Bullish markets, bearish boards
AS the period of ultra-loose monetary policy in the developed world inches to a close, a paradox calls for explanation. Throughout this extraordinary monetary experiment managers of listed companies appeared to see risks everywhere and have been reluctant to invest in fixed assets despite enjoying the lowest borrowing costs in history. By contrast financial institutions have been fearless in propelling markets ever higher.
This dichotomy between subdued risk taking in the real economy and aggressive risk taking in financial markets has prompted Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Dev-elopment, to remark that one or other of these views will be proved wrong. With the US Federal Reserve now preparing to raise interest rates we may soon know whose judgment is dangerously flawed.
The behaviour of financial institutions, whether judicious or insane, is at least comprehensible. Central banks' post-crisis bond buying programmes were precisely designed to prod investors to take on more risk. This has given further impetus to a secular decline in real interest rates that predated the financial crisis, reflecting such forces as the Asian savings glut, deficient investment in the west and adverse demographic trends. The outcome has been the much-discussed search for yield.
Downward pressure on yields has been reinforced by a shortage of so-called safe assets. Hence a stampede into sovereign bonds with negligible or negative yields - in effect, a search for non-yield. Even after the recent upturn in yields, investors are still paying some European governments to take their money.
In a speech in June Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, pointed out that there had been no precedent for such negative rates since the time of the Babylonians. Among the various potential explanations, Mr Haldane puts particular emphasis on the phenomenon of 'dread risk', a term used by psychologists to describe an exaggerated sense of fear and insecurity in the wake of catastrophic events.
It certainly provides a plausible explanation of private sector savings behaviour after 2008. Back then, households and companies were running a combined financial deficit (income less spending) of 2.4pc of gross domestic product in the US and 1.5pc in the UK, while the eurozone was running a surplus of 2.4pc. So the private sector was neither saving nor dissaving to any great degree.
By 2010 the private sector had switched to a large financial surplus of 7.2pc of GDP in the US, 8.2pc in the UK and 5.8pc in the eurozone. Serious thrift had set in.
Yet there are limits to the explanatory power of dread risk. Why should a once-in5,000-year event have struck now, rather than in the 1930s Depression, which saw far greater losses of output and employment?
Note, too, that the dichotomy between risk perceptions in the real economy and in the financial markets is partly an illusion. Industrialists themselves are fuelling risktaking in markets through buy-backs and - takeovers.
In their recent Business and Finance Outlook, OECD economists identified flawed incentive structures as part of the reason for divergent perceptions of risk. They are surely right. The growth of buy-backs stems from equity-related incentives and performance-related pay. The most popular performance metrics, earnings per share and total shareholder return, are manipulable by management.
A different take comes from economists at the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements. For them, the people who suffer most from dread risk - though they do not use the term - are central bankers. The folk in Basel believe that low interest rates beget yet lower rates because they cause bubbles, followed by central bank bailouts. Their worry is that we risk trapping ourselves in a cycle of financial imbalances and busts. Unlike Mr Haldane, they would like to see an early return to monetary ' normalisation'.