A believer in the Abe lever – Japanese shares

The end of bear markets are periods when investors are delighted that they do not own a certain type of asset.  This usually means that the performance has been very poor for a long period of time, and for reasons that most investors believe will persist.  Typically, on long term valuation criteria the assets are understood to be cheap, but no one can envisage a situation whereby the valuations should rise.

Bull markets begin at the end of bear markets and tend to occur in three waves – the first wave, which we have just witnessed in Japan, occurs amid disbelief and surprise.  The second wave occurs as investors shift from disbelief to belief and it appears quite rational to buy as the fundamental news improves, and the third and final wave is the bubble wave as investors shift from belief to high conviction that prices must continue to rise, because the fundamental story is so compelling.  Between each wave is some sort of correction, which can encompass sharp falls in share prices.

Japanese shares were in a bear market for 23 years from 1989 to 2012 – there are probably few investors around today who can remember the last time Japanese stocks were in a bull market.  The major indices had fallen by 75% over that period, and by last year the equity weightings of domestic Japanese financial institutions were minimal and their portfolios dominated by government bonds with near zero yields.  In addition, many international investors were extremely comfortable with low or zero weightings to Japanese equities in their portfolios. Economic growth has been zero in nominal terms (that is including inflation) for over 20 years, and the legendary Japanese trade surplus of former decades has now become a trade deficit, following the Fukushima accident, the shutting down of all of its nuclear power plants and the consequent need to import a far greater amount of its energy requirements.  It boasted the largest government debt to GDP ratio in the developed world.  Investors who did own Japanese shares, made sure that they did not own very many, as it was so difficult to justify such positions to clients or managers.

By last autumn, over 70% of companies listed in Tokyo traded below book value, and the dividend yield of 2.5% was 3 times the yield available on a 10 year Japanese government bond, even though the dividends paid by companies in the stock market had doubled over the previous decade.  Japanese shares were very cheap but investors would not buy them, because very few believed that the Japanese economy would get back onto a path of growth.  Japan fulfilled all the conditions for an end to its long bear market.

Then, last December, Mr Abe, one of the many former prime ministers of the last decade who had proved ineffective and short-lived, and who regained the leadership of the LDP, fought a general election campaign asking for a mandate for dramatic change to set Japan’s economy on a course for growth.  His plan consisted of three pillars: (i) a short term fiscal stimulus of government investment spending, to boost demand in the short term; (ii) a shift in monetary policy aimed at boosting inflation expectations that would boost demand in the economy in the medium term; and (iii) a package of structural reforms to increase the economy’s long term potential growth rate.  This policy mix was eerily similar to that adopted by Japan in the mid-1930s, which successfully brought their economy out of the problems caused by the Great Depression.

His political timing was excellent in that: (i) the Governorship of the Bank of Japan was an appointment that needed to be made in the first quarter of 2013, and in many people’s eyes it had been the Bank of Japan’s conservative approach to monetary policy management that had been holding back the economy; and (ii) the Upper House elections were due to be held in July 2013, giving him the rather rare opportunity to gain a majority in both Houses of the Japanese Parliament at the same time, and thus be in a position not to have to compromise with opposition politicians.

In a matter of weeks, the consensus view of the prospects for Japanese markets had reversed. Rather than a stagnant economy with no change to policy, there was to be a dramatic shift to a pro-growth and most crucially to a pro-inflation stance.  At the heart of the policy shift was a change in the Bank of Japan’s inflation target from 1% to 2% and a belief and determination from inside the Bank of Japan that this could be attained.  This required a Governor who believed that creating higher inflation was possible, which the outgoing Governor did not; the change from Mr. Shirakawa to Mr. Kuroda brought this in one fell swoop.  To achieve this, Kuroda immediately announced a programme to print 6 trillion yen a month for two years, and so double Japan’s monetary base.  The aim of this programme was and is to raise inflation expectations, and encourage consumers and businesses to spend now, to hold down interest rates, and so reduce real yields in the economy, and most importantly to weaken the yen.

The weaker yen is an enormous boon for Japanese profits, whose companies sell so much around the world.  The profits of the large Japanese companies are very sensitive to the value of the yen, rising strongly as the yen declines.

