Australia and Canada – Commodities and Growth

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Macro Letter – No 30 – 20-02-2015

Australia and Canada – Commodities and Growth

  • Industrial commodities continue to weaken
  • The BoC and RBA have cut official rates in response to falling inflation and slower growth
  • The RBA has more room to manoeuvre in cutting rates, Australian Bonds will outperform

The price of Crude Oil has dominated the headlines for the past few months as Saudi Arabia continued pumping as the price fell in response to increased US supply. However, anaemic growth in Europe and a continued slowdown in China has taken its toll on two of the largest commodity exporting countries. This has prompted both the Bank of Canada (BoC) and the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to cut interest rates by 25 bp each – Canada to 0.75% and Australia to 2.25% – even as CAD and AUD declined against the US$.

In this letter I will look at Iron Ore, Natural Gas and Coal, before going on to examine other factors which may have prompted central bank action. I will go on to assess the prospects for asset markets over the coming year.

Iron Ore

The price of Iron Ore continues to make fresh lows, driven by weakness in demand from China and Japan and the EU.

Iron Ore Fines 6 yr

Source: Infomine.com

Iron Ore is Australia’s largest export market, significantly eclipsing Coal, Gold and Natural Gas. It is the second largest producer in the world behind China. 2013 production was estimated at 530 Mt. Canada, with 40 Mt is ranked ninth by production but is the fourth largest exporter. Needless to say, Iron Ore production is of significant importance to both countries, although for Canada Crude Oil comes first followed by vehicle and vehicle parts, then Gold, Gas – including Propane – and Coal. It is also worth noting that the two largest Steel exporters are China and Japan – both major Iron Ore importers. The health of these economies is vital to the fortunes of the Iron Ore industry.

Natural Gas

Natural Gas is a more difficult product to transport and therefore the price differential between different regions is quite pronounced. Japan pays the highest price of all the major economies – exacerbated by its reduction of nuclear generating capacity – closely followed by Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. The US – Henry Hub – and AECO – Alberta – prices are broadly similar, whilst Europe and Japan pay a significant premium:-

Chart-4-Global-Natural-Gas-Prices11

Source: Federal Reserve, World Bank, CGA

Here is an extract from the International Gas Union report – IGU Wholesale Gas Price Survey Report – 2014 Edition:-

Wholesale prices can obviously vary significantly from year to year, but the top two regions are Asia Pacific followed by Europe – both with average prices over $11.00. OPE* remains the primary pricing mechanism in Asia Pacific and still a key mechanism in Europe.

*Oil Price Escalation – in this type of contract, the price is linked, usually through a base price and an escalation clause, to competing fuels, typically crude oil, gas oil and/or fuel oil. In some cases coal prices can be used as can electricity prices.

Canada has significant Gas reserves and is actively developing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) capacity. 13 plant proposals are underway but exports are still negligible. It also produces significant quantities of Propane which commands a premium over Natural Gas as this chart shows: –

Chart-5-Energy-Commodity-Prices10

Source: StatsCan, Kent Group, CGA

Australia, by comparison, is already a major source of LNG production. The IGU – World LNG Report – 2014 Edition:-

Though Australia was the third largest LNG capacity holder in 2013, it will be the predominant source of new liquefaction over the next five years, eclipsing Qatari capacity by 2017. With Pluto LNG online in 2012, seven Australian projects are now under construction with a total nameplate capacity of 61.8 MTPA (53% of global under construction capacity).

Coal

Australia is the fourth largest Coal producer globally. According to the World Coal Association, it produced 459 Mt in 2013. Canada did not feature in the top 10. However when measured in terms of Coking Coal – used for steel production – Australia ranked second, behind China, at 158 Mt whilst Canada ranked sixth at 34 Mt.

The price of Australian Coal has been falling since January 2011 and is heading back towards the lows last seen in 2009, driven primarily by the weakness in demand for Coking Coal from China.

Australian Coal Price - Macro Business 2012 - 2014

Source: Macro Business

This is how the Minerals Council of Australia describes the Coal export market:-

Coal accounted for almost 13 per cent of Australia’s total goods and services exports in 2012-13 down from 15 per cent in 2011-12. This made coal the nation’s second largest export earner after iron ore. Over the last five years, coal has accounted, on average, for more than 15 per cent of Australia’s total exports – with export earnings either on par or greater than Australia’s total agricultural exports.

Australia’s metallurgical coal export volumes are estimated at 154 million tonnes in 2012-13, up 8.5 per cent from 2011-12. However, owing to lower prices the value of exports decreased by almost 27 per cent to be $22.4 billion in 2012-13.

Whilst the scale of the Coal industry in Canada is not so vast, this is how the Coal Association of Canada describes Canadian Coal production:-

Production

Canada produced 60 million close to 67 million tonnes (Mt) of coal in 2012. 31 million tonnes was metallurgical (steel-making) coal and 36 million tonnes (Mt) was thermal coal. The majority of coal produced in Canada was produced in Alberta and B.C.

Alberta produced 28.3 Mt of coal in 2012

British Columbia produced 28.8 Mt (most was metallurgical coal) – 43% of all production

To meet its rapid infrastructure growth and consumer demand for things such as vehicles and home appliances, Asia has turned to Canada for its high-quality steel-making coal. As Canada’s largest coal trading partner, coal exports to Asia accounted for 73% of total exports in 2010.

Steel-Making Coal

Global steel production is dependent on coal and more and more the world is turning to Canada for its supply of quality steel-making coal.

The production of steel -making coal increased by 5.5% from 29.5 Mt in 2011 to 31.1 Mt in 2012.

Almost all of Canada’s steel-making coal produced was exported.

Thermal Coal

Approximately 36 million tonnes of thermal coal was produced in 2012.

The vast majority of Canadian thermal coal produced is used domestically.

Currency Pressures

Until the autumn of 2014 the CAD was performing strongly despite weakness in several of its main export markets as the chart below of the Canadian Effective Exchange Rate (CERI) shows:-

CAD CERI - 1yr to sept 2014

Source: Business in Canada, BoC

Since September the CERI index has declined from around 112 to below 100.

For Australia the weakening of their trade weighted index has been less extreme due to less reliance on the US. There is a sector of the RBA website devoted the management of the exchange rate, this is a chart showing the Trade Weighted Index and the AUDUSD rate superimposed (RHS):-

AUD_effective_and_AUDUSD_-_RBA

Source: RBA, Reuters

Taking a closer look at the monthly charts for USDCAD:-

canada-currency

Source: Trading Economics

And AUDUSD:-

australia-currency

Source: Trading Economics

These charts show the delayed reaction both currencies have had to the decline in the price of their key export commodities – they may fall further.

Central Bank Policy

The chart below shows the evolution of BoC and RBA policy since 2008. Australian rates are on the left hand scale (LHS), Canadian on the right:-

australia and canadian -interest-rate 2008 - 2015

Source: Trading Economics

To understand the sudden change in currency valuation it is worth reviewing the central banks most recent remarks.

The BoC expect Oil to average around $60/barrel in 2015. Here are some of the other highlights of the latest BoC monetary policy report:-

The sharp drop in global crude oil prices will be negative for Canadian growth and underlying inflation.

Global economic growth is expected to pick up to 3 1/2 per cent over the next two years.

Growth in Canada is expected to slow to about 1 1/2 per cent and the output gap to widen in the first half of 2015.

Canada’s economy is expected to gradually strengthen in the second half of this year, with real GDP growth averaging 2.1 per cent in 2015 and 2.4 per cent in 2016, with a return to full capacity around the end of 2016, a little later than was expected in October.

Total CPI inflation is projected to be temporarily below the inflation-control range during 2015 because of weaker energy prices, and to move back up to target the following year. Underlying inflation will ease in the near term but then return gradually to 2 per cent over the projection horizon.

On 21 January 2015, the Bank announced that it is lowering its target for the overnight rate by one-quarter of one percentage point to 3/4 per cent.

…Although there is considerable uncertainty around the outlook, the Bank is projecting real GDP growth will slow to about 1 1/2 per cent and the output gap to widen in the first half of 2015. The negative impact of lower oil prices will gradually be mitigated by a stronger U.S. economy, a weaker Canadian dollar, and the Bank’s monetary policy response. The Bank expects Canada’s economy to gradually strengthen in the second half of this year, with real GDP growth averaging 2.1 per cent in 2015 and 2.4 per cent in 2016.

The RBA Statement on Monetary Policy – February 2015 provides a similar insight into the concerns of the Australian central banks:-

…Australia’s MTP growth is expected to continue at around its pace of recent years in 2015 as a number of effects offset each other. Growth in China is expected to be a little lower in 2015, while growth in the US economy is expected to pick up further. The significant fall in oil prices, which has largely reflected an increase in global production, represents a sizeable positive supply shock for the global economy and is expected to provide a stimulus to growth for Australia’s MTPs. The fall in oil prices is also putting downward pressure on global prices of goods and services. Other commodity prices have also declined in the past three months, though by much less than oil prices. This includes iron ore and, to a lesser extent, base metals prices. Prices of Australia’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports are generally linked to the price of oil and are expected to fall in the period ahead. The Australian terms of trade are expected to be lower as a result of these price developments, notwithstanding the benefit from the lower price of oil, of which Australia is a net importer.

…Available data since the previous Statement suggest that the domestic economy continued to grow at a below-trend pace over the second half of 2014. Resource exports and dwelling investment have grown strongly. Consumption growth remains a bit below average. Growth of private non-mining business investment and public demand remain subdued, while mining investment has fallen further. Export volumes continued to grow strongly over the second half of 2014, driven by resource exports. Australian production of coal and iron ore is expected to remain at high levels, despite the large fall in prices over the past year. The production capacity for LNG is expected to rise over 2015. Service exports, including education and tourism, have increased a little over the past two years or so and are expected to rise further in response to the exchange rate depreciation.

…Household consumption growth has picked up since early 2013, but is still below average. Consumption is being supported by very low interest rates, rising wealth, the decision by households to reduce their saving ratio gradually and, more recently, the decline in petrol prices. These factors have been offset to an extent by weak growth in labour income, reflecting subdued conditions in the labour market. Consumption growth is still expected to be a little faster than income growth, which implies a further gradual decline in the household saving ratio.

…Prior to the February Board meeting, the cash rate had been at the same level since August 2013. Interest rates faced by households and firms had declined a little over this period. Very low interest rates have contributed to a pick-up in the growth of non-mining activity. The recent large fall in oil prices, if sustained, will also help to bolster domestic demand. However, over recent months there have been fewer indications of a near-term strengthening in growth than previous forecasts would have implied. Hence, growth overall is now forecast to remain at a below trend pace somewhat longer than had earlier been expected. Accordingly, the economy is expected to be operating with a degree of spare capacity for some time yet, and domestic cost pressures are likely to remain subdued and inflation well contained. In addition, while the exchange rate has depreciated, it remains above most estimates of its fundamental value, particularly given the significant falls in key commodity prices, and so is providing less assistance in delivering balanced growth in the economy than it could.

Given this assessment, and informed by a set of forecasts based on an unchanged cash rate, the Board judged at its February meeting that a further 25 basis point reduction in the cash rate was appropriate. This decision is expected to provide some additional support to demand, thus fostering sustainable growth and inflation outcomes consistent with the inflation target.

Real Estate

Neither central bank makes much reference to the domestic housing market. Western Canada has been buoyed by international demand from Asia. Elsewhere the overvaluation has been driven by the low interest rates environment. Overall prices are 3.1% higher than December 2014. Vancouver and Toronto are higher but other regions are slightly lower according to the January report from the Canadian Real Estate Association . The chart below shows the national average house price:-

 

 

Canada natl_chartA04_hi-res_en

Source: Canadian Real estate Association

The Australian market has moderated somewhat during the last 18 months, perhaps due to the actions of the RBA, raising rates from 3% to 4.75% in the aftermath of the Great Recession, however, the combination of lower RBA rates since Q4 2011, population growth and Chinese demand has propelled the market higher once more. Prices in Western Australia have moderated somewhat due to the fall in commodity prices but in Eastern Australia, the market is still making new highs. The chart below goes up to 2014 but prices have continued to rise, albeit moderately (less than 2% per quarter) since then:-

Australian House Prices 2006 - 2014

Source: ABS

This chart from the IMF/OECD shows global Price to Income ratios, Canada and Australia are still at the expensive end of the global range:-

House pricetoincome IMF

Source: IMF and OECD

The lowering of official rates by the BoC and RBA will not help to alleviate the overvaluation.

Bonds

This chart shows the monthly evolution of 10 year Government Bond yields since 2008 in Australia (LHS) and Canada (RHS):-

australia-canada-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

Whilst the two markets have moved in a correlated manner Canadian yields have tended to be between 300 and 100 bp lower over the last seven years. The Australian yield curve is flatter than the Canadian curve but this is principally a function of higher base rates. Both central banks have cut rates in anticipation of lower inflation and slower growth. This is likely to support the bond market in each country but investors will benefit from the more favourable carry characteristics of the Canadian market.

Stocks  

To understand the differential performance of the Australian and Canadian stocks markets I have taken account of the strong performance of commodity markets prior to the Great Recession, in the chart below you will observe that both economies benefitted significantly from the rally in industrial commodities between 2003 and 2008. Both stock markets suffered severe corrections during the financial crisis but the Canadian market has steadily outperformed since 2010:-

canada australian -stock-market 2000-2015

Source Trading Economics

This outperformance may have been due to Canada’s proximity to, and reliance on, the US – 77% of Exports and 52% of Imports. The Australian economy, by contrast, is reliant on Asia for exports – China 27%, Japan 17% – however, I believe that the structurally lower interest rate regime in Canada is a more significant factor.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

With industrial commodity prices remaining under pressure neither Canada nor Australia is likely to exhibit strong growth. Inflation will be subdued, unemployment may rise. These are the factors which prompted both central banks to cut interest rates in the last month. However, both economies have been growing reasonable strongly when compared with countries such as those of the Eurozone. Canada GDP 2.59%, Australia GDP 2.7%.

