Blog - Views on the Economy and the World

Views on the Economy and the World

A blog by Jeffrey Frankel

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315 posts

Whether one thinks that the overall equity market is currently valued properly or not, something very unusual happened in the last week of January to GameStop stock.  Its price rose 323 percent for the week, and 1,700 percent for the month (that is, an 18-fold increase). This was a speculative bubble. That is, the price departed from fundamentals.

Some investors who got in early and got out early made a lot of money. Just as many people, who got in too late or stayed in too long, lost a lot of money, as valuations came back to earth.

We focus on GameStop, an ailing bricks-and-mortar retailer of video games and consoles, for concreteness.  But a similar phenomenon has affected the prices of a number of other assets.

Participating in a speculative bubble is like playing roulette in a casino.  The role of “the house” in this casino is played by brokers such as retail-investment platform Robinhood or financial-services company Charles Schwab.  So far, not so unusual. Speculative bubbles happen from time to time.

Consider the past year through the lenses of three phrases: “witch hunt,” “black swan,” and “exponential.”  Each of these terms is widely applied, but not necessarily in the most useful way.

As Joni Mitchell sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”   Classroom education was often deemed boring by students and obsolete by tech visionaries.  Then the coronavirus made it difficult or impossible to meet in person.  The result:  We yearn for the irreplaceable in-class experience.
Perhaps the same is true of international economic cooperation. It was never especially popular. The theory, first formulated in a 1969 paper by Richard Cooper, said that countries could agree to coordinated bargains that achieved better outcomes, relative to the “Nash non-cooperative equilibrium.”  But economists thought of plenty of reasons to be skeptical.  The multilateral institutions of cooperation such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations agencies, were downright unpopular among the public.  Many Americans regarded them as invading US sovereignty, while other countries viewed them as an invasion of their sovereignty by the US.

In few elections has one been able to assess such a big difference between the two candidates in the likely quality of their economic policies.  Biden’s are better.

The price of gold reached an all-time record high of $2,000 per ounce this month.  Mainstream economic thinking has treated gold as a side-show since the world went off the gold standard. Nevertheless, the recent spiking in the price signals some important trends. It is not merely “sound and fury signifying nothing,” as sometimes seems true of financial markets.

There are three ready explanations for the historic increase in the price of gold: (i) monetary policy, (ii) risk, and (iii) a spreading desire for an alternative to the dollar as a safe haven.  Each of these explanations contains some truth.

The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research declared on June 9 that US economic activity had peaked in February 2020, formally marking the start of the recession.

We all knew about the recession already and even the likely date when it started.  Looking at the numbers gave the same answer as “looking out the window.”  Measures of employment had fallen sharply from February to March.  Real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and real personal income less transfers (which are numbers that the NBER Committee looks at) both peaked sharply in February as well.  Official measures of GDP only exist on a quarterly basis, but the economic freefall in late March was enough to pull first-quarter GDP growth down to an annual rate of -4.8 %  (relative to the last quarter of 2019). Why did the NBER wait until now to declare something that had already been so clear?