Today, May 4, 2021, the Council for Return Expectations publishes its updated forecasts. We still expect very low – negative – returns on safe assets, though not as negative as we expected six months ago. We also expect marginally lower returns on risky assets. Compared to six months ago, we thus expect a lower equity risk premium.
I chair the Council for Return Expectations (link). Danish banks and pension companies use our forecasts when they project how their customers’ savings will develop. In this blog post from July last year (link), I describe the history of the council, who we are, why we publish expected returns, what they are used for, and so on.
Twice a year, we update our expectations. Today, we publish our latest forecasts.
It’s this time of the year. This post recalls events of 2020. It has been such an unusual year, so different from what we expected. Luckily, there seems to be light at the end of the very long and dark tunnel, and – I hope – that 2021will be considerably more joyful than 2020.
2020 started out so well. The roaring twenties and all that. Wuhan was a city I had not heard of, corona a beer people tell me is best served ice-cold with a slice of lime (I do not drink beer, tough I do enjoy wine), and social distancing words we would only get to know too well. Today, we know that Wuhan is a Chinese city with more than eleven million inhabitants and a marketplace where it presumably all started, corona also means something terrible, and social interaction is an activity we have come to miss so dearly.
If history is any guide, it will be four good years on the stock market if Biden wins on November 3. Historically, stocks have performed so much better under Democratic presidents. The question is whether history will be a guide also this time around.
Are Democratic or Republican presidents better for the stock market? To evaluate, let us recall the performance of the US stock market under Trump – a Republican – and compare it to its performance under Obama – a Democrat and Trump’s predecessor. Afterwards, let us look at the full history of the stock market under Democratic and Republican presidents. Finally, let us discuss what it implies for this election and the next four years on the US stock market.
Do asset purchases by central banks raise economic output and inflation? An interesting new paper finds an affirmative answer, but also – and this is the main point – that the size of the effect depends on whom you ask. If you ask central bankers, they will tell you that the effect of QE is large. If you ask independent academic researchers, they will tell you it is considerably smaller. This difference indicates that central-bank research on this topic might be biased. It also indicates that Quantitative Easing is probably not as effective as we are told.
One of the defining
characteristics of financial markets since the financial crisis in 2008 is the use
and influence of “unconventional policy tools” by central banks. As monetary policy
rates have been close to zero, central banks have been unable to stimulate the
economy via even lower interest rates. Instead, central banks have started
purchasing financial assets, mainly government bonds. These alternative policy
tools are labelled “asset purchases by central banks”, or simply “Quantitative
Quantitative Easing increases the demand for government bonds, thereby raising their price and bringing down their yields. When yields on government bonds fall, other yields in the economy, such as yields on mortgage bonds, fall, too. This should promote economic activity and raise inflation, central banks argue.
Quantitative Easing is not uncontroversial, though. In several of my posts (link, link, and link), I have argued that it raises other asset prices in the economy, such as stock prices. Some fear that this induces bubble-like behavior in asset prices. Also, QE might distort signals from asset prices, causing unclear signals from prices about the underlying state of the economy and financial markets. In addition, by raising other asset prices, Quantitative Easing might contribute to increasing inequality, as financial assets are typically held by the already wealthy. On the other hand, if QE helps promoting economic activity, it helps reducing unemployment among low-income groups, which should reduce inequality, central banks argue in return (link). In the end, then, to justify Quantitative Easing, it should have a sizeable impact on inflation and output, outweighing the potentially negative effects on other parts of the economy.
Many papers have analyzed the effects of quantitative easing. A brand-new paper (link) summarizes these analyses and asks the question whether results are more positive when central bank economists analyze QE. Given that central banks influence public opinion, the latter question is important when we evaluate the most significant policy intervention during the last decade.
two reasons why I think this paper is particularly interesting. First, it
summarizes research on QE in a neat way. It concludes that QE is effective, but
not as effective as we are often told. Second, it emphasizes the importance of
independent academic research. As the faculty representative on the Board of
Directors at Copenhagen Business School, stressing the importance of academic
research, I find this to be an important conclusion, too.
To avoid any
misunderstandings about my own view, let me stress two things before getting to
First, I believe that targeted central bank intervention can be useful. In my last post, I describe one monetary policy intervention that clearly fulfilled its goal (link). During a crisis, if markets are malfunctioning, there can be good reasons for policy interventions. On the other hand, I am skeptical towards the view that the advantages of endless asset purchases by central banks outside crisis periods outweigh their disadvantages. This paper indicates that QE is less powerful than central bankers tell us, lending some support to this view.
