Wall Street, investors, the media, and the public are hyper-focused on the Federal Reserve’s rate hiking policy path… but the exact same trap door markets fell through in 2018 is about to open wide – and nobody’s talking about it.
Except me, that is.
That trap door is the Fed’s quantitative tightening (QT) plan, the inverse of its bull market- friendly quantitative easing (QE) program. Starting this September, as in right now, the Fed’s accelerating their QT operations, meaning the unwinding of their $9 trillion balance sheet.
Raising rates while simultaneously amping up QT will snap the stock market and the bond market. It happened in 2018 when the Fed began quantitative tightening.
It’s going to be different, meaning worse, this time.
But I’m not telling you this to ruin your day – quite the opposite, in fact. Because last time this happened, savvy players who were paying attention made a lot of money.
And so can you – I’m talking a few hundred percent returns, potentially – during what’s coming ahead.
Markets Tanked Last Time, They’ll Tank This Time
Back in early 2017, the U.S. economy saw robust growth of 5.2%. Then, in 2018, the Fed began raising the federal funds rate – the interest rate big banks charge each other for overnight loans. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised the fed funds rate by 25 basis points, lifting it to a target range of 1.5% to 1.75%.
They raised the target rate 25 bps again three more times at their meetings in June, September, and December, ultimately taking fed funds to a target range of 2.25% to 2.50%. (Which is exactly where fed funds rate is today.)
In conjunction with raising rates, in May, 2018, the Fed announced they’d be starting quantitative tightening, shrinking their then-$4.441 trillion balance sheet by $95 billion a month.
The plan was to let $60 billion worth of Treasuries and $35 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) a month “run off” the balance sheet.
“Running off” means not replacing maturing bonds. See, for years, the Fed had been buying an equivalent amount of Treasury bills, notes, bonds, and MBSs that were constantly maturing out of their balance sheet.
What does that mean? Well, when the Fed isn’t in the market as a buyer every month, other investors have to step up their buying. If those buyers don’t step it up, bond issuers, (meaning the U.S. Treasury and mortgage securitizing banks), would have to raise the interest they offer investors to attract buyers.
And that, folks, is how the Fed uses quantitative tightening to push rates upwards along with their direct targeting of the fed funds rate.
In 2018, the Fed shrank its balance sheet by $385 billion.
Higher rates and tighter economic conditions – including liquidity issues in the all-important repo market – upset markets. Frighteningly, from October 1, 2018 to Christmas Eve., December 24, 2018, the S&P 500 fell over 20% to end 2018 down more than 6%
That scared Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and the FOMC into an almost instant “pivot” in early January, to the extent that the Fed stopped QT altogether and began easing (meaning lowering rates) again.
That’s the end of the history lesson. It’s wasn’t pretty then and it hasn’t gotten any prettier in the last four years, so I’m not doing this just to take you down Memory Lane.
I’m telling you this because the same patterns are playing out right now, as I write this.
Here’s What’s Coming Next
But, of course, flip on the television or read a paper, and you know the conditions on the ground today, versus 2018, are very, very different.
Back then, the economy was coming off GDP growth of 5.2%. But today, GDP isn’t growing, it’s shrinking… Back then, inflation was running at a 2.49% clip. But today, inflation’s running at 8.5%… Back then, the Fed’s balance sheet was just north of $4.45 trillion. Today, it’s just south of $9 trillion… Back then, the federal funds target rate got up to 2.25% – 2.50%. Today, it’s starting there… Back then, with fed funds at 2.5%, the Fed stopped QT altogether. Now, with fed funds at 2.5%, the Fed’s ramping up QT…
At the end of May this year, the Fed announced it would let $30 billion a month in Treasuries and $17.5 billion a month in MBS runoff its balance sheet for the next three months.
This month, September, they’re raising the monthly runoff to $60 billion a month for Treasuries and $35 billion a month for MBS.
At that pace, by the end of 2022 the Fed’s balance sheet will be $522 billion lower. And bear in mind the 20% drop the market saw in 2018 was the result of higher rates and the Fed letting a similar amount runoff its balance sheet.
The Fed’s hinted at reducing its balance sheet by $4 trillion, which about what it added since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
So, imagine what a $4 trillion reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet would do to markets if a $550 billion runoff caused a 20% drop in the S&P 500?
Imagine what fed funds going to 4.75% – 5.00% would do to markets if bumping them up to 2.5% in 2018 sent stock market benchmarks into correction and, for a while at least, into bear market mode?
Rates are going higher and the Fed’s balance sheet is going lower. That’s a lose-lose situation for the stock market and the bond market.
So Here’s How to Cash in on It
We’re positioning ourselves, in my subscription services, for a bear market and a bond rout.
To make a killing on the crashing bond market, we’re “waterfalling” a trade we made earlier this year betting on rising rates and falling bond prices.
We traded an inverse exchange-traded fund, the ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury ETF (NYSEArca: TBT), to rake in a 280% gain, then a whopping 800%, when rates started to rise. Waterfalling that trade means we’re doing it again, only this time we’re doubling down.
Buying TBT – or like we’re doing, the right calls or call spreads on TBT – is what you might want to do as well, in order to bank some triple-digit gains from a bond market that’s close to the breaking point.
Join the conversation. Click here to jump to comments…
About the Author
Browse Shah’s articles | View Shah’s research services
Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor’s 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in “the pit” as a market maker.
The work he did laid the foundation for what would later become the VIX – to this day one of the most widely used indicators worldwide. After leaving Chicago to run the futures and options division of the British banking giant Lloyd’s TSB, Shah moved up to Roosevelt & Cross Inc., an old-line New York boutique firm. There he originated and ran a packaged fixed-income trading desk, and established that company’s “listed” and OTC trading desks.
Shah founded a second hedge fund in 1999, which he ran until 2003.
Shah’s vast network of contacts includes the biggest players on Wall Street and in international finance. These contacts give him the real story – when others only get what the investment banks want them to see.
Today, as editor of Hyperdrive Portfolio, Shah presents his legion of subscribers with massive profit opportunities that result from paradigm shifts in the way we work, play, and live.
Shah is a frequent guest on CNBC, Forbes, and MarketWatch, and you can catch him every week on Fox Business’s Varney & Co.
… Read full bio