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Analysis

Investor anxiety mounts over prospect of stock market ‘bubble’

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This article is the first in the FT’s Runaway Markets series.

Screaming stock rallies and wild speculation by have-a-go amateur investors are stirring concerns among market veterans over a bubble to rival anything seen in the past century.

After a dramatic rebound from the coronavirus crash last March, benchmark equity indices have toppled a series of record highs in the early days of 2021. Bitcoin, the most speculative bet of them all, has raced to new extremes. Popular stocks like Tesla continue to defy efforts at sober valuation. 

Baupost Group founder Seth Klarman has warned that investors are under the misplaced impression that risk in markets “has simply vanished”, likening them to frogs being slowly brought to the boil. GMO co-founder Jeremy Grantham has described the rally since 2009 as an “epic bubble” characterised by “extreme overvaluation”.

Fund managers are on alert for a pullback. “Timing the end of this frothiness is hard. It can go on longer than you think. I don’t see a huge move lower . . . But we have become more cautious,” said David Older, head of equities at Carmignac.

Line chart of Ratio of market value to total revenues for Nasdaq 100 index showing Tech stock valuations are climbing towards dotcom levels

But with markets floating on an unprecedented wave of monetary and fiscal support, bond yields nailed near historic lows and investors — both institutional and retail — sitting on piles of excess cash, outlandish patterns in stock markets could persist for some time.

In a note in mid-January, analysts at Absolute Strategy Research produced a checklist of bubble indicators, setting the current rally in US “growth” stocks in the same context as the boom and bust in Japanese equities in the 1980s, the more abrupt rise and fall of dotcom stocks in the late 1990s and the long round trip in commodities stocks in the opening decade of the 2000s.

Common features include low interest rates, stock valuations that tower over earnings, runaway retail trading, and rapid accelerations in equity gains. On all these points, current market conditions look alarming. ASR points out that more than 10 per cent of stocks in the US blue-chip S&P 500 benchmark are 40 per cent or more above their averages of the past 200 days — a phenomenon seen only four times in the past 35 years.

“Clients are increasingly worried,” said Ian Hartnett, co-founder of ASR. But, he added, rallies could just be getting started, if interest rates remain low, and fund managers feel pressure to hop on the bandwagon. “There is career risk in the fear of missing out,” he said. “People find a way to rationalise every bubble. They have to explain to a chief investment officer, or to an investment committee, why they have gone long here.”

Line chart of MSCI US growth index / MSCI US value index showing Fast-growing companies  have left 'value' stocks in the dust

Some point to the explosion in trading by inexperienced amateurs as a particular concern. These investors, seen as flighty “weak hands” by professional fund managers, intolerant of losses and quick to exit bets, have been on the ascendancy as lockdown boredom encouraged them to the commission-free trading offered by start-ups like Robinhood.

In the US, Americans were turning to stocks as “the casinos are closed [and] a lot of sports are shut down,” said Mr Older at Carmignac. Much of their investment is, he noted, focused on “hyper growth” stocks such as electric vehicle makers. “There is no valuation ceiling for these companies,” he said.

But even given all these warning signs, investors are not staging any rush to the exits. In part, that is because the surge in retail trading may be less troubling than it looks. Unlike previous high-profile episodes of retail trading exuberance, analysts and fund managers suspect that the current bout may be more robust and less likely to saddle households with huge losses.

“It’s important to remember how retail investors are financing these purchases,” said Salman Baig, multi-asset investment manager at Unigestion in Geneva, drawing a contrast to events such as China’s 2015 bubble, where a rise in margin finance sent stocks soaring before a brutal crash.

“Now, household savings are high,” he added. “People have built up cash balances . . . It does not feel to us like a bubble. Rather, there are some expensive stocks where there could be a meaningful correction.”

Optimists also stress that professional investors are not demonstrating the same gung-ho attitude to risk-taking: instead, they continue to take precautions against the risk of a market setback. The Vix volatility index, a reflection of hedging against sharp moves in US stock markets, stands at more than 23 points, compared with a long-run average just below 20. At the start of last year, it was at 14 points.

“The fact that people are still nervous enough about future volatility suggests people are not all in,” said Andrew Sheets, chief cross-asset strategist at Morgan Stanley.

Echoes with previous precursors to market shake-outs are strong. But barring a near-unimaginable withdrawal of support from central banks, or a burst of inflation that seriously jolts the bond markets, many investors agree it is hard to imagine what could trigger a large reversal in risky assets.

“I don’t think the bubble bugles are acknowledging why stocks are so expensive,” said Michael Kelly, head of multi-asset investment at PineBridge Investments. “In 2021, markets are going up because earnings are going up and excess liquidity is still surging. We are in a structural growth in capital because of the rising savings rate and, on top of that, quantitative easing. We’ve never ever had that before.” It will take at least a decade for this to unwind, he believes.

Additional reporting by Ian Smith

 



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Analysis

Signs of inflation emerge as Chinese producer prices leap

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For investors and governments eager to spot any sign of inflation as the global economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese factories are a good place to look.

The country this week released figures showing that the price of raw materials and goods leaving its factories rose 6.8 per cent year on year in April, its fastest pace of growth in more than three years.

For almost all of 2020, China’s producer price index was in negative territory as Covid-19 suppressed demand. The recent and sudden rise was partly driven by the comparison with a year earlier and, with consumer price rises still below 1 per cent, the overall inflation picture remained mixed.

But the data was nonetheless a sign of pockets of price increases emerging across China’s rapid recovery, where higher overall inflation is expected this year. It also reflected a global rally in commodity prices that has been supported by China’s voracious demand as well as hopes that other big economies will bounce back, too.

“A combination of China and external factors led to this PPI surge,” said Robin Xing, chief China economist at Morgan Stanley. “It’s like a perfect storm.”

Line chart of Producer Price index showing Producer prices in China rise at the fastest year-on-year pace since 2017

China’s PPI index is made up of prices of producer goods, such as wardrobes or washing machines, that factories sell to shops before they are sold on to consumers.

It also includes the prices of raw materials and commodities, such as coal, when they are sold from extraction companies to businesses that use them to make goods.

It was the latter that drove the recent surge in Chinese producer prices. Global commodity prices, which collapsed last year in the early stages of the pandemic, have since rebounded. Iron ore this week hit its highest level on record, while oil prices have recovered sharply from last year.

Xing estimated that 70 per cent of the April PPI increase was driven by commodities. That rally was also tied to China’s recovery, which has been backed by strong industrial growth and a construction boom that led to record output of steel last year.

As such, the data reflected both the pace of China’s recovery as well as a global commodity rally that it helped fuel and now extends beyond it.

For policymakers, one crucial question is whether higher producer prices will feed through to consumer prices. China’s consumer price index was just 0.9 per cent in April — its highest level in seven months, but far from a level that would generate immediate fears of broader inflation within China.

While economists expect a rise in CPI inflation in China this year, they suggested that any reaction from the People’s Bank of China to this week’s data was unlikely. The portion of the producer price index that represents the prices at which businesses buy consumer goods, as opposed to raw materials, was up only 0.3 per cent year on year.

Analysts at HSBC said transmission from PPI to CPI would be “limited”, allowing policymakers to remain “accommodative”.

Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, forecast CPI inflation to rise to 2.8 per cent by the end of the year, with “pass-through” effects from PPI. But he suggested that the PBoC was unlikely to tighten in response to PPI, and that higher raw material prices instead posed a risk to Chinese demand and the wider recovery given controls on credit availability.

“For a typical borrower, $1bn six months ago may be enough to buy steel and cement to finish one project, but today it’s [maybe] not,” he said.

While the PBoC has not increased official rates since lowering them last year, the Chinese government has nonetheless tightened credit conditions over recent months.

It has also taken measures to rein in both its property sector, on concerns that easier money would encourage asset bubbles, and its steel sector, which has churned out the metal at a rate that threatens Beijing’s environmental commitments.

China’s gradual decarbonisation ambitions — and any production cuts they lead to within the country — are seen as constraints on supply, buoying the price of commodities further. 

Beyond raw materials, economists are closely watching other shortages. Iris Pang, chief economist for greater China at ING, said producer price inflation would be followed by chip inflation. A shortage of semiconductors, she said, was already beginning to drive price increases for consumer products such as washing machines and laptops.

Line chart of Per cent  showing Producer prices for consumer durables are gathering momentum this year

While the PPI index showed a much weaker increase in consumer goods than for raw materials, on a month-on-month basis there were notable rises. Durable consumer goods were up 0.4 per cent month on month in April, the fastest pace of growth since at least 2011, according to CEIC, a data company.

Apart from domestic construction, part of the demand for raw materials has been to drive the production of goods for export to western countries.

Data on Friday showed Chinese exports leapt 32.3 per cent year on year in April. But even when compared with April 2019, before the pandemic, the rise was about 16 per cent on an annualised basis, Morgan Stanley estimated.

Competition between producers in China meant this did not necessarily imply inflation for consumers overseas. Instead, China’s recent PPI jump hinted at just one of the global effects of western responses to the pandemic.

“If you try to figure out what is the end demand here for this PPI recovery, it is global stimulus,” said Xing. “External demand led to China’s export recovery, [and] now it’s far beyond its potential growth”.



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Analysis

Covid batters India’s aspiring middle classes

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When Ram Prakash died after a feverish and breathless week, his wife and 16-year-old daughter’s heartbreak was compounded by fear that the modest middle-class safety net he had knitted together might be ripped apart.

