Ben Bernanke Must Be Hoping Rational Expectations Doesn’t Hold…

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In the theory of rational expectations, human predictions are not systematically wrong. This means that in a rational expectations model, people’s subjective beliefs about the probability of future events are equal to the actual probabilities of those future events.

Now, I think that rational expectations is one of the worst ideas in economic theory. It’s based on a germ of a good idea — that self-fulfilling prophesies are possible. Almost certainly, they are. But expressed probabilities are really just guesses, just expressions of a perception. Or, as it is put in Bayesian probability theory: “probability is an abstract concept, a quantity that we assign theoretically, for the purpose of representing a state of knowledge, or that we calculate from previously assigned probabilities.”

Sometimes widely-held or universally-held beliefs turn out to be entirely irrational and at-odds with reality (this is especially true in the investment industry, and particularly the stock market where going against the prevailing trend is very often the best strategy). Whether a belief will lead to a reality is something that can only be analysed on a case-by-case basis. Humans are at best semi-rational creatures, and expectations effects are nonlinear, and poorly understood from an empirical standpoint.

Mainstream economic models often assume rational expectations, however. And if rational expectations holds, we could be in for a rough ride in the near future. Because an awful lot of Americans believe that a new financial crisis is coming soon.

According to a recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey:

75 percent of respondents said that it’s either very or somewhat likely that the country could have another financial crisis in the near future. Only 12 percent said it was not very likely, and only 2 percent said it was not at all likely.

From a rational expectations perspective, that’s a pretty ugly number. From a general economic perspective it’s a pretty ugly number too — not because it is expressing a truth  (it might be — although I’d personally say a 75% estimate is rather on the low side), but because it reflects that society doesn’t have much confidence in the recovery, in the markets, or in the banks.

Why? My guess is that the still-high unemployment and underemployment numbers are a key factor here, reinforcing the idea that the economy is still very much in the doldrums. The stock market is soaring, but only a minority of people own stocks directly and unemployed and underemployed people generally can’t afford to invest in the stock market or financial markets. So a recovery based around reinflating the S&P500, Russell 3000 and DJIA indices doesn’t cut it when it comes to instilling confidence in the wider population.

Another factor is the continued and ongoing stories of scandal in the financial world — whether it’s LIBOR rigging, the London Whale, or the raiding of segregated accounts at MF Global. A corrupt and rapacious financial system run by the same people who screwed up in 2008 probably isn’t going to instill much confidence in the wider population, either.

So in the context of high unemployment, and rampant financial corruption, the possibility of a future financial crisis seems like a pretty rational expectation to me.

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Dow 36,000 Is Back

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In a testament to just how euphoric stock markets are right now, James K. Glassman the co-author of the fabled Dow 36,000 — a book published in 1999 that claimed that stock prices could hit 36,000 by as soon as  2002 (and which quite understandably is now available for just 1 cent per copy) — has written a new column for Bloomberg View claiming that he might have been right all along:

When we wrote our book, we expected that the stock market, as represented by the 30 blue chips of the Dow, would rise to 36,000 for two reasons.

First, investors had mistakenly judged the risk in stocks to be greater than it really was. Here, we drew from the work of Jeremy Siegel of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He showed that, over long periods, stocks were no more volatile, or risky, than bonds.

We saw indications that the risk aversion of investors was declining — as we believed it should. Lower perceived risk would mean higher stock valuation measures: rising price-to- earnings ratios, for instance.

Second, we assumed that real U.S. gross domestic product, the main driver of corporate profit growth, would rise at 2.5 percent a year — a bit below the historic post-World War II rate, but still a decent clip. We warned, however, that small changes in growth rates could have big effects on stock prices.

What’s happened since 1999?

First, investors have become more frightened of stocks, not less — as reflected in a higher equity risk premium, the excess return that investors demand from stocks over bonds.

These fears may be perfectly reasonable. We wrote our book before the Sept. 11 attacks, the dot-com debacle, the 38 percent decline in stocks in 2008, the “flash crash” of 2010 that sent the Dow down 1,000 points in minutes, the Japanese tsunami and the euro crisis. There’s a good case to be made that, because of the instant interconnections wrought by new technology, unprecedented “black swan” events are increasing and markets are becoming more volatile as a result.

