Stock Market Lazes Happily on a Powerful Time Bomb, and the Fed Begins to Worry

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by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

Pointing at “excesses,” “distortions,” and “imbalances.”

Margin debt in the stock market hit another record, $561 billion at the end of October, up 16% from a year ago, the New York Stock Exchange reported on Tuesday. Margin debt and the stock market move together. And even on an inflation-adjusted basis, the surge has been breath-taking.

This chart shows margin debt (red line, left scale) and the S&P 500 (blue line, right scale), both adjusted for inflation to tune out the effects of the dwindling value of the dollar over the decades (chart by Advisor Perspectives):

Stock market leverage is the big accelerator on the way up. Leverage supplies liquidity that has been freshly created by the lender. This isn’t money moving from one asset to another. This is money that is being created to be plowed into stocks. And when stocks sink, leverage becomes the big accelerator on the way down. When stocks are dumped to pay down margin debt, the money from those stock sales doesn’t go into another asset and doesn’t sit around as cash ready to be deployed and it doesn’t go into gold bars either. It just disappears.

Even the Fed is now worried about margin debt and a slew of other factors not related to consumer price inflation but to assets, asset prices, and debt.

The latest was Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan on Monday who, in discussing financial and economic imbalances, specifically addressed the “record-high levels” of margin debt.

His premise is that “there are costs to accommodation in the form of distortions and imbalances,” and when “excesses ultimately need to be unwound, this can result in a sudden downward shift in demand for investment and consumer-related durable goods.” Kaplan:

It is of course possible that “this time will be different,” but as I assess the condition of the U.S. economy, I am carefully monitoring evidence that might suggest growing risks of real imbalances, which could threaten the sustainability of the current economic expansion.

Among the excesses he is “monitoring”:

  • US stock market capitalization is at 135% of GDP, “the highest since 1999/2000.”
  • “Commercial real estate cap rates and valuation measures of debt and other markets appear notably extended.”
  • Stock market volatility is “historically low.” He adds: “We have now gone 12 months without a 3% correction in the U.S. market. This is extraordinarily unusual.”
  • Corporate debt is now at “record highs.”
  • US government debt held by the public is now at “75% of GDP” (with the gross national debt at 105% of GDP), and “the present value of unfunded entitlements now stands at approximately $49 trillion.”
  • “The projected path of U.S. government debt to GDP is unlikely to be sustainable – and has been made to appear more manageable due to today’s historically low interest rates.”

Trading volumes of bonds and stocks have “markedly declined,” he says, pointing a NYSE trading volume that has plunged 51% from 2007 levels, even as the NYSE market cap has soared 28%.

Margin debt has reached “record-high levels,” he warns: “In the event of a sell-off, high levels of margin debt can encourage additional selling, which could, in turn, lead to a more rapid tightening of financial conditions.”

During a sell-off, “sufficient market trading liquidity is key to managing the resulting increased volume,” he says. But liquidity from margin debt vanishes during a sell-off, just when the selling kicks off in earnest and liquidity is needed the most.

His worries are interesting for another reason: It seems he doesn’t exclude the possibility of a sell-off despite assurances by many that the Fed would never allow another sell-off – that it would instantly step in with another big round of QE. But he doesn’t seem to be worried about the sell-off but about liquidity in the market during a sell-off.

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