Optimism And Economics
I recently wrote about the surge of optimism in the press regarding the world economy and the Economist magazine has recently detailed the number of press mentions of ‘green shoots of recovery’. The Economist chart shows a steady rise of the use of the term in March, and an explosion in April.
In my post on the subject of this optimism, I highlighted that all of the indicators were negative, and wondered what might justify such optimism. For example, in the UK, there was a slight uptick in house prices, but I suggested that this was a false dawn. Since I wrote the post, house prices have continued their downward trajectory, though the rate of decline in prices is reported as slowing. Likewise in the UK there has been an improvement in consumer confidence, albeit from abysmal levels.
Perhaps the best summary of the optimism can be found in the Independent, with the headline ‘US Recovery Hopes Grow Even as Economy Contracts 6.1%’. The article goes on to say:
US economic output contracted at an annualised rate of 6.1 per cent in the first quarter, almost as bad as the minus 6.3 per cent GDP figure for the final three months of last year, when consumers and businesses were reeling from the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
The report went on to say:
Other "green shoots" in the report included a surprisingly strong uptick in consumer spending, which contributed 1.5 percentage points to GDP, where it had been a net negative for the two previous quarters. Information on the price of goods and services helped to ease the fear of deflation taking hold. And economists also dismissed an unexpected drop in government spending as temporary.
However, we have this from the New York Times:
A day earlier, the government released figures showing an unexpected increase in consumer spending in the first quarter, offering one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary accounting of the country’s overall economic output. But the monthly report released Thursday showed that while consumer spending rose sharply in January, its gains tapered off in February and reversed themselves in March, declining by a larger-than-expected 0.2 percent.
So what exactly is this optimism all about? Perhaps the best expression of the depth of the ongoing problems can be found in the actions of the Federal Reserve. In particular, the Fed is currently printing $1.2 trillion and using the money to buy mortgage backed securities and treasuries. Does this action look like an expression of confidence in a recovery?
The most odd part of the so-called ‘green shoots’ of recovery is the sudden surge in bank profits. An article in the Economic Times sums up the reality of the situation:
The first quarter results of US banks mean little. In early April, the US accounting regulator tweaked mark-to-market rules for bank assets in order to help banks show lower losses on these assets. These modified rules were applied with effect from March 15, allowing banks to show better than expected results for the first quarter.
The idea that banks can work their way back to good health simply by making profits hereafter is absurd. US bank losses are huge — the IMF’s latest estimate of US bank losses is $1.6 trillion. US banks have raised an additional $400 billion in capital so far, which means they need another $1.2 trillion to get back to normal health. For banks to cover this amount through profits would take years. Until then, banks will not be in a position to provide adequate .
Quite simply, common sense should tell us that there is no realistic way in which the US banks can be returning to profitability. All of the US banks have massive exposures to the US economy, and every part of the US economy is heading in a downwards trajectory. How an earth can banks be making profits when real estate is falling, consumer spending is falling, insolvencies are up, unemployment is up and so forth…
I am increasingly of the view that we are departing ever further from reality. We are now living in a world in which insolvent banks that are living on life support from the government are apparently making profits.
I will freely admit that I have been increasingly puzzled by the optimism that is emerging. I have always accepted that commentators, analysts and markets can be somewhat irrational, but have always insisted that reality must at some point intrude. I still believe that reality will catch up with delusions, but have had trouble understanding the level of self-delusion that is taking place. I keep on wondering just what will it take for the underlying reality to sink in.
In the case of the UK, it is even more mysterious. The UK budget in particular painted an appalling picture of the state of the UK economy. In my post on the subject, I suggested that it would be interesting times for gilts and the £GB. However, the most recent gilt auction proved to be a success, albeit in a gilt that is part of the Bank of England’s money printing purchase scheme. Meanwhile the £GB has gone through a roller-coaster ride:
Sterling fell against a broadly recovering dollar on Thursday after rising to a two-week high as initial optimism about the global economy petered out, even as share prices gained.
An improvement in British consumer confidence had pushed the pound sharply higher, but news that U.S. automaker Chrysler would file for bankruptcy later in the day and data showing a fall in UK house prices weighed on the pound.
I am starting to take the view that one of the problems must be that the paradigms being used in the markets is one in which the only reality is a belief in the inevitability of recovery. I suspect that, with no experience of a long term and sustained decline many people simply refuse to believe that such an eventuality is possible. Instead of asking the simple questions as I do, such as asking where the real wealth is generated, the markets hang on to figures which have no bearing on the broader reality. In this world an uptick in consumer confidence is a herald of recovery, a bank’s profits are real even if they are simply an illusion. It is increasingly looking like drowning men clinging to anything that floats, even as the sharks circle round them.
What I am in fact doing is dramatically shifting my view of the world. I am finding myself in a position where I must accept a new reality. That new reality is that self-delusion is a fundamental part of the human condition and that rationality is a very rare commodity indeed. I am currently ploughing my way through several books that deal with economics and psychology, as it is clear that my model of the economy is incomplete.
