Stock indices everywhere are hitting new highs. The Dow Jones Industrials, the Nasdaq, the Kospi, the Straits Times index, the Sensex and the Nifty, the Hang Seng, Australia’s ASX200 and even Egyptian stocks have all been breaking records.
How does one explain this fantastic surge in stock markets across the world barely a week after everybody came to know about the dangers lurking in the sub-prime mess in the US? Why is it that the Sensex and the Nifty are setting new records when almost everybody expects earnings growth to slow down and when the Infosys results have revealed the damage that can be caused by the strong rupee?
The usual answer to these questions is that it’s the result of liquidity. Liquidity has been the explanation offered for this bull run ever since it began in 2003, although there are differing accounts of why such a flood of money appeared in the first place. Some blame it on profligate central banks, others on an excess of savings over investments. Liquidity is an all-encompassing term that means different things to different people, but in terms of numbers it boils down to one statistic: The ratio of global financial assets to annual world output has vaulted from 109% in 1980 to 316% in 2005, according to data compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute. Between 2002 and 2005, world financial assets increased from 272% to 316% of global gross domestic product (GDP).
Doesn’t the fact that interest rates have been rising across the world in the last couple of years mean that liquidity is coming down? Yet a rise in the Fed funds rate from a low of 1% to 5.25% seems to have had little impact on asset prices.
The same goes for the rising interest rates in Britain and the Euro area. Serhan Cevik, Morgan Stanley’s vice-president for North Africa and West Asia, points out that the market capitalization-weighted average of short-term interest rates in the world has increased from 1.5% at the end of 2003 to 4.3%.
There are several explanations. One of them is that interest rates are still low by historical standards. Till recently, despite the rise in policy rates, the yield on the US 10-year treasury note was well below 5%. Another version is that, because globalization has led to the induction of low-wage countries like India and China into the world economy, competition has increased and inflation is no longer a threat. Accordingly, central banks find that they can stimulate their economies without stoking the inflationary fires. Part of the excess supply of money does go into the real economy, pushing up growth, but a lot of it flows into financial assets, boosting their prices. Yet another explanation is that interest rates in Japan are still very low, which is why the yen has become the funding currency for the carry trade. It’s only when the Bank of Japan starts to tighten, so goes the argument, or when the yen starts appreciating, that liquidity will be hit.
There are other reasons for liquidity to be abundant. The central banks of some developing countries, especially China, have been huge creators of liquidity, as they accumulate foreign exchange reserves, releasing local currency in return. (That’s exactly what’s currently happening with the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) attempts to prevent the rupee from appreciating.) The forex reserves, in turn, are parked in foreign currency bonds, usually in US treasuries, driving down interest rates there and adding to liquidity. Recent data show that China added $266 billion to its reserves in the first half of the year, while Russia, Brazil and India (Bric) added another $200 billion or so. That’s a $466 billion addition to liquidity by the Bric countries alone, without taking into account the surpluses of the West Asian oil exporters. As Cevik points out, “The accumulation of foreign assets by oil exporters and Asian countries increased from 3.7% of global GDP in 1999 to 9.5% last year.”
Besides these central banks and the oil exporters, there are other players who add to liquidity by financial leverage, through the creation and widespread adoption of new financial instruments that cut up and bundle risk in new and complex ways. It’s estimated that the total amount of exchange-traded and over-the-counter derivatives have increased exponentially from 26% of global GDP to an astonishing 789%. The rapid growth of these instruments has enabled credit to be enhanced despite monetary tightening. Cevik says that derivatives and securitized debt instruments account for almost 90% of global liquidity, while traditional monetary aggregates represent a mere 10%. That is why commentators are so worried about the sub-prime contagion in the US—if its impact spills over to other asset classes, the contraction in credit could be explosive.
But for that to happen, interest rates need to go up further. The Bank for International Settlements has said that a rebound in the cost of oil as well as rising wages, increasing capacity utilization and falling unemployment may be stoking inflation. But it is by no means certain that inflation is rising.
Back home, however, the situation could be different. The topping out of interest rates has led to a sharp rally in equities. The Bombay Stock Exchange Auto index, for instance, is up around 9.5% in the past one month. But given the pressures on the rupee and the fact that market interest rates are lower than policy rates, the RBI may have no alternative to hiking the cash reserve ratio. The weight of money, however, tends to smother all doubts.
Mint’s resident market expert Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues related to investing in general and Indian bourses in particular. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com.