Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion?

Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion?

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Macro Letter – No 66 – 25-11-2016

Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion?

  • As globalisation goes into reverse, fiscal policy will take the strain
  • Countries with government debt to GDP ratios <70% represent >45% of global GDP
  • Fiscal expansion by less indebted countries could increase total debt by at least $3.48trln

…But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…

Matthew Arnold – Dover Beach

Over the course of 2016 the world’s leading central banks have subtly changed their approach to monetary policy. Although they have not stated that QE has failed to stimulate global growth they have begun to pass the baton for stimulating the world economy back to their respective governments.

The US election has brought protectionism and fiscal stimulus back to the centre of economic debate: but many countries are already saddled with uncomfortably high debt to GDP ratios. Which countries have room for manoeuvre and which governments will be forced to contemplate fiscal expansion to offset the headwinds of protectionism?

Anti-globalisation – the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

The “Elephant” chart below explains, in economic terms, the growing political upheaval which has been evident in many developed countries:-

world-bank-economist-real-income-growth-1988-2008

Source: The Economist, World Bank, Lakner and Milanovic

This chart – or at least the dark blue line – began life in a World Bank working paper in 2012. It shows the global change in real-income, by income percentile, between 1988 and 2008. The Economist – Shooting an elephant provides more information.

What this chart reveals is that people earning between the 70th and 90th percentile have seen considerably less increase in income relative to their poor (and richer) peers. I imagine a similar chart up-dated to 2016 will show an even more pronounced decline in the fortunes of the lower paid workers of G7.

The unforeseen consequence to this incredible achievement – bringing so many of the world’s poor out of absolute poverty – has been to alienate many of the developed world’s poorer paid citizens. They have borne the brunt of globalisation without participating in much, if any, of the benefit.

An additional cause for concern to the lower paid of the developed world is their real-inflation rate. The chart below shows US inflation for specific items between 1996 and 2016:-

pricesnew

Source: American Enterprise Institute

At least the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” can afford a cheaper television, but this is little comfort when they cannot afford the house to put it in.

Anti-globalisation takes many forms, from simple regulatory protectionism to aspects of the climate-change lobby. These issues, however, are not the subject of this letter.

Which countries will lose out from protectionism?

It is too early to predict whether all the election promises of President-elect Trump will come to pass. He has indicated that he wants to impose a 35% tariff on Mexican and, 45% tariff on Chinese imports, renegotiate NAFTA (which the Peterson Institute estimate to be worth $127bln/annum to the US economy) halt negotiations of the TPP and TTIP and, potentially, withdraw from the WTO.

Looking at the “Elephant” chart above it is clear that, in absolute per capita terms, the world’s poorest individuals have benefitted most from globalisation, but the largest emerging economies have benefitted most in monetary terms.

The table below ranks countries with a GDP in excess of $170bln/annum by their debt to GDP ratios. These countries represent roughly 95% of global GDP. The 10yr bond yields were taken, where I could find them, on 21st November:-

Country GDP Base Rate Inflation Debt to GDP 10yr yield Notes
Japan 4,123 -0.10% -0.50% 229% 0.03
Greece 195 0.00% -0.50% 177% 6.95
Italy 1,815 0.00% -0.20% 133% 2.06
Portugal 199 0.00% 0.90% 129% 3.70
Belgium 454 0.00% 1.81% 106% 0.65
Singapore 293 0.07% -0.20% 105% 2.36
United States 17,947 0.50% 1.60% 104% 2.32
Spain 1,199 0.00% 0.70% 99% 1.60
France 2,422 0.00% 0.40% 96% 0.74
Ireland 238 0.00% -0.30% 94% 0.98
Canada 1,551 0.50% 1.50% 92% 1.57
UK 2,849 0.25% 0.90% 89% 1.41
Austria 374 0.00% 1.30% 86% 0.54
Egypt 331 14.75% 13.60% 85% 16.95
Germany 3,356 0.00% 0.80% 71% 0.27
India 2,074 6.25% 4.20% 67% 6.30
Brazil 1,775 14.00% 7.87% 66% 11.98
Netherlands 753 0.00% 0.40% 65% 0.43
Israel 296 0.10% -0.30% 65% 2.14
Pakistan 270 5.75% 4.21% 65% 8.03
Finland 230 0.00% 0.50% 63% 0.46
Malaysia 296 3.00% 1.50% 54% 4.39
Poland 475 1.50% -0.20% 51% 3.58
Vietnam 194 6.50% 4.09% 51% 6.10
South Africa 313 7.00% 6.10% 50% 8.98
Venezuela 510 21.73% 180.90% 50% 10.57
Argentina 548 25.75% 40.50% 48% 2.99
Philippines 292 3.00% 2.30% 45% 4.40
Thailand 395 1.50% 0.34% 44% 2.68
China 10,866 4.35% 2.10% 44% 2.91
Sweden 493 -0.50% 1.20% 43% 0.52
Mexico 1,144 5.25% 3.06% 43% 7.39
Czech Republic 182 0.05% 0.80% 41% 0.59
Denmark 295 -0.65% 0.30% 40% 0.40
Romania 178 1.75% -0.40% 38% 3.55
Colombia 292 7.75% 6.48% 38% 7.75
Australia 1,340 1.50% 1.30% 37% 2.67
South Korea 1,378 1.25% 1.30% 35% 2.12
Switzerland 665 -0.75% -0.20% 34% -0.15
Turkey 718 7.50% 7.16% 33% 10.77
Hong Kong 310 0.75% 2.70% 32% 1.37
Taiwan 524 1.38% 1.70% 32% 1.41
Norway 388 0.50% 3.70% 32% 1.65
Bangladesh 195 6.75% 5.57% 27% 6.89
Indonesia 862 4.75% 3.31% 27% 7.85
New Zealand 174 1.75% 0.40% 25% 3.11
Kazakhstan 184 12.00% 11.50% 23% 3.82 ***
Peru 192 4.25% 3.41% 23% 6.43
Russia 1,326 10.00% 6.10% 18% 8.71
Chile 240 3.50% 2.80% 18% 4.60
Iran 425 20.00% 9.50% 16% 20.00 **
UAE 370 1.25% 0.60% 16% 3.57 *
Nigeria 481 14.00% 18.30% 12% 15.97
Saudi Arabia 646 2.00% 2.60% 6% 3.97 *

 Notes

*Estimate from recent sovereign issues

**Estimated 1yr bond yield

***Estimated from recent US$ issue

Source: Trading economics, Investing.com, Bangledesh Treasury

Last month in their semi-annual fiscal monitor – Debt: Use It Wisely – the IMF warned that global non-financial debt is now running at $152trln or 225% of global GDP, with the private sector responsible for 66% – a potential source of systemic instability . The table above, however, shows that many governments have room to increase their debt to GDP ratios substantially – which might be of luke-warm comfort should the private sector encounter difficulty. Interest rates, in general, are at historic lows; now is as good a time as any for governments to borrow cheaply.

If countries with government debt/GDP of less than 70% increased their debt by just 20% of GDP, ceteris paribus, this would add $6.65trln to total global debt (4.4%).

Most Favoured Borrowers

Looking more closely at the data – and taking into account budget and current account deficits -there are several governments which are unlikely to be able to increase their levels of debt substantially. Nonetheless, a sizable number of developed and developing nations are in a position to increase debt to offset the headwinds of US protectionism should it arrive.

The table below lists those countries which could reasonably be expected to implement a fiscal response to slower growth:-

Country GDP Debt to GDP 10yr yield Gov. Debt 70% Ratio 90% Ratio 12m fwd PE CAPE Div Yld.
Saudi Arabia 646 6% 3.97 38 452 581 ? ? ?
Chile 240 18% 4.60 42 168 216 15.6 ? ?
New Zealand 174 25% 3.11 43 122 157 19.3 22 4.1%
Peru 192 23% 6.43 44 134 173 12.1 ? ?
Bangladesh 195 27% 6.89 53 137 176 ? ? ?
UAE 370 16% 3.57 58 259 333 ? ? ?
Colombia 292 38% 7.75 111 204 263 ? ? ?
Norway 388 32% 1.65 123 272 349 14.2 11.5 4.3%
Philippines 292 45% 4.40 132 204 263 16.4 22.6 1.6%
Malaysia 296 54% 4.39 160 207 266 15.6 16 3.1%
Taiwan 524 32% 1.41 166 367 472 12.8 19 3.9%
Thailand 395 44% 2.68 175 277 356 13.8 17.7 3.1%
Israel 296 65% 2.14 192 207 266 9.4 14.6 2.8%
Sweden 493 43% 0.52 214 345 444 16.1 19.8 3.6%
Indonesia 862 27% 7.85 233 603 776 14.7 19.6 1.9%
South Korea 1,378 35% 2.12 484 965 1,240 9.6 13.1 1.7%
Australia 1,340 37% 2.67 493 938 1,206 15.6 16.1 4.3%
Mexico 1,144 43% 7.39 494 801 1,030 16.6 22.4 1.9%
India 2,074 67% 6.30 1,394 1,452 1,867 15.9 18.6 1.5%
4,649 8,114 10,432

 Source: Trading economics, Investing.com, Bangledesh Treasury, Star Capital, Yardeni Research

The countries in the table above – which have been ranked, in ascending order, by outstanding government debt – have total debt of $4.65trln. If they each increased their ratios to 70% they could raise an additional $3.47trln to lean against an economic downturn. A 90% ratio would see $5.78trln of new government debt created. This is the level above which economies cease to benefit from additional debt according to  Reinhart and Rogoff in their paper Growth in a Time of Debt.

Whilst this analysis is overly simplistic, the quantum of new issuance is not beyond the realms of possibility – India’s ratio reached 84% in 2003, Indonesia’s, hit 87% in 2000 and Saudi Arabia’s, 103% in 1999. Nonetheless, the level of indebtedness is higher than many countries have needed to entertain in recent years – ratios in Australia, Mexico and South Korea, though relatively low, are all at millennium highs.

Apart from the domestic imperative to maintain economic growth, there will be pressure on these governments to pull their weight from their more corpulent brethren. Looking at the table above, if the top seven countries, by absolute increased issuance, raised their debt/GDP ratios to 90%, this would add $3.87trln to global debt.

Despite US debt to GDP being above 100%, the new US President-elect has promised $5.3trln of fiscal spending during his first term. Whether this is a good idea or not is debated this week by the Peterson Institute – What Size Fiscal Deficits for the United States?

Other large developed nations, including Japan, are likely to resort to further fiscal stimulus in the absence of leeway on monetary policy. For developing and smaller developed nations, the stigma of an excessively high debt to GDP ratio will be assuaged by the company keep.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Despite recent warnings from the IMF and plentiful academic analysis of the dangers of excessive debt – of which Deleveraging? What Deleveraging? is perhaps the best known – given the way democracy operates, it is most likely that fiscal stimulus will assume the vanguard. Monetary policy will play a supporting role in these endeavours. As I wrote in – Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE – I believe the Bank of Japan has already passed the baton.

Infrastructure spending will be at the heart of many of these fiscal programmes. There will be plenty of trophy projects and “pork barrel” largesse, but companies which are active in these sectors of the economy will benefit.

Regional and bilateral trade deals will also become more important. In theory the EU has the scale to negotiate with the US, albeit the progress of the TTIP has stalled. Asean and Mercosur have an opportunity to flex their flaccid muscles. China’s One Belt One Road policy will also gain additional traction if the US embark on policies akin to the isolationism of the Ming Dynasty after the death of Emperor Zheng He in 1433. The trade-vacuum will be filled: and China, despite its malinvestments, remains in the ascendant.

According to FocusEconomics – Economic Snapshot for East & South Asia – East and South Asian growth accelerated for the first time in over two years during Q3, to 6.2%. Despite the economic headwinds of tightening monetary and protectionist trade policy in the US, combined with the very real risk of a slowdown in the Chinese property market, they forecast only a moderate reduction to 6% in Q4. They see that growth rate continuing through the first half of 2017.

Indian bond yields actually fell in the wake of the US election – from 6.83% on 8th to 6.30% by 21st. This is a country with significant internal demand and capital controls which afford it some protection. Its textile industry may even benefit in the near-term from non-ratification of the TPP. Indian stocks, however are not particularly cheap. With a PE 24.3, CAPE 18.6, 12 month forward PE 15.9 the Sensex index is up more than 70% from its December 2011 lows.

Stocks in Israel, Taiwan and Thailand may offer better value. They are the only emerging countries which offer a dividend yield greater than their bond yield. Taiwanese stocks appear inexpensive on a number of other measures too. With East and South Asian growth set to continue, emerging Asia looks most promising.

A US tax cut will stimulate demand more rapidly than the boost from US fiscal spending. Protectionist tariffs may hit Mexico and China rapidly but other measures are likely to be implemented more gradually. As long as the US continues to run a trade deficit it makes sense to remain optimistic about several of the emerging Asian markets listed in the table above.

Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE

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Macro Letter – No 65 – 11-11-2016

Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE

  • The BoJ unveiled their latest unconventional monetary policy on 21st September
  • In order to target 10 year yields QE must be capable of being infinite
  • Infinite Japanese government borrowing at zero cost will eventually prove inflationary
  • The financial markets have yet to test the BoJ’s resolve but they will

Zero Yield 10 year

Ever since central banks embarked on quantitative easing (QE) they were effectively taking control of their domestic government yield curves. Of course this was de facto. Now, in Japan, it has finally been declared de jure since the Bank of Japan (BoJ) announced the (not so) new policy of “Yield Curve Control”.  New Framework for Strengthening Monetary Easing: “Quantitative and Qualitative Monetary Easing with Yield Curve Control”, published on 21st September, is a tacit admission that BoJ intervention in the Japanese Government Bond market (JGB) is effectively unlimited.  This is how they described it (the emphasis is mine):-

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain more or less at the current level (around zero percent). With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases more or less in line with the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings at about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of a long-term interest rate specified by the guideline. JGBs with a wide range of maturities will continue to be eligible for purchase…

By the end of September 2016 the BoJ owned JPY 340.9trln (39.9%) of outstanding JGB issuance – they cannot claim to conduct purchases “more of less in line with the current pace” and maintain a target 10 year yield. Either they will fail to maintain the 10 year yield target in order to maintain their purchase target of JPY 80trln/annum or they will forsake their purchase target in order to maintain the 10 year yield target. Either they are admitting that the current policy of the BoJ (and other central banks which have embraced quantitative easing) is a limited form of “Yield Curve Control” or they are announcing a sea-change to an environment where the target yield will take precedence. If it is to be the latter, infinite QE is implied even if it is not stated for the record.

Zero Coupon Perpetuals

I believe the 21st September announcement is a sea-change. My concern is how the BoJ can ever hope to unwind the QE. One suggestion coming from commentators but definitely not from the BoJ, which gained credence in April – and again, after Ben Bernanke’s visit to Tokyo in July – is that the Japanese government should issue Zero Coupon Perpetual bonds.  Zero-coupon bonds are not a joke – 28th August – by Edward Chancellor discusses the subject:-

Bernanke’s latest bright idea is that the Bank of Japan, which has bought up close to half the country’s outstanding government debt, should convert its bond holdings into zero-coupon perpetual securities – that is, financial instruments with no intrinsic value.

The difference between a central bank owning zero-coupon perpetual notes and conventional bonds is that the former cannot be sold to withdraw excess liquidity from the banking system. That means the Bank of Japan would lose a key tool in controlling inflation. So as expectations about rising prices blossomed, Japan’s decades-long battle against deflation would finally end. There are further benefits to this proposal. In one fell swoop, Japan’s public-debt overhang would disappear. As the government’s debt-service costs dried up, Tokyo would be able to fund massive public works.

In reality a zero coupon perpetual bond looks suspiciously like good old-fashion fiat cash, except that the bonds will be held in dematerialisied form – you won’t need a wheel-barrow:-

weimar-mutilated-300x236

Source: Washington Post

Issuing zero coupon perpetuals in exchange for conventional JGBs solves the debt problem for the Japanese government but leaves the BoJ with a permanently distended balance sheet and no means of reversing the process.

Why change tack?

Japan has been encumbered with low growth and incipient deflation for much longer than the other developed nations. The BoJ has, therefore, been at the vanguard of unconventional policy initiatives. This is how they describe their latest experiment:-

QQE has brought about improvements in economic activity and prices mainly through the decline in real interest rates, and Japan’s economy is no longer in deflation, which is commonly defined as a sustained decline in prices. With this in mind, “yield curve control,” in which the Bank will seek for the decline in real interest rates by controlling short-term and long-term interest rates, would be placed at the core of the new policy framework.  

The experience so far with the negative interest rate policy shows that a combination of the negative interest rate on current account balances at the Bank and JGB purchases is effective for yield curve control. In addition, the Bank decided to introduce new tools of market operations which will facilitate smooth implementation of yield curve control.

The new tools introduced to augment current policy are:-

  • Fixed-rate purchase operations. Outright purchases of JGBs with yields designated by the Bank in order to prevent the yield curve from deviating substantially from the current levels.
  • Fixed-rate funds-supplying operations for a period of up to 10 years – extending the longest maturity of the operation from 1 year at previously.

The reality is that negative interest rate policy (NIRP) has precipitated an even swifter decline in the velocity of monetary circulation. The stimulative impact of expanding the monetary base is negated by the collapse it its circulation.

An additional problem has been with the mechanism by which monetary stimulus is transmitted to the real economy – the banking sector. Bank lending has been stifled by the steady flattening of the yield curve. The chart below shows the evolution since December 2012:-

jgb-yield-curve

Source: Bloomberg, Daiwa Capital Markets Europe

10yr JGB yields have not exceeded 2% since 1998. At that time the base rate was 0.20% – that equates to 180bp of positive carry. Today 40yr JGBs yield 0.57% whilst maturities of 10 years or less trade at negative yields. Little wonder that monetary velocity is declining.

The tightening of bank reserve requirements in the aftermath of the great financial recession has further impeded the provision of credit. It is hardly optimal for banks to lend their reserves to the BoJ at negative rates but they also have scant incentive to lend to corporates when government bond yields are negative and credit spreads are near to historic lows. Back in 1998 a AA rated 10yr corporate bond traded between 40bp and 50bp above 10yr JGBs, the chart below shows where they have traded since 2003:-

aa_corps_vs_jgb_spread_10yr_2003-2016-2

Source: Quandl

For comparison the BofA Merrill Lynch US Corporate AA Option-Adjusted Spread is currently at 86bp off a post 2008 low of 63bp seen in April and June 2014. In the US, where the velocity of monetary circulation is also in decline, banks can borrow at close to the zero bound and lend for 10 years to an AA name at around 2.80%. Their counterparts in Japan have little incentive when the carry is a miserly 0.20%.

This is how the BoJ describe the effect NIRP has had on lending to corporates. They go on to observe that the shape of the yield curve is an important factor for several reasons:-

The decline in JGB yields has translated into a decline in lending rates as well as interest rates on corporate bonds and CP. Financial institutions’ lending attitudes continue to be proactive. Thus, so far, financial conditions have become more accommodative under the negative interest rate policy. However, because the decline in lending rates has been brought about by reducing financial institutions’ lending margins, the extent to which a further decline in the yield curve will lead to a decline in lending rates depends on financial institutions’ lending stance going forward.

The impact of interest rates on economic activity and prices as well as financial conditions depends on the shape of the yield curve. In this regard, the following three points warrant attention. First, short- and medium-term interest rates have a larger impact on economic activity than longer-term rates. Second, the link between the impact of interest rates and the shape of the yield curve may change as firms explore new ways of raising funds such as issuing super-long-term corporate bonds under the current monetary easing, including the negative interest rate policy. Third, an excessive decline and flattening of the yield curve may have a negative impact on economic activity by leading to a deterioration in people’s sentiment, as it can cause uncertainty about the sustainability of financial functioning in a broader sense.

The BoJ’s hope of stimulating bank lending is based on the assumption that there is genuine demand for loans from corporations’: and that those corporations’ then invest in the real-economy. The chart below highlights the increasing levels of Japanese share buybacks over the last five years:-

nikkei-share-buybacks-may-2016-goldman-sachs

Source: FT, Goldman Sachs

Share buybacks inflate stock prices and, when buybacks are financed with debt, alter the capital structure. None of this zeitech stimulates lasting economic growth.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

If zero 10 year JGB yields are unlikely to encourage banks to lend and demand from corporate borrowers remains negligible, what is the purpose of the BoJ policy shift? I believe they are creating the conditions for the Japanese government to dramatically increase spending, safe in the knowledge that the JGB yield curve will only steepen beyond 10 year maturity.

I do not believe yield curve control will improve the economics of bank lending at all. According to World Bank data the average maturity of Japanese corporate syndicated loans in 2015 was 4.5 years whilst for corporate bonds it was 6.9 years. Corporate bond issuance accounted for only 5% of total bond issuance in Japan last year – in the US it was 24%. Even with unprecedented low interest rates, demand to borrow for 15 years and longer will remain de minimis.

Financial markets will begin to realise that, whilst the BoJ has not quite embraced the nom de guerre of “The bank that launched Helicopter Money”, they have, assuming they don’t lose their nerve, embarked on “The road to infinite QE”. Under these conditions the JPY will decline and the Japanese stock market will rise.

Saudi Arabian bonds and stocks – is it time to buy?

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Macro Letter – No 64 – 28-10-2016

Saudi Arabian bonds and stocks – is it time to buy?

  • Saudi Arabia issued $17.5bln of US$ denominated sovereign bonds – the largest issue ever
  • Saudi Aramco may float 5% of their business in the largest IPO ever
  • The TASI stock index is down more than 50% from its 2014 high
  • OPEC agreed to cut output by 640,000 to 1,140,000 bpd

The sovereign bond issue

The Saudi Arabia’s first international bond deal raised $17.5bln. They tapped the market across the yield curve issuing 5yr, 10yr and 30yr bonds. The auction was a success – international investors, mostly from the US, placed $67bln of bids. The issues were priced slightly higher than Qatar, which raised $9bln in May, and Abu Dhabi, which issued $2.5bln each of 5yr and 10yr paper in April.

The Saudi issue appears to have been priced to go, as the table below, showing the basis point spread over US Treasuries, indicates. According to the prospectus the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) want to tap the US$ sovereign bond market extensively in the future, raising as much as $120bln; attracting investors has therefore been a critical aspect of their recent charm offensive:-

Issuer 5yr Spread 10yr Spread 30yr Spread Bid to Cover
Saudi Arabia 135 165 210 3.82
Qatar 120 150 210 2.56
Abu Dhabi 85 125 N/A 3.4

Source: Bloomberg

The high bid to cover ratio (3.8 times) enabled the Kingdom to issue $2.5bln more paper than had been originally indicated: and on better terms – 40bp over, higher rated, Qatar rather than 50bp which had been expected prior to the auction.

The bonds immediately rose in secondary market trading and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issues also caught a bid. The Saudi issue was also unusual in that the largest tranche ($6.5bln) was also the longest maturity (30yr). The high demand is indicative of the global quest for yield among investors. This is the largest ever Emerging Market bond issue, eclipsing Argentina’s $16.5bln offering in April.

The Aramco IPO

Another means by which the Kingdom plans to balance the books is through the Saudi Aramco IPO – part of the Vision 2030 plan – which may float as much as 5% of the company, worth around $100bln, in early 2018. This would be four times larger than the previous record for an IPO set by Alibaba in September 2014.

An interesting, if Machiavellian, view about the motivation behind the Aramco deal is provided by – Robert Boslego – Why Saudi Arabia Will Cut Production To Achieve Vision 2030:-

As part of the implementation of this plan, Saudi Aramco and Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B) are dividing up their U.S. joint venture, Motiva, which will result in Saudi’s full ownership of the Port Author refinery. Aramco will fully own Motiva on April 1, 2017, and has been in talks of buying Lyondell’s Houston refinery.

I suspect Motiva may also purchase U.S. oil shale properties (or companies) that are in financial trouble as a result of the drop in prices since 2014. According to restructuring specialists, about 100 North American oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy, and there may be another 100 to go. This would enable Aramco to expand market share as well as control how fast production is brought back online if prices rise.

By using its ability to cut production to create additional spare capacity, Aramco can use that spare capacity to control prices as it wishes. It probably does not want prices much above $50/b to keep U.S. shale production to about where it is now, 8.5 mmbd. And it doesn’t want prices below $45/b because of the adverse impact of such low prices on its budget. And so it will likely adjust its production accordingly to keep prices in a $45-$55/b range.

Conclusions

Although I authored a series of articles stating that OPEC was bluffing (and it was), I now think that Saudi Arabia has formulated a plan and will assume the role of swing producer to satisfy its goals. It can and will cut unilaterally to create excess spare capacity, which it needs to control oil prices.

This will make the company attractive for its IPO. And by selling shares, Aramco can use some of the proceeds to buy U.S. shale reserves “on the cheap,” not unlike John D. Rockefeller, who bankrupted competitors to acquire them.

The Saudi’s long-term plan is to convert Aramco’s assets into a $2 trillion fund, which can safely reside in Swiss banks. And that is a much safer investment than oil reserves in the ground subject to external and internal political threats.

Whatever the motives behind Vision 2030, it is clear that radical action is needed. The Tadawul TASI Stock Index hit its lowest level since 2011 on 3rd October at 5418, down more than 50% from its high of 11,150 in September 2014 – back when oil was around $90/bbl.

As a starting point here is a brief review of the Saudi economy.

The Saudi Economy

The table below compares KSA with its GCC neighbours; Iran and Iraq have been added to broaden the picture of the oil producing states of the Middle East:-

Country GDP YoY Interest rate Inflation rate Jobless rate Gov. Budget Debt/GDP C/A Pop.
Saudi Arabia 1.40% 2.00% 3.30% 5.60% -15.00% 5.90% -8.2 31.52
Iran 0.60% 20.00% 9.40% 11.80% -2.58% 16.36% 0.41 78.8
UAE 3.40% 1.25% 0.60% 4.20% 5.00% 15.68% 5.8 9.16
Iraq 2.40% 4.00% 0.20% 16.40% -2.69% 37.02% -0.8 35.87
Qatar 1.10% 4.50% 2.60% 0.20% 16.10% 35.80% 8.3 2.34
Kuwait 1.80% 2.25% 2.90% 2.20% 26.59% 7.10% 11.5 3.89
Oman -14.10% 1.00% 1.30% 7.20% -17.10% 9.20% -15.4 4.15
Bahrain 2.50% 0.75% 2.60% 3.70% -5.00% 42.00% 3.3 1.37

Source: Trading Economics

In terms of inflation the KSA is in a better position than Iran and its unemployment rate is well below that of Iran or Iraq, but on several measures it looks weaker than its neighbours.