Second, my point here is not to say that central bank research is suspicious in general. On the contrary, I strongly recommend central banks to invest in economic research. I believe that better decisions are taken when based on solid academic analyses. So, central banks should be encouraged to invest in research, but their own evaluations of their own actions are probably not unbiased.
Brian Fabo, Martina Jancokova, Elisabeth Kempf, and Lubos Pastor (link) study 54 analyses, written/published between 2010 and 2018, of the effects of quantitative easing in the US, the UK, and the Eurozone. 57% of the papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals. 60% of the authors are affiliated with central banks.
Lubos Pastor and co-authors collect estimates of the effect of QE on economic output and inflation across the 54 studies and report the average (and median) effects. They also investigate whether the reported effects are different if a study is conducted by central bank researchers.
Bias in central bank research
Pastor et al. list five reasons why central bank research might be biased (directly taken from the paper, page 2, here):
”First, the economist may worry that the nature of her ﬁndings could aﬀect her employment status or rank. Is she less likely to get promoted if her ﬁndings dent the bank’s reputation? Could she get ﬁred?”
”Second, the economist may be unsure whether her research will see the light of day. Bank management could in principle block the release of studies that ﬁnd the bank’s own policy to be ineﬀective, or to have undesirable side eﬀects.”
”Third, the economist may suﬀer from a conﬁrmation bias (Nickerson (1998)). A central bank employee may believe a priori that the bank’s policies are eﬀective, and she may select evidence supporting her prior.”
”Fourth, the economist may care about the bank’s reputation.”
”Finally, the economist may care about her own reputation if she is senior enough to have participated in the formation of the bank’s policy.”
The main findings of the paper are collected in this graph:
Pastor et al. report that a QE-program at its peak, i.e. when a QE program has its maximum effect, on average (across the 54 studies) raises GDP by 1.57% and the price level in the economy by 1.42%, as indicated by the blue columns in the graph (”Average all studies”). This seems to be relatively large effects, I would say.
Do these effects depend on the affiliations of researchers? Pastor and co-authors find that central-bank affiliated researchers report significantly larger effects. If counterfactually changing the share of central bank researchers in a study from 0% to 100%, the peak effect on output is estimated to be 0.723%-points larger and the peak effect on the price level 1.279%-points larger. I illustrate this in the figure above as the “Effect of CB authors”. Compared to the overall average effect, the effect of central-bank authorship is large. For the price level, going from 0% to 100% central-bank authorship almost corresponds to the total average estimated effect of QE on price levels across all 54 papers . In other words, if you think central bank estimates might be biased, the ”true” average effect of QE programs is considerably smaller than the estimated overall average effect.
Pastor and coauthors report the average point estimate of all papers and the additional effect of central bank affiliation, as indicated in the figure above. They do not report the average estimate from papers written by central bank authors, respectively written by academic authors. I asked Lubos Pastor about this. In private email correspondence with Lubos and Elisabeth Kempf, they inform me that papers written by central bank authors (defined as papers with at least one central bank author) estimate a 1.752% peak effect on output. Papers written by academics (defined as papers with zero central bank authors) find a considerably smaller effect, 0.996%. For inflation, the peak effect on output is 1.791% for papers written by central bank affiliated authors. Academics estimate a much smaller effect, only 0.545%. In spite of massive asset purchases (we are literally talking trillions of dollars, euros, and yen), the average effect on inflation is small, at 0.5%, academics report. Less than a third of what central bank affiliated researchers report.
As academics, we are not only interested in the size of the coefficients/effects, but also whether effects are statistically different from zero. Pastor and coauthors report a striking finding here. While all papers written by central bank researchers find that QE has a statistically significant effect on output/inflation, only 50% of papers written by independent academics find significant effects.
Pastor and co-authors note that the German central bank (the Bundesbank) has
been particularly skeptical towards ECB QE. So, what happens if you look at
researchers affiliated with the German central bank? Bundesbank researchers
find much smaller effects of QE. In fact, Bundesbank researchers find an even
smaller effect of QE on economic output than independent academics. Again, this
indicates that the preferences of an institution seem to influence the
conclusions of its researchers.
presents additional analyses, such as looking more closely at the mechanisms at
play, i.e. career concerns, involvement of management in research, and so on.
Read the paper if you want to know more about this.
