The year 2021 should be labeled as the one that confounded even the most experienced of investors. Two years after the pandemic where the global central banks flushed the market with unimaginable liquidity in a short period of time to boost an economy that came to a grinding halt, one wonders why the U.S. central bank is still adding net liquidity to the market today, albeit at a slower pace. The Fed's mantra all throughout 2021 has been that "inflation is transitory." But up until recently, when inflation is seen in everything from milk, coffee, rents, lumber, gas, construction, steel... to anything consumer related, even the Fed cannot use this word with a straight face. Using the word transitory loosely can still work if the horizon is anywhere from three months to two years. It seems the bond and rates markets have now forced the hand of the Fed to realize that inflation is certainly not transitory and they need to do something about it.
The last two years has seen an "everything bubble." Whether we like to believe it or not, all asset classes have risen with the same tide that the Fed created via its liquidity injection, some just a bit more based on beta and leverage. Many fund managers can use the word "alpha" to justify their returns, but in short, this Fed liquidity has distorted a host of asset prices and taking some of the larger ones way beyond their own fundamental value given what real yields and rates had done. A good example is the ARK Next Generation Internet ETF (ARKW) and racy tech growth stocks, after rallying in excess of 100%+, they have all now fallen over 50%+ the past few months, when the fundamental picture has not changed.
And the simple reason is that liquidity is getting less and less in the market as the Fed is slowing down its asset purchases. Most emerging markets central banks and some developed ones have started raising rates, yet the Fed is still buying up to $90B-$100B of assets each month, two years after the pandemic. This at a time when jobless claims are at lows and the economy has recovered close to pre-pandemic levels from the demand side, if not from the employment side. The Fed's target for QE was to get employment back to pre Covid levels, but that goal post is much further now as participation rate has lagged. A lot of people have permanently retired from the workforce and this is something that the Fed is realizing just now.
The latest FOMC meeting presided by the Fed announced that they would reduce their asset purchases even more aggressively by $30B per month instead of $15B. At this rate, the Fed will end its QE around March 2022. The bigger question now is how soon and how fast will the Fed start to raise rates? The market is pricing in about three rate hikes just in 2022 alone. If supply chain shortages persist, inflation is not expected to come down any time soon. As we enter 2022, we are entering an economy that is robust but at risk of plateauing post the liquidity induced demand surge, and with heightened inflation not seen since the 1980s! The year over year CPI rate is averaging between 6%-7% now, and it is at an alarmingly uncomfortable level. We are entering 2022 in a slight stagflationary environment, one that has not been seen or traded by the majority of traders that now exist in the market.
At the moment, there is still net liquidity being added to the market, and that could be one of the main reasons why the S&P 500 will hold up well here, but one wonders whether it can hold these levels in Q1 when fed balance sheet stops increasing altogether. Perhaps it is time for investors to stop focusing on Meme stocks or bankrupt stocks trying "to make a quick buck", squeezing out shorts via buying upside calls. Perhaps the market will return to some sort of rational behavior and display some economics 101 characteristics. One thing is for sure, asset allocation will need to shift into assets that are more inflation protected, hard assets like precious metals. Will 2022 finally be the year for gold?