Confidence Trick

23/10/2015 at 3:42 pm

In these uncertain times, let us refresh ourselves by beginning with what was again proved this week to be an indisputable fact: Mario Draghi is the most significant and successful central banker in the world.

The announcement three years ago that the ECB was assuming the power to intervene in bond markets, when he was not even 12 months into the job, put the sovereign debt crisis to bed, restored market confidence across the world and helped turn the creaking hull of the eurozone supertanker away from recession. Two years later his €400bn bank liquidity programme and adoption of a negative policy rate had analysts calling him a rock star. Another €700bn splurge and surprise rate cut followed. And at the beginning of this year Mr Draghi announced a €1.1trn programme of quantitative easing.

So yesterday’s announcement that the ECB was ready to modify the “size, composition and duration” of its QE exercise was part of a pattern. Draghi and team are being seen to do whatever it takes to re-normalise the eurozone economy. Indeed, as he put it at a speech he gave in London on 26 July 2012:

The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.

Everybody believes you now, Mr Draghi.

Market reaction yesterday and overnight was, in a word, electric. The euro plunged by 1% against the dollar in the space of half an hour to close the day 2% weaker overall. (That is a more significant one day fall than the planned devaluation of the Chinese yuan that caused such consternation back in August.) The Euro Stoxx 50, which had been trading flat throughout the morning, rocketed up in the afternoon to post a +2.5% close. European bond yields hit new record lows: the 2-year bund was pricing at -0.35% in the opening hours of this morning while the 2-year Italian buono hit negative yield territory for the first time.

There is a good, detailed overview of the global impact of Mr Draghi’s latest star performance from Reuters here: Global Stocks Hit Two-Month High On Dovish Dragi Message. But it is the quotes from market observers which we will focus on before leaving this subject:

“Investors and traders are buying the idea of expected action out of the Bank of Japan and the ECB,” said Ben Le Brun, market analyst at trading platform provider optionsXpress.

The Chinese central bank’s injection of 105.5 billion yuan into 11 banks via its medium-term lending facility this week, combined with possible additional stimulus from the ECB, “may give the Fed more reason to raise rates by year end,” said Chris Brankin, chief executive officer of online trading platform TR Ameritrade Asia in Singapore.

“Draghi has come out and kitchen-sinked the whole thing, everything is now on the table,” said Gavin Friend, a strategist at National Australia Bank in London. “You combine what the ECB is now saying with (the fact) that the Fed is not going to be going aggressively and that the Bank of Japan is going to want to get involved, then you say ‘Blimey!'”

Mr Draghi has played his role exceptionally well, but the dominance of central bank rhetoric and activity over market behaviour is unhealthy. When the People’s Bank of China devalued over the summer for example it was treated as a disaster – a desperate act to prop up a seriously weak economy. The falling stock market in China had helped unsettle the world and the markets’ interpretation of events took place against a background of gloom. This week, however – thanks to the ECB – we inhabit an era of sunshine and optimism. So when the PBOC announced further monetary loosening today it was seen not as desperate but as a sign of “the government’s determination” which has now lit “a fire under global stocks” as “US equity futures jump”, to quote some of this afternoon’s commentary. Markets hated Chinese policy over the summer and loosening by the PBOC was taken badly; today it’s just what was needed to cement the rally in place.

If there is a cloud to go with this week’s silver lining, therefore, it is the now familiar truth that reliance on central banks has become a major source of volatility. “Money Markets Primed for Draghi as Bets Jump on Deposit-Rate Cut”, says Bloomberg’s headline today. And what if there is no cut on 3 December? Or if there is, but this is seen as bowing to market pressure – the kind of pressure which appears now to govern decision-making at the Fed? One day markets are given a boost by “Super Mario”, the next, they start looking for more – and pricing it in.

Volatility is the textbook definition of financial market risk. Mario Draghi is, to say the least, an impressive figure. He has given investors much to be very grateful for. But he and his confreres around the world, counter-intuitive though it might seem, have actually helped to make investing today a riskier proposition. To put it another way, we have become used to looking to central banks to underpin market stability; and by relying on them to the extent that we now do, ensured the exact opposite.

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