Which way now – FTSE, Gilts, Sterling and the EU referendum?

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Macro Letter – No 39 – 03-07-2015

Which way now – FTSE, Gilts, Sterling and the EU referendum?

  • Uncertainty is bad for business and the UK will struggle ahead of the referendum
  • Gilt yields have been around 150bps higher than Bunds over the last 25yrs
  • The DAX has substantially outperformed FTSE over the same period
  • Higher productivity is key to UK growth but, in the long run, demographics will help

Last week the UK Prime Minister began to debate EU treaty reform with his European counterparts. He has a long way to go. The deadline for a UK referendum on EU membership is the end of 2017 but an up-hill battle is likely because all EU countries must ratify treaty changes – the referendum will come before EU treaty changes have been agreed. In this letter I will review the history of UKs, uncomfortable, membership of the EU and previous renegotiations, compared with today’s proposals. I will then go on to consider the implications for Sterling, Gilts and UK Stocks should the UK decide to stay or go.

A brief history of the UK and the EU

The last time the UK voted on EU, or as it was then called, European Economic Community (EEC) membership, was in 1975. At that time the “yes” vote won by 67.5%. This took place only two years after first joining, previous attempts to join in 1961 and 1967 having been vetoed by French President de Gaulle.

British scepticism about the political ambitions of the Schuman declaration of May 1950 meant the UK failed to join the European Coal and Steel Community – established at the Treaty of Paris in 1951 – but spent much of the decade debating EEC membership. When the EEC was finally established in 1958, the UK opted out for two principal reasons: concern about its relationship with the Commonwealth and other international alliances, and its preference for free-trade over economic organisation and sectoral policies. At that time the UK was torn between two foreign policy strategies, one focused on the European Free Trade Area, the other on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades – the predecessor to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The 1974 treaty renegotiation, just a year after joining the EEC, was driven by three factors: free-trade versus political integration, the effects of the collapse of Bretton Woods and subsequent inflation on the UK economy – Sterling had been considered a quasi-reserve currency up to this point – and the size of UK contributions to the EEC budget which the UK government considered to be excessive.

The table below lists the 1974 UK government demands for renegotiation and the outcomes:-

DEMAND OUTCOME
Changes to CAP so as not to undermine free-trade None
Fairer financing of EEC budget Correcting mechanism
Withdrawal of UK from EMU Accepted
Retention of UK powers over regional, industrial and fiscal policy Creation of Regional Development fund supported by Ireland and Italy
Agreement on capital movement to protect UK jobs and balance of payments None
No harmonisation of VAT Never planned anyway
Access to Commonwealth goods Minor concessions

The next major test of the UK relationship with the EU came during Margaret Thatcher’s first Conservative government (1979-1983) although an agreement with the EEC was not reached until her second term in 1984. On this occasion the issue was simply a question of how much the UK was paying in to the EU budget given that 80% of that budget was then spent on maintaining the Common Agricultural policy (CAP). The UK “rebate” was sanctioned because at that time the UK was the second poorest of the ten member EEC.

UK demands for treaty change 2015

The current UK renegotiation of EU membership is concerned with the following issues:-

Restrictions to freedom of movement within the EU
Sovereignty of Sterling
Structural reform of the EU bureaucracy
Reclaiming of powers from Brussels to protect UK interests

On the latter point, this takes two principal forms: the ability to block EU legislation where it may be detrimental to UK interests and the ending of a commitment to “ever closer union” in respect of UK membership.

The Sovereignty of Sterling is a relatively uncontentious issue, whilst structural reform of the EU bureaucracy is an ideal to which all European governments will accede, at least in principal; the problems arise over restrictions on free-movement of people – enshrined in Article 48 of the Treaty of Rome:-

1.Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Community by the end of the transitional period at the latest. 2. Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment. 3. It shall entail the right, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health: (a) to accept offers of employment actually made; (b) to move freely within the territory of Member States for this purpose; (c) to stay in a Member State for the purpose of employment in accordance with the provisions governing the employment of nationals of that State laid down by law, regulation or administrative action; (d) to remain in the territory of a Member State after having been employed in that State, subject to conditions which shall be embodied in implementing regulations to be drawn up by the Commission. 4. The provisions of this Article shall not apply to employment in the public service.

This leaves, the reclaiming of powers from Brussels. “Ever closer union” is probably negotiable since EU member states have always moved at different rates, both economically and culturally. Allowing the UK to pick and choose which aspects of EU legislation it accepts, however, is like joining an exclusive club and then ignoring the rules. Under normal circumstances you’d be asked to leave.

One of the associated problems for the EU – that of, when to stop expanding – is discussed in this essay by Tim Price – Let’s Stick Together. He reviews the work of Leopold Kohr, in particular his seminal work “The Breakdown of Nations”:-

It all comes down to scale. As Kirkpatrick Sale puts it in his foreword to ‘The Breakdown of Nations’,

“What matters in the affairs of a nation, just as in the affairs of a building, say, is the size of the unit. A building is too big when it can no longer provide its dwellers with the services they expect – running water, waste disposal, heat, electricity, elevators and the like – without these taking up so much room that there is not enough left over for living space, a phenomenon that actually begins to happen in a building over about ninety or a hundred floors. A nation becomes too big when it can no longer provide its citizens with the services they expect – defence, roads, post, health, coins, courts and the like – without amassing such complex institutions and bureaucracies that they actually end up preventing the very ends they are intending to achieve, a phenomenon that is now commonplace in the modern industrialized world. It is not the character of the building or the nation that matters, nor is it the virtue of the agents or leaders that matters, but rather the size of the unit: even saints asked to administer a building of 400 floors or a nation of 200 million people would find the job impossible.”

Kohr showed that there are unavoidable limits to the growth of societies:

“..social problems have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric ratio with the growth of an organism of which they are a part, while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio.”

In the real world, there are finite limits beyond which it does not make sense to grow. Kohr argued that only small states can have true democracies, because only in small states can the citizen have some direct influence over the governing authorities.

What’s in it for the UK

In the interests of levity I’ve included a link to this summation of UK foreign policy with regard to Europe from the satirical TV programme Yes, Minister – this episode was first aired in 1980.

In the intervening 35 years, trying to decipher what is best for the UK has not become any easier. I’ve chosen just two organisations to represent the views for and against EU membership: Business for New Europe and Better off Out. Here’s how Business for New Europe make the case for staying in:-

As a member of the European Union, our companies can sell, without barriers, to a market of 500 million people. The Single Market means that exporters only need to abide by one set of European regulations, instead of 28 national ones. Europe is our biggest trading partner- it buys 45% of our exports. If we left the EU, companies would face tariffs and regulatory barriers to trade.

The free movement of capital means that EU companies can invest here in Britain freely. This investment, by companies like Siemens, creates jobs and grows our economy. 46% of all the foreign investment in Britain came from EU countries.

The EU provides funding for businesses to all regions of Britain, particularly those with the greatest need. From 2014 until 2020, £8 billion of EU money will go from Brussels to the UK. The biggest winners from this process are Cornwall, Wales, the Scottish Highlands, Northern Ireland and the North of England.

EU research funding helps universities and firms innovate to create the technologies of the future. Britain will receive £7 billion from the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund, and our small businesses receive more funding for hi-tech research than those of any other EU country. EU membership is vital to rebalancing the British economy.  

Better off Out – sponsored by the Freedom Association – counter thus:-

10 Reasons to Leave

1.Freedom to make stronger trade deals with other nations. 2. Freedom to spend UK resources presently through EU membership in the UK to the advantage of our citizens. 3. Freedom to control our national borders. 4. Freedom to restore Britain’s special legal system. 5. Freedom to deregulate the EU’s costly mass of laws. 6. Freedom to make major savings for British consumers. 7. Freedom to improve the British economy and generate more jobs. 8. Freedom to regenerate Britain’s fisheries. 9. Freedom to save the NHS from EU threats to undermine it by harmonising healthcare across the EU, and to reduce welfare payments to non-UK EU citizens. 10. Freedom to restore British customs and traditions.

They go on to highlight 10 Myths about the risk of leaving – not all are economic so I’ve paraphrased their opinions below;-

Britain would lose 3mln jobs if we left the EU – Under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty the UK would enter into an FTA with the EU. The WTO obliges them to do so too. Of more importance the UK trade balance will the EU is in increasing deficit – the other member states have more to lose.

Britain will be excluded from trade with the EU by Tariff Barriers – EU has FTAs with 53 countries with a further 74 countries pending. In 2009 UK charged customs duty of just 1.76% on non-EU imports. The EU Common Market is basically redundant already.

Britain cannot survive economically outside the EU in a world of trading blocs – Japan does and it’s not a member. The EU’s share of world GDP is forecast to be 15% in 2020, down from 26% in 1980. Norway and Switzerland export more, per capita, to the EU than the UK does. Britain’s best trading relationships are with the USA and Switzerland. The largest investor in the UK is US.

The EU is moving towards the UK’s position on cutting regulation and bureaucracy – EU directives are subject to a ‘rachet’ effect – once in place they are unlikely to be reformed or repealed. 80% of the UK’s GDP is generated within the UK so should not be subject to EU laws. In 2010, Open Europe estimated EU regulation had cost Britain £124 billion since 1998.

If we leave, Britain will have to pay billions to the EU and implement all its regulations without having a say – The UK has 8.4% of votes. The Lisbon Treaty ensured the loss of Britain’s veto in many more policy areas.

Swiss Case Study: The Swiss pay the EU less than CHF600mln a year for access to the EU market. They estimate the cost of full membership would be CHF3.4bln.

Norway Case Study: In 2009 Norway’s total financial contributions to the EEA (European Economic Area) agreement was Eur340mln Britain pays £18.4bln per annum.

The EU has a positive impact on the British Economy – Fishing (115,000 jobs lost) farming, postal services and manufacturing have been devastated by EU membership. Unnecessary red tape, aid contributions, inflated consumer prices (due to CAP etc.) are indirect costs.

Britain will lose vital foreign investment as a consequence of leaving the EU – The 2010 Ernst and Young survey on UK’s attractiveness to foreign investors, found Britain still the number one Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destination in Europe owing largely to the City of London and the UK’s close corporate relationship with the US. Key factors, in order of importance:-

Culture and values, English language, Telecommunications infrastructure, Quality of life, Stable social environment, Transport and logistics infrastructure.

Britain will lose all influence in the world by being outside the EU – Britain has a substantial ‘portfolio of power’ including membership of the G20 and G8, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and seats on the IMF and WTO. The British Commonwealth has 54 nations which is being discriminated against by EU policy. London is the financial capital of the world and Britain has the sixth largest economy. The UK is also in the top ten manufacturing nations in the world.

Legally, Britain cannot leave the EU – A single clause Bill passed at Westminster can repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and its attendant Amendment Acts.

Having dealt with the main arguments for remaining in the EU, Better off Out do point out that creating an FTA with the EU may take time.

Greenland established a precedent when it left the EEC in 1985, this followed a referendum in 1982 and the signing of the Greenland Treaty in 1984. It had joined, as part of Denmark in 1973 but after it had achieved home rule in 1979 the importance of its fishing industry became a major economic incentive for it to leave the forerunner to the EU.

Greece may leave as early as next week and, as this March 2015 article from ECFR – The British problem and what it means for Europe makes clear, a Brexit will not be good for the EU either:-

An EU without Britain would be smaller, poorer, and less influential on the world stage. The UK makes up nearly 12.5 percent of the EU’s population, 14.8 percent of its economy, and 19.4 percent of its exports (excluding intra-EU trade). Furthermore, it runs a trade deficit of £28 billion, is home to around two million other EU citizens, and remains one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget (responsible for 12 percent of the budget in total).

Meanwhile the Confederation of British Industry claim that being a member of the EU is worth £3,000 per household whilst Business for Britain estimate that the UK would save £933 per person from cheaper food if they left. In a report last week S&P chimed in, saying 30% of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the UK – representing 17% of GDP – was directed to financial services and insurance. 50% of this FDI emanated from other EU countries – this could be at risk if the UK should leave. So the debate rumbles on.

How is the UK economy evolving?

UK manufacturing has been in decline since the start of the millennium, whilst this decline was initially a reaction to the strength of Sterling it has yet to benefit from the subsequent weakness of the currency:-

UK_Effective_Exchange_Rate_and_Manufacturing

Source: ERC, IMF, UN

Total factor productivity is near the heart of this conundrum:-

UK_TFP_vs_G7

Source: ERC, ONS

The UK is lying 6th out of the G7 in terms of output per hours worked, and since 2007, has underperformed the G7 average. The dotted line shows where productivity would have been had the recession not hit. The UK had been lagging its peers during the 1990’s so the predicted outperformance would merely have brought it back into the fold.

In a speech given last week the BoE’s Sir John Cunliffe – Pay and productivity: the next phase made a number of observations about the future:-

Between 2000 and 2007, the average worker in the UK automotive manufacturing industry produced 7.7 vehicles a year. Over the past seven years he/she averaged 9.8 vehicles a year. Productivity – output per worker – in car manufacturing has increased by 30% since the onset of the great financial crisis. Britain has become the fourth-biggest vehicle maker in the EU and is more efficient than bigger producers such as Germany and France.

Unfortunately productivity in the UK has not followed the lead of the car industry. Indeed, the opposite is true. In 2014 labour productivity in the UK was actually slightly lower than its 2007 level. In the seven years between 2000 and 2007 labour productivity grew at an average annual rate of about 2% a year. In the seven years that followed, our annual productivity growth averaged just below zero.

Or to look at it another way, the level of labour productivity – output per hour worked – in the UK economy is now 15% below where it would have been if pre-crisis trends had continued.

…It is true that the average output per hour of the rest of the G7 advanced economies is only around 5% above its pre-crisis level. But as I have noted, in the UK it has not even recovered to that level. And in 2013 output per hour in the UK was 17 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 – the widest gap since 1992.

In the 10 years prior to the crisis, growth in the hours worked in the UK economy, accounted for 23% of the UK’s overall economic growth. The mainstay of our economic growth, the other 77%, came from growth in productivity. Since 2013 only 9% of our annual economic growth has come from productivity improvement. The remaining 91% has come from the increase in the total hours worked.

As a result, employment in the UK is now around its highest rate since comparable records began in 1971. Over 73% of people aged 16-64 are working. There are now over 31 million people in work in the UK.   Unemployment has fallen at among its fastest rate for 40 years and is now very close to its pre-crisis level – over the past two years over 1 million jobs have been created.

Productivity growth can be divided into two sorts of change: the change in productivity inside individual firms and the changes between firms. The first, the changes within firms, happens as firms increase their efficiency. The second happens as labour and capital are reallocated between firms, from the less productive ones to the more productive.

After collapsing in the crisis, productivity began to increase again within firms two years ago. We expect that to continue. As the economy grows, spare capacity is used up. The real cost of labour increases relative to the cost of investment. Firms have a greater incentive to find efficiency gains and to switch away from more labour-intensive forms of production. This should boost productivity.

In contrast, productivity growth due to the reallocation of resources in the economy remains weak. We can see this in the divergence of rates of returns across firms which remain remarkably and unusually high and the change in capital across sectors which has been particularly low. When the reallocation mechanism is working, the transfer of capital and labour from the less productive to the more productive pulls up the level of productivity in the economy and reduces the divergence between firms. The high degree of divergence between firms at present implies that this reallocation mechanism is working significantly less powerfully now than before the crisis. This can also be seen in the proportion of loss-making firms which stands at around 20% higher than its long-run average. Company liquidations also remain low. So there is still more than a hint of ‘zombiness’ in the corporate sector.

For more on productivity issue this working paper BoE – The UK productivity puzzle 2008–13: evidence from British businesses is full of interesting insights.

The UK service sector continues to grow, although its share of exports to the EU remains smaller than that of goods – 37% vs 49%. Services exports to the rest of the world are the driver of UK export growth.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Sterling

In search of a surrogate for the uncertainty surrounding the UK referendum, the chart below shows the impact on Sterling of the sudden realization that the Scottish might vote to leave the Union in 2014:-

GBP_vs_USD_and_EUR_-_Scottish_Vote_2014

Source: Oanda and ERC

Should the population of the UK vote to forsake the EU, the relative stability of the GBPEUR exchange rate is likely to become structurally more volatile, the move against the USD from 1.72 to 1.61 is but a foretaste of what we should anticipate. However, the 40% appreciation in the UK effective exchange rate between 1995 and 2000 – see the earlier chart above – and reversal between 2000 and 2009, suggests that membership of the EU has not led to the stability in exchange rates one might have expected.

Between the breakdown of Bretton Woods in March 1973 and the establishment of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) In March 1979 (which the UK chose not to join until October 1990) was a period of intense currency volatility – exacerbated by significant interest rate differentials. During this period the GBP effective exchange rate actually moved less than it has since 2000. Nonetheless, higher daily volatility will impose a modicum of additional cost on UK businesses. This 2004 paper from the FRBSF – Measuring the Costs of Exchange Rate Volatility looks at the subject in more detail:-

The main quantitative finding is that the welfare effects of exchange rate volatility are likely to be very small for many countries. When numbers are chosen to permit the model to reproduce basic characteristics of the U.S. economy, the model indicates that the loss of utility is equal in size to only about 0.1% of annual consumption; that is, people would be willing to exchange only about 0.1% of their annual consumption level to eliminate the exchange rate volatility in the economy.

Gilts

The UK has exhibited structurally higher inflation than much of the Eurozone (EZ) since the collapse of Bretton Woods. That, combined with the relative asynchronicity of the UK and German economic cycles, made it difficult for the UK to operate inside the ERM – it lasted less than two years, from October 1990 to September 1992. The chart below shows German and UK 10yr Government bond yields during this period, Bunds, with lower yields, on the right hand scale:-

united-kingdom-and german government-bond-yield 1990 - 1992

Source: Trading Economics

Germany was struggling during this period and the Hartz labour market reforms occurred shortly thereafter.

germany-UK-government-bond-yield 1990 - 2015

Source: Trading Economics

As the chart above shows UK Gilts have traded at a higher yield than German Bunds for most of last 25 years. I think it would be reasonable to assume Gilt yields, had the UK remained in the ERM and joined the Euro, would have been between those of Germany and France during this period. In other words, the cost of UK government financing has been around 150bp higher than it might have achieved had it joined the EZ.

UK inflation over the same period has been significantly higher than Germany’s, in real-terms Bunds have offered vastly superior returns. This differential may also be due to the UK government running a substantially larger budget deficit during the period. I regret the data in the chart below only goes back to 1996. The UK balance is shown on the right hand scale:-

germany-UK government-budget 1996-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Stocks

The chart below shows the relative performance of the FTSE100 vs Germany’s DAX40 since 1990. The German market (right hand scale) has increased from 2,000 to 12,000 whilst the UK market has risen from 2,000 to 7,000. Germany has been the clear winner of this race:-

united-kingdom-German stock-market 1990-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Would the UK stock market have fared better inside the EZ and would the UK departure from the EU be detrimental or positive to stock performance going forward? Here is the 1990-2015 comparison between FTSE100 and the French CAC40 index:-

united-kingdom-france stock-market

Source: Trading Economics

Germany appears to be something of an exception, France, Italy and the Netherlands have underperformed the UK during the same period: although Spain has delivered German-like returns. It is worth mentioning that Germany has run a balance of trade surplus for the entire period 1990 – 2015 whilst, excepting a brief period between 1991 and 1997, the UK has run a continuous trade deficit.

I don’t believe UK membership of the EU has much influence over the value of UK stocks in aggregate. Certain companies benefit from access to Europe, others are disadvantaged.

Unless the UK joins the EZ, currency fluctuations will continue whether they stay or go. Gilt yields will continue to reflect inflation expectations and estimates of credit worthiness; being outside the EU might impose greater fiscal discipline on subsequent UK governments – in this respect the benefits of EU membership seem minimal. The UK stock market will remain diverse and the success of UK stocks will be dependent on their individual businesses and the degree to which the regulatory environment is benign. The chart below shows UK GDP by sector since 2008. Services stand out both in terms of their resilience to the effects of the recession and continued growth in its aftermath, it is now 8.5% higher than before the recession, all the remaining sectors languish below their 2008 levels. Improving total factor productivity is key:-

UK_GDP_by_sector_ECR_ONS

Source: ERC and ONS

Ahead of the referendum, uncertainty will lead to weakness in Sterling, higher Gilt yields and relative underperformance of UK stocks. If the UK electorate decide to remain in the EU there will be a relief rally before long-term trends resume. If the UK leaves the EU, Sterling will fall, inflation will rise, Gilt yields will rise in response and the FTSE will decline. GDP growth will slow somewhat, until an export led recovery kicks in as a result of the lower value of Sterling. The real cost to the UK is in policy uncertainty.

Longer term the demographic divergence between the UK and other countries of Europe will become evident. By 2060 the working age population of the UK is projected to increase from 37.8mln (2013) to 41.8mln whilst in Germany the same population will decline from 49.7mln to 35.4mln. The EC – Ageing Report 2015 – has more details. The UK can benefit from staying in the EU and continuously negotiating. However, it must become much more involved in the future of the EU project, including “ever closer union”. It can also benefit from “Brexit”, directly flattering the government’s bottom line. The worst of both worlds is to remain, as the UK has since 1950, sitting on the fence –decisiveness is good for financial markets and the wider economy.

US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment?

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Macro Letter – No 38 – 19-06-2015

US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment?

  • Last year’s oil price falls are still feeding through to the wider economy
  • Oil producing states have remained resilient despite the continued lower price of WTI
  • The wider economy has rebounded after the slowdown in Q1
  • Stock earnings growth is regaining upward momentum

At the end of last year I became cautious about the prospects for the US stock market. The principal concern was the effect a sustained decline in the price of oil was likely to have on the prospects for employment and economic growth.

The Texan Experience

Oil rich Texas represents a microcosm of the effect lower energy prices may be having on employment and growth. This article from December 2014 by Mauldin Economics – Oil, Employment, and Growth – neatly sums up my concerns at the end of last year:-

…we need to research in depth as we try to peer into the future and think about how 2015 will unfold. In forecasting US growth, I wrote that we really need to understand the relationships between the boom in energy production on the one hand and employment and overall growth in the US on the other. The old saw that falling oil prices are like a tax cut and are thus a net benefit to the US economy and consumers is not altogether clear to me. I certainly hope the net effect will be positive, but hope is not a realistic basis for a forecast. Let’s go back to two paragraphs I wrote last week:

Texas has been home to 40% of all new jobs created since June 2009. In 2013, the city of Houston had more housing starts than all of California. Much, though not all, of that growth is due directly to oil. Estimates are that 35–40% of total capital expenditure growth is related to energy. But it’s no secret that not only will energy-related capital expenditures not grow next year, they are likely to drop significantly. The news is full of stories about companies slashing their production budgets. This means lower employment, with all of the knock-on effects.

As we will see, energy production has been the main driver of growth in the US economy for the last five years. But changing demographics suggest that we might not need the job-creation machine of energy production as much in the future to ensure overall employment growth.

…The oil-rig count is already dropping, and it will continue to drop as long as oil stays below $60. That said, however, there is the real possibility that oil production in the United States will actually rise in 2015 because of projects already in the works. If you have already spent (or committed to spend) 30 or 40% of the cost of a well, you’re probably going to go ahead and finish that well. There’s enough work in the pipeline (pardon the pun) that drilling and production are not going to fall off a cliff next quarter. But by the close of 2015 we will see a significant reduction in drilling.