Over the early months of 2013 the market suddenly found itself with increasing earnings forecasts, low valuations, enormous supplies of liquidity, and with most investors holding very little exposure to Japanese equities, but who believed that they needed far greater exposure.  The market rose rapidly, gaining almost 80% in the seven months from October 2012, to 1276 on the Topix index; this was partially offset for many international investors, who neglected to hedge their currency risk, by a fall of 25% in the value of the yen.  In the three weeks following the market peak on 22 May 2013, it has fallen back by almost 20%, though this still leaves it at the levels it was trading at in early April and 50% higher than the lows from last year.

There are those who believe that Japan has entered a bubble, but bubbles occur at the end of long bull markets, not after just seven months when many investors have had little opportunity to build positions.  The critical insight is that the market psychology on Japan has changed, from being uninvested and comfortable with that position, to being lightly invested but very uncomfortable with that position.  Apart from very short term orientated investors, who have profits to bank, and so will do so, most investors will now concern themselves with being underinvested in Japan, and so any positive news on Japanese growth, Japanese corporate earnings, easy monetary policy and a weaker currency will be seen as good news, and lead them to increase their weightings to Japan.

This summer is likely to see a continuation of the recent correction, as shorter-term investors take their profits and search the world for their next opportunity, and are replaced by longer term investors who need to build up their positions in Japan.   Thereafter, either the Japanese economy will begin to grow faster and inflation pick up a little, which will justify higher share prices, or if growth and inflation are not picking up, then the Bank of Japan will be forced into even greater money creation, and an even weaker yen which would also boost share prices.   In either event, a second wave of the bull market should be expected to begin later this year, though it will be critical to invest in Japanese equities with the currency hedged, since one of the major factors in stronger share prices will be the weaker yen, caused by the aggressive printing of money by the Bank of Japan.

2013 – Limited growth and new monetary policy regimes

As 2012 draws to a close, three things about central banks and monetary policy are becoming more apparent. Firstly, central bankers are concerned that they are being expected to fix all the ills in their economies and they believe monetary policy cannot achieve such ambitious targets.  Messrs Bernanke and King have both recently expressed concerns about the limits of what monetary policy can deliver in the face of fiscal austerity.  Secondly, successive doses of Quantitative Easing (“QE”) are generating diminishing impacts on markets and on the real economies.  This is a problem that the Bank of England has recently been highlighting about QE in the UK.  In the US, the recent, and fourth, QE announcement from the Federal Reserve, which will mean over $1 trillion of money printed every year until further notice, saw the US stock market fall on the day, in contrast to all previous QE announcements.  Thirdly, Central Banks are exploring new policy targets: in the US tying policy change to the unemployment rate; in Japan seeking to increase the inflation target; and in the UK discussing the idea of a nominal GDP target in place of an inflation target.   As 2013 begins, investors need to take into account the above developments in their investment strategy.

There are two distinct scenarios for 2013.  In the first, economic recovery and job creation continue to disappoint, in which case it appears increasingly likely that governments will tell Central Banks to concern themselves much less about inflation and more about unemployment.  If so, they would be doing this just as the Central Banks are coming to the conclusion that their current policies to boost growth, are not working very effectively.  The results would be monetary policies that are far more inflationary in intent than has so far been the case since the crisis – this would be a significant regime shift for monetary policy.

Investors therefore will need to seek greater protection from the risk of such a regime change.  This requires heavy weighting to assets that would do well in the face of a generalised increase in investor inflation expectations.  These assets would be index-linked bonds and gold.  The performance of company shares in a scenario of rising inflation expectations is mixed – over the long term company profits would be expected to rise with higher nominal growth, but in the shorter term, rising inflation tends to lead to lower valuations.  Conventional bonds would suffer very badly in an environment of higher inflation.  Commercial real estate would, in the very long term, be expected to act as a form of protection against inflation (as rents rise with inflation).  However, a combination of high unemployment and the shift towards virtual retailing is acting as a significant dampener on demand for office and retail space.  Short term prospects for returns are limited to current rental incomes alone.

