Between A Rock and A Hard Place

This week the members of the Federal Reserve Board met again to consider the nation’s monetary policy. And after years of multiple rounds of quantitative easing, rumors of a possible interest rate hike are finally more than mere speculation. The Fed’s decision to hike rates by 25 points is considered to be the first of many, which may lead to a full point.

Unexpectedly, markets responded as though the Fed had actually cut rates as investors, after a short selloff prior to the announcement, began buying again. And, but for some obvious profit-taking, they probably would have risen even further. This signals that the bullish mindset of most investors could stick around for awhile, which plays into my previous posts about a bubble scenario.

The problem with a rate hike by the Fed is that it puts them in a proverbial rock and hard place position. On the one hand, the U.S. is economy is exploding on the heels of the presidential election and the resultant pro-America policies of the Trump administration. And the Fed recognizes that the market is overly bullish and needs to cool down a bit to prevent another bubble like we saw leading up to the Great Recession. So a modest interest rate hike of 25 basis points is the obvious tool in the bag to achieve this.

On the other hand, the Board recognizes that the market generally responds very negatively after a rate hike is announced, particularly in markets that are directly impacted by interest rates such as the housing market. This means that if the Fed continues hiking rates, we’ll almost certainly see a drop in the markets this year. And it could threaten to completely undo the records set in recent weeks by the Dow.

But what’s worse about the prospect of a rate hike is two-fold. First, the Fed recognizes that the U.S. economy is still very much in recovery mode. Imagine a patient just emerging from massive heart surgery. While his recovery is looking great, if he starts rehabilitation exercises too soon, he could cause more damage than good. And that’s the sort of situation in which we find ourselves.

Second, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the major contributor to the massive uptick in the American markets are not internal fundamentals (those in many respects still remain weak) but external factors. The growing insolvency of the EU and the struggle of the Asian sectors are driving international investors to the U.S. in droves. This flood of money has fund managers in an unprecedented position where they are having difficulty finding enough investment vehicles to add to their portfolios.

This global instability has added to it the ongoing and increasingly uncertain situation with North Korea and Iran. One minor flare up on the international stage could throw everything off kilter.

Imagine a scenario in which days or weeks after the Fed hikes interest rates for a second or third time, North Korea fires a missile into South Korea. Dominoes in the Asian theater start to fall as allies are pulled into the conflict on either side. Japan cannot escape the conflict, which upsets the trade balance with the EU. China must come to the defense of a fellow Communist nation, and suddenly we have a very large regional conflict on our hands.

The uncertainty that follows such an event will drive the market down as investors seek safer havens for their dollars until things settle down. That’s how quickly a wildly bullish market can turn to the bears.

But this uncertainty also offers unique opportunities with stocks and options provided the key indicators are clear. Catching those opportunities just before a major drop or spike in global markets is what separates the men from the boys. And such a separation is coming very soon, one way or another.