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The bull market in everything

牛市天下

Asset prices are high across the board. Is it time to worry?

资产价格全面走高,应该感到担忧吗?

With ultra-loose monetary policy coming to an end, it is best to tread carefully

随着超宽松货币政策走到尽头,最好保持谨慎



IN HIS classic, “The Intelligent Investor”, first published in 1949, Benjamin Graham, a Wall Street sage, distilled what he called his secret of sound investment into three words: “margin of safety”. The price paid for a stock or a bond should allow for human error, bad luck or, indeed, many things going wrong at once. In a troubled world of trade tiffs and nuclear braggadocio, such advice should be especially worth heeding. Yet rarely have so many asset classes—from stocks to bonds to property to bitcoins—exhibited such a sense of invulnerability.

在1949年首次出版的经典著作《聪明的投资者》中,华尔街传奇人物本杰明•格雷厄姆将稳健投资的秘诀提炼为三个词:“安全边际( margin of safety)”。买入股票或债券的价格应考虑到人为错误、糟糕运气、或多方面同时出错。在当今充满贸易摩擦和夸耀核武的世界,这类建议尤为值得关注。然而,包括股票、债券、房地产、比特币在内,这么多资产类别表现得刀枪不入实属罕见。

Dear assets are hardly the product of euphoria. No one would mistake the bloodless run-up in global stockmarkets, credit and property over the past eight years for a reprise of the “roaring 20s”, or even an echo of the dotcom mania of the late 1990s. Yet only at the peak of those two bubbles has America’s S&P 500 been higher as a multiple of earnings measured over a ten-year cycle. Rarely have creditors demanded so little insurance against default, even on the riskiest “junk” bonds. And rarely have property prices around the world towered so high. American house prices have bounced back since the financial crisis and are above their long-term average relative to rents. Those in Britain are well above it. And in Canada and Australia, they are in the stratosphere. Add to this the craze for exotica, such as cryptocurrencies (see Free exchange), and the world is in the throes of a bull market in everything.

昂贵资产并不是乐观的产物。八年来,全球股市、信贷、房地产无情地拉开帷幕,但无人将此错当成“兴旺的20年代”,乃至90年代末“网络狂潮”的重演。除了两次泡沫达到顶峰时,美国标准普尔500指数的十年市盈率已达到历史最高点。债权人需要如此少的违约保险实属罕见,甚至包括最具风险的“垃圾”债券。全球房价很少涨到这么高,自金融危机以来,美国房价出现反弹,相对租金高于长期均价,英国房价远高于均价,加拿大、澳大利亚的房价极高。另外,市场表现出对网络货币等新鲜事物的渴望,世界已陷入牛市天下的困境。

Where’s the beef?

问题的实质

Asset-price booms are a source of cheer, but also anxiety. There are two immediate reasons to worry. First, markets have been steadily rising against a backdrop of extraordinarily loose monetary policy. Central banks have kept short-term interest rates close to zero since the financial crisis of 2007-08 and have helped depress long-term rates by purchasing $11trn-worth of government bonds through quantitative easing. Only now are they starting to unwind these policies. The Federal Reserve has raised rates twice this year and will soon start to sell its bondholdings. Other central banks will eventually follow. If today’s asset prices have been propped up by central-bank largesse, its end could prompt a big correction. Second, signs are appearing that fund managers, desperate for higher yields, are becoming increasingly incautious. Consider, for instance, investors’ recent willingness to buy Eurobonds issued by Iraq, Ukraine and Egypt at yields of around 7%.

资产价格上涨令人喜忧参半。使人担忧的直接原因有两个:首先,市场在超宽松的货币政策下持续上涨。2007-08年金融危机以来,央行使短期利率接近零,通过量化宽松购买11万亿美元的政府债券,帮助降低长期利率。直到现在,央行才开始解除这些政策。今年美联储将利率提高一倍,很快将出售债券,其他央行最终也会效仿。如果央行的宽松政策导致了现在资产价格上涨,最终可能迎来大规模调整。其次,有迹象显示追求高收益的基金经理越来越不谨慎。例如,近期投资者愿意购买伊拉克、乌克兰、埃及发行的欧元债券,收益率在7%左右。

But look carefully at the broader picture, and there is some logic to the ongoing rise in asset prices. In part it is a response to an improving world economy. In the second quarter of this year global GDP grew at its fastest pace since 2010, as a recovery in emerging markets added impetus to longer-standing upswings in Europe and America. As our special report this week argues, emerging-market economies have come out of testing times in far more resilient shape.

