No Free Lunch, No Free Sushi
Everybody loves a free lunch, myself included, and many in Japan would like free sushi too. Despite the short term boost in Japanese exports and Nikkei stock prices, there are no long-term free lunches (or free sushi) when it comes to global financial markets. Following in the footsteps of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) has embarked on an ambitious plan of doubling its monetary base in two years and increasing inflation to a 2% annual rate – a feat that has not been achieved in more than two decades. By the BOJ’s estimate, it will take a $1.4 trillion injection into economy to achieve this goal by the end of 2014.
Lunch is tasty right now, as evidenced by a tasty appetizer of +3.5 % Japanese first quarter GDP and this year’s +46% spike in the value of the Nikkei. Japan is hopeful that its mix of monetary, fiscal, and structural policies will spur demand and increase the appetite for Japanese exports, however, we know fresh sushi can turn stale quickly.
Quantitative easing (QE) and monetary stimulus from central banks around the globe have been hailed as a panacea for sluggish global growth – most recently in Japan. Commentators often oversimplify the benefits of money printing without acknowledging the pitfalls. Basic economics and the laws of supply & demand eventually prevail no matter the fiscal or monetary policy implemented. Nonetheless, there can be temporary disconnects between current equity prices and exchange rates, before underlying fundamentals ultimately drive true intrinsic values.
Impassioned critics of the Federal Reserve and its Chairman Ben Bernanke would have you believe the money supply is exploding, and hyperinflation is just around the corner. It’s difficult to quarrel with the trillions of dollars created by the Fed’s printing presses via QE1/QE2/QE3, but the fact remains that money supply growth has continued at a steady growth rate – not exploding (see Calafia Beach Pundit chart below).
Why no explosion in the money supply? Simply, the trillions of dollars printed by the Fed have sat idly in bank vaults as reserves. Once nervous consumers stop hoarding trillions in cash held in savings deposit accounts (see chart below) and banks begin lending at a healthier clip, then money supply growth will accelerate. By definition, money supply growth in excess of demand for goods and services (i.e., GDP) is the main cause of inflation.
Although inflationary pressure has not reared its ugly head yet, there are plenty of precursors indicating inflation may be on its way. The unemployment rate continues to tick downwards (7.5% in Aril) and the much anticipating housing recovery is gaining steam. Inflationary fear has manifested itself in part through the heightened number of conversations surrounding the Fed “tapering” its $85 billion per month bond purchasing program.
We’ve enjoyed a sustained period of low price level growth, however the Goldilocks period of little-to-no inflation cannot last forever. The differences between current prices and true value can exist for years, and as a result there are many different strategies attempted to capture profits. Like the gambling masses frequenting casinos, speculators can beat the odds in the short-run, but the house always wins in the long-run – hence the ever-increasing size and number of casinos. While a small number of professionals understand how to shift the unbalanced odds into their favor, most lose their shirt. On Wall Street, that is certainly the case. Studies show speculating day traders persistently lose about 80% of the time. Long-term investors are uniquely positioned to exploit these value disparities, if they have a disciplined process with the ability to patiently value assets.
Even though the Japanese economy and stock market have rebounded handsomely in the short-run, there is never a free lunch over the long-term. Unchecked policies of money printing, deficits, and debt expansion won’t lead to boundless prosperity. Eventually a spate of irresponsible actions will result in inflation, defaults, recessions, and/or higher unemployment rates. Unsustainable monetary and fiscal stimulus may lead to a tasty free lunch now, but if investors overstay their welcome, the sushi may turn bad and the speculators will be left paying the hefty tab.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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