The BoC has little room for manoeuvre with the base rate at 0.75% but the RBA is in a stronger position. For this reason I believe the AUD is likely to weaken against the CAD if world growth slows, but the negative carry implications of this trade are unattractive.

Canadian Real Estate is more vulnerable than Australia to any increase in interest rates – although this seems an unlikely scenario in the near-term – more importantly, in the longer term, Canadian demographics and slowly population growth should alleviate Real Estate demand pressure. In Australia these trends are working in the opposite direction. Neither Real Estate market is cheap but Australia remains better value.

The Australian All-Ordinaries should outperform the Canadian TSX as any weakness in the Australian economy can be more easily supported by RBA accommodation. The All-Ordinaries is also trading on a less demanding earnings multiple than the TSX.

The RBA’s greater room to ease monetary conditions should also support the Australian Government Bond market, added to which the Australian government debt to GDP ratio is an undemanding 28% whilst Canadian debt to GDP is at 89%. The Canadian curve may offer more carry but the RBA ability to ease policy rates is greater. My preferred investment is in Australian Government Bonds. Both Canadian and Australian 10 year yields have risen since the start of February. The last Australian bond retracement saw yields rise 46 bp to 3.75% in September 2014. Since the recent rate cut yields have risen 30 bp to a high of 2.67% earlier this week. Don’t wait too long for better levels.

Where is the oil price heading in 2015?

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Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 1 – 13-02-2015

Where is the oil price heading in 2015?

  • Growth in oil demand remains anaemic
  • Supply will gradually fall as contracts expire
  • Consolidation and declining volatility are the most likely outcome

The price of crude oil has rebounded strongly since the end of January. Is this the beginning of a new trend, a short-term correction prior to a further decline or the start of a period of consolidation?

Here is the price action for March 2015 WTI futures over the last four months:-

4month Mar15 WTI

Source: Barchart.com

Before jumping to any conclusions about the next trend it is worth taking a look at a longer term chart. This is the spot price chart for the period since 2005, it shows the period of the leveraged boom and the collapse during the Great Recession:-

10yr Oil

Source: Barchart.com

The collapse during the Great Recession was largely due to a reduction in demand as the world economy slowed dramatically. The price decline since the summer of 2014 has been driven by a combination of a delayed reaction to increased supply – specifically from the US – and a moderation in the rate of increase in demand associated with the slowing of Chinese growth and its policy of “rebalancing” towards domestic consumption. An additional factor has been the slowing of growth in Europe. An IEA report last December estimated that global oil demand had increased by only 0.75% between 2013 and 2014 – better, by 3.6%, than the 2009/2013 period but not excessive.

During 2013 and early 2014 geopolitical tension in the Middle East and Ukraine kept prices elevated amid expectations of supply disruptions. These disruptions failed to materialise. This coincided with an increase in US oil production. Finally the markets woke-up to the lack of geopolitical risk, the slowdown of growth in the EU and China, and the acceleration in US production. The price began to correct downwards taking out the 2012 lows. From here on it gathered momentum and, having taken out the majority of trading stop-losses, stabilised last month, not far from the 2009 lows.

Another look at the 10 year price chart shows the recovery in 2010/2011. At this stage the improvements in fracking and drilling technology were already becoming widely known, had it not been for geopolitical concerns the price would probably have begun to decline from this point – around $85. The widening price spread between Brent Crude and WTI shows the effect of increased US production:-

brent wti spread Goldman Sachs ZeroHedge

Source: Goldman Sachs and Zero Hedge

WTI begins to lag Brent Crude towards the end of 2010. Here is a chart of US versus World Oil production:-

US_vs_world_Oil_production

Source: EIA and Carpe Diem Blog

 

Price Prospects

What we have seen during the last six months is a delayed reaction to the increased supply of crude oil from the US. The recent decline has been very rapid and may have run its course, or may have further to fall. Either way, volatility is heightened and the price is likely to remain variable.

From a technical perspective I would expect the corrective rally to continue possibly to test the 2012 lows around $75/barrel. After such a rapid rise in the last few weeks, however, the price may retest the low first; there is an outside chance that the market takes out the January low to retest the 2009 bottom. The $75 level may be retested in the autumn as forward contracts expire and supply shortages appear. From this point a renewed decline is most likely, this phase will also be marked by declining volatility.

I have one concern with this technically bullish prediction – the steep contango in the futures market. At close of business on Wednesday 11th February the WTI futures settlements were as follows:-

Contract Last
CLY00 (Cash) 48.87s
CLH15 (Mar ’15) 50.43
CLU15 (Sep ’15) 57.15
CLH16 (Mar ’16) 60.14s
CLU16 (Sep ’16) 62.39s

 

Source: NYMEX and Barchart.com

The shape of the forward curve suggests that oil producers are not feeling quite as much pain as is implied by the spot price, the supply overhang may last into 2016.

Market views, as always, vary. At this week’s International Petroleum Week conference in London Igor Sechin – CEO of Rosneft predicted that oil prices may surge later this year due to supply shortages as a result of the precipitous decline. Meanwhile at the same conference Ian Taylor – CEO of Vitoil, questioned where oil demand would emanate from. His outlook was decidedly more bearish.

Moody’s research, published earlier this week, put a price target for 2015 is $55/barrel which makes sense if global growth slows: they see no boost to growth in China, Japan or the EU from a lower oil price but expect it to benefit India and the US.

I listened to a panel debate at the ICMA/JSDA – Japan Securities Summit on Wednesday where Takahiro Sato of the BoJ alluded to the positive impact lower oil prices might have on Japanese growth. He inferred that it would mean the BoJ undershot its inflation target. Here is a brief extract:-

On the price front, the inflation rates in major countries, including Japan, have been declining as a trend mainly due to the recent drop in crude oil prices. Under those circumstances, central banks in major countries have a common concern that major economies are trapped in a feedback-loop — the decline in the inflation rates would lead to a fall in people’s medium- to long-term inflation expectations, and it would result in a further decline in the actual inflation rates. That is why the Bank decided to expand the QQE last October.

As I cast a dissenting vote on that decision, I may not be an appropriate person to explain this policy.

The NY Times reported – KKR profits were down 89% in Q4 2014 due to turmoil in the US energy sector. New drilling has dried up in the last few months and concerns are growing about potential defaults by over-leveraged energy companies. This could slow US growth if the financial sector is wracked with contagion.

The prospects for the oil price is unclear; it will remain so for the next six months. For this reason I expect Moody’s price target of $55/barrel to be reasonably accurate even if their growth expectations prove wrong.

Obvious risk factors which could undermine my expectations include:-

  1. A dramatic slowdown in China
  2. An unravelling of the Eurozone currency union
  3. Russia and the US going head to head in the Ukraine

I think China is more likely to surprise on the upside if it does surprise at all. The Eurozone is still a difficult situation to predict but I think the Euro currency will survive and lower oil prices will aid Germany among other countries in the Euro area. The US may be performing well economically but its appetite for foreign conflict when the country is heading towards energy independence makes little strategic sense. They are likely to deploy their resources on dealing with ISIS first.

My 2015 outside range for WTI crude oil is $40 to $75 with an average of $55/barrel.

Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking

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Macro Letter – No 29 – 06-02-2015

Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking

  • The SNB unpegged from the Euro and sustained balance sheet losses, they will survive
  • The Euro has been helped lower but rumours of a new SNB target are rife
  • The long run appreciation of the Swiss Franc (CHF) is structural and accelerating, the Swiss economy will adjust
  • If G7 central bank balance sheets expanded to Swiss levels, relative to GDP, QE would triple

On Thursday 15th January the Swiss National Bank (SNB) finally, and unexpectedly, threw in the towel and ceased their foreign exchange intervention to maintain a pegged rate of EURCHF 1.20. The cap was introduced in September 2011 after a 28% appreciation in the CHF since the beginning of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) – from 1.68 to 1.20. After plumbing the depths of 0.85 the EURCHF rate settled at 0.99 – around 18% higher in a single day. This is a huge one day move for a G10 currency and has inflicted collateral damage on leveraged traders, their brokers and those who borrowed in CHF to finance asset purchases in other currencies. Citibank estimates that is has also cost the SNB CHF 60bln. Here is a 10 year chart of EURCHF: –

EURCHF_10_yr

Source: Bigcharts.com

The Swiss SMI stock Index declined from 9259 to 8400 (-9.2%) whilst the German DAX Index rose from 9933 to 10,032 (+1.1%). Swiss and German bond yields headed lower. Swiss bonds now exhibit negative nominal yields out to 15 years – the table below is from Wednesday 4th February:-

Maturity Yield
1 week -1.35
1 month -1.65
2 month -1.55
3 month -1.4
6 month -1.38
1 year -1.11
2 year -0.823
3 year -0.768
4 year -0.632
5 year -0.505
6 year -0.419
7 year -0.305
8 year -0.257
9 year -0.181
10 year -0.111
15 year -0.024
20 year 0.196

 

Source: Investing.com

Swiss inflation is running at -0.3% so the real-yields are fractionally better due to the mild deflation seen in the past couple of months. I expect this deflation to deepen and persist.

Thomas Jordan – Chairman of the governing board of the SNB – made the following statement at a press conference which accompanied the SNB decision:-

Discontinuation of the minimum exchange rate

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it. The minimum exchange rate was introduced during a period of exceptional overvaluation of the Swiss franc and an extremely high level of uncertainty on the financial markets. This exceptional and temporary measure protected the Swiss economy from serious harm. While the Swiss franc is still high, the overvaluation has decreased as a whole since the introduction of the minimum exchange rate. The economy was able to take advantage of this phase to adjust to the new situation. Recently, divergences between the monetary policies of the major currency areas have increased significantly – a trend that is likely to become even more pronounced. The euro has depreciated substantially against the US dollar and this, in turn, has caused the Swiss franc to weaken against the US dollar. In these circumstances, the SNB has concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified.

Interest rate lowered

At the same time as discontinuing the minimum exchange rate, the SNB will be lowering the interest rate for balances held on sight deposit accounts to –0.75% from 22 January. The exemption thresholds remain unchanged. Further lowering the interest rate makes Swiss-franc investments considerably less attractive and will mitigate the effects of the decision to discontinue the minimum exchange rate. The target range for the three-month Libor is being lowered by 0.5 percentage points to between –1.25% and –0.25%.

Outlook for inflation and the economy

The inflation outlook for Switzerland is low. In December we presented a conditional inflation forecast, which predicts inflation of –0.1% for this year. Since this forecast was published, the oil price has once again fallen significantly, which will further dampen the inflation outlook for a time. However, lower oil prices will stimulate growth globally, and this will influence economic developments in Switzerland positively. Swiss franc exchange rate movements also impact inflation and the economic situation.

The SNB remains committed to its mandate of ensuring medium-term price stability while taking account of economic developments. In concluding, let me emphasise that the SNB will continue to take account of the exchange rate situation in formulating its monetary policy in future. If necessary, it will therefore remain active in the foreign exchange market to influence monetary conditions.

On Tuesday 27th January the CHF fell marginally after SNB Vice President Jean-Pierre Danthine told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger – Die Presse war voller Spekulationen, that the SNB remains ready to intervene in the currency market. One comment worthy of consideration, with apologies for the “google-translate”, is:-

Q. Does the SNB did not develop a new monetary policy? Just as Denmark, which has tied its currency to the euro in 30 years? Or as Singapore, which manages its currency based on a trade-weighted basket of currencies?

A. Denmark is the euro zone financially and politically closer than Switzerland. The binding to Europe is a long standing. Means that this solution is for Switzerland hardly considered. The arrangement of Singapore is worthy of consideration. But what is decisive is the long-term. Apart from Switzerland and other small and open economies such as Sweden and Norway are done well over the years with a flexible exchange rate.

Rumours of a new unofficial corridor of EURCHF 1.05-1.10 are now circulating – strikingly similar to the level reached prior to the September 2011 peg.

Breaking the Bank

Another rumour to have surfaced after the currency move was that the SNB had become concerned about the size of their balance sheet relative to Swiss GDP. The chart below is from 2013 but it shows the relative scale of SNB QE:-

Central Bank Balance-of-percentage-GDP - source SNB

Source: SNB and snbchf.com

Estimates of the loss sustained by the SNB, due to the appreciation of the CHF, vary, but, rather like countries, central banks don’t tend to “go bust”. The Economist – Broke but never Bust takes up the subject (my emphasis in bold):-

…For one thing central banks are far bigger. Between 2006 and 2014 central-bank balance-sheets in the G7 jumped from $3.4 trillion to $10.5 trillion, or from 10% to 25% of GDP. And the assets they hold have changed. The SNB, aiming to protect Swiss exporters from an appreciating currency, has built up a huge stock of euros, bought with newly created francs.

…Bonds that paid 5% or more ten years ago now yield nothing, and other investments have performed badly (the SNB was stung by a drop in the value of gold in 2013 and cut its dividend to zero). Concerned that its euro holdings might lose value the SNB shocked markets on January 15th by abruptly ending its euro-buying spree.

…With capital of €95 billion supporting a €2.2 trillion balance-sheet, the Eurosystem (the ECB and the national banks that stand behind it) is 23 times levered; a loss of 4% would wipe out its equity. Since two central banks have suffered devastating crunches recently (Tajikistan in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009) the standard logic seems to apply: capital-eroding losses must be avoided.

But the worries are overdone. For one thing central banks are healthier than they appear. On top of its equity, the Eurosystem holds €330 billion in additional reserves. These funds are designed to absorb losses as assets change in value. Even if the ECB were to buy all available Greek debt—around €50 billion—and Greece were to default, the system would lose just 15% of these reserves; its capital would not be touched.

And even if a central bank’s equity were wiped out it would not go bust in the way high-street lenders do. With liabilities outweighing its assets it might seem unable to pay all its creditors. But even bust central banks retain a priceless asset: the power to print money. Customers’ deposits are a claim on domestic currency, something the bank can create at will. Only central banks that borrow heavily in foreign currencies they cannot mint (as in Tajikistan) or in failing states (Zimbabwe) get into deep trouble.

