Friday, November 8, 2013

Investors Become Complacent; Volatility Drops

Volatility in bond and equity markets is back down to levels that would have been familiar to investors back in 2007. Bond and share prices have all moved relentlessly higher, often into uncharted territory.

The only things that have changed for the worse are economic fundamentals.

Growth across developed economies remains subdued and though forecasters are hopeful next year turns out better than this one, that’s still a long way short of the unshakeable optimism most observers felt in the year or two before the financial crisis.

Economic gloom might support high sovereign debt prices, but it’s not so good for equities and corporate bonds. And yes it’s true that a greater share of GDP is accruing to companies than to workers, which at first light is supportive of both corporate debt and share prices. But ultimately the less money people earn the less there is to be recycled into demand, which is bad for firms generally.

Central banks are clearly stitching the whole web together. Weak economies mean central bank liquidity, which supports asset prices, fundamentals notwithstanding.

The problem is that investors have grown convinced nothing can possibly go wrong for them. The VIX, which measures S&P 500 volatility and is popularly called a fear index, is broadly back down to where it was during the boom years–if not quite to those lows. Ditto for the VStoxx volatility index which measures European equity market volatility.

The MOVE index, which measures bond market volatility, has dropped back from the summer’s highs when debt markets were rocked by fears the Federal Reserve would start trimming its bond purchase program by the autumn, and isn’t far off 2007 levels again.

To judge from central banks’ reaction functions, maybe investors have a point. The Fed relented on tapering when equities and bonds wobbled. In effect, the central bank was saying that it is putting a floor under asset prices. As long as investors believe this can be achieved, asset prices will keep climbing.

The key question then is to what degree can central banks achieve this promise? Eventually there will be enough growth to dictate higher interest rates for fear of inflationary consequences. Central banks have to consider where asset prices might be at that point if they maintain their current asymmetric response. Will they abandon price stability for fear of upsetting asset markets? Or will they accept another collapse on the assumption that it won’t be as catastrophic?

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Recent history suggests that when asset markets spin out of control–in either direction–central banks find it hard to control them. What investors now have to consider is what might cause asset markets to lose control. Economic fundamentals might yet trump central banking liquidity and government interventions in pricing assets. As they’ve regularly done in Japan over the past two decades.

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