Moody’s downgraded KSA in May – click here for details – citing concern about their reliance on oil. They pointed to a 13.5% decline in nominal GDP during 2015 and forecast a further fall this year. This concurs with the IMF forecast of 1.2% in 2016 versus 3.5% GDP growth in 2015. It looks likely to be the weakest economic growth since 2009.

The government’s fiscal position has deteriorated in line with the oil price. In 2014 the deficit was 2.3%, by 2015 it was 15%:-

saudi-arabia-government-budget-1970-2016

Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

Despite austerity measures, including proposals to introduce a value added tax, the deficit is unlikely to improve beyond -13.5% in 2016. It is estimated that to balance the Saudi budget the oil price would need to be above $79/bbl.

At $98bln, the 2015 government deficit was the largest of the G20, of which Saudi Arabia is a member. According to the prospectus of the new bond issue Saudi debt increased from $37.9bln in December 2015 to $72.9bln in August 2016. Between now and 2020 Moody’s estimate the Kingdom will have a cumulative financing requirement of US$324bln. More than half the needs of the GCC states combined.  Despite the recent deterioration, Government debt to GDP was only 5.8% in 2015:-

saudi-arabia-government-debt-to-gdp-1999-2016

Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

They have temporary room for manoeuvre, but Moody’s forecast this ratio rising beyond 35% by 2018 – which is inconsistent with an Aa3 rating. Even the Saudi government see it rising to 30% by 2030.

The fiscal drag has also impacted foreign exchange reserves. From a peak of US$731bln in August 2014 they have fallen by 23% to US$562bln in August 2016:-

saudi-arabia-foreign-exchange-reserves-2010-2016

Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

Reserves will continue to decline, but it will be some time before the Kingdom loses its fourth ranked position by FX reserves globally. Total private and public sector external debt to GDP was only 15% in 2015 up from 12.3% in 2014 and 11.6% in 2013. There is room for this to grow without undermining the Riyal peg to the US$, which has been at 3.75 since January 2003. A rise in the ratio to above 50% could undermine confidence but otherwise the external debt outlook appears stable.

The fall in the oil price has also led to a dramatic reversal in the current account, from a surplus of 9.8% in 2014 to a deficit of 8.2% last year. In 2016 the deficit may reach 12% or more. It has been worse, as the chart below shows, but not since the 1980’s and the speed of deterioration, when there is no global recession to blame for the fall from grace, is alarming:-

saudi-arabia-current-account-to-gdp

Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

The National Vision 2030 reform plan has been launched, ostensibly, to wean the Kingdom away from its reliance on oil – which represents 85% of exports and 90% of fiscal revenues. In many ways this is an austerity plan but, if fully implemented, it could substantially improve the economic position of Saudi Arabia. There are, however, significant social challenges which may hamper its delivery.

Perhaps the greatest challenge domestically is youth unemployment. More than two thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population (31mln) is under 30 years of age. A demographic blessing and a curse. Official unemployment is 5.8% but for Saudis aged 15 to 24 it is nearer to 30%. A paper, from 2011, by The Woodrow Wilson International Center – Saudi Arabia’s Youth and the Kingdom’s Future – estimated that 37% of all Saudis were 14 years or younger. That means the KSA needs to create 3mln jobs by 2020. The table below shows the rising number unemployed:-

saudi-arabia-unemployed-persons-2008-2016

Source: Trading Economics, Central Department of Statistics and Economics

If you compare the chart above with the unemployment percentage shown below you would be forgiven for describing the government’s work creation endeavours as Sisyphean:-

saudi-arabia-unemployment-rate-2000-2016

Source: Trading Economics, Central Department of Statistics and Economics

Another and more immediate issue is the cost of hostilities with Yemen – and elsewhere. Exiting these conflicts could improve the government’s fiscal position swiftly. More than 25% ($56.8bln) of the 2016 budget has been allocated to military and security expenditure. It has been rising by 19% per annum since the Arab spring of 2011 and, according to IHS estimates, will reach $62bln by 2020.

The OPEC deal and tightness in the supply of oil

After meeting in Algiers at the end of September, OPEC members agreed, in principle, to reduce production to between 32.5 and 33mln bpd. A further meeting next month, in Vienna, should see a more concrete commitment. This is, after all, the first OPEC production agreement in eight years, and, despite continuing animosity between the KSA and Iran, the Saudi Energy Minister, Khalid al-Falih, made a dramatic concession, stating that Iran, Nigeria and Libya would be allowed to produce:-

…at maximum levels that make sense as part of any output limits.

Iranian production reached 3.65mln bpd in August – the highest since 2013 and 10.85% of the OPEC total. Nigeria pumped 1.39mln bpd (4.1%) and although Libya produced only 363,000 bpd, in line with its negligible output since 2013, it is important to remember they used to produce around 1.4mln bpd. Nigeria likewise has seen production fall from 2.6mln bpd in 2012. Putting this in perspective, total OPEC production reached a new high of 33.64mln bpd in September.

The oil price responded to the “good news from Algiers” moving swiftly higher. Russia has also been in tentative discussions with OPEC since the early summer. President Putin followed the OPEC communique by announcing that Russia will also freeze production. Russian production of 11.11mln bpd in September, is the highest since its peak in 1988. Other non-OPEC nations are rumoured to be considering joining the concert party.

Saudi Arabia is currently the largest producer of oil globally, followed by the USA. In August Saudi production fell from 10.67mln bpd to 10.63mln bpd. It rebounded slightly to 10.65mln bpd in September – this represents 32% of OPEC output.

There are a range of possible outcomes, assuming the OPEC deal goes ahead. Under the proposed terms of the agreement, production is to be reduced by between 1.14mln and 640,000 bpd. Saudi Arabia, as the swing producer, is obliged to foot the bill for an Iranian production freeze and adjust for any change in Nigerian and Libyan output. The chart below, which is taken from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas – Signs of Recovery Emerge in the U.S. Oil Market – Third Quarter 2016 make no assumptions about Saudi Arabia taking up the slack but it provides a useful visual aid:-

opec-secenario-dallas-fed

Source: EIA, OPEC, Dallas Fed

They go on to state in relation to US production:-

While drilling activity has edged up, industry participants believe it will be awhile before activity significantly increases. When queried in the third quarter 2016 Dallas Fed Energy Survey, most respondents said prices need to exceed $55 per barrel for solid gains to occur, with a ramp-up unlikely until at least second quarter 2017.

Assuming the minimum reduction in output to 33mln bpd and Iran, Nigeria and Libya maintaining production at current levels, Saudi Arabian must reduce its output by 300,000 bpd. If the output cut is the maximum, Iran freezes at current levels but Nigeria and Libya return to the production levels of 2012, Saudi Arabia will need to reduce its output by 623,000 bpd. The indications are that Nigeria and Libya will only be able to raise output by, at most, 500,000 bpd each, so a 623,000 bpd cut by Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be needed, but even in the worst case scenario, if the oil price can be raised by $3.11/bbl the Saudi production cut would be self-financing. My “Median” forecast below assumes Nigeria and Libya increase output by 1mln bpd in total:-

OPEC Cut ‘000s bpd KSA Cut ‘000s bpd KSA % of total OPEC Cut Oil Price B/E for KSA/bbl
Max 1,140 623 54.68% +$3.11
Median 890 422 47.41% +$2.06
Minimum 640 300 47.07% +$1.45

Source: OPEC

Many commentators are predicting lower oil prices for longer; they believe OPEC no longer has the power to influence the global oil price. This article by David Yager for Oil Price – Why Oil Prices Will Rise More And Sooner Than Most Believe – takes a different view. His argument revolves around the amount of spare capacity globally. The author thinks OPEC is near to full production, but it is his analysis of non-OPEC capacity which is sobering:-

…RBC Capital Markets was of the view oil prices would indeed rise but not until 2019. RBC says 2.2 million b/d of new non-OPEC production will enter the markets this year, 1.3 million b/d next year and 1.6 million b/d in 2018. Somehow U.S. production will rise by 900,000 b/d from 2017 and 2019 despite falling by 1.1 million b/d in the past 15 months and with rigs count at historic lows. At the same time RBC reported the 124 E&P companies it follows will cut spending another 32 percent in 2016 from 2015, a $US106 billion reduction.

…The Telegraph ran it under the title, “When oil turns it will be with such lightning speed that it could upend the market again”. Citing the lowest levels of oil discoveries since 1952, annual investment in new supplies down 42 percent in the past two years and how the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates 9 percent average annual global reservoir depletion, the article stated, “…the global economy is becoming dangerously reliant on crude supply from political hotspots”. “Drillers are not finding enough oil to replace these (depletion) barrels, preparing the ground for an oil price spike and raising serious questions about energy security”.

Depletion of 9 percent per year is about 8.6 million b/d. Add demand growth and you’re approaching 10 million b/d. How do the crystal ball polishers of the world who see flat oil prices for the foreseeable future figure producers can replace this output when others report $US1 trillion in capital projects have been cancelled or delayed over the rest of the decade?

The last ingredient in the oil price confusion in inventory levels. OECD countries currently hold 3.1 billion barrels of oil inventory. That sounds like lot. But what nobody reports is the five-year average is about 2.7 billion barrels. Refinery storage tanks. Pipelines. Field locations. Tankers in transit. It’s huge. The current overhang is about 6 days of production higher than it has been for years, about 60 days. So inventories are up roughly 10 percent from where they have been.

Obviously this is going to take a change in the global supply/demand balance to return to historic levels and will dampen prices until it does. But don’t believe OECD inventories must go to zero.

…The current production overhang suppressing markets is only about 1 million b/d or less depending upon which forecast you’re looking at. Both the IEA (Paris) and the EIA (Washington) see the curves very close if they haven’t crossed already. Neither agency sees any overhang by the end of the next year.

…OPEC has no meaningful excess capacity. Non-OPEC production is flat out and, in the face of massive spending cuts, is more likely to fall than rise because production increases will be more than offset by natural reservoir depletion.

Since this article was published OECD inventories have declined a fraction. Here is the latest EIA data:-

  2014 2015 2016 2017
Non-OPEC Production 55.9 57.49 56.84 56.94
OPEC Production 37.45 38.32 39.2 40.07
OPEC Crude Oil Portion 30.99 31.76 32.45 33.03
Total World Production 93.35 95.81 96.04 97.01
OECD Commercial Inventory (end-of-year) 2688 2967 3049 3073
Total OPEC surplus crude oil production capacity 2.08 1.6 1.34 1.21
OECD Consumption 45.86 46.41 46.53 46.6
Non-OECD Consumption 46.69 47.63 48.8 50.07
Total World Consumption 92.55 94.04 95.33 96.67

Source: EIA

Whether or not David Yager is correct about supply, the direct cost to Saudi Arabia, of a 623,000 bpd reduction in output, pales into insignificance beside the cost of domestic oil and gas subsidies – around $61bln last year. Subsidies on electricity and water add another $10bln to the annual bill. These subsidies are being reduced as part of the Vison 2030 austerity plan. The government claim they can save $100bln by 2020, but given the impact of removing subsidies on domestic growth, I remain sceptical.

The Kingdom’s domestic demand for crude oil continues to grow. Brookings – Saudi Arabia’s economic time bomb forecast that it will reach 8.2mln bpd by 2030. By some estimates they may become a net importer of oil by their centenary in 2032. Saudi oil reserves are estimated at 268bln bbl. Her gas reserves are estimated to be 8.6trln M3 (2014) but exploration may yield considerable increases in these figures.

The Kingdom is also planning to build 16 nuclear power stations over the next 20 years, along with extensive expansion of solar power generating capacity. Improvements in technology mean that solar power stations will, given the right weather conditions, produce cheaper electricity than gas powered generation by the end of this year. This article from the Guardian – Solar and wind ‘cheaper than new nuclear’ by the time Hinkley is built – looks longer term.

According to EIA data US production in July totalled 8.69mln bpd down from 9.62mln bpd in March 2015. A further 200,000 bpd reduction is forecast for next year.

The table below, which is taken from the IEA – Medium Term Oil Market Report – 2016suggests this tightness in supply may last well beyond 2018:-

iea_mtomr_-_global_balance_2016

Source: IEA – MTOMR 2016

According to Baker Hughes data, US rig count has rebounded to 443 since the low of 316 at the end of May, but this is still 72% below its October 2014 peak of 1609. This March 2016 article from Futures Magazine – How quickly will U.S. energy producers respond to rising prices? Explains the dynamics of the US oil industry:-

Crude oil produced by shale made up 48% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2015, up from 22% in 2007 according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which warns that the horizontal wells drilled into tight formations tend to have very high initial production rates–but they also have steep initial decline rates. Some wells lose as much as 70% of their initial production the first year. With steep decline rates, constant drilling and development of new wells is necessary to maintain or increase production levels. The problem is that many of these smaller shale companies do not have the capital nor the manpower to keep drilling and keep production going.

This is one of the reasons that the EIA is predicting that U.S. oil production will fall by 7.4%, or roughly 700,000 barrels a day. That may be a modest assessment as we are hearing of more stress and bankruptcies in the space. The EIA warns that with the U.S. oil rig count down 76% since the fall of 2014, that unless capital spending picks up, the EIA says that U.S. oil production will keep falling in 2017, ending up 1.2 million barrels a day lower than the 2015 average at 8.2 million barrels a day.

