Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

No reason for these stock market jitters

Anatole Kaletsky
May 8, 2014 21:49 UTC

anatole -- unhappy trader

“Sell in May and go away.”

This stock market adage has served investors well four years in a row. Every year since 2010, stock markets around the world have suffered significant corrections between a high reached in May and a low in the summer or early autumn: by 15 percent in 2010, 19 percent in 2011, 9 percent in 2012 and 5 percent in 2013, as gauged by the Standard & Poor’s 500.

Given that the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its highest level ever on April 30, while the S&P 500 peaked less than 1 percent shy of its all-time record, it may seem sensible to follow the seasonal adage. Regardless of one’s views about the long-term prospects for the world economy.

That is precisely how financial markets have behaved since May 1. In the past week, investors around the world responded negatively to what have been, by any standards, extremely favorable economic figures from the United States, Britain and even Europe.

anatole -- sad tradersThe most striking example of this perverse behavior was the reaction to U.S. employment figures, which often set the tone for investor sentiment around the world.

Not only did the April employment gain of 288,000 comfortably exceed Wall Street expectations, but upward revisions to three previous job reports strongly suggested that the U.S. economy’s slump around the new year, which caused a brief market panic in January, was just a weather-related aberration whose impact diminished steadily through the winter.

Why the Russian sanctions don’t work

Anatole Kaletsky
May 1, 2014 20:53 UTC

putin!!

Why did the U.S. and European sanctions against Russia earlier this week trigger a rebound in the ruble and the Moscow stock market?

To understand this paradox it is worth recalling Yes Minister, the British TV comedy about a blundering politician who stumbles from crisis to crisis with the same justification for every panic response: “Something must be done. This is something –– therefore it must be done.”

The problem with this syllogism is that doing something may be worse than doing nothing — and the Western decision to rely on economic sanctions in the Ukraine crisis is a case in point.

Abe’s disturbing lack of focus

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 24, 2014 21:52 UTC

President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia this week has focused mostly on Japan’s territorial disputes with China. On this issue, Obama seems to be repeating the same mistakes he made in Ukraine.

By creating false expectations of U.S. support for the Japanese position, the president is encouraging Japan to escalate its belligerent rhetoric. That, in turn, makes Chinese military action to seize the disputed islands more likely. Everyone knows that there is no chance of the United States going to war with China to defend Japan’s claim to four uninhabited lumps of rock.

Luckily, a military confrontation in the East China Sea remains highly unlikely because the Beijing government’s top priority is economic and financial reform.  Unfortunately, this seems less true of Japan.

Time to stop following defunct economic policies

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 19, 2014 17:59 UTC

Can economists contribute anything useful to our understanding of politics, business and finance in the real world?

I raise this question having spent last weekend in Toronto at the annual conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a foundation created in 2009 in response to the failure of modern economics in the global financial crisis (whose board I currently chair). Unfortunately, the question raised above is as troubling today as it was in November 2008, when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth famously stunned the head of the London School of Economics by asking faux naively, “But why did nobody foresee this [economic collapse]?”

As John Maynard Keynes observed in 1936, when he challenged the economic orthodoxies that were aggravating the Great Depression: “The ideas of economists, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

Behind Wall Street’s anxiety

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 10, 2014 20:49 UTC

The recent economic news has been about as investor-friendly as anyone could imagine.

It started with last week’s strong U.S. employment figures; continued through Tuesday’s reassuring International Monetary Fund forecasts, which put the probability of avoiding a global recession this year to 99.9 percent, and culminated in dovish Federal Reserve minutes, which soothed concerns about an earlier than expected  increase in U.S. interest rates.

Considering all this good news, investors could justifiably feel surprised — even shocked — by Wall Street’s sharp falls this week. By Thursday afternoon, the Standard & Poor’s 500 had given back its entire gain for the year, and the Nasdaq 100 gauge of leading technology stocks had suffered its biggest setback since 2011. Many market analysts interpreted the negative reaction to good news as a classic sign of a market top, warning that the uninterrupted rise in share prices that began more than five years ago is overdue for a sharp reversal.

