Ben S. Bernanke hopes his latest plan to stimulate the economy will get you to buy stocks and other risky assets. Maybe you should. People who did that after two similar Federal Reserve efforts are sitting on big gains today.
But the odds of fat profits aren’t looking as good this time and seem to be getting worse.
Stocks rose sharply before the Fed chairman announced his plans Sept. 13 instead of falling, as they did before the two previous efforts, suggesting less room for gains now.
Meanwhile, the world economy is slowing and Wall Street analysts are cutting estimates for corporate profits. They expect them to fall this quarter from a year earlier, the first drop since just after the Great Recession ended 3 years ago.
"The market seems like it’s climbing on central bank intervention rather than fundamentals," said Gary Flam, chief stock manager at Bel Air Investment Advisors LLC. "I'm not a buyer right now."
The outlook for other risky assets such as high-yield bonds is darkening, too.
The highly indebted companies that issue these bonds, popularly known as junk bonds, usually offer fat interest payments to compensate investors for the risk that the companies will default.
Not now. In response to previous Fed stimulus plans, investors have poured money into these bonds, driving up prices and yields, which move in the opposite direction, down to 6 percent, the lowest on record. In the boom years before the recession, the lowest yield was more than 2 points higher.
"We have a high-yield bond market without yield, and the Fed's fingerprints are on this," said James Grant, editor of the newsletter Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. "If debt prices turn out grossly overvalued, won’t it owe an explanation for people who lost money?"
The Fed chairman said this month that the central bank would spend $40 billion each month buying mortgage bonds until the economy strengthens, and maybe even after. In its two previous programs, called quantitative easing, the Fed bought $2 trillion worth of Treasury and mortgage bonds.
The idea is to frustrate holders of conservative assets, such as Treasurys, so they will have no choice but to shift money into riskier fare. As they do, prices will rise, making people richer and willing to spend more money. In theory, that will speed economic growth.
Some critics argue that the Fed has failed and note that the U.S. economy grew at just a 1.7 percent annual rate in the April-to-June quarter. But it has been successful at least in part: People have moved money into riskier assets, and prices have jumped.
Since the Federal Reserve launched its first bond-buying program in November 2008, high-yield bonds have gained 68 percent, or 14.5 percent annually, 1.5 times their typical return, said Martin Fridson of FridsonVision, a high-yield research firm. Meanwhile, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, in price alone, has gained 85 percent.
In 2012, the S&P 500 has risen 16 percent, almost all of it since June in anticipation of the Fed’s new stimulus.
Stocks could continue to climb. The S&P 500 is trading at 14 times its expected per-share earnings for the next 12 months, which doesn’t appear expensive. This earnings multiple was lower — meaning stocks were cheaper — at the start of the first Fed stimulus, in November 2008, but only slightly: It was 12.9, according to S&P
Capital IQ, a research firm. At the start of the Fed’s second round of bond-buying, in November 2010, the S&P traded at 14 times, the same as today.
But stocks seemed just as expensive then as they do now because expectations for earnings then were low.
Since the recovery began, Wall Street analysts have been scrambling mostly to raise their expectations, not cutting them, as they are now. They were surprised how much companies were able to sell abroad, slash expenses and get more work out of smaller staffs.