Friday, 18 March 2011

Three weeks into the market correction, dynamics may be changing

The guessing game has been on for some days now: Will the Japanese disaster be positive or negative for the world economy. Personally, I believe that initially it will be negative and then turn positive as the efforts to rebuild gathers steam. But it really is anybody’s guess, and to be cynical about it, it does not really matter. At least not for the financial markets. So while my thoughts go to all those who have lost lives and property in the disaster, the markets are more interested in the global policy reactions.

In that respect it looks fine. Japan finally joined the club of countries embarking on “Quantitative Easing”, also known as monetising public sector deficits. G7 and others are intervening in order to drive down the JPY, which adds strength to the monetary initiatives already taken. It all looks good and the markets have taken their cue from the developments. Stock markets will profit in the short term.

Over the past five-six months the stock markets have been supported by the fact that global economic data have surprised on the upside, indicating that the world economy is doing a good deal better than expected around the middle of last year.

This will not continue. Markets do not really react to good or bad news. Markets react to surprisingly good or bad news. Markets react to change rather than predictability.

Despite decades of economic research on the formation of economic expectations, most economists and stock market analysts display “adaptive expectations”: if they are surprised positively, they revise forecast upwards. If they are surprised negatively, they revise downwards.

So now that we have all been surprised positively for some months, you can be absolutely sure that forecasts are now being adjusted upwards. At some point in time they will have caught up with reality. From that point on, they will begin to have negative surprises. A new revision cycle will begin and the market mood will again turn.

On 22 February I wrote that the market had a set up for a correction. Not because of overvaluation or what not, but simply too many had become complacent about risk. I thought the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East would be the trigger. In the end it was a combination of that and the Japanese disaster that caused the markets to run for cover. The policy reaction around Japan has already taken some of the uncertainty way. I am not sure that it is enough to put an end to the current market correction.

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