Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

What’s behind the spooked stock market?

Anatole Kaletsky
May 30, 2013 16:14 UTC

Strange things have been happening in the world economy and financial markets this week. While that sentence could be written almost any time in the past five years, since the outbreak of the global financial crisis, the strangeness this week has taken a particular form that reveals more than it confuses.

Almost all the economic news recently has been favorable, or at least better than expected. U.S. home values have risen more than at any time since 2006, job losses are down and consumer confidence has been restored to pre-crisis levels. Japan has enjoyed its fastest growth in years, with evidence mounting of stronger consumption and rising wages. Even in Europe, the outlook appears to be improving as policy shifts away from austerity and toward growth, with the European Commission no longer pressing governments to hit their deficit targets. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank hints at the possibility of negative interest rates and other extraordinary stimulus measures. But financial markets have reacted to all this good news by becoming more volatile – panicky, even – than at any time this year.

Although the U.S. stock market briefly hit a record high on Tuesday, prices quickly slumped. Meanwhile, Japanese shares have suffered their steepest fall since the 2011 tsunami. Most importantly, bond markets have collapsed the world over, pushing long-term interest rates in the United States, Japan and much of Europe to their highest levels in more than a year.

What is going on? The clues are provided by the last market upheaval, the one in interest rates and bonds. Plunging bond markets have spooked equity investors because share prices are related in one way or another to the yields on U.S., Japanese and European bonds. And fears about volatile interest rates and wild stock market gyrations could soon infect consumers and business decision-makers in the non-financial world.

These fears raise three questions. What is causing the sudden financial anxiety? Are these worries justified? And should policymakers do anything to calm the markets, or alternatively to break the link between gyrating financial markets and the non-financial economy of consumption, business investment and jobs?

The many interpretations of Ben Bernanke

Anatole Kaletsky
May 23, 2013 16:05 UTC

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before Congress in Washington, May 22, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Camero

On Wednesday in Washington, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke presented congressional testimony that repeated, virtually word for word, statements about U.S. monetary policy he has been making since last September.

The Federal Reserve, Bernanke said, would continue buying $85 billion of bonds monthly until it was confident of reducing unemployment to 6.5 percent. The scale of these purchases might be increased or diminished – but only if and when such shifts were warranted by economic statistics. Now, he said, there is no case for a change in either direction.

The radical force of ‘Abenomics’

Anatole Kaletsky
May 17, 2013 04:35 UTC

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the cockpit of T-4 training jet at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force base in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi prefecture, May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo

‘The 3.5 percent gross domestic product growth announced by Tokyo Wednesday suggests that Japan may be the fastest-growing economy in the G7. Since the Tokyo stock market hit bottom exactly six months ago, the Nikkei share index has soared almost 80 percent. Meanwhile, the yen has experienced its biggest six-month move against the dollar. All these events appear linked to the election of Shinzo Abe and the regime he has installed at the Bank of Japan.

Even after 20 years of stagnation, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy, with a 2012 GDP of $6 trillion, equal to France, Italy and Spain combined. Financiers, business leaders and economists everywhere are starting to ask the obvious question: Is Japan finally taking the truly radical action required to fix its economy and end its “lost decades”?

Has a new long-term bull market begun?

Anatole Kaletsky
May 9, 2013 16:06 UTC

Two months ago, when Wall Street first approached a record high, I warned about the dangers of “stock market vertigo” – a condition that combines the fear of buying shares at unsustainably high prices with the equal dread of not buying shares at prices that will never again be on offer if the market soars to permanently higher levels.

At that time the world’s most closely followed index, the Standard and Poor’s 500, was still bouncing along the top of a trading range that had held since the bursting of the Internet bubble in March 2000. There was no way to know whether the market’s next big move would be a plunge back toward the middle of this 13-year range or a rise to new and significantly higher records. On one hand, improvements in the U.S. economic outlook and political situation at the end of last year suggested that a breakout was more likely than the last time the index came close to its 2000 peak ‑ in late 2007, when the subprime mortgage crisis was just starting and George W. Bush was still president. On the other hand, the European crisis looked as bad as ever, China seemed to be slowing, corporate profits were stalling and investors were well aware of the huge losses suffered by people who got sucked into the market when it hit similar levels in 2000 and 2007. There was no sure way to resolve this dilemma two months ago, and there still isn’t, since prices in financial markets are always balanced, by definition, between bullish and bearish expectations that are roughly equal in plausibility.

