Since bill prices are used as the input into other pricing models (most notably the Black-Scholes option pricing model), the distortions in the [Treasury] market have the potential to feed into other markets (we've already seen problems with new issue bond pricing due to sharp increases in spreads and blow-ups of correlation models in the credit default swaps market).
The word "model" conjures fancy, expensive things tended to by rocket scientists. But for "value" oriented stock investors, simple discounted cash flow valuation still occupies a place of honor. DCF valuation models require two inputs: an expected stream of cash flows (projected dividends, free-cash-flow-to-equity, whatever) and a required rate of return.
One of the lovely aspects of fundamental stock valuation is that it lacks hubris. Everyone knows that stock prices fluctuate unpredictably, so trying to estimate anything to twelve decimal places is just dumb. Value investors look to get a ballpark estimate of a stock's worth, and buy only if there's a large margin of safety. If you have to call in the quants, it ain't worth the risk. The required rate of return is often chosen in the simplest way you can imagine: Check the Wall Street Journal for a current Treasury yield, and call that the "risk-free rate". Ask yourself how much more you'd need to earn for it to be worth your while to hold the stock, and call that a "risk premium". Add the two together, and voila! You've got a required return by which to value the shares.
One of the channels by which Fed interest rate cuts affect the economy is to boost stock prices by reducing the "risk free rate", and therefore investors' required rate of return. But terror and turmoil in credit markets has goosed demand for safe Treasuries, driving yields well below what the Fed would expect given its current rate stance. In January of 2005, the Federal Funds rate was targeted at 2.25%, same as now, and a 3-month T-bill paid 2.21%. Today, we have the same Federal Funds rate, but the 3-month T-bill yields 0.34%. The 5-year Treasury paid 3.61% in Jan 2005. Today the rate is 2.37%. On any of the common proxies for a risk-free rate, flight to safety in the credit market has introduced a rate cut of between roughly 120 and 190 basis points beyond what Bernanke & Co would have expected based on the 2005 experience. If the marginal value investor hasn't increased the premium she demands for holding equities by the same amount, then all the gnashing of teeth about a financial meltdown may actually be net supportive of equity values!
Now this is weird, since equity is supposed to be the high risk, first-loss side of investment universe. But a recurring theme in the current crisis is that whatever you always thought was safe is not safe. The familiar risks of stock investing might seem like a warm campfire compared to the blizzard of uncertainty on the fixed-income side. It's not obvious that investors would demand an unusually high premium for holding equities right now.
The Fed is working hard to restore some semblance of normalcy to Treasury markets. It would be ironic if that were to inadvertantly remove an important prop from beneath stock prices. If there's anything to our little valuation speculation (it is only speculation!), the Fed may wish to mingle some rate cutting with its efforts to satisfy market demand for Treasuries, in order to hold roughly constant the effective risk-free-rate for equity valuation.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Friday March 21, 2008 at 12:55am||permalink|