Risk is higher. Markets are more unpredictable, and valuations more volatile. So, when anyone says “this time it’s different” it usually makes good sense to stop listening. However, these days the markets have given us more frequent and intense volatility. The NASDAQ is down almost 30% so far this year, and shocks from the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, massive central bank interest-rate maneuvers, and China’s zero-covid policy, are all ongoing inputs for turmoil that will continue for some time. Persistent uncertainty creates higher costs of capital and less affordability, weakening business investment, slowing GDP growth, and reducing investment returns. Hyperbolic “this time it’s different” statements are turning out to be true. This time days look darker, uncertainty greater, economic growth lower, vulnerability to additional shocks higher, and investors fear many more dark days to come. More frequent and intense volatility will not be calmed anytime soon. It really may be different this time.
The Fed’s latest projection was for annual inflation to fall from over 5% at the end of 2022 to about 2.5% by the end of 2023. At this point, we’re not taking the Fed’s projections seriously, and for good reason. They were spectacularly wrong when a depth of understanding and insight into critical future events was essential. In other words, the understanding of how the economy works, the Fed’s ability to predict the effects of economic shocks, and its policy actions have gotten no better over the last 50 years. More specifically, price stability doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon because people simply don’t think it will. If we look at the combination of rising wages and inflation expectations for both consumers and businesses, it is these expectations that drive inflationary pressures more than central bank policy. Inflation levels will be stickier than first theorized by the Fed, and the time to resolution is likely longer. Expect more “surprises” that will be no surprise.
Financial markets are imbalanced and lack liquidity in crucial sectors, even historically stable and predictable markets such as the global bond and currency markets. Investments are slanted in one direction more frequently and the markets are vulnerable to big price swings as a result. These large global markets are not immune to ever more lopsided trades creating extreme volatility. This occurs even when a small change occurs in positions, sentiment, or news. Even the world’s most liquid markets, US dollar currency trades and US Treasuries, are seeing skewed positioning resulting in surprisingly large shifts in prices and Treasury bond yields. The market now leans too far one way or the other, and that imbalance will be forced to reverse more powerfully and unpredictably.
Technology is facing a substantial crossroads as policy changes with global resonance, such as China’s new crackdown on the country’s big tech companies (such as Ant Financial and Didi Global), the rising resistance to social media behemoths like Facebook, and the need for governments, whether in the United States, Western Europe, or China, to manage and control technological development. Regardless of any good intentions, this will add friction, inefficiency, and underperformance to the most dynamic global industry. The best intentions usually bring disastrous consequences. China cannot escape the law of unintended consequences. Trying to “manage” innovation and creativity takes away the often unplanned and serendipitous breakthroughs that make many significant advancements possible in the first place. From an economic perspective, capital is not going to invest in an uncertain environment where prosperity is managed and, despite great risk where most ventures will fail, the truly successful ones which make up for the losses and encourage capital to keep investing, will be mitigated. The vanguard of capital flight from China is beginning, and it will not ease if this policy and attitude are not revised. This attempt at “fairness and more equal distribution” will do nothing more than keep capital away and stifle any attempt at creativity, technical innovation, and economic advancement. The intention of this policy will yield the opposite outcome as a consequence. The signal means substance. Substance means innovation, creativity, and competitive dynamics that create the most effective innovations, the best solutions, and the most sustainable companies. Central planning, bureaucratic industrial policy, government-led economic management, and dictatorial focus have always failed, and always will. The US should not fall into this trap, regardless of how appealing it may be.
It is only noise.
Economic predictions have always been highly variable and uncertain, and, for some reason, relied upon as if the future were a magical algorithm. Essentially, economists would make one fundamental mistake. They thought they were practicing a science. Data could be collected, inputted, and a predictive algorithm could be generated. Even Nobel Prize winners like Paul Samuelson believed that with enough data we could come to understand the economy and how it functioned.
This is nonsense. As Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown us, human behavior and irrationality, combined with unpredictability and randomness (thank you Naseem Taleb) make this even a questionable social science. Using existing analysis and algorithms to reliably forecast is a fool’s errand, essential for someone’s tenure, and maybe even a Nobel Prize, but doesn’t add much that is useful. Some of the more laughable Nobel Prizes have been given to people who determined that markets were efficient. They are not. Economies can be predicted with useful data input. They cannot. A couple of inputs about inflation and the unemployment rate, and we know how to manage an economy. We can’t. That last one is the Philip’s Curve – true for a limited time and then it goes spectacularly wrong – a lot like most risk and market prediction models.
One thing we can add is that most predictions seem too good to be true, and almost always are. The economy is not a perpetual motion machine, nor is it a credit card with no limit and no requirement to pay the balance. The current notion that “deficits don’t matter” seems patently silly and naïve to think that we can simply print money without any economic discipline to generate sustainable profitable businesses with the efficient use of capital.
“Money goes where it’s needed, but it stays where it is treated well.”
Walter Wriston (former CEO of Citicorp)
That means it has to generate a return and not be co-opted by governments and public policy, nor be flooded by capital with no economic discipline.
Deficits may be a reasonable way to jumpstart a sluggish economy, but they are not sustainable. Current thinking is that fiscal discipline, debt repayment, and the idea of a balanced budget are anachronistic and useless. It is dangerous to stress test this idea because the downside is potentially cataclysmic. Capital likes a free market, but we hardly have a free market with money today. Constant stimulus does not create economic discipline.
Initiative, savvy, luck, circumstance, and convolution have taken over currencies – or at least digital creations purported to be currencies (but in reality don’t, and never will, quite fit the bill). Those entities that create and support real currencies are taking notice. In other words, welcome to government in action. Here come central bank digital coins
Luck rather than leadership, circumstance rather than foresight or political skill, seem to have been more helpful in triggering these developments. Digital coins (while loosely described as “currency” are more like a digital asset easily transferred and accounted for in a digital ledger) represent a handful of rather clever people taking on central government’s mighty bureaucrats. Armed with simplicity, clarity, and algorithms, they are defeating all administrations’ fondness for complexity, confusion, and rules.
In general, bureaucrats are masters of the art of convolution. Essentially, governments work overtime to create farce in the spirit of precision. An example of bureaucratic absurdity can be found in France (admittedly, a country that has taken bureaucracy to an art form – perhaps more so than art itself). When the government started a new lockdown because of the pandemic, they devised a two-page permission form to leave home, with 15 different justifications, before, thankfully, shelving it in the face of ridicule. The French can buy alcohol, for instance, but not underwear. These rules were simply to be able to walk out the front door, and the government imagined that this kind of detailed process was somehow useful, and not the bewildering reality it represented.
Now imagine these “developed” governments (of whom France is probably not the worst offender) trying to deal with a global currency, currency exchanges, and the transfer of funds internationally. We don’t have to look too far to find the convoluted rules behind Bretton Woods, the WTO, and other international absurdities to recognize that this problem is not easily solved, or even understood. Bureaucrats are generally better at devising rules, charging fees, and collecting taxes and information than making anything that is useful or even comprehensible.