Eugene Fama, Nobel laureate and Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, doesn’t believe in a stock market bubble. But he is worried about the high levels of government debt. He warns that investors could stop perceiving government bonds as risk-free. A conversation with the «father of modern finance» on The Market. Excerpts:
Professor Fama, the efficient market hypothesis has revolutionized the way people invest. What goes through your mind when you look at the wild swings the stock market made this year?
The market seems pretty good. It held up even though the economy is deep in the bucket. This is a good example of how forward looking the market really is: It’s looking past what we are going through now, and it’s saying that the future doesn’t look that bad.
Do you think that’s the correct assumption?
If I could forecast, I wouldn’t be a professor.
Still, since the crash in February/March, we basically went from 1929 to 1999 in just a few months. What are the chances stocks are in a bubble?
Bubbles are things people see in hindsight. They don’t identify them in advance. Sure, you can look at the behavior of prices, and you may be able to identify cases where they are too high. But if you only look back and say: «Oh, stocks went down a lot, so that was a bubble», then that’s 20/20 hindsight. At the time, there was no evidence that there was a bubble.
And what about the fundamental consequences of negative rates? How are they impacting the real economy?
I don’t’ think they impact the real economy, but it’s a problem for the financial system. What’s more, in 2008, in response to the financial crisis, the Fed started to pay interest on its reserves. But there is no interest on the currency, and currency is exchangeable for reserves on demand by the banks. So based on classic monetary theory, you don’t really know what’s determining inflation at this point. There is no control over the stock of what qualifies as money, since reserves aren’t really money anymore because they are paying interest. That means you can’t control the currency supply. In other words: Inflation is totally out of the control of central banks.
In the coming months, the Fed is expected to make a major commitment to ramping up inflation soon. What would it mean for investors if we really get inflation?
Inflation and return on investments is a tough topic that’s been around since the early seventies. In principle, you can see the effects of inflation on long-term interest rates, but you can’t see them in stocks very well because the volatility is so high. Hence, we don’t know what effect inflation will have on markets. It depends on the effect on real activity: High, but stable inflation wouldn’t be a big deal. What’s really a big deal is when it gets unstable.