2014 – A Year of Investing Dangerously – John Butler
For those rich in assets, 2013 was a good year. Equity markets, especially in the US, rose substantially. Property markets continued their recovery. Even bonds, which lose value when interest rates rise, did well overall due to spread compression and the generous ‘roll-yield’ associated with steep yield curves. Indeed, declining risk premia and the associated fall in implied volatilities across all major asset classes was the single biggest financial market story of 2013. Why did this occur? Is it sustainable? In this report, I explain why it is not, and how, unseen by the economic mainstream, severe damage is being done to the global economy, in various ways, with the financial market consequences highly likely to be felt in 2014, and in the years to come.
The Perils of Financial Market Manipulation in Theory and Practice
Other than a handful of economic officials and ivory-tower academics, few would argue that asset prices are where they are today independent of the unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus of recent years. Indeed, many economic officials openly admit that their actions have influenced financial market variables and that this is an important policy goal. Academic economists provide much theoretical although highly questionable support for this view.
Naturally, however, if asset prices are artificially supported by policy, then financial market participants will no doubt be concerned as to what happens when such policy is withdrawn. This is the single, best explanation for the recent, sharp correction in risky asset valuations around the world.
Economic officials, spooked by market developments, are thus now at pains to reassure all that they will only withdraw stimulus in a way that does not destabilize markets. While that sounds nice on paper, there is scant evidence that it can work in practice. Indeed, the entire modern history of economic officials managing financial market expectations has been an abject failure of economic boom and bust. In order to understand why, we need to revisit this history, beginning with the original ‘Maestro’ conductor of the financial orchestra…
Back to Whence It All Began: The Maestro of ‘Forward (Mis)Guidance’
Alan Greenspan was at the height of his fame in 2003. Having already been the subject of a best-selling book, Maestro, by veteran Washington Post journalist (and Watergate sleuth) Bob Woodard, Mr Greenspan became ‘Sir’ Alan in 2002, receiving an honorary Knighthood from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. But it was in 2003 that Sir Alan claimed his special place in the annals of modern monetary history by introducing what is known today as ‘forward guidance’: explicit attempts to influence asset prices and, thereby, manage the economy to an even greater degree than that allowed by setting the level of interest rates, of bank reserve and other lending requirements, and through banking and financial regulation more generally. Announced to the world on 12 August 2003, for the first time in its history, the Fed included forward guidance (in bold) at the end of its policy statement:
The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 1 percent.
The Committee continues to believe that an accommodative stance of monetary policy, coupled with still-robust underlying growth in productivity, is providing important ongoing support to economic activity. The evidence accumulated over the inter-meeting period shows that spending is firming, although labor market indicators are mixed. Business pricing power and increases in core consumer prices remain muted.
The Committee perceives that the upside and downside risks to the attainment of sustainable growth for the next few quarters are roughly equal. In contrast, the probability, though minor, of an unwelcome fall in inflation exceeds that of a rise in inflation from its already low level. The Committee judges that, on balance, the risk of inflation becoming undesirably low is likely to be the predominant concern for the foreseeable future. In these circumstances, the Committee believes that policy accommodation can be maintained for a considerable period.1
The minutes of this FOMC meeting were published just over a month later, on 18 September. The decision to include the statement was described thus:
The Committee also decided to include a reference in the announcement to its judgment that under anticipated circumstances policy accommodation could be maintained for a considerable period.
The minutes then documented the discussion which followed:
Several members commented that the nature of the Committee’s communications had evolved substantially over recent meetings and that it might be useful to schedule a separate session to review current practices. They agreed to do so prior to the next scheduled meeting on September 16.
Now, turning to that September meeting, we read in the minutes released later that year that:
The members also reviewed the further use of the reference concerning the maintenance of an accommodative policy stance “for a considerable period” that was included in the press statement issued for the August meeting. Given the uncertainties that characteristically surround the economic outlook and the need for an appropriate policy response to changing economic conditions, the members generally agreed that the Committee should not usually commit itself to a particular policy stance over some pre-established, extended time frame. The course of policy would be determined by the evaluation of the outlook, not the passage of time. The unusual configuration of already low interest rates and reservations about the strength of the expansion had justified the inclusion of the phrase “for a considerable period” in the statement issued in August. While changing circumstances would call for removal of that reference at some point, doing so at this meeting might suggest the members’ views on the economy had changed markedly. Accordingly, the Committee decided to release a statement after this meeting that was virtually identical to that used after the August meeting apart from some minor updating to reflect ongoing economic developments. (Emphasis added.)
In 2004, the Fed expanded on this precedent as it began to prepare financial markets for higher interest rates from the, at the time, unprecedented low of 1%.
January (rates unchanged):
…the Committee believes that it can be patient in removing its policy accommodation.
May (rates unchanged):
…the Committee believes that policy accommodation can be removed at a pace that is likely to be measured.
June (rates raised by 0.25%):
…the Committee believes that policy accommodation can be removed at a pace that is likely to be measured. Nonetheless, the Committee will respond to changes in economic prospects as needed to fulfill its obligation to maintain price stability.
This last forward guidance was then left in place as the Fed raised rates in steady 0.25% increments through the remainder of 2004 and into late 2005. Finally, in December that year, having raised interest rates in a long series of 0.25% baby steps to over 4%–a level that could be considered in a normal range—the Fed changed the forward guidance yet again and concluded its policy statement thus:
The Committee judges that some further measured policy firming is likely to be needed to keep the risks to the attainment of both sustainable economic growth and price stability roughly in balance. In any event, the Committee will respond to changes in economic prospects as needed to foster these objectives.
In other words, the Fed indicated three things: First, that additional rate rises were probably on the way. Second, that these rises would not