The prevailing mantra in many of today’s investment commentaries reminds me of the satirical plot to the 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove, in which a deranged United States Air Force general orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, convinced that the Soviets have been adding fluoride to the United States’ water supplies to pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans.
Today’s grumpy bears likewise allege that our central banks have been adding funny stuff to the world’s money supply via QE and have polluted the sanctity of the market pricing mechanism. As a result we have (too) high asset prices despite low growth and no inflation. In this pessimistic interpretation of the global economy the biggest complaint is the incapacity of central banks to raise interest rates; they have now been kept unchanged in the US for longer than during the Great Depression.
If only those dastardly public officials had not averted a 1930s style policy of mutually assured destruction, when the world’s monetary authorities stuck rigidly to the mantra of “hard-money” to the profound detriment of the real economy! Then, so they reason, we could have had the cathartic effects of a depression and by now, seven years later, a recovery would be in full swing, signs of inflation would be emerging and we could start raising interest rates…we would be saved! Strange days indeed…and now, like the mad Brigadier General Ripper, they pin their hopes on the first strike attack policy of creative destruction via unnecessary rate hikes, deluding themselves that such a disastrous course could possibly promote innovation, growth and prosperity.
Never mind that such a policy is most unlikely. To us, this is no way to build anything spectacular. An appropriate analogy perhaps is to compare the economy to the Amazonian rainforest – more complicated than we can possibly imagine. To us, the notion of not intervening, or worse the policy of pursuing tight monetary policy to ignite creative destruction is no way to protect and encourage a truly diverse ecosystem. Instead, we favour the modern orthodoxy whereby policy makers protect the system with their fire breaks allowing the disrupters like Uber and the explosion of free services ranging from Google Search to Skype to Wikipedia et al. to thrive and Forcibly redirect capital and labour elsewhere within the economy. Given enough time and a generous prescription of QE, and shorn of the tail risk of MAD policies, the global economy will eventually recover most of the diversity, durability and growth it once had.
But as it stands right now, macroeconomic presentations seem to have been lifted straight from the pages of religious pamphlets and science fiction novels which overwhelmingly present a future that is mainly worse than the present; a similar mood was evident in the first Jack Schwager Market Wizards book published, not surprisingly, after the calamity of the October 1987 crash. The best minds back then, like today, were convinced that our future was very bleak. We can only conclude that capital markets seem to hoard innately pessimistic desires and that therein lies the opportunity for risk takers like us.
Such anxiety has very much been to the fore again this year, something we found reassuring during the particularly tough months like August when the VIX spiked above 50 and again last month when we were subject to a vicious countertrend re-pricing of the year’s winners and losers. This angst is perhaps the true disease of the 21st century. Cancer and diabetes will most likely be cured in time (preferably by the European drug stocks that we own in our portfolio) but anxiety seems more deeply rooted in the human psyche. In markets, of course, it can be useful, especially if you become anxious before others; we have some good form here. Indeed, it is ironic that we are perhaps best known for advising “that you panic”. However, if you are anxious at the wrong time it can prove very painful. Today, we would advise that you don’t panic!
For markets do not crash when we are collectively so worried; it is like Hyman Minsky’s adage that stability destabilises except that today the reverse is more apt. In our minds it is as though quantitative easing and the zero lower bound of policy rates have replaced the capital markets’ airbag with a dagger protruding from the steering column. Market participants are hugely uncomfortable with today’s elevated prices and the lack of an obvious orthodox policy response should the global economy weaken further. Unsurprisingly there is little appetite to drive fast and the brakes are applied at the merest hint of danger. In short, by withdrawing the “Greenspan put” and using their asset purchase schemes to eviscerate any notion of value, the authorities have paradoxically created a safer yet more paranoid market.
The market’s fear of crashing has seen it thrash around looking for the merest hint of danger. First it was Europe, then the high yield credit space with the vulnerabilities of the shale oil issuers, and then it was back to Greece and then the mother of them all, China, with its falling property and stock prices seemingly knocking economic growth and making a sizeable devaluation inevitable. And yet nada… the weeping prophets have failed to force a crisis after one hell of a go. There have been no observable widespread bankruptcies in China, the shale oil sector is still pumping and despite the huge EM devaluation we haven’t exposed large fragile dollar debts which can’t be repaid or rolled over.
Perhaps we are being premature and the cards are about to fall. Or perhaps there simply are no dead bodies in the system and the global economy has proven itself much more resilient to shocks. We certainly believe that if we had been forewarned two years ago that the dollar would rise versus selected EM currencies by 50% and that important commodities such as oil and iron ore would fall by 50% we would never have been able to predict just how orderly things have turned out at both the company and sovereign level. The turmoil it seems has remained contained within financial markets in a very curious way. Like we said earlier, perhaps it’s time to stop worrying and love the bomb?