Have the Markets Bottomed or is it a Bear Market Rally?

With the S&P down nearly 20 percent and the Nasdaq index down nearly 4,000 points since the beginning of 2022, one could say the indices are in a bear market. While we can’t predict the future, economic indicators can offer some insight into the likelihood of the market’s future performance.

There are many ways to determine how the market might act the next day, week or longer into the future. Looking at sectors and how they’ve performed against the entire market is a good way to see if it’s bottomed out or if it’s time to look at other sectors. Volatility and the near-term expectations are other ways to see how professional investors gauge the market’s future moves. Reviewing the current and expected path of monetary policy and evolving economic indicators are still other ways to determine how markets will likely perform going forward.

The VIX and Market Capitulation

The Chicago Board Options Exchange’s (CBOE) Volatility Index (VIX) or “fear gauge” is one indicator of a market bottom. When investors attempt to hedge their investments, especially when volatility is expected, long options on the VIX can provide an “insurance policy” against falling equity prices. While there have been many levels on the VIX in the mid-30s, it often reaches levels in the 40s, 50s or even potentially higher to see a true bottom or market capitulation. Looking back to the 2008/2009 financial crisis, the VIX spiked to 79.13 on Oct. 20, 2008. Similarly, the VIX spiked to 82.69 on March 16, 2020, during the lows of the COVID-19 crash.

Measuring the Put/Call Ratio

Another indicator to gauge if the market has bottomed is when there’s a large consensus of bearishness. Using the put/call ratio, investors can see the current and past ratios of puts to calls presently held in the market. As the number of puts increase relative to call options, or the number of contracts betting stocks will increase in price over time, it indicates the market movers are expecting a down-turn in the markets. As the put/call ratio rises, it implies investors are feeling more and more bearish about the markets. When the ratio hits an extreme, higher implying a market bottom and lower implying a market top, investors are signaling they are nearing a turn in the markets.

Analyzing Moving Averages

When it comes to moving averages (a 50-, 100- or 200-day, for example), it can help establish trends for stock price action. Depending on the moving average used, the lower the number of stocks above or below a particular moving day average, the sector’s or index’s strength and direction can be measured. When it comes to measuring an index or a sector with a moving average, if a trend is showing more stocks are declining and staying below a moving average, it gives investors a sign of bearishness. If a big percentage, such as 70 percent or 80 percent of an index or sector, is below a particular moving average, this can indicate it may be forming a bottom or oversold conditions.

The Federal Reserve and Managing Inflation

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the historic range for the federal funds rate grew from 11 1/3 percent to 11 3/4 percent based on decisions from the September 1979 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. The Oct. 6, 1979, FOMC meeting created a four percent range for the federal funds rate (11.5 percent to 15.5 percent). By the end of 1979, the federal funds rate was nearly 14 percent, reaching 17.60 percent during 1980. Then January 1989 saw a recession due to the Fed changing reserve requirements, adding on additional fees for loans directly from the Fed, and promoting the economy to be more judicious in obtaining new loans. These changes led to interest rates rising toward the end of 1980, creating another recession in July 1980. While unemployment increased, inflation fell to four percent as 1982 closed out, compared to inflation running 14.6 percent annually between May 1979 and April 1980.

Immediately before the Oct. 6, 1979, FOMC meeting, the S&P 500 index hit a peak of 111.27 at closing the day before. Following a trend that began the Monday after the FOMC meeting, it eventually hit a “double-bottom”: 100 on Oct. 25, 1979, and then 99.87 on Nov. 7, 1979. It eventually reached a high of 118.44 on Feb. 13, 1980, before falling back to its last lows on March 27, 1980, to 98.22, and then eventually seeing an upturn.

While there are many economic, technical and fundamental indicators to gauge the direction of the stock market, taking a comprehensive approach to analyze the markets is not foolproof and risk can be mitigated only to a certain degree.

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How Will Increased Tapering Impact Markets in 2022?

According to a Dec. 15 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) statement from the Federal Reserve, the federal funds target range will remain at 0 percent to 0.25 percent. Beginning in January, the FOMC will reduce its monthly purchase of assets to $40 billion in Treasury securities and $20 billion in mortgage-backed securities, with tapering expected to finish well before mid-2022. The FOMC also projects three rate hikes in 2022. These monetary policy adjustments are all subject to change based on the economic developments going forward, signifying uncertainty for markets in 2022.

What History Says

Looking back to the last “taper tantrum” in 2013 when Ben Bernanke was in charge of the Federal Reserve, equities lost 5.8 percent during June 2013 (similar to the decline in markets during September 2021). While many considered this a “market pullback,” the S&P 500 saw gains of 17.5 percent for the rest of 2013. Looking from WWII onward, there’s been 60 instances of the stock market falling initially by 5 percent to 6 percent, but the next month it was up 3.3 percent on average, and 92 percent being higher by year-end.

From the second half of December 2013 through October 2014, the S&P 500 advanced 11.5 percent, primarily because Wall Street was confident in the economy’s health in growing with the Fed’s bond-buying.

After the rallying months, markets have gained an average of 8.4 percent 100 days later. For the 2021-2022 cycle, the rally is expected to go through January 2022. However, historical S&P 500 trends suggest volatility and a drop of 5 percent or greater in February 2022. February is generally the second worst month of the year for market performance.

What’s Happening this Cycle

Fed Chair Powell clearly indicated that rates are to be raised soon and inflation is expected to stabilize. Inflation is expected to hit 6 percent in Q4 of 2021, and trading on Wall Street is expected to see bearish trends to start 2022.

Since the Fed has been crystal clear about tapering, such communication has likely resulted in a relatively smoother transition for the markets. According to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, quantitative easing (QE) began in 2008 due to the financial crisis, was rolled back at the end of 2018, but the Fed became more accommodative again during the COVID-19 crisis. As of October 2021, the Fed’s balance sheet was $8.5 trillion. This was double what the Fed’s balance sheet was in early 2020 and 10 times as large from mid-2007 levels of $870 billion.

With Powell yet to be reconfirmed for a second term, there is uncertainty, along with the 2022 mid-term elections and pressure from progressive politicians looking for a dovish Fed chair.

Powell’s comments at the recent FOMC meeting explained that once COVID-caused jams to the supply chain are resolved, inflation will subside. This perspective, paired with his continual observation of the economy and flexibility on raising rates, has become a tug-of-war between the Fed and Wall Street investors on market performance. The Fed also indicated that once the bond-buying is complete, it’s not an automatic trigger for interest rate hikes. However, depending on how inflation plays out, the market will have its own interpretation of how the Fed will react to unfolding inflation.

Putting the Fed’s Moves Into Perspective

QE and lowering the Fed funds rate both can be effective monetary policy. QE helps when the Fed increases its balance sheet by buying long-maturity bonds and mortgage-back securities to drive lower yields. Lower interest rates enable cheaper borrowing, which can help the economy grow employment and increase growth. If QE is rolled back, there will be uncertainty over whether the economy can stand on its own two feet.

The true question of the potential impact on markets is whether the Fed will taper only or also reduce its balance sheet holdings. Other ways the Fed can tighten monetary policy is by adjusting short-term interest rates via the discount window/federal funds rate. The Fed similarly can sell assets from its balance sheet via open market operations (OMO).

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