Boom and bust, again
By Sin-ming Shaw
Byline: Smart investors would do well to ignore the exuberance over the latest surge in stock markets, writes Sin-ming Shaw
Stock markets are suddenly showing signs of breaking out from their respective lows reached late last year. As of Wednesday, the Hang Seng Index was up more than 40 per cent, the Dow Jones, 21 per cent and the Nikkei, 32 per cent. These broad indices mask even more impressive performance of individual stocks.
China Life, in an industry plagued by the implosion of American giant AIG, is up 60 per cent from its low. Bank of East Asia, hurt by rumours and by a rogue trader, is up 44 per cent.
Shipping stocks have staged a comeback that seems to ignore all the daily bad news about slower world trade. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's flagship company, OOIL, at HK$19.60 on Wednesday, is up almost 100 per cent from its October low of HK$9.92.
What is going on? Do investors read the same papers as we do? Are we not watching the greatest meltdown since the Great Depression, with shrinking world trade and massive deleveraging of banks and companies? The economic realities remain depressing and grim. China, the "factory of the world", is facing its largest economic challenge since 1949. Factories are dropping like flies. Those that are surviving face a Hobson's choice: if you accept an order, the buyer might default but, if you don't take it, production must be cut and workers fired.
Property prices in Hong Kong, London and elsewhere are down between 30 per cent and 50 per cent. Interest rates are already close to zero but deflation in the US is at minus 13 per cent per annum, indicating lower rates are not having a positive effect on consumer behaviour. Banks flush with liquidity are afraid to lend as they are unsure whether the borrowers are creditworthy.
Nouriel Roubini, a professor at New York University, was one of the few academics to predict the crisis, yet his warnings were disastrously dismissed as drivel by Wall Street. He is predicting an "uglier" 2009. So are stock markets irrational again? Think of a play with three acts.
Act One consists of the financial meltdown, with stock markets plunging and Wall Street and parts of Main Street decimated. That act is drawing to a close, if it hasn't done so already.
Act Two is unfolding, with Main Street melting down at a speed substantially slower than that of Wall Street. The very nature of engaging in making "real" things in factories - moving industrial materials around the world to be made into parts and then assembled into a product to be distributed to global sales points - means that the process takes longer to start and is slower to unwind. We are far from at its end right now. Professor Roubini was spot on about it getting "uglier" in this respect.
Act Three is what the stock market investors are turning their sights to: highly inflationary policies pursued by governments around the world. They are keeping the money printing press running around the clock and are announcing massive "New Deal"-type programmes.
The popular press has crowned US president-elect Barack Obama a modern-day Franklin D. Roosevelt whose historic New Deal helped get the US out of the Great Depression.
Governments around the world have finally understood that the deadly combination of US housing folly and Wall Street machinations was not a localised US phenomenon. They are now acting to save their own countries.
Zero interest rates alone have proved to be inadequate. John Maynard Keynes long ago warned that a "liquidity trap" in a depression would require massive government action. Japan, in the 1980s, found itself in the same trap with a lethargic government politically unable to inflate the economy through massive spending.
These days, public policymakers are less restrained. Mr Obama has chosen as his close economic advisers experts on the Great Depression. Larry Summers, Mr Obama's top adviser, chastened after years of complacency regarding the stability of the US financial system, has urged Mr Obama to err on the side of "overspending". US federal deficits are now projected to be well over US$1 trillion for 2009 and probably in 2010.
So Act Three is music to the ears of the financial markets. In this script, the world economy should get back on an even keel in less than a year, saving it from a lethal hard landing. Some experts expect the global economy to hit bottom by, at latest, the fourth quarter of this year.
Should retail investors jump back into stocks with both feet, assuming the current budding exuberance is on the mark?
Is the market going to go higher in the months to come? Lee Shau-kee, who made his fortune selling apartments in Hong Kong's rigged property market and was once nicknamed "Asia's Warren Buffett" has now humbly disowned that honorific because he has fallen flat too often with his flawed forecasts.
Before regaining our exuberance, we should remember what the real Warren Buffett said long ago: every minute spent guessing what the markets will do is a minute wasted. He made his reputation and fortune by focusing on company realities. He finds great companies selling at reasonable prices, rather than guessing what market indices will do. It pays to remember his words.
Sin-ming Shaw is a former professional investor
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