One of the many topics of discussion by the World Economic Forum in recent years has been deepening income inequality. Indeed, it was identified as this year’s most significant trend by the forum’s experts.
It is therefore ironic that, as the world’s policymaking elite met in Davos last month, the European Central Bank introduced a policy that exacerbates inequality, with Germany finally conceding the eurozone’s problems were significant enough to warrant a programme of quantitative easing.
QE is money printing hidden behind a very poor disguise. Central banks create money electronically and with it they buy assets, primarily sovereign bonds. The intention thereafter is that the institutional investors that have sold their sovereign bonds will reinvest in assets a little further up the risk spectrum. This forces the next seller to do the same and so on. Ultimately, the stated purpose of QE is to inflate the price of risk assets in the hope that, in so doing, the benefits of higher asset prices in the financial world will “trickle down” through the economy to provide a boost to activity in the real world.
Unfortunately, we have plentiful evidence from the past six years to confirm the trickle-down effect simply does not work. The fruits of the policy are consumed in the financial world but the wider economy fails to benefit. On its own QE does nothing to improve economic fundamentals.
What it does do is redistribute wealth. It makes the asset-rich richer but the asset poor see no benefit and continue to be more exposed to the economy’s structural problems, such as high and rising youth unemployment, a lack of real wage growth and persistently high debt levels. Hence, we have wealth and income inequality in the western world rising to levels with which policymakers are clearly uncomfortable. Indeed, this unintended consequence of QE in the US was one of the primary reasons the Federal Reserve abandoned it last year.
The ECB’s decision to embark on a QE programme later this year followed months of speculation and eventually arrived against a backdrop of a weak and deteriorating economy. The eurozone already has negative inflation rates and the policy may have been introduced too late to avoid a more prolonged bout of deflation in the region than the brief period of falling prices that we saw in 2009.
Regardless of the fundamentals, however, global stockmarkets have enthusiastically greeted the prospect of QE in Europe. It has become a knee-jerk reaction for risk assets to rally in anticipation of the next liquidity injection. The policy is, after all, designed to lift asset prices and it has succeeded in doing so in the past.
However, as we are all regularly reminded, past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future and there is good reason to believe risk assets may ultimately behave differently this time.
First, we must consider valuation. When equities were cheap, QE fuelled a re-rating. That story has now played out, however, and stockmarkets generally look much more fully valued. From here, it is more difficult for markets to move materially higher. Indeed, in an environment where earnings are vulnerable to downgrades, global stockmarket indices are pregnant with risk.
Second, there is the Greek situation, which, at the time of writing, remains unresolved and uncertain. Even if negotiations do conclude successfully, it is difficult to see how a compromise can provide a permanent solution to Greece’s problems while keeping the Germans happy at the same time. Europe’s troubles are not just confined to Greece, though, albeit the current stand-off does epitomise well the region’s broader issues. In other words, the eurozone crisis will rumble on with the potential to upset financial markets at any time.
So there are good reasons, in my view, to question the market’s knee-jerk positive reaction to more QE. That is not to say stockmarkets will not continue to move higher – they might but if they do it is likely to be through a further re-rating rather than earnings growth. In turn, this simply brings with it the ultimate risk of an even more significant correction when fundamentals eventually and inevitably reassert themselves.
From a strategy perspective, therefore, the introduction of QE from the ECB does not change the way my portfolios are invested. I remain focused on identifying attractively valued businesses
I believe are capable of delivering long-term returns in spite of all the headwinds. Fortunately, although indices now look vulnerable more broadly, inequality exists in stockmarkets as well as economies. There remain some profoundly attractive investment opportunities.
Neil Woodford is head of investment at Woodford Investment Management