Monday, November 2, 2009

If something is too good to be true, it is too good to be true

Since the beginning of the year, the prices of all sorts of risky assets – shares, oil, etc have increased by fantastic proportions. Take equity. In virtually any market in the world, you would have made returns of 50% plus, even if you are an idiot. Did somebody say we were in the midst of a huge crisis ? Here was massive money to be made, by just being there. Sounds too good to be true ?? As the old saying goes, when something is too good to be true, it usually is.

I read a very interesting article by Nouriel Roubini, the highly respected Professor from New York’s Stern School of Business, in today’s Financial Times. Its somewhat technical, although very readable. I commend even a layman to read this. At the risk of extreme oversimplification, I will paraphrase his argument as follows

- Interest rates are extremely low and will be maintained at very low levels by the US Fed to stimulate the economy
- The dollar is falling. Because it is falling, everybody is short selling the dollar.
- Short selling the dollar essentially means that you can borrow at negative rates of interest, as long as the dollar is falling .
- Invest this in any risky asset – say shares in Hong Kong. Prices of those shares will rise as demand for them increases.
- One month later (or whatever), sell the shares and make a tidy profit. Now these are worth much more in US$ terms as the US$ has fallen. Settle your short sale of the US$ and make a huge profit.
- Repeat step 1 to 5 again.

This is what Prof Roubini is arguing is happening. Of course, this cannot go on for ever. One day the dollar will not fall. Then like a herd on stampede , everybody will sell the risky assets and cover their short positions on the dollar. The bubble will truly burst.

That’s what usually happens to bubbles. When asset prices rise by 70% in 9 months, it is a bubble. The bigger it gets, the worse will be the explosion.

If you want any more evidence that Prof Roubini’s views must be taken seriously, read what he said

“In the coming months and years, he warned, the United States was likely to face a once-in-a-lifetime housing bust, an oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and, ultimately, a deep recession. He laid out a bleak sequence of events: homeowners defaulting on mortgages, trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt. These developments, he went on, could cripple or destroy hedge funds, investment banks and other major financial institutions”

The date ? Sep 7, 2006.

Just because somebody was right once, it does not mean that he will be right again. But it would be completely foolish not to listen to him.