This brilliant KAL cartoon from the Economist used to be on many desks at UBS in the 1990s. I think it may well help explain the skittishness of the markets recently. The fact is that the economics data at the moment is rather ambiguous, and the market is filling the information gap by talking to itself.
Of course there is much that is pretty bleak: the US downgrade, the downward revision in growth across much of the developed world, the growing sense that the debt crisis is likely to require many years to finally get things under control.
On the other hand, stocks now look historically cheap on virtually very measure that one can think of. Although the price of gold continues to rise, and so- paradoxically given the downgrade- do US Treasuries: all of the safe havens are looking historically expensive, even as they keep powering upwards. Meanwhile risk assets languish: perhaps this rejection of risk is now overdone, and the strong of nerve can consider things from the big picture and the longer term.
To my eye, even the deepest recession looks pretty well priced in- and while there is still the risk of another secondary banking collapse- which is why everyone is so scared- such a risk is far from a certainty. I don't like banks and hate the controversial Kazakh stocks in the FTSE-100, so will not buy that index. In the UK I would love to buy the old FT-30 index (no banks and only blue chip), but no one seems to want to sell me that index, and it is too fiddly to recreate myself. So I will have to think about a more concentrated portfolio.
Technology may allow people to trade from their smart phones, but it seems to me that whatever the quick trading models now suggest, the question is not one of volatility but of value. Taking a step back and doing calculations with a pencil suggests to me that the stock markets are now quite an attractive investment: many blue chips have high and sustainable dividend yields, and are priced at levels of less than a third of their real-terms peak. Of course nothing is certain, and I make no firm predictions, but I am now, for the first time in four years, beginning to think about starting to reduce my very high cash position and to move into the markets again.