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The scourge of asset price inflation

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

The last several years have been characterised by low consumer price inflation, which has resulted in ultra-easy monetary policy initiatives, which has driven extreme asset price inflation. Central bankers seem to be obsessed with the former, talking incessantly about the need to hit their inflation targets, and largely unconcerned about the latter.

This marks a reversal in attitude. In 1955, William Martin who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1951 through 1970 gave the famous “punch bowl” speech during which he referred to the Federal Research being “in the position of the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up".

A few decades later in 1996, Allan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 through 2006, gave the famous “irrational exuberance” speech. During the speech, he posed the question: “But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”.

Fast forward 25 years to another notable speech from a central banker. This time it was from Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019, who stated in 2012 that he would do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone. Subsequent speeches from Mario Draghi and his successor, Christine Lagarde, frequently referred to the need for monetary stimulus to stimulate consumer price inflation.

The Fed, and other central banks, followed this lead and the cycle of interest rate cuts and more aggressive quantitative easing set the scene for massive asset price inflation.Recent asset price inflation in most developed markets can be compared to what occurred in Japan in the late 1980s. In 1989 it was estimated that Japan’s Imperial Palace was worth more than all the property in California. Similarly absurd stories are now commonplace across the globe. Earlier this year, Jeremy Grantham commented that Tesla’s market cap “amounts to over $1.25 million per car sold each year”. Recently, the market capitalisation of cryptocurrencies surged passed the one trillion-dollar mark. SPACs are proliferating at a rapid pace and are attracting strong investor support despite the absence of attractive investment opportunities.

Why is this a problem and what implications does it hold for the performance of quant factor funds?

Putting aside the issue of widening wealth inequality and other social issues such as housing affordability, asset price bubbles are a problem because they have a habit of bursting. And when this occurs, the ramifications for financial markets are severe. Japan’s moribund economy is still recovering from the bursting of their asset price bubble more than 30 years ago and the Nikkei Index is still well below its 1990 peak. It took more than 13 years for the Nasdaq to exceed its peak in early 2000 following the bursting of the tech bubble. The credit crisis resulting from the bursting of the US housing bubble led to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

From a quant perspective, the good news is factors typically perform strongly following market dislocations. The period from 2001 to 2007 following the busting of the tech bubble is commonly referred to as the golden period for quant factor investing. In particular, this period was characterised by the strong outperformance of value factors. Similarly, quant factors performed strongly from late 2009 for several years following the Global Financial Crisis. Again, value factors led the way.

Momentum factors perform poorly at the onset of market crises. Given growth factors have massively outperformed during the recent bull market run – much like during the tech boom in the late 1990s – they’re also vulnerable. Hence, we’re closely monitoring out net exposure to momentum and growth factors.

If history repeats and the current asset price bubble bursts, it will be painful for many investors. The Fund’s market neutral positioning should protect it from a sharp market decline. And hopefully the Fund’s net factor exposures, particularly its value factor bias, will mean it’s well positioned to generate strong alpha following a market downturn.

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