Deciphering the ups and the downs of the financial markets is a lot like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole. First the market is up 300 points, then down 300 points. Next Greece and Europe are going down the drain, and then Germany and the European Central Bank are here to save the day. The daily data points are a rapidly moving target, and if history continues to serve as a guide, the bobbing consensus views of pundits will continue to get hammered by investors’ mallets.
Let’s take a look at recent history to see who has been the “whack-er” and whom has been the “whack-ee.” Whether it was the gloom and doom consensus view in the early 1980s (reference BusinessWeek’s 1979 front page “The Death of Equities”) or the euphoric championing of tech stocks in the 1990s (see Money magazine’s March 2000 cover, “The Hottest Market Ever”), the consensus view was wrong then, and is likely wrong again today.
Here are some of the fresher consensus views that have popped up and then been beaten down.
End of QE2
The Consensus: If you rewind the clock back to June 2011 when the Federal Reserve’s $600 billion Quantitative Easing II monetary stimulus program was coming to an end, a majority of pundits expected bond prices to tank in the absence of the Fed’s Ben Bernanke’s checkbook support. Before the end of QE2, Reuters financial service surveyed 64 professionals, and a substantial majority predicted bond prices would tank and interest rates would catapult upwards.
Actual Result: The pundits were wrong. Rates did not go up, but in fact went down. As a result, bond prices screamed higher – bond values increased significantly as 10-year Treasury yields fell from 3.16% to a low of 1.72% last week.
Debt Ceiling Debate
The Consensus: Just one month later, Democrats and Republicans were playing a game of political chicken in the process of raising the debt ceiling to over $16 trillion. Bill Gross, bond guru and CEO of fixed-income giant PIMCO, was one of the many pros who earlier this year sold Treasuries in droves because fears of bond vigilantes shredding prices of U.S. Treasury bonds.
Here was the prevalent thought process at the time: Profligate spending by irresponsible bureaucrats in Washington, if not curtailed dramatically, would cascade into a disaster, which would lead to higher default risk, cancerous inflation, and exploding interest rates, a la Greece.
Actual Result: Once again, the pundits were proved wrong in the deciphering of their cloudy crystal balls. Interest rates did not rise, they actually fell. As a result, bond prices screamed higher and 10-year Treasury yields dived from 2.74% to the recent low of 1.72%.
S&P Credit Downgrade
The Consensus: The S&P credit rating agency warned Washington that a failure to come to meaningful consensus on deficit and debt reduction would result in bitter consequences. Despite a $2 trillion error made by S&P, the agency kept its word and downgraded the U.S.’s long-term debt rating to AA+ from AAA. Research from JPMorgan (JPM) cautioned investors of the imminent punishment to be placed on $4 trillion in Treasury collateral, which could lead to a seizing in credit markets.
Actual Result: Rather than becoming the ugly stepchild, U.S. Treasuries became a global safe haven for investors around the world to pile into. Not only did bond prices steadily climb (and yields decline), but the value of our currency, as measured by the Dollar Index (DXY), has risen significantly since then.
What is next? Nobody knows for certain. In the meantime, grab some cotton candy, popcorn, and a rubber mallet. There is never a shortage of confident mole-like experts popping up on TV, newspapers, blogs, and radio. So when the deafening noise about the inevitable collapse of Europe and the global economy comes roaring in, make sure you are the one holding the mallet, not the mole getting whacked on the head.