Between all the sporting events, road trips, and parties, I had a difficult time balancing my academic responsibilities just like any other college student. Nonetheless, after a few jobs and a few decades post my graduation, it is refreshing to see my economics college degree was able to teach me one valuable lesson…”supply & demand” actually works.
Emotions and animal spirits can separate fact from fiction in the short-run, but over the long-run, the economic forces of “supply & demand” will ultimately determine the direction of asset prices. If you can think of any bubble market, ranging from tulips and tech stocks (see Bubbles and Naps) to commodities and houses, sooner or later new supply will enter the market, and/or some other factor, which will prick the demand side of the bubble equation.
The same economic rules apply to currencies. Gut-based, day-traders may be skeptical, but economics’ longest enduring axiom shined last week when we saw the Swiss franc spike +20% against the euro in a single day. On the heels of a weakening euro currency and heightened demand for the franc, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) decided to remove its artificial peg to the euro. Effectively, the SNB has been selling francs and buying $490 billion in reserves (the majority of which is in euros and U.S. dollars). As a result, exports of Swiss army knives, watches, and industrial equipment will be more expensive now, which could potentially crimp demand for the country’s goods and services. The SNB, however, could no longer afford to buy euros and dollars to artificially depress the franc. Swiss bankers were very worried about the possible amplified costs of a currency war in the face of this week’s expected European Central Bank (ECB) announcements on quantitative easing (QE) monetary stimulus, so they decided to allow the franc to free-float versus global currencies.
Another asset class heavily impacted by volatile supply-demand dynamics has been the oil market. Weaker demand from Europe/Russia combined with the higher supply from U.S. shale has created a recipe for a crude price collapse (> -50% declines over the last year). Thus far, OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) has remained committed to maintaining its supply/production levels.
Interest Rates and Supply-Demand
Not every asset price is affected by direct supply-demand factors. Take for example the stock market. I have been writing and commentating about the fascinating persistence and accelerated decline in global interest rates recently (see Why 0% Rates?). Near-0% rates are important because interest rates are just another name for the “cost of money” (or “opportunity cost of money”). When the Prime Rate was 20% in the early 1980s, the cost of money was high and a 16% CD at the bank looked pretty attractive relative to rolling the dice on volatile/risky stocks. Any economics, finance, or accounting student knows through their studies of the “time value of money” that interest rates have a tight inverse correlation to asset values (i.e., lower interest rates = higher asset values, and vice versa).
More practically speaking, we see stock prices supported by the lower borrowing costs tied to low interest rates. Just look at the $500,000,000,000+ conducted in share buybacks over the past 12 months (chart below). Economics works quite effectively when you can borrow at 3% and then purchase your own stock yielding 6% (the inverse percentage of the current 16x P/E ratio). What makes this mathematical equation even more accretive for corporate CFOs is the 6% rate earned today should double to 12% in 10 years, if a company resembles an average S&P 500 company. In other words, S&P 500 earnings have historically grown at a 7% annual clip, therefore the 6% earnings yield should double to 12% in about a decade, based on current prices. This basic arbitrage strategy is a no-brainer for corporate execs because it provides instantaneous EPS (earnings per share) growth with minimal risk, given the current bullet proof status of many blue-chip company balance sheets.
I have provided a few basic examples of how straightforward supply-demand dynamics can be used to analyze market relationships and trends. Although supply-demand analysis is a great rudimentary framework at looking at markets and various asset classes, unanticipated exogenous factors such regulation, terrorism, politics, weather, and a whole host of other influences can throw a wrench into your valuation conclusions. Until rates normalize, the near-0% interest rates we are experiencing now will continue to be a significant tailwind for stock prices. As interest rates have been declining for the last three and a half decades, it appears I still have time before I will need to apply the other important concept I learned in college…mean reversion.