The heightened fears of investors are reflected in lower valuations. Currently, for example, the forward P/E ratio (based on estimated earnings for the next 12 months) of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is about 14. In other words, the earnings yield for a stock investment averages 7 percent (1/14), but the yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is only 1.9 percent — a huge gap. Judging from history, you would have to conclude that bonds are vastly overpriced, that stocks are exceptionally cheap or that investors are scared to death for a good reason. Maybe all three.

Explaining why Glassman and Hassett were wrong is simple. They believed that they had found a fundamental truth about how stocks should be valued — that stocks were really less risky than the market perceived them to be — and that the market would correct to meet their beliefs. The problem is that there is no fundamental truth about what stocks are worth. The fundamentals of a company are determined by profit and loss, but the market prices of stocks are created from the meeting of different parties with different subjective beliefs. A buyer of a stock at $10 might believe it will become worth $100, and the seller might believe it is really worth $5. The future performance of that stock will be determined by the future beliefs of market participants in light of the future performance of the firm. Market participants have for some reason always valued equities as a class within a certain P/E range:

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With one exception — the peak during which Dow 36,000 was written — equities have traded roughly between 5 and 30 times earnings. That’s a large range.  Glassman and Hassett believed — and subsequently tried to convince markets — that they were pricing equities wrong, and that stocks should be priced at roughly 100 times earnings.  They failed. Markets just wouldn’t go there.

One significant issue with such predictions is that there are far too many unknown variables. They didn’t know future technology or energy trends. They didn’t know future geopolitical trends. They didn’t know future social or demographic trends. They didn’t know the shape or style of future financial markets. All of these trends are critical in determining market sentiment, and the financial, economic and material fundamentals that drive earnings. It was all a big extrapolation with a catchy-sounding number that they effectively pulled out of the air and dressed up in the false clothes of economic rigour. And the real economy — as Glassman candidly admits — just didn’t match up to their assumptions.

Glassman thinks that Dow 36,000 is attainable with a return to strong growth:

Let’s set investor fears aside for a moment. For investment gains over the long term, there is absolutely no substitute for faster economic growth.

To get it, we need policy changes that will create a better environment for businesses to increase revenue, profits and jobs: a rational tax system that keeps rates low and eliminates special deductions and credits; immigration laws that encourage the best and the brightest to move here and stay; entitlement reform to bring down costs and provide incentives for productive seniors to keep working; sensible environmental, workplace and financial regulation that allows entrepreneurship to thrive; a K-12 education system that boosts student achievement and holds teachers, administrators and politicians accountable …

Chime in and make your own list, because it’s time to focus on what counts in an economy: growth. Even with relatively high risk aversion (let’s say, what we have now), faster growth would significantly increase stock prices.

How fast can the U.S. grow? Four percent is attainable, but I’d settle for 3 percent. Get there quickly, and we’ll get to Dow 36,000 quickly, too.

Back in the real world, we have the opposite problem. Stocks are soaring, on the back of a very weak economy. In fact, the fact that Glassman is being given a platform again to talk about the possibility of huge future stock gains is probably testament to just how overvalued stocks are. The market has more than doubled since the trough in 2009 on the back of the idea that Bernanke will do whatever it takes. But that illusion could easily be shattered, because there are many kinds of negative shocks that central bankers cannot prevent or control. To justify present valuations in the next two years, we would need a significant uptick in American and probably also global growth. Instead we have what may be the biggest housing bubble in history, declining global growth, North Korean threats to start a nuclear war, and so on. And all the while the market is setting new nominal highs.

The uber-optimistic atmosphere permeating much of the financial press is frightening to me. The resurrection of the Dow 36,000 zombie is a symbolically significant event that likely signals much the same thing as it did first time around: a correction.

Cameron’s EU Policy Uncertainty

So, David Cameron wants a referendum?

I believe that small is beautiful, and that the European Union system is big and fragile. I am all for free trade, freedom of movement and immigration. But as for regulatory, monetary and fiscal integration — which is the direction that Europe has taken, especially since the self-inflicted Euro crisis that grew out the fundamentally flawed Euro system — how can Europe be responsive to its citizens when they are so numerous, so diverse and so geographically and linguistically dispersed? How can it be viable to have the same regulatory and political framework for Poland, Spain, Austria, Britain, Denmark and Greece? Political and monetary frameworks that are local and decentralised are usually responsive and representative. Big bureaucratic juggernauts are very often clunky and unresponsive.