The bearish argument that shale will save the day and keep prices under control does not fit with the longer term reality. When more traditional energy projects with much slower decline rates get shelved, there is the thought that the cash strapped shale producers can just drill, drill. Drill to make up that difference is a fantasy. The problem is that while shale may replace that oil for a while, in the long run it can never make up for the loss of projects that are more sustainable.

OPEC might just have the whip hand for the first time in several years.

The chart below, taken from the New York Federal Reserve – Oil Price Dynamics Report – 24th October 2016 – shows how increased supply since 2012 has pushed oil prices lower. Now oversupply appears to be abating once more; combine this with the inability of the fracking industry to “just drill” and the reduction in inventories and conditions may be ripe for an aggressive short squeeze:-

ny-fed-oil-supply-demand-imbalance-oct-24th-2016

Source: NY Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics, Reuters, Bloomberg

But, how sustainable is any oil price increase?

Longer term prospects for oil demand

commodity-crude-oil-9-92014-to-18-10-2016

Source: Trading Economics

In the short term there are, as always, a plethora of conflicting opinions about the direction of the price of oil. Longer term, advances in drilling techniques and other technologies – especially those relating to fracking – will exert a downward pressure on prices, especially as these methods are adopted more widely across the globe. Recent evidence supports the view that tight-oil extraction is economic at between $40 and $60 per bbl, although the Manhattan Institute – Shale 2:0 – May 2015 – suggests:-

In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

These reductions in extraction costs, combined with improvements in fuel efficiency and the falling cost of alternative energy, such as solar power, will constrain prices from rising for any length of time.

Published earlier this month, the World Energy Council – World Energy Scenarios 2016 – The Grand Transitionpropose three, very different, global outlooks, with rather memorable names:-

  1. Modern Jazz – digital disruption, innovation and market based reform
  2. Unfinished Symphony – intelligent and sustainable economic growth with low carbon
  3. Hard Rock – fragmented, weaker, inward-looking and unsustainable growth

They go on to point out that, despite economic growth – especially in countries like China and India – global reliance on fossil fuels has fallen from 86% in 1970 to 81% in 2014 – although in transportation reliance remains a spectacular 92%. The table below shows rising energy consumption under all three scenarios, but an astonishing divergence in its rise and source of supply, under the different regimes:-

Scenario – 2060 % increase in energy consumption % reliance on oil Transport % reliance on oil
Modern Jazz 22 50 67
Unfinished Symphony 38 63 60
Hard Rock 46 70 78

Source: World Energy Council

The authors expect demand for electricity to double by 2060 requiring $35trln to $43trln of infrastructure investment. Solar and Wind power are expected to increase their share of supply from 4% in 2014 to between 20% and 39% dependent upon the scenario.

As to the outlook for fossil fuels, global demand for coal is expected to peak between 2020 and 2040 and for oil, between 2030 and 2040.

…peaks for coal and oil have the potential to take the world from stranded assets predominantly in the private sector to state-owned stranded resources and could cause significant stress to the current global economic equilibrium with unforeseen consequences on geopolitical agendas. Carefully weighed exit strategies spanning several decades need to come to the top of the political agenda, or the destruction of vast amounts of public and private shareholder value is unavoidable. Economic diversification and employment strategies for growing populations will be a critical element of navigating the challenges of peak demand.

The economic diversification, to which the World Energy Council refer, is a global phenomenon but the impact on nations which are dependent on oil exports, such as Saudi Arabia, will be even more pronounced.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

As part of Vision 2030 – which was launched in the spring by the King Salman’s second son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the Saudi government introduced some new measures last month. They cancelled bonus payments to state employees and cut ministers’ salaries by 20%. Ministers’ perks – including the provision of cars and mobile phones – will also be withdrawn. In addition, legislative advisors to the monarchy have been subjected to a 15% pay cut.

These measures are scheduled to take effect this month. They are largely cosmetic, but the longer term aim of the plan is to reduce the public-sector wage bill by 5% – bringing it down to 40% of spending by 2020. Government jobs pay much better than the private sector and the 90/90 rule applies –that is 90% of Saudi Arabians work for the government and the 10% of workers in the private sector are 90% non-Saudi in origin. The proposed pay cuts will be deeply unpopular. Finally, unofficial sources claim, the government has begun cancelling $20bln of the $69bln of investment projects it had previously approved. All this austerity will be a drag on economic growth – it begins to sound more like Division 2030, I anticipate social unrest.

The impact of last month’s announcement on the stock market was unsurprisingly negative – the TASI Index fell 4% – largely negating the SAR20bln ($5.3bln) capital injection by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) from the previous day.

Saudi Bonds

Considering the geo-political uncertainty surrounding the KSA, is the spread over US Treasuries sufficient? In the short term – two to five years – I think it is, but from a longer term perspective this should be regarded as a trading asset. If US bond yield return to a more normal level – they have averaged 6.5% since 1974 – the credit spread is likely to widen. Its current level is a function of the lack of alternative assets offering an acceptable yield, pushing investors towards markets with which many are unfamiliar. KSA bonds do have advantages over some other emerging markets, their currency is pegged to the US$ and their foreign exchange reserves remain substantial, nonetheless, they will also be sensitive to the price of oil.

Saudi stocks

For foreign investors ETFs are still the only way to access the Saudi stock market, unless you already have $5bln of AUM – then you are limited to 5% of any company and a number of the 170 listed stocks remain restricted. For those not deterred, the iShares MSCI Saudi Arabia Capped ETF (KSA) is an example of a way to gain access.

Given how much of the economy of KSA relies on oil revenues, it is not surprising that the TASI Index correlates with the price of oil. It makes the Saudi stock exchange a traders market with energy prices dominating direction. Several emerging stock markets have rallied dramatically this year, as the chart below illustrates, the TASI has not been among their number:-

saudi-arabia-stock-market-1994-2016

Source: Saudi Stock Exchange, Trading Economics

Oil

Tightness in supply makes it likely that oil will find a higher trading range, but previous OPEC deals have been wrecked by cheating on quotas. Longer term, improvements in technology will reduce the cost of extraction, increase the amount of recoverable reserves and diminish our dependence on fossil fuels by improving energy efficiency and developing, affordable, renewable, alternative sources of energy. By all means trade the range but remember commodities have always had a negative real expected return in the long run.

Which parts of the UK economy and which stocks will be the winners from Brexit?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 63 – 14-10-2016

Which parts of the UK economy and which stocks will be the winners from Brexit?

  • Sterling has fallen to its lowest since 1985 on fears of a “Hard Brexit”
  • UK stocks, led by the FTSE100, have rallied sharply
  • Sectors such as IT and Pharmaceuticals will benefit long-term
  • Even construction and financial services present investment opportunities

If you are in the habit of reading the mainstream financial press you will see headlines such as:-

The Times – Leak of gloomy Brexit forecast pushes pound to 31-year low – 12th October

The Economist – The pound and the fury – Brexit is making Britons poorer, and meaner – 11th October

Over the last three months, this has been typical of almost all financial media commentary. Sterling, meanwhile, has fallen, on a trade weighted basis, to a low not seen since the effective exchange rate index was recalibrated in 1990. At 73.79 it has even breached its close of December 2008 (73.855):-

sterling-effective-excahnge-rate-1990-2016

Source: Bank of England

The recent weakness in Sterling has been linked to the publication of parts of draft cabinet committee papers, suggesting UK revenues could drop by £66bln. From a technical perspective the “Flash Crash” in Cable (GBPUSD) last week has exacerbated the situation, creating the need for the currency to retest the low of 1.18 during normal market hours – the market reached 1.2086 on 11th – more downside is likely:-

gbpusd-2014-2016

Source: DailyFX.com

As the two charts above reveal, Sterling has weakened by 16% versus the US$ and by 18.5% on a trade-weighted basis.

Here is the chart of GBPUSD since 1953. It reinforces my expectation, from a technical perspective, that we will see further downside:-

cable-since-1953-fxtop

Source: fxtop.com

Given the seismic impact of a “Hard Brexit” on the UK economy, it would not be surprising to see a return to the February 1985 low of 1.0440.

I am not alone in my expectation of further weakness, Ashoka Mody – who organised the EU-IMF bailout of Ireland – told the Telegraph this week that Sterling was between 20% and 25% overvalued going into the Brexit vote.

Trade

The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, accounting for 44% of goods and services exports in 2015 – though this was a decline the on previous year. Of greater concern to the neighbours, is the 53% of UK imports which emanate from the EU. In theory Sterling weakness should benefit UK exports; the impact has been minimal, so far:-

united-kingdom-exports-5yr

Source: Tradingeconomics.com, ONS

Similarly, imports should be falling – they are not:-

united-kingdom-imports-5yr

Source: Trading Economics, ONS

I discussed the prospects for UK growth and the effect of Sterling weakness on the balance of trade in Macro Letter – No 59 – 15-07-2016 – Uncharted British waters – the risk to growth, the opportunity to reform – quoting in turn from John Ashcroft – The Saturday Economist – The great devaluation myth:-

There was no improvement in trade as a result of the exit from the ERM and the subsequent devaluation of 1992, despite allusions of policy makers to the contrary.

…1 Exporters Price to Market…and price in Currency…there is limited pass through effect for major exporters

2 Exporters and importers adopt a balanced portfolio approach via synthetic or natural hedging to offset the currency risks over the long term

3 Traders adopt a medium term view on currency trends better to take the margin boost or hit in the short term….rather than price out the currency move

4 Price Elasticities for imports are lower than for exports…The Marshall Lerner conditions are not satisfied…The price elasticities are too limited to offset the “lost revenue” effect

5 Imports of food, beverages, commodities, energy, oil and semi manufactures are relatively inelastic with regard to price. The price co-efficients are much weaker and almost inelastic with regard to imports

6 Imports form a significant part of exports, either as raw materials, components or semi manufactures. Devaluation increases the costs of exports as a result of devaluation

7 There is limited substitution effect or potential domestic supply side boost

8 Demand co-efficients are dominant

If Sterling weakness will not improve the UK terms of trade, what will happen to growth? Again, in Macro Letter 59  I quote, Open Europe’s worst case scenario – that UK economic growth will be 2.2% less, on an annual basis, than its current trend, by 2030. Trend GDP growth between 1956 and 2015 averaged 2.46%. Is the media gloom justified and…

Are there any winners?

I concluded my July article saying:-

Companies with foreign earnings will be broadly immune to the vicissitudes of the UK economy, but domestic firms will underperform until there is more clarity about the future of our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. The UK began trade talks with India last week and South Korea has expressed interest in similar discussions. Many other nations will follow, hoping, no doubt, that a deal with the UK can be agreed swiftly – unlike those with the EU or, indeed, the US. The future could be bright but markets will wait to see the light.

The UK stock market has already jumped the gun. The chart below shows the strong upward momentum of the FTSE100, dragging the, less international, FTSE250 in its wake; yet UK property has been hit hard by expectations of a slowdown in foreign demand:-

ambrosebexit

Source: Daily Telegraph

The obvious winners in the short term are companies with non-Sterling earnings – the constituents of the FTSE100 have an estimated 77% of overseas revenues – 47 of them pay their dividends in US$. The FTSE250 is not far behind, its members have 50% of foreign revenues. This is not dissimilar to the French CAC40 and German DAX. The table below lists the top and bottom ten FTSE350 companies by Sterling revenues:-

10 FTSE 350 companies with lowest sterling revenues
Company Sterling revenues
Vedanta Resources (VED) 0%
Hikma Pharmaceuticals (HIK) 0.20%
BHP Billiton (BLT) 0.30%
Antofagasta (ANT) 0.40%
Mondi (MNDI) 0.40%
Tate & Lyle (TATE) 0.60%
Rio Tinto (RIO) 0.70%
British American Tobacco (BATS) 1%
Laird (LRD) 1.60%
Victrex (VCT) 1.80%
10 FTSE 350 companies with highest sterling revenues
Company Sterling revenues
Saga (SAGAG) 69.80%
Capita (CPI) 70.40%
Wm Morrison (MRW) 70.60%
Booker Group (BOK) 70.80%
Intu Properties (INTU) 71.60%
Home Retail Group (HOME) 72.10%
OneSavings Bank (OSBO) 72.50%
Standard Life (SL) 88.90%
Grainger (GRI) 96.30%

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Some of these companies are not exactly household names. Below is a table of the top 30 stocks in the FTSE100 by market capitalisation as at 28th September. The table also shows the year to date performance by stock as at 12th October:-

Company Ticker Sector Market cap-£mln (28-09) YTD (12-10) >50% Non-£ revenue % of non-£ revenue
Royal Dutch Shell RDSA Oil and gas 149,100 16.33% Yes 85%?
HSBC HSBA Banking 113,455 15.97% Yes
British American Tobacco BATS Tobacco 92,162 28.58% Yes 99%
BP BP Oil and gas 81,196 25.99% Yes 85%?
GlaxoSmithKline GSK Pharmaceuticals 80,629 32.02% Yes 91%
AstraZeneca AZN Pharmaceuticals 64,771 18.72% Yes 93%
Vodafone Group VOD Telecomms 59,259 6.10% Yes
Diageo DGE Beverages 55,931 20.41% Yes
Reckitt Benckiser RB Consumer goods 50,446 20.66% Yes
Unilever ULVR Consumer goods 46,917 32.18% Yes 85%?
Shire plc SHP Pharmaceuticals 45,899 16.56% Yes 96%
National Grid plc NG Energy 41,223 15.14% Yes
Lloyds Banking Group LLOY Banking 39,634 -29.62%
BT Group BT.A Telecomms 38,996 -15.03%
Imperial Brands IMB Tobacco 37,677 13.35% Yes
Prudential plc PRU Finance 35,544 -3.61% Yes 60%
Rio Tinto Group RIO Mining 34,715 6.72% Yes 99%
Glencore GLEN Mining 30,135 94.96% Yes
Barclays BARC Banking 28,089 -34.34% Yes
Compass Group CPG Food 24,528 37.40% Yes
WPP plc WPP Media 23,330 16.44% Yes 87%
BHP Billiton BLT Mining 23,169 5.18% Yes 97%
CRH plc CRH Building materials 21,314 50.45% Yes
Royal Bank of Scotland Group RBS Banking 20,799 -46.12%
Associated British Foods ABF Food 20,481 -27.11%
Standard Chartered STAN Banking 20,403 -9.76% Yes
Aviva AV. Insurance 17,925 -3.27% Yes 60%
BAE Systems BA. Military 16,698 16.87% Yes
RELX Group REL Publishing 15,842 27.83% Yes 85%?
SSE plc SSE Energy 15,548 -1.75%

Source: Stockchallenge.co.uk, Financial Times

The table indicates where non-Sterling revenues exceed 50% and, where I have been able to glean current data, the most recent percentage of international revenues. These 30 names represent 70% of the total market capitalisation of the FTSE100 Index. The positive impact of the fall in Sterling on the performance of the majority of these stocks is unequivocal.

