Trends in financial market values in 2020 have shown an astonishing capacity of market players throughout the world to ignore fundamentals and project an optimism belied by the weakness besetting the real economy. As a consequence the ratios of the main indicators of value to output (GDP) have reached unprecedented heights – e.g. (in the US S&P 500 market) Price to Earnings ratios (27.9), Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings multiples (32.9), Price to Sales ratio (3.0) or Total Market Capitalisation to GDP (170%)—were all at record high levels as of 7 January 2021. Such exaggerated ratios – it must be stressed – are apparent globally, even in markets such as the UK where stock markets have been relatively depressed.
Ultimately these market price levels could only be justified by the reality – or a plausible prospect – of very high profits. However, not only have such profit levels not been reached in the present period (since 2019); rather there has been a fall in economic performance such as to indicate they are unlikely to be attained in the near future. In the absence of such a prospect investors have been mainly driven by a hope and/or belief that others will be lured by continually rising prices of securities to put their abundant spare cash into the same equities, regardless of market fundamentals, thereby sending prices yet higher. The principal source of this cash is the large-scale money printing engaged in by central banks in order to facilitate the purchase of the massive quantity of debt issued by their governments resulting from the huge fiscal deficits occasioned by the need to sustain spending and activity during the Covid-19 pandemic. The market value of equities has been given a further boost (“turbo-charged”), it should be noted, by companies buying back their own shares, thereby facilitating speculation on an even greater scale. (This practice, it should also be noted, had been effectively outlawed from 1934 until about 1980 – precisely because it had been so instrumental in promoting excessive market speculation prior to the Great Crash of 1931-1933).
Superficially it might appear plausible to suppose that asset values could be bid up infinitely without provoking an eventual market crash, especially if it can appear credible that stock markets will bounce back sharply from the downturn induced by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the capacity of markets to absorb still greater levels of public debt is not unlimited. Hence it is likely that a “demand gap” will occur which can only be closed by raising interest rates – i.e. allowing both bond and equity prices to fall to more sustainable levels. Yet in any case it must be presumed that in the absence of some recovery in corporate earnings the bubble will at some point be pricked and that asset prices will collapse accordingly.
Meanwhile speculative tendencies are also reflected in a willingness to lend on what appear ever more risky terms for the purchase of corporate assets. This has resulted in some enterprises now having leverage ratios (gearing) as high as 8 or 9 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (Ebitda) – compared with a more typical average of 4 to 5 times.
A still more spectacular symptom of wild speculation is provided by the market for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The price of the latter had risen over six-fold in the four months to 1 January 2021, a phenomenon that can only be ascribed to pure speculation – i.e. gambling without any genuine consideration of market worth. Those commentators and investors who maintain that such exponential rises in value can be continually repeated base their argument on the belief that Bitcoin supplies are finite in the short term (unlike the dollar and other fiat currencies) and hence akin to gold. Yet this ignores the reality that the diverse “miners” of this or other cryptocurrencies (including official monetary authorities) could agree arbitrarily to increase the supply whenever they found it appropriate. Hence in the final analysis cryptocurrencies are seemingly no different from the openly fiat variety.
Obtuseness of mainstream commentators
These extreme speculative tendencies have occurred in spite of – or even abetted by – the supposed accumulated wisdom of an economic establishment which should properly have been pointing out their unsustainability. Thus, although it has been obvious from the outset that a principal, if not the only, purpose of quantitative easing (QE) is to hold down interest rates by mopping up government debt at prices far higher than those they could have commanded in an undistorted market, most mainstream economists maintain or assume that its aim is primarily, if not solely, to sustain the level of public spending and thus the pace of economic growth.
Hence it is even seemingly argued by some – e.g. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times – that low interest rates in the face of the massive public deficits and debts generated by QE are a purely fortuitous – or exogenous – phenomenon which has nothing to do with massive buying of excessive public debt by central banks deliberately designed to drive down interest rates artificially.1 This view is in line with (rather puzzling) claims of the Bank of England that the policy is designed to help raise the rate of inflation.2
Yet the fact that not all commentators have swallowed such simplistic explanations for the prevalence of low interest rates is an indication that the reality is more worrying. As noted in the Guardian of 11 January 2021, the veteran British financier Jeremy Grantham, who co-founded the US investment firm GMO, has warned the company’s clients, “The long, long bull market since 2009 has finally matured into a fully-fledged epic bubble. Featuring extreme overvaluation, explosive price increases, frenzied issuance, and hysterically speculative investor behaviour, I believe this event will be recorded as one of the great bubbles of financial history, right along with the South Sea bubble, 1929 and 2000.”3
As many commentators have discovered to their cost in recent years, “calling the top” of a market bubble can easily prove to be a hazardous, if not impossible, undertaking. The reason for this, it may seem obvious with hindsight, is the desperate lengths to which governments, central banks and other market players are prepared to go to prevent a systemic market collapse. This in turn is clearly to be explained in terms of how much these ruling vested interests stand to lose in such an eventuality. Whether the comments of Mr Grantham reproduced above prove to be any more prophetic than dozens of other similar ones in recent years clearly remains to be seen (at the time of writing). For reasons given earlier, however, there are good grounds for believing that markets are stretched close to their limit.
