Our financial system is nothing short of absurd.
We have a global marketplace, where millions of people trade countless different products, both real and financial. As a British investor, you can buy exposure to virtually any economy in the world, and any asset class you like.
An almost infinite number of variables are acting on this system at any given time. Everything from the weather in Bangkok to the mood swings of European finance ministers has an effect on it.
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And yet, more than anything else, the price movements across this whole elegant network are dependent on one thing: the mutterings of a small group of men in a room in Washington DC.
So much for free markets
The Fed and Spain spook the market
Wondering why the wind has dropped out of the markets' sails in recent days? It's mainly down to the Federal Reserve.
On Tuesday evening, minutes from the Fed's latest meeting on monetary policy (the equivalent of our own Bank of England minutes) came out. In short, the Fed looks less likely to print more money than investors had expected. On the news, the US dollar shot up, gold slid, and stocks took a knock too.
Even the normally dovish' San Francisco Fed president John Williams noted that "the downside risks to the US economy have lessened", and that "the arguments for doing another dose of monetary stimulus aren't nearly as strong" as they were for the early bursts of quantitative easing (QE).
Obviously, the news that the real economy might be improving panicked investors. If that's true, then they won't get any more free money to punt in stock markets.
Things weren't helped yesterday, when an auction of Spanish government debt also had trouble getting away. This was doubly painful, because the Spanish government has committed to some pretty severe austerity measures. Whether you believe the country can do it or not, it's at least making an effort.
What's really worrying is that, as Justin Knight of UBS tells the FT, "the international investors who have left the Spanish bond market will probably not come back". That suggests that the poor appetite for the bonds means that Spanish banks the main buyers these days might be "running out of LTRO money and therefore stop buying as well", which would be "serious news for the market".
Are central banks really going to pull the plug?
What does all this mean for your money? Let's deal with the Fed first. We've pointed out in MoneyWeek magazine on a number of occasions that QE3 might not be quite as readily available as investors had expected.
There are a number of reasons for this. One of Ben Bernanke's stated main goals has been to drive up stock prices, and so make consumers feel wealthier. Given the first quarter rally, he's certainly achieved this for now.
QE is also politically questionable. We're in the run-up to a US presidential election. It's quite tricky for the Fed to take any steps to boost the economy that aren't easily justifiable. They'll get accused of favouritism otherwise.
So what it comes down to is that QE3 is off the table until stocks tank again. That's pretty simple.
So what could make stocks tank again?
It strikes me that two things have underpinned the recent optimism in the markets. Firstly, the signs of a nascent recovery in the US. It's still the world's biggest and most important economy. If the good news can continue (the non-farm payrolls data on Good Friday will be particularly important), then that might outweigh the absence of QE3.
But there's a second issue. Everyone has effectively assumed Europe away into the background. The base case is that there'll be a recession there, but that there won't be a systemic collapse, because the European Central Bank (ECB) will do what it takes to support the eurozone's banks and sovereign governments.
I don't necessarily think this is wrong. However, I do think the market is underestimating the amount of pain it'll take to get to that point. And that brings us back to Spain.
The ECB is walking a much finer line than even the Fed. Mario Draghi is a more pragmatic man than his predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet seemed to be. But even Draghi can't ignore the Germans.
Currently, European monetary policy is too loose for them. German unions are getting more aggressive with their pay demands. There's even talk of a housing bubble. But if Draghi indulges Germany, then he throws Spain (not to mention the rest of the eurozone) to the wolves.
An ugly tug of war between Germany and the rest of the eurozone would rattle markets again. And if the ECB doesn't step in to print money quickly enough, there's every reason to think that Ben Bernanke and his friends might be forced to instead.
What can you do?
So in short, I don't think the money printing is over yet. But there may well be another plunge in the markets before we get another dose.
That said, second-guessing the actions of central bankers isn't the way to build a portfolio. You need to be aware of these risks and account for them, but I wouldn't sell everything you own and race back into cash.
I am happy to keep holding gold. I do however want to repeat, once again, that gold should be part of a wider portfolio. You shouldn't have 100% of your portfolio in any single asset, and gold is no exception. Gold is your portfolio insurance. It's there for when things are bad. When things are good, gold won't do well but the rest of your portfolio will more than compensate for that.
It's up to you of course, how you plan your asset allocation. For my part, I wouldn't hold any more than 10% of my portfolio in gold. You might see things differently, but certainly if your exposure is upwards of 20%, I'd suggest you review your portfolio and consider if that's really how you want to position yourself.
Other areas we like include Japan of course which you can read more on here: Why Japanese stocks are set to soar. It's also worth having exposure to the US. In this week's issue of MoneyWeek magazine, James Ferguson looks at the nascent recovery in the US housing market, and we pick out some stocks that look set to profit from it. If you're not already a subscriber, you can subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.
This article is taken from the free investment email Money Morning. Sign up to Money Morning here .
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John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.
He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.
His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.
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