In the second scenario, where the global economy does improve enough for unemployment to fall at a rate that was satisfactory to policy-makers, the response from financial markets would also be likely to be higher yields on conventional bonds, together with higher company share prices.  Given these two scenarios (of which the first, disappointing growth, is more likely ), the preferred investment strategy is to be at least neutrally invested in shares, heavily under-invested in conventional bonds and heavily-invested in the “insurance policies” of index-linked bonds and gold.

Returns on cash will remain very low in 2013 and in fact are likely to decline further if further monetary easing takes place – the aim of the Central Banks being to over-supply liquidity to the financial system.  Given the exceptionally low yields available on government bonds, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they deliver strong returns.  Corporate bonds, which performed very well in 2012 as credit risk perceptions declined, still offer higher yields than government bonds.  However, they no longer have the potential for significant gains from a further narrowing of the yield premium (over government bonds).  Other areas of the bond markets where the yields are still attractive relative to their risks, are emerging market local currency bonds and short duration, high yield bonds in the US.

The Eurozone economy, the UK’s largest trading partner, looks most likely to continue to disappoint next year, and so create problems for policymakers. Its key economic issue (and Mrs Merkel’s favourite trio of statistics) is that it boasts 7% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s GDP but 50% of the world’s social spending.  This is at the same time as its demographic patterns are about to deteriorate significantly in the face of a very weak birth-rate and a rapidly expanding population of pensioners.  The sense of existential crisis about the euro may have passed for now, following the ECB’s promise to be prepared to act as purchaser of last resort for sovereign government bonds, but the danger for the euro in 2013 is more likely to come from the streets of Greece or Spain, as continued austerity bears down even harder on the public.  The Italian election is also likely to see a strong performance from anti-austerity parties.  The Eurozone enters 2013 in recession, and its financial system woefully undercapitalised.  For Eurozone markets to perform well in 2013, the ECB will need to be seen to be actually printing money – this is still an unlikely prospect, given the deeply conservative approach to monetary policy of many of the ECB members.

The Japanese economy starts 2013 with a newly-elected Prime Minister who campaigned on a promise to stimulate the economy aggressively and have a higher inflation target.  A weaker yen would be enormously helpful to Japanese industry regaining competitiveness, and after a 23 year long bear market, the stock market may finally be in a position to move higher.

The US economy, still by some distance the largest and most important to the world economy, should continue to grow modestly, but not at a rate that is likely to bring down unemployment sharply.  The short term is clouded by fears over the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the results of which are likely to produce some modest austerity, which, if European experience is any guide, will cause some damage to growth prospects.  Expect a mediocre year for returns from US assets.

The Chinese economy, the single largest contributor to global growth, appears to be seeing a pick-up in its growth rate after the below-target 7.4% report for third quarter GDP growth.  Growth is unlikely to return to the double-digit growth rates seen in the last decade, but should be of higher quality for stock market purposes.  Instead of relying on exports of low-cost labour manufactured goods and state-sponsored investment spending, Chinese growth in the future is more likely to come from satisfying the increasingly demanding Chinese consumer.  China is also in the fortunate position of having considerable scope to ease monetary policy in conventional ways should its growth prospects deteriorate.  These more conventional methods are generally more effective in the face of weak demand, than the unconventional methods that Western Central Banks are currently forced to use.  Asian equity markets are once again expected to be the best-performing region of the world in 2013.

The UK economy remains buffeted by the trends from the European, US and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese economies. The government’s fiscal austerity programme bites a little harder in 2013 than it did in 2012, but the change in Governor at the Bank of England is likely to lead to a wider discussion about monetary policy means and objectives, which may support the UK bond and equity markets better than those of the Eurozone.  Expect a modest year for returns from UK assets and a weaker Sterling following its surprising strength in 2012.

In conclusion, global economic risks are, in our opinion, biased to the downside for 2013. If these risks are realised, the clamour for a policy response will be very great.  The shift from the 2008 conventional policy responses of lower interest rates and higher government spending to the less conventional 2009-2012 policies of QE may well then develop into a shift to very unconventional policies.  These have not to date been openly discussed, but could include such ideas as (i) using QE to buy shares rather than government or mortgage bonds, (ii) using QE to buy foreign government bonds (equivalent to deliberately pushing down the exchange rate), or (iii) pushing new money more directly into the real economy by for example printing money to pay a “citizen’s dividend” in the hope that it would be spent.  These are all theoretical ideas that would normally strike inflationary fear into the hearts of Central Bankers, but may appear next year as the logical next steps in monetary policy.

