Is a bubble burbling in financial markets?

November 4, 2009

JaneFoley.JPG-Jane Foley is research director at The opinions expressed are her own.-

The discrediting of the efficient markets theory in the aftermath of the financial crisis appears to have been accompanied with growing support for the view that rather than efficient in nature, financial markets are predisposed towards the formation of bubbles.

A bubble can simply be defined as an occurrence that begins when the price of an asset has been driven significantly above it “fair” value. According to the efficient markets theory this would not happen.

If bubbles are a natural outcome of financial market activity it is relevant to ask whether the very loose fiscal and monetary policies of many central banks and governments are presently sowing the seeds of the next bubble.

Even though the real economies of the U.S., UK, Eurozone and Japan continue to be defined by expectations of rising unemployment and falling real wages, access to cheap money has already helped restore the profitability of many investment banks.

In turn, this has fed risk appetite which is evident in the rally in stocks since the spring, increased demand for “risky” currencies and a recovery in commodities prices. Brent oil has rallied by 128 percent from its 2009 low. The ability of oil to rally despite the existence of oil supplies well above the seasonal average suggests there is already speculative element in this market which could be in danger of driving prices above their fair value.

This week’s meetings of the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank have focussed attention not so much on rates, but on the extraordinary policy decisions taken by these central banks in the wake of the financial crisis and whether conditions are ripening in favour of a gradual withdrawal of some of these policies.

The Fed last week ended its $300 billion treasury bond purchasing plan, though it will carry on buying mortgage backed securities. The Bank of Japan last week announced that it will stop buying corporate bonds at year end. The Reserve Bank of India also removed emergency support measures last week.

This week there is speculation that the ECB could announce that it will hold no more 12-month cash tenders next year. By contrast the Bank of England is expected to increase quantitative easing at the November 5, Monetary Policy Committee meeting. Supporters of quantitative easing continue to stress that the lack of clear inflation pressures suggests there is room for these plans to be extended.

However, the lack of response in either money supply or inflation indices could equally be illustrating that these plans are not having a significant impact on the real economy and are therefore no longer appropriate. The paring back of these plans are likely to have an impact on the ability of some banks to turn an easy profit and thus should rein in risk appetite and limit speculative and “bubble” forming activity.

Unfortunately, a bubble can only be truly confirmed after it has burst; a characteristic with clear destabilising consequences. If bubbles are natural phenomena within financial markets, the need for tighter regulation and ongoing reviews of processes that oversee the financial system are absolutely necessary.

This conclusion, while in complete contrast to the implications of the efficient markets theory, ties in very well with the political desire to reform the banking regulatory framework in order to protect the tax payer from future hefty bank bail-out costs. The banking landscape, while already vastly different from just two years ago could continue its transformation for years.


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