Bloomberg Business Week broke the story of the “Big hack" — how a tiny chip (the size of a pencil tip or a grain of rice) was embedded in servers bought by America’s big technology companies on 4 October. A week earlier, The New York Times wrote that the Chinese government had issued instructions to stop the reporting of negative news in print media and online forums, etc. The directive sent to journalists named six economic topics to be “managed". Two of them carry interesting implications. One is “local government debt risks" and the other is “the risks of stagflation, or rising prices coupled with slowing economic growth". It is reasonable to assume that these two remain live issues or risks in China. However, China is not alone in wanting to suppress reality.
I have long been puzzled by the turnaround in the global economy and asset markets in 2016 when it appeared that the bottom was about to fall off for the global economy and asset markets. Everyone assumed that China’s credit taps were opened and that the world was saved. The truth is slightly trickier than that. There are reasonable grounds to suspect that the US had fudged data from 2014 to 2016 to prevent official data from showing an economic recession and that the stock market too was manipulated. The supporting arguments follow.
Between the summer of 2014 and spring 2016, stock prices in many markets declined sharply. Stock indices developed by Morgan Stanley Capital International for the European Monetary Union, Asia-ex-Japan, Japan, Switzerland and emerging markets had declined anywhere between 20% and 40% in that period. Emerging market bond spread doubled. However, the S&P 500 stock index traded sideways. Was it because earnings by S&P 500 companies were stellar? No. For about seven to eight quarters from December 2014 to September 2016, year-on-year (yoy) growth of earnings per share’ (EPS) of S&P 500 companies was negative. Quite how the S&P 500 stock index remained stable in the face of a global sell-off in risk assets and contraction in earnings remains a mystery to be solved.
What happened to the real economy in the US? In the same period, industrial production and manufacturing recorded more months of negative change than positive change—both on a month-on-month and on a yoy basis. Capacity utilization declined. Consumer confidence—University of Michigan consumer confidence indices—declined. Import prices—from China and Mexico—recorded declines on an annual basis. Consumer price inflation came down from 2% to around 0%. All these indicators suggested a recession in America. Real gross domestic product (GDP) growth slowed, but there was no recession.
The price of crude oil declined sharply in this period. It must have helped Asian stock indices and corporate earnings since Asia is largely an oil importer. But, as mentioned above, Asian stock indices fell sharply. The balance sheet troubles of oil producers and companies in related industries eclipsed the positive effects of lower oil prices. None of this showed up in American stocks. In fact, excluding oil stocks, the S&P 500 would have been up. Of course, excluding profits of oil companies, S&P 50 EPS might have experienced growth. That might explain the resilience of the index. However, this does not sound right because the rest of the economy was reflecting the strains that the oil industry was facing. But, not the stock market. Why did the US have to do this?
By 2015, had official statistics reflected the slowdown in the economy fully, it would have been a big indictment of the policies pursued since the crisis of 2008. Short-term interest rates at 0% and three rounds of quantitative easing and repurchase of maturing treasury assets could not produce a recovery that lasted longer than six years. It would have been a huge embarrassment to the Fed and would have emboldened the likes of Ron Paul to demand drastic changes to the charter of the Fed and the trimming of its sails. The other motivation is political.
An economic recession and a stock market decline would have sealed the verdict on the Barack Obama presidency and would have effectively nullified the chances of the election of a Democrat as president in the 2016 elections. Perhaps, a Republican victory coming on top of an official economic recession and stock market collapse would have made Democrats unelectable for a long time to come. In the end, they did not succeed because public sentiment could not be manipulated. They were hurting because of the sham recovery. Hence, apart from the traditional Democrat bastions along the coasts, the rest of the country voted Donald Trump to the office of the president.
What are the implications of this? By not allowing the American stock market to correct meaningfully in that period, policymakers have not allowed the pressure valves to function. Pressure has built up as the stock market then began to climb from 2016 onwards. So, the “bottled up" pressure is now immense. Stock market stability followed by a steep ascent since end-2016 means that excess risk had been taken by companies, funds and investors. We cannot pinpoint before the fact where they are. We will all be wiser after the fact as we were, after 2008 only to forget the lessons in short order. Recently, the chief economist of the European Central Bank expressed fears about the degree of leverage in the financial system because of shadow banking. It had taken just 10 years to come back a full circle. A truly bizarre world.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is the dean of the IFMR Business School. These are his personal views. Read Anantha’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/baretalk.