The Economist goes on to highlight the risk that going “cap in hand” to their finance ministries will weaken central banks’ “independence” and might prove inflationary. In the current environment inflation would be a nice problem for the SNB, or, for that matter, the ECB or BoJ to have. As for the limits of central bank balance sheet expansion, the SNB – at 80% of GDP – have blazed a trail for their larger peers to follow.

Is it the money supply?

A further unofficial explanation of the SNB move concerns the unusually large expansion of Swiss money supply since the GFC. In early January an article from snbchf.comThe Risks on the Rising SNB Money Supply discussed how the SNB might be thinking (my emphasis): –

Since the financial crisis central banks in developed nations increased their balance sheets. The leading one was the American Federal Reserve that increased the monetary base (“narrow money”), followed by the Bank of Japan and recently the ECB. Only partially the extension of narrow money had an effect on banks’ money supply, so called “broad money”. For the Swiss, however, the rising money supply concerns both narrow and broad money. Broad money in Switzerland rises as strong as it did in Spain or Ireland before the financial crisis.

They go on to discuss the global effects of QE:-

…The SNB had the choice between a stronger currency and, secondly, an excessive appreciation of the Swiss assets.  With the introduction of the euro floor, it opted for the second alternative and increased its monetary base massively in order to absorb foreign currency inflows. Implicitly the central bank helped to push up asset prices even further. Hence it was rather foreign demand for Swiss assets that helped to increase the demand for credit and money in the real economy.

…The SNB printed a lot of money especially in the years before and just after the euro introduction until 2003, to weaken the franc and the “presumed slow” Swiss growth. The money increase, however, did not affect credit growth more than it should have: investors preferred other countries to Switzerland to buy assets. Finally the central bank increased interest rates a bit and reduced money supply between 2006 and 2008. Be aware that in 2006/2007 there is a statistical effect with the inclusion of “Raiffeisen” group banks into M3. Since 2009, things have changed M3 is rising with an average of 7.7% per year, while before 2009 it was 3% per year. Banking lending to the private sector is increasing by 3.9% per year while it was 1.7% between 1995 and 2005.

…Since April 2014, money supply M3 has suddenly stopped at around 940 billion CHF. Before it had increased by 80 bln. CHF per year from 626 bln. in each year since 2008.  We explained before that Fed’s QE translated in higher lending in dollars, dollars that found their way into emerging markets. The same thing happens in Switzerland with newly created Swiss francs. Not all of them remained in the Swiss economy, but they were loaned out to clients from Emerging Markets. Hence the second risk does not directly concerns the Swiss economy and the euro, but the relationship between its banks and emerging markets and the risks of a strong franc for banks’ balance sheets.

 

Here is a chart of M3 and bank lending in Switzerland, the annotation is from snbchf.com:-

Swiss-M3-and-Lending-2014-Ireland

Source: SNB and snbchf.com

The SNBs decision to unpeg seems a brutal way to impose discipline on the domestic lending market and an unusual way to test increased bank capital requirements, however, I believe this was the least bad time to escape from the corner into which they had boxed themselves. The recent fall in M3 should put some upward pressure on the CHF – until growth slows and reverses the process.

The SNB said this about money supply and bank lending in their Q4 2014 Quarterly Bulletin (my emphasis):-

Growth in money supply driven by lending

The expansion of the money supply witnessed since the beginning of the financial and economic crisis is mainly attributable to bank lending. An examination of components of the M3 monetary aggregate and its balance sheet counterparts, based on the consolidated balance sheet of the banking sector, shows that approximately 70% of the increase in the M3 monetary aggregate between October 2008 and October 2014 (CHF 311 billion) was attributable to the increase in domestic Swiss franc lending (CHF 216 billion). The remaining 30% of the M3 increase was due in part to households and companies switching their portfolio holdings from securities and foreign exchange into Swiss franc sight deposits.

Stable mortgage lending growth in the third quarter

In the third quarter of 2014 – as in the previous quarter – banks’ mortgage claims, which make up four-fifths of all domestic bank lending, were up 3.8% year-on-year. Mortgage lending growth thus continued to slow, as it has for some time now, despite the fact that mortgage rates have fallen to a historic low. A breakdown by borrower shows that the growth slowdown has taken place in mortgage lending to households as well as companies.

This slower growth in mortgage lending may be attributed to various measures taken since 2012 to restrain the banks’ appetite for risk and strengthen their resilience. These include the banks’ own self-regulation measures, which subject mortgage lending to stricter minimum requirements. Moreover, at the request of the SNB, the Federal Council activated the countercyclical capital buffer in 2013 and increased it this year. This obliges the banks to back their mortgage loans on residential property with additional capital. The SNB’s bank lending survey also indicates that lending standards have been tightened and demand for loans among households and companies has declined.

…Growing ratio of bank lending to GDP

The strong growth in bank lending recorded in recent years is reflected in the ratio of bank loans to nominal GDP. After a sharp rise in the 1980s, this ratio remained largely unchanged until mid-2008. Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, it has increased again substantially. This increase suggests that banks’ lending activities have supported aggregate demand. However, strong lending growth also entails risks for financial stability. In the past, excessive growth in lending has often been the root cause of later difficulties in the banking industry.

Switzerland’s banking sector is truly multi-national, deposits continue to arrive, despite penal “negative” rates, meanwhile, many CHF bank loans have been made to international clients. The sharp appreciation of the CHF will force the banking sector to make additional provisions for non-performing international loans. Further analysis of the effect of relative money supply growth, between Switzerland and the Eurozone (EZ) on the EURCHF exchange rate, can be found in this post by Frank Shostak – Post Mortem on the Swiss Franc’s Euro-Peg. He makes an interesting “Austrian” case for a weakening of the CHF versus the EUR over-time.

Swiss Francs in the long run

My first ever journey outside the UK was to Switzerland, that was back in 1971 when a pound sterling bought CHF 10.5. The Swiss economy has had to deal with a constantly rising exchange rate ever since. The chart below of the CHF Real Trade-Weighted value shows this most clearly: –

Real_Effective_CHF_Exchange_rate_EURCHF18_01_2013-

Source: Pictet

This chart only goes up to mid-2013, since then the USDCHF has moved from 0.88 and 0.99 by early January – after the unpegging the rate is near to its mid-point at 0.93. According to the Guardian – What a $7.54 Swiss Big Mac tells us about global currencies – the Swiss currency is now 33% overvalued. Exporters will be hit hard and the financial sector is bound to be damaged by commercial bank lending policies associated with pegging the CHF to a declining EUR. On Monday Bank Julius Baer (BAER.VX) announced plans to cut costs by CHF 100mln, domestic job cuts were also indicated – more institutions are sure to follow their lead. Meanwhile, there are bound to be emerging market borrowers which default. The Swiss economy will slow, exacerbating deflationary forces, but lower prices will improve the purchasing power of the domestic population. Switzerland’s trade balance hit a record high in July 2014 and came close to the same level in November:-

switzerland-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics and Swiss Customs

In a recent newsletter – The Swiss Release the Kraken – John Maudlin quoted fellow economist Charles Gave in a tongue in cheek assessment of the SNB’s action:-

They [the SNB] didn’t mind pegging the Swiss franc to the Deutsche mark, but it is becoming more and more obvious that the euro is more a lira than a mark. A clear sign is the decline of the euro against the US dollar.

Mr. Draghi has been trying to talk the euro down for at least a year. This should not come as a surprise. After all, in the old pre-euro days, every time Italy had a problem, the solution was always to devalue.

But the Swiss, not being as smart as the Italians, do not believe in devaluations. You see, in Switzerland they have never believed in the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, nor have they believed in the Keynesian multiplier of government spending, nor have they accepted that the permanent growth of government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is a social necessity. The benighted Swiss, just down from their mountains where it was difficult to survive the winters, have a strong Neanderthal bias and have never paid any attention to the luminaries teaching economics in Princeton or Cambridge. Strange as it may seem, they still believe in such queer, outdated notions as sound money, balanced budgets, local democracy, and the need for savings to finance investments. How quaint!

Of course, the Swiss are paying a huge price for their lack of enlightenment. For example, since the move to floating exchange rates in 1971, the Swiss franc has risen from CHF4.3 to the US dollar to CHF0.85 and appreciated from CHF10.5 to the British pound to CHF1.5. Naturally, such a protracted revaluation has destroyed the Swiss industrial base and greatly benefited British producers [not!]. Since 1971, the bilateral ratio of industrial production has gone from 100 to 175…in favor of Switzerland.

And for most of that time Switzerland ran a current account surplus, a balanced budget, and suffered almost no unemployment, all despite the fact that nobody knows the name of a single Swiss politician or central banker (or perhaps because nobody knows a single Swiss politician or central banker, since they have such limited power? And that all these marvelous results come from that one simple fact: their lack of power.)

The last time I looked, the Swiss population had the highest standard of living in the world – another disastrous long-term consequence of not having properly trained economists of the true faith.

Swiss unemployment has been trending higher recently (3.4% in December) and this figure may rise as sectors such as banking and tourism adjust to the new environment, however, this level of unemployment is still enviable by comparison with other developed countries.

The following charts give an excellent insight into the nature of trade in the Swiss economy. Firstly, exports:-

Swiss_ExportsByCountry

Source: snbchf.com

The importance of the EZ is evident (46.4% excluding UK) however the next chart shows a rather different perspective:-

Swiss_TradeBalanceByCountry

Source: snbchf.com

The relative importance of the USA is striking – 11% of exports but nearly half of the trade surplus – so too, is the magnitude of the deficit with Germany, in fact, within Europe, only Spain and the UK are export surplus markets.

A closer look at the break-down of Imports and Exports by sector provides an additional dimension:-

Swiss-Imports-Exports-by-Type

Source: snbchf.com

The SNB already highlighted the import of energy as a significant factor – Switzerland’s energy bill is now much lower than it was in July 2014. The export of pharmaceuticals has always been of major importance – many of these products are inherently price inelastic, the rise in the currency will have less impact on Switzerland than it might do on other developed economies.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain

Contrary to what several commentators have been suggesting, I do not believe the SNB capitulation marks the beginning of the end of central bank omnipotence – they were never that omnipotent in the first place. The size of the SNB balance sheet is also testament to the limits of QE – if the other G7 central banks expand to 80% of GDP the total QE would more than triple from $10.5 trln to $33.6 trln – and what is to say that 80% of GDP is the limit?

Swiss Markets

Switzerland will benefit from a floating currency in the longer term, although the recent abrupt appreciation may lead to a recession – which in turn should reduce upward pressure on the CHF. Criticism of the SNB for creating greater volatility within the Swiss economy is only partially justified, the excessive rise of the CHF effective exchange rate was due to external factors and the SNB felt it needed to be managed, the subsequent rise in the US$ has brought the CHF back to a more realistic level but the current environment of zero interest rate policy adopted by several major central banks has parallels with the conditions seen after the collapse of Bretton Woods.

I believe the SNB anticipates an acceleration in the long term trend rate of appreciation of the CHF. Swiss exports, even to the US, will be impaired but German imports will be cheaper – with a record trade surplus, this is a good time to start the adjustment of market expectations about the value of the CHF going forward. Swiss companies are used to planning within a framework which incorporates a steadily rising value of their currency – now they must anticipate an acceleration in that trend.

The money and bond markets will remain distorted and, in the event of another EZ crisis, the SNB may increase the penalties for access to the “safe-haven” Switzerland represents: and, as indicated, they may intervene again if the capital flows become excessive. 20 year, or longer, Confederation Bonds, alone, offer positive carry, buying call spreads on shorter maturities is a strategy worth considering.

The SMI Index is likely to lag the broader European market, but negative bond yields offer little alternative to stocks and domestic investors will exhibit a renewed cognizance of the risk of foreign currency investments. The SMI Index, at around 8550, is only 7.6% below the level it was trading prior to the SNB announcement. Swiss stocks will undoubtedly benefit from any export led European economic recovery. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the US economy appears in tact – the Philadelphia Fed Leading Indexes for December – released earlier this week – suggest economic expansion in 49 states over the next six months.

Eurozone Markets

The EZ has already been aided by the departure of its strongest “shadow” member; combined with the ECB’s Expanded Asset Purchase Programme (EAPP) this should drive the EUR lower. European stocks have already taken heart, fuelled by the new liquidity and international competitiveness.

European bond spreads continue to compress. Fears of peripheral countries exiting the single currency area will provide volatility but for the major countries – France, Italy and Spain – any weakness is still a buying opportunity, but at these, often negative real-yields, they should be viewed as a “trading” rather than an “investment” asset.

The prospects for the UK in 2015 – Stocks, Gilts and Sterling

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 28 – 23-01-2015

The prospects for the UK in 2015 – Stocks, Gilts and Sterling

  • Unlike major Eurozone bond markets, UK 10 year Gilts have yet to make new highs
  • The FTSE has lagged both the S&P500 and the DAX
  • Sterling continues to appreciate against the Euro, but decline versus the UD$
  • UK election uncertainty will dominate and constrain markets until May

Last year the UK stock market trod water while other markets, often with weaker fundamentals, trended higher. Meanwhile UK Gilts headed back towards the multi-year low yields last seen during the Euro crisis in July 2012. UK growth still appears robust when compared to other EU countries; it has broadly kept pace with the US over the course of the last 18 months.

Annualised GDP
Country UK USA
Q1 2013 0.9 1.7
Q2 2013 1.7 1.8
Q3 2013 1.6 2.3
Q4 2013 2.4 3.1
Q1 2014 2.4 1.9
Q2 2014 2.6 2.6
Q3 2014 2.6 2.7

Source: Trading Economics

Earlier this month saw the publication of the Deloitte – Q4 CFO Survey. This influential report is based on a survey of 119 CFO, of which 32 represent FTSE 100 companies. They see a growing divide between good UK fundamentals and UK politics in the run up to the general election in May. The positive domestic environment is also at odds with a number of external risks including the collapse in commodity prices, slowing emerging market growth – especially in China – and the continued weakness and political uncertainty surrounding the Eurozone (EZ).

