Wise not to ignore market risks

SINCE the US Federal Reserve’s somewhat surprising 50-basis points interest rate cut on Sept 18, investors all over the world have piled back into stocks with much gusto. Wall Street on Monday rose to a new all-time high while most Asian markets continue to set records of their own.

The mood is once again bullish, restored by a seemingly unshakeable confidence that the Fed can be relied upon to cut rates further to keep the ball rolling. While the momentum is clearly positive however, over-eager investors have to be mindful of making the same mistake as before – ignoring risks while focusing solely on returns.

Although the Federal funds futures market is pricing in a further 25 basis points cut at the end of this month, this is by no means a certainty. September’s rate lowering has seriously undermined an already weak US dollar – which has now declined even against currencies such as the Turkish lira, Saudi rial and Canadian dollar – and over time, this cannot be good for an-already slowing economy labouring under the burden of a crashing housing market. Moreover, various Fed governors warned this week that more rate cuts can only be justified if the economy shows signs of very drastic weakness, which means that perversely, investors are buying stocks today in the hope that growth worsens significantly tomorrow – Monday’s Wall St record for example, was set after release of a weak manufacturing report that showed new orders dropping for the third consecutive month. This is an anomalous state of affairs. While it might last for a while, eventually reality will prevail.

Speaking of reality, the full extent of the sub-prime mess may not have been revealed yet. US and European banks have only just started to show alarming profit weakness stemming from sub-prime losses and there is doubt over whether rate cuts are sufficient to reverse losses.

That said, markets could continue to rally in the short term. One likely explanation for the strong bounces seen over the past fortnight is that they have come from widespread programme trading – with markets as interconnected as they are today, the big money has to employ sophisticated computer-driven trading strategies in order to react quickly enough and capitalise on shifts in economic and sentiment indicators.

As such, once certain parameters are met, powerful momentum forces take over and markets move almost as one. Invariably, the targets are always the largest stocks – that is why in Singapore at least, while the Straits Times Index has very rapidly regained new ground, the broad market has lagged.

The real danger however, is that the same momentum shifts work equally effectively on the downside.

Given that volatility has not subsided over the past few months – it has in fact increased – and given that the chances of a US recession are quite real, it would be wise for investors to be as cognisant of risks as they are of returns.

 

Source: Business Times 4 Oct 07

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