Last Friday saw Australia's equity markets close up 30 per cent (including dividends) for the year.
This marks the fourth year of annual returns above 20 per cent. Surely it doesn't get any better than this? But could it get much worse? Henry's column last month was about the global asset boom (which Henry sees as a bubble). "The problem's global, we're feeling nervous" is a fair summary. The period since has included a plethora of warnings by financial market practitioners.
Last month, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) also weighed into this debate. Its annual report noted the current "extraordinary" performance of the world economy - high growth, low unemployment, moderate inflation and low-volatility growth of asset prices.
The sting in the tale was a stern warning about sustainability: "However, the combination of developments is so extraordinary that it must raise questions about the source and, closely related, the sustainability of all this good fortune."
It is impossible to believe the central banker's central bank is not thinking hard about asset inflation in the light of this comment.
What is agreed is that the current asset boom/bubble has been fuelled by the flood of global liquidity, whose onset was sparked by US cash rates at 1 per cent in 2003, though neither the BIS nor national central bankers would state it so baldly as that.
What is less clear is what to do to prevent asset boom/bubbles. Adding asset prices to the conventional goods and services inflation in central bank policy targets is the obvious point, although there would be a host of practical issues to be resolved before this become part of the accepted wisdom.
Of course, allowance for asset inflation would logically require central banks to allow systematically for asset deflation, and expected (or even "possible") asset deflation. In fact, central banks have been famously willing to provide generous "accommodation" when there is incipient financial panic. It was the US Fed's unwillingness to do just that in 1929 that some historians see as a major reason for the depth and severity of the Great Depression.
So, as we argued last month, there is a case to allow for asset inflation as well as goods and services inflation in determining monetary policy. With globalised economies and markets, international co-operation by central banks is vital, which is why the views of international organisations such as the BIS are so important.
As a practical matter, goods and services inflation has been held down for the past decade by the rise of the "BRICs" - Brazil, Russia, India and the daddy of them all, China. Cheap labour and generally free trade in manufacturing has exercised a powerful deflationary influence in the developed nations, helping to keep wage inflation low despite the easy money that has, therefore, fuelled asset inflation.
Now there are clear signs of rising wage pressure and rising inflation in the BRICs. Conventional wage push inflation is inevitable in these nations as their flood of cheap labour begins to gain market power and to demand a larger share of the economic action.
As this pressure builds, the easy years for central bankers will pass. The signs are becoming clear. The clearest evidence is that goods and services inflation bottomed at the start of the new century, and has been creeping up since then.
First published in The Australian on July 3, 2007 and on Henry Thornton’s website.
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