The eurozone’s economy appears to have stalled. It was widely expected that growth would pick up to 1 per cent this year, but these estimates are now being toned down as the first two quarters of 2014 have been below expectations. The pattern shown in chart one (below) is, at best, one of stagnation. It is therefore agreed with near unanimity that the eurozone’s economy needs a boost.

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It is generally agreed that the stock market dislikes falling profits and rising interest rates and that the two in combination are particularly to be feared. History supports this. According to my rough calculations, the stock market has declined 29 per cent of the time since 1947, but 40 per cent when falling profits and rising interest rates have coincided. Fortunately for investors, such conditions are relatively rare, as 75 per cent of the time the impact of rising rates has been offset by higher profits.

In a recent blog I argued that the risk of a negative combination of interest rates and profits is unusually high. Profits tend to be boosted by falls in personal savings, which have now fallen to a low level and this support is now less likely. Since 1947 increases in interest rates have been accompanied by rising profits in 23 years; in all but six of these years personal savings have fallen. History, therefore, suggests that the decline in savings has been very important in reducing the risks of the damaging coincidence of rising rates and falling profits. Read more

In my previous post I showed why it seems likely that profits published by US companies are currently overstated by much more than they have been in the past. This does not necessarily mean that the degree of overvaluation of the stock market shown by cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratios is understated. The profits as published have been far more volatile than shown in the national accounts, and it is probable that published profits were heavily understated in 2008, as earnings per share in Q4 2008 were negative, while those shown in NIPA Table 1.14 remained strongly positive. Read more

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

  © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The profits published by US companies are defined in a very different way from those published in the National Accounts (NIPA Table 1.14) and in recent years they have increasingly diverged.

Those published by companies have become even less “honest” than they used to be. This is the result of the much greater incentives for management to alternately over- and understate the “true” profits, and the much greater ability to do so.

The massive rise in bonuses paid to managements, which depend on the data the companies publish, has encouraged companies to boost profits in the short-term as bonuses often depend on short-term changes in earnings per share or return on equity. Even when they are more directly related to changes in share prices, these often respond to similar changes in the published data. Parallel with this rise in incentives to misrepresent profits has been an increasing ability to do so, with the change from “marked to cost” to “marked to market” accounting.

The result might be compared to the increase in theft that we might expect if windows and safes had to be left open by law, and items stolen were declared to be the lawful property of the thieves. Read more

Asset prices fall if investors’ liquidity preference rises or if their liquidity falls (ie, if investors need the money or want to have more cash in their portfolios). Liquidity depends on central banks; they can create it or soak it up. The US Federal Reserve seems unlikely to reduce liquidity unless inflation picks up, but is likely to stop creating it in October. Therefore, one way in which asset prices will fall is a rise in inflation or pre-emptive action by the Fed to stop it.

When the Fed creates liquidity, it takes a larger rise in liquidity preference than before to hit asset prices. The Fed is thus in the process of increasing the market’s sensitivity to rises in liquidity preference and, as small changes are the normal response of investors to new information, the volatility of the market is therefore likely to rise. In the absence of increased interest rates, large changes in liquidity preference, however, are likely to depend on falling profits. Read more

After a period when consensus ruled, economists are as much at odds today as they were in the 1980s, and policies can alter sharply when those in charge change. Quantitative easing is today the main bone of contention among policy makers and economists.  Read more

According to an article in The Economist on August 2, “economists trying to explain the feeble pace of America’s recovery regularly blame deleveraging”. This raises two questions: can the US recovery sensibly be described as feeble and, if it can, is deleveraging to blame? Read more

In a comment on my recent blog regarding the equity risk premium, “Le gun” asked for a guide to making long-term investment decisions and I promised to try.

In 2009 TengTeng Xu and I addressed this issue in a paper called “Investment and Spending Strategies for Endowments”. We were specific because the need for income and the investor’s time horizon should both be taken into account when deciding on a sensible policy for individual investors. We considered the use of only three asset classes: equities, long-dated bonds and short-term deposits (cash). We did not include property because we were unable to find suitable long-term data and dismissed commodities, including gold, as combining poor returns with high volatility. With regard to the possible portfolios, we came to several conclusions which I will adapt here for all long-term investors, rather than just endowments. Read more

I assume and hope that Scotland will vote to maintain the union on September 18. I am, however, sceptical of the barrage of claims that Scotland will either be necessarily better or worse off if a majority vote “Yes”.

Countries have grown at hugely different rates in the past. Chart one (below) shows the relative growth rates in terms of gross domestic product per head of Ghana and South Korea. In 1950, when the data series starts, the standard of living of Ghanians was 30 per cent higher than those in South Korea, but the latter were ahead by 1965 and, by 2008, when the data series ends, had living standards twelve times higher.

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The gross domestic product data for the second quarter of 2014 showed that the US economy bounced back strongly, and with enough vim to justify the view that its first quarter weakness was largely due to bad weather.

However, the productivity figures provided another bad surprise. In the first quarter GDP per hour worked fell, and it would therefore have been reasonable to expect it to improve with the sharp recovery shown in the second quarter. In fact, there was another fall.

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Ed Balls, who has a high chance of being the UK’s next chancellor of the exchequer, has announced that the opposition Labour party is “examining the case for introducing an allowance for corporate equity, to redress the systemic bias in favour of debt finance”. This would be very sensible, but it needs to be done sensibly.

