Greenspan's Peak Was NASDAQ's
The Daily Reckoning Presents: A Guest Essay by James
Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer
The first of a two-part essay in which the author explores Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s culpability in accommodating, celebrating, and defending the most excessive investment bubble in the history of mankind.
GREENSPAN’S PEAK WAS NASDAQ’S
Sen. Phil Gramm (R., Texas): “If this is the bust, the boom was sure as hell worth it. You agree with that, right?”
Alan Greenspan: “Certainly.”
The Wall Street Journal, which last week reported this committee-room exchange, omitted an important detail. The Federal Reserve chairman is no impartial observer of the boom he was asked to appraise. He seeded it, accommodated it, celebrated it and defended it from those who believed they saw it turn into a bubble. He was as uncritically and besottedly bullish as the luckless brokerage-house analysts who have fallen under the gaze of the Washington inquisitor, Rep. Richard H. Baker (R., La.). Not long ago, Greenspan even believed the analysts.
The chairman’s analytical record, hazy in most memories (though not in that of the vigilant Bill Fleckenstein, author of the daily Market Rap on www.grantsinvestor.com), constitutes an important piece of the U.S. interest-rate equation. The structure of forward rates is set by the market in partnership with the Second Most Powerful Man in the World. Insofar as Greenspan leads the market, it is a case of a one-eyed man leading people with two. Perhaps, after they refresh themselves on the chairman’s errant judgment – especially off the beam on the eve of the 2000 stock- market peak – the sighted will have more confidence in their own judgment.
As it is, they seem to yield to the chairman. The money- market interest rate and domestic equity markets are priced for a prompt recovery from a downturn neither unusually severe nor protracted. By the shape of the forward Eurodollar curve and the bull-market P/E affixed to the S&P 500 (33 times trailing net income), Mr. Market has thrown in his lot with Greenspan and Gramm. A few quarters of weak GDP growth? A collapse in capital spending offset, in part, by the indomitable leveraged consumer? Is that all there is?
No, it seems to us. In support of this contention, we offer two preliminary propositions. No. 1: Booms not only precede busts, they also cause them. No. 2: Busts are indispensable. At least – behold Japan – no proper boom can be built on the uncleared debris of a preceding boom.
What is this debris? Business and financial error as reflected in misbegotten investment projects, bad debts, impaired balance sheets, wild expectations. The job of the bust is to redress these mistakes – in effect, to mark them to market. Americans, quick to acknowledge their own error and quick to forgive it in others (after the resolution of pending litigation, of course), disposed of the wreckage of the 1980s in short order. As the bubble of the late 1990s dwarfed that of the late 1980s, the cleanup will take longer than the market currently seems to allow for. Thus, we believe, money- market interest rates will continue to fall, the pattern of business activity will describe no letter “V,” and the long-awaited recovery in corporate earnings will be pushed well into 2002.
With the telecom and Internet bubbles popped, some would say that the adjustment is nearly complete. In the last cycle, the pace of adjustment was checked by the nature of the problems – overvalued buildings and illiquid banks.
Neither was susceptible to an instant cure. In contrast, stock prices, when they get around to falling, fall fast. However, we think, the millennial adjustment is far from over. Telecom and tech were not the whole bubble, only the most visible portion. The bubble was global. It distorted not only the structure of the U.S. economy but also the patterns of world trade. It exaggerated the economic feats of the one and only superpower and enlarged the U.S. current-account deficit. It caused an even greater round trip of dollars – into the hands of overseas creditors and back into U.S. securities markets – than might have otherwise occurred.
It would be just like Gramm and Greenspan to agree that, with respect to these huge foreign inflows, “no harm, no foul.” So concluding, however, they would underestimate the risks of investing in highly valued markets in a highly valued currency. The sheer persistence of over valuation in the United States has dulled investors’ perceptions of it. News that $10.6 billion had flowed into U.S. equity mutual funds in June did not elicit the logical question: At these valuations, why was there any? Commentators, instead, wondered why there wasn’t more. (“Asset levels for equity mutual funds are much higher now than in 1998 or 1999,” writes a dissenting commentator, James Bianco, proprietor of Bianco Research, Barrington, Ill. “Despite the stock market sell-off, only two months have seen outflows since the market peak in 2000.”)
The fundamental cause of the bubble was the mispricing of capital and credit, therefore of risk. In the hottest, most bubble-like sectors of the economy, investment projects were undertaken purely because money or credit was available to finance them. The viability of these ventures depended on the continued availability of ultra-cheap financing. When capital and credit became less cheap, the boom-time ventures became less viable. The massive write-downs of goodwill by Nortel Networks and JDS Uniphase begin to suggest how far from viability it is possible to wander. In the case of JDS, $44.8 billion of acquisitions made during “The Fabulous Decade” (to borrow the title of a new book on the 1990s by Clinton Fed appointees Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen) turn out to be worthless.
Money was easy late in the decade, and when the capital markets chose to make it tight, as in the wake of the 1998 Long-Term Capital Management affair, the Fed insisted on making it easy again. The Fed raised the funds rate three times in 2000, at last to 61/2% on May 16, two months after the Nasdaq peaked.
Was the Fed therefore leaning against the wind? Not the chairman, who contributed to the pro-cyclical gale in a speech on March 6, 2000, before the Boston College Conference on the New Economy. His subject: “The Revolution in Information Technology.” As he spoke, orders for high-tech durable goods in the second quarter were on their way to registering a year-over-year gain of 25%.
Four quarters later, in April-June 2001, following a sharp rise in the cost of speculative capital, they would register a 31% decline, the steepest on record. John Lonski, Moody’s chief economist, aptly describes the nearby graph (which depicts the surge and plunge) as “the picture of a bubble.”
It was no bubble to the chairman when he rhapsodized on information technology and productivity growth. Thanks to computer technology, Greenspan declared, business managers were increasingly able to formulate decisions using “real-time” information. Not anticipating how rare a commodity “visibility” would shortly become, he said that this knowledge had reduced uncertainty. “When historians look back at the latter half of the 1990s a decade or two hence,” he told his Boston audience, “I suspect they will conclude we are now living through a pivotal period in American economic history. New technologies that evolved from the cumulative innovations of the past half-century have now begun to bring about dramatic changes in the way goods and services are produced and in the way they are distributed to final users.
Those innovations, exemplified most recently by the multiplying uses of the Internet, have brought on a flood of start-up firms, many of which claim to offer the chance to revolutionize and dominate large shares of the nation’s production and distribution system. And participants in capital markets, not comfortable in dealing with discontinuous shifts in economic structure, are groping for the appropriate valuations of these companies. The exceptional stock price volatility of these newer firms, and, in the view of some, their outsized valuations, indicate the difficulty of divining the particular technologies and business models that will prevail in the decades ahead.”
Striking the pose of a benevolently optimistic monetary statesman, Greenspan appeared hopeful, yet heedful of the risks. Heedlessness set in a few paragraphs later. “At a fundamental level,” he said, “the essential contribution of information technology is the expansion of knowledge and its obverse, the reduction in uncertainty. Before this quantum jump in information availability, most business decisions were hampered by a fog of uncertainty. Businesses had limited and lagging knowledge of customers’ needs and of the location of inventories and materials flowing through complex production systems. In that environment, doubling up on materials and people was essential as a backup to the inevitable misjudgments of the real-time state of play in a company. Decisions were made from information that was hours, days, or even weeks old.”
Thanks to the clarity afforded by instantaneous communications, Cisco Systems had to write off only $2.25 billion in excess inventories during its third fiscal quarter, in addition to just $1.17 billion in restructuring and other special charges. Using the older technologies -telephone, fax, the mails, citizens’ band radio, etc.- the loss would undoubtedly have been greater.
Throughout Silicon Valley, makers of PCs, chips, servers, printers and other digital products have admitted to monstrous miscalculations of final demand.
Lucent, Corning, Nortel and JDS Uniphase have been devastated by one of the greatest misallocations of investment capital outside the chronicles of the Soviet Gosplan.
Who can conceive of the size of this waste had there been no e-mail?
August 15, 2001
for The Daily Reckoning
James Grant is the founder of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer (www.grantspub.com)and author of several books including Money of the Mind: Borrowing and Lending in America from the Civil War to Michael Milken, and The Trouble with Prosperity. Mr. Grant recently hosted “Time Machine: The Crash” on The History Channel and is a regular commentator on CNN and a panelist on “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser,” as well as a frequent columnist with the Financial Times and Forbes.
*** Oh, ho…can this be a good sign?
*** The Bank of Japan announced in a “surprise decision” Tuesday that they would further open the spigots on their already torrentially loose monetary policy… in an effort to pull themselves back from the edge of recession and “ease the pain of [necessary] structural reforms.”
*** “There still exists such general views,” reports the BBC, “that around the end of the year, ongoing inventory adjustments in IT-related goods worldwide are likely to peak out and overseas economies – PARTICULARLY THE U.S. – will start to recover.” Emphasis added, of course.
*** It will be laboriously clear to Daily Reckoning readers that “ongoing inventory adjustments in IT- related goods” are precisely the challenge faced by a spiraling U.S. economy. And furthurmore, that 6 rate cuts and a loose, loose monetary policy have thus far been completely ineffectual at avoiding a Kamakazi-style post-bubble nosedive in the U.S., too.
*** “Japan and the U.S. are now in the financial Petrie dish,” writes Bill King. “Since the Great Depression, many economists, monetarists, and financial solons have averred the Great Depression could have been avoided by copious money pumping.” Now, we will truly see if money pumping – which we have opined was the source of the bubble in the first place – can double as its remedy.
