TrimTabs on that ‘US government-rigged stock market’ | FT Alphaville

TrimTabs on that ‘US government-rigged stock market’

FT Alphaville loves a good conspiracy theory, so here’s one to kick off Wednesday morning.

It’s the TrimTabs report referenced in this morning’s 6am Cut, questioning whether the US government is secretly propping up stock markets.

And here it is, in full, with our emphasis:

TrimTabs Investment Research Asks Whether Federal Reserve and U.S. Government Rigged Stock Market, Pushing Market Cap up $6+Trillion since Mid-March

Only Logical Conclusion as to Why Market Soared, While Economy Faltered and Traditional Sources of Capital Remained Neutral

Sausalito, Ca, Jan. 5 – TrimTabs Investment Research CEO Charles Biderman in a special report said today that it wasn’t traditional sources of capital that pushed the U.S. markets up more than $6 trillion since March, and wondered whether it was the Federal Reserve and the U.S. government pulling the levers behind the sharp rise.

“We have no way of proving this,” said Biderman, “but what we do know is that it was neither the economy nor traditional sources of capital that created the boom in equities.”

Biderman warned that if government has been behind the sharp stock rise, it could trigger a major equities meltdown when the government stops buying and even worse, starts selling.

The special report follows below:

The most positive economic development in 2009 was the stock market rally. Since the middle of March, the market cap of all U.S. stocks has soared more than $6 trillion. The wealth effect of rising stock prices soothed the nerves and boosted the net worth of the half of Americans who own stock.

We cannot identify the source of the new money that pushed stock prices up so far so fast. Historically, the market cap has risen about 10 times the amount of net new cash invested in equities. For the most part, the roughly $600 billion of net new cash since March needed to boost the market cap $6 trillion did not come from the traditional players that provided money in the past:

• Companies. Corporate America has been a huge net seller. The float of shares has ballooned $133 billion since the start of April.

• Retail investors through funds. Retail investors have hardly bought any U.S. equities through funds. U.S. equity funds and ETFs have received only $20 billion since the start of April. Meanwhile, bond funds and ETFs have received a record $355 billion.

• Retail investors through direct investments. We doubt retail investors have been big direct purchasers of equities. Market volatility in the past decade was the highest since the 1930s, and retail investor sentiment has been mostly neutral since the rally began, although it brightened in the past week.

• Foreign investors. Foreign investors have provided some buying power, purchasing $109 billion in U.S. stocks from April through October. But foreign purchases may have slowed in November and December because the U.S. dollar was weakening last fall.

• Hedge funds. We have no way to track in real time what hedge funds do, and they may well have shifted some assets into U.S. equities. But we doubt their buying power was enormous because they posted an outflow of $9 billion from April through November.

• Pension funds. All the anecdotal evidence we have indicates that pension funds have not been making a huge asset allocation shift and have not moved more than about $100 billion from bonds and cash into U.S. equities since the rally began.

If the money to boost stock prices did not come from the traditional players, it must have come from somewhere else. We know that the U.S. government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to support the auto industry, the housing market, and the banks and brokers. Why not support the stock market as well?

As far as we know, it is not illegal for the Federal Reserve or the U.S. Treasury to buy S&P 500 futures. Moreover, several officials have suggested the government and major banks could support stock prices. For example, former Fed board member Robert Heller opined in the Wall Street Journal in 1989, “Instead of flooding the entire economy with liquidity, and thereby increasing the danger of inflation, the Fed could support the stock market directly by buying market averages in the futures market, thereby stabilizing the market as a whole.” In a Financial Times article in 2002, an unidentified Fed official was quoted as acknowledging that policymakers had considered buying U.S. equities directly, not just futures. The official mentioned that the Fed could “theoretically buy anything to pump money into the system.” In an article in the Daily Telegraph in 2006, former Clinton administration official George Stephanopoulos mentioned the existence of “an informal agreement among the major banks to come in and start to buy stock if there appears to be a problem.”

Think back to mid-March 2009. Nothing positive was happening, and investor sentiment was horrible. The Fed, the Treasury, and Wall Street were all trying to figure out how to prevent the financial system from collapsing. What if Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and the head of one or more Wall Street firms decided that creating a stock market rally was the only way to rescue the economy? After all, after-tax income was down more than 10% y-o-y in Q1 2009, and the trillions the government committed or spent to prop up various entities was not working.

One way to manipulate the stock market would be for the Fed or the Treasury to buy a nominal $60 to $70 billion of S&P 500 stock futures each month for as long as necessary. Depending on margin levels, as little as $5 billion to $15 billion per month was all that was necessary to lift the S&P 500 by 67%. Even $15 billion per month would have been peanuts compared to what was being doled out elsewhere.

Since the stock market was extremely oversold in early March, not only would a new $60 to $70 billion per month of buying power have stopped stock prices from plunging, but it would have encouraged huge amounts of sideline cash to flow into equities to absorb the $295 billion in newly printed shares that have been sold since the start of April.

This type of intervention could explain some of the unusual market action in recent months, with stock prices grinding higher on low volume even as companies sold huge amounts of new shares and retail investors stayed on the sidelines. Some market watchers have charted that virtually all of the market’s upside since mid-September has come from after-hours futures activity.

Much more over at the conspiratorially-inclined Zero Hedge.

Related links:
This bank-engineered equity rally – FT Alphaville
Whitney: “I call this the great government momentum trade” – FT Alphaville
The (QE)uropean equity rally and yields – FT Alphaville