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The Economic Message from Equity Markets

Summary:
Everyone – not just those who hold stocks – should be concerned about a major stock-market plunge. While it is impossible to predict such a plunge, or whether it will coincide with the next recession, it is now clear that last year's unusually low financial and economic volatility is over. CAMBRIDGE – The recent stock-market correction – the first in the United States in two years – has invited substantial commentary about what investors should do, the role machines have played, and the implications for the real economy. But only some of what has been said is useful. The Year Ahead 2018 The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define

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Everyone – not just those who hold stocks – should be concerned about a major stock-market plunge. While it is impossible to predict such a plunge, or whether it will coincide with the next recession, it is now clear that last year's unusually low financial and economic volatility is over.

CAMBRIDGE – The recent stock-market correction – the first in the United States in two years – has invited substantial commentary about what investors should do, the role machines have played, and the implications for the real economy. But only some of what has been said is useful.

Many investment advisers have emphasized the need to think long term, rather than panicking when prices fall. They are right: the decline in early February is not a good reason to sell. What is a good reason to sell is that stocks are too high from a longer-term perspective.

The fact is that prices are still very elevated relative to fundamentals. As the Nobel laureate Robert Shiller pointed out two weeks before the correction, the US cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio has been higher than it is now only twice in the last century: at the peaks that preceded the stock-market crashes of 1929 and 2000-2002. The implication is that the rate of return on stocks is likely to be substantially lower over the next 15 years than it was over the last 15 years.

Another popular response to the recent correction has been to complain that the market has been made more volatile, because trading is increasingly carried out by machines, rather than humans. True, if a computer is programmed to respond to declining prices by selling more stocks, it will exacerbate the decline. But the same is true of the commonly used stop-loss order, whereby investors instruct their stockbroker to sell if the price falls to a specified level.

While automated high-speed trading does not, in my view, serve a useful social purpose, it is destabilizing only if it is programmed to be. If programmed instantly to “buy on the dip,” a computer would generate demand for falling stocks and thus tend to stabilize prices, just like a human investor who buys when prices fall. Machine or human, what matters is the instruction. And, in fact, a person writing an algorithm – calmly, in advance – might make smarter choices than one who is watching prices plunge in real time.

Another key question raised by the recent correction is whether it matters for the real economy. The truth is that the stock market can crash while the economy is doing well, and vice versa.

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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