*** Meanwhile, on Wall Street…Eric?
Eric Fry reporting from New York:
– Yawn, yet another summer snoozer…The Nasdaq fell 17 points to give back most of Monday’s gain. The Dow dropped a whopping 4 points to bring its two-day loss to 5 points.
– In other words, the stock market is doing a whole lotta nothin’…it’s tough to make a buck in a market like this. But that’s not stopping Warren Buffett from trying. According to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. purchased a 5-million share stake in Office Depot Inc. during the first quarter.
– “Buffett is not the ‘value investor’ people say he is,” writes Lynn Carpenter of The Fleet Street Letter, who first recommended Office Depot in April of 2000. “He simply buys good companies, at a good price, at the right time. Even when it fell last year, [FSL advised readers very strongly in January to hold on, load up, or get in at the bargain price of $8.19] Office Depot turned around and is up 86.5% so far this year.”
– Continues Lynn: “In December, we recommended H&R Block in the Fleet Street Letter at $18.60 – Buffett announced a position in Block shortly thereafter – and it just hit another new high today, up 98.7% in 8 months so far.”
– The dollar dropped to a 3 1/2 month low against the euro yesterday to 90 cents and change – the greenback’s fifth losing day in a row. This is starting to look like a trend, folks.
– The flip-side of the weak dollar is of course the strengthening euro. “The Eurozone’s strong net creditor position relative to the rest of world’s is reflected in its stable Aaa foreign-currency [rating],” reports Moody’s. “Above-average gross domestic product, moderate inflation, low interest rates, and declining unemployment have helped these nations sustain a declining trend in government deficits and debt.”
– Several commentators blamed the IMF for the dollar’s weakness yesterday. Isn’t that a bit of a stretch? It’s true that the bureaucrats had a few unkind words for the U.S. economy and its currency, but we musn’t confuse cause with effect.
– On July 27, 2001, the Executive Board of the IMF convened to chat about various macroeconomic trends over which they exercise absolutely no control. “Directors [of the IMF Executive Board] indicated that the size of the U.S. external current account deficit did not appear to be sustainable in the longer-term,” says a summary of the meeting, “and it raised concerns that the dollar might be at risk for a sharp depreciation, particularly if productivity performance proved disappointing.” No argument there…
– But “what productivity?,” asks the latest Moody’s Credit Perspectives. “Many analysts tripped over each other to offer praise for the increase in measured productivity in the second quarter. Notwithstanding an increase in quarterly productivity growth, corporate profits plummeted, credit rating downgrades held a wide lead on upgrades and job losses mounted. Some productivity miracle!”
– On a related note, Moody’s observes that “The U.S. credit card loss rate has seen its steepest increase in four years. The amount of bad loans written off as un- collectable rose to 6.39% in June 2001 compared with 5.26% in June 2000…” Credit delinquency trends are unlikely to improve until the unemployment rate improves.
– Maybe exports will buoy our economy until the consumer regains his financial footing…maybe.
– “Unlikely,” says grantinvestor.com’s Andy Kashdan. “It was the bursting of the U.S. technology bubble – both in terms of share prices and real economic activity – that kicked off the slowdown in world growth. Now the rest of the world is in a position to return the favor by cutting back on demand for U.S. goods and services just as exports are becoming increasingly important in deciding the fate of the U.S. economy.
– “None of the major export markets is stepping up to help Uncle Sam in his time of need…In Singapore, for example, the government is forecasting 0.5% to 1.5% GDP growth this year, a mere shadow of last year’s booming 9.9%. Industrial production fell 16.1% year-over-year in June… Those calling for a bottom in the U.S. economy will be right eventually, but the lack of strong export markets is just one more force restraining the mighty U.S. economy.”
Back to Addison Wiggin, in Paris…
*** Today is Fete de la Vierge here in France – a quiet bank holiday in honor of the Virgin Mary. We Americans in the office – three of us today – have developed the awful habit of working through the French holidays. The French have given up asking “Why?”.
“Er, The Daily Reckoning?…It must go on?” I offer sheepishly. To which they simply shake their heads in dismay and head off for parts unknown. Just as well, the office is quiet and the atmosphere relaxed.
*** These holidays do seem to bring out the crazies. Last night in the Metro, Jennifer and I happened upon a man yelling directly at anyone who would listen. He was saying: “They all run away…everyone I speak to – runs away… look there you go again!”
“Maybe you should stop yelling at them,” I thought.
When he noticed Meritt, our 20-month-old son, perched in a backpack on my back, he started cooing in the curious voice all French people are apparently trained to use when they see young children.
“The little one is so cute,” he said.
“Don’t let that man touch him,” Jennifer said with a smile.
*** Another lost soul I happened upon while traversing rue Monge this morning was talking very loudly. There was no one else on the street.
“Civilization is merde!” he decried. “Why must the Frenchman pay taxes to the United States?! The United States is merde!”
I walked a little faster so I could pass. He may have had a point… I don’t know. His voice trailed off behind me as I turned the corner toward Notre Dame and the Hotel de Ville.