From the United States to Europe and Asia: The world's central banks are flooding markets with liquidity and pushing deeper into unknown monetary policy territory. Jim Grant tells Germany's Finanz und Wirtschaft that he "fears that this journey will not end well." The sharply thinking Wall Street veteran doesn’t trust the theoretical models of the central banks and warns of irrational exuberance in the financial markets adding that "the stock market is increasingly full of stocks that are borne aloft by hope rather than demonstrated performance."
Mr. Grant, half a decade after the financial crisis hope is rising that the United States finally are on a sustainable path to economic recovery. How are chances that the US economy gets back soon its status as the growth engine of the world?
In the past, the United States has been very resilient even in the face of very unfavorable and even punitive policy measures. The United States seem to want to be prosperous despite of what’s happening in Washington. Therefore, one can never rule out a great unscripted outburst of prosperity. I hope for that to happen, but I don’t predict it. Also, I’m coming increasingly to wonder about the concept of an economy as an integrated whole. People who talk that way don’t appreciate the incredible complexity of individual choices and decisions. Until fairly recently, no one thought about what we now call the economy as anything organic and macro in whole. This wasn’t a concept that entered our collective thinking until the nineteen forties. If you go back and read what economists wrote and what newspapers reported in the early portion of the twentieth century, you see that they would talk about prosperity or depression. But they wouldn’t talk about the economy. They just didn’t see it that way.
Signs of a brighter economic environment have encouraged the Federal Reserve to finally start the tapering of its massive bond purchase program, also known as QE3. What’s your take on this, for most market participants surprising move?
The «non-taper taper», Wednesday’s announcement, is yet another Federal Reserve innovation. To remove the sting from its decision to reduce the gait of its asset purchases, the central bank has vowed to hold its policy rate at zero even when the jobless rate falls below 6½%. «Inflation or bust – or both» would appear to be the Fed’s mantra.
Janet Yellen, who will be the next Fed chairman, has already made clear that she stands behind the recent monetary policy. What can Investors expect from her?
She is the key figure head of our monetary system which is what I call the PhD-standard. In the not so distant past, until a generation or so ago, central bankers were as likely to be ordinary bankers or ordinary business people as they were academics like the college professors who are mainly running the show now in this country. Apparently, in the Federal Open Market Committee, the interest rate setting regime here, nine out of the twelve members this year never had an experience in the private sector. Janet Yellen is the quintessential academic economist who is now in charge of what we ought to call – in the interest of plain speaking – price control. They certainly mean well but they have led us on a path of price administration rather than price discovery.
What do you mean by that?
If you ask economists they will tell you that price controls are a very bad idea. But that’s exactly what these mandarins at the Fed are doing. We are embarked on a unique experiment in monetary manipulation. That kind of central banking might be more accurately called central planning. One time, I therefore asked Fed-Governor Jeremy Stein in an open meeting if he could help us understand the substantial economic difference between central banks manipulating money market interest rates on one hand and traders at commercial banks manipulation Libor at the other. He just denied answering it. Also, since interest rates are artificially low the valuation of all earning assets must be called into question. This is the difficulty investors are facing the world over. We live in a hall of mirrors thanks to the zero interest rate regime and the chronic nonstop interventions by central banks
What are the consequences of these distortions?
One distortion is that people who are in the business of dealing with distressed debt have very little to do these days because there is less and less distressed debt because there are fewer bankruptcies. That’s because interest rates are so low that companies, even in a very bad way, can survive. That reduces in an unintended fashion the dynamism of our economy. In a dynamic society entrepreneurs start things and other entrepreneurs finish them or bankers finish them for the entrepreneurs because the entrepreneurs have failed. Without failure there really can’t be any success. Otherwise you have a futile system of permanent state sponsored enterprises. So our manipulated interest rates have given us a society that, in commercial terms, is much less dynamic than it should be.
But with super low interest rates, central banks like the Fed or the European Central Bank are fighting the low inflation rates which can also cause some serious problems to the economy. The ECB just recently cut its intervention rate in half to one quarter of one percent because it expressed its concern over an inadequate rate of the depreciation of the value of the Euro. Seven tenths of one percent is not good enough, we need two percent, they think. But why is two percent of inflation a good thing? They even acknowledge that the statistical difference between seven tenths of one percent and one and a half percent might all be error. It is very difficult to measure these price indices and to assure that the data are compiled properly and seasonally adjusted in a correct way. It speaks to our collective faith in our economic technicians or to the lack of critical thought that we accept so generally theses numbers as if they were gospel.
Then again, there is still the risk of deflation looming. Examples of how harmful deflation can be are the Great Depression or more recently the economic malaise of Japan.
They never make a distinction between deflation and progress. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century thanks to everything, from the electric light to progress in the process of steal making or the telephone, prices and costs fell for the better part of thirty years. Real wages went up, some people suffered, many didn’t, society progressed and people got richer. Also, in the early nineteen sixties prices as measured by the CPI did not rise by as much as two percent for five years in a row. Nobody cared at that time. But now there is this fear fanned by the professors who run our central banks and we are all hysterics about deflation.
That’s maybe because so many governments and households are so heavily indebted these days. Why shouldn’t we have some mild form of inflation to make the deleveraging process a little bit easier?