I have already found one interesting insight, which can be found in ‘Predictably Irrational’, by Dan Ariely. He points out that when making a valuation of something, we develop what he calls an anchor price. Through a series of experiments he shows that the first price that we see for an item becomes an anchor for valuations, and that it is very hard for us to adjust to a new reality, to adjust our perceptions of price. Interestingly, for some of his research he used bankers as his experimental subjects, though the principles he establishes have wider relevance. In particular it is possible to stretch his insight, and see that we might have made a broad brush evaluation of whole economies, so that we have a fixed view of the Western economies. We have anchored our valuation of the economy to a certain level, such that it is very hard for us to adjust to a new valuation.
Whilst this is stretching the findings, I do not believe it is over-stretching them. He is reporting an underlying factor in human thinking, and there is no reason to think that his examples of decisions about individual valuation might not apply to a broader valuation. As a non-experimental illustration he cites the example of a DVD player, which starts out very expensive, thereby creating an anchor price that is high. When we later buy a DVD player, when the price has fallen, we believe that we are buying a bargain. However, as we know with these kinds of goods, our bargain of today will still look expensive tomorrow. Perhaps what we are seeing in markets now is this kind of process?
Essentially, what we must take from these examples is that there is a reluctance to adapt ourselves to new underlying realities, and that our sense of value is ‘sticky’. This in part may explain the stock market rallies of late, and similar rallies that took place in the great depression. However, as in the DVD case, there is no reason why valuation and therefore price will not eventually move, even if our perception of value is sticky. The question that this does not answer is exactly how that shift might finally come about.
On that subject, I am increasingly wary of making predictions….
Yes, it seems that to look for the reality of things economic these days is to be part of a miniscule minority and to sign up for endless (and increasingly surreal) cognitive dissonance.
Viva — Sager
Kunstler summed up this phenomenon in one sentence in his blog post today:
For now, the "bottom" is in — that is, the bottom of this society’s ability to process reality.
Wow, things have been bad for a long time. It MUST be time for them to improve. I am amazed at the number of my acquaintances that believe because the market is up a little that things are turning around. They actually believe that the DJIA is somehow an indicator of the greater economy. Ask a question like, "What do you think will drive the economy out of this’? No answer.
The anchor price theory makes sense to me. People generally believe that the market will be back in the relative near future. Mention the Nikkei over the past twenty years and they don’t have a response.
Hmmm…I like the phrase but I would have reversed it:
For now, the "top" is in — that is, the top of this society’s ability to process reality.
It makes more sense to me that way…
Debtwatch No 34: The Confidence Trick
“And, at this point, confidence is what it is all about… The first thing is to maintain some confidence in ourselves and the prospects for our country over time… Unfortunately, there is no lever marked ‘confidence’ that policy-makers can take hold of. Our task is very much one of seeking to behave, across the board, in ways that will foster, rather than erode, confidence. It is such confidence that, more than anything else, will help to drive us along the road to recovery.” (Glenn Stevens, April 21st 2009)
“I fancy that over-confidence seldom does any great harm except when, as, and if, it beguiles its victims into debt.” (Irving Fisher, 1933)
In his recent speech “The Road To Recovery“, Australia’s Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens used “the C word” 17 times–versus, for example, 15 uses of the “R” word (”recession”). The message was clearly that, if only we can all be confident, then the other “R” word (”recovery”–which received ten mentions) will surely occur.
Another prominent economist who had the same attitude at the outbreak of a financial crisis was Irving Fisher. Speaking to a bankers conference just two days before the Great Crash of 1929, Fisher argued that market downturns were caused by a “lunatic fringe”. Once they had exited, the bull market of the preceding years would resume:
“There is a certain lunatic fringe in the stock market, and there always will be whenever there is any successful bear movement going on… they will put the stocks up above what they should be and, when frightened, … will immediately want to sell out… when it is finally rid of the lunatic fringe, the stock market will never go back to 50 per cent of its present level…
We shall not see very much further, if any, recession in the stock market, but rather … a resumption of the bull market, not as rapidly as it has been in the past, but still a bull rather than a bear movement.” (Fisher 1929)
Fisher’s confidence led him to hang on to his margin-financed stocks (worth over $100 million in 2000-dollar terms). Despite his confidence, the stock market continued its plunge from its peak of 31.3 in July 1929 to the nadir of 4.77 in May of 1932, while unemployment rose from zero to 25 percent. Fisher was wiped out financially, and left to ponder how he could have got the behaviour of the market, and the economy, so badly wrong.
VanityFox thanks for the great post..
I have been struggling for the past week or two in seeing how the markets could possibly be really recovering, but of course i didn’t really think they actually were. An illusion based on society’s delusion?
Anyway, thanks for such an informative post.. keeps me thinking straight!
Statistics show stock market crashes most often happen in the fall. Makes me wonder if the season is named for such crashes. But I’m waiting till October to see whether any confidence or optimism is warranted.