Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

The rapid rise in markets over the last year should theoretically boost GDP and consumer confidence. But look closely at the data and a different, and troubling, picture emerges.

Stock markets are booming — not only in USA and Australia where economic growth is positive, but even in economies still locked in the doldrums like the UK and Japan.

 Graph for Why the markets have decoupled from reality | Greenspan's bullish, time to sell |  

Alan Greenspan observed last month that this augured well for the economy, since

 “the stock market is the really key player in the game of economic growth… The data shows that stock prices are not only a leading indicator of economic activity, they are a major cause of it. The statistics indicate that 6 percent of the change in GDP results from changes in market value of stocks and homes.”

This is the so-called “wealth effect”: an empirical relationship between change in the value of assets and the level of consumer spending which implies that an increase in wealth will cause an increase in consumption.

Greenspan’s sage status is somewhat tarnished post-2007, so I don’t think anyone should be surprised that his definitive statement involves something of a sleight of mouth. The “6 cents extra spending for every dollar increase in wealth” found in the research he alluded to was for the relationship between changes in the value of housing wealth and consumption, not stocks. In fact the authors, Christopher Carroll and Xia Zhou, argued that the wealth effect from stocks was “statistically insignificant and economically small”:

Consistent and strong evidence is found for large but sluggish housing wealth effects… the MPC [marginal propensity to consume] out of a one dollar change in two-year lagged housing wealth is about 6 cents…

Furthermore, a statistically insignificant and economically small stock wealth effect is found … Additionally, there is evidence that the housing wealth effect is significantly larger than the stock wealth effect…  these results suggest that it is necessary to take into consideration the potentially substantial difference between consumers’ respective reactions to fluctuations in the housing markets and stock markets.

So the empirical data does not support Greenspan’s notion that the stock market drives the economy (though the housing sector might). But equally the economy — even Australia’s — isn’t booming sufficiently to make the reverse case that the economy drives the stock market. So what is causing the markets to boom right now?

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the data than Alan did. There are a number of surprises when one does — even for me. Frankly, I did not expect to see some of the results I show here: as I used to frequently tell my students before the financial crisis began, I wouldn’t dare make up the numbers I found in the actual data. That theme continues with margin debt for the USA, which I’ve only just located (I expected it to be in the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds, and it wasn’t — instead it’s recorded by the New York Stock Exchange).

The first surprise came when comparing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the Consumer Price Index over the last century — since what really tells you whether the stock market is “performing well” is not just whether it’s rising, but whether it’s rising faster than consumer prices.

Graph for Why the markets have decoupled from reality | Greenspan's bullish, time to sell |

The raw data isn’t that informative — until you convert both series to indices with the same starting value of 100 in the same year of 1915 (see Figure 2). The result shocked me — even though I’m a dyed in the wool cynic about the stock market. The divergence between stock prices and consumer prices, which virtually everyone (me included) has come to regard as the normal state of affairs, began in earnest only in 1982. Until then, apart from a couple of little bubbles in stock prices in 1929 (yes I’m being somewhat ironic, but take a look at the chart!) and 1966, there had been precious little real divergence between stock prices and consumer prices till 1982.

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

And then, boom! What must certainly be the biggest bubble in stock prices in human history took off — and it went hyper-exponential in 1995.

In 1982, the ratio of stock prices to consumer prices was only 1.53 times what it was in 1915 — and that is extraordinary because, in contrast to house prices, there are good reasons to expect stock prices to rise faster than consumer prices (two of which are the reinvestment of retained earnings, and the existence of firms like Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway that don’t pay dividends at all).

By 1995, the ratio was substantial at 4.5 times — above the level of 1929 (4:1) but below the peak reached back in 1966 (5.4:1).  Then it just exploded to 12 times by the peak of the DotCom bubble in 2000.

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

Since then, it’s been doing the Jitterbug. The current rally has erased the crash of 2008 in nominal terms (in that crash, the Dow went from over 14000 to just below 6500), but at a ratio of just over 10:1 today, it still stands shy of its real peak of over 12:1 in 2000.

So is there any other series that looks anything like this? Oh, let’s try one at random — say, the ratio of margin debt (on the New York Stock Exchange) to GDP (see Figure 5).

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

OK, I had my tongue in my cheek, but again this data had even me gob smacked when I first plotted it. I had not expected this correlation: my analysis actually runs from change in margin debt, rather than its level. So this outright match blew me away — particularly when I put the two series on the same chart (see Figure 6).

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

My causal argument commences from my definition of aggregate demand as being the sum of GDP plus the change in debt — a concept that at present only heretics like myself, Michael Hudson, Dirk Bezemer and Richard Werner assert, but which I hope will become mainstream one day. Matched to this is a redefinition of supply to include not only goods and services but also turnover on asset markets.

This implies a causal link between the rate of change of debt and the level of asset prices, and therefore between the acceleration of debt and the rate of change of asset prices — but not one between the level of debt and the level of asset prices. Nonetheless there is one in the US data, and it’s a doozy: the correlation between the level of margin debt and the level of the Dow Jones is 0.945.

Of course there are elements of spurious correlation here: they were both generally rising over 1955-2013. But one can also make a causal argument that increasing levels of debt levered up the gap between asset and consumer prices. This assertion of course directly contradicts a famous proposition in academic finance — the “Modigliani-Miller theorem” that the level of debt has no impact on the level of asset prices — which is another good reason to take it seriously.

In devising my “aggregate demand is income plus change in debt; aggregate supply is goods & services plus net turnover on asset markets” relation, I was never sure whether the measure of asset market turnover should be based on the level of asset prices, or their rate of change: this was something that only empirical research could clarify. And on this point, the US data is again exceptional: both the rate of change of margin debt (relative to GDP) and the rate of acceleration of margin debt correlate strongly with change in the Dow over the past six decades.

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

The correlation of the change in debt with change in the Dow is stronger than the correlation of acceleration — 0.59 versus 0.4 — but both are pretty strong for correlations over more than half a century, especially since conventional wisdom asserts they should both be zero.

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

The correlations have risen too as the level of debt has risen — both aggregate private debt and, in the USA’s case, margin debt which is specifically used to buy shares.

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

Graph for Greenspan's bullish, time to sell

Now comes the complex question: which causes which? Does rising/accelerating margin debt cause the stock market to rise, or does a rising stock market entice more people into margin debt? Obviously there will be some cumulative causation here: both statements are going to be true to some degree. But this also implies a positive feedback loop, which is part of the explanation for why stock prices are so volatile.

Regardless of that complex causal loop, this data scotches Greenspan and his causal argument that a rising stock market causes a rising GDP. The market — and recently the economy — has risen not because of “the wealth effect”, but because of “the leverage effect”. Leverage has returned to the stock market, driving up stock prices and aggregate demand in the process.

How far can it go? Margin debt is still shy of its all-time high as a percentage of GDP, so there is certainly some headroom for further rises. But at the same time, the market is still in territory that was uncharted before the Loony Zeros (my “Roaring Twenties” candidate for how we should describe the last decade and a half) drove it higher than it has ever been before. Fragility, rather than sustainability is the message I would take from this data.

I’m reassured in this prognosis by the fact that Greenspan made precisely the opposite point in that interview, when he stated that “the price-earnings ratio is at a level at which it cannot basically go down very much.” As some other commentators have observed, Greenspan expressing confidence in the stock market is a reliable contrary indicator.

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