Bubble in bubbles means it’s time to close the bar

Bubble in bubbles means it’s time to close the bar

First, credit where it’s due. Both economies have done remarkably well this year, with China zooming along at 7.9% and India at 6.1%. Considering Japan and the US are shrinking 7.2% and 3.8%, respectively, we must tip our hats to officials in Beijing and New Delhi.

The same can’t be said of events in Shanghai and Mumbai, where stocks are surging, with gains of 62% in Shanghai and 80% in Mumbai this year.

Investors could merely be thinking long-term. Asia’s two nascent superpowers are dripping with as much potential as they are with ambition. And investors do need something to buy these days other than low-yielding government debt. Yet, do the prospects for the Chinese and Indian economies justify such spectacular stock rallies? It’s doubtful.

Asset prices are being driven more by unusually low interest rates than economic fundamentals. It’s time for policymakers to mop up that liquidity. That includes US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in Washington.

Australia’s 6 October move to raise rates from 3% to 3.25% has markets buzzing about which economy will be next. Those betting on South Korea were proven wrong on 9 October when the central bank kept rates at a record low. Attention is turning to India, where inflation is accelerating.

India’s predicament has economist Maya Bhandari of Lombard Street Research Ltd in London calling for steps similar to those taken by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker in the early 1980s. India may need Volcker’s policy, she says.

Consumer prices paid by Indian farm workers jumped 12.89% in August from a year earlier. The inflation rate for industrial workers was 11.72% in the same period. Add in this year’s gain in the Bombay Stock Exchange’s Sensex index, and it’s hard to argue that 3.25% is an appropriate level for India’s reverse repurchase rate.

India has too much of a good thing on its hands. Bubble troubles are cropping up in real estate markets too, putting central bank governor D. Subbarao in a very difficult position. Raise rates too abruptly and the living standards of India’s 1.1 billion people take a hit. Act too timidly and Asia’s third biggest economy overheats.

China’s balancing act is also complicated, and like India, there’s a role in it for Bernanke. Ultra-low rates are fuelling markets near and far, and help explain Asia’s stock rally.

The MSCI Asia Pacific Index has climbed 70% from a five-year low on 9 March as government stimulus measures and low rates filter through economies. Near-zero borrowing costs in the US and Japan are having an impact globally. All the liquidity they are creating has stock markets rising faster than economic fundamentals are improving.

It’s true that the dire predictions of a year ago didn’t pan out. China, India and Asia in general have held their ground better than many expected. That hardly seems enough for equities to be surging like it’s 1996, the year before the Asian financial crisis.

The stock party is a global phenomenon, of course. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nikkei 225 Stock Average recently reached 10,000 for the first time in more than a year. That’s even though the two biggest economies are in recession and have poor employment outlooks.

It seems like the globe is experiencing a bubble in bubbles. Look no further than gold trading at over $1,000 (Rs46,300) an ounce (28.35g); 10-year US treasury yields of less than 3.5% as the US amasses an unprecedented debt load; or the likelihood the yen will be worth above 90 to the dollar.

With things seeming out of whack, it’s refreshing to find the occasional burst of sobriety. Take Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia. He is spurning former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s approach to interest rates in a bid to restrain runaway housing prices that could imperil the economy.

Australia’s economy is smaller and far more developed than China’s or India’s. Still, there’s something to be said of a central bank that understands the risks of ever-surging asset values. Maybe if the US had done that, its $14 trillion economy wouldn’t have crashed and infected the world.

There was a time when a central banker’s job was to take away the punch bowl just as the party got going. Now, Marc Faber, publisher of the Gloom, Boom and Doom report in Hong Kong, rarely misses a chance to blast the Fed for acting more like a bartender liquoring up markets than a monetary authority working to calm them. And he’s right.

Happy hour is lasting too long for comfort. If stocks are rallying because of economic fundamentals, then so be it. If they are rallying because of easy-money policies, then Asia’s stability is more fiction than fact. It’s time for monetary bartenders to start declaring closing time.

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