56% of CFO’s believe now is a good time to invest in their businesses – down from a record high of 71% in Q3. This is still well above the long-term average and the general expectation is that Capital Expenditure will increase 9% in 2015.

The Deloitte report underpins hopes for the return of real wage growth for the first time in six years. The UK employment report, released on Wednesday, may indicate the beginning of a trend: it reveals average weekly earnings rising 1.7% in November – down from 1.9% in October but the third consecutive month of above inflation wage growth. Headline unemployment was 5.8%, down from a previous 6%, but employment growth was muted and the activity rate has declined by 0.5% over the last six months. In other words, less people are participating in the labour market. The rate of private sector pay inflation actually slowed in November from 2.4% to 2.1% – real-wage growth may be distorted by temporary disinflationary factors such as falling energy prices. I think it is safe to suggest that UK living standards are stabilising after a painful period of adjustment.

Last week also saw the publication of UK inflation data. Following a trend seen in a number of other developed markets, it came in at 14 year low of +0.5% – well below the Bank of England (BoE) target of 2%. It is likely that Governor Carney will blame this divergence on external factors when he writes his first letter of explanation to the UK Chancellor. The excuses have already begun; this speech, given yesterday by external MPC member David Miles, opens:-

What can monetary policy be expected to do? My short answer comes in three parts: First, rather a lot less than many people who view inflation targets as too narrow seem to think; those who want to broaden the aims of monetary policy well beyond inflation to include targets for growth, financial stability and even income inequality may seriously over-estimate what policy can realistically achieve. Second, rather a lot more than is implied by many economic models which take a narrow view of the channels through which monetary policy affects behaviour and as a result make the ability of monetary policy to stabilise the economy precarious. Third, the success of monetary policy in achieving stable inflation (or prices) depends crucially on that being consistent with fiscal policy. Monetary policy cannot be expected to achieve price stability in isolation from things fiscal; monetary policy does not hold all the cards – it cannot trump everything.

The fall in inflation has been widespread, as the chart below shows, but this may not be an indication of economic malaise since external factors, such as the fall in oil prices and the continued decline in the Euro, are a significant influence. Nonetheless, as the Economic Research Council observe in their recent commentary, this is the first time on record that all four sub-sectors have experienced an inflation rate of 1% or less in a single month:-

UK_Inflation_-_ONS

Source: ONS and Economic Research Council

A more important gauge of corporate domestic conditions can be gleaned from the BoE – Q4 2014 Credit Conditions Survey – published on 6th January. Here are some of the highlights:-

…The overall availability of credit to the corporate sector was unchanged in Q4 according to lenders, and was expected to remain unchanged in Q1.

…While demand for credit from small businesses was reported to have decreased in Q4, demand from medium-sized companies increased significantly. Demand for credit from large corporates increased slightly in 2014 Q4.

…Spreads on lending to small businesses were unchanged in Q4, while spreads for medium-sized companies and large corporates narrowed significantly. These trends were expected to continue over the next three months.

…Default rates on corporate lending fell in Q4, particularly on lending to small businesses. Losses given default were unchanged in Q4 for small businesses, but fell for medium-sized companies and large corporates.

The minutes of the December MPC meeting showed a unanimous vote in favour of maintaining the stock of assets purchased during the period of QE from September 2009 to July 2012 – £375 bln – despite two members continuing to vote in favour of a 25bp rate increase. On Wednesday the January MPC minutes showed a unanimous accord to leave rates unchanged. Alert to the possibly temporary nature of the positive price shocks of lower oil and a declining Eur, Weale and McCafferty, the two MPC hawks, said their decision was “finely balanced”. The minutes went on to say:-

…the risks to CPI inflation in the medium term might have, if anything, shifted to the upside, but all members were also alert to the downside risk of current low inflation becoming entrenched.

At first sight the Deloitte CFO survey and the BoE Credit Conditions survey appear to be at odds, until one remembers the degree to which corporate sector demand for credit has been stifled by the unconventional monetary policy of the BoE and other central banks over the last few years. Negative real-interest rates distort the credit price discovery mechanism.

Corporates have chosen to issue special dividends or buy back stock rather than borrow at ostensibly attractive rates because of the uncertainty which surrounds the economic consequences of interest rate normalisation.

Nonetheless, in several respects, the UK economy looks robust, especially in comparison to most of the EZ. Six years of falling real wages – down 11% over the period – has allowed average working hours and private sector GDP to push well above the pre-crisis highs of 2007. Productivity, however, remains a problem, real GDP per hour barely moved, suggesting that “low wage – low skill” employment has taken up the slack. This has stimulated an influx of 1.5mln immigrant workers, and stoked divisive political debate, in the process. The economy may have grown but the standard of living of the average voter has not.

UK Public sector finances remain a concern as this chart from the Economic Research Council demonstrates:-

UK_Public_Sector_Finances_-_ERC

Source: Economic Research Council and ONS

Net government borrowing has improved, retreating from its zenith of 10% of GDP in 2009/2010 to less than 6% in 2013/2014, however the total Net Debt to GDP ratio continues to rise – the ERC are forecasting 83% during the 2014/2015 tax year. Ian Stewart – Chief Economist at Deloitte’s – put it succinctly in a weekly note back in November – Recession Over, Deficit Reduction Grinds On:-

The IMF reckons that the UK’s budget deficit will come in at 5.3% of GDP this year. In Europe, only Spain has a bigger deficit. Markets have worried a lot about public sector indebtedness in the euro area in recent years, but the ratio of borrowing to GDP in France, Italy and Greece this year is likely to be around half UK levels.

…Public sector deficits have been falling as a share of GDP in most countries since 2009.

Small nations which endured deep financial crises have been most aggressive in cutting public borrowing. Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and Latvia top the league table of deficit reduction since 2009. The US and UK also cut borrowing aggressively. But both, ironically, now have deficits which exceed those of Greece, Ireland and Iceland.

The best way of shrinking public deficits is to grow the economy. Yet while the UK has easily outpaced its peers this year progress in reducing the deficit has gone into reverse. In the first seven months of the 2014/15 financial year the deficit was 6% higher than in the same period a year earlier. The official forecast for a 12% reduction in the deficit in 2014/15 looks unattainable.

The long squeeze on public expenditure is actually on track. The problem is that tax revenues have lagged well behind expectations. Several factors are at work.

Much of the growth in UK employment in the last year has been in low wage work, dampening earnings growth and tax revenues. (The positive side of this is that the young and the unskilled are getting back into work. The proportion of young people not in work education or training is at the lowest level in ten years).

Stronger than expected growth in self-employment, where average earnings are below those in the rest of the economy, have also hit government revenues. The Office of National Statistics calculates that the median incomes for the self-employed fell by a whopping 22% between 2008-09 and 2012-13.

The Coalition’s decision to raise the tax free threshold to £10,000 has eaten further into revenues. Meanwhile, a lower oil price has hit North Sea revenues and a cooling housing market means less money for the Treasury from Stamp Duty.

The Coalition’s strategy has been to shrink the deficit mainly through cutting public expenditure. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies spending cuts account for 71% of the planned fiscal consolidation, reduced interest payments 15% and tax rises just 12%.

Most planned tax rises have taken effect, but two-thirds of the planned cuts to spending on public services still have to take effect.

The UK is over five years through a ten-year programme of deficit reduction. Roughly half of the total planned tightening still lies ahead. The speed and composition of deficit reduction seem likely to remain a central issue in the next Parliament.

But that’s not how voters see things. A recent poll for the Financial Times by Populus found that 60% of voters do not believe that any further cuts in public spending will be necessary in the next Parliament.

Paradoxically, cutting budget deficits may be politically easier in a time of crisis than when the economy is growing. Voters’ concerns are already shifting away from the economy. Five more years of austerity is not a slogan that is likely to appeal to an electorate that has been through the deepest recession in generations.

The hope for whichever party or coalition wins the next election is that tax revenues pick up. Without such a recovery the next government would have to choose between pushing back the timetable for eliminating the deficit or piling on more austerity. The recession may be over, but much of the pain of deficit-reduction still lies ahead. 

The continued deterioration in government finances is one factor which is holding back UK growth, another is the rapid increase in private sector borrowing; primarily mortgages, helped by an extension of the Funding for Lending scheme, and credit cards. According to the Money Charity – January 2015 report:-

People in the UK owed £1.463 trillion at the end of November 2014.

This is up from £1.433 trillion at the end of November 2013 – an extra £591 per UK adult.

The average total debt per household – including mortgages – was £55,384 in November. The revised figure for October was £55,297.

Per adult in the UK that’s an average debt of £28,968 in November – around 115.0% of average earnings. This is up from a revised £28,922 in October.

…Outstanding consumer credit lending was £168.8 billion at the end of November 2014.

This is up from £158.8 billion at the end of November 2013, and is an increase of £199 for every adult in the UK.

These combined public and private sector trends helped to push the current account deficit to a 60 year high of £27bln – 6% of GDP – in Q3 2014, notwithstanding a record service sector surplus of 5.1%:-

current-account-quarterly-2000-2012

Source: economicshelp.org and OBR

The latest Ernst and Young’s ITEM Club forecast was released this week. This revised UK growth since their last estimate in October, from 2.4% to 2.9% for 2015. The revision is mainly due to lower oil prices. This also leads them to predict that inflation will average zero over the course of 2015. The clouds on this decidedly bright horizon are external factors, such as the dismal prospects for EZ growth, the continued slowing of a debt encumbered Chinese economy and the geo-political downside risks for Russia and its acolytes. All these factors would reduce growth but also, barring a dramatic increase in the price of energy, herald lower inflation.

Below is a chart showing annualised UK GDP data over the period 2007-2014:-

united-kingdom-gdp-growth-annual 2007-2014

Source: Trading Economics and ONS

The recovery looks robust until one realises that over the period 1993 to 2007 UK GDP averaged 3.3%. In the last three years it has only managed 0.9%.

I concur with the ITEM Club; BoE rates are unlikely to rise for some while yet – the money markets are not pricing in a rate rise until Q1 2016. As in many other developed countries, the economic recovery has been muted and protracted due to the overhang of debt and the “monetary engineering” of consumption.

Politics

May 7th is the date set for the general election; this event will dominate the political agenda for H1 2015. The latest ICM opinion poll published by The Guardian on Tuesday looks like this:-

ICM_Poll_Parties_200115

Source: Guardian and ICM

An article published last Sunday by British Future – 2015 A Year of Uncertaintysuggest that the election will be the most open in 40 years:-

We don’t even know how many parties will end up forming a government, let alone which ones. New ICM polling for this year’s State of the Nation 2015 report from British Future sheds some light on key issues surrounding the General Election campaign and beyond.

How people predict the outcome of the May 7 election depends very much on who they are, with most party supporters feeling that their team have a good chance: 88% of Conservatives think their party will be in government, while 78% of Labour supporters think theirs will. They can’t both be right. That two-thirds of UKIP supporters think Nigel Farage and co. will be part of the government and 49% of Lib Dems think they will, shows how open a contest it could be.

In an election that may well be dominated by questions about immigration and identity, not everyone is confident that we can emerge from the debate unscathed, with social and community cohesion intact. Our poll finds that only a quarter of Britons believe we can come through the 2015 election campaign with good community relations across our multi-faith and multi-ethnic society. A similar number worry that the tone of the election campaign will damage relations between different communities, while another group of voters wish the gloves would come off more.

…It is the job of politicians to articulate different views, but also to aggregate them. This has become more difficult as our fragmented politics show. But in a fractious society there will also be a greater appetite for politicians who can tell a broader story about what brings us together – one which can engage people in the cities and in coastal towns, across the generations, and build common cause across class, faith and ethnic lines in the Britain we all share.

Asset Market Direction

Uncertainty surrounding the general election will limit price moves for the UK stocks and Gilts until mid-year at the earliest; if anything, there may be capital outflows.

Gilts

Gilts offer higher yields than Bunds or Oats and yet, to a Euro based investor, the currency risk of Gilts, as opposed to the country risk of BTPs or Bonos, makes the carry-trade less than obvious in a UK election year. Here are a selection of 10 year Government bond yields from, post ECB QE announcement at 17:00 GMT on Thursday 22nd:-

Country 10 yr Yield Spread over Bunds
Switzerland -0.19 -0.64
Germany 0.45 0
Finland 0.46 0.01
Netherlands 0.48 0.03
France 0.62 0.17
Ireland 1.18 0.73
Spain 1.42 0.97
UK 1.51 1.06
Italy 1.62 1.17
Portugal 2.36 1.91
Greece 8.89 8.44

Source: Investing.com

The recent actions of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) whilst extreme, are an indication of the potential impact of currency risk both on the value of a bond and its yield. Meanwhile Gilts, like other government bonds continue their inexorable rise. Here is the monthly yield for 10 year Gilts since January 2007:-

united-kingdom-government-bond-yield 2007-2015

Source: Trading Economics

The absolute low in yield was seen in July 2012 at 1.40% during the depths of the last Euro crisis – at that juncture German Bunds were yielding around1.25% – a spread of around 15bp. I believe we will see fresh all-time highs in Gilts over the coming months, although I am not yet ready to short German Bunds against them, even for more than 100bp of positive carry. In absolute terms Gilt yields have halved in the last 13 months. For long-term investors a yield of 1.5% is hardly exciting, but that is what I said this time last year, only to watch fixed income markets have their best period of capital appreciation in many years.

Currency

The BoE decision to embrace aggressive QE early in the aftermath of the Great Recession – mainly during September and October 2009 – meant that the UK economy was the first to recover, however, as the chart below makes clear, the 40% depreciation of the GBP exchange rate versus its main trading partner created the conditions for a rapid export led recovery in economic fortunes:-

EURGBP Month Jan 2007 - Jan 2015

Source: Barchart.com

This month, prompted by the continued strengthening of the US$ and the unpegging of the CHF, has seen EUR/GBP break through the 61.8% retracement level (0.78). It is not inconceivable that the entire move will now be retraced. The 0.70 highs of 2005/2006 look like the next obvious level of support. This will hasten a further deterioration in the current account deficit and allow the EZ to export some of its deflation to the UK.