But the market’s behavior sometimes suggests an answer – and this week appears to present such a case. In the week since last Friday, when the United States reported much stronger than expected employment growth, the S&P 500 has moved more than 4 percent above the 13-year trading range defined by the 2000 and 2007 highs. This breakout has been confirmed by the Dow Jones industrial average and by broader Wall Street indexes, such as the Wilshire 5000 and the S&P equal-weighted index. And while share prices in most other countries are still far below their 2000 and 2007 levels, the Tokyo stock market has taken off like a rocket and Germany’s DAX has matched Wall Street’s ascent.

Renewed optimism can be a double-edged sword

Anatole Kaletsky
May 2, 2013 15:22 UTC

This is a critical week for the world economy and financial markets, especially in the United States. Friday’s U.S. employment report will signal either a renewal of the economic recovery or, much more likely, will confirm that the economy is sinking into another seasonal “soft patch” for the fourth time in four years. Despite this risk, stock prices on Wall Street are at record highs, suggesting that equity investors see this slowdown as nothing more than a temporary obstruction on the way to a sustained recovery, just as in the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012. So should we prepare for more anxiety about a double-dip recession, or can we feel confident that this summer will be followed by an autumn of strong recovery, as in the past four years?

I had an excellent vantage point this week from which to assess this question: the global conference of the Milken Institute in California, which brings together 1,000 business executives, politicians and financiers in a U.S. equivalent of the Davos economic forum, transplanted to the warmer and even plusher surroundings of Beverly Hills. Clearly, there was anxiety about the flagging recovery and the self-inflected damage caused by January’s payroll tax hike and the unplanned cuts to public spending caused by the sequestration process. But there was also a palpable resurgence of optimism about America’s long term prospects: the opportunities created by 3 billion new global consumers; the U.S. track record of innovation and enterprise; the magnetism of U.S. universities for global talent; the promise of energy independence; the transformational opportunities from “big data” and robotics; the prospect of liberalized immigration policies; and, encompassing many of these issues, a sense that the hyperpartisan warfare in Washington over healthcare, taxes and public spending had reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides, it seems, might be ready for a ceasefire, if not yet a lasting peace.

A surprising highlight of the conference was an amiable hour-long discussion between two of the most partisan antagonists in Washington’s political dramas ‑ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the ultra-conservative leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This ended with both politicians agreeing that there might be scope for a deal on the U.S. budget and thanking the Milken Institute for bringing them to California so they could talk to each other constructively in a way that simply isn’t possible in Washington. Similar sentiments came from leaders of both parties, ranging from Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker’s appreciation that “President Obama has put himself to the right of the House Republicans on entitlement reform” to Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, saying that “so many people have become intolerant of hyperpartisanship – this is an even bigger issue for voters now than unemployment.”

Market euphoria misreads the signals from Brussels and Rome

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 25, 2013 15:31 UTC

Financial markets, which balance judgments from some of the world’s most highly paid and best-informed analysts, are often uncannily right in anticipating unpredictable events, ranging from economic booms and busts to elections and terrorist attacks. But markets can sometimes can be spectacularly wrong, especially when it comes to politics. A classic case was the slump on Wall Street after last November’s election in the United States. This week’s market action in Europe may offer an even clearer example of market confusion about two fascinating but Byzantine political entities – the Italian government and the European Central Bank.

European stock markets have rebounded strongly this week in the face of deteriorating economic and financial fundamentals from across Europe on the basis of two political events: the reluctant agreement by Italy’s 87-yearold president. Giorgio Napolitano, to serve another seven-year term because nobody else could be found to do the job; and hints from ECB council members that they might vote to cut interest rates from 0.75 percent to 0.5 percent next Thursday.

Neither of these events remotely justified investors’ euphoria. The ECB case is straightforward. First, the ECB may well disappoint next week, since several influential decision makers oppose a rate cut. Second, even if the ECB does act, a quarter-point cut will do nothing for growth. Third and most importantly, such a tiny rate cut, if it happens, will simply underline the ECB’s refusal to follow the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England and the Swiss National Bank in expanding the money supply or taking other “unconventional” measures that could potentially have a much greater financial impact than any marginal fiddling with interest rates. So much, then, for the silly idea in Europe that “bad news is good news” because economic weakness will force the ECB to cut rates.

If Europe wants Thatcherism, it must abandon austerity

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 11, 2013 16:43 UTC

Among all the obituaries and encomiums about Margaret Thatcher, very few have drawn the lesson from her legacy that is most relevant for the world today. Lady Thatcher is remembered as the quintessential conviction politician. But judged by her actions rather than her rhetoric, she was actually much more compromising and pragmatic than the politicians who now dominate Europe. And it was Thatcher’s tactical flexibility, as much as her deep convictions, that accounted for her successes in the economic field.

