Archive for the ‘Stock Markets’ Category

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The threat to quantitative easing – or QE – is like a nuclear deterrent. If rates are forced up by the markets, we will use QE, suggests the Bank of England, and therefore there is no need for it, as markets price in what might happen if they don’t heed the bank’s words. That is the theory. It is as if Mark Carney bestrides the banking stage, with his finger always near the red button marked QE, and as a result the markets dare not release their venom, for fear that they will be caught out by detonation. The reaility seems quite different, and yesterday Mark Carney had another go; putting on his poker face and staring at the markets: “Go ahead,” he seemed to be saying, “make my day.” Alas, the markets are still not buying it.

The markets have been pushing up yields. The yield on UK government ten year bonds has risen from a low of around 1.5 per cent a year ago, to 2.8 per cent at the time of writing. The Bank of England says rates are going to stay low until 2016, but the markets are far from convinced.

It is presented as bad news but actually it may be quite the opposite. The Bank of England says rates may rise once unemployment falls to 7 per cent, providing inflation does not show signs of rising sharply. The markets are saying they think this will happen in 2015; the Bank of England is saying 2016. So to try to convince the markets, Mark Carney has to try to talk down the prospects of the UK recovery without – and get this for an impossible mission – dampening confidence.

Yesterday Mark Carney spoke. In fact he was speaking at the East Midlands Conference Centre. So that’s quite a journey for Mr Carney, from Canada to the East Midlands Conference Centre – whatever next, the Andromeda galaxy perhaps?

Give the new governor at the Bank of England credit, he was transparency itself. He said: “Our forward guidance provides you with certainty that interest rates will not rise too soon. Exactly how long they stay low will depend on the progress of the recovery and in particular how quickly unemployment comes down. What matters is that rates won’t go up until jobs and incomes are really growing.” He also said: “We will have to see the rate of unemployment, currently 7.8 per cent, fall at least to a threshold of 7 per cent before even beginning to consider whether to raise Bank Rates.” Note that: even considering raising rates.

He then went at great lengths to spell it out: getting unemployment down to 7 per cent will be tough. So why then are markets pushing up rates? Mr Carney said one possibility is that: “Markets think that unemployment will come down to 7 per cent more quickly than we do. Since the aim of our policy is to secure recovery as quickly as possible, that would be welcome. But policy is built not on hope, but on expectation. And we estimate there is only a 1 in 3 chance of unemployment coming down that quickly.”

So note that: he is saying there is a one in three chance that rates will rise before 2016.

Finally, he made a reference to the US. When the Fed revealed plans to start reducing QE soon, many assumed the Bank of England would follow – leading to yields on bonds rising, and fast. You may be interested to know, that for the last three months, the yield on US government bonds has been higher than the UK equivalent. This changed this week, however, as markets rushed to safety over fears of a Syrian conflict escalating. On the subject of US and UK rates, Mr Carney said: “While much has been made of the special relationship between the US and UK, it is not so special that the possibility of a reduction in the pace of additional stimulus in the US warrants a current reduction in the degree of monetary stimulus in the UK.”

So it’s all pretty clear. The Bank of England has no plan to up rates soon. The markets responded by pushing up market rates. Soon after Mr Carney sat down yesterday, the yields on UK government bonds rose.

The markets are not buying it. Carney may yet be forced to push the ‘more QE button’ after all – it is just that the decision is not just his. Carney has a politburo – or a Monetary Policy Committee – that must vote to extend QE. And the markets don’t believe Carney’s colleagues will allow him to press the button.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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By one very important measure, stocks are set to crash. This will not be any old crash, but a really major one – as significant as 1929, 1987 or what we saw in 2000 and 2008. And the measure that tells us this is not some obscure ratio, familiar only to academics locked away in ivory towers; it is the ratio that many of the world’s top investors say is the single most important ratio they use to judge whether or not stocks are overvalued. Yet despite this very powerful evidence to say we are set to see a crash, many say that this time it is different. Are they right this time?

