The recent buoyancy in global equities has raised fears that the markets have entered a major bubble, driven by the unprecedented expansion in central bank balance sheets.
To the extent central bank asset purchases have reduced government bond yields, they have certainly brought forward returns from the future into the present, thus reducing expected returns on both equities and bonds. But this is normal in a period of monetary easing, and it does not automatically mean that markets are in a bubble.
Exactly a year ago this week, the markets woke up to the fact that Shinzo Abe would become the next Prime Minister of Japan, and would introduce the most far reaching set of economic reforms seen in that country since the similarly audacious Takahashi reforms in the 1930s. A year later, some progress has been made, but crucial issues have been ducked and much greater challenges lie ahead.
The new administration under Mr Abe immediately fired the first and easiest of his three “arrows” (see David Pilling), a dramatic expansion in the BoJ balance sheet that will be maintained until inflation reaches 2 per cent. The second arrow, a temporary fiscal support programme, has also been implemented.
The Federal Reserve told us in December last year that it would maintain its asset purchases until the outlook for the US labour market had improved substantially. Does Tuesday’s rather anaemic jobs data release meet this criterion any more than it did last month, when the Fed decided not to taper its asset purchases? Not really.
The underlying pace of job gains is certainly not rising, and may even have fallen slightly. But the unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 per cent, and the pace of decline suggests that the 6.5 per cent threshold for considering interest rate rises could be reached in mid-2014, ie before the balance sheet tapering has ended! This gives Janet Yellen, the incoming Fed chairman, an early problem: she will surely have to reduce that 6.5 per cent threshold soon.
In this blog, we use some statistical tools which have been developed by the regional districts of the Fed to frame a judgment about the underlying state of the labour market, updated to include this week’s new information .
The award of the Nobel Prize last week to three academics who have specialized in the empirical modelling of asset prices has focused attention on what academic research can tell us about a highly topical question: could the US equity or credit markets currently be in a bubble? It goes without saying that this is of great interest to investors, who have seen the US equity market rise by 131 per cent since February 2009, and are asking when the bull market might end.
It is also of relevance to the likely next Chair of the Fed, Janet Yellen, who will be closely examined about bubbles in her confirmation process. In the past, she has strongly argued that the Fed should not use standard monetary policy to deal with bubbles .
Global trade growth has stopped. Gavyn argues that this undermines global GDP growth, but The New York Times’s Paul Krugman disagrees. Mr Davies replies to Mr Krugman’s points in an interview with John Authers:
When Ben Bernanke became Fed Chairman in 2006, his collection of speeches and academic papers turned out to be extremely relevant to the decisions he would take in office, especially after 2008. The same is likely to be true of his nominated successor who, pending her confirmation by the Senate, has now become the de facto voice of the Fed.
Google Scholar lists dozens of entries under the name Janet L. Yellen. These citations outline an extremely well considered economic philosophy that has developed along a consistent path since the early 1980s. A 67-year old leopard is unlikely to change its spots.
Janet Yellen has been nominated to take over as Fed chairman when Ben Bernanke steps down. Gavyn discusses with John Authers what a Fed led by Ms Yellen would mean for tapering and interest rate policy
In the endless saga over US fiscal policy, attention has shifted from the closure of some parts of the government (which happened on Tuesday) to the possibility that the Treasury Department will reach the limit of its extraordinary measures to work around the debt ceiling on or around 17 October.
The negotiating tactics of the White House are now clear. They are painting the scenario in which the debt ceiling remains frozen as completely catastrophic, perhaps hoping that market disruptions will increase pressure on the Republicans to waive through the necessary legislation. Markets, however, have so far been reluctant to co-operate. (See this earlier blog.)
In a letter to Congress on 25 September, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew described the ensuing situation as “default by another name”, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has said that “there is no precedent for a default”.
Investors hate the word “default” but they need to be careful about its exact meaning here. Most observers, including the major investment banks, think it very unlikely that the US would ever choose to default on any payments due on its sovereign debt, even if the debt ceiling is left permanently unchanged after 17 October.
The government could, however, go into arrears on many of its normal payments after that date. This would have serious contractionary effects on the economy, and might lead credit agencies to downgrade their ratings on US sovereign debt.
Many people are asking why the financial markets have so far been unruffled by the political crisis which is playing itself out in Washington. That is a very good question. Yesterday was a case in point. The Financial Times website led with a story by Martin Wolf headlined “America is flirting with self destruction”. Yet equities were up on the day, and gold fell sharply.
The explanation for this conundrum, I believe, is twofold. Part of it is connected to the nature of markets, and part to the nature of this particular episode.
To start with the nature of markets, it has become very clear in recent years that asset prices are not necessarily very good at reacting in a smooth manner to changes in the perceived risk of extremely unlikely events taking place. For long periods, the markets do not react at all, and then they suddenly react in a discontinuous manner. The manner in which asset prices reacted to the risk of sovereign defaults in the euro area before and during the crisis of 2011-12 was a good example of this.
For many years, the markets acted as if there was no risk at all of default. Then, in the summer of 2011, they suddenly started to price a risk of 30 per cent or more that several sovereigns would default within the next 5 years, an assessment which now appears to have been a significant over-reaction. So the fact that markets do not price these risks for very long periods of deteriorating newsflow does not imply that the risks are in fact non existent, or that they will not suddenly appear in asset prices.
Why do markets behave in this way when, after all, the major participants are fairly rational, most of the time?