U.S. stock markets have bounced off their lows of early March by a good 30%, from about 670 on the S&P 500 index to yesterday’s close just below 920. Three-month dollar LIBOR has just broken below 1% (from 5% last October). The U.S. Treasury yield curve has steepened sharply over the last several days. The 10-year Treasury note (whose interest rate creates a baseline for commercial credit rates throughout the economy) is now yielding 3.15%, up from 2% at the beginning of the year.
These signs add up to a very substantial return of willingness by private investors to take risk in the current environment, and to make capital available to private businesses.
In short, corporate finance has been on fire. Since about the middle of March, new issuance of corporate debt, from high-yield to investment-grade, has shot ahead. And if yesterday’s action (the best day in several years, by some measures) is any indication, the party is just getting started.
In normal times, one would observe such action, with sharp tightening in the yield spreads between risk-bearing and risk-free debt (that’s jargon for “bonds are getting more expensive”), and expect to see money moving from its normal home in the bond market into the stock market. Although that traditional pattern would explain the recent stock market rally, I’m hesitant to connect those dots just yet, because these are not normal times, and the dynamic underlying the stock rally could well be something different. Indeed, bond market commentators have indicated often enough in recent months that bonds are taking their cues from stocks, which is the reverse of normal.
Obviously, the questions related to the stock market are: does this rally have legs? Is it the real thing, or is it a deceptive “bear market rally” destined to fizzle and break all of our hearts? This post is too short to get at an answer to those questions, and anyway there’s no shortage of people in the media and the blogosphere who pretend to have the answer for you. (If there’s a consensus of opinion out there, it’s probably close to “buy now, with both hands, but make sure you sell before the market falls again, so you don’t blame me for giving you bad advice!”)
Let me tell you what concerns me. Yes, indeed, we’re seeing large flows of new capital into business corporations, and it’s a very good sign that investors are newly willing to lend to them again. (And of course the frozen zombie banks have little to do with this, except possibly as buyers of new debt, although whether that is true is not yet clear.) But why are businesses borrowing money? There are no indications that they are borrowing in order to fund new business activities. Reread that sentence before you go on. It’s very important.
Businesses are now borrowing in the current financing window as long as it remains open (which may not be forever), in order to improve their balance sheets. They’re looking to line up additional sources of liquidity, and to improve the efficiency of their capital structures by retiring shorter-term debt and replacing it with longer-term debt. They want investors to stop worrying that they will have to refinance in the short-to-medium term, under conditions that could well be far worse than today’s. That they are willing to lock in relatively high interest rates to do all this is indicative of a mindset that owes more to caution than to animal spirits.
What does that say about stock prices? Very simple. Equity investors today are willing to pay a significant premium for companies that have strong balance sheets or are strengthening them. That’s probably a major reason the stock market is going up. It could be the major reason.
What does it say about the economy? Nothing terribly good. Until businesses start demanding credit for the purpose of expansion and investment, rather than to reduce their overall leverage, economic conditions will remain slow. This could persist for years to come. We may be looking at the early stages of a period in which financial markets outperform the broader economy.
Another term for such a period is: “asset bubble.”