In the past three months, global asset prices have rebounded sharply: Stock prices have increased by more than 30 percent in advanced economies and by much more in most emerging markets. Prices of commodities — oil, energy, and minerals — have soared; corporate credit spreads (the difference between the yield of corporate and government bonds) have narrowed dramatically, as government-bond yields have increased sharply; volatility (the “fear gauge”) has fallen; and the dollar has weakened as demand for safe dollar assets has abated.
But is the recovery of asset prices driven by economic fundamentals? Is it sustainable? Is the recovery in stock prices another bear-market rally or the beginning of a bullish trend?
While economic data suggests that improvement in fundamentals has occurred — the risk of a near depression has been reduced; the prospects of the global recession bottoming out by year end are increasing; and risk sentiment is improving — it is equally clear that other, less sustainable factors are also playing a role. Moreover, the sharp rise in some asset prices threatens the recovery of a global economy that has not yet hit bottom. Indeed, many risks of a downward market correction remain.
First, confidence and risk aversion are fickle, and bouts of renewed volatility may occur if macroeconomic and financial data were to surprise on the downside — as they may if a near-term and robust global recovery (which many people expect) does not materialize.
Second, extremely loose monetary policies (zero interest rates, quantitative easing, new credit facilities, emissions of government bonds and purchases of illiquid and risky private assets), together with the huge sums spent to stabilize the financial system, may be causing a new liquidity-driven asset bubble in financial and commodity markets. For example, Chinese state-owned enterprises that gained access to huge amounts of easy money and credit are buying equities and stockpiling commodities well beyond their productive needs.
The risk of a correction in the face of disappointing macroeconomic fundamentals is clear. Indeed, recent data from the US and other advanced economies suggest that the recession may last through the end of the year. Worse, the recovery is likely to be anemic and sub-par — well below potential for a couple of years, if not longer — as the burden of debts and leverage of the private sector combine with rising public sector debts to limit the ability of households, financial firms and corporations to lend, borrow, spend, consume and invest.
This more challenging scenario of anemic recovery undermines hopes for a V-shaped recovery, as low growth and deflationary pressures constrain earnings and profit margins and as unemployment rates above 10 percent in most advanced economies cause financial shocks to re-emerge, owing to mounting losses for banks’ and financial institutions’ portfolios of loans and toxic assets. At the same time, financial crises in a number of emerging markets could prove contagious, placing additional stress on global financial markets.
The increase in some asset prices may, moreover, lead to a W-shaped, double-dip recession. In particular, thanks to massive liquidity, energy prices are now rising too high too soon. The role that high oil prices played last summer in tipping the global economy into recession should not be underestimated. Oil above US$140 a barrel was the last straw — coming on top of the housing busts and financial shocks — for the global economy, as it represented a massive supply shock for the US, Europe, Japan, China and other net importers of oil.