An uneasy calm has descended on the markets since the end of the first quarter put a stop to the heavy liquidation in bonds and some gained the sense that commodities were perhaps a little overcooked. The rebalancing and retracements those two entailed could yet run further, but we very much doubt that we’ve seen the last of the inflationary wave.
Inflation, Milton Friedman famously said, is a monetary phenomenon. But it is also one given the readiest of outlets through recourse to what we call ‘fiscal’ policy – i.e., by spendthrift governments borrowing money created at their call and forced into the system by means of warfare, welfare, contracting, cronyism, bureaucratic expansion and plain old boondogglery. Arguably, this is where we find ourselves today, in a world where supply is no longer likely to meet demand as abundantly and as effortlessly as has been the case these past twenty years.
We ended the summer by saying that – barring another disastrous, COVID19-inspired, mass governmental embargo on everyday economic activity – the miners, makers, movers, and merchants of the things we need to run our lives when we are not scrolling through Instagram or pretending to pay attention to a yet another pointless Zoom conference would begin to make up ground lost in lockdown to the providers of such diversions. State interference would henceforth take other, more chronic forms of hindrance: tending deliberately to boost demand while making its satisfaction progressively more difficult. So far – broadly speaking – so good.
The ink has not even dried on the US ballot papers (!) but the Market already thinks it knows what this will all mean. And then there’s Pfizer’s vaccine announcement – perhaps similarly preliminary in nature – but, hey, the Herd will always take every silver lining it can find. Some of the themes we touched upon at the end of the Summer are still in play: Japan has been attracting money, non-oil commodities are rallying, gold has lost some lustre, bond yields are creeping higher, and Value may just be topping out at last v Growth.
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It’s not just the leaves that often turn when the year begins, with gathering pace, to slip towards its chilly end. Markets often do, too.
Given this backdrop, the sell-off in the Nasdaq – in the marvelled-at ‘Growth’ stocks, in the FAANGs, and in Tesla – comes at a moment which is particularly intriguing for reasons which go far beyond whatever coup SoftBank may or may not have attempted and whether those irritating Lockdown Livermores have finally gotten their comeuppance.
While politicians anxiously check the shifting weather-vanes of public opinion and scientists squabble over facts as well as interpretations, central banks are resolutely doing what they do best – wildly exceeding their briefs and trying to drown all problems in a flood of newly-created money. As ever, the underconsumptionists worry that a lack of demand will usher in deflation, in spite of all such efforts. Some of us, however, worry more about what it will do to supply. Here, we explain why.
On April 13th, a financial pundit with a wide media following made the following (loosely transcribed) proposition about US banking stocks: Banks won’t rally because rates -long and short- are too low; Japan is our marker – banks there falling while their US/EZ peers rose pre-GFC and have not made any ground since; vis-à-vis their EZ peers, US bank returns have long been anomalous, ergo their out-performance won’t be repeated. We demur in the main.
Ahead of my remote appearance on CNBC Squawk Box Europe on April 3rd, I prepared a few notes for the guys which I am happy to share here with you. The main topic, ahead of the emergency OPEC meeting which briefly bolstered crude prices that week was, unsurprisingly, oil but we did also discuss the outlook for the wider economy.
A noted [monetary extremist] resident at GMU’s Mercatus Center fretted on March 20th that Japan’s efforts during 2001-06 to have the central bank finance deficits ‘didn’t work’ – i.e., they failed to ignite meaningful levels of wealth-sapping inflation. The reason? As our sage tells us, was that there was ‘no commitment… to a permanent expansion of the monetary base’ as expounded in the ratiocinations of that dark genius of modern central bank theorising, Michael Woodford. We replied:-