By insisting on trying to raise the price level the Fed is in effect resisting the progress of our time. As technology advances one would expect that the cost of production would fall. Digital technology and the accession of all these hundreds of millions of hands in the world labor force ought to be forces for falling costs of making things. And as the cost of production falls so should the cost of selling things. Yet, the Fed, the ECB and other central banks resist this by using monetary policy. And as they resist the tendency of prices to fall in time of technological progress they unintentionally seed the booms and busts in financial markets.
More and more people on Wall Street are screaming alarm about new bubbles of speculation. Do you spot any sings of irrational exuberance?
The massive market of treasury securities is itself in some kind of a bubble. Other examples are junk bonds or biotechnology stocks. Another bubble is the art market as the record auction prices are indicating. A similar case is classic sport cars: Some weeks ago, a Ferrari 250 GTO commanded 52 Mio. $ in a private sale. That’s almost a 50% increase on the record that was achieved last year for another 250 GTO. Investors who are looking for tangible assets find better value in antique furniture or in historic documents.
Another reason why the Federal Reserve is going to start to taper its securities purchases might be fear of exactly such kind of bubbles. Do you think they will ever find a way back to a normal monetary policy?
They say they have everything under control. To do, what they are saying they are going to do, requires both: technique and judgment. But they did not see one clue before the disaster of the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 – absolutely nothing. These people are well intending and most respectable but they are very concrete minded and very fixated on their way of thinking. What a good investor has – and what a bureaucrat typically lacks of – is imagination.
So what could go wrong this time?
What happens if, despite the Obama administration, there is a succession of booming months in job growth and the Fed at first doesn’t react and then, when it finally tries, it’s too late: First, there is a little bit inflation and then there is some more inflation and bond yields suddenly go up. The Fed thinks it has to control this by selling bonds and contributes thereby to the rise in interest rates and the fall in bond prices. And suddenly, there’s a disaster in the bond market.
But there seems to be really not that much investor nervousness in the bond market these days.
What one can observe about interest rates is that they have tended to rise and fall in generation length intervals, at least throughout Europe and North America. Since the early eighties they have been falling now most of the past 31 years. So, one would expect that we are closer to the end of this bull market than to the beginning. Therefore, bond yields are likely to go up in the future, which makes bonds look like a very poor investment.
Also, the setback in the gold market does not flash red lights for inflation. What’s next for the archaic metal after the terrible performance in 2013?
Gold is just an enigma, isn’t it? As an asset it yields nothing and pays no dividend. Therefore, you can’t value it like a common stock or bond. To me, gold is an investment in the almost certain failure of the PhD-standard in central banking. The gold price is down some 25% this year and gold stocks have been destroyed. In fact, the bear market in gold equities is the only bear market I know of these days. But when the world gets a full-on glance of the new Fed Chairman Yellen and understands the measure of the policies that central bankers will likely continue to implement, the gold price will go up a lot against the dollar. Only if the central bankers ever achieve to solve all the problems with fiat money and if governments end their tendency to over-issue uncollateralized debt then gold gets obsolete. But I certainly don’t agree with that promise. I think gold will yet shine as a monetary alternative and maybe serve in my grand children’s life time again as an anchorage to the world’s monetary system.
How should investors behave in such an environment?
At «Grant’s Interest Rate Observer», our ambition is to identify assets that are priced in such ways that you can afford a margin of error, knowing that one is likely to be early or even wrong about certain aspects of a particular situation. With a properly conservative valuation you are protected to a degree against such kind of human errors. A friend of a friend once had a great saying. What this fellow said was: Successful investing is all about having everyone agreeing with you – later. We are trying to live that kind of philosophy: to think of a thing that is now out of favor but has a reason to be in favor.
What would be such a thing?
Russian oil stocks like Lukoil, Gazprom and Rosneft exhibit several of desirable characteristics. There is insider buying – oddly enough. The business seems to be viable or even more than viable. Corporate governance is awful and investor sentiment is almost universally depressed. So here are cheap stocks in an environment of great skepticism toward them and with the added appeal of substantial insider accumulation. Once we looked at these stocks we were even more attracted since these companies are soundly financed which mitigates the risk of being wiped out through bankruptcy.
Russian oil stocks are a little bit exotic, though. What about investment ideas for Western Europe or for the United States?
Nobody knows what is going to happen in Europe. Additionally, we can’t find a lot of buying opportunities. Stocks have already gone up and they don’t seem to reflect the risks of the still precarious macro environment. Of course, there are always risks. But the question is if you are being adequately compensated for that risk. One stock that stands out is the Italian energy company Eni. The ideal hedge against the possible consequences of an overly aggressive monetary policy would be a value-laden equity that could prosper in any macro-economic setting but could shine in an inflationary one. Eni conforms to that description.
And what’s your take on the US stock market?
In the US we’re seeing more to do on the short side than on the long side. As an example it could pay off to take a closer look at story stocks. A story stock is a stock that is highly valued by the price earnings or price revenue calculation. Its price is manly driven by the quality of the narrative brokers are telling about it. So we just recently compiled an index of such kind of stocks because we think the stock market is increasingly full of stocks that are borne aloft by hope rather than demonstrated performance. Examples for such story stocks are Tile Shop Holdings or Boulder Brands.