 

The UK‘s choice – Perseverance or Printing

The UK economy grew by 1.0% in the third quarter, the fastest quarterly growth rate for five years.  After several quarters of negative data and a slump into double-dip recession, this would appear, at first sight, to be very good news.  Though the news is welcome, it cannot yet be described as good. First there are two, significant one-off items that should be stripped out; the Diamond Jubilee holiday last June is estimated to have reduced the economy by 0.5% in the second quarter.  Absent anything else happening, there would have been a statistical rebound in growth of that amount in the third quarter.  Additionally, in August the sales of Olympic tickets were estimated to have contributed 0.2% to economic growth.  This leaves 0.3% as the underlying figure for economic growth once these have been taken into account.  Rather surprisingly, in an age of government austerity, the increase in output of government services accounted for 0.36% in the third quarter, which leaves the non-government sector still in decline!

A clearer view would appear from looking at the data over the last twelve months as a whole.  Over this period, growth in the economy has been essentially zero, as it has been since the third quarter of 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed.  Four years of zero growth is a far better description of what has occurred than the sequence of recessions and recoveries that media headlines would imply.

The number of people employed in the UK recently reached an all-time high, beating the previous record set in 2007. However, the UK economy is actually 3% smaller than at the time of that peak in employment – this implies that productivity (the amount of output produced for each worker) in the economy has actually been falling, which is very unusual, and has been causing much head-scratching amongst economists.  The explanation comes from two sectors.  First, North Sea oil production has peaked and is becoming progressively more difficult and expensive to produce, so productivity is in decline.  The second area is financial services;  over the last five years there has been a 16% fall in measured output from banks and insurance companies with no significant decline in employment.

In a recent speech in Cardiff, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, made it very clear that he believes that this period of zero or very low growth is likely to continue for some years.  He stated that Western banking systems had still not recognised the full extent of bad assets remaining on the books of the banks. Until the banks do this and recapitalise themselves, monetary policy alone (including QE) was not going to be able to solve the economies’ problems.  The effectiveness of QE is really limited to offsetting some of the weakness in demand that this consolidation of the banking sector would generate, rather than generating economic recovery.

Lord King’s perspective is that the policy choice for the UK (and indeed the other indebted Western countries) is between Perseverance and Printing.  As befits a Central Banker, he believes that Perseverance is the best path back towards economic growth.  This requires enduring more (un-quantified) years of near zero growth (as the banking system corrects itself and consumers and governments cut back their spending so that they can reduce their debts), while the Central Bank supports the economy through QE.  The alternative of Printing, which he would not endorse, but has been hinted at by Lord Turner, a potential successor to Lord King next year, is one of “helicopter money”, in which newly created money is handed out to the public.  This is clearly the inflationary solution to the debt problems facing Western economies.  However, it is not a solution that is yet being promoted, but the concern must be that the longer the period of low or zero growth, the more that politicians will seize on such ideas as a means of creating employment and growth, and hence votes.

It is for this reason that gold should have a key part of everyone’s portfolios, as the insurance policy that Printing overcomes Perseverance through a long period without growth.

A layman’s guide to Quantitative Easing

Until very recently, Central Banks generally conducted their monetary policy through changing their key reference interest rate, which was generally the rate at which they would lend to the commercial banks on a short term basis supported by acceptable collateral. Thus the economy was regulated by changing the price of money. Theoretically, by increasing the rate of interest in the economy, the desire to borrow and spend would be reduced and the desire to save would be increased, and economic growth and inflation should fall back. Conversely, reducing interest rates should help to boost economic growth. It is generally accepted by monetary economists that the impact of changing interest rates takes between one and two years to have its full effects on the economy.

However in late 2008, the shock to the global economy from the financial crash that most Central Banks cut interest rates to the lowest practical levels (somewhere between zero and 1%, depending on the system), but still felt that they needed to ease policy further to offset the strong recessionary forces that were being experienced.