Against the US$, Sterling has been weakening, as international capital has flowed into the US markets. I expect continued weakness of Cable – it is likely to retest 1.42, a level last reached in May 2010 – together with further Sterling strength versus the Euro.

Stocks

Covering the period since 2010, here is a chart of showing the relative performance of FTSE versus DAX and EuroStoxx 50:-

FTSE EUROSTOXX DAX 5yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

What is clear is that German stocks have benefitted, from the receding of the Euro crisis, significantly more than either the UK or the broader European market. The DAX outperformance of FTSE, however, dates back to the early 2000’s Hartz reforms which have been key to German growth for more than a decade. As often happens, the UK stock market had already anticipated the resurgence in economic growth prior to 2012. In 2014 the FTSE marked-time as mining and commodity stock weakness was offset by stronger performance in other sectors – especially technology.

The continued weakness in GBP/USD may encourage inward capital flows into UK stocks. The upward momentum of the US economy – barring a major correction on the back of an energy sector related debt default – will also benefit UK stocks; the US is still “the Consumer of Last Resort”. The IMF – World Economic Outlook update cut its global growth forecast earlier this week from 3.8% to 3.5% but increased its US forecast from 3.1% to 3.6%. This is their introduction: –

Global growth will receive a boost from lower oil prices, which reflect to an important extent higher supply. But this boost is projected to be more than offset by negative factors, including investment weakness as adjustment to diminished expectations about medium-term growth continues in many advanced and emerging market economies.

Global growth in 2015–16 is projected at 3.5 and 3.7 percent, downward revisions of 0.3 percent relative to the October 2014 World Economic Outlook (WEO). The revisions reflect a reassessment of prospects in China, Russia, the euro area, and Japan as well as weaker activity in some major oil exporters because of the sharp drop in oil prices. The United States is the only major economy for which growth projections have been raised.

The distribution of risks to global growth is more balanced than in October. The main upside risk is a greater boost from lower oil prices, although there is uncertainty about the persistence of the oil supply shock. Downside risks relate to shifts in sentiment and volatility in global financial markets, especially in emerging market economies, where lower oil prices have introduced external and balance sheet vulnerabilities in oil exporters. Stagnation and low inflation are still concerns in the euro area and in Japan.

The FTSE is trading on a P/E of around 16 times earnings: this is not far above its long run average. The Shiller/Case CAPE – a measure of the price versus the last 10 years earnings – suggests the market is relatively cheap. Trading at around 15 times it compares favourably with the 27 times multiple of the US. The chart below shows the evolution over the last 40 years – it is from mid-October 2014 and the FTSE is around 300 points higher since then:-

PF-ftse-cape_3079144a

Source: Hargreaves Lansdown

This metric is underpinned by the following chart, again courtesy of the Economic Research Council, which shows the comparative profitability of the UK services and manufacturing sectors:-

UK_Company_profitability_-_ERC

Source: Economic Research Council and ONS

UK manufacturing sector profitability is hitting a 16 year high – lower energy prices can only help them improve margins further. This may be one of the factors influencing the investment intensions expressed in the Deloitte CFO survey. Perhaps demand for corporate credit might return in earnest after the election.

With politics overshadowing the market until May, I expect an out-performance by UK stocks to be delayed until H2 2015. Of the many external factors, the performance of the US stock market is probably the most important. The US market has outperformed the UK substantially since the mid-2012 Euro crisis:-

SPX vs FTSE 5yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

I envisage latent demand driving the UK stock market in the second half of the year. For those who are concerned that the US equity bull-market may be nearing the end its current cycle, long FTSE short S&P500 could be an interesting relative value play. Technically, however, the S&P500 is still trending higher whilst the FTSE should be bought on a convincing breakout above 6875.

Greece, Germany and the ECB: and what it means for Bonds, Stocks and the Euro

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Macro Letter – No 27 – 9-1-2015

Greece, Germany and the ECB and what it means for Bonds, Stocks and the Euro

  • Greek elections this month have rekindled concern about the future of the Euro
  • Germany is beginning to consider the ramifications of a Greek exit from the EMU
  • European bonds – excluding Greece – continue to rise as EUR/USD falls
  • The ECB needs to make good on its promise to do “whatever it takes” 

 

Greece is back in the spotlight amid renewed fears of a break-up of the Euro as the Syriza party show a 3.1% lead over the incumbent New Democracy in the latest Rass opinion poll – 4th January. The average of the last 20 polls – dating back to 15th December shows Syriza with a lead of 4.74% capturing 31.9% of the vote.

These election concerns have become elevated since the publication of an article in Der Spiegel Grexit Grumblings: Germany Open to Possible Greek Euro Zone Exit -suggesting that German Chancellor Merkel is now of the opinion that the Eurozone (EZ) can survive without Greece. Whilst Steffen Seibert – Merkle’s press spokesman – has since stated that the “political leadership” isn’t working on blueprints for a Greek exit, the idea that Greece might be “let go” has captured the imagination of the markets.

A very different view, of the potential damage a Greek exit might cause to the EZ, is expressed by Market Watch – Greek euro exit would be ‘Lehman Brothers squared’: economist quoting Barry Eichengreen, speaking at the American Economic Association conference, who described a Greek exit from the Euro:-

In the short run, it would be Lehman Brothers squared.

Writing at the end of last month the Economist – The euro’s next crisis described the expectation of a Syriza win in the forthcoming elections:-

In its policies Syriza represents, at best, uncertainty and contradiction and at worst reckless populism. On the one hand Mr Tsipras has recanted from his one-time hostility to Greece’s euro membership and toned down his more extravagant promises. Yet, on the other, he still thinks he can tear up the conditions imposed by Greece’s creditors in exchange for two successive bail-outs. His reasoning is partly that the economy is at last recovering and Greece is now running a primary budget surplus (ie, before interest payments); and partly that the rest of the euro zone will simply give in as they have before. On both counts he is being reckless.

In theory a growing economy and a primary surplus may help a country repudiate its debts because it is no longer dependent on capital inflows.

The complexity of the political situation in Greece is such that the outcome of the election, scheduled for 25th January, will, almost certainly, be a coalition. Syriza might form an alliance with the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn who have polled an average of 6.49% in the last 20 opinion polls, who are also anti-Austerity, but they would be uncomfortable bedfellows in most other respects. Another option might be the Communist Party of Greece who have polled 5.8% during the same period. I believe the more important development for the financial markets during the last week has been the change of tone in Germany.

The European bond markets have taken heed, marking down Greek bonds whilst other peripheral countries have seen record low 10 year yields. 10 year Bunds have also marched inexorably upwards. European stock markets, by contrast, have been somewhat rattled by the Euro Break-up spectre’s return to the feast. It may be argued that they are also reacting to concerns about collapsing oil prices, the geo-political stand-off with Russia, the continued slow-down in China and other emerging markets and general expectations of lower global growth. In the last few sessions many stock markets have rallied strongly, mainly on hopes of aggressive ECB intervention.

Unlike the Economist, who are concerned about EZ contagion, Brookings – A Greek Crisis but not a Euro Crisis sees a Euro break-up as a low probability:-

A couple of years ago the prospect of a Syriza-led government caused serious tremors in European markets because of the fear that an extremely bad outcome in Greece was possible, such as its exit from the Euro system, and that this would create contagion effects in Portugal and other weaker nations. Fortunately, Europe is in a much better situation now to withstand problems in Greece and to avoid serious ramifications for other struggling member states. The worst of the crisis is over in the weak nations and the system as a whole is better geared to support those countries if another wave of market fears arise.

It is quite unlikely that Greece will end up falling out of the Euro system and no other outcome would have much of a contagion effect within Europe. Even if Greece did exit the Euro, there is now a strong possibility that the damage could be confined largely to Greece, since no other nation now appears likely to exit, even in a crisis.

Neither Syriza nor the Greek public (according to every poll) wants to pull out of the Euro system and they have massive economic incentives to avoid such an outcome, since the transition would almost certainly plunge Greece back into severe recession, if not outright depression. So, a withdrawal would have to be the result of a series of major miscalculations by Syriza and its European partners. This is not out of the question, but the probability is very low, since there would be multiple decision points at which the two sides could walk back from an impending exit.

I think The Guardian – Angela Merkel issues New Year’s warning over rightwing Pegida group – provides an insight into the subtle change in Germany’s stance:-

German chancellor Angela Merkel in a New Year’s address deplored the rise of a rightwing populist movement, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.

In her strongest comments yet on the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), she spoke of demonstrators shouting “we are the people”, co-opting a slogan from the rallies that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.

“But what they really mean is: you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion,” Merkel said, according to a pre-released copy of a televised speech she was to due to deliver to the nation on Wednesday evening.

“So I say to all those who go to such demonstrations: do not follow those who have called the rallies. Because all too often they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”

Concern about domestic politics in Germany and rising support for the ultra right-wing Pegida party makes the prospect of allowing Greece to leave the Euro look like the lesser of two evils. Yet a Greek exit and default on its Euro denominated obligations would destabilise the European banking system leading to a spate of deleveraging across the continent. In order to avert this outcome, German law makers have already begun to soften their “hard-line” approach, extending the olive branch of a potential renegotiation of the terms and maturity of outstanding Greek debt with whoever wins the forthcoming election. I envisage a combination of debt forgiveness, maturity extension and restructuring of interest payments – perish the thought that there be a sovereign default.

Carry Concern

Last month the BIS – Financial stability risks: old and new caused alarm when it estimated non-domestic US$ denominated debt of non-banks to be in the region of $9trln:-

Total outstanding US dollar-denominated debt of non-banks located outside the United States now stands at more than $9 trillion, having grown from $6 trillion at the beginning of 2010. The largest increase has been in corporate bonds issued by emerging market firms responding to the surge in demand by yield-hungry fixed income investors.

Within the EZ the quest for yield has been no less rabid, added to which, risk models assume zero currency risk for EZ financial institutions that hold obligations issued in Euro’s. The preferred trade for many European banks has been to purchase their domestic sovereign bonds because of the low capital requirements under Basel II. Allowing banks to borrow short and lend long has been tacit government policy for alleviating bank balance sheet shortfalls, globally, in every crisis since the great moderation, if not before. The recent rise in Greek bond yields is therefore a concern.

An additional concern is that the Greek government bond yield curve has inverted dramatically in the past month. The three year yields have risen most precipitously. This is a problem for banks which borrowed in the medium maturity range in order to lend longer. Fortunately most banks borrow at very much shorter maturity, nonetheless the curve inversion represents a red flag : –

Date 3yr 10yr Yield curve
14-Oct 4.31 7.05 2.74
29-Dec 10.14 8.48 -1.66
06-Jan 13.81 9.7 -4.11

 

Source: Investing.com

Over the same period Portuguese government bonds have, so far, experienced little contagion:-

Date 3yr 10yr Yield curve
14-Oct 1.03 2.56 1.53
29-Dec 1.06 2.75 1.69
06-Jan 0.92 2.56 1.64

 

Source: Investing.com

EZ Contagion

Greece received Euro 245bln in bail-outs from the Troika; if they should default, the remaining EZ 17 governments will have to pick up the cost. Here is the breakdown of state guarantees under the European Financial Stability Facility:-

 

Country Guarantee Commitments Eur Mlns Percentage
Austria 21,639.19 2.78%
Belgium 27,031.99 3.47%
Cyprus 1,525.68 0.20%
Estonia 1,994.86 0.26%
Finland 13,974.03 1.79%
France 158,487.53 20.32%
Germany 211,045.90 27.06%
Greece 21,897.74 2.81%
Ireland 12,378.15 1.59%
Italy 139,267.81 17.86%
Luxembourg 1,946.94 0.25%
Malta 704.33 0.09%
Netherlands 44,446.32 5.70%
Portugal 19,507.26 2.50%
Slovakia 7,727.57 0.99%
Slovenia 3,664.30 0.47%
Spain 92,543.56 11.87%
EZ 17 779,783.14 100%

Assuming the worst case scenario of a complete default – which seems unlikely even given the par less state of Greek finances – this would put Italy on the hook for Eur 43bln, Spain for Eur 28.5bln, Portugal for Eur 6bln and Ireland for Eur 3.8bln.

The major European Financial Institutions may have learned their lesson, about over-investing in the highest yielding sovereign bonds, during the 2010/2011 crisis – according to an FT interview with JP Morgan Cazenove, exposure is “limited” – but domestic Greek banks are exposed. The interconnectedness of European bank exposures are still difficult to gauge due to the lack of a full “Banking Union”. Added to which, where will these cash-strapped governments find the money needed to meet this magnitude of shortfall?

The ECBs response

ECB Balance Sheet - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

In an interview with Handelsblatt last week, ECB president Mario Draghi reiterated the bank’s commitment to expand their balance sheet from Eur2 trln to Eur3 trln if conditions require it. Given that Eurostat published a flash estimate of Euro area inflation for December this week at -0.2% vs +0.3% in November, I expect the ECB to find conditions requiring a balance sheet expansion sooner rather than later. Reuters – ECB considering three approaches to QE – quotes the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagbad expecting one of three actions:-

…one option officials are considering is to pump liquidity into the financial system by having the ECB itself buy government bonds in a quantity proportionate to the given member state’s shareholding in the central bank.

A second option is for the ECB to buy only triple-A rated government bonds, driving their yields down to zero or into negative territory. The hope is that this would push investors into buying riskier sovereign and corporate debt.

The third option is similar to the first, but national central banks would do the buying, meaning that the risk would “in principle” remain with the country in question, the paper said.

