Forget about China. Forget about the downturn in major emerging economies as demand for their raw materials plummets. If you want to know what’s happening in the U.S. stock markets right now, consider Wimpy.
According to a column Wednesday by Richard Fisher, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the U.S. monetary policy known as quantitative easing caused U.S. markets and investors to behave like the rotund, bowler-hatted miserly glutton from the old “Popeye" comic strip and cartoons.
Wimpy, as any "Popeye" fan knows, asks for a hamburger today on the promise of payment on Tuesday. And now that bill has come due, proverbially speaking, says Fisher. So prepare for a correction, he says. The S&P has lost over 2 percent since Monday and dropped below 2,000 on Wednesday.
Fisher said in a column published Wednesday by CNBC that the Federal Reserve’s policy of purchasing mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds to jump-start the economy in the wake of the Great Recession has front-loaded stock performance. Greater access to cheap money has been a driving factor in the growth of equities in recent years.
“I believe we engineered a version of the ‘Wimpy philosophy,’ ” Fisher said. “We gave stock-market investors two hamburgers today in exchange for one or none tomorrow. We pulled forward the price-reaction function of markets.”
Fisher pointed out a sobering reality about stocks right now. If you exclude dividends and four of the top-shelf tech stocks — Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL), Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB), Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) — the Nasdaq lost 0.3 percent of its value in 2015. Including dividends and these four stocks, the Nasdaq gained 135 percent.
Further, he said if you exclude dividends (the money companies pay shareholders quarterly for holding stock), the slight gain in the S&P and Dow Jones Industrial Average indexes are also wiped out.
Companies have been eking out gains over the past year by buying shares to raise their stock price and encourage investors to hold. But now as the Fed begins to wind down the era of near-zero-percent lending, companies will need to show returns on real growth.
“It would not be unreasonable to expect subdued returns this year given that stocks are still richly priced by historic standards,” Fisher said.
In other words, the hamburger bill is coming due.