Forget the drama: A solution for Crimea

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 28, 2014 03:29 UTC

President Vladimir Putin has disastrously miscalculated and Russia now faces deeper isolation, tougher sanctions and greater economic hardship than at any time since the Cold War. So declared President Obama after the NATO summit in Brussels.

European leaders have sounded even tougher than Obama, though less specific. Some whose countries lie far from Russia — for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron — have whipped themselves into a fury reminiscent of King Lear: “I will do such things — what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

For more specificity we must turn to pundits. Geopolitical experts have predicted global anarchy because of the violation of postwar borders; economists have warned of crippling trade wars as European financial sanctions collide with Russian energy counter-measures, and eminent financial analysts have argued that investors and businesses are dangerously under-pricing enormous geopolitical risks.

Osborne: Stealth convert to ‘Keynesian Thatcherism’

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 20, 2014 18:46 UTC

Britain’s government budget released this week is not a statement of economic policy. It is a program for winning next year’s general election.

In this sense, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s speech was a natural development from the 2013 Budget, which launched Britain’s current economic recovery. I was one of the few analysts to perceive the remarkable transformation of the British economy that immediately resulted from last year’s budget because what Osborne did was deliberately obscured by what he said.

Osborne’s mantra last year was “you can’t cure debt with more debt.” Yet he did precisely that with his audacious plan to provide $198 billion (£120 billion) in government guarantees for additional mortgage borrowing.

Janet Yellen’s moment

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 18, 2014 15:37 UTC

When Janet Yellen chairs her first meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee Tuesday and Wednesday, she will be presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity that even her predecessors in the world’s most powerful economic position have rarely enjoyed.

Not only can Yellen alter the guidance on interest rates with which the FOMC has been steering global financial markets. Beyond that she could do something far more profound and exciting: transform an entire generation’s way of thinking about economics, market forces and the role of government in achieving and maintaining prosperity.

To start with the obvious, Yellen will almost certainly change or simply abolish the unemployment “threshold” of 6.5 percent announced early last year as a reference point for the FOMC to start considering the possibility of higher interest rates — perhaps setting a threshold of 5 percent or so. More radically, she could supplement the objective of lower unemployment with a range of other indicators that will need to improve before the Federal Reserve even considers any monetary tightening: for example, accelerating gross domestic product growth; strengthening productivity trends and eliminating the excess capacity in many industries that is now discouraging investment, hiring and productivity growth, as well as holding down corporate pricing power.

Japan as the crisis next time

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 14, 2014 15:16 UTC

Which major economy is most likely to disappoint expectations this year, and perhaps even cause a financial crisis big enough to break the momentum of global economic recovery? The usual suspects are China and southern Europe. But in my view the most likely culprit will be Japan.

While Japan no longer attracts much attention these days, it is still the world’s third-largest economy, with a gross domestic product equal to France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. Its industries still pose the main competitive challenge to U.S., European and Korean manufacturers, and its regional weight is still sufficient to trigger financial crises across the whole of Asia — as it did in 1997.

To make matters worse, the Japanese government bond market is in an enormous financial bubble that could burst catastrophically if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s audacious economic program is seen to have failed.

Markets already see a Putin win

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 6, 2014 21:24 UTC

Oscar Wilde described marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. In finance and geopolitics, by contrast, experience must always prevail over hope, and realism over wishful thinking.

A grim case in point is the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine. What makes this conflict so dangerous is that U.S. and EU policy seems to be motivated entirely by hope and wishful thinking. Hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “see sense” — or at least be deterred by the threat of sanctions to Russia’s economic interests and the personal wealth of his oligarch friends. Wishful thinking about “democracy and freedom” inevitably overcoming dictatorship and military bullying.

Investors and businesses cannot afford to be so sentimental. Though we should never forget Nathan Rothschild’s advice at the battle of Waterloo — “buy on the sound of gunfire” — the market response to this week’s events in Ukraine makes sense only if we believe that Russia has won.

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