The measure that looks so dangerously elevated is called the CAPE – or the cyclically adjusted price earnings ratio. It is calculated by taking the current capitalisation of stocks, and comparing it with average earnings over the last ten years.

For US stocks right now the CAPE is 23.8. The long term average is 16.5. Ergo US stocks are overvalued. And although stocks listed in London are not as expensive, the markets across the world tend to follow the US. If US stocks crash, others will follow, regardless of fundamentals.

Bullish defenders of US stocks are saying: “This time it is different.” And they are greeted with derision. There is one golden rule in investing. When people say: “this time it is different,” sell.

It is just that when you think about it, of course, US earnings over the last ten years have been low; the US economy has suffered a very nasty recession. The CAPE, they say, is distorted by the unique, and never to be repeated experience of 2008.

Besides, add the bulls, the CAPE is not the only measure. Look at current PE ratios, look at stock values to net assets, look at a myriad of other measures, and stocks don’t look that expensive at all. They can even turn the “this time it is different” argument back on their critics, and say: “but by a long list of measures stocks are not expensive, why do you think they will crash?” To the bears they might say: ”Are you saying this time it is different?”

But then we get a counter argument. Sure, the US has suffered one mother of a recession, but corporate profits did surprisingly well. The truth is that corporate profits to GDP are close to an all-time high. The argument continues, if the ratio returns to its historic average, earnings will fall, even if GDP rises.

And finally just to retort to that argument about profits to GDP being high and thus they will fall, some might say: “Yes it is true that profits to GDP are exceptionally high, but this has been a bad thing, and it may have been a factor that triggered the crisis of 2008.” To explain this argument, see it this way: the economy needs demand to rise for growth to occur. If profits to GDP are rising and wages to GDP are falling, demand can only occur if people borrow more. Hence high levels of debt were a symptom of rising profits squeezing wages. If we see the ratio return to average, that will be good for the economy, and in the long run, what is good for the economy is good for company profits.

So where does that leave us? If profits to GDP fall, that may be negative for stocks in the short term, but positive in the long term. If profits to GDP stay where they are, that may lead to earnings rising with the economic recovery, justifying stock valuations, but this may not be so good in the long run.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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It is the new way of doing central banking. It is called forward guidance. It means that central bankers are telling us what they are going to do in the future under different circumstances. In one fell swoop they have done away with an industry; an industry called predicting interest rates. It has become a game, and in some cases a business. The media fill their pages with predictions on which way interest rates are going next. Now we know, if the data says one thing, rates will go in a certain direction. Yet here we are, just a few weeks into the era of forward guidance, and already cracks are appearing. As for the markets, rather than becoming more stable and predictable, they have become more nervous than ever.

“I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said,” or so once and somewhat famously said the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan. This was the era when Mr Greenspan was set on a pedestal so high that it is a wonder he didn’t need an oxygen mask and climbing ropes. What the markets really loved was the way in which Mr Greenspan had a veneer of knowing something they didn’t know; of having a plan – a cunning plan if you will – that always worked the way it was supposed to.

The finance crisis of 2008, and the fact that we appeared to miss a meltdown in capitalism by a whisker did leave Mr Greenspan’s reputation a little in tatters. Ben Bernanke, his replacement at the Fed, made a great play of saying what he thought; of letting us in, as it were, on his rationale. At first it didn’t go down well. The markets concluded he didn’t really seem to know what he was doing. It is the tragedy of the modern age. All of us stumble around in the dark most of the time, but we just don’t like to admit to it. And when our leaders admit to it, we think they are weak and uncertain.

These days, however, Ben’s stock is high. It was he, first among the central bankers, who came up with the idea of forward guidance, when he revealed that the Fed would keep pumping money into the economy via QE for as long as unemployment remained high. Now they are all at it. The Bank of England – under the leadership of Mark Carney – is now saying that rates will stay at half a per cent as long as unemployment is over 7 per cent.

