Recently, I wrote about the rotation from growth to value and why some of my colleagues and I expect volatility, more than a smooth transition of leadership, to define markets. The thesis is rooted in the fact that seismic macro questions loom over markets and are likely to trigger violent fluctuations in investor conviction. Earlier this month, Macro Strategist John Butler dissected one of these questions: Will the negative correlation between stocks and bonds turn positive?
Since the turn of the century, stocks and bonds have maintained a persistent negative correlation. It is a convenient relationship that has shaped modern market dynamics across asset classes. As Portfolio Manager Mark Sullivan noted recently: “Most large asset holders run some form of risk parity based on the assumption bonds will act as an important diversifier in periods of weak growth and economic stress.” Yet, history attests, today’s sustained negative correlation is an anomaly, not the norm. According to Goldman Sachs calculations going back to 1900, a sustained negative correlation has occurred during only two market regimes prior to the late 1990s, and no negative run lasted more than a decade, nor dove as deep into negative territory as experienced over the past two decades.
Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen the rolling 12-month correlation between the S&P 500 and the US 10-year Treasury bond turn positive. If this proves structural (and therefore, lasting), the cross-asset-class implications would be seismic. It could drive investors to reprice risk across bond markets. It could compromise the “buy-the-dip” mentality that has suppressed equity volatility for years. And it could spike demand for alternative and uncorrelated asset classes as investors seek new paths to diversification.
Regardless of the outcome, the takeaway from Butler’s analysis is clear: Volatility is likely inevitable when market-defining dynamics sit on a razor’s edge. It is a high-risk and high-reward environment, which requires creativity and humility. As Portfolio Manager Michael Carmen sagely advised: “Expand your horizons [and] be careful out there.”
The future of the stock/bond correlation hinges on whether inflation proves temporary or persistent. COVID-driven supply bottlenecks have no doubt exaggerated the inflation spike. However, mounting evidence suggests structural forces could continue to constrain supply across global economies, from decarbonization to a rapidly aging developed world to the backlash against globalization. And if constrained supply undergirds persistent inflation, it will trigger a new central bank policy regime. To quote John: