Even More Signs Of A Possible Reversal In The Wealth Effect

“If you build a bridge it has to reach the other side. So I think a bridge that relies on wealth effects, you better hope that you got enough growth to justify the asset price increase which created the wealth effect in the first place. So there is some sort of virtuous cycle that gets kicked off which becomes self-fulfilling over time. The alternative is you kick off the wealth effect now, but over time people realize the wealth ain’t coming and then you have an asset price adjustment.” –Raghuram Rajan, current head of the Reserve Bank of India and former chief economist at the IMF

There is no doubt the Fed achieved its goal of boosting the prices of risk assets over the past several years. Whether the Fed was able to create a, “virtuous cycle,” of growth that validates the gains in stocks is another question entirely. From the looks of equity values relative to their earnings, I’d have to say it now appears that, just a Rajan suggested, “the wealth ain’t coming.”

This is most evident in the recent fortunes of the most wealthy. CEO pay is falling at the fastest rate since the financial crisis. This is mainly because corporate earnings and profit margins are falling and the efforts of CEO’s and CFO’s aimed at engineering better financial results just aren’t enough to overcome these headwinds.

In addition to the public executive suite, it appears startup founders and their venture capitalist backers are feeling the heat from a broad shift in risk appetites.

This doesn’t just affect Silicon Valley. Startup hotbeds in places like Seattle, Austin and others are even feeling more pain right now than the Bay Area.

Still, Silicon Valley is the single largest startup market on the planet by far and the weakness there is already apparent in their real estate market.

It’s not just the ultra-high-end of that real estate market that’s feeling pressured. Real estate prices broadly declined in San Francisco last month.

On the other side of the country, the pressure on the wealthy is coming from troubles in investment banking. Like the troubles in VC, this is mainly due to a broad shift in risk appetites (mainly in the credit market’s unwillingness to fund deals).

It appears hedge fund managers are also feeling the pinch of waning risk appetites.

In a recent piece, I noted the weakness in market for real estate in the Hamptons as a direct result of this pressure on the wealth there. But it appears they may be selling their winter homes, too.

Beyond real estate, there’s a common theme now of weakening sales across virtually every luxury retailer, as well.  I recently wrote a bit about Sotheby’s issues. LVMH had a similarly rough first quarter.

…as did Burberry.

If the Fed’s theory regarding the wealth effect is correct the weakness at the very high-end that we are now seeing could be a very good leading economic indicator. And it might not take long to see this weakness, “trickle down.” In fact, it may already be apparent in auto sales. As a direct beneficiary of zero-percent interest rates, this has been a bright spot for the economy… until now.

Car makers now have so much inventory, both new and used, they are getting desperate to offload it.

Weakness in autos is also starting to show up in credit, which has underpinned the entire boom in the sector.

All in all it seems there is reason to worry about the consequences of the Fed-engineered wealth effect in recent years. If it is now unwinding, “an asset price adjustment,” as Rajan suggested, may now be looming.