Given present supply and demand characteristics, oil in the $40 range is entirely plausible. It may not stay down there for all that long (in the grand scheme of things), but it will reduce the likelihood that loans of the nature and size that were extended the last few years will be made in the future. Which is entirely the purpose of the Saudis’ refusing to reduce their own production. A side benefit to them (and the rest of the world) is that they also hurt Russia and Iran.

Employment associated with energy production is going to fall over the course of next year. It’s not all bad news, though. Employment that benefits from lower energy prices is likely to remain stable or even rise. Think chemical companies that use natural gas as an input as an example.

I am, however, at a loss to think of what could replace the jobs and GDP growth that the energy complex has recently created. Certainly, reduced production is going to impact capital expenditures. This all leads one to begin thinking about a much softer economy in the US in 2015.

Last month’s employment report suggests we may have avoided the downturn from cheaper oil, but uncertainty remains. Earlier this month the Dallas Fed – Robust Regional Banking Sector Faces New Economic Hurdles whilst focusing on the health of the banking sector, worried that the effect of lower oil prices, combined with higher interest rates, may yet wreak havoc in the Eleventh District. Here are some of the highlights:-

Not only have district banks achieved greater profitability than their counterparts nationwide, but their loan portfolios also have grown twice as fast. District banks returned to lending sooner than banks in the rest of the country and experienced more rapid loan growth due to the region’s economic strength.

…Possibly reflecting banks’ quest for yield in a low-interest-rate environment, the so-called three-year asset/ liability gap has been growing, particularly for district banks. This measure subtracts liabilities with maturities greater than three years (certificates of deposit, for example) from loans and securities with maturities greater than three years and divides the difference by total assets. A bigger gap means that banks would be hurt by rising interest rates because their assets are tied up for a longer time relative to their liabilities. Consequently, when interest rates rise, banks’ funding costs could rise while interest income remains stagnant, squeezing profitability.

…The other big concern is potential fallout from recent dramatic oil and gas price declines, which affects Texas banks in particular. In July 2014, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) spot price exceeded $105 a barrel; by March, it had tumbled to below $50 before bouncing back to near $60 at the start of May. The size and rapidity of the decline raised concerns about the impact on the Texas economy and Texas banks, especially given the experiences of the energy and financial collapses of the 1980s. While the state’s economy has become more diverse and thus less reliant on the oil and gas industry, the price drop has still negatively affected the Texas economy and labor market. Some pockets of the state remain heavily dependent on the energy sector, making local industries vulnerable to spillover effects. And because of community banks’ close ties to the areas they serve, they are more exposed than large banks.

…One measure of potential distress is the so-called Texas ratio, the book value of an institution’s nonperforming assets as a percent of its tangible equity capital and its loan-loss reserves. Essentially, the Texas ratio compares an institution’s bad assets to its available capital. A Texas ratio above 1 (expressed as 100 percent) indicates that probable and potential losses exceed an institution’s immediate loss-absorbing cushion, putting it at greater risk of bankruptcy. There have been two instances of dramatic oil price declines since 1980; one gives rise to concern and the other to hope.

Between June 1980 and September 1986, the WTI price declined 74 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Roughly 20 percent of all Texas institutions had a Texas ratio greater than 100 percent by year-end 1988. A staggering 706 Texas banks and thrifts failed—including nine of the 10 largest banking institutions—between September 1986 and year-end 1990.9

A more recent oil price decline, in the second half of 2008 and early 2009, was also dramatic, but in a different way. Over a nine-month period beginning in June 2008, the price fell more than 71 percent. Yet less than 1 percent of Texas banks had a Texas ratio exceeding 100 percent and only seven failed in 2008–09. The slight pickup in bank troubles in 2010 is likely attributable to generally difficult financial and economic conditions that year.

From June 2014 through March 2015, the price of WTI fell 58 percent. Nevertheless, not one Texas bank had a Texas ratio greater than 100 percent as of the first quarter and only one bank had failed as of March.

The bottom line: The persistence of low oil prices seems to matter more for banks than the magnitude of falling prices. A precipitous, but short-lived, decline is likely to have only a minor impact on the banking industry. Even a longer-term decline similar to that seen in the 1980s is unlikely to provoke the same scope of disruption now as it did then.

…Mitigating factors also make Texas banks better able to weather falling oil prices. Memories of the 1980s crisis linger, and the 2008–09 financial crisis is also fresh in the minds of bankers and regulators. Apart from regulatory changes, Texas bankers manage their risks more prudently, using better risk diversification. The Shared National Credit (SNC) program is one example. Generally, large loans are held by multiple institutions through the SNC program, allowing individual institutions to spread the risk of large credit exposures. While the SNC program has been around since 1977, it has grown in importance and coverage. SNC industry trends by sector show that commodities credits, including those tied to the oil and gas industry, increased from $395 billion in 2002 to $798 billion in 2014. Regulatory filings and investor conference calls suggest that energy exposure at the larger banks in Texas is now predominantly through these shared credits.

…The low-interest-rate environment and a flat yield curve with relatively little difference in interest rates across various maturities have pressured bank earnings over the past five years. Banks have responded by extending their maturity profile in an attempt to generate more robust returns. As interest rates normalize, regulators will need to monitor banks’ ability to restructure their maturity profiles and adapt to the new environment.

The impact of recent oil price declines on banks also bears watching, particularly in Texas. While banks appear to be managing their energy exposure well—and a relatively short spell of low energy prices is not expected to have a severe, adverse effect on local banks—the importance of energy in certain regions points to the possibility of relatively large localized disruptions. The banking system has navigated a post crisis path to recovery. Conditions have improved markedly, but the industry must remain vigilant to potential risks to its financial health and stability.

According to the Dallas Fed – Texas Economic Indicatorspublished on 4th June, the region is showing mixed performance:-

Region Employment Growth
Austin 7.70%
Dallas 2.20%
El Paso 3.30%
Houston 0%
San Antonio -0.50%
Southern New Mexico -0.90%

Source: Dallas Federal Reserve

For the state as a whole, April employment was 1% higher versus the US +1.9%. The largest fall was seen in Oil and Gas Extraction (-14.4%) followed by Manufacturing (-4%) and Construction (-2.6%). Leisure and Hospitality led employment increases (5.3%) Information (4.6%) Education and Health (2.6%) and Trade, Transportation and Utilities (2.3%).

The importance of Oil and Gas to Texas, from an employment perspective, is small– only 2.5% of the workforce – but the sector’s impact on the rest of the region’s economy is much greater. Many ancillary sectors, including manufacturing, banking and finance rely on energy. The most encouraging aspect of the data above is the 2.3% increase in Trades, Transportation and Utilities. As an employer this sector amounts to 20.2% of the total. For this sector, lower energy prices are like the tax cut John Mauldin alluded back in December.

The Energy Complex and US growth

The recent energy technology boom has increased the oil and gas sector’s importance – please revisit Manhattan Institute – New Technology for Old Fuels – my personal favourite essay on this subject. The share of oil and gas in total employment peaked in the early 1980s at 0.8% it’s now back to 0.5%. Its share of GDP followed a similar path, falling from 4% in the 1980’s to less than 1% at the start of the millennium; it’s now back around 2%. Energy self-sufficiency remains elusive – the US is still a net oil importer and therefore benefits from lower oil prices. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a $700 per household saving from the decline in gasoline prices in 2015. This should also spur an increase in capital investment. The traditional estimate of a halving of output has increased dramatically; meanwhile energy efficiency has significantly improved. The fall from $105 to $60 – assuming the market remains around the current level – will probably add 0.4% to GDP.

As one might expect, the direct impact of cheaper oil on the energy sector has been negative. The US rig count fell by 850 between December 2014 and March 2015. Many energy exploration firms have reduced headcount and cut capital expenditure. I don’t believe the benefits of technology have been exhausted by the energy exploration firms, especially the shale-industry. The Manhattan Institute – Shale 2.0 – takes up the story and go on to make some policy recommendations:-

John Shaw, chair of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, recently observed: “It’s fair to say we’re not at the end of this [shale] era, we’re at the very beginning.” He is precisely correct. In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

The shale industry is unlike any other conventional hydrocarbon or alternative energy sector, in that it shares a growth trajectory far more similar to that of Silicon Valley’s tech firms. In less than a decade, U.S. shale oil revenues have soared, from nearly zero to more than $70 billion annually (even after accounting for the recent price plunge). Such growth is 600 percent greater than that experienced by America’s heavily subsidized solar industry over the same period.

Shale’s spectacular rise is also generating massive quantities of data: the $600 billion in U.S. shale infrastructure investments and the nearly 2,000 million well-feet drilled have produced hundreds of petabytes of relevant data. This vast, diverse shale data domain—comparable in scale with the global digital health care data domain—remains largely untapped and is ripe to be mined by emerging big-data analytics.

Shale 2.0 will thus be data-driven. It will be centered in the United States. And it will be one in which entrepreneurs, especially those skilled in analytics, will create vast wealth and further disrupt oil geopolitics. The transition to Shale 2.0 will take the following steps: 1.Oil from Shale 1.0 will be sold from the oversupply currently filling up storage tanks. 2. More oil will be unleashed from the surplus of shale wells already drilled but not in production. 3. Companies will “high-grade” shale assets, replacing older techniques with the newest, most productive technologies in the richest parts of the fields. 4. And as the shale industry begins to embrace big-data analytics, Shale 2.0 begins.

Further, if the U.S. is to fully reap the economic and geopolitical benefits of Shale 2.0, Congress and the administration should: 1. Remove the old, no longer relevant, rules prohibiting American companies from selling crude oil overseas. 2. Remove constraints, established by the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, on transporting domestic hydrocarbons by ship. 3. Avoid inflicting further regulatory hurdles on an already heavily regulated industry. 4. Open up and accelerate access to exploration and production on federally controlled lands.

Nonetheless, in the near-term, states which benefitted from $100+ crude oil and the energy related innovations it spawned, are now feeling the effects of what appears to be a sustained period of lower energy prices. The EIA predicts WTI crude will average $60 over the course of 2015.

The CFR – Energy Brief – October 2013 – predicted that a 50% oil price fall would affect the employment prospects of eight states in particular:-

State Fall in Employment
Alaska -1.70%
Louisiana -1.60%
North Dakota -2%
New Mexico -0.70%
Oklahoma -2.30%
Texas -1.20%
West Virginia -0.70%
Wyoming -4.30%

Source: Council for Foreign Relations

So far, if Texas is any guide, the negative effects of the oil price decline have failed to materialise.

The effect of a 25% rise in crude oil prices is also worth considering:-

State Employment Change State Employment Change
Wisconsin -0.74 Ohio -0.61
Minnesota -0.73 Missouri -0.6
Tennessee -0.72 Illinois -0.59
Rhode Island -0.71 Massachusetts -0.59
Florida -0.71 Delaware -0.58
New Hampshire -0.7 South Dakota -0.57
Idaho -0.69 New York -0.57
Nevada -0.69 California -0.56
Arizona -0.68 Alabama -0.56
Indiana -0.68 DC -0.5
Nebraska -0.67 Kentucky -0.48
Vermont -0.66 Pennsylvania -0.47
Iowa -0.66 Utah -0.38
New Jersey -0.65 Kansas -0.35
Washington -0.64 Mississippi -0.35
Maryland -0.64 Arkansas -0.34
Georgia -0.64 Montana -0.31
Michigan -0.64 Colorado -0.15
Virginia -0.64 New Mexico 0.36
South Carolina -0.64 West Virginia 0.36
Oregon -0.64 Texas 0.6
Connecticut -0.63 Louisiana 0.78
Maine -0.62 Alaska 0.87
North Carolina -0.62 North Dakota 1.01
Hawaii -0.61 Oklahoma 1.16
Wyoming 2.14

Sources: CFR, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Wall Street Journal

The effect on the US as a whole is estimated at -0.43%. In other words, a fall in crude oil is good for employment and should also act as a cathartic stimulus to GDP growth.

A final measure of the vulnerability of the US economy to the recent oil price decline is shown by the next table. This shows the substantial diversification away from the energy sector seen in every one of the major oil producing states since the 1980’s:-

Share of Oil and Gas Extraction as a % of GDP
1981 2000 2010
Alaska 49.5 15.1 19.1
Louisiana 35.5 11.1 9.7
New Mexico 26.1 5.2 5.1
North Dakota 20.3 0.9 4.3
Oklahoma 21.6 4.8 9.1
Texas 19.1 5.8 7.8
West Virginia 2.4 1 1.5
Wyoming 37.1 9.8 18.5

Source: CFR, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Looking at how unemployment has changed across the 51 states over the last 12 months:-

State April April 12-month net change
2014 2015
Alabama 7.1 5.8 -1.3
Alaska 6.9 6.7 -0.2
Arizona 6.9 6 -0.9
Arkansas 6.3 5.7 -0.6
California 7.8 6.3 -1.5
Colorado 5.4 4.2 -1.2
Connecticut 6.8 6.3 -0.5
Delaware 5.9 4.5 -1.4
DC 7.8 7.5 -0.3
Florida 6.4 5.6 -0.8
Georgia 7.3 6.3 -1
Hawaii 4.5 4.1 -0.4
Idaho 4.9 3.8 -1.1
Illinois 7.4 6 -1.4
Indiana 6 5.4 -0.6
Iowa 4.4 3.8 -0.6
Kansas 4.5 4.3 -0.2
Kentucky 7 5 -2
Louisiana 5.7 6.6 0.9
Maine 5.8 4.7 -1.1
Maryland 5.9 5.3 -0.6
Massachusetts 5.8 4.7 -1.1
Michigan 7.5 5.4 -2.1
Minnesota 4.2 3.7 -0.5
Mississippi 7.8 6.6 -1.2
Missouri 6.3 5.7 -0.6
Montana 4.7 4 -0.7
Nebraska 3.4 2.5 -0.9
Nevada 8.1 7.1 -1
New Hampshire 4.5 3.8 -0.7
New Jersey 6.7 6.5 -0.2
New Mexico 6.7 6.2 -0.5
New York 6.5 5.7 -0.8
North Carolina 6.4 5.5 -0.9
North Dakota 2.7 3.1 0.4
Ohio 5.9 5.2 -0.7
Oklahoma 4.7 4.1 -0.6
Oregon 7 5.2 -1.8
Pennsylvania 6 5.3 -0.7
Rhode Island 8.1 6.1 -2
South Carolina 6.1 6.7 0.6
South Dakota 3.4 3.6 0.2
Tennessee 6.5 6 -0.5
Texas 5.2 4.2 -1
Utah 3.8 3.4 -0.4
Vermont 4 3.6 -0.4
Virginia 5.3 4.8 -0.5
Washington 6.2 5.5 -0.7
West Virginia 6.8 7 0.2
Wisconsin 5.5 4.4 -1.1
Wyoming 4.3 4.1 -0.2

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Only Louisiana (+0.9%) North Dakota (+0.4%) and West Virginia (+0.2%) of the top oil producing states, have witnessed increased levels of unemployment. South Dakota (+0.2%) and South Carolina (+0.6%) were the only other states in the union to see unemployment rise. This is not the picture of a faltering economy.

The Federal Reserve Leading Index, whilst it hit a low point of +0.9% in January – down from +2% in July 2014 – has rebounded – April +1.12% – and has remained in positive territory since August 2009. The Conference Board Leading Economic Index increased 0.7% in April to 122.3, following a +0.4% in March, and a -0.2% February. The Conference Board commented:-

April’s sharp increase in the LEI seems to have helped stabilize its slowing trend, suggesting the paltry economic growth in the first quarter may be temporary. However, the growth of the LEI does not support a significant strengthening in the economic outlook at this time. The improvement in building permits helped to drive the index up this month, but gains in other components, in particular the financial indicators, have been somewhat more muted.

The outlook appears steady rather than robust but this has been the pattern of the economic recovery ever since the first round of quantitative easing (QE) in November 2008.

Conclusion and Equity Investment Opportunities

The US economic recovery remains intact. The long run economic benefits of structurally lower energy prices and energy security are slowly feeding through to the wider economy. This is good for the US and, as long as the US continues to run a trade deficit with the rest of the world, it’s good for the US main trading partners too.

After a sharp correction in October 2014 the S&P500 recovered. Since its January lows the market has ground slowly higher:-

S&P500 - 1yr

Source: Barchart.com

The table below shows a series of additional valuation measures:-

Indicator Ratio Date Start of Data
Trailing 12 month P/E 20.53
Mean 15.54
Min 5.31 Dec 1917
Max 123.73 May 2009 1875
Shiller Case P/E 27.1
Mean 16.61
Min 4.78 Dec 1920
Max 44.19 Dec 1999 1885
Price to Sales 1.81
Mean 1.4
Min 0.8 Mar 2009
Max 1.81 Jun 2015 2001
Price to Book 2.89
Mean 2.75
Min 1.78 Mar 2009
Max 5.06 Mar 2000 2000

Source: multpl.com

On most of these metrics the market looks relatively expensive but the current level of interest rates is unprecedented. JP Morgan Asset Management predict average corporate earnings to grow by 4% in 2015 – stripping out energy stocks this rises to 11%. They also remind investors that the S&P has seen 10 bear markets since 1926. Eight occurred as a result of economic recessions or commodity price shocks (price increases not decreases) and extreme valuations were a contributing factor only on four occasions. They go on to refute the idea that interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve will derail the bull market, pointing to the positive correlation between rising interest rates and rising equity prices when interest rates start from a low point. They make the caveat that the initial reaction to interest rate increases is negative but in the longer term stocks tend to rise.

At the risk of uttering that most dangerous of phrases – “this time it’s different” – I believe the majority of the rise in equity prices was a function of the reduction in the level of interest rates since 2008. This had two effects; investors switched from interest bearing securities to equities, hoping that capital appreciation would offset the declining income from bonds: and corporations, faced with negative real interest rates, decided to raise dividends and buy back stock, rather than make capital investments when interest rates were artificially low. The chart below shows US 10yr Government Bond yields since 1790:-

US 10 yr Bond Yield Global Financial Data

Source: Global Financial Data

The chart ends in 2013, since when yields have plumbed new depths. Ignoring the inflation shock of the 1970’s and 1980’s it would be reasonable to expect US Treasuries to yield around 3% but that was before the Federal Reserve moved from a stable price target – i.e. around zero – to a 2% inflation target. I think it is reasonable for corporates to assume a long-term cost of finance based on a 3% real yield for US Treasuries plus an appropriate credit spread. Is it any wonder that corporates continue to buy back stock?

The impact of the oil price collapse is still feeding through the US economy but, since the most vulnerable states have learnt the lessons of the 1980’s and diversified away from an excessive reliance of on the energy sector, the short-run downturn will be muted whilst the long-run benefits of new technology will be transformative. US oil production at $10/barrel would have sounded ludicrous less than five years ago: today it seems almost plausible.

US stocks are not cheap, but Q1 earnings declines have been reversed and, whilst growth is muted, the longer term benefits of lower energy prices are just beginning to feed through. At the beginning of the year I was cautious and considering reducing exposure to the US market. Now, I am still cautious, but, if earnings start to improve, today’s valuations will prove justified and further upside may be well ensue. The US bond market is doing the Fed’s work for it – 10yr yields have risen from a low of 1.64% in January to 2.30% today. Whilst the first rise in official rates is likely to act as a negative for stocks, the market will recover as long as the momentum of earnings growth remains positive and energy prices remain subdued.

Nigeria and South Africa – what are their prospects for growth and investment?

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Macro Letter – No 37 – 06-06-2015

Nigeria and South Africa – what are their prospects for growth and investment?

  • The IMF forecast South Africa to grow by only 2% in 2015 and 2.1% in 2016
  • Whilst Nigeria is forecast to grow by 4.8% in 2015 and 5% in 2016
  • Both countries are succeeding in diversifying away from resources
  • Corruption remains the greatest political challenge to their prosperity

To begin my analysis of the two largest economies in Africa here is a table of statistics:-

Indicator Nigeria South Africa
GDP 523 USD Billion – Dec 13 351 USD Billion – Dec 13
GDP y/y 3.96 percent – Feb 15 2.1 percent – Feb 15
GDP per capita 1098 USD – Dec 13 5916 USD – Dec 13
GDP per capita PPP 5676 USD – Dec13 12106 USD – Dec 13
Unemployment Rate 23.9 percent – Dec 11 26.4 percent – Feb 15
Population 174 Million – Dec 13 54 Million – Dec 14
Inflation Rate 8.7 percent – Apr 15 4.5 percent – Apr 15
Food Inflation 9.48 percent – Apr 15 5 percent – Apr 15
Interest Rate 13 percent – May 15 5.75 percent – May 15
Foreign Exchange Reserves 4118713 NGN Million – May 15 470400 ZAR THO Million – Apr 15
Balance of Trade 1145749 NGN Millions – Dec 14 (2513) ZAR Million – Apr 15
Current Account ($158 USD Million) – Nov14 (198000) ZAR Million – Nov 14
Gold Reserves 21.37 Tonnes – Nov 14 125 Tonnes – Nov 14
Crude Oil Production 2520 BBL/D/1K – Jan 14 3 BBL/D/1K – Dec 14
Foreign Direct Investment 1030 USD Million – Nov14 1684 ZAR Billion – Nov 14
Government Budget (1.8) percent of GDP – Dec 13 (3.8) percent of GDP – Dec 14
Government Debt to GDP 11 percent – Dec 13 46.1 percent – Dec 13
Capacity Utilization 60.3 percent – Nov 14 81.5 percent – Nov 14
Corporate Tax Rate 30 percent – Jan14 28 percent – Jan 14
Personal Income Tax Rate 24 percent -Jan14 41 percent – Apr 15
Sales Tax Rate 5 percent – Jan 14 14 percent – Jan 15
Population below poverty line 33.1% (2013 est.) 26.2% (2011 est.)
Labour force 48.57 million (2011 est.) 17.89 million (2012 est.)
Labour force by occupation services: 32%; agriculture: 30%; manufacturing: 11% agriculture: 9%, industry: 26%, services: 65% (2007 est.)
Main industries crude oil, coal, tin, columbite, uranium; palm oil, peanuts, cotton, rubber, wood; hides and skins, textiles, cement and other construction materials, food products, footwear, chemicals, fertilizer, printing, ceramics, steel, small commercial ship construction and repair, entertainment, machinery, car assembly mining (world’s largest producer of platinum), gold, chromium, automobile assembly, metalworking, machinery, textiles, iron and steel, chemicals, fertiliser, foodstuffs, commercial ship repair
Ease-of-doing-business rank 131st 39th
Exports $97.46 billion (2012 est.) $101.2 billion (2012 est.)
Export goods petroleum and petroleum products 95%, cocoa, rubber, machinery, processed foods, entertainment gold, diamonds, platinum, other metals and minerals, machinery and equipment
Main Export Partners  India 12.8%  China 14.5%
   United States 11.1%  United States 7.9%
   Brazil 10%  Japan 5.7%
   Spain 7.1%  Germany 5.5%
   Netherlands 7%  India 4.5%
   Germany 5.1%  United Kingdom 4.1% (2012 est.)
   France 4.7%
   United Kingdom 4.5%
   South Africa 4.2% (2013 est.)
Imports $70.58 billion (2012 est.) $106.8 billion (2012 est.)
Import goods machinery and equipment, chemicals, transport equipement, manufactured goods, foodstuffs machinery and equipment, chemicals, petroleum products, scientific instruments, foodstuffs
Main import partners  China 20.8%  China 14.9%
   United States 11.2%  Germany 10.1%
   India 4.5% (2013 est.)  United States 7.3%
   Saudi Arabia 7.2%
   India 4.6%
   Japan 4.5% (2012 est.)
Gross external debt $10.1 billion (2012 est.) $47.66 billion (31 December 2011 est.)
Public debt 18.8% of GDP (2012 est.) 43.3% of GDP (2012 est.)
Credit Rating (S&P) B+ (Domestic) BBB+ (Domestic)
  B+ (Foreign) BBB- (Foreign)
  B+ (T&C Assessment) BBB+ (T&C Assessment)
  Outlook: Stable Outlook: Stable
Foreign reserves $42.8 billion (2012 est.) $54.98 billion (31 December 2012 est.)