It is just that the minutes from the latest Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting revealed that one member of the committee – Martin Weale – voted against the policy. It was not so much the idea of forward guidance he was against, it was the perceived timing. He appeared to fear that the 7 per cent target was too loose. Er, or maybe you could say that actually he was against forward guidance, because he wants a policy that one might describe as always flexible.

His dissent is important, because it rather put a question mark over the viability of the policy. You can interpret the Bank of England as saying if the economy does this, we will definitely do that, unless, that is, we change our mind. There are also hints that UK unemployment is set to fall much more rapidly than has been assumed. A survey from the CIPD and the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index both point to positive changes in UK unemployment in the pipeline. See: The UK jobs market boost . This has led to speculation that rates might be rising much sooner than the Bank of England has been suggesting.

It appears that the industry that grew up predicting what the MPC might do next has changed into one predicting what unemployment will do. If nothing else, jobs have become a more important economic indicator – and maybe that is no bad thing; after all common sense suggests it should be the most important indicator.

In the US, recent data has pointed to a sharp improvement in the jobs outlook, with the latest survey suggesting US unemployment is now at its lowest level since October 2007.

So let’s review the situation. The signs, both in the form of hard data and from surveys, point to a labour market that is improving faster than many had dared to hope for. That means monetary policy might be tightened faster than many had feared. The markets are spooked by it all. ‘Better than they dared hope for’ jobs data turned out to be less of a boon than ‘rates rising faster than they had feared’, – at least that is what they are saying at the moment.

But then the markets are fickle and how they react one day can be quite different on another. If you think the markets are making themselves clear, it probably means you “misunderstood what they are saying”.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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“I think I should warn you,” said Ben Bernanke, “if you think I am making myself clear, then that means you have probably misunderstood me.” Witty, and a tad daft. It is just that actually those words were not spoken by Mr Bernanke at all; rather they were spoken by his predecessor as the Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.

In fact, when Ben took over at the Fed he went to great lengths to say he was not one for cryptic remarks. He would say it as he saw it. He promised to be something of a blunt speaker. (Ay up lad, I say wat I mean tha noes). Last week, however, he seemed to do an impressive impersonation of Mr Greenspan. His lips and eyes, or his statement and his inference, seemed all seemed out of sync.

Don’t get confused,” said the Fed Chairman, “The overall message [from the Fed’s rate setting committee] is accommodation.”

His words had been eagerly awaited. Last month Ben suggested the Fed may be tightening monetary policy soon. This time he said they will be doing no such thing. Rather that we may see a “gradual and possible change in the mix of [monetary] instruments.”

So what does that mean? A change in mix suggests the details are different but the overall thrust the same.

So that’s the headline.

What about the substance?

The latest minutes from the Fed said that many members of the FOMC – that’s the Federal Open Market Committee – “indicated that further improvement in the outlook for the labour market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of asset purchases.” Again this needs translating. “Many” is supposed to be code for slightly over half. Subsequent to the meeting of the FOMC to which these minutes relate, job data on the US has seen another big improvement. That rather suggests that more than half of the men and women who determine monetary policy are on the cusp of agreeing to “slow the pace of asset purchases.”

So Ben says one thing, and the minutes say something else.

The minutes also said that ‘some members’ wanted to see evidence that GDP growth was picking up before they agreed to tighten policy. So let’s decode that. In this case, “some” means fewer than half. The data on GDP is not expected to be so good in Q2. In other words, fewer than half are not ready to tighten policy.

Would you believe it? The markets loved all this. Somehow they concluded that the Fed is not going to tighten monetary policy as quickly as they had feared, so they went out and bought, pushing the Dow and S&P 500 to new all-time highs.

Capital Economics took a look at the Fed’s words and concluded that they suggest QE will be reduced somewhat in September, will cease altogether in 2014 and rates will rise in 2015. This is actually pretty much the same as what it was saying before the Fed released its minutes.

In other words, all that has really changed is that the Fed is saying much the same thing as it was a few weeks ago; it is just using more ambiguous words to say it.

