Friday, September 18, 2015

UK seen to need interest rate cut; Market bubble fears grow; 'Cool clock' boy shows best and worst of America

1 UK seen to need interest rate cut (Katie Allen in The Guardian) Interest rates in the UK may have to be cut further from their record low level, the Bank of England’s chief economist has warned, as he highlighted signs that the global financial crisis is entering a third phase of turmoil.

Andy Haldane cited evidence of a slowdown on the domestic front and risks to the global economy from China, where an economic downturn has coincided with a stock market rout that has sent shockwaves through the world’s markets.

His view that the Bank may need to resort to even more unconventional moves to protect the UK recovery puts Haldane at odds with the Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, who has indicated that rates may rise from 0.5% early next year. The warning from a top Bank official over the UK’s fragility is also unwelcome news for George Osborne as he seeks to emphasise his stewardship of the economy following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader.

Haldane, one of nine policymakers who set interest rates, was speaking a day after the US central bank decided to delay an interest rate hike for the world’s biggest economy. The US rate-setters blamed a more fragile global outlook in remarks that further rattled jittery financial markets. The FTSE 100 fell more than 1% in the wake of the US decision.

Haldane warned the UK was not ready for higher borrowing costs. “In my view, the balance of risks to UK growth, and to UK inflation at the two-year horizon, is skewed squarely and significantly to the downside,” he said. “Against that backdrop, the case for raising UK rates in the current environment is, for me, some way from being made.” Given the range of risks facing the economy, there is every chance the next rate move could be a cut instead of an increase.

Added to that, Haldane highlighted challenges in Britain. “While the UK’s recovery remains on track, there are straws in the wind to suggest slowing growth into the second half of the year,” he said. “Employment is softening, with a fall in employment in the second quarter and surveys suggesting slowing growth rates.

2 Market bubble fears grow (Jamie Robertson on BBC) No increase in interest rates - crack open the champagne - another month (or two or three) of cheap money. There may well be a few investors breathing a sigh of relief that the Federal Reserve has kept US interest rates on hold. But most realise that the days of cheap money are coming to an end.

Only now are we beginning to look at the stock market, blown up by cheap money over the last six years, and starting to question the resilience of this quivering balloon. With rates close to zero the stock market has been the first choice for anyone hungry for a decent return since March 2009. And in their enthusiasm those investors may well have inflated a bubble of alarming proportions.

One valuation, known as Cape, and which gained popularity after the collapse of the boom in 2000, is flashing red and sending shivers through the market. Cape stands for "cyclically adjusted price to earnings" ratio. The price to earnings ratio (or PE) is the relationship between the price of a share in the market, and the earnings of the company to which it relates.

Prof Robert Shiller, the Nobel laureate economist who popularised Cape, decided to use average earnings, adjusted for inflation, over the last ten years. The historic average Cape for the S&P 500, the broad US market index, is 16.6. Its rock bottom was just below 5 in the early 1920s. Last year Prof Shiller said that over 25, Cape was at "a level that has been surpassed since 1881 in only three previous periods: the years clustered around 1929, 1999 and 2007. Major market drops followed those peaks".

Now, I know what you're thinking. Where are we now? 25.33. Uh-oh... But before you grab the phone to your broker, it should be pointed out that no-one, Prof Shiller included, sees Cape as a predictor of a crash. In fact had you used Cape to time your investment for most of this century you would have gone spectacularly wrong. For all that time Cape has been, with one brief exception in mid-2009, above its long term average of 16.6, i.e. telling you your returns were going to be below average.

The last quarter saw total earnings for companies in the S&P 500 index down 2.1% on the same period last year. The third quarter is likely to be worse, maybe 5.5% lower than last year. Now a lot of that is to do with the energy sector getting knocked sideways by the low oil price, but other sectors are hardly shining. The bottom line is that earnings are at their weakest level in six years. That in itself (let alone confidence levels and the Cape ratio) should make investors cautious. And interest rates haven't even gone up yet.

3 ‘Cool clock’ boy shows best and worst of America (Khaleej Times) Ahmed Mohammad is now a celebrity in the US. The little boy who was handcuffed and suspended for bringing his homemade clock, which was mistaken for a bomb by the school authorities, is now all smiles and has a tale to tell. President Barack Obama has invited him to the White House to share with him his invention, and similar invites are pouring in from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Nasa to visit their facilities.

This episode is in need of being studied in an objective manner. The psychological terror and abuse that Mohammad, 14-year-old son of a Muslim immigrant from Sudan, suffered at the hands of his school authorities is condemnable. The fact that he was handcuffed and Texas cops were called in to arrest him is disgusting. All that he was carrying with him is his clock invention that resembled a bomb!

This speaks high of not only the fear factor but also the sense of otherness that has set in American society in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Call it Islamophobia or paranoia, minorities still face the uphill task of proving their loyalty and patriotism when it comes to the business of the state.

Obama, nonetheless, made the necessary socio-political correction by tweeting in support of the student. The gesture to invite the ninth-grader to take his clock to the White House is laudable, and will go a long way in wooing minorities and other dispossessed sections of the American society. This is like appreciating the nation's enterprise and their zest to contribute to the development and prosperity of the state.

"We should inspire more kids like you to like's what makes America great," Obama tweeted. Similarly, the Facebook chief was candid, as he said: "Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed. I'd love to meet you. Keep building."

While Mohammad will be a sought-after guest on the Astronomy Night (September 19) - an event bringing together scientists, engineers, astronauts, teachers and students on the lawns of the White House - Obama has an opportunity to send across the message that none should be discriminated on the basis of unreasoned prejudice.

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