Monthly Archives: September 2013

James Mackintosh

A rally of 150 per cent – the rise in the S&P 500 since its intraday low of 666 in March 2009 – looks like the very essence of a bull market.

Adjust for inflation and it is possible to see as merely a bear market rally – perhaps the biggest dead cat bounce of all time. The real capital value of an investment in the S&P 500 is still below where it was in 2007 or 2000. After both of those peaks and subsequent crashes, shares were pumped up by central banks keeping interest rates much too low. 

James Mackintosh

The Bank of England has finally snapped. It is fed up with being constantly criticised for messing up its forward guidance on interest rates, and this week began what looks like a co-ordinated campaign to hit back.

Three of its policymakers have made speeches so far defending the policy, and their key points are simple. Here’s what they said, then some charts. 

James Mackintosh

Economists often seem to be living in a different world, not least when their forecasts of future recessions – or more precisely the lack of them – are examined.

Now two economists have confirmed that economists are on a quite different plane to the rest of the population, by exploring their views on policy issues facing America. Two Chicago-based finance professors, Paola Sapienza of Northwestern and Luigi Zingales of Chicago Booth, tried to identify issues on which economists generally agreed.

Only two issues garnered complete agreement: every single economist questioned (as part of a regular survey) said it was hard to predict share prices, and not one thought US healthcare was sustainable.

By contrast only a small majority of Americans (55 per cent) agree that share prices are tough to forecast, and two-thirds think US healthcare is financially sustainable.

This might just suggest that the average American hasn’t paid enough attention, since shares are patently hard to forecast (not necessarily impossible, as the efficient market theory beloved of so many economists posits, but certainly very difficult). Equally, even America’s politicians agree that healthcare spending at the current level is unsustainable; part of the original justification of Obamacare was to reduce costs, after all.

But the general pattern is continued on many other topics: the views of economists are furthest from the general public on those issues where the economists agree the most. 

John Authers

We all now know that the Federal Reserve opted not to “taper” last week. In other words, it kept its monthly purchases of bonds at $85bn without reduction, in a move that was a surprise to many, even if the FT had made clear for a while that a taper was no foregone conclusion.

But have others been tapering already? The official Treasury Department data show that foreigners have this year started very gently selling down their positions of Treasuries. This is the chart:

The move is not great, but it is there. To be precise, foreign holdings of Treasuries reached $5.72tn in March, and by the end of July were at $5.59tn. This is no great change in itself, but it is changes at the margin that matter – and we already know that a “taper” or otherwise in the Fed’s bond purchases was able to generate a dramatic market reaction. So what is going on? 

John Authers

Lehman has, at last, been bankrupt for five years. I posted the last of the five-video series we put together for the anniversary here. This post is for those hardy few who have still not had enough of Lehman memorabilia. If you have the time and inclination, try looking through some of these videos, which I made at the time (when I was based in New York and still covered the Short View).

First, this video, which we produced for what we then considered to be the first anniversary of the crisis, in August 2008 a few weeks before Lehman, bears re-watching. The key message to be derived from it is that claims that nobody saw the Lehman bankruptcy coming, or the crisis that surrounded it, do not hold water. It features today’s interviewee, the former Olympic fencer James Melcher, and his comments are particularly prescient: 

James Mackintosh

Much to the frustration of journalists, all we know officially about the Twitter IPO is this:


John Authers

The Lehman bankruptcy was five years ago, as you may have noticed. Five years on, it is surprising what aspects of the pre-Lehman landscape have survived, and which have vanished. This came out in today’s Note video with Larry McDonald, author of A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, and a Lehman alumnus:

Lehman Legacy

Note that while the recovery in the financial system has been in many ways remarkable, the securitisation market remains as dead as a dodo. These charts tell the story. First, here are the figures for asset-backed securities:

So there is a recovery in auto loans, but securitisation of home equity loans, by which Americans turned their homes into ATMs, seems to have ended. Next we can look at CDO issuance (not for the squeamish): 

John Authers

Maybe we should reinstate Glass-Steagall. Or maybe we should revisit the system of publicly quoted banks. That at least seems to be the implication of comments made to me by John Reed, who spent almost two decades as the CEO of the old Citicorp and then joint CEO of the newly formed Citigroup. You can find text from my interview with him here and here.

However, I think it is worth highlighting still another passage, as it cuts to the heart of how banks should be valued, and arguably even how they should be owned. He now believes that commercial banking and trading cultures should not be combined. When I pointed out that trading can boost returns, he made the following response:

I could understand that an institution might want to bridge both businesses. If someone like Deutsche Bank were to be only a commercial bank it would be a quite different entity. They’ve used that investment bank to change their earnings profile and their ROE [return on equity] targets. They have a 20 per cent target for ROE.* You could not achieve that in Europe with a commercial bank. You have to get heavily into the markets to imagine getting those kinds of returns.

I think the industry would be healthier if instead of looking at returns they look at p/e [price to earnings] ratios. The more you become a trading organistion, the less your p/e. You should aspire to be like Coca-Cola and have a 20 times p/e.

Obviously the numbers are approximate, and the figures for Deutsche need to be updated. To be more precise, Deutsche under its former CEO Josef Ackermann had a 25 per cent “pre-tax ROE”, which our banking editor Patrick Jenkins suggests would be more like 16 or 17 per cent under German taxes. At present, Deutsche’s ROE, which varies considerably from quarter to quarter, is more like 12 per cent. But the validity of Mr Reed’s point is unaffected, as is clear from this chart. Coke is the blue line here (note Citi’s price/earnings ratio went almost to infinity as it was seen returning from loss to low earnings in 2010). Aside from the rude interruption of the great financial crisis, the point stands that the market will pay a much higher multiple for the earnings of a consumer branded company that it will pay for the earnings of a universal bank.

Banks v Coke

Note: Citi high PE reflected negative and then v low earnings

There then comes the issue of whether Glass-Steagall or something like it should be reinstated, forcing commercial banks to divest their trading arms. Banks have lobbied fiercely against this. Mr Reed suggests that this is against the public interest: 

John Authers

This is a public service announcement on Tobin’s q. Following my On Monday column, there were several requests for charts. Here, then, is a chart produced by Andrew Smithers showing how Tobin’s q and the Robert Shiller cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio vary with respect to their own mean over time:


James Mackintosh

1997 was not a great year for music lovers. True, Daft Punk burst on to the English speaking world (or at least the British top 10), and Texas, Blur and Jamiroquai were all going strong, but March alone saw Ant & Dec, Boyzone, Wet Wet Wet and the Spice Girls all near the top of the charts.

It was a far worse year for emerging markets investors, and one which is now being resurrected for comparisons like a bad best-of album. Back then, EM investors lost their shirts, and now some are losing them again, as the US Federal Reserve talks about “tapering” its bond purchases.

First, a chart for those who doubt the impact of the taper: this shows shares for each Asian emerging market, with the grey bars showing the weekly rise or fall in Treasury yields (treat this as indicative: I left off the bond yield axis as it was already looking pretty confusing).

Asian EMs v US bond yields