Global Agenda: They think it's all over

The good news from the markets must be tempered by the continued bad news from the real economy.

global agenda 88 (photo credit: )
global agenda 88
(photo credit: )
The new hit theme in the financial markets is that the worst of the global financial crisis - "turmoil" is the preferred term, since "crisis" apparently has overly negative connotations - is behind us. The lead singers in this performance are the large investment and commercial banks. But they are getting support from the central banks, whether in word, as from the Bank of England in a report published on Wednesday, or in deed, as from the Fed in its 25-basis point cut and announcement of a "pause," also on Wednesday. But the same Fed statement made clear that the expected "pause" in rate cutting over the coming months was both temporary and tenuous. The Fed was very determined to avoid creating the impression that its rate-cutting cycle has reached an end; rather, it left its options wide open, pending further developments. Given the ongoing rise in inflation and the lurking fear of possible further shocks that could trigger renewed "turmoil," this was the prudent thing to do. Indicative of just how fluid the situation is, and how quickly expectations can change, is that as recently as three weeks ago, the consensus view was that the Fed's Open Market Committee meeting, which concluded Wednesday, would cut interest rates by 50 basis points and continue to stress the threat of further weakness in the markets and real economy. Since then, however, the financial markets have displayed increasing stability, with prices rising and spreads narrowing. This is what has prompted the outburst of optimism among market participants. But it is precisely the identity of the cheerleaders - the main market players - that devalues the content of their cheery message. These institutions have a huge vested interest in the well-being of the markets, because as the markets go, so do they, their profits and the obscene and increasingly controversial remuneration packages of their employees. Furthermore, these institutions - and the central banks, for that matter - have been consistently wrong in their assessments about the depth, severity and magnitude of the crisis for the last two years. First, with regard to the housing "downturn," then with regard to subprime mortgage loans and then through the litany of woe and cataclysm that began in earnest last July, they have been forever claiming that the end is in sight, a turning point is imminent and, yes, the worst is behind us. That, for instance, is what they said after Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and UBS made their initial multibillion-dollar writedowns last October; in fact, and as more objective analysts noted at the time, these were merely the opening salvoes of a prolonged barrage of losses that will stretch on for many quarters. While there are honorable exceptions, the sad truth is that objectivity cannot be expected from analysis - whether corporate or macro - produced by major investment institutions. Even when they present a serious, balanced analysis with negative conclusions, such as a long piece from JPMorgan on the drab outlook for corporate profits over the next several years (an unusually long time horizon for an investment house), you get the feeling that the punches are being pulled to avoid inflicting excessive pain. Of course, every crisis has a turning point, and if you keep predicting it, you will be right in the end. Indeed, there is a strong basis to posit that the bailout of Bear Stearns in mid-March may have marked the climax of the financial crisis, insofar as it represented an existential threat to both markets and institutions. Since then, these have resumed a semblance of normal functioning. But that is not the same thing as saying the crisis as a whole is over. The proof that it isn't over is indicated by spreads in the money and bond markets, which remain much wider than they were a year ago, or have usually been on an historical basis. Finally, the good news from the markets must be tempered by the continued bad news from the real economy, where most key data continues to depict rapid deterioration. The supposed cheer to be garnered from marginally positive US economic growth in the first quarter evaporates on even a cursory examination of the details; inventory build-up is the most illusive form of growth, because it stems from slowing sales and portends reduced output. In short, the financial crisis has abated, although it is too soon to know whether this is a lull or whether the storm has indeed passed. If the latter, then the focus must move to the real economy, which in the US is suffering from growing weakness and is expected to spread round the world. Meanwhile, the surge in global inflation is creating additional pressure, like an infection attacking an already weakened body recovering from a serious illness. [email protected]