Life after QE3? Not for this stock market

Despite all of its pops higher and lower, the stock market only looks volatile over the past 14 months or so.

The fact is, the market, at least as gauged by the S&P 500, really hasn't done much of anything. Equities are almost right where they were when the market closed on Oct. 29, 2014.

That date may ring a bell.

It is, of course, the very day the Federal Reserve announced it had concluded the third round of its massive money-printing operation known as quantitative easing. The Fed had been using its digital printing press to gobble up bonds, an operation that in turn was helping drive liquidity and boost asset prices in hopes of goosing economic activity,

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The result was an anemic economic recovery but a stunning rise in stocks — 200 percent in all off the March 2009 financial crisis lows.

Since that hallowed date? Pretty much nothing. The market was trading Tuesday within a couple points of where it was the day the Federal Open Market Committee announced it was cutting off the market's lifeline.

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the closing bell on Oct. 29, 2014, in New York City. The Federal Reserve phased out its bond purchasing program while keeping interest rates near zero for a "considerable time."
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The floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the closing bell on Oct. 29, 2014, in New York City. The Federal Reserve phased out its bond purchasing program while keeping interest rates near zero for a "considerable time."

"The S&P 500 is now back to levels seen when QE3 ended in October 2014. These levels have been breached before, most notably in August 2015, but the recent trend of lower highs is saying something about risk appetite," Citigroup analysts said in a note Tuesday.

Sure, there have been peaks and valleys since the Fed took away the QE portion of the punch bowl. But stocks have been trapped in a pretty vicious range post-QE3, plunging amid geopolitical turmoil, fears of a hard landing in China and tumbling energy prices, then turning higher again after the storms temporarily passed. Indeed, the market has backstopped the losses.

But there has been little to spur any lasting gains.

"I don't know if anyone should be surprised that we've been on this bumpy trip to nowhere," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities. "You've gotten to the point where there's diminishing returns on monetary policy."

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Since the end of QE, the Fed has sought to begin the other step towards policy normalization. At the December meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank approved the first hike to its key funds rate in more than nine years.

Expectations differ on what happens next: Fed officials, through their individual projections, expect the FOMC to hike four times this year. Market participants, though, doubt that will happen, with expectations now for two or three hikes.

"Expectations of them to go three or four more times this year are way out of whack," Hogan said. "I would applaud their ability to go two more times. They may not be able to."

Fed officials appear cognizant of the effect loose policy has had on financial markets. Recent statements from senior members that had a hawkish bent have helped contribute to the instability that has marked early 2016 trading.

The question, then, will be whether the Fed can maintain that resolve should the market continue to show the inability to grow without the Fed's largesse.

"More and more, this is a Fed that's saying, 'We want this market to stop relying on us and every word that comes from us.' You have to let market forces work," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial. "The Fed's not running a hedge fund."