Thus, they turned from easing through changing the price of money in the economy to easing through changing the quantity of money in the economy (hence the rather ugly term “Quantitative Easing” (“QE”)). The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England began their QE programmes in April 2009, but in fact the Bank of Japan had been engaging in QE policies since 2003, its rates having reached zero in the previous global downturn.

Until this century, QE had only ever been seen as a theoretical tool in the Central Banker’s arsenal. It was a lesson that some (most notably Ben Bernanke) learned from the Great Depression, where once interest rates reached a low point, the Central Banks felt that there was nothing else they could do. There is thus no history or experience to examine to determine if it works or how it works. The current policy is therefore a live economic experiment.

The manner in which Central Banks have indicated they expect QE to work is as follows. The Central Bank goes into the financial markets and buys securities, typically government bonds, although the Federal Reserve has also bought mortgage-backed securities, and the Bank of Japan has also bought equities and REITs. To finance this they create the money (digitally) and use it to pay the seller of the security (typically a bank). The bank’s assets now consist of more cash and less securities. Typically the income return on the cash will be lower than the income return on the securities they have just sold, and so they have a decision to make. They could choose (i) to maintain the lower income stream, because they might have a great need for liquidity, (ii) to go back into the securities markets and buy some other securities to maintain their income, or (iii) increase their lending to companies or households. Choosing (i) has no impact on the real economy and choosing (iii) clearly has a major impact because it is helping directly to boost demand and spending in the economy.

In practice, what has happened is that banks have chosen (ii), and have sought to maintain their income stream by investing in higher-risk securities. Thus yields have fallen first on government bonds, then on investment-grade corporate bonds and finally on high-yield bonds. This then gives companies the opportunity to borrow at lower rates of interest in the financial markets, which could be used to fund investment. QE, to date, has been a policy that has clearly supported financial markets – it is difficult to see a direct effect on bank lending and economic growth, but it is likely (and claimed by the Central Banks) that economic growth would have been much weaker without QE.

There are some problems with continued applications of QE. Firstly, it is generally believed by economists that QE policies have less impact as they are repeated. Since it is such an unusual policy, the first time it is deployed it has a shock effect, but later iterations do not as the financial system adapts its behaviour to the policy. Secondly, the liquidity of the underlying financial markets may be damaged. For example, the Bank of England now owns more than one-third of all gilts outstanding, and has no current plans to sell them, so the level of liquidity in the gilt market has been reduced by the policy.

The great fear that many commentators have about QE is that by creating more and more money in the financial system without greater economic output, the end result must inevitably be higher prices. In fact higher expected inflation is one of the objectives of the policy, since if people expect higher prices in the future it is rational to buy things now before they rise in price, and so boost demand in the economy today. The response of the Central Bankers would be to say that QE is a reversible policy, and the bonds that they have purchased, can very easily be sold back into the financial markets, so reducing the excess liquidity in the system, and the inflationary threat.

To date, a more realistic concern has been that there is no evidence anywhere in the world where QE has worked. It clearly has not brought Japan out of its long term stagnation, and so far neither the US or UK economies can be said to have recovered strongly. The reason for this is that the extra liquidity generated has remained within the financial system and not found its way into the real economy, and so boosted real demand. If the underlying causes of weak economic growth are that the banking system has overlent relative to its capital, that consumers feel their debt levels are too high, and both feel that they need to retrench (or in the jargon, deleverage their balance sheets), then the current policy of QE will not actually affect the desire to borrow or to lend.

A more radical policy option would be to print money and ensure that it was only used in ways that directly benefitted the consumer’s balance sheet. Thus £450 billion (only a little more than the total QE to date) could be used to give every adult in the country £10,000 to be used either to repay debt, or towards a deposit for the purchase of a first home or into a pension pot. By improving the savings to debt ratio of each adult in the country, the time at which they will once again feel happy to spend more will be brought forward.

