Bubble warning

Published on The Economist, January 7, 2010.

… For all the panic last year, asset values never quite reached the lows that marked other bear-market bottoms, and now the rally has made several markets look pricey again. In the American housing market, where the crisis started, homes are priced at around fair value on the basis of rental yields, but they are overvalued by almost 30% in Britain and by 50% in Australia, Hong Kong and Spain …//

… It doesn’t add up:

But the more immediate risks may be posed by fiscal policy. Many governments responded to the crisis by, in effect, taking the debt burden off the private sector’s balance-sheets and putting it on their own. This caused a huge gap to open up in government finances. Deficits in America and Britain, for instance, stand at more than 10% of GDP. 

Most developed-country governments have managed to finance these deficits fairly easily so far. In the early stages of the crisis, investors were happy to opt for the safety of government bonds. Then central banks resorted to quantitative easing (QE), a polite term for the creation of money. The Bank of England, for example, has bought the equivalent of one year’s entire fiscal deficit. There are signs, however, that private-sector investors’ appetite for government debt may be just about sated, as they contemplate the vast amount of government bonds that are due to be issued this year and the ending of QE programmes. The yields on ten-year Treasury bonds and British gilts have both risen by more than half a percentage point since late November.

Investors (along with this newspaper) would like to see governments unveil clear plans for reducing those deficits over the medium term, with the emphasis on spending cuts rather than tax increases. But politicians are nervous about the likely reaction of electorates, not to mention the short-term economic impact of fiscal tightening, and are proving reluctant to specify where the cuts will be made.

Markets have already tested the ability of the weakest governments to bear the burden of their debt. Dubai had to turn to its wealthy neighbour, Abu Dhabi, for help. In the euro zone, doubts have been raised about the willingness of Greece to push through the required austerity measures. Electorates are likely to chafe at the cost of bringing down government deficits, especially if the main result is to repay foreign creditors. That will lead to currency crises and cross-border disputes like the current spat between Iceland, Britain and the Netherlands over the bill for compensating depositors in Icelandic banks (see article). Such disputes will lead to further outbreaks of market volatility.

Investors tempted to take comfort from the fact that asset prices are still below their peaks would do well to remember that they may yet fall back a very long way. The Japanese stock market still trades at a quarter of the high it reached 20 years ago. The NASDAQ trades at half the level it reached during dotcom mania. Today the prices of many assets are being held up by unsustainable fiscal and monetary stimulus. Something has to give. (full text).

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