The financial markets at the start of 2013 remind me of a giant game of Jenga, where players build a tower out of wooden blocks and then take turns pulling out blocks until the increasingly unstable structure eventually collapses. Today, the stock market is climbing towards new highs on a foundation of cheap money that is anything, but stable. Unfortunately, all that cheap money means investors have little choice, but to play this game. The term of the moment to explain the recent rally in the stock market is “moving out on the risk curve.” As central banks have embarked on a new round of money creation to purchase bonds and push yields down, investors are being driven into selling bonds and CDs to buy riskier stocks. Participating in the stock market rally has become one of the only viable options for investors to keep up with inflation, as central bankers try to force money to flow into more risky investments associated in their minds with driving economic growth. In the process the government is doing retirees no favors.
There has been a lot of worrying in financial markets over the past few months. In fact quite a long list of looming disasters has been assembled. Will destabilization in the Middle East, especially if unrest reaches Saudi Arabia, send oil prices skyrocketing and the global economy spiraling? Could this wave of unrest spread to China? Will the earthquake in Japan trigger a financial crisis in that country, as more debt is added to an already formidable mountain of debt? Is Bill Gross signaling a debt crisis in the U.S. is eminent, as he pilots the world’s largest bond fund out of U.S. Treasuries? Irrespective of the U.S. Treasury market is a wave of defaults on its way in the municipal bond market? And what about real estate—are we now on our way to a second bottom with prices headed for a 20 percent or greater decline?