Here’s part of my next AFR piece, which will focus on the claim that long-term interest rates, particularly in the US, are bound to rise. Comments much appreciated.
The idea of bubbles in asset prices is a troublesome one for economists. To say that there is a bubble in the price of some asset is to claim that the relevant financial market is not doing its job properly. In the atmosphere of uncritical reverence for ‘the markets’ that prevailing during most of the 1980s and 1990s, such a claim was unthinkable for all but a handful of heretics (Will rational bubbles fall on the infallible markets ?, AFR, 24 Jun , 1994.)
Even now that a more measured view has been restored, the suggestion that market prices for assets are unsustainable raises what American economist Deirdre McCloskey has called ‘the American question’ – ‘if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?’. To make the point more explicitly, if asset prices are out of line with economic fundamentals, why don’t economists and others who can see this back their judgement in the markets and make large speculative profits. This argument is the cornerstone of the famous ‘efficient markets hypothesis’.
The now-standard response is usually attributed to the great economist and successful speculator, John Maynard Keynes (though there is no evidence that he actually said it) and states ‘‘the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent’. This point is illustrated by the experience of the greatest speculator of all, George Soros, who bet heavily, in 1998 and 1999, that the NASDAQ stock market was overvalued.
Soros was right, but the market kept on rising, and he was forced to liquidate his short positions. By the time the market turned down in April 2000, Soros had lost billions of dollars. As one of the many economists who shared Soros’ view of the dotcom mania (Don’t overrate E-commerce, AFR,,8 April 1999), I was glad to have stayed on the sidelines, although I did switch my superannuation strategy away from overvalued US shares.
The same issues arose in relation to the US dollar bubble that ended about a year ago. Although any competent economist could see that the US dollar was grossly overvalued (US dollar needs a pasting,AFR, 29 March 2001.), the currency was supported by the stated ‘strong dollar’ policy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the evident market belief that this policy meant something. Once again, a lot of money was lost by those who were prematurely right in their belief that the US dollar must depreciate.