On a sectoral basis this is a continuation of the price action evident in the week following the Brexit vote. The chart below was published by the FT on 29th June:-

ftse350-sectors-29-06-2016

Source: Bloomberg, FT

The underperforming sectors are not difficult to explain. Banks and Insurance companies, despite having international revenues, have been hurt by concerns about the loss of access to EU markets after Brexit. Real Estate remains nervous about a collapse in international demand, now the UK is no longer the gateway to Europe. Meanwhile, the retail and household sectors are likely to suffer as UK economic growth slows, consumer spending declines, inflation – driven by higher import prices – squeezes corporate profit margins and the Bank of England is forced to respond to higher consumer prices with monetary tightening.

Yet, looking at the table below, the dividend cover of the consumer sector is robust and the data we have seen since Brexit – retails sales +6.2% in July and 6.3% in August, combined with the rebound in consumer confidence – suggests that the consumer is what might be deemed serene:-

dividend-cover-ftse350-q4-2015

Source: Daily Telegraph, Highcharts

Other UK economic indicators also seem to be rebounding. Manufacturing PMI was 55.4 in September –its highest level since the middle of 2014. Services PMI, at 52.6, is still expanding and Construction PMI, at 52.3, has returned to growth. Rumours of the death of the consumer may be grossly exaggerated. Even consumer credit, which dipped in July, rebounded in August.

The “Sterling Effect” on stock valuation has more to deliver in the near-term, but once the currency stabilises this one-off benefit will diminish.

Who will the longer term winners be?

It is difficult to assess the long run impact of a “Hard Brexit” without reviewing the WTO – Most Favoured Nation – Tariff schedule for the EU. The trade weighted average tariff for 2013 was 3.2%, but on agricultural products it was a much higher 22.3% whilst it was only 2.3% on Non-Agricultural products:-

wto-eu-mft-tariffs-2015

Source: WTO

A “Hard Brexit” will probably entail a reversion to Most Favoured Nation terms with the EU under WTO rules.

The 18.5% decline in the Sterling Effective Exchange Rate means the cost to the UK of exporting, even agricultural products – excepting dairy – has been priced in. No wonder economists are busy revising their 2016/2017 growth forecasts higher – until Brexit actually happens, UK exports to the EU, and the majority of our other trading partners, will remain incredibly competitive.

Developing beyond this theme, a recent speech – The economic outlook – by Michael Saunders, a Bank of England MPC Member, reminded the Institute of Directors in Manchester:-

…we should not lose sight of the UK economy’s considerable supply-side advantages, with relatively flexible labour and product markets, openness to foreign investment, low-ish tax rates, strength in knowledge-intensive services and hi-tech manufacturing…

And the winners are…

This by no means an exhaustive list – some sectors are an obvious response to the decline in the currency, others are rather less certain.

Tourism – with the UK suddenly an inexpensive destination for tourists from around the world. In 2015, 7.3mln tourists visited the UK, of which 4.6mln were from the EU. Tourism Alliance estimates the UK tourist industry was worth £126.9bln in 2013. The chart below shows the volatile but upward sloping evolution of tourism revenues:-

united-kingdom-tourism-revenues

Source: Trading Economics, ONS

Here is an edited table of the Leisure and Travel constituents of the FTSE350, it excludes bookmakers, travel agents and airlines:-

Ticker Company
CCL Carnival
CINE Cineworld Group
CPG Compass Group
DOM Domino’s Pizza Group
FGP FirstGroup
GNK Greene King
GOG Go-Ahead Group
GVC GVC Holdings
IHG InterContinental Hotels Group
JDW Wetherspoon (J.D.)
MAB Mitchells & Butlers
MARS Marston’s
MERL Merlin Entertainments
MLC Millennium & Copthorne Hotels
NEX National Express Group
RNK Rank Group
RTN Restaurant Group
SGC Stagecoach Group
WTB Whitbread

Source: Shareprices.com

There should also be a positive impact on construction, as many operators, particularly within the unlisted sector, upgrade their facilities to capture the increased demand.

Not all the omens are positive; many of the jobs created by tourism are temporary and seasonal, the impact of a “Hard Brexit” is likely to lead to an increase in average earnings – good for employees, though not necessary for employers:-

united-kingdom-wage-growth-average-weekly-earnings

Source: Trading Economics, ONS

The trend in wage growth has been steady for several years, but as inflation picks up and UK immigration declines, wages will rise.

Value Added Industries such as IT, Technology, Pharmaceuticals – these are growth industries in which the UK has a comparative advantage. Typically their growth is delivered through productivity enhancing innovation. That they will also benefit, from a structurally lower exchange rate, is an added bonus.

Property and Construction should recover strongly – according to the Nationwide, UK house prices increased again in September. Only in central London, where stamp duty increases on higher value properties has undermined sentiment, have prices eased.

The UK has a shortage of residential property. Whether interest rates remain low or not, this situation will not change until there is genuine planning reform. The three largest housebuilders Barratt Developments (BDEV) Taylor Wimpey (TW) and Persimmon (PSN) are all trading with P/E ratios below 10 times. The only real concern is the difficulty these companies may experience in securing skilled manual labour – Barrett Developments source between 30% and 40% of their current workforce from mainland Europe.

There are other companies in the construction sector such as Balfour Beatty (BBY) Carillion (CLLN) and Kier Group (KIE) which will benefit from increased public investment in infrastructure projects. Monetary policy is nearing the end of its effectiveness – although the central banks still have plenty of stocks they could buy. The next step is to pass the gauntlet back to their respective governments’. I believe fiscal stimulus on a substantial scale will be the next phase.

Banking and Financial Services may seem like the last place to look for performance. The regulators have been tightening the noose since 2008 – as the current crisis at Deutsche Bank highlights, this trend has yet to run its course. However, challenger banks and shadow banking institutions, including hedge funds, are beginning to fill the void. In the days before the financialisation of the economy, banking was the servant of industry. The real-economy still needs banking and credit facilities. The oldest of the Peer to Peer lenders (unlisted) Zopa, announced their first securitisation this summer. After a decade of development their business it is finally coming of age.

The CMA – Making the Banks Work Harder For You – August 9th is certainly supportive for the digital disruptors of traditional banking. Government support is no guarantee of success but it’s easier to have them on your side.

You may argue that the success of companies such as Zopa are based on technological advantages but the recent history of banking has been about harnessing technology to increase trading volumes and reduce the costs of financial transactions. Growth in the profitability of financial services is integrally tied to advances in technology.

A final argument for Banks is the FTSE350 Banks Index:-

big

Source: Bigcharts.com

The high in 2007 was 11,263, the low in March 2009, 2,782 – a 75% decline. The index nearly doubled in in the next six months, reaching 5,224 in September of the same year. This June the index failed to break to a new low after the Brexit vote. A base is forming – the banking sector may not have seen the last of fines and regulation but I believe the downside is limited.

China – Coal, Steel, Water and Demographics – Which way now?

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Macro Letter – No 62 – 30-09-2016

China – Coal, Steel, Water and Demographics – Which way now?

  • The price of coking coal has risen 164% this year, doubling since July
  • The NDRC is still attempting to reduce both coal and steel production this year
  • The April stimulus package has boosted construction and infrastructure demand
  • The pace of Chinese growth has stabilised but at a much reduced level

This year several commodity markets saw significant price increases. I discussed this in Macro Letter – No 51 – 11-3-2016 – How do we square the decline in trade with the rebound in industrial commodities?

The price of Iron Ore, Aluminium and other industrial metals has rallied sharply over the last few weeks – WTI now seems to have followed suit. Most commentators regard this as a short covering rally.

Over the last six months the US economy has maintaining momentum, albeit at a disappointingly modest pace. Elsewhere the economic headwinds are blowing harder, with Europe and Japan still mired in a “slow-growth/no-growth” environment. Yet during the last few weeks the spot price of premium coking coal – one of the key inputs for steel production – has doubled to more than $200/tonne. Although this is from multi-year lows seen in 2015, coking coal is now the top performing commodity market year to date:-

steel-index-coking-coal

Source: Steel Index, Amcharts.com

According to CME data, the futures curve for Australian Coking Coal is in steep backwardation out to December 2017 delivery. This suggests a short-term supply shortage rather than a generalised increase in demand.  Mining.com – Stunning coking coal rally wreaks havoc in steel, iron ore explains what has been happening:-

The rise in the price of coking is upending the economics of the iron ore and steel markets with the Australian export benchmark price climbing 164% so far this year.

Metallurgical coal was exchanging hands at $206.40 on Monday according to data provided by Steel Index as it consolidates at higher levels following weeks of panic buying not seen since 2011, when floods in key export region in Queensland sent the price surging to $335 a tonne (albeit not for long).

The rally was triggered by Beijing’s decision to limit coal mines’ operating days to 276 or fewer a year from 330 before as it seeks to restructure the industry. Safety closures and weather related supply curbs in China and Australia only added fuel to the fire.

sgx-hot-metal-spread

Source: TSI, Bloomberg, SGX

The price of Iron Ore has also risen by 31% to around $55/tonne, but, as the chart above makes clear, the ratio between the price of iron ore and coking coal is now at its lowest this century.

China’s coking coal output has fallen more than 10% due to the government edict to curtail domestic production. In response import volumes rose 45% in August alone. Goldman Sachs and Macquarie have both increased their price forecasts for 2017 and 2018.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – the agency responsible for implementing production cuts – had achieved only 39% of the annual target for reducing coal capacity and 47% of the annual reduction in steel capacity as of the end of July. The Peterson – Institute – State of Play in the Chinese Steel Industry explains the reasons for this policy. Suffice to say, China’s domestic steel production tripled between 2005 and 2015 taking its share of global steel production from 31% to 50%. Under WTO rules it will have Market Economy Status from December 2016 – a wave of anti-dumping laws suits may well follow unless it curtails production.

Despite common knowledge of official policy, commentators have suggested that the recent production cut was intended to deliberately squeeze coal prices, allowing heavily indebted coal producers to repay loans to domestic Chinese banks. After two meetings between the China Iron and Steel Association and the NDRC, coal producers will now be allowed to produce an additional 50 tonne/day from October to alleviate shortages.

The steel industry was under margin pressure even before the rise in coal prices – the government has been forcing an industry wide consolidation. The high price of coal accelerates this “oligopolisation” of the sector. It is part of a broader reform and consolidation of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The Peterson Institute – China’s SOE Reform—The Wrong Path takes issue with this policy. It has its attractions in the short-term nonetheless – consolidation reduces competition within industries, the pricing power of these consolidated “oligopolies” should rise, enabling them to increase profitability and reduce their indebtedness. President Xi has called for “Stronger, bigger, better” state-owned enterprises. I fear for the squeezed private sector in this environment.

A more important structural reform was announced last month when the Supreme People’s Court ordered the establishment of more special divisions to handle liquidation and bankruptcy cases in intermediate courts. China has an undeveloped bankruptcy code – defaulting borrowers linger, acting as a drag on the economy. At the G20 summit President Xi said, “China has taken the most robust and solid measures in cutting excess capacity and we will honour our commitment with actions”. An efficient method of “zombie corporation liquidation” would expedite this process.

Another explanation for the government’s decision to reduce the number working days at coal mines is its commitment to reducing pollution. Brookings – The end of coal-fired growth in China looks at the bigger picture:-

China’s coal consumption grew from 1.36 billion tons per year in 2000 to 4.24 billion tons per year in 2013, an annual growth rate of 12 percent. As of 2015, the country accounts for approximately 50 percent of global demand for coal. In other words, China’s economic miracle was fueled primarily by coal.

