Sunday, December 16, 2018

How Donald Trump Could Create a Stock Market Crash

Stock market crashes, such as in 2008, emanate from inflated asset prices.  While economic recessions and other events, such as war, can trigger market downturns, large, sharp market drops (a/k/a crashes) are the result of artificially high asset prices that often have started bubbling.  In 2008, the asset bubbles resulted from overly generous prices being paid for real estate, the resulting mortgages, stocks that seemed like good bets in light of all the real estate activity, and stocks generally because market averages kept rising.  It didn't help that the U.S. government guaranteed almost all mortgages on a de facto or de jure basis.  The easiest way to get people to pay too much for an asset is to make it seem like a sure bet.  Con men know this and profit from it because, despite all the evidence that there is no such thing as a sure bet except taxes and death, people remain suckers for sure bets. 

Donald Trump bet the image of his Presidency on the rising stock market.  Stocks rose briskly right after Election Day in 2016 and maintained their upward momentum for over a year.  Trump noisily celebrated the huzzahs he thought he heard from the financial markets and wore out the fabric of his suit jackets patting himself on the back.

But Trump, despite decades as a New York businessman, hasn't absorbed a simple lesson that he should have learned about stocks a long time ago:   that stocks go up and stocks go down.  There is no such thing in the stock markets as continuing upward momentum.  There is no endless applause.

So, when the stock markets got tummy trouble in 2018, and began to burp, belch and make other inelegant noises, Trump became discombobulated.  He berated the Federal Reserve Board for raising interest rates, manipulated oil prices down by persuading the Saudis to keep pumping large volumes, and condemned American businesses that closed down domestic operations.  Sometimes, on down days in the market, he made statements about trade talks that turned out to be optimistic or premature.  He seemed indifferent to widening federal deficits, instead suggesting a further tax cut for the middle class.  All of these actions seem linked to a desire to support stock prices.  But stocks have remained gloomy.  So we can expect that Trump will keep searching for some way to boost the metric that he thought made him look so good.

Persistent efforts by governments to support and boost asset prices have tended to end badly.  There is no free lunch, and governmental distortion of asset prices inevitably leads to misallocation of capital and other resources.  Pushed far enough, this mispricing eventually becomes too much for investors to stomach, and they back away from the asset. Then, bad things happen to the asset's price. That happened with real estate and mortgages in 2008 and it may be happening with stocks now.  If Trump pushes too hard on maintaining and increasing stock prices, he could foster a bubble in the stock markets, and nothing good for him will result from that.  If you're an investor, don't bet on governmental action to make stocks great again.  Remember:  in the final analysis, stocks go up and stocks go down.