Source: Trading Economics, CIA Factbook, IMF, World Bank, S&P

One additional factor to mention from the outset is the importance of China, and not just as an import partner, although South Africa also exports more to China than it does to any other country. Chinese companies have been aggressively bidding for infrastructure projects across the continent, partly in response to over-investment at home. These companies have also been acquisitive, especially in the resource sector, for several years. Across the continent China now accounts for 20% of infrastructure investment. This has grown from next to nothing in 2002. It has been concentrated in transportation – railways, roads and airports – and, to a lesser degree, in energy; although the decline in commodities prices since 2009/2010 has reduced China’ resource security concerns.

Looking ahead, Chinese investment in Africa has the potential to dramatically improve the prospects for large swathes of the continent. Brookings –   Are Chinese Companies Retooling in Africa? elaborates.

Another major investment trend across Africa has been the growth of private participation in infrastructure (PPI) which now accounts for around 50% of the $30bln per annum – up from $5bln in 2003. This investment is concentrated in telecommunications – 64%, electricity – 18.6% and seaports – 9.8%. Nonetheless, the estimated infrastructure investment gap – $93bln – remains a significant impediment to productivity growth.

Nigeria

Nigeria has just emerged from a general election, the most credible since its return to constitutional government in 1999. The new president, Buhari and his APC party, secured a substantial victory on an anti-terrorist and anti-corruption mandate; it’s worth noting that Muhammadu Buhari is a devout Muslim, his campaign slogan was “new broom”.

The country has overcome some challenges but, as this article from Brookings – Nigeria’s Renewed Hope for Democratic Development – makes clear, there is much still to be done:-

…there is an extensive list of challenges awaiting Buhari and the APC government. They include: ending the Boko Haram insurgency; promoting the socio-economic advance of the largely Muslim and impoverished northern region; overhauling the criminalized petroleum sector; improving the core infrastructures of electricity, water supply, and public transport; drastically reducing corruption in state institutions; and rapidly increasing jobs in agriculture, agro-processing, and light industry.

Chatham House – Nigeria’s New President Pits Hope Against Harsh Realities, takes up the theme:-

This would-be economic powerhouse and Africa’s biggest crude oil producer is running low on fuel. While Nigeria exported around 2.08 million barrels of oil a day in the first quarter of 2015, its three refineries operate at 20 per cent capacity at most. So Nigeria imports its petrol to run cars and diesel to power private generators for homes and businesses. National grid power generation is negligible relative to demand. 

The traders that import refined products are paid by government in cash or crude oil via the byzantine Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Most foreign suppliers had long stopped supplying on credit as they are owed $1.5 billion in arrears dating back to 2011. Local traders and wholesalers claim to be owed N200 billion in subsidies and are withholding supplies pending some form of settlement.

…In a country that remains dependent on crude exports for fiscal revenue and product imports to function, the cabal-controlled opaque deals that keep the economy running are perhaps at the heart of the corruption that makes people’s lives unnecessarily harsh every day in Nigeria.

But given the parlous state of the economy after crude oil prices halved in six months in 2014, the depreciation of the national currency, the erosion of foreign reserves to under $30 billion, (perhaps four months of external payments), and the political and popular sensitivities around fuel importation and the fuel subsidy, the new government may not have chosen the fuel traders and how to reform the NNPC as the first challenge to tackle. But the traders have forced the issue.

…With ambitions including economic diversification, institutional reform and improving welfare to millions of Nigeria’s poorest, President Buhari and the APC will see their efforts stymied in 2015 by empty state coffers.

Yet it is not the availability of money but the management of it that may effect change in Nigeria. Years of high oil prices and strong GDP growth have not translated into the development, job creation and poverty reduction that they should have. Instead Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing markets for luxury aircraft and champagne, while it ranks 152 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index.

Back in April 2014 the Nigerian Statistics Office rebased GDP for the first time in 20 years, the result was a near doubling of the size of their economy, as this article from the Atlanitic – How Nigeria Became Africa’s Largest Economy Overnight, expalins:-

In computing its GDP all these years, Nigeria, incredibly, wasn’t factoring in booming sectors like film and telecommunications. The Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood, generates nearly $600 million a year and employs more than a million people, making it the country’s second-largest employer after agriculture. As for the telecom industry, consider that there are now some 120 million mobile-phone subscribers in Nigeria, out of a population of 170 million. Nigeria and South Africa are the largest mobile markets in sub-Saharan Africa, and cell-phone use has been exploding in the country:

Nigeria mobile subsribers

Nigerian Communications Commission (Datawrapper)

Incorporating the film and telecom industries into Nigeria’s GDP made a huge difference in the services sector, rendering the country’s economy not just bigger but more diversified:

Nigeria GDP estimate

 National Bureau of Statistics (Datawrapper)

This is not the first time an African country’s GDP has risen after rebasing, Ghana saw a 60% increase in 2010. The World Bank and IMF estimates for growth in many frontier markets may prove self-fulfilling prophesies if other frontier economies rebase in a similar manner. Nonetheless, these countries are growing rapidly and present a plethora of investment opportunities in the process.

Between 2000 and 2008 African GDP growth averaged 4.9%, twice the pace of the previous decade. Last August, ahead of the US-Africa Summit, saw the publication of the Cato Institute – Sustaining the Economic Rise of Africa – they gave an excellent summation of the state of the region:-

 …between 1990 and 2010, the share of Africans living at $1.25 per day or less fell from 56 percent to 48 percent, while the continent’s population almost doubled in size. If the current trends continue, Africa’s poverty rate will fall to 24 percent by 2030. Since 1990 the per-capita caloric intake in Africa increased from 2,150 kcal to 2,430 kcal in 2013. Between 1990 and 2012, the proportion of the population of African countries with access to clean drinking water increased from 48 percent to 64 percent. Many African countries have also seen dramatic falls in infant and child mortality. Since 2005, some African countries, such as Senegal, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya, have seen child mortality decline by an annual rate exceeding 6 percent.

Nonetheless, the continent still lags significantly behind the rest of the world in its income levels and also in many indicators of human well-being. For example, Africa scored a mere 0.502 on the United Nation’s 2014 Human Development Index, measured on a scale from 0 to 1, with higher values denoting higher standards of living. By comparison, the United States scored 0.914, Latin America 0.74, and China 0.719.

The extent of trade protectionism, for example, is large, especially when compared with other regions in the world. Average applied tariffs in Africa remain comparatively high, and the extent of trade liberalization on the continent has not matched that experienced in the rest of the world. While between 1988 and 2010, the average applied tariff in high-income countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell from 9.5 percent to 2.8 percent, Africa saw a reduction from 26.6 percent to 11 percent. That is not a negligible decrease but it still leaves the continent with unnecessarily high tariff protection, which hinders trade.

Cato went on to highlight what Africa needs:-

Needs Examples
The Rule of law Land title, commercial contact enforcement
Improvement in governance Oversight of government contracts
Reduction of red tape Regulatory reforms
Infrastructure investment Electricity generation, transportation
Regional Economic integration Free-trade agreements

Here are the IMF – Selected Issues papersDecember 2014 – South Africa and April 2015 – Nigeria  – which look in more detail at several of these issues.

Whilst Nigeria is not exactly a paragon of virtue when it comes to corruption – ranking 136th out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – this 2011 article from the Economist – Africa’s hopeful economiespoints to real signs of progress, both in Nigeria and across the continent as a whole:-

Her $3 billion fortune makes Oprah Winfrey the wealthiest black person in America, a position she has held for years. But she is no longer the richest black person in the world. That honour now goes to Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian cement king. Critics grumble that he is too close to the country’s soiled political class. Nonetheless his $10 billion fortune is money earned, not expropriated. The Dangote Group started as a small trading outfit in 1977. It has become a pan-African conglomerate with interests in sugar and logistics, as well as construction, and it is a real business, not a kleptocratic sham.

…Severe income disparities persist through much of the continent; but a genuine middle class is emerging. According to Standard Bank, which operates throughout Africa, 60m African households have annual incomes greater than $3,000 at market exchange rates. By 2015, that number is expected to reach 100m—almost the same as in India now.

…Since The Economist regrettably labelled Africa “the hopeless continent” a decade ago, a profound change has taken hold. Labour productivity has been rising. It is now growing by, on average, 2.7% a year. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200% since 2000. Inflation dropped from 22% in the 1990s to 8% in the past decade. Foreign debts declined by a quarter, budget deficits by two-thirds.

…Africa’s population is set to double, from 1 billion to 2 billion, over the next 40 years. As Africa’s population grows in size, it will also alter in shape. The median age is now 20, compared with 30 in Asia and 40 in Europe. With fertility rates dropping, that median will rise as today’s mass of young people moves into its most productive years. The ratio of people of working age to those younger and older—the dependency ratio—will improve. This “demographic dividend” was crucial to the growth of East Asian economies a generation ago. It offers a huge opportunity to Africa today.

Dangote Group may not be a “kleptocratic sham” but it is protected from foreign competition by import tariffs which enable it to make a 62% margin on domestic sales. The Economist article goes on to apply a string of caveats – after all, every silver-lining must have its dark cloud, especially for those trained in the “dismal science”- the authors conclude:-

Africa is not the next China. It provides only a tiny fraction of world output—2.5% at purchasing-power parity. It is as yet not even a good bet for retail investors, given the dearth of stockmarkets. Mr Dangote’s $10 billion undeniably makes him a big fish, but the Dangote Group accounts for a quarter of Nigeria’s stockmarket by value: it is a small and rather illiquid pond.

For corporations wishing to succeed in Africa, Nigeria remains a key market. With roughly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 930 mln people and population growth of 2-3% per annum, this is a market one can’t ignore. The Economist – Business in Nigeria – takes up the story:-

In 2001 MTN, a fledgling telecoms company from South Africa, paid $285m for one of four mobile licences sold at auction by the government of Nigeria. Observers thought its board was bonkers. Nigeria had spent most of the previous four decades under military rule. The country was rich in oil reserves but otherwise desperately poor. Its infrastructure was crumbling. The state phone company had taken a century to amass a few hundred thousand customers from a population of 120m. The business climate was scarcely stable.

MTN took a punt anyway. The firm’s boss called up colleagues from his old days in pay-television and found they had 10m Nigerian customers. He reasoned that if they could afford pay-TV they could stump up for a mobile phone. Within five years MTN had 32m customers. The company now operates across Africa and the Middle East. But Nigeria was its making and remains its biggest single source of profits.

In the 1980’s, after an oil price collapse threatened to under-mine government finances, I ended up doing business in Nigeria with a subsidiary of Unilever (ULVR). Outside of the Oil and Mining sector, it was one of a very few multi-nationals still operating in the country, however, there had been an, almost catastrophic, deterioration in the operations of the division with which I dealt. This decline had taken place over the two decades since Nigerian independence: it reflected the endemic problems of doing business in the country. Managers privately told me, the principal reason they had not closed down was because this was the only practical way to recoup losses sustained in lending the government money.

Finally Unilever, along with a handful of other firms, are reaping the benefit of their long term investment. According to UN forecasts the population of Nigeria will overtake the population of the US by 2045, as soon as 2020, according to research from Oxford Economics, the population will have topped 200mln making Nigeria the fifth largest country in the world, overtaking Pakistan and Brazil – they should have a very bright future.

Near-term growth has slowed as a result of weaker GDP – 3.96% in Q1 2015 vs Q4 2014 at 5.94%, Q3 2014, 6.23% and Q2 2014 of 6.54%. The marginal effect of a falling oil price is still substantial – especially for the export market 95% of which is in petroleum and petroleum products.

The construction sector has remained robust, growing at around 10% – lower than in 2013 but still impressive. Information and Communications has also shown stability, growing at 8% per annum.

South Africa

South Africa has triple Nigeria’s per capita GDP, it is also endowed with better developed institutions. This does not, however, guarantee prosperity. This article from last week’s South African Independent on Sunday – South Africa’s triple challengemakes that clear:-

We are frequently reminded by the political establishment of South Africa’s triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment. This weighs heavily on the social, political and economic fabric of the country.

This is why the unemployment and economic growth data just released points to South Africa sinking into crisis. Official unemployment, at 26.4 percent, rose to a 12-year high. Growth slumped to 1.3 percent for the first quarter this year, below expectation.

The official unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world. The measure masks a low economic participation rate and excludes discouraged work-seekers. In other words, people who want work but have stopped looking for work due to being discouraged are not counted among the unemployed. If a higher participation rate was factored in and discouraged work-seekers were included in the data, the unemployment rate would be nudging towards 50 percent.

…The economy is not big enough to absorb everyone into it. The solution is a bigger economy. For that, the economy needs growth. Not difficult. But growth has ground down to 1.3 percent and looks set to slow further. At the recent Monetary Policy Committee meeting, the SA Reserve Bank warned the inflation risks were to the downside but the risks to economic growth were on the downside.

The combination of weak economic prospects, along with higher inflation, means unemployment is set to rise even further.

… The underperformance of South Africa has been self-inflicted. It struggles under its triple triple.

First Triple: poverty, inequality and unemployment.

…if South Africa had full employment, then poverty and unemployment would be dramatically diminished as issues. However, by not emphasising this perspective, policy is focused on inequality and poverty but is not resolving unemployment.

The national budget is a case in point where the “rich” (success) are penalised through a very “progressive” tax take. Inequality is reduced by pulling down the top end of earners (in reality right down to the working class).

Poverty is tackled through a very aggressive redistribution spending policy. Through this whole process, unemployment is neglected and perpetuated. Policy focus on poverty alleviation has the effect of transferring economic resources to consumption, which is in complete contrast to poverty reduction that transfers resources to investment.

…This shift of resources to consumption has resulted in the second triple, which has become a major constraint and stumbling block to resolving the first triple.

Second Triple: the triple deficit.

The budget deficit in recent years has led to a multiple downgrade of the credit rating. On the face of it, the government “needs” more taxes to balance its books. Yet households, the core of the tax base, are also in deficit. The cost pressures in recent years and availability of credit has led to households spending more than they have earned. The ability to meet a higher tax bill is simply not there. The tax base is both narrow and shallow.

The high unemployment rate also places pressure in a higher dependency ratio on each salary and wage earner. And the government has very ambitious spending plans and faces at least four expenditure threats where each one can take South Africa to a solvency crisis. These are: the public sector wage bill; National Health Insurance; State Owned Enterprises’ need for capital; and the nuclear deal. So far, indications are that the government is going to commit to all four.

The third deficit is the current account deficit. This has been widening to record levels, especially since 2008. Of particular concern is that the current account deficit has been widening while the economy has been slowing and the currency has been weakening. This is a major concern as it means the country is losing competitiveness at an alarming rate.

Part of the reason for the loss of competitiveness comes down to the third triple:

Third Triple: the triple mistake.

The first mistake is labour unrest. No one invests in labour unrest, and investment is essential to grow the economy. South Africa must find a way to resolve labour disputes without unrest. Labour relations is where South Africa languishes near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness survey. The unemployment crisis needs attraction of investment into labour, not away from it.

The second major mistake is the regulatory tsunami that has hit the business sector. The economy is being attacked by policymakers not nurtured. Companies trying to contain costs in a low growth environment have resources diverted to compliance, leaving less to grow their businesses. The biggest problem is that the regulatory burden requires economies of scale in order to be compliant. This is manageable by big business but debilitating for the SME sector. And it is the SME sector that is the engine of job creation. South Africa should be seeking to make South Africa an easier place to invest and do business not more difficult.

…The third mistake South Africa is making is in taxes. Economic expansion cannot happen without investment. Investment cannot be sustained without savings. The investment rate is currently 19 percent of GDP. This will buy a long-term growth rate of 2 to 3 percent.

Excessive debt, both public and private, a low savings rate and a low investment to GDP ratio – it sounds remarkably like the problems of many developed economies. Before dismissing the above article as a little localised hyperbole it’s worth considering this leader from last week’s Economist – Africa’s second-largest economy is in a huge mess:-

There is little in the way of bright news about South Africa’s economy—and not just because power cuts are plunging neighbourhoods into darkness several times a week. According to figures released on May 26th, annual GDP grew by a mere 1.3% in the first three months of this year, a crawl compared with the 4.1% achieved in the fourth quarter of 2014. Unemployment is soaring. Even using a narrow definition, it stands at 26.4%, the highest since 2003.

“The numbers are saying ‘something has to be done, and done quickly’,” says Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s statistician-general. But where to begin? Power shortages under Eskom, the failing state utility, have dampened manufacturing, drought has hit agriculture and tourism, a rare boon, has been hampered by much-criticised new visa requirements. Rating agencies have warned that South Africa is dancing dangerously close to junk status, though no immediate downgrade is likely.

…Strikes are hurting mining. Talks between unions and gold-mine bosses are due to begin in early June. But with unions opening the bargaining by demanding that basic pay for unskilled mineworkers be doubled, prospects of an early settlement seem poor. Last year similar demands at platinum mines sparked five months of labour unrest. A strike by 1.3m public-sector employees has been averted, but only at the cost of a 7% wage increase, with the money coming from emergency funds.

The weak economy is stoking social unrest and public violence. Foreigners, seen as competition for scarce jobs, were targeted in a recent spate of xenophobic attacks that left at least seven people dead. The IRR, a think-tank in Johannesburg, says that protests have nearly doubled since 2010. Many relate to the provision of basic services such as water and electricity. Inequality remains high. A report by the Boston Consulting Group, a consultancy, placed South Africa 138th of 149 countries for its ability to turn the country’s wealth into well-being for its people.

So far the government of President Jacob Zuma has shown little sign of being able to improve matters. The African National Congress, the ruling party, is bogged down in internal political battles, not least over whether to pursue capitalist or socialist economics. The government’s much-touted National Development Plan, a market-friendly strategy to encourage investment and growth, is largely ignored. Even by the ANC’s own standards, it is failing: only 2% growth is expected in 2015 when the economy needs to expand by at least 5% a year to reduce unemployment.

The country doesn’t score that well on corruption either, ranking 67th out of 175 countries on the Corruption Preceptions Index.

Likewise the Deliotte’s CFO Survey is less than encouraging. Many South African CFO’s expressed anxiety about the future. New investment is overwhelmingly directed towards expanding into other, higher-growth, parts of the continent. Of those companies with no presence elsewhere in Africa, 80% said they wanted to build such a presence within the next year – West and east Africa were their favoured destinations.

Capital Markets and Investment Opportunities

Africa is largely dependent on private capital flows as this May 2015 article explains – Brookings – Private Capital Flows, Official Development Assistance, and Remittances to Africa: Who Gets What?:-

The data also show that private capital flows to sub-Saharan Africa over the period of 2001-2012 have mostly benefited two countries—South Africa and Nigeria—which accounted for 45 percent and 13 percent of total private flows to sub-Saharan Africa, respectively. These two countries have attracted the most flows in part because they are the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, together making up more than half of the region’s GDP.

…Portfolio flows have also been increasing recently, though they remain concentrated in South Africa: That country received 96 percent of the portfolio flows to the region in 1990-2000. However, in 2001-2012, the issuance of sovereign bonds by a number of countries and increased interest by investors has led to a more diversified recipient base for portfolio flows. South Africa’s share of the total fell to 59 percent, whereas Nigeria’s increased to 24 percent, and other countries like Mauritius (14 percent) emerged on the scene.

…From 1990 to 2000, half of total FDI to sub-Saharan Africa went to South Africa (29 percent) and Nigeria (21 percent). This trend has not changed: Between 2001 and 2012, the top 10 recipient countries received 85 percent of the total FDI inflows to the region.

…In terms of volume, Nigeria was the largest recipient of remittances in the region from 1990 to 2012.

I want to turn my attention to more liquid opportunities.

Bonds – South Africa

The SARB – Quarterly Bulletin – March 2015 – sums up the recent price action in South African government bonds:-

South African bond yields moved generally lower from early 2014, in line with US bond yields. Local yields receded further in January 2015, supported by an improved inflation outlook and abundant international liquidity following the announcement of an expanded asset-purchase programme by the ECB and continued quantitative easing out of Japan. Bond yields edged higher in early March 2015 as a reversal in the oil price, the announcement of higher levies on fuel and rand depreciation impacted on inflation expectations. Most money-market interest rates have displayed little movement since the middle of 2014, remaining well-aligned with the repurchase rate of the South African Reserve Bank (the Bank) that had been held steady over this period.

The SARB has left base rates unchanged at 5.75% since July 2014 as a result of the stabilisation of the Rand and falling oil prices. Inflation expectations had been on the downside but as SARB Governor Lesetja Kganyago stated in the 21st May MPC statement:-

The challenges facing monetary policy have persisted, and, as expected, the downward trend in inflation which was mainly attributable to the impact of lower oil prices, has reversed. Headline inflation is expected to breach temporarily the upper end of the target range early next year, and thereafter remains uncomfortably close to the upper end of the target band for most of the forecast period. The upside risks have increased, mainly due to further possible electricity price increases. The exchange rate also continues to impart an upside risk to inflation as uncertainty regarding impending US monetary policy continues. Domestic demand, however, remains subdued while electricity constraints continue to weigh on output growth and general consumer and business confidence.

As the chart below suggests, 10yr Bond yields have risen from their January lows. The upward trend appears to be established, the current 10yr yield is 8.51% which is not far from the January 2014 high of 8.8%. I suspect this level will be breached but not to a substantial extent because the rising interest rate environment will undermine, already weak, growth expectations. If yields approach 9.25% I think this offers a buying opportunity. For the present, remain short. For most retail investors this means using South African bond index futures, but remember, only your P&L will be exposed to currency fluctuations.

Bonds – Nigeria

Nigerian 10yr Government bonds have behaved in a very different manner to South Africa over the last seven years, as the chart below reveals:-

south-africa-nigeria government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics, Central Bank of Nigeria and South African Treasury

A portfolio of these two bonds would offer an attractive Sharpe ratio. Short South Africa and Long Nigeria 10yr might be another strategy to consider, you may get positive carry, but Nigerian inflation has been substantially higher over this period. Here is a chart:-

south-africa-nigeria inflation-cpi

Source: Trading Economics, National Bureau of Statistics Nigeria and Statistics South Africa

The Central Bank of Nigeria – MPC May 2015 Communique 101 – provides a wealth of information, here are some highlights:-

The Committee expressed concern about the weakening economic momentum but recognized the relative similarity in the condition to the evolving economic environment in virtually all oil exporting economies, suggesting the need for acceleration of various ongoing initiatives to diversify the economic base of the country.

The Committee noted that the uptick in inflationary pressures, year-to-date, was largely traceable to transient factors such as high demand for transportation, food and energy, especially in the period around the general elections as well as the Easter festivities. It also noted the roles played by system liquidity and the pass-through effects of the recent depreciation of the naira exchange rate. When the transient causes are isolated, the Committee observed the decline in month-on-month inflation across all the measures in April as headline inflation moderated to 0.8% from 0.9% in March; core inflation moderated to 0.6% from 0.8% and food inflation moderated to 0.9% from 1.0%.