Allowing interest as a deduction before calculating the profit on which corporation tax should be paid encourages excessive debt, buybacks of equity in preference to long-term investment and debt-financed takeovers. The views of economists on its undesirability are one of the few instances on which they are almost all agreed. It is one of the rare exceptions to the old rule that “n economists = n+1 opinions”. Read more

The UK has a seriously unbalanced economy, with little spare capacity and a slow trend rate of growth. To correct its imbalances, the current account deficit and the cash flow surpluses of the corporate sector need to fall. This would permit a fall in the fiscal deficit, but requires a fall in the real exchange rate and in the share of consumption in gross domestic product.

The fall in the trend rate of economic growth comes from a combination of a slower growth in the population of working age and a drop in productivityRead more

In some of my more gamesome moments I have challenged my students to produce an article about the equity risk premium, which made a useful contribution to our understanding of the way financial markets work. So far the challenge has not been met. This may reflect the modesty and good manners of those I teach but also, I hope and believe, the fact they are too sensible to wish to defend the way this often ill-defined and generally useless concept has been habitually discussed. In practice, comments on the ERP seem to me to have been a source of confusion and error rather than illumination.

The ERP can be defined in at least two ways. One is the historic difference between the returns on bonds and equities and another is the expected difference in these returns. Alternatively, the “risk-free rate” can be used in place of bonds. Read more

A few weeks ago, I promised to write about claims that the stock market could be valued by comparing earnings yields to bond yields. This approach is sometimes called the “Fed model”. This was fashionable in the 1990s and seems to have some followers even today. It is not only nonsense but is the most egregious piece of “data mining” that I have encountered in the 60-plus years I have been studying financial marketsRead more

Competition is essential if capitalism is to work well for the benefit of the consumers and the economy in general. It is, however, much disliked, notably by businessmen and trade unionists. The present system of management remuneration has very similar impacts on the economy as a decline in competition. Companies have a great deal of short-term monopoly power and chief executives are encouraged by their pay packages to exploit this more aggressively than they used to do. The result is a rise in profit margins, a fall in investment and productivity and a structural savings’ surplus in the business sector, which is the corollary of the structural fiscal deficits of the UK and the US.

I would like to see the damage done to our economies by these perverse incentives understood and the system changed. I was therefore pleased to contribute to a booklet published by the Trades Union Congress on the need for reform (though I pleaded in vain for its title, “Beyond Shareholder Value”, to be changed). As the author of one of the chapters I was asked to participate in a discussion organised for its launch. Read more

In the past governments have funded their deficits – for example, they have borrowed in the bond market rather than through treasury bills. This is despite the fact that, for the past 80 years, the rate of interest on bonds has been greater than that on Treasury bills; that is, we have had an upward sloping yield curve.

I suggested in a recent blog that this was because governments correctly perceived that there were considerable economic risks in not funding, and that it was worth paying the additional cost to avoid these risks. Quantitative easing, which is a form of underfunding, must therefore have increased these risks. Defenders of QE need either to argue that these risks have not risen or that the benefits we have received from QE outweigh the rise in risks. To be consistent, those who hold that no additional risks have been incurred must now hold that governments should not have funded in the past and must now stop. But their silence is deafening, and such views are implausible, being held, I think, in the hope of dissuading discussion rather than from any conviction that they would survive much debate. Read more

While it is sometimes useful to make a distinction between treasuries and central banks, they are fundamentally both part of government. When central banks buy bonds as part of quantitative easing, governments are in practice ceasing to fund, ie, they are issuing short-term rather than long-term debt. If this is potentially harmful, we need to worry; if not, we need to ask why have governments funded in the past? Read more

US gross domestic product was increased last year by much more than the growth of the economy. This sleight of hand was achieved by changing the way GDP is measured. The UK is due for a similar make-over this year. Reality won’t change and we need to be alert to the comments of those who will think it has.

“Nearly all scientists believe that there is a clear-cut distinction between fact and theory…William Whewell (1794-1866) denied that any such sharp distinction existed.” Peter Medawar, the Nobel laureate, whom I am quoting, agreed with the denial; and, as GDP data are generally considered to be facts, the revisions show that Whewell was spot on. The calculation of GDP depends on the theoretical model on which it is based. The change in GDP involves a change in the model being used and, in my view, the new model is worse than the old one. Read more

The US seems expensive relative to other major stock markets. As it is probable that cheaper markets will give better returns, this implies that investors should underweight US equities. This conclusion applies, however, only over the longer term. Timing matters and this involves other considerations.

Chart one illustrates that G5 stock markets are strongly correlated with the US and so, to a large extent, markets go up and down together. The chart also shows that this tendency has been strengthening over time. Read more

Abenomics, the term given to the reform package Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe launched to revive the country’s economy, is based on two myths. One is that the economy has performed badly and the second is that this non-existent failure has been due to deflation. Despite its lack of intellectual justification, the attempt to stop deflation has been a success as the accompanying rhetoric and monetary policy have produced yen weakness. This was an essential step towards solving Japan’s fiscal problem and, as the rhetoric has been about deflation rather than devaluation, the dramatic weakness of the currency has been achieved without international opprobrium.

Over time the devaluation should result in an improved current account. This will allow the fiscal deficit to fall while the economy moves ahead, but it is not enough on its own. The other essential is to reduce the cash flow surplus of the business sector. Having achieved success in step one, largely by accident, there is a chance that Abenomics will succeed in step two. If it does, it is again likely to be an accident. Read more