There are two wonderful sayings that should be heeded when investors talk about asset bubbles. The first is ‘when all the experts agree, something else is going to happen’. The second is ‘investors buy most at the top and the least at the bottom’.
As the talk of QE reached fever pitch during the last month, companies in Asia have been quietly and steadily issuing new shares or listing their companies on stock markets, encouraged by international money managers scrambling to get in. There are good reasons to expect the next six months to be very different from what investors are currently discounting.
The single biggest variable that investors and authorities have not concerned themselves with is inflation, or rising prices for commodities, goods and services. Asset inflation has come early but the real thing is just arriving.
The chorus of warnings emanating from regional central banks concerning hot money inflows have been largely ignored. The danger for equity investors is that central banks end up using wider-based arbitrary price controls to stem inflation pressures.
Investors may find that much more unorthodox rules are adopted than typical monetary policy, and that these infringe on the ability of companies to raise prices or for foreigners to own particularly sectors or commodities. Price controls may be coming back.
The rising cost of labour, raw materials and rent suggest that company margins have peaked in this cycle and that any incremental growth produces diminishing returns. This is a very good signal for investors to demand much lower multiples than they were at the beginning of the cycle.
Asset Inflation may try to lift share prices, but the real inflation will cut earnings. The price-earnings multiple widely used by investors to gauge value is highlighting quite stretched investor sentiment.