By worshipping markets, we’ve crippled them: James Saft

October 3, 2013

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

By James Saft

(Reuters) – The interaction of financial markets and debt standoff shows how by worshipping markets, we’ve crippled them.

Stan Collender, who knows Washington politics, sees a 25 percent chance the debt ceiling is not raised in time which implies a slightly lower chance of default or partial default. (here)

This is not mild stuff: a U.S. sovereign default is the market equivalent of frogs raining out of the sky and zombies cruising the malls.

“In the event that a debt limit impasse were to lead to a default, it could have a catastrophic effect on not just financial markets but also on job creation, consumer spending and economic growth,” the U.S. Treasury said in a report.

“Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.”

Now, that analysis is obviously part of a political negotiation, but it’s also not far off the mark.

And yet, look at markets: Stocks are off mildly, with the S&P 500 only about 2 percent off its recent highs. The Vix, the so-called fear index, has risen sharply in the past week, but is at levels which if viewed historically don’t indicate anything approaching panic. Treasuries too have been calm, with some indications that investors are positioning themselves for the possibility of a near miss, but nothing extreme.

Why?

Well it might be because we cynically think the two sides will reach a deal before the zero hour, but I doubt it. While equities are showing sensitivity to debt negotiation news, they simply aren’t that galvanized by it.

Markets aren’t reacting to the story because markets just don’t work any more. We have become so obsessed with inflating false wealth through markets that they no longer function properly and can no longer send us meaningful signals.

Throughout the crisis and its aftermath all manner of policies have been justified or put in place in order to stop markets from falling, or to eke out some economic activity from the wealth effect, the portion of paper gains which finds itself recirculating through the economy. Anything to keep the market happy and buoyant. Unfortunately, while those policies work on markets they’ve not worked so well on the underlying economy.

BERNANKE PUT VS WASHINGTON DEFAULT SHUFFLE

Exhibit A in this phenomenon, and how it is working right now, is the Federal Reserve’s decision to delay (or abandon) the taper in September. That was taken in part because the U.S. central bank feared the economic impact of the budget impasse. And while they were correct to do so, repeated attempts to cushion markets from negative economic news has conditioned investors to believe in a “heads I win, tails the Fed eases” world.

The market believes in the Bernanke put more than the Washington default shuffle.

There are two main implications which flow from this analysis.

First, it is not wise to believe in prices, which give a washed-out reading of the risks involved. That in part may explain the huge gap between high equity prices and low corporate investment. Usually you would expect high investment during times of rising and high equity prices. Executives themselves aren’t taking the normal signal from public markets.

Second, there is more of a chance of a default because the public markets provide less accurate feedback to lawmakers and voters about the nature of the risks they face. We also won’t see the kind of early warning signs of trouble that often bubble up through financial markets. They simply won’t be there.

A default, if it comes or if it comes to be anticipated, will be good for longer-term Treasuries and bad for virtually everything else. As a default is about gridlock rather than ability to pay, and as Treasuries get riskier but will remain the safest investment on the planet (scary thought), large investors will rebalance away from other assets to maintain their overall risk profiles.

If we do get a default, all the volatility which has been suppressed, all of the price action which has been dampened, will come out in one great bang.

If not, it will be saved up for another event.

(At the time of publication, Reuters columnist 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. For previous columns by James Saft, click on)

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