Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

A guide to the upcoming financial hurricane season

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 29, 2013 15:42 UTC

As the summer holidays wind down, the world is again moving into the financial Hurricane Season, which coincides uncannily with the meteorological hurricane season in the North Atlantic every autumn. Most great financial crises have occurred in the six weeks from late August to mid-October, for reasons I discussed in this column last September.

This year, exactly on cue, the seasonal risks are again building up: war in the Middle East; a watershed decision in U.S. monetary policy, plus the announcement of a new Fed chairman; a German election that could make or break the euro; the long-awaited “third arrow” of Shinzo Abe’s Japanese reform program; another internecine conflict over the U.S. budget and Treasury debt limit that could result in a government shutdown or even a temporary default. And I am not even counting probable policy upheavals in China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and other crisis-ridden emerging economies, whose timing is less certain but which could also fall within the next few months.

The consolation is that confidence is likely to return to the world economy and financial markets if the political and financial storms blow over without too much damage. To gauge how the world is likely to fare under this barrage of uncertainties, consider them in turn.

While Syria is the most frightening, it is also the easiest to dismiss. To say this is not to belittle the carnage and human suffering in Syria; it is simply to recognize that war in the Middle East is effectively a continuation of the permanent status quo. The Middle East has been at war almost continuously for over 50 years, since the Suez Crisis, and internecine fighting will probably continue for many more years or even decades, as it did in Europe during the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Neither the global oil supply nor the balance of power between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims is likely to be significantly affected by whatever action the U.S. may or may not take — and that is what matters for global economics and geopolitics. Once the missiles have exploded, therefore, financial markets will probably enjoy a relief rally, as they usually do after military engagements in the Middle East.

The German election on September 22 now seems equally predictable. Optimists once hoped this election would usher in a period of more collaborative German leadership. Conversely, skeptics predicted financial and political crises once the new German government was revealed to be no less stubborn than the old one in blocking compromises on bank bailouts and fiscal targets. Recently, however, both positive and negative expectations have been deflated by the blandness of the German campaign, combined with the modest improvement in Europe’s economic conditions. Thus the main worry now for investors in Germany is no longer about the outcome of the election, but simply about how other investors will react after September 22.

Let the great economy spin

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 22, 2013 21:43 UTC

On the way to my holiday in Italy this year, I had an epiphany about the state of the world economy. I stopped for lunch in the truly miraculous Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, where Galileo Galilei is said to have dropped cannon-balls from the Leaning Tower to test his theories of motion. A few years later, Galileo invented the telescope to amass the detailed astronomical observations that were needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the heliocentric theory of the universe — the idea that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round, as the Bible implied. Galileo was famously tried by the Inquisition for this heresy and decided to recant, presumably inspired by what happened to his fellow-mathematician Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake for similar ideas. But after mechanically recanting, Galileo muttered under his breath the rebellious phrase for which he is still renowned: eppur si muove — “and yet it moves.”

As I enjoyed my lunch in Pisa, Galileo’s defiantly optimistic words echoed through my mind. “And yet it moves” seemed perfectly to describe what I had felt about the world economy and financial markets since the crisis of 2008.

For the past five years, the media and financial markets have resounded with prophecies of doom. Economists have strained to prove why life would never be the same again; why bankruptcy was inevitable for great nations such as Italy, France, Britain and even the United States, Japan and China, and why the pre-crisis decades of prosperity would have to be followed by an era of repentance — or else a Biblical Day of Reckoning would be upon us.

Bezos needs to reinvent a business model, not journalism

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 15, 2013 15:21 UTC

It is now a week since Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon,  announced that he was buying the Washington Post, in what could be the most exciting case of convergence between the new media and the old since the merger of AOL with Time Warner. But how might Bezos re-launch this venerable flagship of U.S. journalism? And what could his ownership of the Post mean for news businesses around the world?

These may seem strange questions for a column devoted mostly to controversies in public policy and economics, but newspapers today are a declining industry comparable to the steel and shipbuilding industries in the 1980s, and employ even more people at higher wages. Newspapers are therefore of great economic significance, not to mention their importance to democracy. Yet public discussion often assumes that journalism is technologically doomed. The Internet, it seems, is ineluctably turning news and analysis from a thriving industry, gainfully employing millions on decent incomes, into an unpaid hobby for philanthropists or self-promoters who will earn their living by other means.

From an economic standpoint, this fatalism is unjustified. If quality news and analysis have significant value to customers, then the people providing these services will eventually find ways to get paid. It is often claimed that the news has become worthless because Internet distribution involves zero marginal cost, but this is poor economics. The true cost of news lies not in distribution, but in the research, composition, selection and editing required for high quality writing. These costs are as high as ever today.

Mark Carney abandons Thatcher-era supply-side policy

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 8, 2013 14:35 UTC

The era of laissez-faire monetarism is over, as the world moves by small but inexorable steps towards a new kind of Keynesian demand management. One after another, governments and central banks in the leading economies are accepting a responsibility for managing unemployment that they abandoned in the 1970s, during the monetarist counter-revolution against Keynesian economics. On Wednesday it was Britain’s turn, as Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, joined Ben Bernanke in making the reduction of unemployment his main monetary policy goal.

