Pricing a ‘Powell Put’
Financial markets have a history of testing the incoming Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman shortly after taking office. There is no better example than October 19, 1987, the day infamously known as “Black Monday.” The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) dropped more than 22% – the largest drop in a single trading session – just two months after Alan Greenspan was sworn in as Fed Chairman. Greenspan’s statement the next day helped soothe investor fears and affirmed the Fed’s “readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economic and financial system.” Stock markets recovered losses quickly following his response and went on to surpass their pre-crash highs within two years. Fed policies designed to set a floor on equity valuations came to be called the ‘Greenspan Put’ (followed eventually by the ‘Bernanke Put’ and ‘Yellen Put’).
In today’s rapid information flow, we should not be surprised markets wasted little time giving Fed Chairman Jerome Powell his first financial stress test. On his first day as Fed Chairman, and after record low volatility throughout essentially all of 2017, the DJIA dropped more than 1,500 points at one point during the trading day while the VIX spiked. An increasingly popular VIX-related fund was completely wiped out in the sell-off.
This week’s chart highlights how short-term interest rates reacted to the recent equity market volatility and assesses the potential for a ‘Powell Put.’ I tracked recent pricing of the VIX against implied market odds for one or fewer Fed hikes this year, as measured through pricing of December 2018 Fed Funds futures.
In his first statement as Fed Chairman, and at least partially in response to recent market turbulence, Powell promised to “remain alert to any developing risks to financial stability.” As this week’s chart suggests, markets expect Chairman Powell to follow the path of his predecessors and provide a safety net to investors during times of extreme stress.
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