Opinion

The Great Debate

Economy volatility a hurdle for stocks

Rather than inflation, it may turn out that economic volatility is the true test facing equities in the years to come.

Coming in the wake of an almost unprecedented set of circumstances and policies, the outlook for growth and inflation is extremely murky. For equity investors that means there is far less certainty over both the outlook for profits and how to value them than they had grown used to in the 25 years to the onset of the current crisis.

It is not simply that very low interest rates and bloated central bank balance sheets may cause inflation. That is true, but it is also possible that Japanese-style deflation takes hold. There is a higher chance now of wild swings in inflation, growth and monetary policy than any time in the post-World-War-Two period.

This again is about the death of the so-called Great Moderation, a construct that held that economic growth and inflation had somehow become more biddable. That was largely an illusion, but as long as it lasted investors became more willing to pay more for company profits.

The steadier economic growth is, the more predictable corporate profits become. Steady inflation too is a huge boon to investors; it allows for easier discounting of future cashflows and also leads to fewer gut-wrenching mistakes by policy-makers. It is, after all, a lot easier to travel 60 miles on hour on a straight, level road than on one with sharp curves, steep climbs and sudden downhill legs.

Tightening underway, Fed a passenger

A tightening in financial conditions is under way but its principal architect won’t be the Federal Reserve.

Far from it, the Fed will be pinned down by powerful disinflationary, perhaps even deflationary, forces, making it very unlikely to be willing to raise interest rates any time soon.

Instead the tightening is coming from Asia, where China is fighting a local battle against rampant lending, and from investors all over the world, as one by one they realize that lending to governments isn’t always so risk-free.

Fed audit push gives impetus to gold rally

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Auditing the Federal Reserve may or may not be a good idea, but one thing seems pretty sure: just discussing it seriously will tend to drive the price of gold higher.

The U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee last week voted to approve an amendment that would bring about an audit of the Fed, its monetary policy and lending programs, since when gold has gone its merry way higher, hitting an all-time high of $1,174 per ounce on Monday.

The amendment, a provision to a broader financial services reform bill that is still under consideration, was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Ron Paul, author of the book “End the Fed,” and the man least likely to be found chairing a panel at Jackson Hole or Davos.

Look out for emerging markets inflation

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Emerging markets could be the first to suffer destabilizing inflation, courtesy of a strong economic rebound, a weak dollar and extremely loose monetary policy in the developed world.

Inflation, in faster growing emerging markets, was not high on the list of worries even months ago, but the speed and strength of the rebound and red-hot asset markets in some places show that it may be a rising threat.

“The surprise could be that inflation in emerging markets really takes off,” Amer Bisat of hedge fund Traxis Partners said on Tuesday at a Euromoney foreign exchange conference in New York.

The death of the “punchbowl” metaphor

jamessaft1.jpg (James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Don’t expect the year-long rally in risky assets to be undermined any time soon by the Federal Reserve becoming concerned about inflation.

The old metaphor — that the Fed’s job is to take away the punchbowl just when the party starts getting good — just doesn’t apply in the current circumstances. That’s not to say inflation isn’t a threat in the medium term — it is virtually a promise.

But punchbowl thinking dates from a time when firstly the Fed was presumed to have a degree of control over events we now know is not true and secondly to an era when asset prices were the caboose rather than the engine of the economic train.

from Rolfe Winkler:

The inflationary threat to stocks

Would inflation be good for stocks?

With the monetary and fiscal spigots open wide, some investors say equities are a good place to be. But David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital has warned that inflation could compress price-to-earnings multiples. A look back to history suggests his fears are warranted.

(Click chart to enlarge in new window)

p-e-and-cpi-chart

The Federal Reserve has lowered rates to virtually zero and expanded its balance sheet significantly, stuffing banks with excess reserves that are available to lend. If the market picks up, banks will find themselves surrounded by creditworthy borrowers again and excess reserves could quickly flow into the real economy, increasing inflation.

In the meantime, many analysts argue that the government is likely to keep printing money to finance runaway fiscal deficits and large unfunded obligations for Medicare and Social Security, increasing inflation.

from Commentaries:

Who’s afraid of deflation?

christopher_swann1.jpgFor most policymakers, deflation is the stuff of nightmares -- scarier even than bank failures and stock market collapses. As the economy stumbled, deflation became Lords Voldemort and Sauron rolled into one.

In recent months, however, this economic supervillain seems to have lost its power to intimidate.

With growth reviving, many economists now believe that deflation is highly unlikely to materialize.

Beware reflation

jeffrubin– Jeff Rubin is Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets. The views expressed are his own. –

Fighting the recession will not be without its costs.

Washington has already racked up nearly a $2 trillion deficit to ensure that America’s credit crisis does not lead to a replay of Japan’s lost decade of economic growth. But it’s not the specter of Japanese deflation we should fear. Far from it. History shows unequivocally that it is reflation, not deflation, that is the dancing partner to these size public deficits.

Saddled with a deficit that will mortgage the future of a generation of taxpayers, Washington will turn to what it has always done to alleviate such fiscal burdens. It will monetize the deficit, using the subsequent burst of inflation to rob bondholders of their real return. While the bonds will mature at par, what that buys may be a whole lot less than what the bondholder expected, thanks to the inflation trail that always follows in the wake of financing such mega-deficits.

China risks overcooking the economy

Wei Gu– Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

While China has been outspoken in expressing concern about the United States printing too much money, those worries might be better focused at home. No country beats China when it comes to effective monetary easing.

Beijing has scrapped lending quotas, adopted a loose monetary policy and kept interest rates at a four-year low to boost liquidity and promote growth. The policy has worked. China has lent out more money in the first four months of this year than the whole of 2008. Money growth in China is up more than 25 percent this year, versus about 10 percent in the United States.  Click here for a related graph.

Europe frets over crisis exit strategy

Paul Taylor
– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Higher taxes? Lower public spending? Devaluation? Inflation? Investment in green growth?

European governments are pointing in very different directions as they debate an exit strategy from the global financial crisis. Despite European Union efforts to coordinate economic policy, there are clear signs that the main European economies will charge off in disarray towards separate exits.

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