Financial crises commonly arise when there is too much debt and asset prices fall from excessive levels. Examples are to be found in 1929 in the US, 1999 in Japan and 2008 worldwide. Hyman Minsky, in his famous book Stabilising the Unstable Economy, set out the three stages in the pattern of borrowing that involve increasing risk. It starts with borrowers expecting to be able both to pay the interest and to repay the principal from the cash they expect their investment to generate. In the next stage their hopes are limited to paying the interest and refinancing the principal when the repayment falls due. In the final stage not even the interest is expected to be covered and the expected profit derives solely from the hope of being able to sell the debt financed asset at a profit. When continually rising asset prices cease to be an article of faith, the house of cards collapses.

There is then a rush to sell assets which sets off a recession, as borrowers seek to repay their debts. Companies which wish to reduce their borrowing don’t just avoid new borrowing — they seek to repay their existing debt. To do this they need to generate cash. This means spending less than they earn, and their intentions to invest then fall short of their intentions to save. The attempt to improve private sector balance sheets can therefore be described as a balance sheet recession, whose severity can be moderated as fiscal deficits cause the balance sheet of the public sector to weaken, offsetting the negative impact that comes from the strengthening of private sector balance sheets. Read more

The UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility (“OBR”) is a very professional organisation; far more so, for example, than the US Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”). The greater professionalism of the OBR is apparent in the way in which it does not just forecast future fiscal deficits, but also shows the shifts it expects in the net lending of other sectors. These must, as a matter of identity, exactly match changes in the public sector’s borrowing.

The admirable determination of the OBR, in its December report, to support its forecasts by serious economic analysis has, on this occasion, had the bizarre and presumably inadvertent result of showing that a significant reduction in the fiscal deficit is extremely unlikely unless it is accompanied by a large decline in the value of sterling. Read more

Since the financial crisis, growth has slowed in the developed world. It is often assumed that this is an example of cause and effect. I showed in my previous post that this assumption is improbable, as much of the slowdown is the result of changes in demography — changes which are themselves largely the result of birth rates, which predate the crisis by many years. The other major cause of the slowdown has been a decline in productivity. Taken together, demography and productivity appear responsible for a minimum of 79 per cent of the decline in growth among the five developed economies I focused on — the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan.

Increases in productivity usually require investment in new equipment, but the extent of any productivity improvement will depend not only on the amount of the investment, but also its effectiveness. Where investment declines, a fall in productivity is likely unless the change is offset by a rise in the efficiency of new capitalRead more

The worst postwar recession has been followed by weak growth. It is readily assumed that this is cause and effect. Such an analysis is both wrong and damaging. If the weak recovery is due to the recent recession, then its causes must be short-term rather than structural. This belief is behind the frequent calls for more fiscal or monetary easing and the resulting failure to discuss, let alone address the deeper structural problems.

Periods of slow growth can be caused by insufficient demand or insufficient supply. If demand is the problem, the resources of the economy are not being fully utilised. But, if supply is the constraint, then those resources have not been growing fast enough. Read more

Japan’s economic policy is a battle between those who want inflation, on one side, and the fiscal hawks on the other. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to hold a snap election suggests that the inflationists, of which he is one, are currently winning. The market rose on the news of the election, so it seems that investors believe that inflation would be good for both share prices and the economy.

Inflation, as measured by annual changes in the consumer price index, is currently well over 2 per cent. But according to the Bank of Japan, prices for producers are actually falling relative to three months ago, after the effects of this year’s consumption tax increase are excluded. The central bank goes on to state that this is a reflection of declining prices for international commodities, and that the annual rate of increase for consumer prices is just 1 per cent after fresh food is removed from the calculations. Read more

Japan’s gross domestic product shrank in the third quarter of 2014 at 1.6 per cent per annum over the quarter and 1 per cent over the previous 12 months. This disappointed the stock market, which fell by more than 2 per cent. It then recovered almost fully the next day on the news that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had called a snap election, designed to give him a mandate to postpone the increase in consumption tax otherwise due in October 2015.

Governments can boost demand by increasing expenditure or by cutting taxes. Disappointing GDP data do not therefore provide much reason for gloom unless the government appears unwilling to boost demand or the data reflect a problem of supply rather than demand. Read more

Japan cannot put its economy on to a sustainable path unless it reforms its corporation tax system. Fortunately, this is now under active discussion. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that the right changes will be made.

One sector of the economy cannot lend unless another borrows. The sum of the net lending and net borrowing in an economy must therefore equal zero. Japan’s government is a huge borrower and, if this is to be brought down to a sustainable level, the net lending of other sectors must come down by an equal amount. As chart one shows, it is the corporate sector which has moved into massive cash surplus since 1988, when Japan’s fiscal balance moved into a structural deficit. It is therefore the corporate sector which must take the brunt of any fall in government borrowing through a similar decline in the sector’s net lending. Current tax arrangements and regulations are the key cause of the massive cash surpluses run by companies which must be brought down if the fiscal deficit is to be reduced to manageable proportions. Read more

Hedge funds’ portfolios are often leveraged and they can be big winners or losers if this pays off. In this sense the US is also a hedge fund. In terms of its international assets, the US is long equities and short debt. This has been hugely to its advantage because equities have given much better returns, but this benefit carries large risks for the future.

 Read more

The damage done to the UK and US economies by buybacks in preference to capital investment was a central theme of my book The Road to Recovery, and it has found its way, not too often I hope, into these blogs. I have therefore been heartened by the growing interest shown by the financial press in this threat to our economies. The Economist recently devoted a major section to the issue, as did the Financial Times on October 12.

The change in the way managements are paid drives buybacks but this has yet to be widely appreciated. The US Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programme was rightly underlined by my colleagues as adding the fuel of cheap debt but, without the preference for buybacks, low bond yields would have encouraged capital investment. This they markedly failed to do. An important paper, shortly to be published in the Review of Financial Studies, “Corporate Investment and Stock Market Listing: A Puzzle?” by John Asker, Joan Farre-Mensa and Alexander Ljungqvist demonstrates that a huge difference has appeared in recent years in the levels of investment by quoted and unquoted companies. Read more

The following comment on my blog post about quantitative easing and the eurozone struck a chord:

“The unaddressed and unanswered question about fiscal stimulus in the eurozone is about why it will be anything other than another short-term sugar rush?” Read more

I showed in my previous blog that the ratio of depreciation to operating profits is much higher in the published figures for Japanese non-financial companies than it is for their US counterparts and that this could not be justified in terms of either the amount of equipment that needed to be depreciated or the rate at which it should be written off. There is therefore a strong implication that Japanese profits are understated relative to US ones, but this is subject to two provisos.

First, even if the ratio of depreciation to output should be the same in both countries, the ratio of operating profits could be very different if US companies had much higher ratios of profits to output than Japanese ones. Read more

In two earlier blogs I explained why the cyclically adjusted price earnings yield (Cape) could not sensibly be applied to valuing Japanese shares. (One of several reasons is that Cape is only valid if profit margins are mean reverting over relatively short periods of time, such as 10 years or so, and this has not been the case in Japan.) This does not mean that they cannot be valued by other means. In this and the next blog I attempt one possible way to do this. Read more

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.

 Read more

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