As my eldest daughter approaches her final year of high school, I am constantly reminded (and proud) that she is starting to take in a larger view of the world. Most of the time, this takes the form of the typical issues which energize people her age. We don’t always agree but it is nice to have a civilized debate from time to time. And I like to think that we have both learned from the interaction.
But the other day, she asked me how things were going in the market over the dinner table. When I responded with a short (my wife occasionally makes wild claims that I can go on a bit), pithy response, she crinkled up her nose and declared: “Well, it sounds like nothing much has changed!”
I really couldn’t find fault with her statement. Europe is still becalmed (some people would use a stronger adjective), the US government is still spending several percentage points of GDP more than it is taking in, sovereign debts are piling up and interest rates are being held aggressively low.
The resolution to Europe’s issues will continue to suffer from the lack of a Federal political structure to match the monetary union. Given the history and recent election results, US politicians will raise taxes and make only token cuts to spending, giving us neither a balanced budget nor a pathway to revived economic growth. And, because the FED’s actions are transmitted globally through the US dollar, the artificially low interest rates (for some) will continue to clog up the global economic arteries.
The interest rate issue bothers me in particular because the FED’s well intentioned QE and Twist programs play havoc with the pricing signals that individuals, corporations and governments use to make decisions. Corporations are sitting on piles of cash because their investment yardsticks are sending very conflicting messages about the cost of capital and hurdle rates. Knowing that the interest rate regime could change overnight by bureaucratic fiat does not engender great confidence when planning for a multi-year, multi-billion dollar investment strategy.
Just when I was looking for a way to simplify it down for myself and others, the Mises Institute dropped an article into my email called “Regime Uncertainty”.
The crux of the Mises article is that we are experiencing a slow recovery because net new private investment has stalled. This is the private investment over and above what is required to keep our capital stock in shape (considering depreciation and obsolescence). In past recessions, the drop off in private investment reverses within a year or two of the economic trough. The only two times this has not occurred in the past 100 years: “during the Great Depression and during the past five years.”
The author determines the core problem to be Regime Uncertainty. In the 30’s, the future of property rights did not look bright given the global trends towards Fascism and Communism which were really two different versions of state directed economies. Nowadays, the risk to property rights seems to be more a question of slow erosion through higher taxation, a larger public sector and government regulation rather than outright expropriation of assets.
That explanation goes a long way towards fitting the “fact pattern” that we see playing out in the developed economies today. Corporations are not only facing the usual uncertainties of the marketplace but they have the added uncertainty of the operating regime in these markets. The interest rate manipulation which vexes me can be seen within this framework as just another government encroachment on the normal workings of the private market.
And, if we need more evidence that the markets are being led around by the politicians, look no further than today’s 2% rally on the news that maybe the politicians will get their act together in time to avert the overhyped “Fiscal Cliff.” Given that the Fiscal Cliff is the artificial construct of the same politicians who are now being compelled to solve it, is it really that hard to see why private capital feels reluctant to mobilize?
After all, everything is on the table according to these politicians. If you are the CEO of a major corporation or bank, do you want to place any serious bets before the end of the year? Hmmm…it seems that “Regime Uncertainty” is not such a radical title for an article after all.