…China’s coal consumption decreased by 2.9 percent in 2014 and 3.6 percent in 2015, and the economy has maintained a moderate speed of growth. This indicates that there is a decoupling of economic growth from the growth in coal consumption. China’s coal consumption might have in fact already peaked.

Over the past 35 years, coal powered the engine of China’s rapidly developing economy. Coal represented 75 percent of overall energy consumption. This number decreased to 64.4 percent in 2015—the lowest in China’s modern history—as the country’s energy intensity decreased by 65 percent relative to 35 years ago. In fact, though rarely noticed until the recent peak, this has been part of a fundamental shift in the Chinese economy’s relationship with coal.

The authors present three arguments to support their view that China’s reliance on coal is in structural decline. Firstly, a decrease in manufacturing and construction, which have seen over-investment during the last decade or more. Second, policies on climate change and air pollution—especially the Paris Agreement’s, signed this month, which calls for a 20% clean energy target by 2030. Read China-United States Exchange Foundation – After the Paris Climate Agreement, What’s Next? for more details. Finally, China’s adoption of technological innovation in energy, communications, and manufacturing.

In his G20 speech President Xi said “…green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver”. The problem of clean water is probably the single greatest resource challenge facing China today as this article from CEAC – China that once thrived on water, faces water problems today points out:-

The total amount of water resources in China is so huge as to reach 2325.85 billion cubic meters, which is the 4th largest in the world. However, Chinese population is so large that the per capita amount of water resources is only 1730.4 cubic meters. This is extremely small in the world. Moreover, water resources are distributed unevenly by the region. Generally speaking, water is scarce in northern parts of China, including the Northeast, the North, and the Northwest regions. Beijing is in the North region. On the other hand, water is abundant in the South Central, the South, and the Southwest regions. The problem is that water is growing scarcer, while its consumption is rising. Particularly, people in Northwest China suffer from chronic shortage of water.

…It is not the quantity of water that matters critically in China. The quality of water is deteriorating rapidly. According to “The Monthly Report of Ground Water” which was released by the Ministry of Water Resources of China this January, they conducted water quality observation researches of 2,103 wells in the Songliao plain of the Northeast region and the Jianghan plain in an inland area last year, and it turned out that 80% of ground water is too severely contaminated to drink. Ground water pollution is serious, particularly in the regions of water scarcity.

In the shorter-term there has been some increase in demand. Steel usage has risen in response to the mini-stimulus package implemented in April. It was aimed largely at railway and housing construction. Electricity demand picked up again in May +2.1% from April +1.9%, fuelling an increase in demand for thermal coal. Other leading indicators, also suggest that the slowdown in Chinese growth may have run its course. There has been an increase in railway freight volumes and pickup in copper output:-

copper-5

Source: Market Realist, National Bureau of Statistics

Outside China the picture looks mixed. LME stocks of Copper and Zinc have recovered but Nickle and Aluminium stocks remain depleted. Global demand still appears to be subdued.

Chinese economy is unlikely to return to the double digit growth rates seen prior to the great recession, but, despite its indebtedness, the world’s largest command economy may be able to avoid an imminent banking crisis.

The Debt to GDP ratio continues to rise. A source of grave concern which is noted in the BIS Quarterly Review, September 2016. At the end of July total Chinese debt reached $28trln – greater than the government debt of the US and Japan combined. Corporate debt, which is fortunately denominated primarily in local currency, now stands at 171% of GDP whilst total debt stands at 255%. A favourite BIS measure is the Credit to GDP gap. A figure above 10 is a warning signal that an economy may be approaching a “Minsky Moment” – China scores 30.1, the highest of any large economy.

China has also continued to reduce its vast foreign exchange reserves, although at a more moderate pace than in 2014 and 2015. In July it reduced its holding of US Treasuries by $22bln – the largest one month decline in three years. It also released information about its gold holdings which, as many market participants had predicted, have risen substantially – it last reported this information in 2009. The US Bond sales may, therefore, have been to insure the stability of the RMB versus the US$ ahead of the G20 summit which was hosted by China this month.

Should we be concerned about a Chinese banking crisis? According to Michael PettisChina Financial Markets – Does it matter if China cleans up its banks? banking solvency is not the issue, but the indebtedness of the economy is:-

The only “solution” to excessive debt within the economy is to allocate the costs of that debt, and not to transfer it from one entity to another.

The recapitalization of the banks is nice, in other words, but it is hardly necessary if we believe, and most of us do, that the banks are effectively guaranteed by the local governments and ultimately the central government, and that depositors have a limited ability to withdraw their deposits from the banking system. “Cleaning up the banks” is what you need to do when lending incentives are driven primarily by market considerations, because significant amounts of bad loans substantially change the way banks operate, and almost always to the detriment of the real economy.

…If we change our very conservative assumptions so that debt is equal to 280% of GDP, and is growing at 20% annually, and that debt-servicing capacity is growing at half the rate of GDP (3.0-3.5%, which I think is probably still too high), then for China to reach the point at which debt-servicing costs rise in line with debt-servicing capacity, Beijing’s reforms must deliver an improvement in productivity that either:

Causes each unit of new debt to generate 18 times as much GDP growth as it is doing now, or

Causes all assets backed by the total stock of debt (280% of GDP) to generate 50% more GDP growth than they do now.

Pettis remains pessimistic about China’s ability to grow its way out of debt. History is certainly on his side in this respect, however, policies such as the One Belt One Road Initiative, which aims to improve cross-border infrastructure in order to reduce transportation costs between China and its trading partners, still makes sense at this stage of China’s development. Comparisons have been made with the US Marshall Plan which helped to regenerate Europe after WWII but with an indicated aim of financing $4trln of new projects, its scale is much larger. Chatham House – Westward ho—the China dream and ‘one belt, one road’: Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping reviews the policy in detail, as does Peterson Institute – China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, the great rebalancing towards domestic consumption continues, at what, in other countries, would be considered break-neck speed. This may, nonetheless, be too slow for China – the mini-stimulus package, in April, was a clear political capitulation. The Kansas City Federal Reserve – Consumer Spending in China: The Past and the Future looks at the success of rebalancing to date and the prospects going forward. They point out that Chinese consumption as a share of GDP declined between 1970 and 2000 largely as a result of demographic forces – low birth rate and aging population – together with urbanisation. Post 2000 rapid house price appreciation accelerated this trend. Since 2010 consumption has begun to rise from a low point of 37% of GDP, this coincides with the peak in household savings at 42% – it is now around 38.5%. The authors predict:-

In a benchmark scenario of relatively stable income growth and a further modest decline in the household saving rate, consumption growth in China remains at around 9 percent per year over the next five years, causing the share of Chinese consumption in GDP to increase by about 5 percentage points to 44 percent by 2020. This scenario has two implications. First, it suggests that strong consumption growth is sustainable in the near future, allowing China to continue transitioning toward a consumption-driven economy. Second, it suggests that strength in near-term Chinese consumption growth will partly rely on a further decline in the household saving rate. As the household saving rate cannot decline indefinitely, consumption growth may need to rely more heavily on household income to be sustainable in the long run.

Parallels have been made with Japan where the savings rate has declined from 40% to 19% of GDP since 1970. If China follows this pattern, savings as a percentage of income will continue to decline. The transition could be relatively smooth provided the residential property market does not collapse in the interim. The FRBKC article concludes:-

The declining saving rate in China reflects both a changing demographic structure—an expected increase in the young dependency ratio after multiple decades of decline—and a changing consumption pattern of young people, who face less pressure to save thanks to financial support from their parents and grandparents.

In the long run, transitioning to a consumption-driven economy may require some policy changes. Specifically, China may need to implement successful supply-side reforms—which are on the government’s agenda but haven’t yet been significantly pushed forward—to enable domestic production to meet rising domestic demand. Although the Chinese household saving rate is declining from a very high level, the downward trend cannot last forever. A truly consumption-driven economy must rely on strong household income growth, which is ultimately driven by improved technology and investment.

In the long run, demographic forces will affect China more than any other factor. According to the Ministry of Human Resources China’s working population hit a record 774.5mln in 2015, however, the UN estimate China will have 212mln fewer workers by 2050. The UN Demographic Profile is found on page 189.

Market impact and investment opportunities

Next week the RMB will be included in the SDR – the Peterson Institute – China’s Renminbi Is about to Break the Financial Glass Ceiling discusses this in more detail. There is widespread speculation that the PBoC will widen the RMB currency bands at any moment. In other respects the PBoC is in a more difficult position. The RMB has already weakened by 5% against the US$ this year. Cutting interest rates would probably cause the currency to weaken further, riling the US voters ahead of the election. They are not impotent, however, and injected a record RMB 310bln into the money market in August – part of an overt policy to support the official banking sector, diminishing the influence of shadow banks.

Domestic investors have favoured bonds over equities for the past couple of months, while the spread between corporate bonds and government bonds has narrowed. Chinese 10yr government bond yields have fallen around 50bp this year, but official policy, encouraging investors to purchase higher yielding bonds and reduce their exposure to leveraged wealth management products and other non-standard assets, is boosting demand for corporate issues.

Retail investors, who were badly burnt in the stock market collapse of 2015, remain obsessed with the property market despite massive over-supply. Equity broker margin balances remain low. Institutional portfolio managers have reduced exposure to stocks from 62% in July to 49% this month. In the post-crash environment IPO issuance has been subdued with only RMB 955bln of capital raised in the seven months to July. This compares to RMB 1.55trln in 2015. The final quarter may see better sentiment. Stocks may get a boost from local government spending in Q3 and Q4 – if only to insure their budgets are not reduced next year. The table below, from Star Capital, ranks forty of the world’s major stock markets. Using their metrics, China is second cheapest and has the lowest PE, Price to Cash flow and Price to Book:-

Country CAPE PE PC PB PS DY Rank
Russia 4.9 7.5 3.6 0.8 0.8 4.10% 1
China 12.4 6.1 3.2 0.8 0.6 4.70% 2
Brazil 8.5 44.1 6.6 1.4 1.1 3.40% 3
South Korea 12.6 11 5.5 1 0.6 1.80% 5
Hungary 9.9 ? 5.1 1.2 0.6 2.80% 6
Czech 8.7 11.8 5.5 1.2 1 7.50% 8
Turkey 9.7 10.8 6.2 1.3 0.9 2.70% 9

Source: Starcapital.de

The Shanghai Composite Index (SHCOMP) is down 8.85% YTD and by 41.84% since its high in June 2015, however it is up 48.25% from June 2014. Russia’s RTS Index by contrast is up 72.81% from its December 2014 low but still 29.68% below its level of June 2014.

Looking outside China, several Australia-centric mining stocks have already risen on the back of the move in coking coal but it seems unlikely that the supply imbalance will prove protracted. Anglo American (AAL) is still looking to sell more of its Australian coal mines – they may well find Chinese buyers.

Outside of China, infrastructure investment across Asia Pacific is on the rise, which is supportive for industrial commodities in general. KPMG – 10 emerging trends in 2016, published in January, takes a very optimistic long term view:-

Ultimately, however, we believe that this may well be the tipping point that ushers in 50 years (or more) of prosperity as capital starts to match up with projects which, in turn, will drive economic growth in the developing world and shore up retirement savings in the mature markets.

Commodity markets tend to exhibit very individual characteristics, however, several industrial and agricultural commodities have formed a longer term base this year. Is this the beginning of the next commodity super-cycle? It’s too soon to call, but without a rise in global demand the prospects for substantial gains are likely to be limited – Indian GDP growth is slowing. The IMF WEO July update revised its India GDP forecast for 2016 to 7.4% from 7.5% – in 2015 it was 7.6%. Its China forecast was revised up 0.1% and its overall Emerging Market and Developing Economy forecast for 2016 and 2017 was unchanged at 4.1% and 4.6%, although, world economic growth was revised 0.1% lower.

China’s stock market remains cheap by many metrics, but the level of indebtedness is an impediment to economic growth. The property market, although over-supplied, continues to attract investment, but this is economically unproductive in the long run. Government policy is attempting to steer the economy towards higher domestic consumption and technologically driven, productivity enhancing, investments. Environmental issues are finally being addressed, yet the challenge of clean water remains substantial.

Near term, debt reduction – and it has yet to begin – will hamper growth, which will, in turn, reduce the attractiveness of Chinese stocks. Reform of the SOEs will involve consolidation into a smaller number of vast enterprises. Private enterprises will suffer. “Zombie” companies will start to be dealt with as bankruptcy procedures become standardised, but, as with all policy in China, a gradualist approach is likely to be implemented. Commodity markets may continue to rise due to supply side factors but I doubt that Chinese demand will rebound even to the level of 2013/2014, let alone the early part of the century.

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

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Macro letter – No 61 – 16-09-2016

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

  • 54% of government bonds offered negative yields at the end of August
  • Corporate bond spreads did not widen during last week’s decline in government bonds
  • Since July the dividend yield on the S&P500 has been higher than the yield on US 30yr bonds
  • In a ZIRP to NIRP world the “capital” risk of government bonds may be under-estimated

Back in 2010 I switched out of fixed income securities. I was much too early! Fortunately I had other investments which allowed me to benefit from the extraordinary rally in government bonds, driven by the central bank quantitative easing (QE) policies.