The Committee reiterated its commitment to price stability noting that given the already tight stance of monetary policy and the transient nature of the incubators of the current inflationary trend, which are outside the direct control of monetary policy, the space for maneuver remains constrained, necessitating the intervention of fiscal and structural policies to stimulate output growth.

…the Committee stressed the need for proactive measures to protect the reserve buffer to safeguard the value of the domestic currency and engender overall stability of the banking system. It was, however, noted that monetary policy is gradually approaching the limits of tightening and would, therefore, require complementary fiscal and structural policies.

…Consequently, the MPC voted to:

(i) Retain the MPR at 13 per cent with a corridor of +/- 200 basis points around the midpoint;

(ii) Retain the Liquidity Ratio at 30 per cent; and

(iii) Harmonize the CRR on public and private sector deposits at 31.0 per cent.

10yr Bond yields have fallen from more than 17% in mid-February to 13.7% today. I believe that the hawkish policy of the Central Bank of Nigeria will insure that inflation falls further. Now the election is over, bond yields will continue to decline as foreign capital flows into the country. As recently as July 2014 yields were at 12% – I think they will go lower even than this despite yield curve inversion. The one major risk to this otherwise promising scenario is a rating agency downgrade. S&P downgraded Niara bonds to +B as recently as March, the election result helps but the new government need to deliver on their promises of reform.

To access the Nigerian bond market you need to contact one of the primary dealers – here is the link to the Nigerian Debt Management Office. You will have to deal with the issues of exchange controls, an alternative would be to be a fixed rate receiver through a Niara interest rate swap. The list of dealers may be a place to start but I suspect this is a strictly institutional option.

Stocks – South Africa

The SARB – Quarterly Bulletin – March 2015 – describes recent developments in South African equities:-

Despite the subdued growth in the economy over the past year, domestic share price entered 2015 on a positive note, recovering from the losses incurred in the second half of 2014 to reach all-time-high levels in March 2015. The domestic share market benefited from sustained accommodative monetary policies in the advanced economies, while lower international oil prices and the depreciation of the rand also boosted some share prices. Corporate funding through the issuance of shares in the primary share market rose considerably in 2014, consistent with the high level of share prices and rising number of companies listed on the JSE Limited.

…The performance of equity funding on the JSE was strong in 2014. Equity capital raised in the domestic and international primary share markets by companies listed on the JSE amounted to R153 billion in 2014, which was 65 per cent higher than the amount raised in 2013. Equity capital raising activity was concentrated in companies listed in the financial and industrial sectors, which dominated equity funding in 2014 with shares of 35 and 41 per cent respectively. Dividing the industrial sector further, as shown in the accompanying graph, more than half of the industrial sector’s equity funding in 2014 was accounted for by companies in the consumer goods subsector. Proceeds were utilised mostly for acquisitions, both abroad and domestically.

Robust funding in the primary share market was consistent with the high level of share prices and rising number of companies listed on the JSE, as new listings exceeded delistings in 2014 for the first time since 2008. The number of company listings came to 329 on the main board at the end of February 2015, while 60 were listed on the Alternative Exchange (AltX) and 3 on the development and venture capital boards. The most prominent method of raising capital was the waiver of pre-emptive rights where shares were issued for cash to the general market or specific investors. Equity financing amounted to R43 billion in the first two months of 2015.

Secondary market trading has remained stable but the P/E ratio, at around 18 times, is above its long term average (1990-2015) of 14.4. The P/E ratio has only broken above 20 once, back in 2010, during the rebound from the global recession – though it came close to these levels in 1993.

The Johannesburg (JSE) and the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) are currently working towards developing a partnership that would benefit both exchanges. In this collaboration, among other things, South African companies would be able to list on the NSE and Nigerian companies on the JSE.

South Africa has the most sophisticated financial markets in Africa, it also acts as a conduit for foreign investment to the rest of the continent. The main stock index – the FTSE/JSE 40 – has traded steadily higher since 2009:-

south-africa-stock-market

Source: Trading Economics and JSE

However, this does not take account of the currency risk of investing in the Rand. An alternative is the iShares MSCI South Africa ETF – EZA. Here are the top 10 components:-

Company Symbol % Assets
Naspers Ltd Class N NAPRF.JO 19.44
Mtn Group Ltd MTNOF.JO 9.83
Sasol Ltd SASOF.JO 6.51
Standard Bank Group Ltd SBGOF.JO 5.27
Firstrand Ltd FSR.JO 4.81
Steinhoff International Holdings Ltd SNHFF.JO 4.41
Sanlam Ltd SLMAF.JO 3.46
Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd APNHF.JO 3.43
Remgro Ltd RMGOF.JO 3.28
Bidvest Group Ltd BDVSF.JO 2.63

Source: Yahoo Finance

iShares MSCI South Africa

Source: Yahoo Finance

It is clear from the chart above that South Africa’s main stocks are struggling due to the difficult domestic economic situation, which has led to continuous bouts of currency weakness and bond rating agency downgrades.

For domestic or hedged investors the market trend remains positive, but for international investors the carry costs of hedging undermines the attraction of this market.

Stocks – Nigeria

Nigerian stocks have recovered from weakness earlier this year. The Central Bank put most of the recent performance down to improvements in earnings, sentiment and the successful conclusion of the election.

nigeria-stock-market 2010 - 2015

Source: Trading Economics and NSE

Given the heavy weighting to Dangote in this index (25%) perhaps a more diversified investment would be the Global X MSCI Nigeria ETF (NGE) here are the top 10 constituents:-

Nigerian Breweries PLC 16.41
Guaranty Trust Bank PLC 11.54
Zenith Bank PLC 8.93
Nestle Nigeria PLC 7.06
Ecobank Transnational Inc 4.72
Lafarge Africa PLC 4.66
First Bank Of Nigeria PLC 4.64
Dangote Cement PLC 4.63
Guinness Nigeria PLC 4.48
Stanbic IBTC Holdings PLC 4.37

Source: Yahoo Finance and MSCI

The advantage of the ETF is that you don’t have to deal with the problem of Nigerian exchange controls, however you should keep a close eye on the currency which continues to depreciate against the US$. The technical picture is unclear, I have no direct exposure to Nigeria but it remains on my list of stock markets with significant long-term potential. The current P/E ratio is around 16 times, not cheap like China last year, but worth watching.

NGE 2 yr chart

Source: Yahoo Finance

Currency

The South African Rand (ZAR) is a freely traded international currency. Daily turnover is roughly 1.1% of the global total – mostly traded in London. The Nigerian Niara (NGN) is subject to exchange controls. It is possible to trade non-deliverable forwards, but liquidity reflects the relative lack of tradability. The chart below compares the two currencies against the US$ since 2007:-

ZAR and NGN vs USD - 2007-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Since H2 2011 the ZAR/USD rate has been weakening. This trend looks set to continue. This is how its recent movements are described in the SARB – Quarterly Bulletin – March 2015 – they highlight the developments during 2014:-

The nominal effective exchange rate of the rand declined, on balance, by 2,8 per cent in 2014, compared with a decline of 18,6 per cent in 2013. The trade-weighted exchange rate of the rand increased, on balance, by 0,3 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2014 following a decline of 2 per cent in the third quarter. The rand did, however, regain some momentum, rebounding by 4,0 per cent in October 2014 supported by a positive Medium Term Budget Policy Statement and portfolio investment inflows. The domestic currency weakened by 0,3 per cent in November 2014 amid South Africa’s credit rating downgrade from Baa1 to Baa2 by Moody’s rating agency as electricity challenges became more acute. In December 2014, the trade-weighted exchange rate of the rand weakened further along with other emerging-market currencies and declined by 3,2 per cent. Sentiment towards emerging-market currencies, including the rand, was generally weighed down by the persistent weakness of the euro area, a slowing Chinese economy and an unexpected Japanese recession.

The USD/NGN has been declining by steps as the Central Bank of Nigeria, in a futile attempt to halt the depreciation, depletes its gross reserves. These have fallen to $28bln from more than $50bln in less than two years. Now that the elections are behind them the currency should be less vulnerable. During mid-April overnight rates hit 90% but have since returned to a more normal range – still a volatile series. It’s unlikely they will drop below 9% with the current hawkish MPC. This makes Long NGN Short ZAR an attractive trade – carry will be around 300bp. However, this should be viewed as a trading position. The Central Bank of Nigeria will probably have to defend the NGN again, when they fail the USD/NGN rate will rapidly head for 230.

Rising yields and rising correlation in major bond markets – end of cycle or correction?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 36 – 22-05-2015

Rising yields and rising correlation in major bond markets – end of cycle or correction?

  • European bond yields have risen following the lead of US treasuries
  • Yield curves are steepening despite minimal inflation
  • A return to the natural rate of interest seems unlikely
  • Over-indebtedness will stifle GDP growth and yields will fall

Since the beginning of 2015 the world’s largest bond markets have witnessed increasing yields. In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis many economies decoupled and their government bond markets followed suit. Now correlations are rising once more. The table below, which is a snapshot of prices on Tuesday morning 19th May, looks at a broad range of developed bond markets:-

Bond & Maturity Yield Low Date Change CPI Real yield 10yr-2yr
Australia 2Y 2.035
Australia 5Y 2.305
Australia 10Y 2.92 2.236 March 0.684 1.3 1.62 0.885
Canada 2Y 0.646
Canada 5Y 1.006
Canada 10Y 1.711 1.23 February 0.481 1.2 0.511 1.065
Denmark 2Y -0.299
Denmark 5Y 0.088
Denmark 10Y 0.786 0.075 February 0.711 0.5 0.286 1.085
France 2Y -0.162
France 5Y 0.182
France 10Y 0.832 0.332 April 0.5 0.1 0.732 0.994
Germany 2Y -0.21
Germany 5Y 0.026
Germany 10Y 0.563 0.049 April 0.514 0.5 0.063 0.773
Italy 2Y 0.108
Italy 5Y 0.697
Italy 10Y 1.753 1.041 March 0.712 -0.1 1.853 1.645
Japan 2Y -0.002
Japan 5Y 0.103
Japan 10Y 0.388 0.199 January 0.189 2.3 -1.912 0.39
New Zealand 2Y 3.09
New Zealand 5Y 3.25
New Zealand 10Y 3.74 3.085 January 0.655 0.1 3.64 0.65
Norway 2Y 0.857
Norway 5Y 1.035
Norway 10Y 1.676 1.202 February 0.474 2 -0.324 0.819
Sweden 2Y -0.331
Sweden 5Y 0.169
Sweden 10Y 0.691 0.216 April 0.475 -0.2 0.891 1.022
Switzerland 2Y -0.839
Switzerland 5Y -0.48
Switzerland 10Y -0.003 -0.28 January 0.281 -1.1 1.097 0.836
UK 2Y Yield 0.537
UK 5Y Yield 1.39
UK 10Y Yield 1.892 1.337 January 0.555 -0.1 1.992 1.355
US 2Y Yield 0.565
US 5Y Yield 1.506
US 10Y Yield 2.193 1.63 January 0.563 -0.1 2.293 1.628

Source: Investing.com and Trading Economics

I’ve highlighted some of the data. The highest real 10yr yield is to be found in New Zealand (3.64%) but US T-Bonds lie second. The lowest real yield is evident in Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) however, a quick glance at the shape of the Japanese yield curve suggests that inflation, or perhaps I should say deflation, expectations are firmly anchored at near zero, despite repeated bouts of Abenomic stimulus. Japan has the flattest yield curve. The US curve is second steepest, behind Italy, where the spread between 2yr and 10yr is 164.5bp. Italy has also seen the largest rise in yields since its low back in March, although Danish yields have risen to a similar degree as its non-Euro “safe haven” status has waned.

A number of factors have driven yields higher. In the Eurozone (EZ) concern about a Greek exit initially stimulated a “flight to safety” in government securities – other than Greek government bonds – this spilled over into Swiss Confederation bonds. Switzerland remains the ultimate “safe haven”. As yields in the EZ declined to record lows, capital also flowed into EZ stocks. At the same time economic data began to turn more positive, prompted further flows into equities. The last EZ bond markets to turn lower were France and Germany, last month.

Outside the EZ, the US economy has seen mixed data but GDP growth remains steady. Expectations of Federal Reserve rate increases, whilst still some way off (current consensus January 2016) weigh on the T-Bond market. A rebound in crude oil and weakening of the US$ TWI since its highs in early March have also seen an unwinding of bullish US$ and US Treasury exposures.

Stock markets have so far paid little heed to the bond markets. The S&P500 made new highs this week. Canada, Japan, Germany and the UK all made highs in April whilst the Australian ASX retouched its March highs during the month. Even New Zealand, with the second flattest yield curve and structurally higher real interest rate curve, is less than 4% off its all-time highs.

Inflation expectations and real returns

Earlier this week saw the publication of this first part of a two part article about inflation expectations from the NY Fed – FRBNY DSGE Model Forecast–April 2015:-

The top panel in the chart below presents quarterly forecasts for real output growth and the core PCE inflation rate over the 2014-17 horizon. These forecasts were produced on April 9 using data released through 2014:Q4, augmented for 2015:Q1 with a “nowcast” for GDP growth, core PCE inflation, and growth in total hours, and 2015:Q1 observations for financial variables. The reason for using nowcasts is that the model is estimated on National Income and Product Accounts data, which are only available with a lag. Nowcasts incorporate up-to-date information, and this tends to improve short-run forecasts, as shown here. The black line represents released data, the red line is the forecast, and the shaded areas mark the uncertainty associated with our forecasts at 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 percent probability intervals. Output growth and inflation are expressed in quarter-to-quarter percentage annualized rates. 

NY Fed PCE GDP forecasts

Source: NY Fed

The FRBNY DSGE forecast for output growth is slightly stronger than it was in our earlier blog post which used data ending in July 2014. This difference is highlighted in the bottom left panel of the chart, which compares current (solid line) and September (dashed line) forecasts. The model projects the economy to grow 1.9 percent in 2015 (Q4/Q4), 2.1 percent in 2016 and 2.2 percent in 2017. The headwinds that slowed down the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis are finally abating. This is reflected in the model-implied “natural” level of output and the “natural” rate of interest, which are defined as the counterfactual level of output and interest rate that would obtain in an ideal economy where nominal rigidities, markup (or cost-push) shocks, and financial frictions are absent. Estimates of the recent natural level of output show a more rapid growth as the headwinds facing the economy are fading. As we will discuss at length in our next post, the natural rate of interest is finally increasing toward positive ranges, after having been negative for the entire post-Great Recession period.  The recovery has been relatively slow, however, with economic activity remaining below its natural level since the end of 2008 and projected to remain so throughout the forecast horizon. The model thus predicts a very gradual closing of the output gap, measured as the percentage deviation of actual output from natural output (although there is much uncertainty about the gap forecast). This output gap, along with its forecast, is shown in the next chart. 

NY Fed Output Gap

Source: NY Fed

…In conclusion, the FRBNY DSGE model continues to predict a gradual recovery in economic activity with a slow return of inflation toward the FOMC’s long-run target of 2 percent, as the negative effect of the Great Recession dissipates. This forecast remains surrounded by significant uncertainty, with the risks slightly skewed to the downside for output growth because of the constraint on policy imposed by the zero lower bound. 

The Peterson Institute – Quantity Theory of Money Redux? Will Inflation Be the Legacy of Quantitative Easing? Examines the classical monetarist argument that QE will eventually lead to inflation, this is their conclusion:-

On balance, the risk of severe inflation resulting from the buildup of the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve in association with quantitative easing seems low. To begin with, the US economy has not experienced inflation driven by excessive money expansion since at least the mid-1980s. Indeed, the rising demand for money, as the opportunity cost of holding money fell with lower inflation, has meant that over the past three decades there has been a tendency for faster money growth(relative to real GDP) to be associated with lower rather than higher inflation. The supply-focused quantity theory of money broke down. The pattern associating rapid money growth with low inflation since the mid-1980s would require a sharp reversal for money supply to become the proximate cause of inflation. In the meantime, it seems fair to say that in the United States inflation is determined by labor market and product market tightness (in the Phillips curve tradition), and that the opposing proposition that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” (Friedman’s summary of the quantity theory) does not hold in a narrow sense relating to money supply.

A second important phenomenon is that inflation has remained low despite a large buildup in the Fed’s balance sheet not because the velocity of broad money has collapsed, but because the money multiplier has done so. Because of a large increase in excess bank reserves equal to nearly three-fourths of the increase in the Federal Reserve’s total assets, the usual money multiplier (inverse of the reserve requirement ratio) no longer holds. Broad money was 14 times the money base in 2007; by end-2014 it was only 4 times the money base.

A third observation is that arguably this same phenomenon could pose a risk of inflationary money expansion when and if banks start to draw down excess reserves.

Fourth, the principal implication for policy purposes is that the Federal Reserve will need to be particularly adept in avoiding any inflationary pressures that might develop from the unwinding of large excess bank reserves as more normal monetary conditions return. The Fed has clearly given considerable attention to this task and at present plans to use higher interest rates on excess reserves as needed to control such pressures. Indeed, the authority to pay interest on reserves is what will enable the Fed to raise rates when necessary, because otherwise an incipient rise in the short-term interest rate would quickly be choked off as banks ran down excess reserves to take advantage of the higher interest rates.

Fifth, because quantitative easing constitutes navigating in uncharted waters, there is some non-zero probability that inflation could nevertheless still be the consequence of potential money supply expansion resulting from QE.

The key element in their assessment is the “multiplier effect”, bank reserve requirements have increased globally since 2008, QE has merely offset the tightening of credit conditions, but in the process it has crowded out the private sector – which is where real-GDP growth is generated.

A more deflationary view of the current environment is provided in the quarterly letter from Hoisington Asset Management, here are Lacy Hunt’s six characteristics of highly over-indebted nations:-

1. Transitory upturns in economic growth, inflation and high-grade bond yields cannot be sustained because debt is too much of a constraint on economic activity.

2. Due to inherently weak aggregate demand, economies are subject to structural downturns without the typical cyclical pressures such as rising interest rates, inflation and exhaustion of pent-up demand.

3. Deterioration in productivity is not inflationary but just another symptom of the controlling debt influence.

4. Monetary policy is ineffectual, if not a net negative.

5. Inflation falls dramatically, increasing the risk of deflation.

6. Treasury bond yields fall to extremely low levels.

…Many assume that economies can only contract in response to cyclical pressures like rising interest rates and inflation, fiscal restraint, over-accumulation of inventories, or the stock of consumer and corporate capital goods. This idea is valid when debt levels are normal but becomes problematic when debt is excessively high.

Large parts of Europe contracted last year for the third time in the past four years as interest rates and inflation plummeted. The Japanese economy has turned down numerous times over the past twenty years while interest rates were low. Indeed, this has happened so often that nominal GDP in Japan is currently unchanged for the past twenty-three years. This is confirmation that after a prolonged period of taking on excessive debt additional debt becomes counterproductive.

…Falling productivity does not cause faster inflation. The weaker output per hour is a consequence of the over-indebtedness as much as the other five characteristics mentioned above. Productivity is a complex variable impacted by many cyclical and structural influences. Productivity declines during recessions and declines sharply in deep ones.

…Monetary policy impacts the overall economy in two areas – price effects and quantity effects. Price effects, or changes in short-term interest rates, are no longer available because rates are near the zero bound. This is a result of repeated quantitative easing by central banks. It is an attempt to lift overly indebted economies by encouraging more borrowing via low interest rates, thus causing even greater indebtedness.

Quantity effects also don’t work when debt levels are excessive. In a non-debt constrained economy, central banks have the capacity, with lags, to exercise control over money and velocity. However, when the debt overhang is excessive, they lose control over both money and velocity. Central banks can expand the monetary base, but this has little or no impact on money growth.

…In periods of extreme over-indebtedness Treasury bond yields can fall to exceptionally low levels and remain there for extended periods. This pattern is consistent with the Fisher equation that states the nominal risk-free bond yield equals the real yield plus expected inflation (i=r+E*). Expected inflation may be slow to adjust to reality, but the historical record indicates that the adjustment inevitably occurs.

The Fisher equation can be rearranged algebraically so that the real yield is equal to the nominal yield minus expected inflation (r=i–E*). Understanding this is critical in determining how unleveraged investors fare. Suppose that this process ultimately reduces the bond yield to 1.5% and expected inflation falls to -1%. In this situation the real yield would be 2.5%. The investor would receive the 1.5% coupon but the coupon income would be supplemented since the dollars received will have a greater purchasing power. A 1.5% nominal yield with real income lift might turn out to be an excellent return in a deflationary environment. Contrarily, earnings growth is problematic in deflation. Businesses must cut expenses faster than the prices of goods or services fall.

Hunt goes on to predict that yields may rise but this presents an opportunity to buy rather than signalling the end of the bond bull market.

A slightly contrasting view is expressed by Bill Gross in Janus Capital – Investment Outlook:-

Because of this stunted growth, zero based interest rates, and our difficulty in escaping an ongoing debt crisis, the “sense of an ending” could not be much clearer for asset markets. Where can a negative yielding Euroland bond market go once it reaches (–25) basis points? Minus 50? Perhaps, but then at some point, common sense must acknowledge that savers will no longer be willing to exchange cash Euros for bonds and investment will wither. Funny how bonds were labeled “certificates of confiscation” back in the early 1980’s when yields were 14%. What should we call them now? Likewise, all other financial asset prices are inextricably linked to global yields which discount future cash flows, resulting in an Everest asset price peak which has been successfully scaled, but allows for little additional climbing. Look at it this way: If 3 trillion dollars of negatively yielding Euroland bonds are used as the basis for discounting future earnings streams, then how much higher can Euroland (Japanese, UK, U.S) P/E’s go? Once an investor has discounted all future cash flows at 0% nominal and perhaps (–2%) real, the only way to climb up a yet undiscovered Everest is for earnings growth to accelerate above historical norms. Get down off this peak, that F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as a “Mountain as big as the Ritz.” Maybe not to sea level, but get down. Credit based oxygen is running out.

But what should this rational investor do? Breathe deeply as the noose is tightened at the top of the gallows? Well no, asset prices may be past 70 in “market years”, but savoring the remaining choices in terms of reward / risk remains essential. Yet if yields are too low, credit spreads too tight, and P/E ratios too high, what portfolio or set of ideas can lead to a restful, unconscious evening ‘twixt 9 and 5 AM? That is where an unconstrained portfolio and an unconstrained mindset comes in handy. 35 years of an asset bull market tends to ingrain a certain way of doing things in almost all asset managers. Since capital gains have dominated historical returns, investment managers tend to focus on areas where capital gains seem most probable. They fail to consider that mildly levered income as opposed to capital gains will likely be the favored risk / reward alternative. They forget that Sharpe / information ratios which have long served as the report card for an investor’s alpha generating skills were partially just a function of asset bull markets. Active asset managers as well, conveniently forget that their (my) industry has failed to reduce fees as a percentage of assets which have multiplied by at least a factor of 20 since 1981. They believe therefore, that they and their industry deserve to be 20 times richer because of their skill or better yet, their introduction of confusing and sometimes destructive quantitative technologies and derivatives that led to Lehman and the Great Recession.

Hogwash. This is all ending. The successful portfolio manager for the next 35 years will be one that refocuses on the possibility of periodic negative annual returns and miniscule Sharpe ratios and who employs defensive choices that can be mildly levered to exceed cash returns, if only by 300 to 400 basis points. My recent view of a German Bund short is one such example. At 0%, the cost of carry is just that, and the inevitable return to 1 or 2% yields becomes a high probability, which will lead to a 15% “capital gain” over an uncertain period of time. I wish to still be active in say 2020 to see how this ends. As it is, in 2015, I merely have a sense of an ending, a secular bull market ending with a whimper, not a bang. But if so, like death, only the timing is in doubt. Because of this sense, however, I have unrest, increasingly a great unrest. You should as well.

