Tall Tales

What’s the story?

When Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2013  (shared with Lars Peter Hansen and the great Eugene Fama), I recall being particularly pleased for him. He is, rightly I suspect, a skeptic of the antics of financial markets, having twice called the top in market bubbles (dot.com and housing crisis). He coined the phrase “irrational exuberance,” which was used to powerful effect by Alan Greenspan.

Then, famously during the dot.com crisis, he was derided by many in the financial community and on CNBC for his pronouncements that markets would collapse. He handled himself with grace and had the last laugh. In addition, he is an economist with a practical interest in markets and asset prices, and many of his housing and stock market metrics are now widely used.

Well before academics shared data publicly, Shiller made his long-term market valuation series available on the internet. This open source approach is perhaps one of the reasons why his long-term data is now widely referred to. The key metric here is what is called the Shiller P/E (price to earnings ratio) or, as he himself puts it, the CAPE, the cyclically adjusted price to earnings ratio. What this essentially does is normalize earnings across the economic cycle.

The CAPE is now at a level only previously reached in 1929 and 1999/2000. We know what happened next in both of those cases. This doesn’t seem to worry investors, largely because the market narrative is built around the notion that ‘a trade deal will be done any day now’ and that the Federal Reserve will continue to dose markets with liquidity.

Interestingly, the idea of the macro ‘narrative’ is the focus of Shiller’s most recent work (he has a book out entitled ‘Narrative Economics’ as well as several papers on the topic). Essentially, he investigates the ways in which we (households, investors, economists) tell stories about the behavior of economic events and market trends. I would argue that ‘The Levelling’ is a narrative on what is happening to the old world order and on how it would evolve.

Shiller’s ‘narrative’ based strand of research is not new. Pop economists have for a long time made sense of the world by coining understandable terms like ‘white van man’, and for an even longer time, stockbrokers have told stories around stocks and markets, and their clients have readily swallowed these stories.

I tend to classify the spectrum of the finance industry as having two ends – storytelling and quant. Story tellers are not good quants, and quants are not good storytellers. What is interesting now is that quant, be it through the provision of new and better datasets, is providing the narrative ammunition for storytellers to tell more elaborate, and possibly convincing, macroeconomic stories.

Storytelling is also a neat way of bunching together the various trends in markets. For instance, there is a notable divergence between what we might call drugged assets (assets that are under the spell of central bank liquidity) such as the Dax, quality corporate bonds, euro-zone debt and the S&P 500 index, and those like emerging market currencies, some commodities and crypto currencies (see last week’s missive) that do not have the outright benefit of central bank asset purchases, and that as a result tell a cleaner picture about the relatively weak global economy.

As we head into December expect many to continue the narrative that central bank liquidity will suppress volatility, and I suspect that in general this narrative will continue to hold into 2020.

One narrative that may pick up pace, is the idea I explored a few weeks ago of ‘Demonstration Contagion’ (link). Under this narrative, the panoply of protests around the world are both distinct and have common perceived causes such as inequality and climate damage. In particular, events in Hong Kong cut across many of these issues, and there is a great deal at stake economically and politically.

The new developments are that President Trump’s (by the way Shiller describes him as a ‘master of narratives’…Shiller is a master of irony) signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the overwhelmingly pro-democracy tenor of last week’s council elections in Hong Kong, provide two threads to tie events in Hong Kong to the trade dispute between the US and China, and to January’s Presidential elections in Taiwan.

As such, protestors in Hong Kong have every incentive to continue to protest, and the Chinese authorities cannot but feel more uncomfortable. As crowds in Hong Kong this weekend hold aloft the image recently tweeted by Donald Trump of his head superimposed on the body of ‘Rocky’, the Demonstration Contagion narrative is only just warming up.

Have a great week ahead,


Is Trump Hoover?

Herbert Hoover in better times

Over a week ago I penned an article for Dow Jones/Marketwatch where I predicted (note that I only use this verb after the event) that the recent rate cut by the Federal Reserve would mark the top for equities. The subsequent volatility, and of course last week’s missive on the yuan, prove me to be a financial market genius.

More seriously, recent volatility is a reminder of the fragility of investor behavior and of the risks lurking in the global economy. On a longer scale, as we approach September, they are a reminder that while the global financial crisis of 2008 did not quite end in an economic depression, neither has it produced a true economic renaissance. Many of the factors that caused the crisis in the first place—indebtedness, corporate risk taking and poor governance—have simply been in abeyance, hibernating, and are now again emerging into the daylight.

One consequence of these persistence economic fault lines is that we are in a political depression. In this light, some respected commentators—notably, Madeleine Albright in her book Fascism: A Warning—draw parallels between political figures today and those of the 1920s and ’30s. Recent events in the US, and comments by the President reinforce the parallel.

In ‘The Levelling’ my intention is to avoid the gloomier comparisons with the 1920’s/30’s, but the deepening trade dispute between the US and China makes them inevitable. One reason that President Trump has been eager to push the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates is that he ‘doesn’t want to be the next Hoover’.

Other commentators have already been making this comparison with Herbert Hoover (President from 1929 to 1933). Paul Krugman recently wrote that the level of tariffs applied by the Trump administration is now close to that of the Great Depression.

Hoover was different to Trump in that he distinguished himself in various ways, notably in his humanitarian work in Belgium with the US Food and Drug Administration, and in Central Europe in the aftermath of the First World War.

In other ways, he has several things in common with President Trump: German/British parentage, a business background, and a mastery of new communications channels, in Hoover’s case the use of radio (rather than Twitter) to reach voters and the introduction of the press conference as a regular political event.

Furthermore, the trade dispute between the United States and China has excited commentators who fear that Trump may repeat the mistakes of the Hoover government. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial team warned last year that the Trump trade team is like Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley, promotors of the disastrous 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The same newspaper now talks of a ‘Navarro Recession’, in honour of Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro.

 The Act aided and abetted the onset of the Great Depression with the introduction of tariffs of up to 60 percent on twenty thousand types of goods imported into the United States. The net effect of the Act was to squash any hope of an economic recovery in the aftermath of the Great Depression and to cut world trade by 33 percent.

In addition, readers might tremble to know that Hoover took office with US equity valuations at very high levels. Robert Shiller’s excellent database highlights that the US market’s price to earnings ratio was at 32 in January 1929 (the highest it reached was 44 in December 1999) and that it reads 29.5 today, which is 75 percent higher than the historical average of 16 and thus puts the market in expensive territory from a valuation standpoint. Eight months into Hoover’s term the Wall Street Crash occurred, and the United States lurched first into recession and then into the Great Depression.

Whenever the market wobbles as it did last week, some investors revisit the ‘Great Depression’ hypothesis, and many others point to a coming recession. For my part I am sticking to my cautious line for a number of reasons.

First the trade war is a reminder of the many policy risks in the world (widespread negative yields are another pointer), and of the fact that as growth slows, countries will squabble more over the crumbling pie of globalization.

Second, moves in other asset classes than equities – government bonds, even corporate and high yield bonds and particularly commodities are bearish

Third, the world is becoming more fractured. South Korea and Japan are locked in a trade dispute, and there is a growing risk of some form of confrontation between India and Pakistan. Do not of course forget events in Hong Kong, and the untethering of the yuan.

With lots to watch, have a great week ahead,