Friday, May 22, 2009

The Impact of Sidelined Cash in Disequilibrium on the Stock Market

The purpose of this note is to reconcile two contrasting viewpoints on how the amount of cash in our economy impacts future stock prices:

A. Sidelined Cash View: An example of the view that cash held in investor accounts matters is Alexander Green's commentary this week: 'In February . . . the decline in stocks was just about over [because] . . . [t]here was more money available to buy shares than at any time in almost two decades. The $8.85 trillion held in cash, bank deposits and money market funds was equal to 74% of the market value of U.S. companies, the highest ratio since 1990, according to the Federal Reserve. . . . [T]here is still over $8 trillion on the sidelines earning next to nothing in short-term deposits. . . . Expect to see cash coming off the sidelines to accumulate shares of the largest, most liquid firms around the globe.'

B. Equilibrium View: The opposite view, that consideration of market equilibrium reveals the "tautology" of speaking about cash on the sidelines, is voiced by John Hussman in his comment this week: '[A]s a result of more than a trillion dollars of new issuance of Treasury securities with relatively short durations, it is a tautology that there is a mountain of what is mistakenly viewed as “cash on the sidelines” invested in these securities. This mountain of “sideline cash” exists and must continue to exist as long as these additional government securities remain outstanding. It is an error to view outstanding debt securities as if they are “liquidity” poised to “flow back into the stock market.” The faith in that myth may very well spur some speculation in stocks, but it is a belief that is utterly detached from reality. The mountain of outstanding money market securities is the result of government debt issuance that must be held by somebody until those securities are retired. It is not spendable “liquidity” – it is a pile of IOUs printed up as evidence of money that has already been squandered. The analysts and financial news reporters who observe this enormous swamp of short-term money market securities, and talk about “cash on the sidelines” as if it is spendable in aggregate immediately reveal themselves to be unaware of the concept of equilibrium and of the nature of secondary markets (where there must be a buyer for every security sold, and a seller for every security bought).'

Which view is right? Is it useful from a trading or investment timing perspective to think of sidelined cash as waiting to flow back into the stock market? Or, does any particular stock transaction involve a mere transfer of cash from buyer to seller and, therefore, leave the aggregate amount of cash in the economy, sidelined or not, unchanged? Further, what is the long-run impact of the amount of cash in our economy, i.e., the money supply, on stock prices?

The Fed, the Treasury and the Private Sector

Three primary parties feature in our analysis: the Federal Reserve ("Fed"), the U.S. Treasury and the private sector. To illuminate essential points, I intentionally employ a "no frills" simplified model of the creation of cash (or, more generally, a broader measure, M2), bonds and stocks in the economy:

1. Cash Creation and Swap: The Fed creates cash (in the amount of 50 units) and swaps it with the Treasury for a like notional amount of newly issued government bonds.

Fed: Cash = -50, Bonds = 50
Treasury: Cash = 50, Bonds = -50

(In each of the skeletal balance sheets here and below, the sections shown in bold indicate a change from the immediately prior stage of the analysis.)

2. Deficit Spending: The government uses the cash to finance expenditures such as national security, infrastructure projects, entitlements and other deficit spending. The private sector ends up holding the cash, received from the government through employment and entitlements.

Fed: Cash = -50, Bonds = 50
Treasury: Cash = 0, Bonds = -50
Private Sector: Cash = 50

3. More Bond Issuance: The Treasury issues more bonds, this time to private sector investors instead of to the Fed.

Fed: Cash = -50, Bonds = 50
Treasury: Cash = 50, Bonds = -100
Private Sector: Cash = 0, Bonds = 50

4. More Deficit Spending: The government deploys the cash in accordance with its budget, with the private sector again being the recipient of the cash.

Fed: Cash = -50, Bonds = 50
Treasury: Cash = 0, Bonds = -100
Private Sector: Cash = 50, Bonds = 50

5. Entrepreneur-Led Growth: Assisted by years of government spending on infrastructure, enterprising individuals form companies and develop new technologies and products for growing consumer markets. Rising stock prices of these entrepreneurial companies represent new wealth creation, seemingly materializing "out of thin air," but actually resulting from the "value-add" through conversion of natural resources, labor, capital and technology into useful products and services.

Fed: Cash = -50, Bonds = 50
Treasury: Cash = 0, Bonds = -100
Private Sector: Cash = 50, Bonds = 50, Stocks = 100

6. Business Cycle: As the market's perception of future business prospects shifts, stock prices rise and fall. The corresponding aggregate wealth held by the private sector in stocks fluctuates from a cycle low of, say, 75, to a cycle high of, say, 150. At the nadir of the business cycle, the corresponding cash-to-stocks ratio is 50/75 = 67%, while at the peak this ratio is 50/150 = 33%.

7. Government's Rescue Plan: During the depths of an extended recession (i.e., when stocks = 75), the government implements an economic rescue plan, involving

a. Creation of more money (25) by the Fed;
b. The Fed's use of this money to purchase lower credit assets from banks;
c. Banks' use of the proceeds to purchase new bonds from the Treasury.

