The Strategist

From savior to villain

Central banks mutate from saviour to villain, while the cycle of interest rate hikes is showing first cracks in the system, as the bankruptcy of SVB demonstrates. In our view, investors should be patient and invested in companies that show stable margins in the current environment.

Thomas Wille
Reading time
10 minutes
Federal Reserve Building
© Shutterstock

In the last issue of The Strategist, we discussed and highlighted the credibility of central banks. On a scale of one to ten, the importance of credibility as a key point in the perception of a central bank has risen from nine to ten-plus in recent days. Fighting inflation is currently the sole objective not only of the monetary guardians in Washington, but also in Frankfurt at the European Central Bank (ECB). Any doubt, no matter how small, about the ultimate determination is to be nipped in the bud immediately. This is also important to be armed against a potential second wave of inflation, which would very likely come at the expense of economic momentum.

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From savior to villain

For more than 25 years, Western central banks, led by the US Federal Reserve, had the image of saviors in distress in financial markets. We still remember 1998, when the Fed, under then Chairman Alan Greenspan, first stepped in as a savior in white armor after the hedge fund LTCM got into trouble because of the currency crisis in Russia. The term "Greenspan put" or, more commonly, the so-called "Fed put" was born. Behind this was nothing other than the conviction of market participants that central banks try to prevent a stock market crash at all costs. Greenspan's successors (Bernanke, Yellen, and Powell) not only kept this belief alive through their actions - expanding the Fed's balance sheet in every crisis - but also tempted investors to take ever higher risks.

The "Fed put" has now been gone for a good year, and the Fed has fortunately put an end to this moral hazard. Central banks are no longer seen as saviors in distress per se but have rather mutated into villains on the stock markets, as in a Hollywood movie. This image is somehow comparable to the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, probably the most notorious villain in the Star Wars universe. For investors who still have (too) much risk in their portfolios, it currently looks - if we stay with Star Wars - as if the empire, i.e. the central banks, are striking back. The steepest cycle of interest rate hikes by Western central banks in the last 40 years is starting to take effect and the first cracks in the system or collateral damage are already showing. The bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) has currently demonstrated this impressively and will probably not remain the only case. 

Since we are no longer in a zero-interest rate environment, the business models based on it will probably come under massive pressure. Therefore, it is, in our view, important to be invested only in companies that have stable margins even in the current environment and are prepared for a possible recession.

Wait and see 

The next interest rate steps of the Federal Reserve are still very data-dependent, and uncertainty has increased once again due to the bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Bank. In our view, the coming months do not belong to the courageous but to the patient investors. Wait and see is the order of the day. However, this waiting period is sweetened for the investor with a Libor rate over six months of 5.45% in the US dollar and 3.45% in the euro. 

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