“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” That Charles Dickens opening to The Tale of Two Cities is an apt description of financial markets today. While disagreement among market participants has always been a feature of markets, seldom has there been such a divide between those who believe that we are on the verge of a massive correction and those who equally vehemently feel that this is the cusp of a new bull market, and between those who see unprecedented economic and policy uncertainty and market indicators that suggest the exact opposite. Is one side right and the other wrong? Is it possible that both sides are right? Or that both sides are wrong?
The investor divide is visible, and sometimes dramatically so, in almost every aspect of markets, from risk indicators to fund flows to consumer behavior.
- Risk on? Risk off?
Do we live in risky or safe times? It depends on who you ask and what indicator to look at. Over the last two decades, the VIX (Volatility Index) has become a proxy for how much risk investors see in equity markets and the graph below captures the movement of the index (and a similarly constructed index for European stocks) over much of that period:
VIX: S&P 500, Euro VIX: Euro Stoxx 50
Last year, the volatility measures in both the US and Europe not only took Brexit and the Trump election in stride but they have, in the months since the US presidential elections, continued their downward move, ending May 2017 at close to historic lows.
Lest you believe that this drop in volatility is restricted to stocks, you see similar patterns in other measures of risk including treasury yield volatility (shown in the graph) and in corporate bond volatility. This volatility swoon is also not restricted to the US, since measures of global volatility have also leveled off or decreased over the last few months. In fact, the volatility in currency movements has also dropped close to all-time lows.
In sum, the market seems to be signaling a period of unusual stability. That is at odds with what we are reading about economic policies, where there is talk of major changes to the US tax code and trade policies, signaling a period of high volatility for global economies. The economic policy uncertainty index, is an index constructed by looking at news stories, CBO lists of temporary tax code provisions and disagreement among economic forecasters, has been sending a very different signal to the market than the market volatility indices:
In the months since the election, the indices have spiked multiple times, breaking through records set during the 2008 crisis. In short, we are either on the cusp of unprecedented stability (at least as measured with the market volatility indices) or explosive change (according to the economic policy indices).
- Funds in? Funds out?
The ultimate measure of how comfortable investors feel about risk is whether they are putting money into stocks or taking them out and fund flows have historically been a good measure of that comfort. Put simply, if investors are wary and risk averse about an asset class or market, you should expect to see money flow out of that market and if they are sanguine, you should see money flow in. In the graph below, we look at fund flows into equity, bond and commodity funds, by month, from the start of 2016 to the April 2017:
Source: Investment Company Institute
More money has flowed into both equity and bond funds, on a monthly basis, since November 2016 than in the first ten months of 2016. While the fund flow picture is consistent with the drop in volatility that you see across the market-based risk measures, there are discordant notes here as well. First, and perhaps least surprisingly, the perennial market bears have become even more bearish, with concerns about macroeconomic risk augmenting their long-standing concerns about stocks trading at high PE ratios. Second, there are big name investors who are cautioning that a market correction is around the corner, with Jeff Gundlach being the latest to argue that it is time to sell the S&P 500 and buy emerging market stocks. Finally, there is some evidence that money is leaving US stocks, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that money going into US stocks is at a 9-year low, while inflows into European stocks hit a five-year high.
- Corporate and Business Behavior
Ultimately, risk does not come from market perceptions or newsletters but is reflected in consumer spending and business investment. On these dimensions as well, there is enough ammunition for both sides to see what they want to see. With consumer confidence, the trend lines are clear cut, with consumers becoming increasingly confident about both their current and future prospects:
That confidence, though, is not carrying through into consumer spending, where the numbers indicate more uncertainty about the future:
While consumer spending has increased since November, the rate of change has not accelerated from growth in prior years. You can see similar divergences between confidence and spending numbers at the business level, with business confidence up strongly since November 2016 but business investment not showing any significant acceleration. In short, both consumers and businesses seem to be feeling better about future prospects but they don't seem willing to back up that confidence with spending.
So, how do we go about explaining these stark differences between different indicators? Has risk gone up or has it gone down in the last few months? Is money coming into stocks or is it leaving stocks? Why, if consumers and businesses are feeling better about the future, are they not spending and investing more? There are three possible explanations and they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe that all three contribute to the dichotomy.
- Markets have become inured to crises: The last decade has been one filled with crises, in different regions and with different origins, with each one described as the one that is going to tip markets into collapse. Each time, after the debris has cleared, markets have emerged resilient and sometimes stronger than they went in. It is possible that investors have learned to take these market shocks in stride. Like the boy who cried wolf, it is possible that market pundits are viewed by investors