Friday, August 26, 2011
In the week of August 8th to the 12th, the world saw the equity markets swing very wildly from up to down and around again. It was, I am sure, very disconcerting, probably frightening. And people are confused because after a lot of reforms, laws, regulations, planning, stimulation, and quantitative easing, which was suppose to make things better, we are having big, dangerous, damaging swings.
In recent days I have seen several suggestions in the media that volatility would continue, at least for a while, because of the uncertainty as to what direction the stock market would take. These comments have a very narrow focus and fail to recognize wider causes and implications. They do not recognize that it is not just the stock market that has volatility. Currently, well, in fact I am not aware of any international market that isn’t suffering higher levels of volatility. Currency markets, commodity markets, bond markets (except very short term, which are basically pegged by Fed policy), you name it, are all experiencing significant volatility.
The biggest reason is “uncertainty”. What is meant by uncertainty is much more than an understanding that the future is not known. The future is unknowable, but, in many circumstances, it is predictable and can be expected to behave in a comprehensible manner when unexpected changes do occur. If you are a competent investor or businessman, you have confidence in your ability to respond to change. No, this uncertainty goes way beyond the basic unknowable future.
Nor is it just that the international community faces problems. There are always problems, issues that need to be addressed and dealt with. Again, competence leads to confidence.
What is causing the foundation of today’s uncertainty is the lack, one could say the nonexistence, of ideas, solutions, intelligence, willingness, leadership of governments around the world. It is as if there was a contagious disease that has afflicted every ranking member of most of the major governments of the world. They fight, they seek their own political advantage, they evade, they do nearly anything except face the reality of the problems facing them. For months we have been waiting for the leaders of the governments of the eurozone to solve the sovereign debt problem facing several of their members. Several times they have announced triumphantly that they had solved the problem only to see that the market regarded those steps as insufficient. Now a few countries are in extreme recessions. As their economies shrink, their bond problems become worse. No one in Europe (or in most countries) seems to understand how an economy grows, with or without heavy debt. The stimulus steps are not working (as they aren’t in the US, as we shall see shortly). Data released this last week showed that the German economy was not growing as fast as thought. Germany is generally regarded as the backbone, best source, the money source of last resort of the euro system. If it isn’t strong, the eurozone will have much more difficulty in solving the problem of sovereign debt, let alone actually experiencing growth.
It also appears that the US has not grown much at all in the first half of 2011. Nearly everyone was expecting that because of QE2 the economy would be on its way to a normal recovery with growth powering along toward 6%. Now many people are talking about a recession this year. The government policy has failed. People don’t know what to make of that. They are confused, and uncertain.
It is being recognized, slowly, that the Fed has run out of options. In the last couple weeks in announced that it would not raise interest rates above effectively zero for at least two years. Obviously, the charge of uncertainty was heard. But this is recognized as a dumb move. The stock market tried to rally, went up wildly, and then continued downward, just as wildly. There are some at the Fed who understand some of the problems facing banks and businesses in America. For example, read this speech (not saying it is perfect, but he recognizes some important points.)
In addition, and as important, in most of the developed world, laws passed over the last few years have unleashed massive new regulations and restrictions on banks and businesses. Most of these new regulations have yet to be formulated and announced. Bankers and businessmen have little idea as to what to expect, except that it will not be supportive of normal, intelligent, profitable banking and business practices. Everyone is waiting for the shoe to drop – on their heads.
So we have uncertainty hounding us from two angles, the failure of the government policies that were suppose to save us and the impact of new, arbitrary regulatons.
With the Fed’s hands tied from all but the most crazy ideas (The Fed is run by helicopter Ben, after all.) and the Administration and Congress tied up over the astonishingly large deficit already on the books, one wonders what the government could think that it could do if we go into another recession. Will they try to enforce wage and price controls? Will they try to force a command economy? Will they watch in wonder?
Let’s say that they find that they can do nothing. Let’s say that Geither in the Treasury doesn’t go off into nether-nether land as he did in 2007-9 and write lots of checks he can’t pay. Let’s say the economy is on its own (I expect that even the Republicans will try to do something.). Is the economy strong enough and free enough to recover? If it doesn’t, will that give the anti-capitalism crowd more leverage? Is our time to fight shorter than any of us figured?
Many are thinking that foreign currencies and businesses are safe havens from the problems in the US. Actually, these safe havens are more in Asia or the BRICs. But, this is the era of globalism, of international markets and money movement. When the US and Europe are in recession Asia and the BRICs do not have markets to sell to and their economies also decline. Some of the stronger currencies may still be relatively stronger (Japan is a disaster waiting to happen.), but you need to be very careful. If and when recession comes to China, for example, and the real estate market crumbles, it will be interesting to see what the Communist government does, that is unless you live there, they it could be frightening. Remember too, that the government leaders and central bankers all went to the same schools, read the same books, heard the same speakers, and hold the same ideas as those in Washington. There is no country that is a financial and intellectual island. Differences are relative, in degrees, not fundamentals.
So the volatility we see is the result of the confusion and dismay. People see the failure of the promises of the political, economic, and intellectual leaders and do not know what to think. Even the more experienced traders are suffering whiplash by news and promises. People rush from hope to fear, back and forth. They have no foundation for understanding what is happening. The mainstream media is just as ignorant.
The hole that Keynesian policies have dug for us is very deep. The process of fighting over who will be heard and who will lead will cause constant turmoil. The inept attempts at solutions will add to the problems. Lost time in actually solving the problems will result in the problem becoming larger and exerting more strain on the international economy. Volatility will continue, sometimes becoming wilder, sometimes hitting a lull, but as the confusion and fear will not be reduced and the problems will reemerge, the volatility will return, probably in greater, wilder swings.
There will competitors offering answers and solutions. The Christian right, fascists of Christ, will offer answers. There could be an even more extreme, pro-government Democrat emerge who would rival BO in his willingness to use force to achieve the ends of destruction promised by altruism. Competition for the minds of Americans could become fierce.
People are looking for answers. This is an opportunity. Objectivism and capitalism have answers, good ones, ones based on reality. The books and ideas of Ayn Rand need to be spread further. People might be willing to listen.
Truth must be heard.