealous of YC. There is just so much money looking to do so many new, riskier things.
Where does this take us? It takes us to bike graveyards.
As Howard Marks explains in The Most Important Thing: when people are less risk averse, risk premiums reduce.
When interest rates are near zero, even a slight increase in yield feels like an immense reward for taking risk.
And that’s what has been happening since 2009, as KKR says in their 2018 paper, Rethinking Asset Allocation:
This is the historical risk-reward ratio.
And this is what is happening now.
Investors are ready to take on higher amounts of risk (x-axis), for much lower return (y-axis).
The yield curve is flattening. (Unfortunately, it’s not the curve we’re trying to flatten).
This is why, even now while the economy seems headed for a never-before seen recession, investors are piling into the stock market. Desperate for a little yield. Hungry for a little return.
Which of these hypotheses ring true to you? I’m leaning towards Hypothesis #3: ZIRP.