By the end of the year, investors will likely be contending with the first Federal Reserve (Fed) rate hike in nearly a decade.

While the pace of monetary tightening is likely to be gradual, more than a few investors are worried about the equity impact of any marginal tightening, believing that the entire edifice of today’s bull market has been built on a foundation of cheap money.

I would agree with the view that monetary policy has been one of the principal catalysts and sustainers of this bull market. But as I write in my new Market Perspectives paper, “No Exit,” I’m skeptical that an initial rate hike will herald the end of the rally, though history does suggest that it could result in a modest correction.

Not only is any tightening likely to be gentle and from an exceptionally low base, but tighter monetary conditions are generally associated with more volatility and downside risk, not bear markets.

When you look at S&P 500 performance during rate cycles for various periods going back to the 1970s, a clear pattern emerges. Regardless of the period, 3-month returns following the start of a period of steady tightening were on average negative and more volatile, as markets initially reacted negatively to the start of a tightening cycle. However, looking out at 6 or 12 months, markets rebounded and generally produced positive, albeit subpar, returns. The chart below looking at forward 3-, 6- and 12-month returns on the S&P 500 following an initial change in the Federal Funds target rate shows this pattern.

Chart-Rate-Hikes-Performance-BlackRock-blog

Index returns are for illustrative purposes only. Index performance returns do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

The averages above do hide a significant amount of variation in returns, and the direction of equity valuations at any given point in time also matters. Indeed, in the past, U.S. equity markets have been more resilient to tightening monetary conditions if valuations were flat or lower over the preceding 12 months. But if valuations had been rising in the previous year, the S&P 500 has historically performed much worse following the start of a tightening cycle.

Put differently, markets characterized by multiple expansion—in other words, when investors are paying more per dollar of earnings—are more vulnerable to a change in monetary conditions. The fact that U.S. equity multiples have been consistently rising since 2011 suggests that markets are at greater risk for at least a modest correction following a rate hike. In addition, one area of the market – namely small caps – may be particularly vulnerable and warrants caution. Historically, small caps have been more sensitive than large caps to the reduction in returns associated with monetary tightening.

To be sure, this will be a very different tightening cycle than previous instances. Rates have never been this low for this long, and the Fed will be forced to adopt a new set of monetary tools to wind down its bloated balance sheet.

As a result, the equity market’s reaction to tightening is more unpredictable than it has ever been, a fact likely to increase anxiety and uncertainty throughout the cycle. Still, a normalization in U.S. monetary policy is unlikely to herald a catastrophe.

Starting this fall, investors should, at the very least, expect more volatility and a heightened likelihood of a correction. For more on the likely market impact of a Fed rate hike, read my full Market Perspectives paper, and be sure to check out this BlackRock Investment Institute paper too.

Sources: Bloomberg, BlackRock

This material is contains information from publications prepared by the BlackRock Investment Institute and is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of May 2015 and may change as subsequent conditions vary. The information and opinions contained in this post are derived from proprietary and nonproprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by BlackRock, its officers, employees or agents. This post may contain “forward-looking” information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include, among other things, projections and forecasts. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this post is at the sole discretion of the reader.

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