Thursday was a fascinating day in the market, featuring a 20-minute span in which the Dow moved from a loss of about 300 points to a loss of nearly 1000 points and then back again within a span of about 15-20 minutes. While the decline and recovery was interesting, the fascinating part was the eagerness of investors to view the decline as a "glitch" in trading. My hope is that the opening quotations in this weekly comment are sufficient reminders that illiquidity is not a "glitch," but a typical feature of panicked markets. In a market where active market makers have increasingly been replaced by "high frequency" trading algorithms that can be switched off at will, it is important for investors to avoid the assumption that there will be a willing buyer close at hand if risk concerns begin to escalate.
If you spend a good portion of your time studying price-volume behavior, "air pockets" of the type we observed last week become familiar parts of the landscape (though they are typically not so distilled into a single intra-day move). Robust demand is the only thing that holds prices from falling vertically in the face of eager selling. Overvalued, overbought, overbullish markets are often already spent of that demand. As investors suddenly became aware of that reality on Thursday, all I could think was "welcome to my world."
Looking at the current state of the world economy, the underlying reality remains little changed: there is more debt outstanding than is capable of being properly serviced. It's certainly possible to issue government debt in order to bail out one borrower or another (and prevent their bondholders from taking a loss). However, this means that for every dollar of bad debt that should have been wiped off the books, the world economy is left with two - the initial dollar of debt that has been bailed out and must continue to be serviced, and an additional dollar of government debt that was issued to execute the bailout.
Notice also that the capital that is used to provide the bailout goes from the hands of savers into the hands of bondholders who made bad investments. We are not only allocating global savings to governments. We are further allocating global savings precisely to those who were the worst stewards of the world's capital. From a productivity standpoint, this is a nightmare. New investment capital, properly allocated, is almost invariably more productive than existing investment, and is undoubtedly more productive than past bad investment. By effectively re-capitalizing bad stewards of capital, at the expense of good investments that could otherwise occur, the policy of bailouts does violence to long-term prospects for growth. Looking out to a future population that will increasingly rely on the productivity of a smaller set of younger workers (and foreign labor) in order to provide for an aging demographic, this is not a luxury that our nation or the world can afford.
"Failure" and "restructuring" mean only that bondholders don't get 100 cents on the dollar. We can continue to bail out the poor stewards of capital who voluntarily made bad, unproductive investments, and waste our future productivity in order to make those lenders whole, or we can turn the debate toward deciding the best strategies for restructuring existing debt.