A World Flying Blind
Recently, stock markets around the world have performed remarkably well. This may even continue for a few months. The U.S. Federal Reserve's promise to hold interest rates near zero until 2014 and signal of a third round of quantitative soon, combined with an improving U.S. labor market, have emboldened risk-takers. Financial markets are seeing more risk-on trade.
However, the fundamentals for the global economy remain dire. The West is mired in debt troubles, declining competitiveness and unsustainable social overheads. The East is struggling to build up robust consumer demand to balance its manufacturing prowess. So far, world leaders have used liquidity and fiscal measures to prop up demand without addressing structural problems. In essence, they are continuing to treat the global economy as a car with a dead battery rather than a bad engine.
So, 2012 will be an extremely difficult year. The global economy is likely to slip into recession, as Europe and Japan are mired in deep recession and emerging economies stall. Black swan events, such as a sovereign default in Europe, an emerging market crash, a surge in oil prices due to conflict in the Middle East, and a selloff in Japan or the U.S.'s sovereign debt market, will haunt the fragile global economy.
At the annual World Economic Forum in Davos we again saw familiar faces from the West, but some different characters from emerging economies. Some of the last year's bunch went to jail amidst the revolutions engulfing the Middle East. They were discussing how to fix capitalism. Apparently, the same people who blew up the world and got their governments to bail them out are now again making millions and talking about how to fix things. Not many people see the irony in this. The tragedy of the global financial crisis is that it didn't sweep away the old order.
During an economic boom people who are good at ingratiating themselves with the establishment tend to rise to the top. After a boom of two decades, leaders are already two to three generations into such a process. These people pretty much make a living by just looking the part. This is why the global crisis will last for years to come, until a new generation of leaders rises through a competitive process.
The Fed's announcement sparked a 10 percent rally in stock markets around the world. By promising to keep money cheap and holding down bond yields through asset purchases, despite the inflationary impact of cheap money, it is pushing investors into risk assets. I believe that it is targeting the stock market.
Playing with expectations works temporarily. The risk-on trade is in a mini bubble, as today's buyers want to be ahead of the slower ones. The buying trend is sustainable only if the global economy strengthens, which is unlikely. The stocks aren't cheap. Desirable consumer stocks are selling for twenty times earnings. Banks are cheap for a reason. Internet stocks suggest another bubble in the making. The Fed is trying to inflate an expensive asset. The rally, hence, is quite fragile. As soon as a shock like Greece defaulting or bad economic news unfolds, the market will quickly head south.
There is a saying that one shouldn't fight the Fed. Because the Federal Reserve keeps money cheap, other assets become more attractive. This logic works as long as the Fed knows what it is doing. But, can it predict three years out? Newly released information tells us that it was laughing at the troubles in the housing market in 2006, right before the crash. This shows that the Federal Reserve couldn't see events a few months ahead, let alone years.
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