And that was enough to get the markets all bullish again.

© Investment & Business News 2013

There have been times in the past when the markets got it into their collective head that it was time for buying, even though there were good reasons to think it was really a time for panicking. Take 2007: in that year, the Dow Jones passed a new all-time high, and the FTSE 100 came close to passing its all-time high.

These promising stock market peaks occurred after the run on Northern Rock; after the phrase ‘credit crunch’ crept into popular parlance. Back then the markets were in the mood for interpreting all news – good or bad – as if it was a reason to buy. Their logic went like this: if the news was bad that meant interest rates might fall, so buy; if the news was good, they bought because, well… because the news was good.

There have been times since when it felt a bit like that all over again, but this year, it has been rather odd.

The Dow Jones began 2013 with a score of 13,104, peaked at 15,409 on May 28 (the previous all-time high was 14,164 set in 2007). The index then fell back, falling to under 15,000 and at the time of writing stands at 15,135.

For the FTSE 100 things were a lot more volatile. The index began 2013 with a reading of 5,897, peaked on May 22 with a reading of 6,804 (against an all-time high of 6,930 set on December 30 1999), before falling back to 6,029 on June 24, and at the time of writing is at 15,135.

In Japan things have been more even extreme. With the Nikkei 225 rising from 10,401 on January 1, to 15,627 on May 22 and then 12,834 a week or so ago.

It is not hard to find an explanation but it is harder to find one that makes sense.

Because the news out of the US has been so good, the Fed is now talking about reining-in QE, and upping interest rates in 2015.

The markets do not like it.

The jury is out on how much QE has had to do with equities surging so high. QE has driven asset prices upwards, but then valuations to earnings, especially in the UK, do not look excessive.

One of the worries is that while the US economy may boom, the more indebted regions of the world simply cannot afford higher interest rates.

The Bank of England and the ECB recently went out of their way to emphasise that they have no plans to tighten monetary policy and that what they do is not dictated by the Fed.

But, supposing interest rates rise in the US, and money therefore flows into the US from the rest of the world. In response and to stop currencies falling too sharply against the dollar, we may see other central banks up rates. To make matters worse, the Central Bank in China seems to be tightening monetary policy. This may be a good thing for China, and indeed for the global economy in the long term, but for much of the world the timing is not good.

Some have had a nasty attack of déjà vu. When the Fed upped rates in 2004, one eventual consequence was money flooding out of South East Asia into the US, which led to the Asian crisis of 1997.

But then again there are differences this time. In Asia, especially among the so-called ASEAN countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, internal savings are much higher and the countries are less reliant on overseas credit.

Across the world some countries are more vulnerable than others. Brazil may be the most vulnerable of the BRICS; Turkey seems to have high exposure, and worryingly – given the political situation – so does Egypt.

Many countries in emerging Europe seem exposed, as do the PIIGs – of course, and so do Sweden and the Netherlands. Household debt and house prices are high in Canada and Australia, and then there is the UK. See: Is that a sword of Damocles hanging over the UK housing market? 

Interest rates seem set to rise in the US, and for other reasons they may rise worldwide. See: The Great Reset 

This is down to good news, and is largely positive, but for some countries, companies and people, the news is not so good – not at all.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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During the height of the euro crisis, politicians in Europe, and indeed central bankers, blamed the markets and credit ratings agencies. Yesterday an official at the Fed followed that tactic too.

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve, told the ‘FT’: “I do believe that big money does organize itself somewhat like feral hogs. If they detect a weakness or a bad scent, they go after it.”

He also took the opportunity of being interviewed by the ‘FT’ to remind us all about George Soros – the man who shorted sterling in 1992, beat the Bank of England and hastened the UK’s departure from the ERM. He likened today’s feral hogs to Mr Soros, but is that right?