I think the paper by Brian Fabo, Martina Jancokova, Elisabeth Kempf, and Lubos Pastor is interesting also because it summarizes what the average effect of QE is, based on a large number of studies. Across more than 50 papers, the average maximum effect of QE on GDP and the price level is around 1.5%. This is useful information in itself.
Some papers are written by central bank researchers and some by independent academics. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that central bankers might have a tendency to view their own policies in a more favorable light. This is what Lubos and co-authors find. They report that the effect of having central bankers as authors of an analysis is almost as large as the average reported effect of QE on the price level itself. In private email correspondence, they also tell me that the average effect, estimated in academic papers, of QE on the price level is only 0.5%, i.e. very small, almost negligible. This is of course a controversial result. I predict it will generate intensive debate.
The fact that I discuss this paper here should not be taken to imply that I am skeptical towards central bank research in general. In fact, I am sure the quality of monetary policy decisions is improved when central bankers have access to the latest research. Also, I have no reason to believe that central bank research on other topics than monetary policy should be biased. But, when it comes to assessing their own actions, researchers in central banks might be subject to certain biases. It requires some guts to tell senior management that the trillions they have spent on quantitative easing probably has not been very effective. Instead, it might further your career if you paint a rosier picture. This is important to recognize.
I view the bottom line as follows: QE probably has some effect, but its effect is considerably smaller than we are told by central banks.
The rebound in stock markets has been spectacular.
One may wonder whether it is sustainable.
What does it actually mean that the stock market is “too optimistic”? Doesn’t the stock price always reflect the average expectation of all investors? True, and, in this sense, the market cannot be “too optimistic”. On the one hand, the market is always right.
On the other hand, the legendary economist Paul Samuelson famously noticed that the “stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions”. Stock markets also appear “excessively volatile”, as Shiller showed already in 1981. I.e., the stock market might always be right, but perhaps we are going through a period of excessive volatility where markets were overly pessimistic in March and are overly optimistic now.
In any case, if the stock market is always right, so is the futures market. Investors in the futures market expect huge drops in dividends over the next year. If stock prices behave as they usually do during recessions, stock prices should drop even more, that is dropping even more than dividends.
Before we start this attempt to explain things and look ahead, let us review the facts. This graph shows developments in the Danish, the US, the world (MSCI All countries), and the emerging stock markets since the start of the year, all MSCI indices (Danish index is in Danish kroner, the rest in USD):
markets did well in the beginning of the year, fell dramatically from mid-February
through mid-March, and have rebounded spectacularly since then. Today, the
Danish stock market is above its January 1 value, the US market is 10% down,
the world market is 15% down, and emerging markets are 20% down.
What could explain current stock prices?
prices are by definition discounted future cash-flows. That is easy to say. The
difficult part is to find the expected future cash-flows and the appropriate
start with a positive view on markets and see what is needed to support this.
To begin with, let us keep the discount rate fixed. Let us also, as a starter, assume that valuation ratios are constant. For instance, let us assume that stock prices closely follow developments in real economic activity. Under these assumptions, we would, largely, be able to understand recent market movements. These assumptions would also support a rosy view of the future. Afterwards, we discuss if this is a likely scenario.
for economic activity in light of the corona crisis start coming in. Late
April, we got the WEO from the IMF and forecasts for the US from the CBO, and
this week we got forecasts for Europe from the EU-commission. This figure shows
the expected path of real GDP in the US and EU:
This recession is enormous. GDP is expected to fall by 15% in Q2 this year, compared to late 2019. Luckily, economies are expected to rebound sharply after this quarter, too. The EU commission expects a strong recovery in the EU in 2021, with 6.1% growth in 2021. The CBO expects 2.8% growth in 2021 in the US. Whether this difference is realistic, I do not want to discuss here.
drops by 15% in Q2. If stock prices follow GDP, as we assume for now, stock
prices should have dropped by 15% in Q2. This is almost spot-on.
would also predict that we have a great year in front of us. Economic activity
should improve by something like 15-20% until late 2021. If stock prices
follow, stock prices should also increase with something like 15-20% from here.
What about the huge drop in March? This we can also explain, I think. Basically, it had little to do with underlying economic fundamentals. Some leveraged hedge funds got squeezed, they received margin calls, they dumped everything to raise cash, there was panic, spreads widened, and markets feared a replay of 2008 (I comment on it here and John Cochrane has a nice and more detailed explanation here). Stress on markets almost reached 2008 levels, as, for instance, the St. Louis Fed Financial Stress index indicates:
banks intervened and provided liquidity. Markets calmed down. The stress index
is still somewhat elevated, but much lower than in March. Markets started
looking at economic fundamentals again. With lots of liquidity around, and low
yields, investors bought stocks. This was a temporary crash.
intermediate conclusion is that if stock prices follow GDP, stock prices should
drop by something like 15% during Q2, only to rebound afterwards. And, as of
today, stock prices have in fact fallen by something like 15% since the start
of the year, with a bumper on the road in March. If we stop here, everything
would be fine and we should expect substantial stock market gains going forward.
