A rally that is both rational and crazy
Stocks and other risky assets are rallying around the world this week because the Group of 20 nations said on the weekend they would keep the economic stimulus flowing, a state of events which illustrates where we are and what a very strange place it is.
The G20, the only group of big hitters that matters because it is the only group which includes the Chinese, met in Scotland over the weekend and, as is the way of these things, did very little with immediate consequences for anybody.
In the communique they issued, the Group of 20 finance ministers, after congratulating themselves on the recovery, more or less admitted that the measures we once thought of as heroic are in the process of becoming commonplace.
“However, the recovery is uneven and remains dependent on policy support, and high unemployment is a major concern,” the statement said. “To restore the global economy and financial system to health, we agreed to maintain support for the recovery until it is assured.”
Let me put that in human terms for you:
“We’ve spent untold trillions saving the economy, but, er, we’ve really only saved the financial system and that only to the extent that we keep on saving it. Jobs, well, not so much. We therefore pledge to continue doing this thing that may or may not be working until we are sure that it is.”
Global stock markets then went off on a stonking rally on Monday, which major media attributed to the pledge of continued stimulus. I suppose we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the financial media was, as we often do, mistaking coincidence for causation, but professionals were citing it too.
So, what are they promising to do? Will they be able to do it? And why do the risk markets like it so much?
There are at least two aspects to the stimulus – continued easy money from central banks and actual government spending.
The easy money part – low interest rates and unconventional measures – clearly will continue. It will be politically very difficult to raise interest rates while unemployment is still so high, and given the wan nature of the recovery, unemployment will take a long time to fall.
The actual government spending part is a lot harder to bank on, as it were. One reading of the Japanese experience in the 1990s is that their stimulative measures worked but they lost heart and withdrew them for mostly political reasons, thereby bringing on a relapse from which they never really properly recovered.
The politics of another stimulative spending binge will not be easy, especially in the U.S. and especially given populist backlash. That’s not to say more stimulus won’t be needed, it very likely will, but you can’t count on it arriving. Deleveraging takes a long time and we very likely would have been better off just writing the debt down in the first place.
MARKETS LOVE CERTAINTY
Investors have decided, and I think they are probably right, that so long as the authorities are hell bent on reflation it is foolish to get in the way.
As analyst David Merkel has pointed out, the statement of the Federal Reserve meeting, released last week, characterized financial markets as “roughly unchanged” since they last met in September, revealing that they pay far more attention to equity markets than debt markets.
Because of course equity markets were going more or less sideways in October but many of the riskier parts of the debt markets were rallying strongly. Wasn’t this whole crisis, and its expensive fix, supposed to be about “unfreezing credit markets”? Not anymore, apparently.
That is because the Fed realize that they have got to keep equity markets up, indeed have got to force them to rise. It is the only way to float the equity above the debt, make the banks and the holders of debt whole, and allow the financial system to weather the crisis.
There were other options – default, temporary nationalization – but that is not the route we went down. So, within this context the rally makes great sense.
Notice how equity markets have been on a huge tear since last week, going up on news that implied that the Fed would remain on hold for a long time, going up on unemployment rising through 10 percent in the U.S. and, funnily enough, going up on faith that the G20 would stick with stimulus measures.
This brings us to the crazy part. While it may be individually rational for everyone to hitch a ride on the policy train and follow asset prices higher, I would argue that the project is collective folly.
The risks are inflation and a rapidly falling U.S. dollar which leave banks and debtors solvent in nominal terms but not better off. Those risks are best observed now through the dollar, which is falling, and gold, which is at record highs.
(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)