A speculative bubble may be developing in financial markets at the same time the economy is cooling off, according to one economist.
Instead of nurturing business growth, falling interest rates in this country and Europe may be driving up global equity prices and the price of gold, according to Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell/C.J. Lawrence Inc., New York.
Some portfolio managers seem to feel the same way. Analysts believe the recent jump in bank stock prices reflects defensive positioning by money managers who are uncertain about the economy.
The liquidity-driven bull market in stocks - which paused for the "triple witching" option expirations period late last week - has complicated economic forecasts.
Customarily, the stock market telegraphs a business slowdown by selling off some months in advance. The absence of this signal has caused many economists to hedge about prospects for later this year.
Mr. Yardeni, in his latest portfolio strategy study, said he suspects the monetary policy of central banks in developed countries is not working quite as intended.
"In the United States, the Federal Reserve cut the federal funds rate by 75 basis points since last summer," the economist noted. "Yet the composite index of business activity compiled by the National Association of Purchasing Managers fell to a post-recession low of 44.2 during January.
"During the past 40 years, it fell below 45 only eight times, and on seven of those occasions, economic growth fell to zero or less," Mr. Yardeni said.
Financial assets look attractive these days in contrast to goods and services and real assets, whose returns have been hurt by falling rates of inflation.
As a result, money pours into financial markets. In December, $19 billion flowed into equity mutual funds, before reinvested dividends, compared to $5.4 billion a year earlier, he noted.
The result is too much money chasing too few financial assets, which could create speculative valuation levels vulnerable to a shock.
That would happen if low rates trigger a business rebound with inflation moving higher again, prompting higher rates. "This would snuff out the global stock and bond market rallies very quickly," the economist said.
At the moment, however, Mr. Yardeni sees powerful structural forces against inflation, and he thinks there is a significant prospect of a recession this year. A recession would have its own impact on markets, of course.
Even President Clinton, while seeking to stay upbeat about the nation's economy in an election year, has had to hedge his bets to accommodate the confusing business picture.
Last week, the White House released the 1996 Annual Economic Report of the President. It forecast continued growth in output but noted numerous possible snares.
The first, it said, is a "pothole" in the first quarter of this year due to combined effects of the East Coast blizzard and the partial shutdown of the federal government.
The report suggested that the markets have already discounted a 50- basis-point cut in the federal funds rate by July.
Factors buoying growth in coming months include investment in housing and business, lower interest rates, consumption spending, and the higher stock market.
The inflation rate, as measured by the consumer price index, is expected to increase to 3.1% in 1996 from 2.7% in 1995 as food and energy prices, which had held down the overall rate of price increases last year, are expected to rise in line with overall inflation.
The administration forecast a flat unemployment rate, averaging 5.7% in 1996 and through 2002.