Government-fueled bull run leaves markets vulnerable
By Agnes T. Crane
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
The run-up in global stocks is two years old. The MSCI global index is up 94 percent from March 9, 2009, the post-financial crisis low point. Credit markets, ground zero for the crisis, are thriving, and economic activity is back on its feet. Yet the government actors behind the rebound, notably in Washington, look spent. Financial markets are out on their own for future shocks.
A call to arms from the world’s governments pulled the financial system back from the brink two years ago. Guaranteeing bank debt, slashing interest rates, buying more than $1 trillion of assets and stress testing large U.S. financial institutions were among the myriad moves that restored a measure of stability and brought markets back to life. President Barack Obama may have seen all the activity coming: he called stocks “a potentially good deal” on March 3, 2009.
Even the derivative index used to hedge subprime mortgage loans is up 25 percent, according to Barclays Capital. With oil up more than 120 percent in two years and gold 55 percent higher, commodity prices look frothy. And the International Monetary Fund on March 7 noted what it called “overheating” in emerging markets.
Meanwhile, there remain plenty of potential flashpoints. Turmoil in the Middle East, which has pushed the price of oil well above $100, is the most immediate. Sovereign debt stresses in Europe remain worrying. And rising inflation combined with a ramp-up in U.S. interest rates is another scenario that could torpedo market sentiment.
For investors from banks to hedge funds, however, the safe options that might protect them against these risks just don’t make enough money. Short-term interest rates, for instance, are mostly still very low, especially the Federal Reserve’s zero to 0.25 percent. They prefer, as before the crisis, to shoulder risk in return for more yield.
But this time there’s no real government safety net. Huge budget deficits in the developed world leave little ammunition for governments. And especially in the United States, politics won’t allow further large-scale intervention. True, central banks like the Fed have shown themselves prepared to print money. But even doing more of that would run the risk of further undermining confidence.
The government-fueled bull run is fresh in investors’ minds. But they might do well not to forget the dark days two years ago.