One factor which has long seemed likely to be crucial in bringing an end to the market boom is the possibility of an outbreak of inflation. Many observers, including the present writer, have been anticipating just such an inflationary bust ever since the start of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008-9, bearing in mind the exponential rise in global public debt that has been ongoing since then. Indeed it still remains something of a mystery quite why prices have stayed so stable for so long given the volume of monetary creation, although the most widely accepted explanation is that it has been possible hitherto for the financial institutions to channel most of the excess funds into asset purchases rather than current (personal) accounts. The result has been steep rises in equity and other asset prices rather than in the general price level.
Now, however, it appears that the latest money printing binge (induced by Covid-19) is no longer containable in this way within the capital markets. This may be partly a symptom of concerns that the huge rise in the market prices of equities and other assets is exclusively benefiting the wealthy, so that the gulf between them and the vast majority of the more marginalised is becoming ever more intolerable, leading to pressure to close the gap between the relatively slow rise of wages and salaries and the massive capital gains accruing to owners of assets – pressure which may be harder to resist than previously.
If such is indeed the case it may be expected that both wages and consumer prices will now start to rise faster than in recent years – as indeed already appears to be happening in a number of countries. Should this build into a more general trend it is likely to lead to more deep-seated inflationary pressure.
In theory there exists the alternative of attempting to reduce, or even ultimately eliminate, the debt burden by growing out of it – i.e. so that it can be paid down out of higher GDP – which is what most indebted governments claim is their goal, notwithstanding their chronic inability to do this. Unfortunately, however, this objective increasingly conflicts with the ever more urgent necessity of curbing the relentless rise in global warming, which is now widely recognised to be incompatible with sustained fast economic growth. Hence, even if demand growth prospects were such as to permit a more rapid expansion of GDP – a highly questionable assumption in the light of recent experience4 – there is growing recognition that this would not be compatible with environmental stability in general and reduced global warming in particular.
Nowhere to go but down
Faced with this impasse, policy makers have a potentially terrifying choice. They can allow asset prices to continue rising rapidly while letting real wages stagnate – and risk a consequent social explosion among the marginalised masses – or else they can permit the channelling of more inflated asset prices into generalised price inflation (as well as higher wages) and consequent increased market and economic instability. In fact whichever option is followed a market upheaval seems bound to ensue sooner rather than later.
This likelihood is reflected in much of the reporting and analysis seen in the financial press since the start of 2021. A number of commentators have pointed out that the current exceptionally high market ratios now being recorded – see above – are in many cases attributable to the extreme over-valuation of just a few component stocks of the market indices concerned. A conspicuous example of this is the successful pumping up of the market price of GameStop – a failing US video game retailer that has lost much of its market share to online trade since 2015 – by a large number of speculators operating in open collusion with one another, in opposition to the equally overt efforts of hedge funds and other large financial institutions seeking to “short” the stock and thereby drive down the market price to their collective profit.
Such deliberate, overt distortion of the stock market in the interest of speculative gain for a few seems bound to undermine what little public belief there may still be in the efficacy of the capitalist profits system as a mechanism for promoting productive investment and economic prosperity. In the short run this can surely only portend the bursting of yet another major market bubble in succession to those of 1987, 1998, 2001 and 2008 – and all the resulting world-wide financial mayhem.
Whether in the longer term this will continue to be seen as an acceptable process for determining the allocation of resources in a supposedly modern, civilised society must be open to doubt, especially if it requires, as now, the effective dragooning of workers to invest their savings – via tax-subsidised pension funds – in assets whose market value can be open to being artificially determined, as in the case of GameStop. To a rational observer it may seem more likely that there will be growing cries of “enough is enough”.
1 Restoring UK growth is more urgent than cutting public debt, Financial Times 13 December 2020; Bank of England Investors believe BoE’s QE programme is designed to finance UK deficit. Financial Times 4 January 2021
2Tommy Stubbington and Chris Giles, Bank of England Investors believe BoE’s QE programme is designed to finance UK deficit. FT 4 January 2021
3 Larry Elliott, Are soaring markets and house prices an ‘epic bubble’ about to pop? The Guardian 11 January 2021
4 see The Impossibility of Growth (posted 2 July 2020)