In the aftermath of Brexit the total outstanding amount of bonds with negative yields hit $13trln – that still leaves $32trln which offer a positive return. This is alarming nonetheless, according to this 10th July article from ZeroHedge, a 1% rise in yields would equate to a mark-to-market loss of $2.4trln. The chart below shows the capital impact of a 1% yield change for different categories of bonds:-

zerohedge_-_100bp_move_in_yields

Source: ZeroHedge

Looked at another way, the table above suggests that the downside risk of holding US Treasuries, in the event of a 1% rise in yields, is 2.8 times greater than holding Investment Grade corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds, even of investment grade, traditionally exhibit less liquidity and greater credit risk, but, in the current, ultra-low interest rate, environment, the “capital” risk associated with government bonds is substantially higher. It can be argued that the “free-float” of government bonds has been reduced by central bank buying. A paper from the IMF – Government Bonds and Their Investors: What Are the Facts and Do They Matter? provides a fascinating insight into government bond holdings by investor type. The central bank with the largest percentage holding is the Bank of England (BoE) 19.7% followed by the Federal Reserve (Fed) 11.5% and the Bank of Japan (BoJ) 8.3% – although the Japanese Post Office, with 29%, must be taken into account as well. The impact of central bank buying on secondary market liquidity may be greater, however, since the central banks have principally been accumulating “on the run” issues.

Since 2008, financial markets in general, and government bond markets in particular, have been driven by central bank policy. Fear about tightening of monetary conditions, therefore, has more impact than ever before. Traditionally, when the stock market falls suddenly, the price of government bonds rises – this is the “flight to quality” effect. It also leads to a widening of the spread between “risk-free” assets and those carrying greater credit and liquidity risk. As the table above indicates, however, today the “capital” risk associated with holding government securities, relative to higher yielding bonds has increased substantially. This is both as a result of low, or negative, yields and reduced liquidity resulting from central bank asset purchases. These factors are offsetting the traditional “flight to quality” effect.

Last Friday, government bond yields increased around the world amid concerns about Fed tightening later this month – or later this year. The table below shows the change in 10yr to 30yrs Gilt yields together with a selection of Sterling denominated corporate bonds. I have chosen to focus on the UK because the BoE announced on August 4th that they intend to purchase £10bln of Investment Grade corporate bonds as part of their Asset Purchase Programme. Spreads between Corporates and Gilts narrowed since early August, although shorter maturities benefitted most.

Issuer Maturity Yield Gilt yield Spread over Gilts Corporate Change 7th to 12th Gilts change 7th to 12th
Barclays Bank Plc 2026 3.52 0.865 2.655 0.19 0.18
A2Dominion 2026 2.938 0.865 2.073 0.03 0.18
Sncf 2027 1.652 0.865 0.787 0.18 0.18
EDF 2027 1.9 0.865 1.035 0.19 0.18
National Grid Co Plc 2028 1.523 0.865 0.658 0.19 0.18
Italy (Republic of) 2028 2.891 0.865 2.026 0.17 0.18
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2028 1.187 0.865 0.322 0.18 0.18
EIB 2028 1.347 0.865 0.482 0.18 0.18
BT 2028 1.976 0.865 1.111 0.2 0.18
General Elec Cap Corp 2028 1.674 0.865 0.809 0.2 0.18
Severn Trent 2029 1.869 1.248 0.621 0.19 0.18
Tesco Plc 2029 4.476 1.248 3.228 0.2 0.18
Procter & Gamble Co 2030 1.683 1.248 0.435 0.2 0.18
RWE Finance Bv 2030 3.046 1.248 1.798 0.17 0.22
Citigroup Inc 2030 2.367 1.248 1.119 0.2 0.22
Wal-mart Stores 2030 1.825 1.248 0.577 0.2 0.22
EDF 2031 2.459 1.248 1.211 0.22 0.22
GE 2031 1.778 1.248 0.53 0.21 0.22
Enterprise Inns plc 2031 6.382 1.248 5.134 0.03 0.22
Prudential Finance Bv 2031 3.574 1.248 2.326 0.19 0.22
EIB 2032 1.407 1.248 0.159 0.2 0.22
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2032 1.311 1.248 0.063 0.19 0.22
Vodafone Group PLC 2032 2.887 1.248 1.639 0.24 0.22
Tesco Plc 2033 4.824 1.248 3.576 0.21 0.22
GE 2033 1.88 1.248 0.632 0.21 0.22
Proctor & Gamble 2033 1.786 1.248 0.538 0.2 0.22
HSBC Bank Plc 2033 3.485 1.248 2.237 0.21 0.22
Wessex Water 2033 2.114 1.248 0.866 0.19 0.22
Nestle 2033 0.899 1.248 -0.349 0.16 0.22
Glaxo 2033 1.927 1.248 0.679 0.2 0.22
Segro PLC 2035 2.512 1.401 1.111 0.19 0.22
Walmart 2035 2.028 1.401 0.627 0.2 0.22
Aviva Plc 2036 3.979 1.401 2.578 0.18 0.22
General Electric 2037 2.325 1.401 0.924 0.23 0.22
Lcr Financial Plc 2038 1.762 1.401 0.361 0.2 0.22
EIB 2039 1.64 1.401 0.239 0.2 0.22
Lloyds TSB 2040 2.693 1.495 1.198 0.2 0.22
GE 2040 2.114 1.495 0.619 0.2 0.22
Direct Line 2042 6.738 1.495 5.243 0.06 0.22
Barclays Bank Plc 2049 3.706 1.4 2.306 0.1 0.22

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

The spread between international issuers such as Nestle – which, being Swiss, trades at a discount to Gilts – narrowed, however, higher yielding names, such as Direct Line, did likewise.

For comparison the table below – using the issues in bold from the table above – shows the change between the 22nd and 23rd June – pre and post-Brexit:-

Maturity Gilts 22-6 Corporate 22-6 Gilts 23-6 Corporate 23-6 Issuer Spread 22-6 Spread 23-6 Spread change
10y 1.314 4.18 1.396 4.68 Barclays 2.866 3.284 0.418
15y 1.879 3.86 1.96 3.88 Vodafone 1.981 1.92 -0.061
20y 2.065 4.76 2.124 4.78 Aviva 2.695 2.656 -0.039
25y 2.137 3.42 2.195 3.43 Lloyds 1.283 1.235 -0.048
30y 2.149 4.21 2.229 4.23 Barclays 2.061 2.001 -0.06

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

Apart from a sharp increase in the yield on the 10yr Barclays issue (the 30yr did not react in the same manner) the spread between Gilts and corporates narrowed over the Brexit debacle too. This might be because bid/offer spreads in the corporate market became excessively wide – Gilts would have become the only realistic means of hedging – but the closing prices of the corporate names should have reflected mid-market yields.

If the “safe-haven” of Gilts has lost its lustre where should one invest? With patience and in higher yielding bonds – is one answer. Here is another from Ben Lord of M&G’s Bond Vigilantes – The BoE and ECB render the US bond market the only game in town:-

…The ultra-long conventional gilt has returned a staggering 52% this year. Since the result of the referendum became clear, the bond’s price has increased by 20%, and in the couple of weeks since Mark Carney announced the Bank of England’s stimulus package, the bond’s price has risen by a further 13%.

…the 2068 index-linked gilt, which has seen its price rise by 57% year-to-date, by 35% since the vote to exit Europe, and by 18% since further quantitative easing was announced by the central bank. Interestingly, too, the superior price action of the index-linked bond has occurred not as a result of rising inflation or expectations of inflation; instead it has been in spite of significantly falling inflation expectations so far this year. The driver of the outperformance is solely due to the much longer duration of the linker. Its duration is 19 years longer than the nominal 2068 gilt, by virtue of its much lower coupon!

When you buy a corporate bond you don’t just buy exposure to government bond yields, you also buy exposure to credit risk, reflected in the credit spread. The sterling investment grade sector has a duration of almost 10 years, so you are taking exposure to the 10 year gilt, which has a yield today of circa 0.5%. If we divide the yield by the bond’s duration, we get a breakeven yield number, or the yield rise that an investor can tolerate before they would be better off in cash. At the moment, as set out above, the yield rise that an investor in a 10 year gilt (with 9 year’s duration) can tolerate is around 6 basis points (0.5% / 9 years duration). Given that gilt yields are at all-time lows, so is the yield rise an investor can take before they would be better off in cash.

We can perform the same analysis on credit spreads: if the average credit spread for sterling investment grade credit is 200 basis points and the average duration of the market is 10 years, then an investor can tolerate spread widening of 20 basis points before they would be better off in cash. When we combine both of these breakeven figures, we have the yield rise, in basis points, that an investor in the average corporate bond or index can take before they should have been in cash.

With very low gilt yields and credit spreads that are being supported by coming central bank buying, accommodative policy and low defaults, and a benign consumption environment, it is no surprise that corporate bond yield breakevens are at the lowest level we have gathered data for. It is for these same reasons that the typical in-built hedge characteristic of a corporate bond or fund is at such low levels. Traditionally, if the economy is strong then credit spreads tighten whilst government bond yields sell off, such as in 2006 and 2007. And if the economy enters recession, then credit spreads widen and risk free government bond yields rally, such as seen in 2008 and 2009.

With the Bank of England buying gilts and soon to start buying corporate bonds, with the aim of loosening financial conditions and providing a stimulus to the economy as we work through the uncertain Brexit process and outcome, low corporate bond breakevens are to be expected. But with Treasury yields at extreme high levels out of gilts, and with the Fed not buying government bonds or corporate bonds at the moment, my focus is firmly on the attractive relative valuation of the US corporate bond market.

The table below shows a small subset of liquid US corporate bonds, showing the yield change between the 7th and 12th September:-

Issuer Issue Yield Maturity Change 7th to 12th Spread Rating
Home Depot HD 2.125 9/15/26 c26 2.388 10y 0.17 0.72 A2
Toronto Dominion TD 3.625 9/15/31 c 3.605 15y 0.04 1.93 A3
Oracle ORCL 4.000 7/15/46 c46 3.927 20y 0.14 1.54 A1
Microsoft MSFT 3.700 8/8/46 c46 3.712 20y 0.13 1.32 Aaa
Southern Company SO 3.950 10/1/46 c46 3.973 20y 0.18 1.58 Baa2
Home Depot HD 3.500 9/15/56 c56 3.705 20y 0.19 1.31 A2
US Treasury US10yr 1.67 10y 0.13 N/A AAA
US Treasury US30y 2.39 30y 0.16 N/A AAA

Source: Market Axess, Investing.com

Except for Canadian issuer Toronto Dominion, yields moved broadly in tandem with the T-Bond market. The spread between US corporates and T-Bonds may well narrow once the Fed gains a mandate to buy corporate securities, but, should Fed negotiations with Congress prove protracted, the cost of FX hedging may negate much of the benefit for UK or European investors.

What is apparent, is that the “flight to quality” effect is diminished even in the more liquid and higher yielding US market.

The total market capitalisation of the UK corporate bond market is relatively small at £285bln, the US market is around $4.5trln and Europe is between the two at Eur1.5trln. The European Central Bank (ECB) began its Corporate Sector Purchase Programme (CSPP) earlier this summer but delegated the responsibility to the individual National Banks.

Between 8th June and 15th July Europe’s central banks purchased Eur10.43bln across 458 issues. The average position was Eur22.8mln but details of actual holdings are undisclosed. They bought 12 issues of Deutsche Bahn (DBHN) 11 of Telefonica (TEF) and 10 issues of BMW (BMW) but total exposures are unknown. However, as the Bond Vigilantes -Which corporate bonds has the ECB been buying? point out, around 36% of all bonds eligible for the CSPP were trading with negative yields. This was in mid-July, since then 10y Bunds have fallen from -012% to, a stellar, +0.3%, whilst Europe’s central banks have acquired a further Eur6.71bln of corporates in August, taking the mark-to-market total to Eur19.92bln. The chart below shows the breakdown of purchases by country and industry sector at the 18th July:-

which-corporate-bonds-ecb3

Source: M&G Investments, ECB, Bloomberg

Here is the BIS data for total outstanding financial and non-financial debt as at the end of 2015:-

Country US$ Blns
France 2053
Spain 1822
Netherlands 1635
Germany 1541
Italy 1023
Luxembourg 858
Denmark 586

Source: BIS

In terms of CSPP holdings, Germany appears over-represented, Spain and the Netherlands under-represented. The “devil”, as they say, is in the “detail” – and a detailed breakdown by issuer, issue and size of holding, has not been published. The limited information is certainly insufficient for traders to draw any clear conclusions about which issues to buy or sell. As Wolfgang Bauer, the author of the M&G article, concludes:-

But as tempting as it may be to draw conclusions regarding over- and underweights and thus to anticipate the ECB’s future buying activity, we have to acknowledge that we are simply lacking data. Trying to “front run” the ECB is therefore a highly difficult, if not impossible task.

 Conclusions and investment opportunities

Back in May the Wall Street Journal published the table below, showing the change in the portfolio mix required to maintain a 7.5% return between 1995 and 2015:-

Source: Wall Street Journal, Callan Associates

The risk metric they employ is volatility, which in turn is derived from the daily mark-to-market price. Private Equity and Real-Estate come out well on this measure but are demonstrably less liquid. However, this table also misses the point made at the beginning of this letter – that “risk-free” assets are encumbered with much higher “capital” risk in a ZIRP to NIRP world. The lower level of volatility associated with bond markets disguises an asymmetric downside risk in the event of yield “normalisation”.