I believe the world’s major central banks still have the capacity to provide support, should the bond and stock markets collapse, by the effective “quasi-nationalisation” of assets – both equity and fixed income, but I foresee a point where there is a public challenge to the legality of this activity as it crowds out the private sector. I also expect that investors will eventually realise that income generating assets must offer a real-return regardless of potential capital appreciation.

In aggregate, trading is a zero-sum game – except for the broker – investing, by contrast, is about generating long-term income. In a deflationary environment a government bond, should it prove to be risk-free, may offer good value even at next to the zero bound, but, for less fortunate bond holders, default risk needs to be compensated. What is a fair price for lending money to a grateful government? The Minneapolis Fed – Sovereign Default: The Role of Expectations takes a fresh approach to some of these issues. Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century suggests 5% is the long-term average return on investment, based on his extensive historical research – the link is to a Pdf presentation from 2014, which is easier than reading the 700 page book. Given developed nation governments propensity to run budget deficits, this seems a reasonable return. The only government offering close to 5% is New Zealand at 3.74%. Ironically, their Debt to GDP ratio is only 36% and they have run a small budget surplus for most of the last 40 years.

If risk premia are not permitted to return towards their long-run average, I envisage liquidity disappearing from bond and stock markets as public institutions – namely central banks – acquire the majority of bond issues and the free-float in “strategically important” stocks. Crowdfunding and microfinance may fill some of the gap and capital will flow to growing economies as the world order changes, but liquidity in the world’s largest capital markets may be in short supply. Fortunately, this somewhat apocalyptic view is a while away.

Bond yields may rise, but not significantly above 5%, at which juncture their respective economies will stall due to over-indebtedness – in reality I think it unlikely they will get anywhere near this level until pricing power in product markets returns. The FRBSF – Mortgaging the Future? Investigates the extraordinary expansion in credit since WWII and among their conclusions is the observation that the real estate sector has far greater impact on the economy than in the past. Of course the absolute return to savers is likely to remain pitiful, as this video, from the March conference of the Global Interdependence Centre – Policies for the Post Crisis Era, makes clear; Chris Whalen’s presentation starts around 4 minutes in and lasts for 10 minutes. It’s well worth considering his opinion that, for the world economy to function properly, interest rates need to rise and credit formation to rebound, lest the “wheel of circulation” – as originally described by Adam Smith – grind to an inexorable halt.

For most of the major Central banks, intervention will be undertaken if yield increases are deemed to be detrimental to the mortgage market, and, as bond yields then trend lower, stocks will rise.

At what rate will they intervene? The NY Fed recently commented on “the natural rate of interest” is this article – Why Are Interest Rates So Low?:-

In conclusion, the low level of interest rates experienced since 2008 is largely attributable to a reduction in the natural rate of interest, which reflects cautious behavior on the part of households and firms. Monetary policy has largely accommodated the decline in the natural rate of interest, in order to mitigate the adverse effects of the crisis, but the zero lower bound on interest rates has imposed a constraint on the ability of interest rate policy to stabilize the economy. Looking ahead, we expect these headwinds to continue to abate, and the natural rate of interest to return closer to historical levels.

This is somewhat at odds with thier DSGE forecast. Consensus indicates the natural rate of interest to be around 3% which equates to a nominal rate of 5% assuming an inflation target of 2%. The original concept of the natural rate of interest was introduced in 1898 by Knut Wicksell, it’s a slippery customer:-

…it is not a high or low rate of interest in the absolute sense which must be regarded as influencing the demand for raw materials, labour, and land or other productive resources, and so indirectly as determining the movement of prices. The causality factor is the current rate of interest on loans as compared to [the natural rate].

In the shorter term I do not believe bond investors will suffer too catastrophically. I’m indebted to Garth Friesen – III Capital Management –for the excellent charts below:-

Barclay bond index vs SandP - III Capital Management

Source: III Capital Management

You can read his assessment of the current situation in this article – Silencing the Roar of the Bond Bear. In the past 25 years the largest negative quarterly return from the Barclays bond index was -2.9%, that was back in 1994 when the Fed tightened interest rates abruptly, causing stocks and bonds to collapse in tandem. The next chart highlights the benefits of diversification, generally bonds flip when stocks flop:-

SandP vs Barclays Bond index 25 yr -III Cap Man

Source: III Capital Management

Conclusion and investment opportunities

If inflation is likely to remain subdued due to the excessive debt overhang, then the recent rise in bond prices is simply a correction. How far will this correction go or has it already run its course?

I could analyse each market, apply an array of technical analysis and establish a set of individual forecasts but I believe it is better to view these markets through the lens of the JGB market. Japan has been struggling with bouts of deflation since the 1990’s. Whilst most other nations – Switzerland being a notable exception – have only recently witnessed widespread falling prices, the evolution of inflation expectations are likely to follow a similar course.

japan-inflation-cpi

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs

japan-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Treasury

japan-interest-rate

Source: Trading Economics and Bank of Japan

As the Japanese stock market collapsed after 1989 inflation declined rapidly. JGBs, influenced by the rate tightening of the US Fed, suffered a rise in yields in 1994 but then declined once more – after all, the price index was now negative. Inflation witnessed a brief rebound ahead of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. The Bank of Japan (BoJ) left short term interest rates on hold and JGB yields declined again as the Asian Crisis gathered momentum.

Between 2000 and 2005 Japan struggled with mild deflation, despite expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. At the risk of being vilified for wild generalisation, this is the point where the other bond markets are now. The charts below cover the period 2001-2007, after the bursting of the US Technology Bubble and prior to the Sub-Prime collapse:-

japan-government-bond-yield 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Treasury

japan-stock-market 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics and Tokyo Stock Exchange

japan-currency 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics

The table below extrapolates the corrections and counter-corrections of the JGB in the chart above and compares them to the German Bund and the US Treasury 10 year maturities:-

JGB 10yr Rise/Fall Change Bund 10yr Rise/Fall   Change US T-Bond 10yr Rise/Fall   Change
Range in bp BP % Equivalent bp BP % Equivalent bp BP %
55 – 185* 130* 236* 5 – 80* 75* 1500* 138 – 304* 166* 120*
185 – 120* -65* -35* 80 – 52 -28 35 304 – 163* -141* -46*
120 – 195* 75* 63* 52 – 85 33 63 163 – 266 103 63
195 – 160* -35* -18* 85 – 70 -15 -18 266 – 218 -48 -18
160 – 190* 30* 19* 70 – 83 13 19 218 –   259 41 19

*These figures are actual outcomes

Source: Investing.com and Tokyo Stock Exchange

I am taking the US T-Bond low (1.38%) of July 2012 to be the current nadir. It may now be embarking on a third corrective wave, if you believe in Elliott Wave theory, which could see yields rise toward 3% once more. The Bund correction, from 80bp to 55bp by 19th May, was probably too swift, meaning the market may break above 0.80% before yields decline again.

The price cycles in each of these markets are unlikely to tally either in duration or magnitude, but, after a capitulation in Europe, in which 10yr Bund yield almost turned negative, even the most ardent fixed income protagonists have been unable to justify remaining fully invested – we have now entered a corrective period. A 130bp rebound would take Bunds just above the 61.8% retracement of the recent decline (1.35%). This scale of correction would clear out the majority of weak hands.

Without inflation, growth prospects for the EZ will continue to rely on the benevolence of the ECB who announced additional QE measures earlier this week. Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, gave this speech on Monday – How binding is the zero lower bound?

Since 2007 JGB yields had marched steadily lower until this January; without some form of resolution of the over indebtedness of developed nations, yields will remain well below what used to be regarded as the natural rate of interest. 3% is likely to cap yields on 10yr US T-Bonds, Bunds will struggle to get above 2%. JGBs are more difficult to predict, but attempts at reflation are likely to fail whilst debt remains so high relative to GDP. The Japanese government cannot afford a doubling or tripling of its interest bill.

For the trader there is plenty of opportunity with yields ranges of 200 to 300bp, but beware of the void of liquidity that results from the absence of free-float. Rising bond correlation, rising yields and the lack of a “dealer of last resort” create dangers of their own.

Broken BRICs – Can Brazil and Russia rebound?

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Macro Letter – No 35 – 08-05-2015

Broken BRICs – Can Brazil and Russia rebound?

  • The economies of Brazil and Russia will contract in 2015
  • Their divergence with China and India is structural
  • Economic reform is needed to stimulate long term growth
  • Stocks and bonds will continue to benefit from currency depreciation

When Jim O’Neill, then CIO of GSAM, coined the BRIC collective in 2001, to describe the largest of the emerging market economies, each country was growing strongly, however, O’Neill was the first to acknowledge the significant differences between these disparate countries in terms of their character. Since the Great Recession the economic fortunes of each country has been mixed, but, whilst the relative strength of China and India has continued, Brazil and Russia might be accused of imitating Icarus.

Economic Backdrop

In order to evaluate the prospects for Brazil and Russia it is worth reviewing the unique aspects of, and differences between, each economy.

According to the IMF April 2015 WEO, Brazil is ranked eighth largest by GDP and seventh largest by GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity. Russia was ranked tenth and sixth respectively. Between 2000 and 2012 Brazilian economic growth averaged 5%, yet this year, according to the IMF, the economy is forecast to contract by 1%. The forecast for Latin America combined is +0.6%. For Russia the commodity boom helped GDP rise 7% per annum between 2000 and 2008, but with international sanctions continuing to bite, this year’s GDP is expected to be 3.8% lower.

Brazil’s service sector is the largest component of GDP at 67%, followed by the industry,27% and agriculture, 5.5%. The labour force is around 101mln, of which 10% is engaged in agriculture, 19% in industry and 71% in services. Russia by contrast is more reliant on energy and other natural resources. In 2012[update] oil and gas accounted for 16% of GDP, 52% of federal budget revenues and more than 70% of total exports. As of 2012 agriculture accounted for 4.4% of GDP, industry 37.6% and services 58%. The labour force is somewhat smaller at 76mln (2015).

The Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity 2012 ranks Brazil 56th and Russia 47th. The table below shows the divergence in IMF forecasts since January. During the period October 2014 and February 2015 the Rouble (RUB) declined by 30% whilst the Brazilian Real (BRL) fell only 9%:-

Country GDP GDP Forecast Forecast Jan-14 Jan-14
2013 2014 2015 2016 2015 2016
Brazil 2.7 0.1 -1 1 -1.3 -0.5
Russia 1.3 0.6 -3.8 -1.1 -0.8 -0.1

Source: IMF WEO April 2015

On March 14th the Bank of Russia published its three year economic forecast: it was decidedly rosy. This was how the Peterson Institute – The Incredibly Rosy Forecast of Russia’s Central Bank described it:-

…the Bank of Russia argues that the huge devaluation of the ruble that took place between October 2014 and February 2015 has a minor effect on economic growth. This claim neglects much empirical evidence that sharp devaluations retard investment activity, for two reasons. First, investment technology from abroad becomes more expensive—nearly 80 percent more expensive in the case of Russia. Second, devaluations increase uncertainty in business planning and hence slow down investment in domestic technology as well. Both effects work to depress economic activity in the short term.

…2017 is presented as the year of a strong rebound, as a result of cyclical macroeconomic forces. In particular, says the Bank of Russia, growth will reach 5.5 to 6.3 percent that year. It is true that the economy was already slowing down in 2012, before last year’s sanctions and devaluation. It is also true that the average business cycle globally has historically lasted about six years. But this is no ordinary cycle—sanctions are likely to play a bigger role than the Bank of Russia cares to admit. The main reason is their effect on the banking sector, where credit activity is already substantially curtailed, and may be curtailed even further once corporate eurobonds start coming due later this year. The devaluation has exacerbated the credit crunch as interest rates spiked in early 2015 to over 20 to 25 percent for business loans. These effects point in one direction: a prolonged recession.

Finally, the Russian government is reducing public investment in infrastructure in this year’s budget to try and cut overall expenditure by about 10 percent. This cutback is going to dampen growth because the multiplier on infrastructure investment is highest among all public expenditures. The Bank of Russia seems to have forgotten to account for this elementary fact of life.

Overall, the economic picture may end up being quite different from what the Bank of Russia forecasts. Instead of economic growth of –3.5 to –4 percent in 2015, –1 to –1.6 percent in 2016, and 5.5 to 6.3 percent in 2017, it may be closer to –6 to –7 percent in 2015, –3 to –4 percent in 2016, and zero growth in 2017. This scenario is worth contemplating, as it would mean that the reserve fund that the government uses to finance its deficit may be fully depleted in this period. What then?

The table below compares a range of other indicators for the two economies:-

Indicator Brazil     Russia    
  Last Reference Previous Last Reference Previous
Interest Rate 13.25% Apr-15 12.75 12.50% Apr-15 14
Government Bond 10Y 12.90% May-15 10.71% May-15
Stock Market YTD* 14.70% May-15 23.20% May-15
GDP per capita $5,823 Dec-13 5730 $6,923 Dec-13 6849
Unemployment Rate 6.20% Mar-15 5.9 5.90% Mar-15 5.8
Inflation Rate – Annual 8.13% Mar-15 7.7 16.90% Mar-15 16.7
PPI – Annual 2.27% Jan-15 2.15 13% Mar-15 9.5
Balance of Trade $491mln Apr-15 458 $13,600mln Mar-15 13597
Current Account -$5,736mln Mar-15 -6879 $23,542mln Feb-15 15389
Current Account/GDP -4.17% Dec-14 -3.66 1.56% Dec-13 3.6
External Debt $348bln Nov-14 338 $559bln Feb-15 597
FDI $4,263mln Mar-15 2769 -$1,144mln Aug-14 12131
Capital Flows $7,570mln Feb-15 10826 -$43,071mln Nov-14 -10260
Gold Reserves 67.2t Nov-14 67.2 1,208t Nov-14 1150
Crude Oil Output ,000’s 2,497bpd Dec-14 2358 10,197bpd Dec-14 10173
Government Debt/GDP 58.91% Dec-14 56.8 13.41% Dec-13 12.74
Industrial Production -9.10% Feb-15 -5.2 -0.60% Mar-15 -1.6
Capacity Utilization 79.70% Feb-15 80.9 59.85% Mar-15 62.04
Consumer Confidence** 99 Apr-15 100 -32 Feb-15 -18
Retail Sales YoY -3.10% Feb-15 0.5 -8.70% Mar-15 -7.7
Gasoline Prices $1.04/litre Mar-15 1.16 $0.68/litre Apr-15 0.61
Corporate Tax Rate 34% Jan-14 34 20% Jan-15 20
Income Tax Rate 27.50% Jan-14 27.5 13% Jan-15 13
Sales Tax Rate 19% Jan-14 19 18% Jan-15 18
*Bovespa = Brazil
*Micex = Russia
** Consumer confidence in Brazil – 100 = neutral, Consumer confidence in Russia – 0 = neutral

Source: Trading Economics and Investing.com

From this table it is worth highlighting a number of factors; firstly interest rates. Rates continue to rise in Brazil despite the relatively benign inflation rate. The rise in the Russian, Micex stock index has been much stronger than that of the Brazilian, Bovespa, partly this is due to the larger fall in the value of the RUB and partly due to the recent recovery in the oil price. PPI inflation in Brazil remains broadly benign, especially in comparison with 2014, whilst in Russia it is stubbornly high – making last week’s rate cut all the more surprising.

Brazilian industrial production continues to decline, a trend it has been struggling to reverse, yet capacity utilisation remains relatively high. Russian industrial production never rebounded as swiftly from the 2008 crisis but has remained in positive territory for the last few years despite the geo-political situation. Remembering that one of Russia’s largest industries is arms manufacture – the country ranks third by military expenditure globally behind China and US – this may not be entirely surprising.

Of more concern for Brazil, is the structural nature of its current account deficit, since the advent of the Great Recession. This combination of deficit and inflation prompted Morgan Stanley, back in 2013, to label Brazil one of the “Fragile Five” alone side India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey. Russia, by contrast, has run a surplus for almost the entire period since the Asian crisis of 1998.

The Government debt to GDP ratio in Russia has risen slightly but the experience of the Asian crisis appears to have been taken on board. Added to which, the sanctions regime means Russia is cut off from international capital markets. In Brazil the ratio is not high in comparison with many developed nations but the ratio has been rising since 2011 and looks set to match the 2010 high of 60.9 next year if spending is not curtailed.

A final observation concerns gold reserves. Brazil has relatively little, although they did increase in January 2013 after a prolonged period at very low levels. Russia has taken a different approach, since 2008 its reserves have tripled from less than 400t to more than 1,200t today. There have been suggestions that this is a prelude to Russia adopting a “hard currency” standard in the face of continuous debasement of fiat currencies by developed nation central banks, but that is beyond the remit of this essay.

Are the BRICs broken?

In an article published in July 2014 by Bruegal – Is the BRIC rise over? Jim O’Neill discusses the future with reference to the establishment of a joint development bank:-

Some observers believed that the whole notion of a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China never made any sound sense because beyond having a lot of people, they didn’t share anything else in common. In particular, two are democracies, and two are not, obviously, China and Russia.  Similarly, two are major commodity producers, Brazil and Russia, the other two, not. And their levels of wealth are quite different, with Brazil and Russia well above $10,000, China around $ 7-8 k, and India less than $ 2k per head.  And the sceptic would follow all of this by saying, the only reason why Brazil and Russia grew so well in the past decade was simply due to a persistent boom in commodity prices, and once that finished, as appears to be the case now, then their economies would lose their shine, as indeed appears to be the case.  Throw in that China would inevitably be caught by its own significant challenges at some point, which the doubters would say, is now, then all is left is India, and if it weren’t for the election of Modi recently, there has not been a lot to justify structural optimism about that country recently.

…I do believe each of Brazil and Russia have got some challenges to face, that they are not yet confronting, which at the core is to reduce their dependency to the commodity cycle, and while there are many differences between them, they do both need to become more competitive and entrepreneurial outside of commodities and to boost private sector investment.

The development has caused much political jawboning but I suspect its impact will be small in the near-term.

Looking again at the figures for capital flows, Brazil appeared to be in better shape, but Russian FDI has been positive in every quarter since 2008 until the most recent outflow in Q3 2014.

Consumer confidence in Brazil has remained more robust, possibly this is due to innate Latin optimism but it may be partly in expectation of the forthcoming Olympics. The games will take place in Rio, reminding us of the high urbanisation rates in Brazil, 85.4%. This is not dissimilar to Russia at 73.9% but substantially higher than China 54.4% and India 32.4%. Interestingly US urbanisation is 81.4% – but US GDP per capita is significantly higher.

Russia

The Peterson Institute – Russia’s Economic Situation Is Worse than It May Appear from early December 2014 painted a gloomy picture of the prospects:-

The Russian economy suffers from three severe blows: ever worsening structural policies, financial sanctions from the West, and a falling oil price. 

…Russia is experiencing large capital outflows, expected to reach $120 billion. Because of Western financial sanctions, they are set to continue. The large outflows erupted in March as investors anticipated financial sanctions, which hit in July and in effect have closed financial markets to Russia. No significant international financial institution dares to take the legal risk of lending Russia money today. 

Not wishing to be left out of the rhetoric on Russia’s demise, in late December the ECFR – What will be the consequences of the Russian currency crisis?:-

The watershed moment was the imposition of the third round of Western sanctions, which cut Russian companies off from the world’s financial markets. Along with falling oil prices (a key market factor), this caused market players to reassess the risks. Before the introduction of sanctions, the ratio of external debt to foreign exchange reserves (at 1.4) was not particularly worrying. But the fact that companies could no longer refinance their debt on external markets necessitated a rethink. It became clear that, with export revenues falling because of lower oil prices, companies would accumulate excess currency in their accounts. The supply of currency in the market from exporters (many of whom also had large debts) declined sharply, while demand from the debtor companies increased.

In October 2014 the Central Bank was forced to spend another $26 billion to support the rouble. After that, preserving the country’s reserves became the priority, so in November, the bank’s intervention fell to $10 billion. So everything was in place for a currency crisis and this is why the Russian Minister for the Economy called it “the perfect storm”. The storm was only halted by a sharp increase in the Central Bank’s interest rate and by informal pressure on companies that brought about a speedy decline in foreign exchange trading.

…So the double devaluation of the rouble will be felt in rising price and shrinking consumption. According to the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, this will add at least 10–12 percentage points to normal inflation, which will reach 15-20 percent. Import substitution options are relatively limited: large-scale import substitution would require significant investment and, at the moment, the resources for this are not there. And a fall in consumption (as a result of the falling purchasing power of households) will cause a decline in production.

According to the Central Bank’s December forecast, GDP in 2015 may fall by 4.5–4.8 percent. This is what the bank calls a “stress scenario”, and it assumes that the oil price will stay at $60 a barrel and Western sanctions will remain in place. In fact, this scenario seems to be the most realistic; any other scenario would involve either the lifting of sanctions or a rise in the oil price to $80 or even $100.

The dismal theme was inevitably taken up by CFR – The Russian Crisis: Early Days in early January:-

The most likely trigger for a future crisis resides in the financial sector. December’s $2 billion bailout of Trust Bank, coupled with news of large and potentially open-ended support for VTB Bank and Gazprombank, highlight the rapidly escalating costs of the crisis for the financial sector as state banks and energy companies face high dollar-denominated debt payments and falling revenues. Rising bad loans, falling equity values, and soaring foreign-currency debt are devastating balance sheets. As foreign banks pull back their support, the combination of sanctions, oil prices, and rising nonperforming loans is creating a toxic mix for Russian banks. So far, a crisis has been deferred by the belief that the central bank can and will fully stand behind the banking system. If any doubt creeps in about the strength of that commitment, a run will quickly materialize.

…Sanctions are a force multiplier. Western sanctions have taken away the usual buffers—such as foreign borrowing and expanding trade—that Russia relies on to insulate its economy from an oil shock. Over the past several months, Western banks have cut their relationships and pulled back on lending, creating severe domestic market pressures. The financial system has fragmented. Meanwhile, trade and investment have dropped sharply. These forces limit the capacity of the Russian economy to adjust to any shock. Russia could have weathered an oil shock or sanctions alone, but not both together.

…Measured by the severity of recent market moves, Russia is in crisis. But from a broader perspective, a comprehensive economic and financial crisis would cause a far greater degree of financial distress for the Russian people. Companies would find working capital unavailable; interest rates of 17 percent (or higher) and exchange rate depreciation would cause a spike in import prices; and capital expenditure would crater. All this would generate sharp increases in unemployment and a far greater fall in gross domestic product (GDP) than we have seen so far.

Chatham House – Troubled Times Stagnation, Sanctions and the Prospects for Economic Reform in Russia – published at the end of February, goes into more depth, concluding:-

Over the past three decades, a precipitous drop in oil prices (and a concomitant sharp reduction in rents) has resulted in economic reforms being undertaken in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika emerged after the fall in oil prices in 1986. Putin’s earlier, more liberal economic policies were carried out after oil dropped to close to $10 a barrel in 1999. And Dmitri Medvedev’s modernization agenda was strongest in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008–09.

