Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Markets: Exuberance is not always ‘irrational’

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 25, 2014 19:17 UTC

A pedestrian holding his mobile phone walks past an electronic board showing the stock market indices of various countries outside a brokerage in Tokyo

With the stock market continuing to hit new highs almost daily despite the appalling geopolitical disasters and human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, there has been much head-scratching about the baffling indifference among investors. Many economists and analysts see this apparent complacency as a symptom of a deeper malaise: an “irrational exuberance” that has pushed stock prices to absurdly overvalued levels.

The most celebrated proponent of this view is Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning, Yale University economist who is often credited with predicting both the 2000 stock market crash and the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. Shiller may or may not have deserved a Nobel Prize for his academic work on behavioral economics but as a practical guide to investing, his approach has been thoroughly refuted by real-world experience.

Robert Shiller, one of three American scientists who won the 2013 economics Nobel prize, attends a press conference in New HavenShiller’s status as an investment guru owes much to the timing of his book “Irrational Exuberance,” published just days before the collapse of Internet and technology stocks in March 2000. What is less widely advertised, however, is that for decades, both before and after that predictive triumph, the stock market strategy implied by his analysis has turned out to be plain wrong.

Shiller’s argument that stock prices have been inflated to irrational levels is centered on a statistic called the cyclical adjusted price-earnings ratio, or the Shiller price-earnings ratio. Conventional price-earnings ratios divide the current level of share prices by the earnings estimated by analysts for the year ahead.

This ratio for the Standard & Poor’s 500 is now around 17. On this basis many conventional analysts, including Federal Reserve economists, conclude that U.S. stock prices are reasonably valued. A price-earnings ratio of 17 implies that if companies can sustain this level of profitability, they will provide investors with annual earnings of one-17th, or 5.9 percent, which compares favorably with long-term interest rates on government bonds of around 1 percent, after adjusting for inflation.

Karl Marx was right — at least about one thing

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 11, 2014 18:42 UTC

 A board displays the Dow Jones industrials average after the close at the New York Stock Exchange

Confidence in the global economy is steadily improving, as shown in the financial markets’ bullish behavior and confident comments from companies and policymakers over the past few weeks. Though these columns have argued in favor of a robust recovery, when investors get uniformly bullish, the pessimistic case deserves attention.

Many distinguished economists believe that the current improvement in global conditions is just a blip. They insist that the world faces years, if not decades, of “secular stagnation.” How seriously should we take them?

The good news is that there is little evidence of secular stagnation in global statistics. The “new normal” for the world economy since 2008 has not been very different from the pre-crisis period. The average growth of the global economy from 1988 to 2007, the 20 years before the crisis, was 3.6 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook database. The IMF latest forecast for 2014 is exactly the same — 3.6 percent. Though Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, hinted at a modest downgrade this week.

How EU politics pushed Merkel to lift Germany’s austerity policies

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 4, 2014 15:27 UTC

German Chancellor Merkel and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Juncker hold a joint news conference after a meeting in Luxembourg

Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy who took the revolving presidency of the European Union this week, seems to be the sort of man that Napoleon was referring to when he reputedly said that the key qualification he sought in recruiting a general was good luck.

Renzi become prime minister without even needing to win an election because Silvio Berlusconi and all other rivals self-destructed. He took power just after Italy passed the lowest ebb of its economic fortunes. In May, he was rewarded for his good fortune by Italy’s voters, who anointed him with a strong democratic mandate in the same European elections that discredited almost all Europe’s other national leaders. Now he is taking the helm in Europe, as an economic recovery is starting and the European Central Bank is swinging decisively in support of growth.

But even a politician as lucky as Renzi could not have counted on his latest and most unexpected windfall: the unintended consequence of last week’s failed campaign by British Prime Minister David Cameron to stop the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.

World War One: First war was impossible, then inevitable

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 27, 2014 06:00 UTC

British troops advance during the battle of the Somme in this 1916 handout picture

Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday — still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread — the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable — at least in Europe.

An undated archive picture shows German soldiers offering to surrender to French troops, seen from a listening post in a trench at Massiges, northeastern FranceA 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”

Yellen’s remarkably unremarkable news conference – and why it’s a good thing

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 19, 2014 20:03 UTC

Yellen holds a news conference following two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting at the Federal Reserve in WashingtonJohn Maynard Keynes famously said that his highest ambition was to make economic policy as boring as dentistry. In this respect, as in so many others, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is proving to be a loyal Keynesian.

Yellen’s second news conference as Fed chair conveyed no new information about the timing of future interest rate moves. She gave no hints about an “exit strategy” for the Fed to return the $3 trillion of bonds it has acquired to the private sector. She told us nothing about the Fed’s expectations on inflation, employment and economic growth — not even about the board’s views on financial volatility, regulation, asset prices or bank credit policies.