The 53-year-old, a tax adviser to local businesses, was one of the millions who had joined India’s fast-growing middle class in recent decades. Their rising incomes, better education and consumption powered one of the great global economic success stories.

But the calamitous second wave that claimed the life of Ram, the family’s breadwinner, has shattered the Prakashes’ hopes for the future. “Our life was going good but now it’s all over,” said Uma, his widow.

Economists warned that the latest outbreak could have long-term ramifications for middle-class Indians, whose rising consumption was expected to be the country’s growth engine for many years.

“India, at the end of the day, is a consumption story,” said Tanvee Gupta Jain, UBS chief India economist. “If you never recovered from the 2020 wave and then you go into the 2021 wave, then it’s a concern.”

India reported more than 320,000 Covid-19 infections and 3,800 deaths on Monday. Experts maintain that both figures are vastly undercounted.

The disease has heaped suffering on Indians irrespective of background. Yet this time, it has also hit hard an aspirational middle class whose newfound privilege previously helped shield them.

A lack of oxygen has been blamed for thousands of deaths © Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty

Public-health experts pointed to signs that after widespread infection among the urban poor last year, sectors of society including the comparatively affluent were more vulnerable this time round. This was compounded by the near-collapse of private health services on which they relied.

“You’re affluent but you can’t get a hospital bed. You’re affluent but you can’t get oxygen,” said Saurabh Mukherjea, founder of Marcellus Investment Managers. “That’s deeply disorientating.”

India’s middle class was already severely weakened by the recession that followed last year’s lockdown, even if they were better protected from the virus.

The Pew Research Center found that 32m people fell out of India’s middle class — defined as those earning between $10 and $20 a day — in 2020. That represented more than half of those added to the category since 2011.

Bar chart of Estimated change in number of people in each income tier due to the global recession (m) showing India’s poor grew while middle class shrank in 2020

India’s economy was expected to roar back before the second wave struck. For middle-class Indians on the brink, such as the Prakash family, this second shock may prove too much.

Ram, the tax consultant, had moved his family to a one-bedroom house in a humble New Delhi neighbourhood, bought a car and sent his daughter to a low-cost private school, hoping she could become a chartered accountant.

“He gave us so much when he was alive,” said Vasundhara, his daughter. “I only hope I will be able to continue my studies.”

Experts have debated what drove the high caseloads among middle class and rich Indians during the second wave.

Anup Malani, a professor at the University of Chicago, suggested that those populations proved more susceptible, especially as new variants spread.

In Mumbai, for example, studies last year found that about 50 per cent of slum residents had Covid-19 antibodies, compared with less than 20 per cent in more affluent surrounding neighbourhoods.

This is believed to have left the middle and upper classes more vulnerable, particularly to severe disease, researchers said. Doctors have reported similar trends elsewhere in India.

“The first wave largely infected poorer populations,” Malani and two co-authors wrote this month. The second wave “is disproportionately composed of individuals who are from non-slums”.

Bar chart of Estimated number of people in each income tier in 2020 before and after the global recession (m) showing The pandemic sets back growth of India’s middle class

Researchers said more data were needed but other susceptible populations could include those outside cities, such as in poor rural areas with shoddy healthcare where the virus was wreaking havoc.

The outbreak was so sudden that it overwhelmed even India’s best hospitals, including private facilities in cities such as Delhi or Bangalore.

Fewer than 1 per cent of Delhi’s 5,800 Covid-19 ICU beds are available, while crippling shortages of oxygen have contributed to countless deaths.

After Ram Prakash’s oxygen levels dropped, his family spent two frantic days ferrying him to six separate hospitals — both private and public — in a desperate bid to find treatment.

In the end, they brought him home. Ram died on April 27.

Uma and Vasundhara fear economic ruin. They have a shortfall of Rs30,000 ($408) to meet immediate expenses, including school fees and the mortgage on a neighbouring unit that Ram bought as an office.

“Right now our worry is just to survive, to get food and meet our daily expenses. But there won’t be enough,” said Vasundhara.

They plan to sell their car and Uma, a former Sanskrit teacher, wants to find work again. But they worry hopes of a better life are over.

“We had never imagined this could happen to us,” Vasundhara said. “We just can’t get our head around this.”



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Analysis

Reeves promotion underlines Labour shift to centre ground under Starmer

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When Sir Keir Starmer promoted Rachel Reeves to shadow chancellor late on Sunday night it emphasised his determination to defy the left of the Labour party and move in a more “centrist” direction after a series of disappointing local election results.

Reeves is unpopular with many “Corbynista” members — supporters of the party’s former hard left leader Jeremy Corbyn — because of comments she made in 2013 when she was shadow work and pensions secretary. That controversial moment saw her promise to be “tougher” than the ruling Tories on benefit costs.

