A Real Concern About Over(h)eating

By Michael Ashton

I misread a headline the other day, and it actually caused a market analogy to occur to me. The headling was “Powell Downplays Concern About Overheating,” but I read it as “Powell Downplays Concern About Overeating.” Which I was most delighted to hear; although I don’t normally rely on Fed Chairman for dietary advice[1] I was happy to entertain any advice that would admit me a second slice of pie.

Unfortunately, he was referring to the notion that the economy “has changed in many ways over the past 50 years,” and in fact might no longer be vulnerable to rapidly rising price pressures because, as Bloomberg summarized it, “The workforce is better educated and inflation expectations more firmly anchored.” (I don’t really see how an educated workforce, or consumers who have forgotten about inflation, immunizes the economy from the problem of too much money chasing too few goods, but then I don’t hang out with PhDs…if I can avoid it.) Come to think of it, perhaps the Chairman ought to stick to dietary advice after all.

But it was too late for me to stop thinking about the analogy, which diverges from what Powell was actually talking about. Here we go:

When a person eats, and especially if he eats too much, then he needs to wait and digest before tackling the next course. This is why we take a break at Thanksgiving between the main meal and dessert. If, instead, you are already full and you continue to eat then the result is predictable: you will puke. I wonder if it’s the same with risk: some risk is okay, and you can take on more risk up to a point. But if you keep taking on risk, eventually you puke. In investing/trading terms, you rapidly exit when a small setback hits you, because you’ve got more risk on than you can handle. Believe me: been there, done that. At the dinner table and in markets.

So with this analogy in place, let’s consider the “portfolio balance channel.” In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, the Fed worked to remove low-risk securities from the market in order to push investors towards higher-risk securities. This was a conscious and public effort undertaken by the central bank because (they believed) investors were irrationally scared and risk-averse, and needed a push to restore “animal spirits.” (I’m not making this up – this is what they said). It was like the Italian grandmother who implores, “Eat! Eat! You’re just skin and bones!” And they were successful, just like Grandma. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) plots the slope of the securities market line relating expected real return and expected real risk, quarterly, going back to 2011. It’s based on our own calculations of the expected real return to stocks, TIPS, Treasuries, commodities, commercial real estate, residential real estate, corporate bonds, and cash, but you don’t have to believe our calculations are right. The calculation methodology is consistent over time, so you can see how the relative value in terms of risk and reward evolved.

The Fed succeeded in getting us to eat more and more risky securities, so that they got more and more expensive relative to safer securities (the amount of additional risk required to get an increment of additional return got greater and greater). Thanks Grandma!

But the problem is, we’re still eating. Risk is getting more and more expensive, but we keep reaching for another cookie even though we know we shouldn’t.

Puking is the body’s way of restoring equilibrium quickly. Abrupt market corrections (aka “crashes”) are the market’s way of restoring equilibrium quickly.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. One of my favorite market-related books, “Why Stock Markets Crash” by Didier Sornette, (also worth reading is “Ubiquity” by Mark Buchanan) talks about how markets ‘fracture’ after bending too far, just like many materials; the precise point of fracture is not identifiable but the fact that a fracture will happen eventually if the material continues to bend is indisputable.

My analogy is more colorful. Whether it is any more timely remains to be seen.


[1] To be fair, I also don’t rely on Fed Chairman for economic advice.

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Gary

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