Carney was until recently Canada’s top central banker and was headhunted by the British government specifically to inaugurate a new era of “monetary activism.” On Wednesday, at his first official press conference, he lived up to this billing.

Instead of merely promising to keep British interest rates near zero for a predefined period of a year or two, as had widely been expected, Carney did something bolder and intellectually more controversial. By announcing that the BoE would not even consider any reduction in monetary stimulus until unemployment fell below 7 percent, Carney deliberately broke a taboo that has dominated British economic policy since Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.

The global return to pre-crisis growth strategies

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 25, 2013 15:24 UTC

Margaret Thatcher used to say that “There is no alternative” to whatever policy she believed in. But there is always an alternative to banging your head against a brick wall — you can stop banging your head against a brick wall. The G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Moscow last weekend may have marked such a moment of revelation, when governments around the world gave up on fiscal and financial austerity, and recognized that growth based on consumption, borrowing and rising house prices is better than no growth at all.

It is now nearly five years since the Lehman crisis and throughout this period politicians and economists have been obsessed with avoiding the mistakes that supposedly produced the crisis. They have been trying to reduce debts, both in the public and the private sectors; to make their banks behave more cautiously; and to “rebalance their economies” away from their over-dependence on consumption, services and finance in favor of supposedly more sustainable economic activities such as saving, exporting and manufacturing. The virtues of saving, exporting and manufacturing are so much taken for granted these days that it is easy to forget the novelty and implausibility of the rebalancing concept.

Until 2007 conventional wisdom among economists was that manufacturing nations like Germany and Japan should restructure their economies to resemble the U.S. and Britain. It was only after the Lehman debacle that economic fashion shifted decisively against Anglo-Saxon “bubble” economies, based on debt-fueled consumption, property speculation, financial engineering and other frivolous service activities like coffee shops and computer games. Instead every nation has tried to emulate the solid virtues of the Germanic economic model, powered by exports, investment and manufacturing. Angela Merkel’s slogan that “you cannot cure debt with debt” has become an international motto, despite the fact that central banks were printing money like there was no tomorrow, and governments have committed themselves to deleveraging by homeowners, banks and the public sector, all at the same time.

The new long-term bull market ahead

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 18, 2013 15:06 UTC

The bull market in global equities that started in the dark days of early 2009 passed a historic milestone this week. When the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index closed on Monday at 1682.5, this did not just represent a new record high and a full recovery from the swoon that Wall Street suffered after Ben Bernanke’s “tapering” comments in late May. More importantly, Monday’s record close marked the first time this key Wall Street index exceeded by more than 10 percent its peak at the climax of the last great bull market in March 2000.

Why is this important? Because a breakout this large from a trading range that has confined the stock market’s movements for many years is historically a rare event. In fact, there have only been three occasions in the past 100 years when prices have risen 10 percent above previous long-term peaks (which I define as peaks that have remained unbroken for at least five years). Each of these major breaks —  in July 1925, December 1954 and October 1980 — has confirmed a structural bull market and been followed by very large gains for long-term equity investors: 189 percent from 1925 to 1929, 245 percent from 1954 to 1973 and more than 1,000 percent from 1981 to 2000. Of course, past performance is not necessarily a guide to future results and three events are insufficient to draw statistically reliable conclusions. Nevertheless, the shattering of Wall Street records this week seems significant in several ways.

The S&P 500 is by far the most important stock market index and tends to set the direction for all other markets around the world — and history reveals that large breakthroughs, like the one that occurred this week, are very different from marginal new highs, which have been much more common and have often given false signals. There have been dozens of cases where long-standing records were broken by 2 or 3 percent and several of these were followed by large losses instead of further gains. This happened most recently in 2007, when the S&P 500 squeaked through to a new high just 2.5 percent above the 2000 record and then promptly collapsed during the Lehman crisis.  By contrast, large breakouts of 10 percent or more have consistently produced large gains.

Were Bernanke’s comments a fire drill or a false alarm?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 11, 2013 14:14 UTC

Whenever Alan Greenspan was praised for delivering a clear message on U.S. monetary policy, he liked to reply something along the lines of: “If you think that, you have misunderstood what I said.” Ben Bernanke prefers the opposite approach. On May 22, he triggered one of biggest financial panics since 2008 by raising the possibility of reducing the Fed’s record-breaking monetary stimulus, while admitting that he had no idea when to start this process. He spent the subsequent six weeks trying to clear up the mess that he had created by explaining in painstaking detail the precise timing and conditions under which “tapering” might or might not take place. In the process he created even greater confusion and financial volatility. It now appears that he would have done much better for the world economy — and for his own reputation — by saving his breath and imitating Greenspan’s obfuscation.