Resurrecting the world’s first economic policy idea

The Old Testament gives specific instructions to the Israelites as to how they should organise their society. One of the most intriguing from a modern-day economist’s perspective is that of the Jubilee. Every 50th year, all debts between Israelites were to be wiped clean, all land returned to the families that owned it 50 years previously and slaves freed. In today’s parlance, it was pushing the Reset button and starting afresh. There is little evidence that the Israelites followed this revolutionary idea, most probably because those who would benefit most were the poor and downtrodden and those who would benefit least were the rich and powerful!

Recently some economists such as Stephen Green have been proposing the idea of a Modern Debt Jubilee (http://moderndebtjubilee.blogspot.co.uk/p/modern-debt-jubilee.html) as having merit for solving today’s economic problems. The world is currently experiencing a balance-sheet recession rather than a standard cyclical recession. This is where individuals, governments and especially banks believe themselves to be over-indebted and seek to reduce their liabilities (debts) – there is a much reduced desire both to borrow and to lend. This inhibits overall demand in the economy, leading to slower growth which in turn holds back confidence in companies who defer investment.

The policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) is the printing of money to make banks balance sheets more liquid and thus encourage them to lend once more. An alternative Modern Debt Jubilee policy would be to print money and use it to repay some of the debt outstanding which is inhibiting economic growth – so returning to the concept of Jubilee. For example the government could decide to give every adult in the country £10,000 in a special account, which could at first only be used for the repayment of their debts. In this way, individuals could repay their most expensive debts (typically consumer credit), and banks would become both more liquid and have smaller balance sheets. For those who do not have debts use of the money could be restricted to paying for tertiary education, for buying a home for them to live in or providing a pension – all of which can be regarded as personal long term investment.

At the cost of a large amount of money, £450bn for the UK – (compared with the £375 billion of QE so far approved by the Bank of England) this Modern Debt Jubilee policy would significantly reduce consumer debts, provide better-funded pensions and boost the amount of equity in people’s homes. Though the use of this money would be restricted to “worthy” areas, there would certainly be a consumer wealth effect both from consumers just feeling less indebted and from the boost to disposable income from reduced interest payments. Demand in the economy would pick up and if the Bank of England feared inflation then they could easily reverse the QE as banks would not need the extra liquidity as consumers repaid debts. A little inflation, however, would be rather welcome as it would break the economy out of the deflationary mindset that it has fallen into currently.

If we do need to print more money to boost the economy, then this idea is a far more powerful way of ensuring it happens than replacing government bonds with cash in the banks’ balance sheets, the current QE policy.

Jubilee – the oldest and least used economic policy idea in history is definitely worth considering today in a modern form. For those at the bottom end of the income distribution, it would rid them of debts that burden their lives thereby pushing the Reset button on their personal finances. For the middle classes it is a way of either ridding themselves of expensive debt or encouraging long term savings.

This time IS different for equity markets

Observant investors over the last 30 years should be looking at the current markets and thinking that an opportunity to buy into equity markets may be at hand. Following some inflation fears in 2010 and 2011, inflation across the world has declined markedly in 2012 and looks set to decline further to levels below the targets that Central Banks have set. Further, economic growth is slowing markedly and has now become a greater economic and political risk than inflation. Policymakers’ focus has clearly shifted from concerns about inflation to concerns about growth. Historically this shift in focus (1982, 1988, 1992, 1998, 2002 and 2009 saw similar shifts) has been a clear BUY signal for equity markets – in today’s conditions this is further supported by very low valuations on equities.

In these previous cycles, the shift in policymaker focus led to substantial policy easing, principally via lower interest rates, which boosted consumer disposable income, boosted consumer confidence and encouraged demand for mortgages for house purchases.  This led consumer demand as a whole and thus an economic recovery. Equity markets rallied as they foresaw this pattern of events.

Sadly, however, this time is different. Policymakers certainly wish to boost demand by policy easing but the key differences this time around are (i) interest rates are essentially at zero and cannot be cut meaningfully, (ii) government deficit and debt levels have reached levels that terrify even the politicians and so fiscal policy has been neutered, (iii) the financial system is so badly damaged from its period of excess up until 2007 that it is no position to start lending again despite heavy political pressure, (iv) consumers now feel that in aggregate they allowed their debt levels to rise too sharply and wish to lower them and (v) consumer confidence in their economic future has been so badly damaged that many do not wish to borrow anyway.