Under these assumptions, markets are expected to rebound by something like
15-20% until late 2021.
Cash-flows do not always follow economic
Unfortunately, we cannot stop here. We need to go back to the definition of stock prices: Discounted cash-flows. I truly believe that cash-flows relate to economic activity in the long run (I have research demonstrating this), but I also believe that there are temporary business-cycle deviations between cash-flows and economic activity. And these deviations can be substantial.
We have expectations to economic activity from IMF, CBO, EU, and so on, but how do we find expectations to cash-flows? Niels Joachim Gormsen from the University of Chicago, a smart former Ph.D. student at Copenhagen Business School, has, together with Chicago Professor Ralph Koijen, developed a method that can be used to back out expected changes in dividends from dividend futures. They also estimate a relation between dividend growth and GDP growth, such that they can back out expected GDP growth, too.
Their latest estimates are from April 20. Compared to January 1, 2020, Gormsen and Koijen estimate that US GDP will be 3.8% lower over the next year (precisely, Niels tells me, they compare expected growth from April 1, 2020 through April 1, 2021, to expected growth from January 1, 2020 through January 1, 2021). This is not far from what the CBO expects (the figure above shows that GDP will be something like 5% lower ultimo 2020 compared to primo 2020).
The scary thing is that Gormsen and Koijen show that markets expect dividends to be 18% lower over the next 12 months, i.e. drop by 13%-points more than GDP. An 18% drop in dividends is a very large drop in historical terms.
This graph shows how investors update their expectations to future dividend growth rates during the corona crisis:
For the EU, Gormsen and Koijen expect GDP, respectively dividends, to drop by 6.3%, respectively 28%. The market is always right, right?
Unfortunately, we cannot stop here either.
Stock prices react excessively to cash-flows
We need to talk about the last part of the definition of stock prices: discount rates. Research shows that discount rates move counter-cyclically, increasing in bad times and dropping in good. From our definition of stock prices, this means that stock prices should fall by more than dividends in bad times, if discount rates increase in bad times.
Tim Kroencke from the Univeristy of Neuchatel has an interesting paper that studies how stock prices move in relation to dividends during recessions. The central graph in the paper is this one:
The graphs shows how dividends (and earnings) fall during recessions and how stock prices fall even more (there are two stock price indices. Read Tim’s paper to get the explanation for the difference. The point is that stock prices fall more than dividends.)
The figure shows that US dividends drop by 10% and US stock prices drop by ten percentage-points more, i.e. 20%, on average during US recessions. It also shows that stock prices do not drop ahead of the drop in dividends, but alongside. This is not good news.
Koijen’s estimates say that we should expect dividends to drop by 18% for the
US and 28% for the EU over the next year. Kroencke says that on average stock
prices drop by 10%-points more. This means that stock prices should drop by close
to 30% in the US. If we use the 10% drop in the price-dividend ratio for EU
data, EU stock prices should drop by close to 40%. Today, stock prices are down
We might hope that this recession plays out in a different way than recessions usually do. We might also hope that stock markets react in a different way than they usually do. We might hope that everybody starts spending when economies open up, companies start producing, and earnings and dividends do not suffer. In this case, the drop in dividends might not be that large. And, we might hope that stock markets do not fall by more than dividends, in contrast to what they normally do. This could for instance be because central banks are marginal investors in many markets now, driving asset prices away from what they would have been if prices were solely determined by private market participants. This is what markets hope. And, of course, this might turn out to be the case.
We might also fear, however, that companies will start facing problems given the severity of the crisis, i.e. this turns from a liquidity crisis to a solvency crisis. Should this happen, earnings and dividends will drop. The market is always right. The futures market expects dividends to drop by something like 20% for the US and 30% for Europe. If stock prices react as they normally do during recessions, stock prices should drop even more. The 15% drop since early 2020 seems small in this light.
PS. Did you by the way notice the German Constitutional Court ruling this week? Given last week’s post on the Italian situation, I might just inform you that the Italian yield spread to Germany widened as a consequence. Not a lot – 15 basis points or so – but in the wrong direction.