That means that I am quite open to the idea of Britain leaving the political union, so long as we retain the economic framework that Britain voted for in a referendum on joining the European Economic Community — the predecessor to the European Union — in the 1970s. Britain never voted for political union, and the British public has been shown again and again in polls to be broadly against such a thing.

But David Cameron’s plan for an In-Out referendum in 2017 — but only if the Conservatives win the 2015 election — is misguided. It will just create five years of totally unnecessary policy and regulatory uncertainty.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that policy uncertainty can be very damaging to the economy. A 2013 paper Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven Davis used automated text analysis techniques to count key words relevant to uncertainty in the media. They combined the news analysis with data from tax code changes, disagreement among economic forecasters, and information from equity option markets to create an “uncertainty index”:

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They looked at changes to gross domestic product, private investment, industrial production and unemployment, and found that spikes in uncertainty foreshadow large and persistent declines in all four. First, GDP and private investment:

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Next, industrial production and unemployment:

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The last thing that Britain needs is five years of policy uncertainty. If Cameron wants to have a referendum on E.U. membership, why not do it now? 82% of the public favour such a referendum — presumably not only UKIP and Conservative voters, but also Liberal Democrats and Labour voters. If we vote to leave, then we leave, if we vote to stay, we stay. We — and the markets — will know exactly where we stand.

Frankly this strikes me as more of a political ploy. The Conservatives are haemorrhaging support to UKIP. They are roughly ten points behind Labour in the polls. This strange announcement just seems like an attempt by Cameron to claw back support and distract from the disastrous state of the economy which just entered a triple-dip recession and which has been depressed since 2008. Ironically, this announcement may actually worsen the economic woe.

The Gold Standard?

Paul Krugman doesn’t believe that the gold standard was a remedy to the ills of the Great Depression:

A while back I read Lionel Robbins’s 1934 book The Great Depression; as I pointed out, it was a Very Serious Person’s book for its era. Its solution was a return to the gold standard — which would have made things worse — and free trade, which was basically irrelevant to the problem of insufficient demand.

In fact, the gold standard is almost universally shunned (with a few notable exceptions) among academic economists. In a recent survey of academic economists, 93% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement:

If the US replaced its discretionary monetary policy regime with a gold standard, defining a “dollar” as a specific number of ounces of gold, the price-stability and employment outcomes would be better for the average American.

When we look at the Great Depression, we need to look at things on two levels: the causes, and the symptoms. Keynesian economists — particularly Krugman, Eichengreen, etc — are focused primarily on the symptoms, particularly depressed demand, and debt-deflation. Certainly, the gold standard is not a cure for the symptoms of an economic depression.

Trying to administer austerity after a crash like 1929 or 2008 is simply a road to more pain, and a deeper depression.

The principal attraction to the gold standard is to limit credit expansion to the productive capacity of the economy. But we know very clearly that — in spite of a gold standard — there was enough credit expansion during the 1920s for a huge bubble in stocks to form.

Ultimately — even with a gold standard — if a central bank or a government, (or in the most modern case, the shadow banking system) decide that the money supply will be drastically expanded, then limits on credit creation like the gold standard (or in the modern case, reserve requirements) will be no barrier.

The amusing thing, though is that gold — perhaps because of its history as money, perhaps because of its scarcity, and almost certainty because of its lack of counter-party risk — is as strong as ever. In a global financial system where the perception of debasement of currency is widespread, gold thrives. In an era where shareholder value is thrown under the bus in the name of CEO-remuneration, where corporations are perennially mismanaged, and where profit is too-often derived from bailouts and subsidies, gold thrives. It is a popular investment both for individual investors and for non-Western central banks.

The Federal Reserve’s monetary intransigence probably did prolong the Great Depression. Certainly there were other factors — including Hoover raising taxes.  But none of that really matters now. Certainly, it is impossible that the United States — under its current monetary regime— would ever return to the gold standard. Gold’s role has changed. It is no longer state money. It is a stateless instrument thriving in a negative real-rate environment.

And unlike state monies whose values are subject to the decisions of states, gold will always be gold.