The Bank of Japan stepped in overnight and put a floor under stocks. Only 6 of 42 economists at Bloomberg thought they might do something.
We made the case over the past couple of days that they needed to. The opportunity was ripe, and we thought they would take advantage. They did.
Of course, that’s all the media is talking about today. The word “surprise” is in the headline of just about every major financial news publication on the planet with respect to this BOJ move (WSJ, Reuters, BBC, NYTimes … you name it).
Remember, we said earlier this week, the Fed was just a sideshow and the main event was in Japan. If you understand the big picture: 1) that central banks are still in control, 2) that the baton has been passed from the Fed to the BOJ and the ECB, and 3) that they (central banks) need stocks higher, then this move comes as no surprise.
Today we want talk a bit about what these central banks have done, what they are doing and why it works. We often hear the media, analysts, politicians, Fed-haters saying that QE hasn’t worked.
Okay, so QE hasn’t directly produced inflation and solved the world’s problems as the Fed might have expected when they launched it in late 2008. But it has produced a very important direct benefit and indirect benefit. The direct benefit: The Fed has been successful at driving mortgage rates lower, which has ultimately translated to rising house prices (along with a slew of other government subsidized programs). That has been good for the economy.
The indirect benefit: As Bernanke (the former Fed Chair) said explicitly, “QE tends to make stocks go up.” Stocks have gone up – a lot. That has been good for the economy.
But we need a lot more – they need a lot more. Here’s a little background on why…
The Fed has told us all along they want employment dramatically better, and inflation higher. They’ve gotten better employment. They haven’t gotten much inflation. Why? In normal economic downturns, making money easier to borrow tends to increase spending, which tends to increase demand and inflation. In a world that was nearly destroyed by overindebtedness, people (businesses, governments) are focused on reducing debt, not taking on more debt (regardless of how “easy” and cheap you make the money to access).
With that, their best hope to achieve those two targets (employment and inflation) has been through higher stocks and higher housing prices. Strength in these key assets has a way of improving confidence and improving paper wealth. Increasing wealth makes people more comfortable to spend. Better spending leads to hiring. A better job market can lead to inflationary pressures. That’s been the game plan for the Fed. And that’s the gameplan for Europe and Japan.
So how do they promote higher stock prices? They do it by promising investors that they will not let another shock event destabilize the world and global financial markets. They’ve promised that they will “stand ready to act” (the exact words uttered by the Fed, the ECB and the BOJ). So, they spent the better part of the past eight years promising to do “whatever it takes” (again exact words of the ECB and BOJ).
The biggest fear investors have is another “Lehman-like event” that can crash stocks, the job market and the economy. The thought of it makes people want to hold on tight to their money. But when the central banks promise to do anything and everything to prevent another shock, it creates stability and confidence to invest, to hire, to take some risk again. That’s good for stock prices.
Now, despite what we’ve just said, and despite the aggressive actions central banks have taken in past years (including the BOJ’s actions last night to push interest rates below zero) and their success in manufacturing confidence and recovery, when stocks fall, people are still quick to talk about recession and gloom and doom. On every dip in stocks since the culmination of the global financial crisis in 2007-2008, the comparisons have been made to that period.
First, they’re ignoring what the central banks have been telling us. “We’re here, ready to act.” Second, and again, things are very, very different than they were in 2007-2008. In that period, global credit was completely frozen. Banks were failing, and the entire financial system was on the precipice of failing. And at that point, it was unclear what could be done and what actions would be taken to try to avert disaster. That uncertainty, the thought of losing 100 years of economic and social progress across the globe, can easily send people scurrying for cash, pulling money from everywhere and protecting what they have. And that uncertainty can, understandably, result in stock prices getting cut in half – a stock market crash.
Now, what’s happening today? The financial system is healthy. Credit is flowing. Unemployment is very close to long-term historical norms. The U.S. economy is growing. The global economy is growing. The best predictor of recession historically is the yield curve. It shows virtually no chance of recession on the horizon. So the economic environment is very different. Still, the biggest difference between that period and today is this: We didn’t have any idea what could be done to avert the disaster OR how far central governments and central banks would go (and could go) to fight it. Now we know. It’s all-in, all or nothing. There is no ambiguity. With that, the central banks will not fail and cannot fail. And remember, they are working in coordination. No one wins if the world falls apart.
With all of this in mind, any decline in stocks, driven by fear and misinformation, offers a great buying opportunity, not an opportunity to run.
We’ll talk Monday about the very strong, and rational fundamental case for stocks to go much higher. On that note, today we’re wrapping up one of the worst January’s on record for stocks, which has given us a great opportunity to buy at a nice discount.
Bryan Rich is co-founder of Billionaire’s Portfolio, a subscription-based service that empowers average investors to invest alongside the world’s best billionaire investors. To follow the stock picks of the world’s best billionaire investors, subscribe at Billionaire’s Portfolio.