Unfortunately, the prospects for a similar surge in economic reform in Russia today are less good. The unfavourable geopolitical environment threatens to change the trajectory of political and economic development in Russia for the worse. By boosting factions within Russia’s policy elite who favour increased state control and less integration with the global economy, poor relations with the West threaten to reduce the prospects for a market-oriented turn in economic policy. As a result, the prevailing system of political economy that is in such urgent need of transformation may in fact be preserved in a more ossified form. Instead of responding to adversity through openness, Russia may take the historically well-trodden path of using a threatening international environment to justify centralization and international isolation in order to strengthen the existing ruling elite.

Thus, while Western sanctions were not necessarily intended to strengthen statist factions within Russia and force the country away from the global economy, this may prove to be an unintended but important outcome. Consequently, Russia appears to be locked into a path of economic policy inertia, as powerful constituencies that benefit from the existing system are strengthened by the showdown with the West. While Russia may have ‘won’ Crimea, and may even succeed in ensuring that Ukraine is not ‘won’ by the West, the price of victory may be a deterioration in long-term prospects for socioeconomic development.

This is how the USDRUB has performed during the last 12 months, the first interest rate cut (from 17% to 15% took place on 30th January, the RUB fell 3% on the day to around USDRUB 70, since then the RUB has appreciated to around USDRUB 55-55:-

USDRUB 1yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

What caused the RUB to return from the brink was a recovery in the oil price and a slight improvement in the politics of the Ukraine. The Minsk II Agreement, whilst only partially observed, has curtailed an escalation of the Ukrainian civil war. Capital outflows which were $77bln in Q4 2014 slowed to $32bln in Q1 2015. Ironically, the rebound in the currency and appreciation in the Micex index will probably delay the necessary structural reforms which are needed to reinvigorate the economy.

Brazil

At the end of February the Economist – Brazil – In a quagmiredescribed the challenges facing President Rousseff’s weak government:-

Brazil’s economy is in a mess, with far bigger problems than the government will admit or investors seem to register. The torpid stagnation into which it fell in 2013 is becoming a full-blown—and probably prolonged—recession, as high inflation squeezes wages and consumers’ debt payments rise (see article). Investment, already down by 8% from a year ago, could fall much further. A vast corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, has ensnared several of the country’s biggest construction firms and paralysed capital spending in swathes of the economy, at least until the prosecutors and auditors have done their work. The real has fallen by 30% against the dollar since May 2013: a necessary shift, but one that adds to the burden of the $40 billion in foreign debt owed by Brazilian companies that falls due this year.

…Ideally, Brazil would offset this fiscal squeeze with looser monetary policy. But because of the country’s hyperinflationary past, as well as more recent mistakes—the Central Bank bent to the president’s will, ignored its inflation target and foolishly slashed its benchmark rate in 2011-12—the room for manoeuvre today is limited. With inflation still above its target, the Central Bank cannot cut its benchmark rate from today’s level of 12.25% without risking further loss of credibility and sapping investor confidence. A fiscal squeeze and high interest rates spell pain for Brazilian firms and households and a slower return to growth.

Yet the president’s weakness is also an opportunity—and for Mr Levy in particular. He is now indispensable. He should build bridges to Mr Cunha, while making it clear that if Congress tries to extract a budgetary price for its support, that will lead to cuts elsewhere. The recovery of fiscal responsibility must be lasting for business confidence and investment to return. But the sooner the fiscal adjustment sticks, the sooner the Central Bank can start cutting interest rates.

More is needed for Brazil to return to rapid and sustained growth. It may be too much to expect Ms Rousseff to overhaul the archaic labour laws that have helped to throttle productivity, but she should at least try to simplify taxes and cut mindless red tape. There are tentative signs that the government will scale back industrial policy and encourage more international trade in what remains an over-protected economy.

Brazil is not the only member of the BRICS quintet of large emerging economies to be in trouble. Russia’s economy, in particular, has been battered by war, sanctions and dependence on oil. For all its problems, Brazil is not in as big a mess as Russia. It has a large and diversified private sector and robust democratic institutions. But its woes go deeper than many realise. The time to put them right is now.

Earlier this week the Peterson Institute – The Rescue of Brazil summed up the current situation:-

The Brazilian economy has all the characteristics of a country under the tutelage of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. The list of its economic imbalances is endless: a rampant current account deficit in excess of 4 percent of GDP, an exchange rate that has long been overvalued but that has collapsed in just a few months, a public debt ratio to GDP in a rapid upward trend, a fiscal deficit of over 6 percent of GDP despite a high tax burden, an annual inflation rate of nearly 8 percent that has unanchored inflation expectations, an accelerated growth of wages well above their very low productivity. The scandal of the oil company Petrobras, the latest in a long series of political corruption scandals, is the straw that could break the back of investors’ patience, the tolerance of Brazilian citizens, and the stamina of the world’s seventh largest economy. The Petrobras scandal has far-reaching ramifications throughout the economy and society, paralyzing activity and collapsing both business and consumer confidence to unprecedented levels. The mass street demonstrations of recent weeks are the most graphic example of this dissatisfaction.

In another Op-ed Peterson – Brazil’s Investment: A Maze in One’s Own Navel the authors point to the relatively closed nature of the Brazilian economy for the lack of international investment:-

Consider the most common explanations for why Brazil’s investment rate shows persistent apathy: Excessive taxes levied on businesses discourage fixed capital formation; poor infrastructure—including ongoing problems in the energy sector—increases production costs; high wages relative to worker productivity weigh on firms, hampering investment; an opaque business environment characterized by obsolete and excessive licensing requirements reduce firms’ incentives to invest; an institutional environment marked by subsidized lending that favors certain firms over others misallocates scarce domestic savings; “state capitalism” and excessive government intervention crowd out the private sector. Evidently, all of these reasons have a role in explaining investment inertia. But, importantly, they are all homegrown.

Perhaps Brazil’s sclerotic investment has something to do with its long-standing lack of openness. It is no mystery that Brazil is one of the most closed economies in the world according to any metric that one chooses to gauge the degree of openness. It is no coincidence that this is also the most striking difference between Brazil and its emerging-market peers: Brazil is more closed than Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile; all members of the Pacific Alliance, their growth rates are higher than Brazil’s. Brazil is also less open than India, China, Turkey, and South Africa.

There is an extensive academic and empirical literature on the relationship between investment and openness (see, for example, the Peterson Institute’s video on trade and investment). Several research papers show that the more open an economy is to international trade, the more foreign direct investment it receives. The more foreign direct investment it receives, the greater the availability of resources for domestic investment. Competition is also crucial: Economies that are more open induce greater competition between local and foreign firms, creating incentives for innovation and investment by domestic companies.

Unfortunately, Brazil is still fairly close-minded when it comes to these issues. Fears of losing market share and the old litany of “selling the country to foreigners” still dominate the national debate.

The weakening of the BRL has continued for rather longer than the decline in the RUB, perhaps as a result of the Petrobras “Car Wash” scandal, but a modicum of stability has been regained since early April, as the chart below shows:-

USDBRL 1yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Commodity correlation

Both Brazil and Russia are large commodity exporters. The table below is for 2011 but a clear picture emerges:-

Commodity Russia Brazil
Oil & Products $190bln $22bln
Iron Ore & Products $19bln $54bln

Source: CIA Factbook

Platts reported that Iron Ore prices (62% Fe Iron Ore Index) had risen since the end of April to $57.75/dmt CFR North China, up $2.25 on 4th May. It is probably too soon to confirm that Iron Ore prices have bottomed but with oil prices now significantly higher ($60/bbl) since their lows ($45/bbl) seen in March. Copper has also begun to rise – perhaps in response to the performance of the Chinese stock market – rising from lows of less than $2.50/lb in January to $2.94/lb this week.

The chart below shows the relative performance of the CRB Index and the GSCI Index which has a heavier weighting to energy:-

GSCI and CRB 1 yr

Source: FT

The general recovery in commodity prices is still nascent but it is supportive for both Brazil and Russia in the near term. Both countries have benefitted from devaluation relative to their export partners as this table illustrates:-

Russia Exports Brazil Exports
Netherlands 10.70% China 17%
Germany 8.20% United States 11.10%
China 6.80% Argentina 7.40%
Italy 5.50% Netherlands 6.20%
Ukraine 5%
Turkey 4.90%
Belarus 4.10%
Japan 4.00%

Source: CIA Factbook

Asset prices and investment opportunities

Real Estate

Russian real estate prices have been subdued during the last few years, but the underlying market has been active. The lack of price appreciation is due to a massive increase in house building. 912,000 new homes were built in 2013 – the highest number since 1989. Prices are lower in 10 out 46 regions, however, this new supply should be viewed in the context of the housing bubble which drove prices higher by 436% between 2000 and 2007:-

russia-house-prices-2

Source: Global Property Guide

Brazilian property, by contrast, has risen in price. In inflation adjusted terms, prices increased 7.6% in 2013, although these increases are less than those seen during 2011/2012. Rio continues to outperform (+15.2% vs +13.9% nationally) and the forthcoming Olympics should support prices into 2016:-

brazil-house-prices-1

Source: Global Property Guide

Neither of these markets present obvious opportunities. Brazilian prices are likely to moderate in response to higher interest rates whilst increased Russian supply will hang over the market for the foreseeable future. The rental yields in the table are somewhat out of date but clearly offer a less attractive income than government bonds:-

BRAZIL November 16th 2013
SAO PAULO – Apartments
Property Size Yield
80 sq. m. 5.68%
120 sq. m. 4.71%
200 sq. m. 6.15%
350 sq. m. 6.23%
RIO DE JANEIRO -Apartments
60 sq. m. 4.40%
90 sq. m. 3.82%
120 sq. m. 3.91%
200 sq. m. 4.89%
RUSSIA June 24th 2014
MOSCOW – Apartments
Property Size Yield
75 sq. m. 3.84%
120 sq. m. 3.22%
160 sq. m. 3.07%
275 sq. m. 3.42%
ST. PETERSBURG – Apartments
60 sq. m. 6.20%
120 sq. m. 4.36%
175 sq. m. 3.46%

Source: Global Property Guide

Stocks

The chart below compares the performance of Micex and the Bovespa indices over the past year. The devaluation of the RUB has been greater than that of the BRL – this accounts for the majority of the divergence:-

MICEX vs BOVESPA 1yr

Source: FT

Looking more closely at the components of the two indices there is a marked energy and commodity bias, the table below looks at the largest stocks, representing roughly 80% of each index:-

Ticker Stock Weight Sector Free-float
GAZP GAZPROM 15 Energy 46%
SBER Sberbank 14.01 Financial Services 48%
LKOH ОАО “LUKOIL” 13.97 Energy 57%
ROSN Rosneft 5.84 Energy 15%
URKA Uralkali 5.19 Commodity 45%
GMKN “OJSC “MMC “NORILSK NICKEL” 4.79 Commodity 24%
NVTK JSC “NOVATEK” 3.93 Energy 18%
SNGS Surgutneftegas 3.49 Energy 25%
RTKM Rostelecom 3.03 Telecomm 43%
TATN TATNEFT 3.01 Energy 32%
VTBR JSC VTB Bank 2.97 Financial Services 25%
MGNT OJSC “Magnit” 2.22 Commodity 24%
TRNFP Transneft, Pref 2.21 Energy 100%
TOTAL WEIGHTING 79.66
Ticker Stock Weight Sector
ITUB4 ITAUUNIBANCO 10.764 Financial Services
BBDC4 BRADESCO 8.2 Financial Services
ABEV3 AMBEV S/A 7.368 Brewing
PETR4 PETROBRAS 6.045 Energy
PETR3 PETROBRAS 4.416 Energy
VALE5 VALE 3.971 Commodity
BRFS3 BRF SA 3.741 Commodity
VALE3 VALE 3.558 Commodity
ITSA4 ITAUSA 3.433 Financial Services
CIEL3 CIELO 3.37 Financial Services
JBSS3 JBS 2.705 Commodity
UGPA3 ULTRAPAR 2.487 Energy
BBSE3 BBSEGURIDADE 2.47 Financial Services
BVMF3 BMFBOVESPA 2.393 Financial Services
BBAS3 BRASIL 2.344 Financial Services
EMBR3 EMBRAER 1.823 Aerospace
VIVT4 TELEF BRASIL 1.733 Telecomm
PCAR4 P.ACUCAR-CBD 1.663 Retail
KROT3 KROTON 1.49 Support Services
CCRO3 CCR SA 1.48 Transport
BBDC3 BRADESCO 1.445 Financial Services
LREN3 LOJAS RENNER 1.364 Retail
CMIG4 CEMIG 1.207 Energy
CRUZ3 SOUZA CRUZ 1.027 Tobacco
TOTAL WEIGHTING 80.497

Source: Moscow Exchange and BMF Bovespa

The Russian index is clearly more exposed to energy, 48% and commodities, 12%, than the Brazilian index, where the weightings are 14 % each for energy and commodities. It is important to note that the Bovespa index adjusts for the “free-float” for each stock whilst Micex does not, however under Micex rules no stock may account for more than 15% of the index. The free-float adjusted weight of energy and commodities is therefore 18% and 4% respectively.

On the basis of this analysis, currency fluctuation has been the predominant influence on stock market returns, followed by energy and commodity prices. The PE ratios of Micex and Bovespa at roughly 8 times, are undemanding but neither the economic nor the political situation in either country is conducive to long term growth. I expect both markets to continue to recover, although Micex will probably fair best. Longer term, economic reform is required to raise the structural rate of growth.

Although not mentioned in any of the articles quoted above, Russian demographics are unfavourable as this article from Yale University – Russian Demographics: The Perfect Storm – makes clear:-

One measure of an economically secure homeland is women’s willingness to raise children with the expectation of opportunities for good health, education and livelihoods. On that front, Russia confronts a perfect storm – as fertility rates plummeted to 1.2 births per women in the late 1990s and now stand at 1.7 births per women. “Russia’s population will most likely decline in the coming decades, perhaps reaching an eventual size in 2100 that’s similar to its 1950 level of around 100 million,” write demographers Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin. The country has high mortality rates due to elevated rates of smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity. Investment on healthcare is low. Over the next decade, Russia’s labor force is expected to shrink by about 15 percent. Other countries with low fertility rates turn to immigration to pick up the slack. While immigrants make up about 8 percent of Russia’s population, the nation has a reputation for nationalism and xenophobia, and fertility rates are even lower in neighboring Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania, all possible sources of immigration.

Brazil has better demographic prospects in the near term, but its population growth is now not much above the world average and by 2050 it too will be entering a demographic “Götterdämmerung” of declining population. A freer, more open economy is the most efficient method of deflecting the effects of the long term demographic deficits – stock markets reflect this in their risk premiums.

Bonds

Brazilian government bonds offer a real return after adjusting for inflation (10 yr real-yield 4.77%) however, as this March 2015 article from Forbes – With Currency In Gutter And Bad News Galore, Brazil Bonds A Buy makes clear, there are significant risks:-

…the major headwinds against Brazil are domestic. The fact that China is slowing down is no longer a fright factor. What keeps investors up at night is the possibility of Brazil losing its investment grade.  But last month, Standard & Poor’s credit analysts were in Brasilia and left saying that a downgrade to junk was unlikely.

There is the risk of impeachment and the resignation of Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, but that is already priced into the market with local interest rate futures trading over 14.35% compared to the actual benchmark rate of 12.75%.  Moreover, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the resignation of Levy are worse case scenarios with low probabilities. Worries over energy rationing have subsided.

I believe Brazilian bonds offer good value, even at these levels, the central banks has taken a draconian approach to inflation and the BRL has recovered some of the ground it lost during the last year. Exports to the US should improve and signs of a recovery in European growth will benefit the BRL further.

Russian government bonds look less compelling – with headline inflation at 16.9% and 10 yr yields of only 10.71% one might be inclined to avoid them on the grounds on negative real yield – but a case can be made for lower inflation and a resurgence in the value of the RUB as this article from RT – Russia’s ‘junk’ bonds paying off handsomely suggests:-

“It’s very simple advice. Bonds are much more attractive than a year ago. Risks related to the ruble have subsided, inflation is likely to moderate, the BoP (Balance of Payments) and budget situation look reasonably strong and that is why the outlook is quite favorable,” Vladimir Kolychev, Chief Economist for Russia at VTB Capital

“Unless geopolitics interferes, we forecast Russian rates are likely to repeat Hungary’s three-year bull market run in the years ahead,” Bank of America’s head of emerging EMEA economics David Hauner

In a March 11 note, Russia’s Goldman Sachs analysts wrote “Russian bonds are both cyclically and structurally under-priced,” in a big part due devaluation expectations of the ruble stabilizing.

I remain less convinced about the value of Russian bonds but with a low debt to GDP ratio they may perform well.

Here are the recent price charts for 10 year maturities:-

russia-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

brazil-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

As inflation declines in both countries their bond markets will continue to rise in expectation of further central bank rate cuts. This will also support stocks but bonds will lead the rally, especially if future growth in Brazil or Russia should disappoint.

Greece in or out – Investment Opportunities?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 34 – 24-04-2015

Greece in or out – Investment Opportunities?

  • Greece needs to reschedule its debt or default
  • Capital Controls maybe inevitable
  • A piecemeal solution is not the answer, yet it’s more likely than a “Lehman moment”
  • A definitive solution presents investment opportunities

Earlier this week I paid a visit to the Greek Island of Corfu. Whilst most of what we read and observe about the Greek economy revolves around Athens, I thought it would be useful to gain a broader perspective on the state of the economy. I wanted to consider, what things might be like, if Greece stays within the Eurozone (EZ) or, conversely, if they decide to leave.

Firstly a few Greek economic facts:-

Top of FormMarketsBottom of Form Last Date Frequency
GDP Annual Growth Rate 1.2% Nov-14 Quarterly
GDP per capita 18146 USD Dec-13 Yearly
Unemployment Rate 25.7% Jan-15 Monthly
Youth Unemployment Rate 51.2% Dec-14 Monthly
Population 10.99mln Dec-14 Yearly
Minimum Wages 684 Dec-14 Monthly
Inflation Rate -2.1% Mar-15 Monthly
Core Inflation Rate -1.2% Jan-15 Monthly
Producer Prices Change -4.8% Feb-15 Monthly
Balance of Trade -1,425mln Feb-15 Monthly
Exports 2,024mln Feb-15 Monthly
Imports 3,449mln Feb-15 Monthly
Current Account -850mln Jan-15 Monthly
Government Debt to GDP 175% Dec-13 Yearly
Government Spending to GDP 59.2% Dec-13 Yearly
Business Confidence 96.8 Mar-15 Monthly
Manufacturing PMI 48.9 Mar-15 Monthly
Industrial Production 1.9% Feb-15 Monthly
Manufacturing Production 5.8% Feb-15 Monthly
Capacity Utilization 65.7% Feb-15 Monthly
Industrial Production Mom -4.7% Jan-15 Monthly
Consumer Confidence -31 Mar-15 Monthly
Retail Sales YoY -0.1% Jan-15 Monthly
Housing Index -22% Feb-15 Monthly
Corporate Tax Rate 26% Jan-14 Yearly
Personal Income Tax Rate 46% Jan-14 Yearly
Sales Tax Rate 23% Jan-14 Yearly

Source: Trading Economics

Eurostat published their European Winter Economic forecasts 5th February – this is an extract from their, ever so rosy, forecast for Greece:-

Indicator 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP growth (yoy) -3,9% 1,0% 2,5% 3,6%
Inflation (yoy) -0,9% -1,4% -0,3% 0,7%
Unemployment 27,5% 26,6% 25,0% 22,0%
Public budget balance to GDP -12,2% -2,5% 1,1% 1,6%
Gross public debt to GDP 174,9% 176,3% 170,2% 159,2%
Current account balance to GDP -2,3% -2,0% -1,5% -0,9%

Source: Eurostat

According to information collated from the CIA Factbook , OECD and Eurostat, the Greek public sector still accounts for 40% of GDP. The largest industry is Tourism (18%) followed by Shipping – the Hellenic Merchant Marine is the largest in the world employing 160,000 (4% of the workforce). The Greek shipping fleet is the fourth largest in the world, representing 15.17% of global deadweight tonnage in 2013, although “flag of convenience” issues can make these figures a little misleading. The labour force is estimated at 3.91mln of which immigrants account for 782,000 (20%). This makes Greece the 8th largest immigrant population in Europe – mainly unskilled or agricultural workers. As a result of the economic crisis private saving has increased from 11.2% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2014.

The largest broad industry sector is Services (which includes Tourism) accounting for 80.6% of GDP and 72.4% of employment, followed by Industry – 15.9% of GDP and 14.7% of employment. Agriculture is third in size producing 3.5% of GDP but employing 12.9% of the population.

Greece’s largest export market is Turkey (11.6%) and its largest import partner is Russia (14.1%). Little wonder they wish to maintain good relations with Moscow.

In terms of Tourism, Greece is the 7th most visited country in Europe and the 16th most visited globally. The latest figure I could unearth, from a 2008 OECD report, indicated 840,000 workers employed in the sector, from which I estimate that Tourism accounts for more than 20% of employment.

A more detailed analysis of the island economies of Greece came from a paper published by Sheffield University – A Comparative Analysis of the Economic Performance of Greek and British Small Islands – 2006. They analysed 63 islands with an average population of around 300,000. Employment was at 88.81% whilst Unemployed was a mere 11.19% – this was around the average for the whole country at that time. To my surprise, the level of reported self-employment was a relatively low 20.43%. One of the more puzzling figures was for Home Occupancy 46.05%; the Greek average for Home Ownership is 75.8% (2013). Unsurprisingly the main industry is Tourism followed by agriculture – it’s worth pointing out that Greece is the EU’s largest producer of Cotton, second largest producer of Rice and Olives, third largest producer of Tomatoes and fourth largest producer of Tobacco. It also accounts for 19% of all fish hauled from the Mediterranean, making it the third largest in the EU as of 2007 data.

The table below shows the regional breakdown of GDP by region for 2010:-

Region GDP Euro GDP % GDP Growth
Attica 106,635 48 -3.51
Northern Greece 55,163 24.83 -4.73
Central Greece 38,767 17.45 -3.03
Central Macedonia 30,087 13.54 -5.19
Aegean Islands and Crete 21,586 9.72 -4.84
Crete 10,955 4.93 -3.79
Thessaly 10,742 4.84 -6.55
West Greece 10,326 4.65 -2.9
Sterea Hellas 10,059 4.53 -1.25
Peloponnese 9,436 4.25 -3.97
East Macedonia and Thrace 9,054 4.08 -1.69
South Aegean 7,476 3.37 -5.4
West Macedonia 5,281 2.38 -3.3
Epirus 4,917 2.21 -2.36
Ionian Islands 4,029 1.81 -6.22
North Aegean 3,155 1.42 -7.04

Source: Eurostat

The islands are very much the “poor relation” in terms of economic output but, as the map below, from 2008, shows, the GDP per capita distribution is more dispersed:-

Greece_peripheries_GDP_per_capita_svg 2008 Eurostat

Source: Eurostat

I visited Corfu, the second largest island in the Ionian Sea, with a population of just over 100,000. Its main business is Tourism followed by the production of olives. Back in 2013 NCH Capital – a US investment firm, best known for their investments in agriculture in the Ukraine and Russia, agreed a deal with the Hellenic Republic Development Fund (HRDF) to build a tourist resort on the island. This was the first time the Greek state had sold land to a foreign investor for 15 years. The HRDF has been charged with raising Euro 11bln from asset sales by 2016 – this represents a small fraction of the assets available should the Hellenic Republic decide to cut and run.