The only policy stimulus open to governments and Central Banks is further Quantitative Easing (“QE”) or money printing. So far all the extra money that has been created has remained in the financial system and not found its way into the real economy – this is not to say that QE has been useless; it has not.  Indeed the financial system and the Western economies would be in a far worse state today if there had been no QE.  In addition, the long-running Euro saga has meant that the Eurozone has had to adopt very restrictive fiscal policies in an attempt for the weaker governments to maintain support from the markets and from the stronger Euro members, making the Eurozone economy much weaker than it needed to have been.

So this time, the usual cycle of policy easing leading to consumer recovery and thus economic recovery together with improving equity markets is unlikely to occur.  It is true that equity markets are cheap by historical comparison, and this should limit the downside potential for equity markets in the absence of a severe recession which would damage earnings. However, equities lack the usual reasons for investors to buy them, and so upside potential is also limited until some shock or crisis leads to a radically different policy approach.

 

From Heroes to Zeroes – 21st Century Central Banking

At the beginning of this century, the reputation of Central Banks in the West was at its apogee – over the previous 20 years inflation had been wrung out of the global economy by maintaining interest rates consistently higher than the rate of inflation. If inflation threatened to rise too sharply then raising rates by a few hundred basis points was sufficient to choke off consumer demand (since their mortgage repayments formed such a significant part of their disposable income) and slow the economy and inflationary pressures. Once this had been achieved, often requiring a quick recession, rates could be cut again and the restoking of consumer demand would reignite the economy. In short, it was apparent that Central Banking that had as its main target the control of inflation could be successful at only a small cost to growth. Politicians found themselves able to give up their desire to control interest rates for electoral purposes and give independence to their Central Banks. Central Bankers became Heroes!

The recession in the US following the bursting of the internet bubble and fears for the US economy following 9/11 however, saw the Fed cut US rates right down to 1% in 2002 and hold them there until 2004. 1% interest rates were much lower than seen in previous cycles and in hindsight were responsible for a massive inflation of the US housing market. Whilst the internet bubble was essentially financed by equity, since the new companies had no cash flow, the housing bubble was financed by debt. Debt-financed bubbles we now know inflate far further than equity-financed bubbles and then burst in a far more devastating fashion. Central Banks meanwhile, focussing only on the Consumer Price Inflation targets did not spot the bubble in the debt markets and so did not increase interest rates sufficiently to manage things better.

Following the 2008 meltdown in the global financial system and subsequent recession, Central Banks found that even interest rates that were effectively set at zero no longer helped to boost consumer demand. This was for two reasons, first consumers realised that they had already got too much debt and no longer wished to borrow more, even with low interest rates and secondly the all economic agents (banks, companies and consumers) had lost confidence in the future growth prospects of the economy that they did not want to lend, borrow or spend.

The Central Banks went back to their old textbooks to search for policy tools when interest rates can no longer be reduced and discovered Quantitative Easing (QE) which pushes money into the financial system in an effort to boost the demand for financial assets and thus stimulate the real economy. Many Zeroes of dollars, euros, yen and pounds have been created in this way. QE has almost certainly worked in the sense that economic growth in 2009, 2010 and 2011 would have been much worse without this policy, but it has not been enough to boost growth back onto a sustainable path. Worse still, repeated applications of QE seem to be less effective at doing this than the first effort. The scale of these interventions has brought forth much criticism of Central Banks in the US and the UK for creating the risks of hyperinflation from the creation of so much money. In Europe where monetary orthodoxy of the Bundesbank is enshrined in the ECB’s mandate, the Central Bank is criticised (outside Germany) for not doing enough to support the Eurozone economy.

For politicians, who are policy-constrained by huge fiscal deficits and debts, the only hope is that Central Banks solve their problems, but whilst Central Banks have the tools for fighting inflation, they do not have the tools for fighting deflation. They have done what they can (zero interest rates and QE) but have little more to offer bar providing liquidity to keep troubled banks alive and adding more zeroes to the money supply. The Age of the Heroic Central Banker is now behind us.