The issue of “monetary financing” – forbidden under Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty – has still to be resolved, so Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) in respect of EZ government bonds are still not a viable policy option. That leaves Covered bonds – a market of Eur 2.6trln of which only around Eur 600bln are eligible for the ECB to purchase – and Asset Backed Securities (ABS) with around Eur 400bln of eligible securities. These markets are simply not sufficiently liquid for the ECB to expand its balance sheet by Eur 1trln. In 2009 they managed to purchase Eur 60bln of Covered bonds but only succeeded in purchasing Eur 16.9bln of the second tranche – the bank had committed to purchase up to Eur 40bln.

Since its inception in July 2009 the ECB have purchased just shy of Eur 108bln of Covered bonds and ABS: –

Security Primary Secondary Total Eur Mlns Inception Date
ABS N/A N/A 1,744 21/11/2014
Covered Bonds 1 N/A N/A 28,817 02/07/2009 *
Covered Bonds 2 6015 10375 16,390 03/11/2011
Covered Bonds 3 5245 24387 29,632 20/10/2014
Total 76,583
* Original purchase Eur 60bln

Source: ECB

These amounts are a drop in the ocean. If the ECB is not permitted to purchase government bonds what other options does it have? I believe the alternative is to follow the lead set by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) in purchasing corporate bonds and common stocks. To date the BoJ has only indulged in relatively minor “qualitative” easing; the ECB has an opportunity to by-pass the fragmented European banking system and provide finance and permanent capital directly to the European corporate sector.

Over the past year German stocks has been relatively stable whilst Greek equities, since the end of Q2, have declined. Assuming Greece does not vote to leave the Euro, Greek and other peripheral European stocks will benefit if the ECB should embark on its own brand of Qualitative and Quantitative Easing (QQE):-

Athens_vs_DAX_one_year bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg               Note:      Blue = Athens SE Composite               Purple = DAX

It is important to make a caveat at this juncture. The qualitative component of the BoJ QQE programme has been derisory in comparison to their buying of JGBs; added to which, whilst the socialisation of the European corporate sector is hardly political anathema to many European politicians it is a long way from “lending at a penal rate in exchange for good collateral” – the traditional function of a central bank in times of crisis.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

European Government Bonds

Whilst the most likely political outcome is a relaxation of Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty, allowing the ECB, or the national Central Bank’s to purchase EZ sovereign bonds, much of the favourable impact on government bond yields is already reflected in the price. 10 year JGBs – after decades of BoJ buying – yield 30bp, German Bunds – without the support of the ECB – yield 46bp. Aside from Greek bonds, peripheral members of the EZ have seen their bond yields decline over the past month. If the ECB announce OMT I believe the bond rally will be short-lived.

European Stocks

Given the high correlation between stocks markets in general and developed country stock markets in particular, it is dangerous to view Europe in isolation. The US market is struggling with a rising US$ and collapsing oil price. These factors have undermined confidence in the short-term. The US market is also looking to the Europe, since a further slowdown in Europe, combined with weakness in emerging markets act as a drag on US growth prospects. On a relative value basis European stocks are moderately expensive. The driver of performance, as it has been since 2008, will be central bank policy. A 50% increase in the size of the ECB balance sheet will be supportive for European stocks, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Ireland is my preferred investment, with a bias towards the real-estate sector.

The Euro

Whilst the EUR/USD rate continues to decline the Nominal Effective Exchange Rate as calculated by the ECB, currently at 98, is around the middle of its range (81 – 114) since the inception of the currency and still some way above the recent lows seen in July 2012 when it reached 94. The October 2000 low of 81 is far away.

If a currency war is about to break-out between the major trading nations, the Euro doesn’t look like the principal culprit. I expect the Euro to continue to decline, except, perhaps against the JPY. Against the GBP a short EUR exposure will be less volatile but it will exhibit a more political dimension since the UK is a natural safe haven when an EZ crisis is brewing.

How the collapse in energy prices will affect US Growth and Inflation and what that means for stocks

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Macro Letter – No 26 – 19-12-2014

How the collapse in energy prices will affect US Growth and Inflation and what that means for stocks

  • Oil prices have fallen by more than 40% in H2 2014
  • Inflation expectations will be lowered further
  • US Growth should be higher longer-term
  • Near-term, contagion from the “energy bust” is under estimated by the market

 

With the recent collapse in the price of crude oil it seems appropriate to review the forecasts for inflation and growth in the US. Earlier this week, during an interview with CNBC, Bill Gross – ex-CIO of PIMCO – suggested that US growth would be around 2% going forward rather than the 3% to 4% seen in the recent past. The Atlanta Fed – Now GDP forecast for Q4 2014 was revised up to +2.2% from +2.1% on 11th December. This is higher than the Conference Board – Q4 GDP forecast of 2.0% from 10th December, here is their commentary:-

The U.S. growth momentum may pause in the fourth quarter, due to some special circumstances. The outlook for early 2015 shows some upside beyond the 2.5 percent pace. And this is despite continued slow economic growth around the world and a rise in the value of the dollar. The biggest disappointment right now is business spending on equipment which is slowing from an average pace of 11 percent over the past two quarters. But if final demand picks up as expected, business investment might also gain some momentum. One key driver of demand is continued improvement in the labor market. Job growth has been solid for the past year and the signal from the latest reading on The Conference Board Employment Trends Index™ (ETI) is that it will continue at least over the very near term. In fact, continued employment gains are likely to lead to better gains in wages in the first half of 2015. Job and income growth may provide some moderately positive momentum for the housing market. Low gasoline prices will also further support household spending. Finally, very low interest rates, at both the short and long end of the yield spectrum help consumers and businesses. The strengthening of domestic growth is intensifying pressures to increase the base interest rate, but speed and trajectory remain important questions.

There is a brief mention of the fall in gasoline prices and hopes for increased domestic demand driven by a better quality of jobs. Thus far official expectations have failed to shift significantly in response to the fall in oil. If the price remains depressed I expect these forecasts to change. The geographic make-up of US growth is quite skewed. The map below shows the breakdown of GDP growth by state in 2013:-

US GDP by State 2013

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

The predominant feature of many high growth states is strength of their energy sector. One state which has been a major engine of US employment growth in absolute terms, since the Great Recession, is Texas. In 2013 Texas jobs growth slowed from 3.3% to 2.5%. In percentage terms, it slipped into third place behind the stellar growth seen in North Dakota and Florida. Florida is an interesting indication of the process by which the drivers of growth are gradually switching away from the energy related impetus seen over the past few years. This article from the Dallas Fed – Texas to Remain a Top State for Job Growth in 2014 looks more closely at some nascent growth trends:-

Oil- and gas-producing states—leaders in the early years of the U.S. recovery—no longer predominated. This reflects the energy sector’s slowing expansion, although two states with the strongest shale activity, Texas and North Dakota, remained near the top. Meanwhile, several Sunbelt states hit hard by the housing crisis—Florida, Georgia and Arizona, for instance—are beginning to bounce back. In these states, employment remains significantly below the prerecession peak; in Texas, it is significantly above.

Texas is vulnerable, as are other energy rich US states, due to the weakness in the price of oil, however, Texas is also reliant on trade with Mexico for more than half of its exports. The down-turn in Mexican growth due to the weaker oil price, is an additional headwind for the “lone star” state.

You might expect this to be cause for some relief on the part of Richard Fisher – President of the Dallas Fed, yet, writing in mid-October in the Dallas Fed – Economic Letter – he remained, consistently hawkish on the prospects for inflation:-

The point is not that wage growth has been worrisomely high (it hasn’t been) or that we’re in imminent danger of a wage-price spiral (we likely aren’t). Rather, there’s nothing in the behavior of wage inflation over the course of the recovery to suggest that the unemploy­ment rate has been sending misleading signals about our progress toward full employment. A secondary point—a cau­tion, really—is that when trying to draw inferences about labor-market slack from the behavior of wages, it’s important to recognize that wage inflation’s response to slack is both nonlinear and delayed.

…Do we keep the accelerator pedal to the floor right up to the point where we reach our destination? Or do we ease up as we near our goal? The answer depends on an assessment of the costs of possibly delaying achievement of our objectives versus the costs of overshoot­ing those objectives. Proponents of a patient approach to removing accom­modation emphasize the risk of having to backtrack on policy, should either real growth or inflation expectations falter. On the other hand, Fed policymakers successfully “tapped the brakes” in the middle of three of our longest economic expansions (in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s), slowing—but not ending—the unemployment rate’s decline. By com­parison, there are no instances where the Fed has successfully eased the unem­ployment rate upward after having first overshot full employment: When the economy goes into reverse, it has a pro­nounced tendency to lurch backward all the way into recession.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – The Risks to the Inflation Outlook – November 17th – has a rather different view of the risks of inflation:-

Although inflation is currently low, some commentators fear that continued highly accommodative monetary policy may lead to a surge in inflation. However, projections that account for the different policy tools used by the Federal Reserve suggest that inflation will remain low in the near future. Moreover, the relative odds of low inflation outweigh those of high inflation, which is the opposite of historical projections. An important factor continuing to hold down inflation is the persistent effects of the financial crisis.

The chart below shows the wide range of PCE forecasts, interestingly the IMF WEO forecast is 1.8% for 2015:-

PCE Inflation projection - FRBSF

Source: FRBSF

The author goes on to conclude:-

Overall, this Letter suggests that inflation is not expected to surge in the near future. According to this model, the risks to the inflation outlook remain tilted to the downside. The financial crisis disrupted the credit market, leading to lower investment and underutilization of resources in the economy, causing slower growth, which in turn put downward pressure on inflation. My analysis suggests that these effects from the crisis explain a substantial part of the outlook for inflation. Monetary policy has played a stabilizing role in the recent past, preventing inflation from falling further below its 2% target. Moreover, the analysis suggests that monetary policy is not contributing to the risk of inflation being above the median projection in the near future.

The risk of high inflation in the next one to two years remains very low by historical standards. The analysis suggests that the factors keeping inflation low are expected to be transitory. However, differences between projected and realized inflation in the recent past suggest that those factors may in reality be more persistent than implied by the model.

It would appear that even before the recent decline in the price of oil the Fed was not expecting a significant increase in inflationary pressure. What should they do in the current environment where the US$ continues to appreciate against its major trading partners and if the price of oil remains at or below $60/barrel? These are one-off external price shocks which are a boon to the consumer, however they make exports uncompetitive and undermine the longer term attractiveness of investment in the domestic energy sector. IHS Global Insight produced the following forecast for the Wall Street Journal earlier this month:-

US_Pricing_Power_and_Oil_-_IHS_Global_Insight_WSJ

Source: IHS Global Insight and WSJ

My concerns are two-fold; firstly, what if the oil price rebounds? The latest IEA report noted that global demand for oil increased 0.75% between 2013 and 2014 and is running 3.6% above the average level of the last five years (2009 – 2013) this leaves additional supply as the main culprit of the oil price decline. With oil at $60/barrel it is becoming uneconomic to extract oil from many of the new concessions – over-supply may swiftly be reversed. Secondly, the unbridled boon to the wider economy of a lower oil price is likely to be deferred by the process of rebalancing the economy away from an excessive reliance on the energy sector. In an excellent paper in their Power and Growth Initiative series, the Manhattan Institute – Where The Jobs Are: Small Businesses Unleash Energy Employment Boom– February 2014 conclude:-

According to a recent poll from the Washington Post Miller Center, American workers’ anxiety over jobs is at a four-decade record high. Meanwhile, the hydrocarbon sector’s contributions to America’s job picture and the role of its small businesses in keeping the nation out of a long recession are not widely recognized. Another recent survey found that only 16 percent of people know that an oil & gas boom has increased U.S. energy production—collaterally creating jobs both directly and indirectly.

America’s future, of course, is not exclusively associated with hydrocarbons or energy in general. Over the long term, innovation and new technologies across all sectors of the economy will revitalize the nation and create a new cycle of job growth, almost certainly in unexpected ways. But the depth and magnitude of job destruction from the Great Recession means that creating jobs in the near-term is vital. As former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and Harvard professor Martin Feldstein recently wrote: “The United States certainly needs a new strategy to increase economic growth and employment. The U.S. growth rate has fallen to less than 2%, and total employment is a smaller share of the population now than it was five years ago.”

In a new report evaluating five “game changers” for growth, the McKinsey Global Institute concluded that the hydrocarbon sector has the greatest potential for increasing the U.S. GDP and adding jobs—with an impact twice as great as big data by 2020. McKinsey forecasts that the expanding shale production can add nearly $700 billion to the GDP and almost 2 million jobs over the next six years.

Other analysts looking out over 15 years see 3–4 million more jobs that could come from accelerating domestic hydrocarbon energy production. Even these forecasts underestimate what would be possible in a political environment that embraced growth-centric policies.

In November 2013, President Obama delivered a speech in Ohio on jobs and the benefits from greater domestic energy production. The president highlighted the role of improved energy efficiency and alternative fuels. But as the facts show, no part of the U.S. economy has had as dramatic an impact on short-term job creation as the small businesses at the core of the American oil & gas boom. And much more can be done.

A recent report by Deutsche Bank - Sinking Oil May Push Energy Sector to the Brink – estimated that of $2.8trln annual US private investment, $1.6trln is spent on equipment and software and $700bln on non-residential construction. Of the equipment and software sector, 25-30% is investment in industrial equipment for energy, utilities and agriculture. Non-residential construction is 30% energy related. With oil below $60/barrel much of that private investment will be postponed or cancelled. That could amount to a reduction in private investment of $500bln in 2015. This process is already underway; according to Reuters, new oil permits plummeted 40% in November.

Since 2007 shale producing states have added 1.36mln jobs whilst the non-shale states have shed 424,000 jobs. The table below shows the scale of employment within the energy sector for key states:-

State Hydro-carbon jobs 000’s
Texas 1800
California 780
Oklahoma 350
Louisiana 340
Pennsylvania 330
New York 300
Illinois 290
Florida 280
Ohio 260
Colorado 210
Virginia 190
Michigan 180
Kentucky 170
West Virginia 170
Georgia 160
New Jersey 150

Source: Manhattan Institute

This chart from Zero Hedge shows the evolution of the US jobs market in shale vs non-shale terms since 2008:-

Jobs in shale ve non-shale - Zero Hedge BLS

Source: Zero Hedge and BLS

2015 will see a correction in this trend, not just because investment stalls, but also as a result of defaults in the high-yield bond market.