Governments in Europe and Britain today are obsessed with hitting preordained and unconditional targets: Inflation must be kept below 2 percent; deficits must be reduced to 3 percent of gross domestic product; government debt must be set on a declining path; banks must be recapitalized to arbitrary ratios laid down by some committee in Basel. In sacrificing their citizens’ well-being and their own political careers to these numerical totems, modern leaders often claim inspiration from Thatcher. And when voters turn against them, Europe’s leaders keep repeating Thatcher’s most famous slogans, “There is no alternative” and “No U-turn”.  But are these the right lessons to draw from Thatcher’s political life? A closer look at her economic achievements suggests otherwise.

In the 20 years she spent in parliament before becoming prime minister, Thatcher first saw Harold Wilson’s Labour government wrecked by currency crises and trade union militancy; then Ted Heath ousted by a miners’ strike; and finally James Callaghan humiliated by the 1976 sterling crisis and driven out of office by the wave of public-sector strikes that came to be called the “winter of discontent.” After these searing experiences, her immediate priority on becoming prime minister was to turn British monetary management and labor relations upside down. Yet her actions were much more cautious and pragmatic than her rhetoric.

Trying to fix broken economics

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 4, 2013 15:01 UTC

Here is a list of economic questions that have something in common. In a recession, should governments reduce budget deficits or increase them? Do 0 percent interest rates stimulate economic recovery or suppress it? Should welfare benefits be maintained or cut in response to high unemployment? Should depositors in failed banks be protected or suffer big losses? Does income inequality damage or encourage economic growth? Will market forces create environmental disasters or avert them? Is government support necessary for technological progress or stifling to innovation?

What these important questions have in common is that professional economists can’t answer them. To be more precise, economists can offer plenty of answers about government deficits, printing money, inequality, environmental issues and so on, but none of these answers is authoritative enough any longer to persuade other economists, and never the world at large.

Take two examples. On whether government borrowing aggravates recessions or promotes recoveries, the world’s most eminent economists fall into one of two violently conflicting schools. The world’s most important central banks, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, hold diametrically opposing views about the effects of quantitative easing. If economics were a genuinely scientific discipline, such disputes over fundamental issues would have been settled decades ago. They are equivalent to astronomers still arguing about whether the sun revolves around the earth or earth around the sun.

Will Putin attempt a last-minute Cyprus rescue?

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 25, 2013 01:59 UTC

Vladimir Putin could restore Russia’s great power status and maybe go down in history as the country’s most visionary leader since Peter the Great. He could win respect from Beijing and Washington for averting a second global financial crisis and he could prove that Russia understands market economics better than the EU. His miraculous opportunity to do all this started with the Mafia-style “offer you can’t refuse”  presented by the EU to Cyprus on Sunday. It will end on Tuesday morning, if Cyprus banks then re-open under the conditions imposed by the European Troika, as currently planned.

One of the mysteries of the Cyprus crisis has been the lack of response from Russia, despite the obvious strategic opportunities, not just to protect its offshore deposits, but also to exploit the island’s strategic location and its military and energy potential. A possible explanation is that Europe’s indecision also paralyzed Russia -  until last night.

As long as Europe’s policy on Cyprus kept shifting, it was impossible for Russia to intervene, since any help it offered could be rejected or outbid by the EU. As a chess player, Putin probably understood that his best strategy was to wait for Cyprus to get weaker and more desperate, while the EU, and especially Germany, became more impatient and obstinate. The moment to make his move would be when Europe presented an ultimatum too painful or humiliating for Cyprus to accept. That moment arrived last night.

Even Britain has now abandoned austerity

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 21, 2013 16:09 UTC

The Age of Austerity is over. This is not a prediction, but a simple statement of fact. No serious policymaker anywhere in the world is trying to reduce deficits or debt any longer, and all major central banks are happy to finance more government borrowing with printed money. After Japan’s election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the undeclared budgetary ceasefire in Washington that followed President Obama’s victory last year, there were just two significant hold-outs against this trend: Britain and the euro-zone. Now, the fiscal “Austerians” and “sado-monetarists” in both these economies have surrendered, albeit for very different reasons.

Much attention has been focused this week on the chaos in Cyprus. Coming after the Italian election and subsequent easing of Italy’s fiscal conditions, the overriding necessity to keep Cyprus within the euro — and its military bases and gas supplies outside Russian control — will almost surely mean another retreat by Germany and the European Central Bank from their excessive austerity demands. But an even more remarkable shift has occurred in Britain. The Cameron government, which embraced fiscal austerity as its main raison d’etre, was suddenly converted to the joys of debt and borrowing in this week’s budget.

Of course, the rhetoric of British Chancellor George Osborne’s budget speech gave no hint of his Damascene conversion. On the contrary, it ridiculed “people who seem to think that the way to borrow less is to borrow more.” But Osborne’s trademark sneers could not disguise the meaning of the policies and numbers he presented.

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