Let the Show Begin

Waiting for my youngest son (above) to participate in his first nativity play yesterday afternoon, I tried not to look at my Bloomberg app. Or think of the roller-coaster the financial markets could embark on if we were to get a surprise from the U.S. Federal Reserve later in the day.

When my son arrived in the gym hall, I could see his excitement with dad in the front row. I arrived early just to make sure I’d get a good seat (and parking). As the older kids and teachers started their introductions, etc. I could see my son’s excitement start to wane as he sat with his classmates waiting for the show to begin.

Bump up not lift-off

Just like the millions of professional investors who literally were sitting on their hands for most the day waiting for Janet Yellen and the Federal Open Market committee at the same time. Providing us their interest rate decision so we can move on with our day. Which makes me wonder, why they don’t hold the conference first thing in the morning and help reduce the anxiety on trading floors worldwide!? One of many humble suggestions I can give to central bankers if I were to get in a room with them.

So now we finally have the much-anticipated interest rate hike in the U.S. It’s not a major move. However it’s the potential of it becoming the beginning of the end of low-interest rate environment that has some economists and “fed watchers” all excited.

But what does it mean for most investors and business managers? Based on my crystal ball and the Economist in me (yes, I do have a degree in Economics), I don’t think we’re going to be out of the low-interest rate environment anytime soon.  The U.S. economy is not healthy enough to be able to sustain series of interest rate rises based on the data I’ve seen. Sure the U.S. jobless rate is the lowest it’s bee in seven years. We’ve seen relatively good performance out of the U.S. economy over the past few years. But the U.S. is not immune to the global economic slowdown and will have to tread very carefully to avoid falling into a recession.

But it doesn’t matter what I or you think about interest rates. It is what it is. It will be what it will be. Many investors and business managers spend too much time trying to figure out what will happen. And often times what ends up happening is what we least expected. We simply need to understand the possible scenarios, what impact these scenarios will have on our assets or earnings, and take steps to mitigate the impact of these potential scenarios. Or preferably how to benefit and improve the financial position under these various scenarios. Difficult but not impossible.

What it means to you?

As an equity investor I don’t see any significant impact from the interest rate hike on my portfolio. Since most of my companies have low debt and I’m defensively positioned. However if interest rates do start to increase steadily over the next year, the already fully valued equity markets in the U.S. could see major price declines.

For the struggling pensioners and savers relying on interest income, it’s too early to start rejoicing. The quarter basis point increase or 0.25% is nothing to cheer about just yet. Over the past almost decade savers have been punished with huge transfer of wealth from savers to debtors by means of a low-interest rate. They will not see improvement in their miserable investment income anytime soon.

Business managers need to become more prudent with their accounts receivable to ensure they get paid timely and proactively monitor their clients financial positions. Bad debt is often a silent killer on balance sheets.

Key is to seriously consider what are the implications of a series of interest rate hikes next year. That would significantly increase the cost of borrowing despite interest rates still being near historical lows.

As a business manager you need to be conscious of potential change in interest rate environment and the economic instability or recession it could trigger. Be extremely careful taking on debt and on the other hand if requiring financing to do it sooner rather than later.

An interesting fact is that credit markets have been tightening well before yesterday’s interest rate increase. Goldman Sachs tracks a financial conditions index which measures and incorporate factors such as stock prices, credit spreads, interest rates, and the exchange rates to determine the impact of the interest rate movements.

According to Goldman Sachs estimate, it says that every 1% rise in the federal funds rate shows up as 1.5%  increase in the index.  The index sits at the highest level it’s been in five years since September of this year. Borrowing costs for business could increase dramatically over the next few years if interest rates continue to rise.

Get ready for a quite a show

But at least the December interest rate hike is done and dusted. Investors are in for quite a show as market participants (primarily economists) will continue their obsessive discussions of how much and when interest rates will rise next year.

Smart equity investors will ignore them and carefully look at valuations and rotate out of momentum and high-beta shares in favour of value and distressed equity. Speaking of distressed equity, energy shares which have taken brunt of the tax-loss selling may finally stabilize. Successful investing over the long-term is always about quality assets and cash flow.

I don’t know if the Santa Claus rally will transpire over next few weeks. But either way Mr. Market can now get the show on the road.

Happy holidays to everyone!