Junk Bonds and Bank Loans

It is estimated that around 17% of the High-yield bond market in the US is energy related.  The chart below is from Zero Hedge, it shows the evolution of high yield bonds over the last four years. The OAS is the option adjusted spread between High Yield Energy bonds and US Treasury bonds:-

Energy_High_Yield_-_zero_hedge

Source: Zero Hedge and Bloomberg

Deutsche Bank strategists Oleg Melentyev and Daniel Sorid estimate that, with oil at $60/barrel, the default rate on B and CCC rated bonds could be as high as 30%. Whilst this is bad news for investors it is also bad news for banks which have thrived on the securitisation of these bonds. The yield expansion seen in the chart above suggests there is a liquidity short-fall at work here – perhaps the Fed will intervene.

As a result of the growth in the US energy sector, banks have become more actively involved in the energy markets. Here the scale of their derivative exposure may become a systemic risk to the financial sector. When oil was trading at its recent highs back in July the total open speculative futures contracts stood at 4mln: that is four times the number seen back in 2010. The banks will also be exposed to the derivatives market as a result of the loans they have made to commodity trading companies – some of whom may struggle to meet margin calls. Bad loan provisions will reduce the credit available to the rest of the economy. This will dampen growth prospects even as lower energy prices help the consumer.

The US Treasury Bond yield curve has also “twisted” over the past month, with maturities of five years and beyond falling but shorter maturities moving slightly higher:-

Maturity 17-Nov 17-Dec Change
2yr 0.504 0.565 0.061
3yr 0.952 1.005 0.053
5yr 1.607 1.534 -0.073
7yr 2.019 1.863 -0.156
10yr 2.317 2.078 -0.239

Source: Investing.com

On the 15th October, at the depths of the stock market correction, 2yr Notes yielded 0.308% whilst 10yr Notes yielded 2.07%. Since then the 2yr/10yr curve has flattened by 25bp. I believe this price move, in the short end of the market, is being driven by expectations that the Fed will move to “normalise” policy rates in the next 12 months. Governor Yellen’s change of emphasis in this weeks FOMC statement – from “considerable time” to “patient” – has been perceived by market pundits as evidence of more imminent rate increases. An additional factor driving short term interest rates higher is the tightening of credit conditions connected to the falling oil price.

Longer maturity Treasuries, meanwhile, are witnessing a slight “flight to quality” as fixed income portfolio managers switch out of High Yield into US government securities even at slightly negative real yields. According to an article in the Financial Times – Fall in oil price threatens high-yield bonds – 7th December $40bln was withdrawn from US High Yield mutual fund market between May and October. I expect this process to gather pace and breed contagion with other markets where the “carry trade” has been bolstered by leveraged investment flows.

Where next for stocks?

The New York Fed – Business Leaders Survey showed that, despite easing energy costs and benign inflation, business leaders expectations are not particularly robust:-

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s December 2014 Business Leaders Survey indicates that activity in the region’s service sector expanded modestly. The survey’s headline business activity index fell ten points to 7.8, indicating a slower pace of growth than in November. The business climate index inched down two points to -7.8, suggesting that on balance, respondents continued to view the business climate as worse than normal. The employment index climbed three points to 16.3, pointing to solid gains in employment, while the wages index drifted down five points to 25.6. After declining sharply last month, the prices paid index climbed four points to 42.2, indicating a slight pickup in the pace of input price increases, while the prices received index fell eight points to its lowest level in two years, at 5.4, pointing to a slowing of selling price increases. The current capital spending index declined ten points to 10.1, while the index for future capital spending rose six points to 25.0. Indexes for the six-month outlook for business activity and employment fell noticeably from last month, suggesting that firms were less optimistic about future conditions.

Set against this rather negative report from the Fed, is this upbeat assessment of the longer-term prospects for US manufacturing from the Peterson Institute – The US Manufacturing Base:

Four Signs of Strength it makes a compelling case for an industrial renaissance in the US. The four signs are:-

  1. US manufacturing output growth
  2. US manufacturing competitive performance relative to other sectors of the US economy
  3. US manufacturing productivity growth relative to other countries
  4. New evidence on outward expansion by US multinational corporations and economic activity by those same firms at home

Another factor supporting the stock market over the last few years has been the steady increase in dividends and share buybacks. According to Birinyi Associates, US corporations bought back $338.3bln of stock in H1 2014 – the most in any six month period since 2007. Here are some of the bigger names; although they account for less than half the H1 total:-

Name Ticker Buyback $blns
Apple APPL 32.9
IBM IBM 19.5
Exxon Mobil XOM 13.2
Pfizer PFE 10.9
Cisco CSCO 9.9
Oracle ORCL 9.8
Home Depot HD 7.6
Wells Fargo WFC 7.5
Microsoft MSFT 7.3
Qualcomm QCOM 6.7
Walt Disney DIS 6.5
Goldman Sachs GS 6.4

Source: Barclays and Wall Street Journal

Share buybacks are running at around twice their long run average and dividends have increased by 12% in the past year. On average, companies spend around 85% of their profits on dividends and share repurchases. This October 6th article from Bloomberg – S&P 500 Companies Spend 95% of Profits on Buybacks, Payouts goes into greater detail, but this particular section caught my eye:-

CEOs have increased the proportion of cash flow allocated to stock buybacks to more than 30 percent, almost double where it was in 2002, data from Barclays show. During the same period, the portion used for capital spending has fallen to about 40 percent from more than 50 percent.

The reluctance to raise capital investment has left companies with the oldest plants and equipment in almost 60 years. The average age of fixed assets reached 22 years in 2013, the highest level since 1956, according to annual data compiled by the Commerce Department.

I am cynical about share buybacks. If they are running at twice the average pace this suggests, firstly, that the “C suite” are more interested in their share options than their shareholders and, secondly, that they are still uncomfortable making capital expenditure decisions due to an utter lack of imagination and/or uncertainty about the political and economic outlook. Either way, this behaviour is not a positive long-term phenomenon. I hope it is mainly a response to the unorthodox policies of the Fed: and that there will be a resurgence in investment spending once interest rates normalise. This might also arrive sooner than expected due to a collapse in inflation rather than a rise in official rates.

The US economy will benefit from lower energy prices in the long term but the rebalancing away from the energy sector is likely to take time, during which the stock market will have difficulty moving higher. For the first time since 2008, the risks are on the downside as we head into 2015. Sector rotation is certainly going to feature prominently next year.

Last weeks National Association of Manufacturers – Monday Economic Report – 8th December 2014 shows the optimism of the manufacturing sector:-

Business leaders continue to reflect optimism about the coming months, with 91.2 percent of survey respondents saying they are either somewhat or very positive about their own company’s outlook. Moreover, manufacturers predict growth of 4.5 percent in sales and 2.1 percent in employment over the next 12 months, with both experiencing the strongest pace in at least two years. 

These findings were largely consistent with other indicators released last week. Most notably, the U.S. economy added 321,000 nonfarm payroll employees on net in November. This was well above the consensus estimate, and it was the fastest monthly pace since April 2011. Hiring in the manufacturing sector was also strong, with 28,000 new workers during the month. Since January, manufacturers have hired almost 15,000 workers on average each month, or 740,000 total since the end of 2009. In other news, manufacturing construction spending was also up sharply, increasing 3.4 percent in October and a whopping 23.0 percent year-over-year. 

These reports suggest that accelerating growth in demand and output is beginning to translate into healthier employment and construction figures, with businesses stepping up investments, perhaps as a sign of confidence. This should bode well for manufacturing employment as we move into 2015. In particular, the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) remains strong, despite edging marginally lower in November. For instance, the production index has now been 60 or higher, which indicates robust expansionary levels, for seven straight months. Similarly, the new orders index has been 60 or higher for five consecutive months, and the export measure also noted some improvements for the month. 

Speaking of exports, the U.S. trade deficit changed little in October, edging marginally lower from the month before. Still, growth in goods exports was somewhat better than the headline figure suggested, with the value of petroleum exports declining on lower crude oil costs. The good news is that year-to-date manufactured goods exports have increased to each of our top-five trading partners so far this year.

They go on to temper this rosy scenario, which is why I anticipate the interruption to the smooth course of stock market returns during the next year :-

…growth in manufactured goods exports remains sluggish through the first 11 months of 2014, up just 1.1 percent relative to the same time frame in 2013. Not surprisingly, challenges abroad continue to dampen our ability to grow international sales.  New factory orders have declined for the third straight month, a disappointing figure particularly given the strength seen in other measures. In addition, the NAM/IndustryWeek survey noted that the expected pace of exports decelerated once again, mirroring the slow growth in manufactured goods exports noted above.

This week saw the release of revised Industrial Production and Capacity Utilisation data – this was the commentary from the Federal Reserve:-

Industrial production increased 1.3 percent in November after edging up in October; output is now reported to have risen at a faster pace over the period from June through October than previously published. In November, manufacturing output increased 1.1 percent, with widespread gains among industries. The rise in factory output was well above its average monthly pace of 0.3 percent over the previous five months and was its largest gain since February. In November, the output of utilities jumped 5.1 percent, as weather that was colder than usual for the month boosted demand for heating. The index for mining decreased 0.1 percent. At 106.7 percent of its 2007 average, total industrial production in November was 5.2 percent above its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector increased 0.8 percentage point in November to 80.1 percent, a rate equal to its long-run (1972–2013) average.

This paints a positive picture but, with Capacity Utilisation only returning to its long-run trend rate, I remain concerned that the weakness of the energy sector will undermine the, still nascent, recovery in the broader economy in the near-term.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

The decline in the oil price, if it holds, should have a long-term benign effect on US growth and inflation. In the shorter term, however, the rebalancing of the economy away from the energy sector may take its toll, not just on the energy sector, but also on financial services – both the banks, which have lent the energy companies money, and the investors, who have purchased energy related debt. This will breed contagion with other speculative investment markets – lower quality bonds, small cap growth stocks and leveraged derivative investments of many colours.

Where the US stock market leads it is difficult for the rest of the world not to follow. The table below from March 2008 shows the high degree of monthly correlation of a range of stock indices to the Nasdaq Composite. In a QE determined world, I would expect these correlations to have risen over the last six years: –

Ticker Index Country 10 years 5 years 1 year
^IXIC Nasdaq Composite USA 1 1 1
^GSPC S&P 500 USA 0.8 0.86 0.83
^DWC Wilshire 5000 USA N/A 0.9 0.85
^AORD All Ords Australia 0.64 0.6 0.93
^BVSP Bovespa Brazil 0.62 0.53 0.83
^GSPTSE TSX Canada N/A 0.66 0.83
399300.SZ Shanghai Composite China N/A N/A 0.68
^GDAXI DAX Germany N/A 0.73 0.83
^HSI Hang Seng Hong Kong 0.6 0.54 0.79
^BSESN BSE Sensex India 0.44 0.5 0.75
^N225 Nikkei 225 Japan 0.51 0.49 0.87
^MXX IPC Mexico 0.67 0.56 0.33
RTS.RS RTS Russia N/A N/A 0.53
^KS11 Kospi South Korea 0.57 0.59 0.8
^FTSE FTSE100 UK N/A 0.57 0.87

Source: Timingcube.com

A decline in the S&P 500 will impact other developed markets, especially those reliant on the US for exports. 2015 will be a transitional year if oil prices remain depressed at current levels, yet the longer term benefit of lower energy prices will feed through to a recovery in 2016/2017. A crisis could ensue next year, but, with China, Japan and the EU continuing to provide quantitative and qualitative support, I do not believe the world’s “saviour” central banks are “pushing on a string” just yet. Inflation is likely to fall, global growth will be higher, but US stocks will, at best, mark time in 2015.

In bond markets, credit will generally be re-priced to reflect the increased risk of corporate defaults due to mal-investment in the energy sector. Carry trades will be unwound, favouring government bonds to some degree.

Recently heightened expectations of higher short term interest rates will recede. This should be supportive for the Real-Estate market. With a presidential election due in 2016 both the Democrats and the Republicans will be concocting policies to support house prices, jobs, average wages and the value of 401k’s. After three years of deliberation, the introduction of watered down QRM – Qualified Residential Mortgage – rules in October suggests this process is already in train.

Many investors have been waiting to enter the stock market, fearing that the end of QE would herald a substantial correction. 2015 might provide the opportunity but by 2016 I believe this window will have closed.

Will the Nikkei breakout or fail and follow the Yen lower?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 25 – 05-12-2014

Will the Nikkei breakout or fail and follow the Yen lower?

  • The Japanese Yen has declined further against its main trading partners
  • The Nikkei Index has trended higher on hopes of structural reform and QQE
  • JGBs remain supported by BoJ buying

The Nikkei 225 index is making new highs for the year as the JPY trends lower following a further round of aggressive quantitative and qualitative easing (QQE) from the Bank of Japan (BoJ). The Japanese Effective Exchange Rate has fallen further which should help to improve Japan’s export competitiveness whilst import price inflation should help the BoJ achieve its inflation target.

Net Assets

For several decades Japan has been a major international investor, buying US Treasury bonds, German bunds, UK Gilts as well as a plethora of other securities around the globe.  Japan has also been a source of substantial direct investment, especially throughout the Asian region.  May 2014 saw the release of a research paper by the BoJ -Japan’s International Investment Position at Year-End 2013 – the authors observed:-

Direct investment (assets: 117.7 trillion yen; liabilities: 18.0 trillion yen)

Outward direct investment (assets) increased by 27.9 trillion yen or 31.1 percent. Inward direct investment (liabilities) remained more or less unchanged.

Portfolio investment (assets: 359.2 trillion yen; liabilities: 251.9 trillion yen)

Outward portfolio investment (assets) increased by 54.1 trillion yen or 17.7 percent. Inward portfolio investment (liabilities) increased by 71.4 trillion yen or 39.5 percent.