Her role as vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel is also contentious among many Corbyn supporters who oppose the actions of the Israeli government. And while other MPs agreed to serve on the Labour front bench under the Corbyn leadership in 2015, Reeves was one of a handful who refused to do so.

Starmer first considered making Reeves shadow chancellor when he became leader in April last year — only to drop the idea, fearing that it would prompt a backlash from left-wingers.

Yet it would be wrong to characterise the 42-year-old MP for Leeds West — a former junior chess champion — as a “Blairite” or “rightwinger” even in Labour terms.

Sir Keir Starmer promoted Rachel Reeves in a reshuffle of his front bench on Sunday © Stefan Rosseau/PA

During the last parliament she chaired the business select committee, a position she used to interrogate corporate failure by Carillion, the collapsed contractor. She meanwhile struck out as a writer, penning two books about female MPs.

In 2018, she used a speech in London’s East End to call for a new series of wealth taxes to raise more than £20bn a year — shifting the fiscal system from income to property. The then shadow chancellor John McDonnell resisted the idea, amid concerns over a backlash from middle class Labour voters.

Indeed, there was a moment in 2019 when some of Corbyn’s aides — including policy adviser Andrew Fisher — advocated bringing Reeves into the shadow cabinet.

Sharper edge but no shift in strategy

In the short-term her promotion to one of the most important roles in the shadow cabinet may give a sharper edge to Labour’s top team but not necessarily bring a shift in strategy.

That is because the party creates its election manifestos through a drawn-out process called the “national policy forum” over several years.

Starmer has eschewed creating new policies on the hoof in favour of a focus on rebranding, telling voters Labour is “under new management” after the electorally disastrous Corbyn, who lost two general elections in 2017 and 2019 — the latter by the biggest margin in nearly a century.

The opposition leader’s popularity rose last year as he forensically attacked the ruling Conservative government over pandemic failures. But with the Tories enjoying a bounce from the vaccine rollout, he was criticised during the local elections for a lack of a positive policy vision. Some Labour insiders blame that for the setback at the polls — in which the party lost 326 council seats and was defeated in the Hartlepool by-election.

On Monday, many colleagues were positive about the promotion of Reeves after a year in which she has been one of the most high-profile figures on the front bench.

As shadow Cabinet Office minister, she took the fight to the Conservative government over its spending on personal protective equipment — expressing anger at the many contracts given to Tory contacts. She has also kept up the pressure on the Conservatives over the Greensill scandal.

Colleagues said as shadow chancellor she will emphasise the need for Labour to show it can be trusted to run the economy — an area of traditional political weakness for the party.

‘Competent and sensible on the economy’

That would continue the theme set by Dodds, who said in a speech in January — using the word “responsible” 23 times — that Labour would offer “responsible economic, fiscal and monetary policy”. The Starmer team has already distanced itself entirely from Corbyn’s 2019 election manifesto, with £83bn of annual public spending increases.

In an interview with the Financial Times last year Reeves struck a similar tone, saying the party needed to be “competent and sensible” on economic matters.

Yet she is not expected to return the party to the “austerity lite” approach of Ed Balls, shadow chancellor under former leader Ed Miliband, who promised not to increase borrowing even for capital expenditure.

One ally said Reeves could be expected to draw up a “transformative” programme — involving changes to the tax system and the decarbonisation of the economy — while also reassuring the public that Labour would spend people’s taxes wisely.

The decision to shift Angela Rayner, deputy leader, from her job as party chair plunged the reshuffle into chaos at the weekend © Jacob King/PA

Starmer’s reshuffle at the weekend was thrown into chaos after allies of Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, leaked she was being demoted from her job as party chair after the local election failures. The ensuing political storm overshadowed some more positive electoral results on Saturday in cities such as Manchester, London and Bristol.

Rayner turned down the job of shadow health secretary and instead took Reeves’s old job as shadow Cabinet Office minister as well as “shadow secretary of state for the future of work”.

Deep discontent

On Monday, after a two-hour shadow cabinet meeting, Starmer was seen buying a coffee at Westminster with Rayner in an attempt to put on a public show of unity after a weekend of acrimony.

Starmer’s bungled reshuffle has sown deep discontent among senior Labour MPs. “You can’t understand how angry people are,” said one. Allies of Rayner said she felt a “deep sense of betrayal”.

The reshuffle saw Dodds move to party chair and Alan Campbell promoted to chief whip with the departure of 70-year-old Nick Brown.

Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary and MP for Wigan, told colleagues she was convinced Starmer was planning to sack her and it was only a rearguard action by her supporters that persuaded him to drop the plan.

Nandy warned Starmer that she would quit the Labour front bench, rather than be demoted to another role.

Referring to the plans to demote first Rayner and then Nandy, one Labour MP said: “What genius would think it a good idea to demote not one but two women representing northern seats?”

 



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