Being a messenger is never a good place to be, not if you bring bad news anyway. When Eurozone politicians blamed credit ratings agencies, and what they called bond vigilantes for the woes in Europe, they were surely deluding themselves. They had fooled themselves into thinking the crisis was less serious than it was, and they thought they could talk until the cows came home. The markets went some way towards correcting their complacency.

By hastening the UK’s departure from the ERM, George Soros probably did the UK a favour.

But what about this time?

Markets are selling because there are fears that interest rates are set to rise. The Fed has said as much, and even in China there are signs of monetary tightening.

But don’t forget that the news out of the US has been good of late. To remind you of two of the highlights: US banks’ profits were at an all-time high in Q1, and US households have cut debt substantially since 2007.

As things stand, the Dow remains substantially up on its start of year position as does the Nikkei 225 in Japan. And that makes sense.

Markets probably overdid their exuberance in May, but both the US and Japan are in a better place now than they were at the beginning of the year.

As far as equities are concerned, in addition to fears about the Fed tightening monetary policy, some are nervous about the possibility that US profits to GDP are set to fall. But in the long run, profits to GDP falling and wages to GDP rising is surely good thing.
Even higher interest rates are a good thing, if higher rates are symptomatic of the economy returning to normal.

But higher interest rates will be bad news for those with high debts, and for that reason the UK and – more so – the Eurozone may lose out.

The FTSE 100 has not performed as well as US markets this year. Unlike the Dow, it never did pass its all-time high. And unlike the Dow, the FTSE 100 has now fallen to within a whisker of its start of year price. That is probably about right.

But at least the UK has its own central bank, free to print money and buy bonds via quantitative easing.

The countries of the indebted Eurozone do not have such a luxury, which is why Europe may yet be the biggest loser.

Image: Pig In Pen by Kim Newberg

© Investment & Business News 2013

Yesterday was a day for selling. But it is noticeable that while gold fell to a 34 month low, and US government bonds to a 22 month low, on the whole equities merely fell to a one month low.

At the time of writing gold is trading at $1,295. To put that price in context, back in September last year it was going for $1,778. The last time it was so cheap was September 2010.

Some say they are puzzled by the falls, but gold really is one of those riddles wrapped in an enigma – a golden enigma, in fact.

Gold rose in the aftermath of the finance crisis, and then again in the aftermath of the aftermath, because many feared a major meltdown as countries raced to devalue, and it was being said that QE created the danger of hyperinflation.

Talk of QE creating hyperinflation always was nonsense. As this column has said before, what matters is the broad money supply, and at a time when banks didn’t want to lend, while households were trying to repair their balance sheets, there was little chance of the broad money supply rising significantly, whatever central banks did.

Now the US economy is showing signs of real recovery, and the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has suggested QE will be easing up soon and interest rates are likely to rise in 2015, everything looks different.

When real interest rates are negative, the fact that gold offers no yield is a trivial concern. But now that rates seem set to rise, that lack of yield seems to matter a great deal.

As for bonds, the yield on US 10 year treasuries has risen from 1.38 per cent last July to 2.39 per cent at the time of writing.

Markets are moving away from so-called safe harbour assets. During the era of QE, many feared currency wars, as loose monetary policy pushed down on the dollar, and other countries tried to devalue so as not to lose their competitive edge. Now the era of loosening is approaching an end; currency wars have moved to currency peace, and the new fear is that some currencies are in danger of becoming too weak.

As for equities, they too have fallen sharply, but just remember that the falls are not as drastic as recent rises. The FTSE 100 started 2013 on 5,898, rose to 6,840 last month, going close to the all-time high set in 1999, before falling to 6,159 last night.

Look at how equities have fallen since the end of May, and the sell-off looks drastic. Look at equities this year, and the market still looks attractive.

Above all, just remember that it is good news on the US economy that lies behind markets selling.

As rates rise, there will be losers, and for a while the markets may even punish those with strong fundamentals, but a resurgent US consumer is a good thing, and once the dust has settled we will see plenty of winners. But watch the Eurozone, emerging Europe, and maybe Brazil, for the real woe.

© Investment & Business News 2013