Financial derivatives (assets: 8.2 trillion yen; liabilities: 8.7 trillion yen)

Financial derivatives assets increased by 3.6 trillion yen or 77.5 percent. Financial derivatives liabilities increased by 3.3 trillion yen or 62.5 percent.

Other investment (assets: 178.4 trillion yen; liabilities: 193.6 trillion yen)

Other investment assets increased by 25.5 trillion yen or 16.7 percent. Other investment liabilities increased by 31.6 trillion yen or 19.5 percent.

Reserve assets (assets: 133.5 trillion yen)

Reserve assets increased by 24.1 trillion yen or 22.0 percent.

The chart below shows how Japan continues to accumulate foreign assets despite their balance of payments moving from surplus to deficit:-

Japanese_assets_vs_liabilities_-_IMF_-_BoJ

Source:BoJ

From the mid 1980’s until the aftermath of the bursting of the 1990’s technology bubble, international investment was one of the principle methods by which Japanese firms attempted to remain competitive in the international market whilst the JPY appreciated against its main trading partners.

The Japanese Effective Exchange Rate chart below shows how the JPY has weakened since the initial flight to safety after the bursting of the “Tech Bubble” and again after the flight to quality during the “Great Recession”. This currency weakness was accelerated by the introduction of Prime Minister Abe’s “Three Arrows” economic policy:-

JPY Real Effective Exchange Rate 1970- 2014 BIS

Source: BIS

We are now back to levels last seen before the Plaza Accord of 1985 – after which the JPYUSD rate rose from 250 to 130.

Whilst Japan’s foreign investments returns should remain positive – especially due to the falling value of the JPY – Japanese saving rates continue to decline, just as negative demographic forces are pushing at the door. The stock-market bubble, which burst in 1990, was most excessive in the Real-Estate and Finance sectors. With housing demand expected to decline, for demographic reasons, and financial firms now representing less than 4% of the Nikkei 225 these sectors of the domestic economy are likely to remain moribund. The chart below shows the evolution of Japanese house prices from 1980 to 2008:-

Japanese Home Prices - 1980 - 2008 Market Oracle

Source: Market Oracle

After the slight up-tick between 2005 and 2008 house prices have resumed their downward course despite increasingly lower interest rates.

What Third Arrow?

In order to get the Japanese economy back on track, fiscal stimulus has been the government solution since 1999, if not before.  Shinzo Abe won a second term as Prime Minister with a set of economic policies known as “The Three Arrows” – a cocktail of QQE from the BoJ, JPY devaluation and structural reform. The Third Arrow of “Abenomics” is structural reform. This type of reform is always politically difficult. With this in mind Abe has called an election for the 14th December – perhaps prompted by the release of Q3 GDP data (-1.6%) confirming that, after two consecutive negative numbers, Japan is officially back in recession. He hopes to win a third term and fulfil his mandate to make the sweeping changes he believes are required to turn Japan around.

Energy reform is high on Abe’s agenda. Reopening nuclear reactors is a short term fix but he plans to make the industry more dynamic and spur innovation. In a recent interview with CFR – A Conversation With Shinzo Abethe Prime Minister elaborated on his plan:-

…On the other hand, we wish to be the front-runner in the energy revolution, ahead of others in the world. I would like to implement the hydrogen-based society in Japan.

The development of fuel cells started something like 30 years ago as a national project. Last year, I have reformed the regulations that inhibited the commercialization of the fuel cell vehicle. And at last, a first ever in the world, we have implemented the commercialization of hydrogen station and fuel cell vehicles.

Early next year, in the store windows of automotive dealers, you’ll be able to see the line up of fuel cell cars.

In the power sector, we shall put an end to the local monopoly of power, which continued for 60 years after the war. We will be creating a dynamic and free energy market where innovation blossoms.

He then went on to discuss his ideas for reform of corporate governance:-

Companies will have to change as well. I will create an environment where you will find it easy to invest in Japanese companies. Corporate governance is the top agenda of my reform list. This summer, I have revised the company law on the question of establishment of outside directors. I have introduced the rule called “comply or explain.”

Amongst listed companies in the last one year, the number of companies which opted to have outside directors increased by 12 percent. Now, 74 percent.

Tax reform is another aspect of Abe’s package. In the past year, corporate tax rates have been cut by 2.4%. Another term in office might give Abe time to make a difference, but his ill-conceived decision to increase the sales tax earlier this year had a disastrous impact on GDP – Q2 GDP was -7.1%. A further increase from 5% to 8% was scheduled for October 2015 but has now been postponed until April 2017 – as a palliative to the “deficit hawks” the increase will be from 5% to 10%. Whilst this was a relief for the stock market it led to a further weakening of the JPY. Last week, Moody’s downgraded Japanese debt due to their concerns about the government’s ability to control the size of its deficit.

The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies – Tax System Reform Compatible with Fiscal Soundness – makes some interesting suggestions in response to the looming problem of lower tax receipts: –

Given Japan’s challenging fiscal circumstances, broadening the tax base while lowering corporate tax rates seems a realistic compromise to head off a decline in corporate tax revenues. However, simply lowering corporate tax rates on the condition that corporate tax revenues be maintained is of limited effectiveness in stimulating the economy. If the emphasis is to be placed on the benefits of this approach for economic revitalization, then corporate tax rates will need to be drastically lowered and the rates for consumption tax and other taxes raised. Steps will also need to be taken to reform the tax system overall rather than just to secure revenues by increasing consumption taxes. Although the weight of the tax burden will inevitably shift toward consumption tax, the tax base must also be expanded through income tax reform to secure tax revenues. An obvious choice is reconsidering the spousal deduction that gives tax benefits to full-time housewives so that the tax system can be made neutral vis-a-vis the social advancement of women. A major premise in tax increases is ensuring efficiency and fairness in fiscal matters. If the public can be persuaded that tax money is being put to good use, high consumption tax rates such as those in Scandinavia will enjoy public support. A taxpayer number system should be promptly introduced and an efficient and fair tax collection environment put into place.

Japan’s government debt to GPD is currently the highest among developed nations at 227%, however, according to Forbes – Forget Debt As A Percent Of GDP, It’s Really Much Worse – as a percentage of tax revenue debt  is running around 900%, far ahead of any other developed nation.

Labour market reform is high on Abe’s wish list, in particular, the roll-out of incentives to encourage Japanese women to enter the labour market. This would go a long way towards offsetting the demographic impact of an ageing population. It has the added attraction of not relying on immigration; an perennial issue for Japan for cultural and linguistic reasons:-

Japan - Female participation in Labour market OECD

Source: OECD Bruegal

Agricultural reform is also an agenda item. It could significantly improve Japan’s competitiveness and forms a substantial part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations which have been taking place between Japan, USA and 11 other Asian countries during the past two years. Sadly the free-trade agreement has stalled, principally, due to Japanese reluctance to embrace agricultural reform. The Peterson Institute – Will Japan Bet the Farm on Agricultural Protectionism? – takes up the story: –

What is at stake? The gains for Japan from entry into the TPP are substantial, more than what nearly any other member of the agreement would reap. Peter A. Petri, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, estimates that the agreement would add 2 percent to Japan’s GDP by 2025. More broadly, the TPP represents an opportunity for Japan to reinvigorate its unproductive domestic industries (agriculture included) by permitting greater foreign competition. It would also enable Japan to reassert itself as a leader and a model in the Asia Pacific. Facing an uncertain future with China gaining influence in the region, Japan needs to remain strong and dynamic at home, economically enabling it to leverage its technical and market-size advantages to secure its position in the region. These gains are now in jeopardy largely because of Japan’s agricultural protectionism.

How protectionist is Japan? To be fair, Japan has made progress on lowering support for agriculture since the 1980s. The United States—the primary objector to the protection afforded to Japan’s agricultural sector—also still provides support for its own agriculture sector. However, the magnitudes are starkly different. For every dollar of agriculture production, Japan provides 56 cents of subsidies to farmers. The United States and European Union provide just 7 cents and 20 cents for every dollar, respectively. Additionally, Japan spends nearly 1.25 percent of its GDP on agriculture subsidies (which includes support for producers, as well as consumers). The United States and European Union spend 1 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. There are also many internal barriers, such as restrictions on the sale and use of farm land and preferential tax structures for farmers, which discourage older generations from leaving or corporate farms from entering the farming sector in many areas.

The political importance of the rural vote may have caused Abe to backtrack on his timetable for reform. This is another example of how important the forthcoming election will be both for the Japanese economy and its stock market.

Kuroda and GPIF to the rescue (again)

On October 31st the BoJ announced an increase in its stimulus package from JPY60trln per month to JPY80trln. On the same day the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) which, with $1.2 trln in assets, is the world’s largest, announced that it planned to reduce its holding of government bonds to 35% from the current 60%, this money will be reallocated equally between domestic and international equity markets. That’s $150bln waiting to be allocated to Japanese equities. The BoJ also announced an increase in their ETF purchase programme, but this pales into insignificance beside the GPIF action.

Writing back in January 2013, Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute – Japan should rethink its stimulus – gave four main reasons why Japan has been able to continue with its expansionary fiscal policy: –

Japan was able to get away with such unremittingly high deficits without an overt crisis for four reasons. First, Japan’s banks were induced to buy huge amounts of government bonds on a recurrent basis. Second, Japan’s households accepted the persistently low returns on their savings caused by such bank purchases. Third, market pressures were limited by the combination of few foreign holders of JGBs (less than 8 percent of the total) and the threat that the Bank of Japan (BoJ) could purchase unwanted bonds. Fourth, the share of taxation and government spending in total Japanese income was low.

Last month saw the release of a working paper from Peterson – Sustainability of Public Debt in the United States and Japanwhich contemplates where current policy in the US and Japan may lead, it concludes:-

The implication of these projections is that even for just a 10-year horizon, somewhat more effort will be required to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio from escalating in the United States, and much more will need to be done in Japan. Using the probability-weighted ratio of net debt to GDP (federal debt held by the public for the United States), holding the ratio flat at its 2013 level would require cutting the 2024 debt ratio by 8 percentage points of GDP for the United States and by 32 percentage points of GDP for Japan. In broad terms achieving this outcome would involve reducing the average primary deficit by about 0.75 percent of GDP from the baseline in the United States and by about 3 percent of GDP in Japan.

The Japanese economy is now entirely addicted to government fiscal stimulus, reducing the primary deficit by 3% and maintaining that discipline for a decade is unrealistic.

I’m indebted to Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management for this chart which puts the BoJ current QQE policy in perspective: –

Total CB assets vs GDP - Fulcrum

Source: Fulcrum

Whither the Nikkei 225?

With the JPY continuing to fall in response to QQE and the other government policy decisions of the last two months, the Nikkei has rallied strongly; here is a 10 year chart:-

Nikkei 225 - 10yr - source Nikkei

Source: Nikkei

The long-term chart below, which ends just after the 2009 low, shows a rather different picture:-

nikkei-225 - 1970 - 2009 - The Big Picture - The Chart Store

Source: The Big Picture and The Chart Store

From a technical perspective, recent stock market strength has taken the Nikkei above long-term downtrend. Confirmation will be seen if the market can break above 18,300 – the level last reached in July 2007. A break above 22,750 – the June 1996 high – would suggest a new bull market was commencing. I am doubtful about the ability of the market to sustain this momentum without a recovery in the underlying economy – which I believe can only be achieved by way of government debt reduction. Without real reform this will be another false dawn.

The chart below shows the Real Effective Exchange Rate for a number of economies. The JPY on this basis still looks expensive however the impact of a falling JPY vs KRW or RMB will be felt in rising political tension and potentially a currency war:-

Real_Effective_exchange_rates_-_1980_-_2012_BIS_-_

Source: BIS

Japan can play the “devaluation game” for a while longer, after all, a number of its Asian trading partners devalued last year, but the long-run implications of a weaker JPY will be seen in protectionist policies which undermine the principles of free trade.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

JPYUSD

The Japanese currency will continue to weaken versus the US$. This chart from the St Louis Fed, which only goes up to 2012, shows how far the JPY has appreciated since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement:-

usdjpy1971 - 2010 Federal Reserve

Source: Federal Reserve

I think, in the next two to three years,  JPYUSD 160 is to be expected and maybe even a return to JPYUSD 240.

JGBs

The BoJ currently owns around 24% of outstanding JGBs but this is growing by the month. Assuming government spending remains at its current level the BoJ will hold an additional 7% of outstanding supply by the end of next year. By 2018 they could own more than 50% of the market. In order to encourage longer-term investment – or, perhaps, merely in search of better yields – the BoJ has extended the duration of their purchases out to 40 year maturities. The latest BoJ data is here.

Central bank buying will support the JGB market as the GPIF switch their holdings into domestic and international stocks. . International ownership remains extremely low so adverse currency movements will have little impact on this decidedly domestic market. With 10 year yields around 0.45%, I see little long-term value in holding these bonds when the BoJ inflation target is at 2% – they are strictly for trading.

Nikkei 225

The Nikkei is heavily weighted towards Technology stocks (43%) and on this basis the market still appears relatively cheap, it also looks cheap on the basis of the P/E ratio, the chart below shows the P/E over the past five years:-

Nikkei 225 - PE - Source TSE

Source: TSE and vectorgrader.com

Here for comparison is the Price to Book ratio, this time over 10 years:-

Nikkei 225 Price to Book 10 yr

Source: TSE and vectorgrader.com

Neither metric indicates that the current valuation of the Nikkei is excessive, but, given the frail state of the economy, I suspect Japanese stocks are inherently vulnerable.

Over the next year the Nikkei will probably push higher, helped by buying from the GPIF and international investors, many of whom are still under-weight Japan. A break above 18,300 would suggest a move to test the April 2000 high at 20,833, but a break above the June 1996 high at 22,757 is required to confirm the beginning of a new bull market. In the current economic environment I think this will be difficult to achieve. There are trading opportunities but from a longer-term investment perspective I remain neutral.