Remembrance of Things Past – Liquidity, Stability, and Predictability

Financial markets are imbalanced and lack liquidity in crucial sectors, even historically stable and predictable markets such as the global bond and currency markets. Investments are slanted in one direction more frequently and the markets are vulnerable to big price swings as a result. These large global markets are not immune to ever more lopsided trades creating extreme volatility. This occurs even when a small change occurs in positions, sentiment, or news. Even the world’s most liquid markets, US dollar currency trades and US Treasuries, are seeing skewed positioning resulting in surprisingly large shifts in prices and Treasury bond yields.

The market now leans too far one way or the other, and that imbalance will be forced to reverse more powerfully and unpredictably.

Abundant Cash Is Not Cash Available Abundantly

The pandemic, Fed interest rate policy and bond purchases, restrictive banking regulations, and banks’ swelling cash balances will have a lingering impact on liquidity and produce some mind-bending policies to deal with this uncharted territory.

As the pandemic emerged in March 2020, strange things happened:

o Bond markets seized up and investors panicked.

o Bond yields spiked causing severe price declines.

o Credit default swap prices (debt protection derivatives) rose 100x in less than a month.

o The dollar rose and liquidity dropped for U.S. Treasuries, usually the world’s most liquid security.

o There was substantially lower demand at U.S. Treasury auctions.

The Federal Reserve responded with an almost never-ending pile of cash, buying vast quantities of bonds with newly created cash. It has continued its purchases, at a pace of at least $120 billion a month.

But this has not resulted in “happy days are here again.” This mountain of dollars is limiting liquidity and constraining markets. That’s right, read that again if you must – too much cash can constrain the economy.

More volatility. Less predictability

S&P 500 stock market values are experiencing the same volatility as the first half of 2020, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (based on the 50 largest value movements as a percentage of the index’s total market value). These dramatic movements show that market volatility leads to big price movements in stocks, both up and down. There are a couple of factors combining to enhance this turbulence: The popularity of the momentum trade (buying stocks that are rising quickly and dump the relative losers quickly). Decreasing liquidity (fewer buyers and sellers for the other side of trades). Both factors magnify the market’s moves in either direction.