The Fed minutes published on Wednesday revealed so many divergent opinions on the conditions, timing and even direction of any change in monetary policy, that all the recent speeches and press conferences on tapering could reasonably be described as white noise. Which raises the question of why investors reacted so strongly to all this confusion. Recent market behavior around the world suggests an explanation: while Fed tapering was not in itself a very important issue, Bernanke’s comments acted as a financial alarm bell, drawing attention to risks in the world economy that were forgotten or ignored. When we hear a fire alarm we naturally ask ourselves three questions: Is it a false alarm? Is it a fire drill? Or is it a real fire — and if so, where?

Similar questions may shed some light on the tapering scare. For the U.S. stock market, Bernanke’s May comments were clearly a false alarm, since the Fed was nowhere near a decision to tighten monetary policy, as we now know officially from the minutes. It is not surprising, therefore, that U.S. equity prices have rebounded to their pre-Bernanke record highs. But looking beyond the U.S. stock market, tapering speculation seems more like a fire drill than a false alarm.

Who will get credit for Britain’s economic turnaround?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 5, 2013 17:38 UTC

Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of Canada who has just taken over as governor of the Bank of England, presided Thursday over his first monthly meeting of Britain’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). The meeting produced no change in monetary policy, yet Carney is already being hailed as Britain’s economic savior. The BBC even paid him the greatest compliment that any middle-aged white male could wish for, when it compared his appearance and hairstyle to George Clooney’s. Carney may continue basking in this adulation because he is lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

He has arrived at the BoE at the precise moment when the economic figures have started to suggest that the British economy is pulling out of its longest and deepest recession on record. One of the main reasons for this turnaround has been a sudden pickup in housing prices and mortgage lending, the traditional driving forces of the British economy. This improvement, in turn, has reflected a bold new government-backed borrowing program, whereby the British Treasury is guaranteeing up to £600,000 of new mortgage debt for anyone who can put up 5 percent of equity into buying a home. While this audacious policy attracted surprisingly little attention in the media when George Osborne announced it in his March budget, British homeowners and bankers were quick to catch on. As a result, house prices are rising rapidly across Britain, mortgage lending has rebounded to its highest level since the Lehman crisis and homebuilders’ shares have almost doubled. And all this is before the government incentives are expanded from newly-built houses to secondhand properties and remortgages in January 2014. For the moment, house prices are being bid up by cash-rich buyers who are front-running the government subsidies, in the confident expectation that a full-scale property boom will begin in 2014.

Given the powerful response to the government’s mortgage subsidies, the additional quantitative easing that was widely expected from Mark Carney’s “monetary activism” may no longer be required. It may be enough for the BoE to provide commercial banks with liquidity to finance the government’s planned credit expansion and to keep short-term rates near zero. Instead of trying to persuade the hawks on the MPC who repeatedly thwarted his predecessor Mervyn King’s requests for more QE, Carney may succeed in reviving the British economy simply by making a few speeches — the “forward guidance” he used in Canada to convince investors that interest rates would stay near zero for several years ahead.

Are markets making another blunder?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 20, 2013 14:50 UTC

In the four weeks since Ben Bernanke first mentioned that the Federal Reserve Board might start to taper its program of quantitative easing (QE) later this year, more than $2 trillion was wiped off the value of global stock markets — and probably far more from the value of global bonds, which is harder to estimate.

On Wednesday Bernanke spent almost an hour answering press questions to try to clarify the Fed’s policy on interest rates and QE. The result was a further steep fall in equity and bond prices around the world. Does this mean that Bernanke did not really want to signal to, and pacify, financial markets and was trying, instead, to prepare investors for higher interest rates and tougher times ahead? Or is it possible that the market has simply misunderstood his comments, both at Wednesday’s press conference and in his statement on May 22?

I have argued repeatedly in this column for the last interpretation — that tapering would not begin before the end of this year and that financial markets have misinterpreted the Fed’s intentions, partly for reasons connected with the vested interests of analysts and traders, whose livelihoods depend on convincing the world that economic policy is highly volatile and uncertain. If monetary policy were predictable and stable, which is essentially what Bernanke has promised, then the status and salaries of Fed-watchers in Washington would be hard to justify and the profits of short-term macroeconomic speculators would disappear. But maybe this view was simply wrong.

When illogical policy seems to work

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 13, 2013 15:23 UTC

It’s cynical, manipulative and hypocritical – and it looks like it is going to work. How often do you hear a sentence like this, to describe a government initiative or economic policy?  Not often enough.

The media and a surprisingly high proportion of business leaders, financiers and economic analysts seem to believe that policies which are dishonest, intellectually inconsistent or obviously self-interested in their motivation are ipso facto doomed to fail or to damage the public interest. But this is manifestly untrue. The effectiveness of public policies and their ultimate desirability is in practice judged not by their motivations, but by their results.

Which brings me to the real subject of this column: the improving outlook for the world economy and why many economists and financiers cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it. Let me begin with a striking example anticipated in this column back in March: the boom in house prices and debt-financed consumption that the British government is pumping up in preparation for the general election in May 2015.

  •