The NCH investment is not moving forward as swiftly as they had hoped, as this article from Tax Law explains. It is worth pointing out that Corfu is located at the North West corner of Greece, its North East coast looking across the narrow straits to Albania; little wonder there is some concern about the reduction of a naval presence in the region. However, Albania became a full member of NATO in 2009. Since 2010 Albanians have been able to enter the EU without visas and, as of June 2014, they are officially a candidate to join the EU. As a result of these changes, property development is growing along with tourism. Prices for Albanian property are significantly lower than in neighbouring Montenegro, which in turn offer better value than Greece. Regardless of the fortunes of Albania, the prospects for a significant acceleration of Greek state asset disposals is likely, whether Greece leaves or remains within the EZ.

The residential Real Estate market is still depressed by the economic and political uncertainties of the last few years, but, from a rental perspective, tourists keep returning. The price of dining in restaurants is beginning to look attractive in comparison with other Southern European destinations; perhaps more importantly, the differential with prices in Turkey has narrowed. The cost of more expensive holiday homes in Greece is now comparable with those in Spain or Portugal – it used to command around a 40% premium due to planning restrictions. In 2013 the island of Skorpios sold to a Russian buyer for Eur100mln and the island of Oxia was purchased by a member of the Qatari Royal family for Eur 4.9mln, however, worries about a “Lehman moment” – by which I mean Grexit – have dampened enthusiasm for a number of subsequent deals.

If Greece leaves the EZ and the new currency promptly depreciates, there will still be a number of uncertainties. To begin with, the Greek government is likely to impose capital controls to prevent capital flight – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has started the process, instructing local governments to move their funds to the central bank earlier this week. For non-domicile property owners, these controls could mean they are unable to repatriate the proceeds of sales. I was interested to notice how many restaurants no longer accept credit card payment; would you put the proceeds of a property sale into a Greek bank whilst waiting for capital controls to be relaxed?

Another factor which may delay a recovery in Real Estate is the reaction of non-EU nationals who have bought Greek property for more than Eur250,000, in order to gain EU status – a scheme also available in Portugal. This Greek Law Digest article explains.

Selling pressure on property prices will continue to come from Greek domestic investors downsizing of their rental portfolios. During the first few years of EZ membership, many Greeks bought multiple holiday rentals. Since the crisis, maintenance costs have soared as a result of the “haratsi” property tax. Meanwhile, the financial police are aggressively pursuing owners who fail to declare rental income. If Greece exits the EU, I would expect Real Estate supply to hang over the market for some while.

A perusal of the windows of Corfu Real Estate agents, whilst far from scientific, suggests that the price of holiday homes is still relatively high. The properties are normally foreign owned and, for the most part, the owners are not distressed sellers. I was struck, however, by the magnitude of the price reductions (up to 80%) on those properties which had “sold”. It feels like a market with low turnover where price discovery is intermittent at best. For the Greek market nationally residential property appraisals-transactions for 2014 were down 33.20% on 2013, dwelling permits fell by 19.3% between January to November 2014 compared to 2013 and total new floor space declined 13.9% y/y to November 2014. The chart below shows that the pace of decline has moderated in the last year but prices are still falling:-

Greek_House_Prices_1999_-2015

Source: Bank of Greece

The absolute level of the property index suggests that almost all the gains seen in Real Estate prices since joining the EZ have been reversed, but the economy is still not competitive due to the strait-jacket of the Euro:-

Greek_House_Price_index_-_1999-2015

Source: Bank of Greece

This article from The Guardian – Home ownership in Greece ‘a sick joke’ as property market collapses from February 2014, attempts to impart a flavour of the overall market, but, as any home owner knows, all property investment is local.

The year so far

To understand the Greek situation you need to go back to the eve of the introduction of the Euro, in 2000, but for a brief overview of the current crisis this excellent video from the Peterson Institute – Greece: An Economic Tragedy in Six Charts is well worth taking five minutes to peruse. Instead, I want to look at the last few months and consider the implications going forward.

As the Greek government begin further negotiations with EZ Finance Ministers today, in an attempt to reschedule their outstanding debt and interest rate payments, it is becoming clearer, to politicians in Brussels, that the “Greek Problem” will not be resolved by wishful thinking and continued austerity. Since January a new scene in this Greek tragedy has begun to unfold.

At the beginning of January Bruegal – Why Grexit would not help Greece – rebutted many commentators, but specifically the German IFO Institute’s call for Greece to leave the EZ. Bruegal focussed on the unique aspects of the Greek situation, pointing out that, unlike Portugal, Ireland and Spain, Greek imports had collapsed but their exports had only recently started to improve:-

Are high wages the main problem in Greece hampering exports? Is the absence of a real depreciation the main driver of the different adjustment experience of Greece compared to the other euro area countries?

…hourly wages have come down substantially in Greece and are in fact the lowest in the euro area with the exception of Latvia and Lithuania. This contrasts with the experience in the other three countries adjusting, where hourly wages in the private sector have increased.

Average Hourly Earnings - Eurostat

Source: Eurostat

Overall, I conclude that the Greek economy would not benefit as much as hoped for from a rapid depreciation. The reasons for the weak Greek export performance might primarily lie in other factors such as rigid product markets, a political system preventing real change and guaranteeing the benefits of the few, the lack of meritocracy among other factors…

This does not mean that the current debt trajectory and debt level is sustainable. It may be necessary to further alleviate the debt burden on Greece, especially if inflation remains low and growth is weaker than the Troika believes. This has been done a number of times before by the official creditors and already now the average maturity on the European debt is 30 years. This maturity could be increased if necessary, effectively reducing the debt burden further and I could even see a nominal debt cut at some stage.

Later in January Bruegal – How to reduce the Greek debt burden? Looked at the options available to Greece and her creditors:-

Option 1: Reducing the lending rate on the Greek Loan Facility

Option 2: Extending the maturity of the loans in the Greek Loan Facility

Option 3: Extending maturity of EFSF loans

Option 4: Buying-back the Greek government bond holdings of the ECB and National Central Banks

Option 5: Swapping the currently floating interest rate loans to fixed rate loans

Option 6: Swapping the current loans to GDP-indexed loans

Option 7: Pre-privatisation using European funds

The tone of quasi-official commentary changed in February, when the ECB ceased to accept Greek government bonds as collateral for normal refinancing operations. Bruegal – The Greek banking system: a tragedy in the making? finally acknowledged the ECBs obligation to “lend freely” but only “against good collateral”:-

One can criticize the ECB’s decision for aggravating the crisis but one can also argue that the ECB had no choice but to act as it did given the self-proclaimed insolvency of the Greek state.

Greek Finance Minister – Yanis Varoufakis – announced their new plan shortly after Syriza won the election. The FT – Greece finance minister reveals plan to end debt stand-off – 2nd February described it as:-

Attempting to sound an emollient note, Mr Varoufakis told the Financial Times the government would no longer call for a headline write-off of Greece’s €315bn foreign debt. Rather it would request a “menu of debt swaps” to ease the burden, including two types of new bonds.

The first type, indexed to nominal economic growth, would replace European rescue loans, and the second, which he termed “perpetual bonds”, would replace European Central Bank-owned Greek bonds.

He said his proposal for a debt swap would be a form of “smart debt engineering” that would avoid the need to use a term such as a debt “haircut”, politically unacceptable in Germany and other creditor countries because it sounds to taxpayers like an outright loss.

…“What I’ll say to our partners is that we are putting together a combination of a primary budget surplus and a reform agenda,”

…“I’ll say, ‘Help us to reform our country and give us some fiscal space to do this, otherwise we shall continue to suffocate and become a deformed rather than a reformed Greece’.”

After talks broke down later in February Bruegal – Europe needs a lasting solution for the Greek problem wrote:-

I expect that fear of Grexit will prompt an agreement between Greece and euro-area partners. But my concern is that the agreement will be only a short-term fix and the various constraints will prevent reaching a lasting solution, thereby just postponing the problems. That would be the next stage in the Greek tragedy, as debt sustainability problems would likely return in a few years.

The following two tables show the payment flashpoints on the Greek road to redemption:-

Greek T-Bill and Bond redemptions 2015

Source: Datastream

IMF Greek loan repayments 2015

Source: IMF

Early March saw the publication of the Greek State Budget Execution Monthly Bulletin the primary balance was only slightly below forecast, but closer inspection revealed that the majority of the improvement in the primary balance has been achieved by reducing expenditures. Revenues were Eur 7.8bln – around Eur 1bln below target. Without the benefit of currency devaluation, the broader Greek economy is still struggling to adjust.

A Closer look at the chances for a Greek recovery

The Greek government debt burden is unsustainable, in 2013 its Debt to GDP ratio was 174.9. According to Nationaldebtclocks.org the current figure is Eur 354bln. Greek 2014 GDP was $246bln (Eur189) and GDP for 2015 is estimated to be +0.7% (Eur 190bln) I assume a EURUSD 1.30 exchange rate so, perhaps, I’m painting an overly bleak picture. Official estimates put Greek government indebtedness at nearer to Eur 228bln.

Assume Greece manages to run a primary surplus of 3% in perpetuity – that equates to around Eur 5bln per annum. Assume they manage to negotiate zero interest on all their outstanding debt. It would take 70 years to repay – and 35 years to bring it back below 100% of current GDP. You may argue that 1. National Debt is the wrong measure, since Government Debt is the issue, but, if Greece leaves the EZ, creditors will need to consider all her obligations. 2. That it is unrealistic to assume no growth in GDP, but Greek GDP growth averaged 0.97% from 1996 to 2014, reaching an all-time high of 7.50% in the fourth quarter of 2003. It crashed to -9.9% in Q1 2011. Meanwhile Greek Inflation averaged 8.94% between 1960 and 2015. Recently deflation has set in, with prices falling to a record low of -2.90% in November of 2013.

These numbers don’t add up; either the creditor nations and institutions embrace substantial rescheduling and debt forgiveness, or Greece defaults, exits the EZ, devalues and potentially precipitates an EZ wide financial crisis. In PWC – Global Economy Watch – What would a Greek exit mean for the Eurozone? The authors estimate the impact of a Grexit on the rest of the EZ, Germany’s banking sector is most exposed (Eur29.5bln) although this still only amounts to 0.8% of GDP:-

Banking sector – Our analysis suggests that the Eurozone banking sector should be able to manage the impact of a Greek exit without severe consequences. The exposure of banks in the four largest Eurozone economies (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) to Greece has fallen from around $104bn in 2010 to $34bn. While the German banking system is the most exposed to Greece, this exposure equates to only around 0.8% of its GDP. For the other economies, France, Italy and Spain, the direct exposure of their banks to Greece is less than 0.1% of GDP.

Greek debt holders – around 60% of Greek government debt is held indirectly by Eurozone governments. If the Greek government defaults on its obligations, then that debt will be written off (at least in part). This could pose a risk to countries which already have a relatively large public debt burden. For example, a Greek exit could have negative implications for Italy, which guarantees around 20% of the Eurozone’s bailout funds, and has a ratio of gross government debt to GDP of around130%. Italy’s exposure to Greek government debt is equivalent to around 2% of its GDP meaning a default could lead to a fiscal squeeze in Italy as the government attempts to fill the hole left in its finances.

Unexpected contagion – A Greek exit could also have effects outside the realm of economic data and financial statistics. It would likely add to political uncertainty as other countries may push for concessions on their commitments or it could set a precedent that sees other countries leave the Eurozone. For example, Spain and Portugal are both experiencing double digit unemployment rates and must hold general elections by the end of 2015. While the domestic consequences of Greece leaving the Eurozone could deter voters in other countries from seeking to leave the single currency area, there remains a possibility of surprising developments occurring in the Eurozone. In addition to this, a Greek exit could also call Greece’s role in the European Union and NATO in to question, spurring even more uncertainty.

Of course, the largest creditors are EZ institutions, led by the ECB which holds Eur 104bln – 65% of Greek GDP, according to Governor Draghi.

By the end of March rumours were starting to circulate of Brussels preparing to impose capital controls in the event of the Greek government running out of money. The Peterson Institute – Can Greece Make a Deal with Europe? suggests a cut-off, but it’s still some way off:-

When Must a Deal Be Struck?

At the very latest, June/July 2015 would seem to be the deadline. At that point, Greece faces about €6.5 billion in euro bond repayments to the ECB, which it will not have the cash to honor without a new arrangement. A default against the ECB would end all liquidity provisions to Greek banks, including emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) from the Greek central bank. A quick economic death spiral would ensue.

According to an article this week the New York Times – European Central Bank Squeezes Greek Banks, Tightening Access to Loans the Greek banks have resorted to issuing bonds to themselves in order to access the ECBs ELA facility: –

For more than three months, Greece’s largest banks have been forced to borrow short-term, higher-interest money from their central bank — a process called emergency liquidity assistance — because the E.C.B. deemed it too risky to extend credit to the banks itself.

The banks, in turn, have to provide adequate collateral to obtain these loans, which now stand at 74 billion euros, $79.7 billion, or more than half the amount of Greek domestic deposits.

…Controversially, Greek banks have even begun to issue bonds to themselves and, after securing a government guarantee, have used the securities to secure short-term financing…

…On April 8, for example, the National Bank of Greece self-issued €4.1 billion of six-month bonds that carried state backing. 

Inevitable “Lehman”?

A number of commentators have been predicting a Greek exit for several years. This was the view expressed in February by David Stockman – History In The Balance: Why Greece Must Repudiate Its ‘Banker Bailout’ Debts And Exit The Euro:–

The true evil started with the bailouts themselves and the resulting usurpation by the EU politicians and apparatchiks of both financial market price discovery and discipline and sovereign democratic prerogatives.  Accordingly, the terms of Greece’s current servitude can’t be tweaked, “restructured” or “swapped” within the Brussels bailout framework.

Instead, Varoufakis must firmly brace his interlocutors on the true history and the condition precedent that stands before them. Namely, that the Greek state was effectively bankrupt even before the 2010 bailout, and that the massive amounts of debt piled upon it thereafter was essentially a fraudulent conveyance by the EU. 

Accordingly, Greece’s legitimate debt is perhaps $175 billion based on the pre-crisis euro debt outstanding at today’s exchange rate and the haircut that would have occurred in bankruptcy. Greece’s new government has every right to repudiate the vast amount beyond that because it arose not from the actions of the Greek people, but from the treachery of EU politicians and the Troika apparatchiks—-along with the unfaithful stooges in the Greek parliament and ministries which executed their fraudulent conveyance.

The Peterson Institute – Greece Should Ponder the Benefits of Devaluationpresents a couple of novel alternatives:-

There are two other mechanisms through which devaluation could occur, but both are more painful and less efficient than the currency (so called external) devaluation. One way is to simply reduce wages, thus achieving lower prices of domestically-produced goods and making them cheaper abroad. This is easier said than done. Wages are notoriously sticky, and even the wage cuts that Greece accepted have already brought protesters to the streets. Greece reduced wages of public-sector workers in 2010 and again in 2012 and endured months-long strikes. The new Syriza government has just started to undo these measures, with pledges to increase wages to precrisis levels.

The other mechanism to achieve internal devaluation is through tax policy—by reducing taxes on labor and increasing consumption taxes. Reducing taxes serves to reduce the overall cost of labor and hence production. It also encourages firms to look for other markets, as higher consumption prices at home reduce demand. Several European countries tried this, including Italy under Prime Minister Mario Monti in 2012—with some success.

I remember discussing a “devaluation and re-joining” concept, with a hedge fund manager friend of mine back in 2010. “How would it work in practice, and what would happen to the bond holders?” were his perfectly valid responses. From the current vantage, five years on, that 20% devaluation would have been a small price for the bond holders to pay. Meanwhile Greek bank accounts are being siphoned of deposits as the crisis deepens, these charts from an article published by CFR -Greece—a Destabilizing Financial Squeezetell an alarming tale:-

EZ Bank deposits GS

Source: Goldman Sachs

It’s amazing that household deposits remain so high, but, with the majority of the Greek people wishing to remain in the Euro, perhaps this is logical.

The chart below shows the breakdown of the balance sheet of the Deutsche Bundesbank:-

Bundesbank_balance_sheet

Source: Soberlook.com

TARGET2 claims represent around 70% of the total – this is the loans of peripheral EZ national central banks. If “Grexit” leads to “Contagion” this half-trillion Euro accounting entry will start to crystallise – the hole in the Bundesbank balance sheet will have to be footed by the German tax payer.

Personally I still favour an EZ solution. Towards the end of February Michael Pettis – When do we decide that Europe must restructure much of its debt? Took up the theme, reminding us of the, less quoted, preamble to Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” speech:-

And this is clearly not just about Greece. Everyone understands that Greece has already restructured its debt once before and received partial forgiveness — in fact once coupon reductions are correctly accounted for Greece’s debt ratio is probably much lower than the roughly 180% of GDP the official numbers suggest. Most people also understand that the Greek debate is not just about Greece but also about whether or not several other countries — Spain, Portugal and Italy among them, and perhaps even France — will also have to restructure their debts with partial debt forgiveness.

What few people realize, however, is these countries have effectively already done so once. This happened two and a half years ago at the Global Investment Conference in London when, on July 26, 2012, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, made the following statement:

“When people talk about the fragility of the euro and the increasing fragility of the euro, and perhaps the crisis of the euro, very often non-euro area member states or leaders, underestimate the amount of political capital that is being invested in the euro. And so we view this, and I do not think we are unbiased observers, we think the euro is irreversible. And it’s not an empty word now, because I preceded saying exactly what actions have been made, are being made to make it irreversible.

“But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

Pettis puts the case for a Europe-wide debt resolution. He quotes from McKinsey – Debt and (not to much) deleveraging – but since “a picture paints a thousand words”:-

Debt since 2018 - McKinsey Haver Analytics

Source: Haver Analytics, McKinsey

As Pettis sees it, this is most certainly not about Greece in isolation:-

For now I would argue that the biggest constraint to the EU’s survival is debt. Economists are notoriously inept at understanding how balance sheets function in a dynamic system, and it is precisely for this reason that we haven’t put the resolution of the European debt crisis at the center of the debate. But Europe will not grow, the reforms will not “work”, and unemployment will not drop until the costs of the excessive debt burdens are addressed.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The yield on Greek 10yr government bonds has begun to rise again (see the monthly chart below) following the dramatic rise in shorter maturities – 2yr yields were at 28% on the open yesterday versus 10yr at 12.7%. This is a clear trend breakout but could be swiftly reversed by an EZ resolution of the current impasse:-

greece-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

During the last year Greek stocks have trended lower losing more than 45% since the spring of 2014, yet they are still higher than during the teeth of the last storm that battered the EZ in 2012 when the index plumbed the depths of 471:-

Athhens Composite 5 yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Perhaps of greater relevance, in light of the potential failure of the Greek banking system, is the Greek Bank Index. This, six month chart, highlights the degree to which the economy is being constrained by the spectre of bank defaults:-

FTSEAthex Banks index 6 months

Source: Yahoo Finance

The Greece will either remain mired in the morass of debt, successfully restructure or exit the Euro and default on its obligations. In the first scenario bonds will be rescheduled piecemeal but yields should return to single digits in 10yr maturities, reflecting the continued deflation risk associated with the over-hang of debt, the stock market will under-perform due to continued uncertainty and lack of investment but is unlikely to make fresh lows given the steady improvement in growth prospects for the rest of the EZ. Real Estate will continue to trend lower since the only buyers are likely to be domestic firms or individuals – the substantial inventory of domestic sellers will take a considerable time to clear, whilst net outward migration will increase the supply of Real Estate further. This chart shows the net changes in population since 1980:-

Net migration from Greece

Source: The Economist, Eurostat

In the second scenario, bond yields will trade in a range between high single digits and mid-teens, trading in a broadly similar way to scenario one, though, with less deflation risk, the yields are likely to be structurally higher. The stock market will clear and investment will return. House prices will recover as foreign buyers return and ex-patriot workers come home. Scenario three is the most cathartic. Bond yields will rise dramatically since there will no longer be a strong central bank and few businesses or institutions will be organised to exchange the replacement currency. The new currency will devalue and remain volatile, deterring investors from rushing to invest – once the currency stabilises, bond and equity markets will follow suit. High yield investors will be ready to invest in bonds, equity investors will look for businesses with comparative advantages due to their proximity to, and established trading links with, the EZ. Property will also gradually recover, especially in tourist destinations where “holiday homes” will suddenly become even more affordable for many EZ investors.

As I mentioned already, I think scenario two is most likely (45%) though we may have to wait until the “eleventh hour” to see it come to pass. Sadly scenario one is also quite likely (35%) since the EZ political apparatus seems incapable of addressing tough decisions head-on. This still leaves a 20% chance of a “Lehman moment”.

Prospects for the islands

As the paper from Sheffield University explains, island economies are relatively insulated from the external ebb and flow of the wider economy. Proximity to Athens is clearly a factor, but the performance of Crete is a typical example of the localised nature of these economic units. Corfu is only 30 miles from the heel of Italy and its Venetian architecture is testament to these links. The islands are most reliant on Tourism and, despite the crisis and the rioting in Athens, tourists keep coming back to these beautiful, welcoming islands. Not unlike Greece’s second industry – Shipping – Tourism is an international business; it is not held hostage to the fortunes of the hapless Greek political elite.

Technology Indices and Creative Destruction – When Might the Bubble Burst?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 33 – 10-04-2015

Technology Indices and Creative Destruction – When Might the Bubble Burst?

  • Publically traded technology stocks trade on modest multiples compared to 2000
  • Private sector overinvestment may, however, be cause for concern
  • European technology companies have outperformed US this year – it may not last
  • Technology and growth stocks remain highly correlated to the major indices

I adhere to the belief that technology and other such improvements in manufacturing are the key to delivering productivity growth, which thereby improves the quality of life for the greatest number. Of course, as Joseph Schumpeter so incisively illustrated, the process is often cathartic. For the technology investor this increases both the risk and potential reward.

Technology is affects all industries. In an attempt to be more specific, here is a table taken from a February 2015 report by Brookings – America’s Advanced Industries:-

Americas Advance Industries - Brookings

Source: Brookings

The report goes on to describe the scale and importance of these industries to the US economy:-

As of 2013, the nation’s 50 advanced industries employed 12.3 million U.S. workers. That amounts to about 9 percent of total U.S. employment. And yet, even with this modest employment base, U.S. advanced industries produce $2.7 trillion in value added annually—17 percent of all U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). That is more than any other sector, including healthcare, finance, or real estate.

At the same time, the sector employs 80 percent of the nation’s engineers; performs 90 percent of private-sector R&D; generates approximately 85 percent of all U.S. patents; and accounts for 60 percent of U.S. exports. Advanced industries also support unusually extensive supply chains and other forms of ancillary economic activity. On a per worker basis, advanced industries purchase $236,000 in goods and services from other businesses annually, compared with $67,000 in purchasing by other industries. This spending sustains and creates more jobs. In fact, 2.2 jobs are created domestically for every new advanced industry job—0.8 locally and 1.4 outside of the region. This means that in addition to the 12.3 million workers employed by advanced industries, another 27.1 million U.S. workers owe their jobs to economic activity supported by advanced industries. Directly and indirectly, then, the sector supports almost 39 million jobs—nearly one-fourth of all U.S. employment.

…From 1980 to 2013 advanced industries expanded at a rate of 5.4 percent annually—30 percent faster than the economy as a whole. 