Yellen refused even to repeat, or repeal, her earlier answer to a question about the meaning of the “considerable period” she expected between the end of tapering and the first rate hike. At her first news conference, Yellen responded to a similar question by blurting out “six months.” This caused an eruption of volatility in financial markets — that lasted about five minutes.

Should Brazilians cheer if they lose the World Cup?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 13, 2014 19:22 UTC

Brazil's President Rousseff attends a meeting of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change in Brasilia

As the World Cup kicks off in Sao Paolo this week, the home team is the runaway favorite, with a 45 percent chance of winning the tournament, according to Nate Silver on FiveThirtyEight and 48.5 percent probability according to the statistical boffins at Goldman Sachs. But apart from the bookmakers — who stand to lose a fortune if Brazil wins, since they are offering odds of around 3 to 1, instead of the 1 to 1 suggested by Silver’s and Goldman’s calculations — another, more surprising, group is secretly rooting against the favorite: Brazil’s own financial and business community, along with much of the country’s middle class.

That, at least, was my strong impression after two weeks visiting companies and financial institutions in Brazil. This unusual reversal of national spirit does not represent a breakdown of patriotism. Rather the opposite.

Brazil’s next presidential election is in October, and virtually everyone in business and finance believes that President Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent, must be defeated to save the economy. Whenever a new opinion poll shows a narrowing lead for Dilma (as Brazilians invariably call her), share prices jump. Yet still she remains well ahead of both her opponents.

Now may not be the time to buy bonds

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 6, 2014 18:35 UTC

anatole -- top

Why are interest rates so low? And how long will they stay that way?

Now that the European Central Bank has passed another historic milestone by imposing negative interest rates on a major part of the world economy, there is one explanation of the unprecedented collapse of interest that everyone can agree on. Central banks can set money market interest rates as low or as high as they please just by giving commercial banks whatever amount of excess credit is needed to keep these rates at the chosen level.

Since early 2009, central bankers all over the world have decided, rightly or wrongly, that interest rates should be lower than ever before in history. Moreover, these policymakers made it clear that they will continue to squeeze interest rates down to near-zero, or even negative, levels until next year and perhaps beyond.

But this obvious answer to the interest rate conundrum only begs a more interesting question: What accounts for the rock-bottom levels not only of the overnight interest rates that central banks set directly, but also the long-term rates that depend on the willingness of pension funds, insurers and private investors to tie up their savings for 10 years or more in government bonds?

Despite election results, reason still rules Europe

Anatole Kaletsky
May 30, 2014 18:09 UTC

anatole -- french student

When can a vote of 25 percent be described as a “stunning victory” or even a “political earthquake”?

According to the European establishment, it’s when these votes go to a rabble of odd-ball extremists, ranging from overt racists and even disciples of Adolf Hitler to unreconstructed Stalinists and comically naïve anarchists.

However, the most alarming symptom of political breakdown revealed by the European parliament election is mainstream politician’s hysterical reaction to a perfectly predictable — and justifiable — upsurge of populist anger after the euro crisis.

China-Russia is a match made in heaven, and that’s scary

Anatole Kaletsky
May 22, 2014 17:27 UTC

putin-li

Check-mate.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s historic $400 billion gas-supply agreement with China, he must have felt the satisfaction of a chess grandmaster revealing the inexorable outcome of a complicated endgame.

In theory, the next phase of the chess match between Russia and the West in Ukraine will only begin with the Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday. But Putin’s positioning of the pieces means the outcome is pre-ordained, no matter who emerges as the next president in Kiev.

putin & troopsNo wonder the Russian stock market and ruble have both rebounded — with the MSCI Russia index gaining 20 percent in dollar terms since its low point on March 14.

Euro zone’s big problems require big fixes

Anatole Kaletsky
May 16, 2014 12:56 UTC

ECB President Draghi addresses a news conference in BrusselsAt last, the European Central Bank seems ready to inject some adrenalin into the moribund euro zone economy. After last week’s news conference, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi strongly hinted that action would take place after the June 5 council meeting, there have been a host of interviews and leaks specifically describing the new ideas the bank has in mind.

The biggest measure, now almost a foregone conclusion, will be a cut in the interest rate the ECB pays on bank deposits from zero to negative 0.1 or 0.2 percent. Bank officials have also hinted at several additional stimulus measures: extension of loans to commercial banks at low fixed rates for three years or even five years; ECB purchases of bank loans to small and medium enterprises, packaged into asset-backed securities; and concessional lending to European banks on condition they pass on these funds to small and medium businesses.

The leaks generated a great deal of enthusiasm this week. The euro weakened from almost $1.40 to $1.37; bond yields in Italy and Spain fell to record lows; and European stock markets jumped 1 percent to 2 percent.  Wednesday, the market reaction crossed the Atlantic, with interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds falling to their lowest levels in six months.

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