Dividends

Corporates with strong cash flows and rising earnings are incentivised to issue debt either for investment or to buy back their own stock; thankfully, not all corporates and leveraging their balance sheets. Dividend yields are around the highest they have been this century:-

dididend-yld-sandp

Source: Multpl.com

Meanwhile US Treasury Bond yields hit their lowest ever in July. Below is a sample of just a few higher yielding S&P500 stocks:-

Stock Ticker Price P/E Beta EPS DPS Payout Ratio Yield
At&t T 39.97 17.3 0.56 2.3 1.92 83 4.72
Target TGT 68.94 12.8 0.35 5.4 2.4 44 3.46
Coca-cola KO 42.28 24.3 0.73 1.7 1.4 80 3.24
Mcdonalds MCD 114.73 22.1 0.61 5.2 3.56 69 3.07
Procter & Gamble PG 87.05 23.6 0.66 3.7 2.68 73 3.03
Kimberly-clark KMB 122.39 22.8 0.61 5.4 3.68 68 2.98
Pepsico PEP 104.59 29.5 0.61 3.6 3.01 85 2.84
Wal-mart Stores WMT 71.46 15.4 0.4 4.6 2 43 2.78
Johnson & Johnson JNJ 117.61 22.1 0.43 5.3 3.2 60 2.69

Source: TopYield.nl

The average beta of the names above is 0.55 – given that the S&P500 has an historic volatility of around 15%, this portfolio would have a volatility of 8.25% and an average dividend yield of 3.2%. This is not a recommendation to buy an equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, merely an observation about the attractiveness of returns from dividends.

Government bonds offer little or no return if held to maturity – it is a traders market. For as long as central banks keep buying, bond prices will be supported, but, since the velocity of the circulation of money keeps falling, central banks are likely to adopt more unconventional policies in an attempt to transmit stimulus to the real economy. If the BoJ, BoE and ECB are any guide, this will lead them (Fed included) to increase purchases of corporate bonds and even common stock.

Bond bear-market?

Predicting the end of the bond bull-market is not my intention, but if central banks should fail in their unconventional attempts at stimulus, or if their mandates are withdrawn, what has gone up the most (government bonds) is likely to fall farthest. At some point, the value of owning “risk-free” assets will reassert itself, but I do not think a 1% rise in yields will be sufficient. High yielding stocks from companies with good dividend cover, low betas and solid cash flows, will weather the coming storm. These stocks may suffer substantial corrections, but their businesses will remain intact. When the bond bubble finally bursts “risky” assets may be safer than conventional wisdom suggests. The breakdown in the “flight to quality” effect is just one more indicator that the rules of engagement are changing.

Drowning in debt

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Macro Letter – No 60 – 02-09-2016

Drowning in debt

  • Central Banks are moving from quantitative to qualitative easing
  • The spread between Investment Grade and Government bond yields is narrowing
  • Issuing corporate debt rather than equity has never been so attractive
  • Corporate leverage is rising, share buy-backs continue but investment remains weak

I was always

Far out at sea

And not waving

But drowning

Stevie Smith

During August the financial markets have been relatively quiet, however, the Bank of England (BoE) cut interest rates on 4th and added Investment Grade Corporate bonds to their Asset Purchase Programme. The following day Vodafone (VOD) issued a 40yr bond yielding 3% – a week earlier they had issued a 33yr bond yielding 3.4%.

Meanwhile, at Jackson Hole the Kansas City Federal Reserve Symposium discussed a paper by Professor Jeremy Stein – a member Federal Reserve board member between 2012 and 2014 – and two other Harvard professors entitled The Federal Reserve Balance Sheet as a Financial Stability Tool – in which the authors argue that the Fed should maintain its balance sheet at around $4.5trln but that it “should use its balance sheet to lean against private-sector maturity transformation.” In layman’s terms this is a “call to arms” encouraging the Fed to seek approval from the US government to allow the purchase a much wider range of corporate securities. It would appear that the limits of central bank omnipotence have yet to be reached. The Bank of Japan has already begun to discover the unforeseen effect that negative interest rate policy has on the velocity of the circulation of money – it collapses. Now central bankers, who’s credibility has begun to be questioned in some quarters of late, are considering the wider use of “qualitative” measures.

As Bastiat has taught us, that which is seen from these policies is a reduction in the cost of borrowing for “investment grade” corporations. What is not seen, so clearly, is the incentive corporates have to borrow, not to invest, but to buy back their own stock. Perhaps I am being unfair, but, in a world which is drowning in debt, central bankers seem to think that the over-indebted are not “drowning” but “waving”.

One of the most cherished ideas, promulgated upon an unsuspecting world, is the concept of using fiscal and monetary stimulus to offset cyclical economic downturns. The aim of these “popular” policies is to soften the blow of economic slowdowns – all highly laudable provided the “punch bowl” is withdrawn during the cyclical recovery.

So much for business cycles: but what about the impact these policies may have on structural changes in economic performance relating to supply and demand for factors of production, such as labour, fixed assets or basic materials? I’m thinking here about the impact, especially, of technology and demographics.

Firstly, the cyclical stimulus extended during the downturn is seldom withdrawn during the upturn and secondly, long term structural changes in economies are seldom considered by governments, since these changes evolve over decades or generations, rather than the span of a single parliament. This is an essential weakness in the democratic process which has stifled economic growth for centuries. This excellent paper from Carmen M. Reinhart, Vincent R. Reinhart, and Kenneth S. Rogoff – The Journal of Economic Perspectives – Volume 26 – No 3 – Summer 2012 – Public Debt Overhangs: Advanced Economy Episodes Since 1800 makes this weakness abundantly clear.

The authors expand on their earlier research, this time looking at the impact of excessive public debt overhang on economic growth. They take as their “line in the sand” the point where the government debt to nominal GDP ratio remains above 90% for more than five years. They identify 26 episodes, 20 of which lasted more than a decade – the average was 23 years. It is worth noting that more than one third of these episodes occurred without interest rates rising above normal levels.

In 23 of the 26 episodes, over the 211 year sample, the pace of economic growth was lowered from 3.5% to 2.3% – in other words GDP was reduced by roughly one third. The long term secular impact of high debt and lower growth needs to be weighed against the short-term benefits of Keynesian stimulus. A lowering of the GDP growth rate of 1.2% for 23 years is equivalent to a 24.25% reduction in the potential size of the economy at the end of the debt overhang period – a tall price for any economy to pay.

The authors briefly examine the other types of outstanding debt, in order to arrive at what they dub “the quadruple debt overhang problem”, namely, private debt, external debt (and its associated currency risks) and the “actuarial” debt implicit in “unfunded” pension schemes and medical insurance programmes. This data is hard to untangle but the authors state:-

…the overall magnitude of the debt burdens facing the advanced economies as a group is in many dimensions without precedent. The interaction between the different types of debt overhang is extremely complex and poorly understood, but it is surely of great potential importance.

The 22 developed economies in their sample are now burdened with debt to GDP ratios above the levels seen in the aftermath of WWII. Their 48 emerging market counterparts had their epiphany in the debt crisis of the mid 1980’s, since when they have assumed a certain sobriety of character. This shows up even more glaringly in the divergence since 1986 in the public, plus private, external debt. In developed countries it has risen from around 75% of GDP to more than 250% whilst emerging economies external debt has fallen from a broadly similar 75% to less than 50% today. Governments, often bailout private external debt holders in order to protect the stability of their currencies.

Private domestic credit is another measure of total indebtedness which the authors analyse. For the 48 emerging economies this has remained constant at around 40% of GDP since the mid-1980s whilst in the developed 22 it has risen from 50% in the 1950’s to above 150% today. Since the bursting of the technology stock bubble in 2000 this trend has accelerated but the authors point out that these increases are often caused by cross border capital inflows.

The rise in the debt to GDP ratio may come from a slowing in growth rather than an increase in government debt but the correlation between rising debt and slowing GDP rises dramatically as the ratio exceeds 90%.

The authors draw the following conclusions:-

…First, once a public debt overhang has lasted five years, it is likely to last 10 years or much more (unless the debt was caused by a war that ends).

…it is quite possible to have a “no drama” public debt overhang, which doesn’t involve a rise in real interest rates or a financial crisis. Indeed, in 11 of our 26 public debt overhang episodes, real interest rates were on average comparable, or lower, than at other times.

…Another line of reasoning for dismissing concerns about public debt overhangs is the view that causality mostly runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues that causality does indeed run from the public debt overhang to slower growth. There are counterexamples where a public debt overhang was accompanied by rapid growth, like the immediate period after World War II for the United States and United Kingdom, but these exceptions to the typical pattern do not seem to be the most relevant parallels for the modern world economy.

…The pathway to containing and reducing public debt will require a change that is sustained over the middle and the long term. However, the evidence, as we read it, casts doubt on the view that soaring government debt does not matter when markets (and official players, notably central banks) seem willing to absorb it at low interest rates—as is the case for now.

The Methadone of the Markets

The bull market in fixed income securities began in the early 1980’s. The price of “risk free” assets has always had a significant influence on the valuation of equities but, since the advent of quantitative easing, the principle driver of performance has become the level of interest rates. As the yield on fixed income securities has inexorably declined the spread between the dividend and bond yield has returned to positive territory after many years of inversion.

Companies with growing earnings from their operations can finance more cheaply than at any time in history. Provided they can sustain their growth, their bonds should, theoretically, begin to trade at a discount to government bonds. This would probably have happened before now had the central banks not embarked on quantitative easing revolving around the purchase of government bonds at already artificially inflated prices. The rules on capital weighting which favour “risk free” assets and regulations requiring pension funds and other financial institutions to hold minimum levels of “risk free” assets has further distorted the marketplace.

The unfunded government pension schemes of developed nations are at the mercy of the demographic headwind of a smaller working age population supporting a growing legion of retirees. Added to which, breakthroughs in medical science suggest that actuarial expectations of life expectancy may once again be underestimated.

Ways out of debt

There are a number of solutions other than fiscal austerity. For example, increasing the pensionable age steadily towards the average life expectancy. This may sound extreme but in January 1909, when the pension was first introduced in the UK, the pensionable age was 70 years and life expectancy was 50 years for men and 53.5 for women. The latest ONS data shows male life expectancy at 79 years whilst for females it is 82.8 years. The pensionable age for women has now risen to 63 years and will be brought in line with men (65 years) by 2018. There is still a long way to go, by 2030 the NHS estimate the male average will be 85.7 years, with females living an average of 87.6 years. Meanwhile the pensionable age will reach 68 years by 2028. In other words, the current, deeply unpopular, proposed increase in the pensionable age is barely keeping pace with the projected increase in life expectancy.

Another solution which would help to reduce the level of public debt is a structural policy of capping government spending at less than 40% of GDP. This could be relaxed to less than 50% during recessions as a temporary counter-cyclical measure. UK GDP averaged 2.47% since 1953 – if government spending only increased slightly less than 1% per annum we could steadily reduce the public sector debt burden towards a manageable 30% level over the next 40 years, after all, as recently as 2005 the ratio of government debt to GDP was at 38%. The chart below of the Rahn Curve shows the optimal ratio of government debt to GDP. Once government spending exceeds 15% it acts as a drag on the potential growth of an economy:-

1DFA0969D85ED690F4E4B05858404992

Source: The Heritage Foundation, Peter Brimelow

The interest paid on corporate debt and bank loans is tax deductible which creates an incentive to issue debt rather than equity. It is difficult to change this situation but mandating that equity may only be retired from after-tax profits would encourage leverage for investment purposes rather than to artificially enhance the return on equity. The chart below shows the decline in net domestic investment in the US despite historically low interest rates:-

fredgraph (1)

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The next chart shows the level of share buybacks and the performance of the S&P500:-

SP-500-Buybacks-Versus-Stock-Index-768x577

Source: Dent Research, S&P, Haver Analytics, Barclays Research, Business Insider

Household debt is predominantly in the form of mortgages. In most developed countries a shortage of housing stock, due to planning restrictions, has encouraged individuals to speculate in the real estate market. In fact BoE Chief Economist Andy Haldane was quoted in The Sunday Times – Property is a better bet than pensions, says gold-plated Bank guru stating that pensions were complex and housing was a better investment:-

As long as we continue not to build anything like as many houses in this country as we need to … we will see what we’ve had for the better part of a generation, which is house prices relentlessly heading north.

The solution is planning reform. This will reduce house price inflation but it will not reduce the level of mortgage debt, however, once housing ceases to be a “one way bet” the attraction of leveraged speculation in property will diminish.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The underlying problem which caused the great recession of 2009/2010 was excessive debt. The policy response has been to throw petrol on the fire. The first phase of unconventional monetary policy – reducing official interest rates towards zero – has more or less run its course. The next phase – qualitative easing – is now under way. This will start with corporate bonds and proceed to other securities ending up with common stock. Credit spreads will continue to narrow even if government bond yields rise. There will, of course, be episodes of panic when “safe haven” government bonds outperform but this will be temporary and the spread widening will present a buying opportunity.

The UK Investment Grade bond market is relatively small at £285bln and liquidity is therefore less robust than for Euro or US$ denominated issues but there is a £10bln “put” beneath the market. Other initiatives will be forthcoming from the central banks. Their actions will continue to be the dominant factor influencing asset prices in general.