This plan strengthens bank balance sheets and provides the government with cash for new deficit spending. (By deliberate design, this model parallels the actions taken by the Fed and Treasury over the past half year in dealing with the current financial crisis.)

Fed: Cash = -75, Bonds = 50, Other Assets = 25
Treasury: Cash = 25, Bonds = -125
Banks: Bonds = 25, Other Assets = -25
Private Sector: Cash = 50, Bonds = 50, Stocks = 75.

8. Still More Deficit Spending: The government deploys its new cash of 25 as part of a stimulus package to jump-start the economy (cf., Obama's approximately $1 trillion fiscal stimulus package, currently being deployed). As before, the cash ends up in the hands of workers and consumers in the private sector.

Fed: Cash = -75, Bonds = 50, Other Assets = 25
Treasury: Cash = 0, Bonds = -125
Banks: Bonds = 25, Other Assets = -25
Private Sector: Cash = 75, Bonds = 50, Stocks = 75.

The result is an increase in the cash-to-stocks ratio to 75/75 = 100%, which is a sign of the gross disequilibrium now inherent in the economy, since the cash-to-stocks ratio is outside of its "normal" range of 33% to 67% shown in Stage 6 of our model.

How Both Views Can Be Right

First, although our model is very simple, it exhibits important monetary, fiscal and economic trends in the U.S. economy:
  • The amount of cash in the economy increases over time (from 0 to 75 in our model) as the economy grows and the Fed prints money to provide a currency to accommodate transactions among consumers and producers;
  • The amount of government debt increases over time (from 0 to 125 in our model) as the Treasury issues bonds to fund the government's growing budget deficit;
  • The value of the stock market rises secularly (from 0 to 100 in our model) as innovation, population growth and economic growth drive aggregate earnings of companies higher;
  • Also, stock prices are prone to fluctuations (from 75 to 150 in our model), due to changes in market participants' perceptions of the future business prospects and earnings potential of companies within the economy.
This situation is hardly one of steady equilibrium. On the contrary, our economy is a dynamic system, continually evolving from one point of instantaneous and imperfect equilibrium to the next. Population growth, innovation and technological change drive secular increases in the amount of cash, bonds and stocks, and government monetary and fiscal policy alters the money supply, bond issuance and tax revenues in a Keynesian attempt to influence the course of the economy. The result is an economy in perpetual disequilibrium, wherein apparently the only constant aspect is change itself.

Within a framework of disequilibrium, let's now examine the situation at the end of Stage 8 of the scenario presented above. Given the new infusion of cash (from a sudden increase in the money supply), the stock market (along with other assets such as real estate) is arguably likely to rise, consistent with the Sidelined Cash view, as investors chase higher returns by buying stocks with the new portion of their "sidelined cash" (now 75, up from the recent figure of 50 in our model). The idea here is that, when enough newly printed aggregate cash from fiscal stimulus makes its way into consumers' and investors' hands, some combination of more consumption and more investment will (eventually) push asset prices higher. Though ostensibly at variance with the Equilibrium view he espouses, Hussman points out that a probable outcome of current government policy is "a near-doubling of the U.S. price level over the next decade," citing Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz's characterization of the government's strategy as "trying to recreate the bubble [in a way] [t]hat's not likely to provide a long-run solution . . . [but instead] says let's kick the can down the road a little bit."

To sum up:
  • The Sidelined Cash view correctly points out that "cash on the sidelines" can drive stock prices higher; however, by failing to distinguish between aggregate cash in the economy and cash held by individual investors, this view leaves too much room for (mis)interpretation;
  • The Equilibrium view is right in pointing out that the aggregate amount of cash in the economy does not change when investors trade stocks with each other; however, this view fails to incorporate the disequilibrating impact of new cash creation by the Fed (and the banking system).
I offer the following combined "sidelined cash in disequilibrium" view as a synthesis of the two views: The private sector of our economy operates, not in equilibrium, but in perpetual disequilibrium, due to the impact of our government's deficit spending using money printed by the Fed and accounted for as borrowing by the Treasury. New cash created by this dynamic process (which drives additional cash creation via fractional reserve banking) enters the economy through fiscal stimulus and becomes the "sidelined" component of aggregate cash that is forever chasing new opportunities and effectively encourages future economic growth.

So, we might say that cash is continually rolling off the printing presses at the Fed as our government's deficit expands and the economy grows. This capacity of our government to print money, constrained at any moment but secularly unlimited, provides a large pool of sidelined cash that can jump-start a recessionary economy and, in practice, has an inflationary impact on stock and other asset prices. The ultimate long-run outcome of our government's deficit spending policy and its influence on the relative strength of the U.S. economy versus that of other countries is debatable but, in my opinion, a correct prognosis will involve both a) interpreting "sidelined cash" to include the capacity of the Fed to print new money and b) recognizing that our economy is always in disequilibrium.