Friday, August 12, 2016

Is the Central Banking Bubble Bursting?

America's economy is stuck in first gear, China's economic growth is slowing, Europe's economy is dead in the water, and Japan's economy has been lost in a fog bank for decades.  Corporate profits have been declining on a year-to-year basis.  But stocks keep reaching new highs.  Given the backdrop of pessimistic data from the real world, one must wonder how much longer the delirious jollity of the markets can continue.

It's no secret that the frothiness of stocks stems from the service-minded attitude of the world's major central banks:  they aim to please.  Accommodation is the word of the day.  Money will be printed early and often, and served on a silver platter with a flute of champagne.  The central bankers are not about to take the champagne away, even though some Federal Reserve officials occasionally mutter something or other about raising rates.  The markets know this--the futures market seem to view rate rises as likely as pigs flying.  So the central bank bubble persists.

It's true that the central banks' tools are becoming dull.  Quantitative easing--the purchasing of bonds by central banks--is playing out.  Vast amounts of government bonds have been bought up, and now corporate bonds are being targeted.  Private sector retirement savings are being pummeled by the lack of sources of reliable long term earnings.  Pension fund deficits are like festering sores, annuity payouts are shrinking, long care insurance policies are becoming extortionately expensive, and interest payments on personal savings are going the way of the passenger pigeon.  With shrinking retirement prospects, people are saving more so that they can limit the need for dog food in their retirement diets.  As a result, both current and future consumption are constrained.  Since consumption is 70% of the U.S. economy, the Fed is seeking short gains in aggregate economic statistics by sacrificing long term financial prospects.  We've had eight years of ultra low interest rates with no end in sight, and recovery from the resulting income losses will take many years, if it ever happens.

More recently, the monetary tool that has become au courant among central bankers is the negative interest rate.  Negative rates are a counter-intuitive policy where borrowers are paid to take out loans.  They are supposed to stimulate lending by penalizing commercial banks for holding deposits.  However, despite being all the rage among central banks in Europe and Japan, they haven't worked out. It seems that people, concerned by the weirdness of negative rates, aren't borrowing but instead are saving more.   See  Negative interest rates signal that the world is not well.  People are hunkering down and building up financial reserves in case times get worse.  This, too, dampens consumption and current economic growth.

But the deleterious effects of ultra low and negative interest rates are more likely to cause further economic stagnation, not a sudden collapse of stock prices.  The reality is that central banks aren't subject to market forces the way the rest of us are.  They are, however, subject to a lot of political pressure to keep current economic statistics looking good.  They know that the political process is largely dysfunctional, and fiscal proactivity isn't on the agenda. So they keep exchanging small near term benefits for large long term costs without any immediate consequence.  The bubble won't burst simply because they are making a bad long term deal. 

Could the central banking bubble burst?  The breakup of the EU might do the trick.  A return of significant inflation would be a major risk factor.  But it's hard to predict the likelihood of either.  In the meantime, stock prices could remain manically frothy.  Central banks can't defeat market forces when the market works against them, as the Bank of England found out in 1992 when it tried to support an overvalued pound against market forces pushing the pound down.  But right now, the financial markets want the central banks to be accommodative.  They applaud the idea.  Since the central banks face no reality checks, they can keep printing money indefinitely.

So, should you suspend belief and keep buying stocks?  Certainly, seeing stocks go ever higher just about every day is encouragement to drink the Kool-Aid and invest more.  But staying well-diversified, with a healthy dollop of cash, may be the sanest choice in an insane world.

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