Shouldn’t the stock market track the real economy?

Updated 27 February 2013
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Shouldn’t the stock market track the real economy?

2012 turned out to be a very different year than most had expected. Personally, I was very negative coming into the year, especially toward the European economies, and was more or less right in my predictions on that account. However, I was also very skeptical of the rising stock markets. It turned out I was right on the real economy, but wrong on the stock markets. But shouldn’t the stock market track or follow the real economy?
With 25 years of experience as a trader, market maker and fund manager, I should have known better! The stock market and the economy are, of course, linked but rarely on a strict day-to-day or even month-to-month basis. Most often it is a mismatch between expectations and the current reality, both amplified by the critical element of monetary policy, that produces sentiment and market pricing that diverge from the real economy. This is very evident today in Europe with the seemingly illogical combination of historical highs in both unemployment and stock markets. Stock markets have reached the pre-crisis highs of 2007/2008.
History shows that such divergence has its limits and expiration dates — either the economy improves dramatically or markets will need to adjust their expectations lower. To grasp such divergences in a historical perspective, it is useful to look at the difference between broad stock indices like the MSCI World and the German IFO. In 2013, the divergence between the underlying weak economic performance as measured by this survey and the stock market has reached the extremes of levels prevailing before markets crashed in 2000. Hardly a good sign, but remember that the difference can be reduced two ways: stocks dropping or the economy improving.
Fundamentally, the stock market is a “sub-component” of the entire economy, or GDP. Therefore, stocks must correspond to some degree with the rise and fall of the economy and relative to other economic factors like inflation and productivity. A long-term bull market in stocks usually coincides not only with economic growth, but increased productivity and risk premiums. Even more importantly, a real bull market makes everyone benefit, rich and poor, through lower unemployment, productivity and investment — all of which are failing in this present run-up in prices.
So how do investors deal with such an investment conundrum? Ironically, to the well-placed investor all the above technical economic understanding does not really matter. Experience shows that an investor willing to risk holding illiquid assets is rewarded with a risk premium for taking on that risk. The risk premium fluctuates based on inflation, current interest rates and income through dividends from a given stock. Stocks must give a higher yield than bonds to compensate for their inferior liquidity.
When European Central Bank President Mario Draghi in July 2012 ensured the world that he would do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro alive, he created a massive move into more illiquid assets by removing the presumed negative potential in bonds and hence indirectly fuelling stocks. But again — as investors, we do not need to understand this. If we follow simple rules, we do not need to mix our analysis of the real economy with stock pricing. We can be economic agnostics.
In the 1970s, the American investor Harry Browne crafted the so-called Permanent Portfolio. Its logic is very simple. Invest 25 percent in each of four different assets: stocks, long government bonds, metals and cash. Sounds boring? From 1972 to 2011, the yield from such an allocation has been 9.5 percent. In real terms, no less than 4.9 percent. A much higher yield than the stock market and with a significantly lower risk! An investment of $ 10,000 in 1972 would have grown to $ 377,193 by 2012.
This does not mean that active trading does not pay off, but works to illustrate that it wise to always have a “dumb model” as a backstop or frame of reference. Extra risk or changes in allocation should only be taken when one has an “edge” or strong indicators of being right! The famous hedge fund manager Ray Dalio from Bridgewater has expanded the idea into his All Weather Model. As the name suggests, it is designed to handle any economic condition. The results have been very convincing. Since 1996, the annual yield has been approximately 12 percent, turning Bridgewater into the world’s largest fund with $ 141 billion under management.
The difference between the two is that Harry Brown allocates assets while Ray Dalio and Bridgewater allocate risk. What they hold in common is a total agnostic attitude towards the market. They accept the very important premises of trading: We do not know what tomorrow brings; we do not know where we are going and we will get our yield primarily from extracting the risk premium from assets. The beauty of all this is that we do not have to understand the relationship between the economy and stock markets to invest efficiently. Considering the current unpredictable macroeconomic interventions, such an approach should offer a huge relief from trying to understand everything that is going on, and possibly an advantage to any investor who does not have direct access to the minds of powerful policymakers and central bankers.
As I mentioned above, an investor should only depart from this route if he has a very strong feeling or belief that something is going to happen. Personally, I allocate 70 percent in an All Weather Model. That helped me to get a decent yield in 2012 even though I was almost 100 percent wrong in my very conservative stock market predictions. I used the remaining 30 percent to insure against Black Swan events or place opportunistic investments. I am presently long-term bullish on Sub-Saharan Africa investments. The answer to the title’s question is that the stock market may diverge from the real economy for a limited period, but this has no impact on the rationally placed investor. Investing is about logic and rationality — not genius. And that’s a good thing for all of us.

— Steen Jakobsen is chief economist at Saxo Bank.


OPEC oil ministers gather to discuss production increase

Updated 33 min ago
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OPEC oil ministers gather to discuss production increase

  • Analysts expect the group to discuss an increase in production of about 1 million barrels a day
  • The officials were arriving in Vienna ahead of the official meeting Friday

VIENNA: The oil ministers of the OPEC cartel were gathering Tuesday to discuss this week whether to increase production of crude and help limit a rise in global energy prices.
The officials were arriving in Vienna ahead of the official meeting Friday, when they will also confer with Russia, a non-OPEC country that since late 2016 has cooperated with the cartel to limit production.
Analysts expect the group to discuss an increase in production of about 1 million barrels a day, ending the output cut agreed on in 2016.
The cut has since then pushed up the price of crude oil by about 50 percent. The US benchmark in May hit its highest level in three and half years, at $72.35 a barrel.
Upon arriving, the energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail Al Mazrouei, said: “It’s going to be hopefully a good meeting. We look forward to having this gathering with OPEC and non-OPEC.”
The 14 countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries make more money with higher prices, but are mindful of the fact that more expensive crude can encourage a shift to renewable resources and hurt demand.
“Consumers as well as businesses will be hoping that this week’s OPEC meeting succeeds in keeping a lid on prices, and in so doing calling a halt to a period which has seen a steady rise in fuel costs,” said Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets UK
The rise in the cost of oil has been a key factor in driving up consumer price inflation in major economies like the US and Europe in recent months.
Already US President Donald Trump has called on OPEC to cut production, tweeting in April and again this month that “OPEC is at it again” by allowing oil prices to rise.
Within OPEC, an increase in output will not affect all countries equally. While Saudi Arabia, the cartel’s biggest producer, is seen to be open to a rise in production, other countries cannot afford to do so. Those include Iran and Venezuela, whose industries are stymied either by international sanctions or domestic turmoil. Iran is a fierce regional rival to Saudi Arabia, meaning the OPEC deal could also influence the geopolitics in the Middle East.