…Workers in advanced industries are extraordinarily productive and generate some $210,000 in annual value added per worker compared with $101,000, on average, outside advanced industries. Because of this, advanced industries compensate their workers handsomely and, in contrast to the rest of the economy, wages are rising sharply. In 2013, the average advanced industries worker earned $90,000 in total compensation, nearly twice as much as the average worker outside of the sector. Over time, absolute earnings in advanced industries grew by 63 percent from 1975 to 2013, after adjusting for inflation. This compares with 17 percent gains outside the sector. Even workers with lower levels of education can earn salaries in advanced industries that far exceed their peers in other industries. In this regard, the sector is in fact accessible: More than half of the sector’s workers possess less than a bachelor’s degree.

The report is not an unalloyed paean of praise, however, they go on to emphasise the need for better education and training in order to maintain momentum.

The last great technology stock collapse was seen in the aftermath of the “Dotcom” bubble which burst in 2001:-

dot-com-bubble

Source: Kampas Research

During the early part of the last decade the growth in valuation of the technology sector returned to its long-term trend. Since 2008, however, central bank policies have changed the valuation paradigm for all stocks by reducing interest rates towards the zero-bound. Their quantitative easing policies (QE) have flattening government bond yield curves to unprecedented levels, especially given the absolute level of rates. Nonetheless, many of the signs of a bubble have begun to emerge as this December 2014 article from the Economist – Frothy.com – explains:-

In December 15 years ago the dotcom crash was a few weeks away. Veterans of that fiasco may notice some familiar warning signs this festive season. Bankers and lawyers are being priced out of office space in downtown San Francisco; all of the space in eight tower blocks being built has been taken by technology firms. In 2013 around a fifth of graduates from America’s leading MBA schools joined tech firms, almost double the share that struck Faustian pacts with investment banks. Janet Yellen, the head of the Federal Reserve, has warned that social-media firms are overvalued—and has been largely ignored, just as her predecessor Alan Greenspan was when he urged caution in 1999.

Good corporate governance is, once again, for wimps. Shares in Alibaba, a Chinese internet giant that listed in New York in September using a Byzantine legal structure, have risen by 58%. Executives at startups, such as Uber, a taxi-hailing service, exhibit a mighty hubris.

…Instead, today’s financial excess is hidden partly out of sight in two areas: inside big tech firms such as Amazon and Google, which are spending epic sums on warehouses, offices, people, machinery and buying other firms; and on the booming private markets where venture capital (VC) outfits and others trade stakes in young technology firms.

Take the spending boom by the big, listed tech firms first. It is exemplified by Facebook, which said in October that its operating costs would rise in 2015 by 55-75%, far ahead of its expected sales growth. Forget lean outfits run by skinny entrepreneurs: Silicon Valley’s icons are now among the world’s biggest, flabbiest investors. Together, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter invested $66 billion in the past 12 months. This figure includes capital spending, research and development, fixed assets acquired with leases and cash used for acquisitions (see chart 1).

Tech spend - Economist

Source: The Economist, Bloomberg

That is eight times what they invested in 2009. It is double the amount invested by the VC industry. If you exclude Apple, investments ate up most of the cashflow the firms generated. Together these five tech firms now invest more than any single company in the world: more than such energy Leviathans as Gazprom, PetroChina and Exxon, which each invest about $40 billion-50 billion a year. The five firms together own $60 billion of property and equipment, almost as much as General Electric. They employ just over 300,000 people. Google says it is determined to keep “investing ahead of the curve”.

…The second area of technology froth is in private markets. Their exuberance was demonstrated on December 4th when Uber closed a $1.2 billion private funding round that valued the five-year old firm at $40 billion. Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, is set to buy a stake, too (see page 101). There are 48 American VC-backed firms worth $1 billion or more, compared with ten at the height of the dotcom bubble, according to VentureSource, a research outfit. In October a software firm called Slack was valued at $1.1 billion, a year after being founded. 2014 looks set to be the biggest year for VC investments since 2000 (see chart 2).

VC in US - Economist

Source: The Economist

Whilst this investment boom has centred around the giants of the technology industry and venture capitalists in the private sector, few large scale scientific research facilities have been developed without government grants or subsidies as this December 2014 FRBSF Economic Letter – Innovation and Incentives: Evidence from Biotech – makes abundantly clear:-

The adoption of biotech subsidies raises the number of star scientists in a state by 15% relative to that state’s pre-adoption number of stars. We find a similar effect from the adoption of R&D credits. These findings are important because of the role star scientists play on the local development and survival of U.S. biotech clusters. In addition, we find that most of the increase in the number of stars is due to their relocation to states that adopt incentives. Meanwhile, subsidies have only a limited effect on the productivity, measured by patenting, of incumbent scientists already in the state. We also find that the increase in star scientists happening after a state adopts a biotech incentive is entirely due to an increase in private/for-profit sector scientists, with no detectable increase in academic scientists.

The authors’ conclusions, however, are qualified:-

We found that, after states adopted incentives, they experienced significant increases in the number of star scientists, the total number of biotech workers, and the number of establishments, but limited effects on salaries and patents. We also uncovered significant spillover effects from biotech incentives to employment in other sectors that provide services in the local economy such as retail and construction.

In terms of policy implications, it is important to keep in mind that our finding that biotech subsidies are successful at attracting star scientists and at raising local biotech employment do not necessarily imply that the subsidies are economically justified. The economic benefits to a state of providing these incentives must be weighed against their fiscal costs—for instance, the loss of tax revenues and resulting loss of public services. Our research suggests that state incentives are successful at increasing the number of jobs inside the state. Nevertheless, our results do not suggest that the social benefit—either for that state or for the nation as a whole—is larger than the cost to taxpayers, nor that incentives for innovation are the most effective way to increase jobs in a state.

Government incentives may appear benign, but, as Michael Dell put it, in a November 2014 Op Ed for the Wall Street Journal – Going Private Is Paying Off for Dell:-

Yet we find ourselves in a world increasingly afflicted with myopia-governments that can’t see beyond the next election, an education system that can’t see beyond the next round of standardized tests, and public financial markets that can’t see beyond the next trade. This was what Dell faced as a public company. Shareholders increasingly demanded short-term results to drive returns; innovation and investment too often suffered as a result. Shareholder and customer interests decoupled.

My personal preference is for a free-market approach, despite the risk of underinvestment in the most capital intensive areas of research.

Valuation?

The valuation of growth stocks has always been fraught with uncertainty, especially when future cashflows are often deferred by several years and earnings forecasts, subject to significant variance. An even greater difficulty, as the chart above makes clear, is to assess, and hopefully anticipate, the herd behaviour of technology investors.

The chart below shows the differential performance of the STOXX Europe 600 Technology Index (FX8.Z) the global IXN Technology ETF and the Nasdaq Composite:-

Stox Tech Euro 600 Nasdaq IXN Global Tech ETF

Source: Yahoo Finance

The European dalliance with technology investment was shorter lived than in the US. So was the violence of the subsequent bust. The market had still not cleared by 2008 and achieved new lows for the decade. The subsequent recovery has been muted. The IXN appears to be roughly halfway between the two extremes. US investor perception of technology seems to be substantially rosier than that of the European investor.

The six month chart reveals a rather different picture. Since the equity market correction last November, European technology has out-performed both the US and other technology stocks globally:-

Tech stocks 6 months

Source: Yahoo Finance

Looks can be deceptive. This move has been broader based than simply the European technology sector. Led by Germany, most Eurozone stock markets have traded higher. This has largely coincided with the QE actions of the ECB and the steady weakening in the value of the Euro that this policy has abetted. The Euro Effective Exchange Rate has fallen from 100 to 90 over the same period.

Research carried out by LinkedIn sheds a unique perspective on global trends in technology industries. Their analysis focussed on migrating workers, identifying which countries and cities were net beneficiaries. This July 2014 article from Bruegal – Fact of the week: Not one European city in the top 10 for tech talenttakes up the story:-

In terms of skills uniquely identified in movers, Math, Science, Technology and Engineering seem to play a particularly important role. In terms of industries, movers are found to work mostly in media and entertainment; professional services; oil and energy; government, education and non-profit but most importantly, technology-software.

…Five out of ten cities attracting people with tech skills (especially IT infrastructure and system managements; Java development and web programming) are located in India, including the first four of the list. San Francisco only comes fifth, followed by two other US cities and two Australian.

No European city at all makes it to the list. For the 52 cities looked at in the study, the median percentage of new residents with tech skills was 16%, or just under 1 in 6; in many of the Indian cities, its more than double that figure. European cities are the real laggards: the percentage of new residents with tech skills was 18% in Berlin, 15% in Paris, 13% in Madrid and 11% in Paris.

The trend obviously mirror the Indian ongoing technology boom, in a still rather “virgin” environment. Kunal Bahl – founder of Snapdeal, a wannabe Indian Amazon – told USA Today in 2011 that India offers huge opportunity “because there are no mature companies, like Google and Microsoft, over there. The feeling is like in the U.S. in 1999.”

But there may be more to that.. Research by Vivek Wadhwa (Stanford) revealed that half of Silicon Valley start-ups were launched by immigrants, many of them educated in US top universities. But he also noticed that “for the first time, immigrants have better opportunities outside the U.S.” because, among other things, of rather strict immigration laws and California’s steep cost of living. Bahl himself, who studied in the US and spent some time working at Microsoft, reportedly wanted to initiate his company in the US but eventually went back to India because of visa problems.

And this is also why the tech industry – at the (by now almost) desperate search for engineers – is supporting the introduction of specific “start-up visa” for high-skilled workers in the US. The insights provided by this data is particularly important in the context of the recent discussions on the US immigration reform, but it is not without implications for Europe, which is at the bottom of the ranking as far as attracting tech talent is concerned.

This research suggests that the recent outperformance of the European technology sector may be short lived, yet, another article from November of last year by Bruegal – Brain drain, gain, or circulation? – indicates a somewhat more optimistic outcome for parts of Europe, specifically the UK and Spain:-

Quality of Scientists - OECD

Source: Bruegal, OECD

This chart benchmarks the median quality of scientists leaving or moving (for the first time) to a country between 1996-2011. The size of the bubble corresponds to total flows (inflows plus outflows). Countries in red are net contributors to the international market for scientists, those in blue net recipients.

Ideally, a country should want to be below or on the 45-degree line, indicating that the quality of the newcomers is just as high (or higher) as that of the leavers. Conditional on this, a country should also prefer a larger rather than smaller bubble, representing a sizeable flow of scientists and indicating a full exploitation of synergies gained from international cooperation. Finally, countries should aim to land in the top-right quadrant, indicating higher quality of both incoming and outgoing researchers. 

Over the long-term (pre-crisis) period analysed, Spain and the UK seemed the best placed at attracting high-quality scientists. France and Germany were broadly breaking even in terms of quality, although we note that they were facing significant net outflows of scientists, as was the UK.

All in all, in the sample here presented, while the US (unsurprisingly) comes out as the top performer in terms of net inflow of quality researchers, Italy ranks quite poorly. Not only the country is a net contributor of scientists, it also trades high quality researchers for lower quality ones. Time for a reform of the university system?

The EU Commission is seeking to address the deficiencies of innovation policy within its borders. At a Bruegal event last January in a speech entitled – The New European Research Agenda – Commissioner Moedas – outlined plans to improve the environment for innovation:-

First, create the framework conditions for a more productive exchange of research results, fundamental science and innovation. Things like:

Screen the regulatory framework in key sectors in order to remove bottlenecks

Accelerate the implementation of standardisation

Promote the public procurement of innovation and innovation in the public sector

Promote a venture capital culture

Reduce bureaucracy in science and innovation systems

Second, is to consolidate fundamental research as the flagship for Europe. As the essential foundation for a knowledge-based society. Working towards a single, open market for knowledge though open science.

Third: implement Horizon 2020 and the new Investment Plan to leverage the Europe economy towards a higher plane as a research and innovation-based area. Working towards a single, open market for knowledge though open science. It is better to focus on our potential than to dwell on illusions. We will always be different from other parts of the world. But that difference has many benefits!

These are stirring words, but in the EU turning words into deeds takes time. In unfettered, free-markets, resources are allocated more efficiently. Nonetheless, hope remains.

In terms of absolute valuation, US technology bulls point to the relatively undemanding PE ratio of the Nasdaq – around 24 times, vs 175 times during the zenith of the Dotcom frenzy. On the other hand, commentators such as Dent Research point to a flat-lining phase of the 45 year innovation cycle – this phase commenced around 2010 and will last until around 2032:-

It shows how clusters of powerful technologies increase productivity and move mainstream for about 22.5 years, like what we saw from 1988 into 2010.

Now we’re in the doldrums of this cycle and won’t move into the next upward swing again until after 2032. In short, the productivity revolution is over for the next two decades or so. That means less earnings and wage gains, regardless of demographic trends.

Interestingly, Dent then go on to wax lyrical about the potential for Bio-tech. In technology even the bears tend to be bullish about something.

We need to read Robert Gordon – Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds, to find a real bear. His CEPR paper was published in 2012 but these are ideas he has been developing for more than a decade. The premise is that the economic growth of the last 250 years is the exception rather than the rule:-

The ideas developed here are unorthodox yet worth pondering. They are applied only in the context of the US, because the worldwide frontier of productivity and the standard of living have been carved out by the US since the late 19th century. If growth of the US productivity frontier slows down, other nations may move ahead, or the slowing frontier could reduce the opportunities for future growth by all nations as the pace of productivity growth in the US fades out…

… The paper suggests that it is useful to think of the innovative process as a series of discrete inventions followed by incremental improvements which ultimately tap the full potential of the initial invention. For the first two industrial revolutions, the incremental follow-up process lasted at least 100 years. For the more recent IR3, the follow-up process was much faster. Taking the inventions and their follow up improvements together, many of these processes could happen only once. Notable examples are speed of travel, temperature of interior space, and urbanisation itself.

The benefits of ongoing innovation on the standard of living will not stop and will continue, albeit at a slower pace than in the past. But future growth will be held back from the potential fruits of innovation by six “headwinds” buffeting the US economy, some of which are shared in common with other countries and others are uniquely American. Future growth in real GDP per capita will be slower than in any extended period since the late 19th century, and growth in real consumption per capita for the bottom 99% of the income distribution will be even slower than that.

Gordon goes on to identify six headwinds buffeting the US economy – slowing the pace of GDP growth:-

  1. The disappearance of the demographic dividend
  2. Educational attainment
  3. Rising income inequality
  4. Outsourcing (especially due to technological development)
  5. Environmental constraints on energy pollution
  6. Combined household and government debt

These are important impediments to growth but I believe not all of them are as clear cut as Gordon suggests.

Firstly, the demographic dividend may be in decline but technology has made it easier for people to work until much later in life. Added to which, a more flexible labour market encourages greater participation. I wonder whether the decline in labour force participation is to some extent due to the improvement in welfare provision and not just a deficit of permanent “quality” jobs?

Despite the concerns of Gordon and Bruegal, education is in the process of being revolutionised by new technologies. Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are but one aspect of this sea-change. The cost of providing education – which has risen inexorably over the last 50 years – could be reversed. Of course Gordon has cause for concern about educational achievement. Whilst technology will allow “the horse to be led to water” it is another matter “making it drink”. The Economist – Wealth without workers, workers without wealth – from October 2014, discusses this issue in the broader context of new technologies disruption of labour markets globally:-

The modern digital revolution—with its hallmarks of computer power, connectivity and data ubiquity—has brought iPhones and the internet, not crowded tenements and cholera. But, as our special report explains, it is disrupting and dividing the world of work on a scale not seen for more than a century. Vast wealth is being created without many workers; and for all but an elite few, work no longer guarantees a rising income.

Income inequality is a popular economic theme and Gordon pays tribute to Emmanuel Saez – though not Thomas Piketty who has become its popular champion. From my interpretation of Piketty’s book, I believe that income inequality is a natural outcome of the long term benefits of peace. Reducing government intervention in the functioning of free markets is a better solution to this structural problem. Smaller government will not remove inequality but it will increase economic mobility, and, in the process, create faster economic prosperity – thereby more rapidly improving the standard of living for the greatest number of people. In freer markets, the technology entrepreneur, and creative risk takers in general, have a greater incentive to embrace opportunities.

Outsourcing is not new, David Riccardo observed its effects long ago. As rich countries adapt to concentrate on their comparative advantages – hopefully undistorted by government subsidy and protective tariff – the short-term headwind of lost domestic labour will be offset by the lower cost to the consumer of outsourced services. A greater proportion of a consumer’s income will then become available for investment. Once the investment has been allocated, the increased pool of available labour can then be retrained for employment in more productive enterprises. Frederic Bastiat – That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen makes this point much more eloquently than I could hope to do.

At the global level, man’s capacity to pollute his environment has not diminished but developing countries are less able to afford the luxury of conscience. Our best hope is technology. Yet technological discovery occurs by evolutionary leaps rather than steady increment. The lag between discovery and commercial application can also be long and variable. The collapse in the price of photovoltaic cells, making solar power dramatically more viable as an alternative to fossil fuel, is but one example. The tantalising potential of the development of tidal energy generation is another – especially given man’s predilection to inhabit the margins of the sea. Carbon sequestration technology – at present uneconomic – might be the next technological “leap”. I remain an optimist about man’s ingenuity. Since the Economist first published its Commodity Index in 1864 the price of commodities has been falling by roughly 1% per annum in inflation adjusted terms – punctuated by sharp price increases normally associated with war. Peace leads to investment and, as new technologies are adopted, prices begin to march lower once more.

This leaves Gordon’s concern about debt. Now, debt is a problem. It can be overcome, but the solution to excessive debt is not more debt. Deleveraging can be achieved by steady reduction or sudden default. Sadly, history favours the latter approach – I wonder whether Polonius’s advice to Laertes today would have been:-

Always a borrower never a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and bank,

And borrowing sure as hell beats husbandry.

Last September – Deleveraging, What Deleveraging? The 16th Geneva Report on the World Economy – discussed this global issue in detail:-

Contrary to widely held beliefs, the world has not yet begun to delever. Global debt-to-GDP is still growing, breaking new highs. Figure 1 shows the evolution of total debt (excluding the financial sector) for our global sample (advanced economies plus major emerging market economies). While there was a pause during 2008-09, the rise of the global debt-GDP ratio recommenced in 2010-2011.  Data in the report also show that debt-type external financing (leverage) continues to dominate equity-type financing (stock market capitalisation)

Global Debt to GDP

Source: CEPR

Perhaps surprisingly, the authors advise central banks to be cautious about interest rate increases in this environment:-

In such a context, and with still very high leverage, allowing the real rate to rise above its natural level would risk killing the recovery. Beyond pushing the economy into a prolonged period of stagnation, this would also put at risk the deleveraging process which is already very challenging.

Although there is a lot of uncertainty about such predictions, our call is for caution on interest rate rises. The case for caution in pre-emptively raising interest rates is reinforced by the weakness of inflationary pressures.

…The policy requirements for successful exit from a leverage trap are much broader than the appropriate conduct of monetary policy. The report addresses the fiscal challenges, the scope for macro-prudential policies and the restructuring of private-sector (bank, household, corporate) debt and sovereign debt.

The report also argues that – given the risks and costs associated with excessive leverage – more needs to be done to improve the resilience of macro-financial frameworks to debt shocks and to discourage excessive debt accumulation. Finally, we advocate enhanced international policy cooperation in addressing excessive global leverage.

I keep hearing the immortal words of Stan Laurel:-

Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.

Signs of fatigue

With all markets, I begin my analysis with technical patterns. This is a form of self-preservation; to paraphrase Keynes, I may be right in my fundamental analysis but the market is never wrong. On this basis I see no compelling reason to exit the technology sector, although there is a case to be made for rotation out of the Nasdaq and into technology stocks in Europe. I make the caveat, however, that European stocks have inherently less liquidity than US stocks and are therefore likely to exhibit greater volatility, especially on the downside.

The second stage of my analysis is to look at the change in the makeup of tech indexes. The constituents of the Nasdaq are a case in point. The table below shows the top 10 stocks by market capitalisation in 2000 and 2015:-

2000 2015
Microsoft MSFT Apple AAPL
Cisco CSCO Google GOOG
Intel INTC Microsoft MSFT
Oracle ORCL Facebook FB
Sun Microsystems JAVA Amazon.com AMZN
Dell Computer DELL Intel INTC
MCI WorldCom MCWEQ Gilead Sciences GILD
Chartered Semiconductor CHRT Cisco CSCO
Qualcomm QCOM Comcast CMCSA
Yahoo! YHOO Amgen AMGN

Source: Nasdaq

Several of the names have changed, added to which, many of today’s valuations, as measured by P/E ratios, are far less demanding – although Amazon (AMZN) at more than 700 times earnings, remains a notable exception. Looked at from another perspective, the technology promise of 2000 has delivered – today’s top tech companies are delivering real earnings. To understand whether the undemanding multiples are a harbinger of a period of “ex-growth” to come or represent an undervalued opportunity, we need to examine each individual stock in detail. This is beyond the macroeconomic analysis of this report, but one “macro” factor worth considering is the question of debt versus equity finance.

Equity versus Debt

At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, technology companies are more likely to finance their projects via equity than debt – although established, large cap, technology companies make ample use of the capital markets. Technology projects often require long-lead times to deliver positive cashflows and the value created is invariably intellectual rather than physical. An Oil company with proven reserves may have to wrestle with the volatility in the price of crude oil, but it can mortgage those “reserves” – they have a fairly predictable future demand. Technology companies must endure the vicissitudes of disruptive innovation. Todays “must have” products can rapidly become tomorrow’s museum “curiosities”. To this extent, technology firms are better placed to weather a cycle of increasing interest rates because they carry less debt.

Here lies a dilemma. In the absence of the interest rate on debt to signal the riskiness of an investment, the availability of equity finance becomes critical. As the IPO market has become more active, venture capitalists have been pouring money into earlier and earlier investment opportunities to avoid having to pay too high a price for private equity – I’ve heard the phase “pre,pre-seed” which smacks of a lack of discrimination. Access to equity investment should be a signal about the validity of a project – in the current “overinvestment” environment, the informational value of this “signal” is dramatically diminishing.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The current technology boom is very different from the dotcom bubble of 2000. The top companies in the sector have real earnings and trade at less demanding PE multiples. There are still early stage companies which have no cashflows but these are the much less prevalent today. At the risk of stating the obvious, look for companies with low debt to equity ratios, since these will weather the storm of rising interest rates more comfortably. Look for companies with growing earnings and, where possible, growing dividends. Keep a close watch on the price trend of the stock and have a stop-loss level in mind at which you will exit to preserve capital, regardless of your own opinions. Set a price target if you wish but remember that markets are prone to irrationality – I tend to let the “trend be my friend”.

For the present, technology stocks look set to continue rising, but it is important to remember that the correlation between equity indices tend to be high – The Nasdaq and the S&P500 have a one month correlation of more than 90%. Interest Rates may stay low for a protracted period, but the risk is asymmetric – not far to fall, a long way to rise – and conventional wisdom, which advocates investment in stocks because they are negatively correlated to bonds, may be severely tested as central bank interest rates normalise globally. For more on this topic the November 2013 paper from Pimco – The Stock-Bond Correlation is well worth investigation.

A final caveat concerning technology stocks. Most of the constituents of tech indices are growth stocks and therefore tend to have higher betas than the underlying index. This is a simple measure of their volatility – replete with Gaussian assumptions of “normality”. When constructing your investment strategy, keep the absolute level of volatility in mind, albeit is a measure of variance rather than risk. If this is a technology bubble, make allowance for it and you will weather its tempests, underestimate it and you will be forced to capitulate; the bull market isn’t over yet and the broader market will determine the timing of its demise.