但仔细从整体情况来看,资产价格持续上涨有一定道理,在一定程度上是对世界经济复苏的反应。今年第二季度,全球GDP创下2010年以来最快增速,新兴市场复苏进一步刺激了欧洲和美国长期反弹。正如本期的特别报道所言,新兴市场经济体凭借更强的适应力经受住了考验。

More significant still is the behaviour of long-term interest rates. They have fallen steadily since the 1980s and remain close to historic lows. And that underpins all sorts of other asset prices (see article). A widespread concern is that the Fed and its peers have grossly distorted bond markets and, by extension, the price of all assets. Warren Buffett, the most famous disciple of Ben Graham, said this week that stocks would look cheap in three years’ time if interest rates were one percentage-point higher, but not if they were three percentage points higher. But if interest rates and bond yields were unjustifiably low, inflation would take off—and puzzlingly it hasn’t. This suggests that factors beyond the realm of monetary policy have been a bigger cause of low long-term rates. The most important is an increase in the desire to save, as ageing populations set aside a larger share of income for retirement. Just as the supply of saving has risen, demand for it has fallen. Stagnant wages and the lower price of investment goods mean companies are flush with cash. All this suggests that interest rates will stay low by historical standards

更重要的还是长期利率的表现。80年代以来利率一直在下降,如今接近历史最低点,并支撑着所有类别的资产价格。普遍感到担忧的是,美联储和各国央行严重扭曲了债券市场,乃至所有的资产价格。沃伦•巴菲特是本杰明•格雷厄姆最得意的门生,本周他说如果利率提高一个百分点,三年内股价将下跌,但提高三个百分点不会这样。但若利率和债券收益率低至不合理水平,通货膨胀将会飙升,令人费解的是这并未发生。这表明导致长期低利率的更大因素不是货币政策,最重要的是储蓄意愿越来越强,因为老龄化人口将大部分收入用于退休。随着储蓄供给的增加,储蓄需求随之下降。停滞的工资水平和低廉的投资产品意味着企业资金充裕。所有这些都表明,以历史标准来衡量,利率将维持在较低水平。

Beware of the bull

警惕牛市

Still the most dangerous, anti-Graham motto of investing is “this time is different”. It would be daft to assume that asset prices must remain high come what may. Many hazards could derail the economy and financial markets, from a debt crisis in China to an American-led trade war or an outbreak of fighting on the Korean peninsula. And when the next recession comes, policymakers have less fiscal and monetary ammunition to fight it than they had in previous downturns. Prudence therefore suggests caution.

最危险的是,反对格雷厄姆的投资格言是“今非昔比”。无论如何,资产价格必须维持高位,这种想法是愚蠢的。许多风险有可能破坏经济和金融市场,例如中国债务危机、美国引发的贸易战争、朝鲜半岛战争的爆发。当下次经济衰退来临时,决策者可用的财政和货币工具将不如上次那么多,所以应保持谨慎。

One option is for central bankers to raise rates more enthusiastically and less predictably, to jolt financial markets and remind investors that the world is volatile. Yet there are obvious perils with this course. The tightening might prove excessive, tipping economies into recession. And with inflation in most big economies below central bankers’ target, sharply higher rates are hard to square with their mandate.

央行的一个选项是更大幅度提高利率,出其不意的打压金融市场,提醒投资者世界充满不稳定性。但该方式存在显著风险,紧缩有可能过度,使经济陷入衰退。由于多数经济大国的通胀水平低于央行目标,所以大幅提高利率难以符合它们的使命。

Instead, caution calls for gradualism. To minimise disruption, the reversal of quantitative easing should be stretched out. The Federal Reserve has set a good precedent by proposing to reduce its bondholdings at a leisurely pace and flagging the change well in advance. When the time comes, its peers should follow suit. Of these, the European Central Bank faces the trickiest challenge, because it has acted as, in effect, the backstop to euro-zone bond markets, a mechanism that otherwise the currency bloc still lacks.

相反,谨慎需要渐进主义。为了尽量减少破坏,应逆转量化宽松政策。美联储提出逐渐减持债券,并事先公布变化,这是很好的榜样,届时其他央行也应效仿。其中欧洲央行面临最严峻的挑战,因为它实际上为欧元区债券市场提供担保,而欧元区仍缺乏这种机制。

But the main safety valve lies elsewhere, with banks and investors. Bitter experience has shown that debt-funded assets can magnify losses, causing financial crises. For this reason banks must be able to withstand any reversal of today’s high asset prices and low defaults. That means raising bank capital in places where it is too low, especially the euro zone, and not backsliding on strenuous “stress tests” as America’s Treasury proposes. In the end, however, there may be no escape for investors from the low future returns and even losses that high asset prices imply. They and regulators should take a leaf out of “The intelligent Investor”, and make sure that they have a margin of safety.

但主要的安全屏障在于银行和投资者。惨痛经验表明债务资产会扩大损失,导致金融危机。因此,银行必须能够承受当今高资产价格和低违约率发生逆转的情况,这意味着利率过低的地区,尤其是欧元区应提高银行资本,不要采取美国财政部提出的剧烈“压力测试”。但是,投资者最终可能无法避免较低的未来收益,乃至高资产价格带来的损失。投资者和监管者应读一读《聪明的投资者》,确保拥有安全边际。