It is becoming increasingly difficult for central banks to surprise the markets with good news. No matter how dovish they are, investors expect them to be even more dovish still. This financial repression has facilitated the rise of populist politicians, who threaten to bring the end of central banks’ independence.
Central banks are trying to prolong the decade-old bull market, but it looks like instead of reassuring investors, this makes them nervous.
January was an extraordinarily positive month in the markets for virtually all assets, after a horrible 2018 — and it’s all due to the Fed. The US central bank executed a massive U-turn in its monetary policy and, while many observers like to point to low inflation as the reason for the Fed’s aborted effort to normalise monetary policy, something more sinister is behind it.
It finally happened: investors are so bearish that a contrarian “buy” signal has been triggered. The Bull and Bear indicator developed by researchers at Bank of America Merrill Lynch is finally indicating Buy, one year after climbing so high that it triggered a Sell signal.
If this is not yet capitulation, it sure feels like it. Money has been fleeing stock markets at record speed, and despite dovish signals from the Federal Reserve, investors are still not taking advantage of the buying opportunities the panic in the markets are throwing at them.
When the bank of central banks warns about financial stability, you have to take notice — even if the warning comes in the Bank for International Settlements usually dry, academic style.
The BIS recently published a paper about the effect of prolonged interest rates on financial stability, and it makes worrying reading. (However, as most people are on holidays in August, unless they are reading it on the beach it will largely go unnoticed).
Speeches and releases from various European Central Bank officials don’t make the best summer reading, that’s for sure. But it might be a good idea to go through a couple of recent ones, which give a hint of what the future might bring.
As the major central banks are slowly retreating from their policy of asset purchases, we will probably witness some of the side effects of this withdrawal.
Warren Buffett famously said that “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” The tide is going out only slowly, but we are beginning to see, at least in the UK, the damage the ultra loose monetary policy has done.
What a spectacular lesson the first half of the year delivered for investors. At the beginning of the year, it looked like the UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a great idea: the eurozone seemed on the brink of disintegration.
“Happiness is a candle. In fact, don’t laugh too loud, you risk putting it out.”
— Christophe Maé – Il est où le bonheur
“Brexit Armageddon simply hasn’t happened,” writes with delight the Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliot.
“The 1.4% jump in retail sales in July showed that consumers have not stopped spending, and seem to be more influenced by the weather than they are by fear of the consequences of what happened on 23 June. Retailers are licking their lips in anticipation of an Olympics feelgood factor.
The financial markets are serene. Share prices are close to a record high, and fears that companies would find it difficult and expensive to borrow have proved wide of the mark. Far from dumping UK government gilts, pension funds and insurance companies have been keen to hold on to them,” writes Elliot.
Perhaps this optimism is partly justified. After all, confidence goes a long way in financial markets, as any observer of emerging markets can testify. As long as you can project confidence, the battle is, if not won, at least not entirely lost. In most cases, anyway.