A monthly roundup of financial markets:-
A monthly roundup of financial markets:-
Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017
Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?
The Federal Reserve (Fed) is about to embark on a reversal of the Quantitative Easing (QE) which it first began in November 2008. Here is the 14th June Federal Reserve Press Release – FOMC issues addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans. This is the important part:-
For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month.
For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from its holdings of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $4 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $4 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $20 billion per month.
The Committee also anticipates that the caps will remain in place once they reach their respective maximums so that the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings will continue to decline in a gradual and predictable manner until the Committee judges that the Federal Reserve is holding no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively.
On the basis of their press release, the Fed balance sheet will shrink until it is nearer $2.5trln versus $4.4trln today. If they stick to their schedule that should take until the end of 2021.
The Fed is likely to be followed by the other major Central Banks (CBs) in due course. Their combined deleveraging is unlikely to go unnoticed in financial markets. What are the likely implications for bonds and stocks?
To begin here are a series of charts which tell the story of the Central Bankers’ response to the Great Recession:-
Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics
Since 2008 the balance sheets of the four major CBs have grown from around $6.5trln to $18.4trln. In the case of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), a reduction began in 2015. This took the form of a decline in its foreign exchange reserves in order to support the weakening RMB exchange rate against the US$. The next chart shows the path of Chinese FX reserves and the Shanghai Stock index since the beginning of 2014. Lagged response or coincidence? Your call:-
Source: Trading Economics
At a global level, the PBoC balance sheet reduction has been more than offset by the expansion of the balance sheets of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) and European Central Bank (ECB), however, a synchronous balance sheet contraction by all the major CBs is likely to be of considerable concern to financial market participants globally.
An historical perspective
Have CB balance sheets ever been as large as they are today? Indeed they have. The chart below which terminates in 2011, shows the evolution of the Fed balance sheet since its inception in 1913:-
Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics
The increase in the size of the Fed balance sheet during the period of the Great Depression and WWII was related to a number of factors including: gold inflows, what Friedman and Schwartz termed “precautionary demand” for reserves by commercial banks, lack of alternative assets, changes in reserve requirements, expansion of income and war financing.
For a detailed review of all these factors, this paper from 2016 – How was the Quantitative Easing Program of the 1930s Unwound? By Matthew Jaremski and Gabriel Mathy – makes fascinating reading, here’s the abstract:-
Outside of the recent past, excess reserves have only concerned policymakers in one other period: The Great Depression of the 1930s. This historical episode thus provides the only guidance about the Fed’s current predicament of how to unwind from the extensive Quantitative Easing program. Excess reserves in the 1930s were never actively unwound through a reduction in the monetary base. Nominal economic growth swelled required reserves while an exogenous reduction in monetary gold inflows due to war embargoes in Europe allowed banks to naturally reduce their excess reserves. Excess reserves fell rapidly in 1941 and would have unwound fully even without the entry of the United States into World War II. As such, policy tightening was at no point necessary and likely was even responsible for the 1937-1938 recession.
During the period from April 1937 to April 1938 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell from 194 to 100. Monetarists, such as Friedman, blamed the recession on a tightening of money supply in 1936 and 1937. I don’t believe Friedman’s censure is lost on the FOMC today: past Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke, is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the causes and policy errors of the Great Depression.
But is the size of a CB balance sheet a determinant of the direction of the stock market? A richer data set is to be found care of the Bank of England (BoE). They provide balance sheet data going back to 1694, although the chart below, care of FRED, starts in 1701:-
Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England
The BoE really only became a CB, in the sense we might recognise today, as a result of the Banking Act of 1844 which granted it a monopoly on the issuance of bank notes. The chart below shows the performance of the FT-All Share Index since 1700 (please ignore the reference to the Pontifical change, this was the only chart, offering a sufficiently long history, which I was able to discover in the public domain):-
Source: The Stock Almanac
The first crisis to test the Bank’s resolve was the panic of 1857. During this period the UK stock market barely changed whilst the BoE balance sheet expanded by 21% between 1857 and 1859 to reach 10.5% of GDP: one might, however, argue that its actions were supportive.
The next crisis, the recession of 1867, was precipitated by the end of the American Civil War and, of more importance to the financial system, the demise of Overund and Gurney, “the Bankers Bank”, which was declared insolvent in 1866. Perhaps surprisingly, the stock market remained relatively calm and the BoE balance sheet expanded at a more modest 20% over the two years to 1858.
Financial markets became a little more interconnected during the Panic of 1873. This commenced with the “Gründerzeit” or “Founders” crash on the Vienna Stock Exchange. It sent shockwaves around the world. The UK stock market declined by 31% between 1873 and 1878. The BoE may have exacerbated the decline, its balance sheet contracted by 14% between 1873 and 1875. Thereafter the trend reversed, with an expansion of 30% over the next four years.
I am doubtful about the BoE balance sheet contraction between 1873 and 1875 being a policy mistake. 1873 was in fact the beginning of the period known as the Long Depression. It lasted until 1896. Nine years before the end of this 20 year depression the stock market bottomed (1887). It then rose by 74% over the next 11 years.
The First World War saw the stock market decline, reaching its low in 1917. From juncture it rallied, entirely ignoring the post-war recession of 1919 to 1921. Its momentum was only curtailed by the Great Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression of 1930-1931.
Part of the blame for the severity of the Great Depression may be levelled at the BoE, its balance sheet expanded by 77% between 1928 and 1929. It then remained relatively stable despite Sterling’s departure from the Gold Standard in 1931 and only began to expand again in 1933 and 1934. Its balance sheet as a percentage of GDP was by this time at its highest since 1844, due to the decline in GDP rather than any determined effort to expand the balance sheet on the part of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. At the end of 1929 its balance sheet stood at £537mln, by the end of 1934 it had reached £630mln, an increase of just 17% over five traumatic years. The UK stock market, which had bottomed in 1931 – the level it had last traded in 1867 – proceeded to rally for the next five years.
Adjustment without tightening
History, on the basis of the data above, is ambivalent about the impact the size of a CB’s balance sheet has on the financial markets. It is but one of the factors which influences monetary conditions, the others are the availability of credit and its price.
George Selgin described the Fed’s situation clearly in a post earlier this year for The Cato Institute – On Shrinking the Fed’s Balance Sheet. He begins by looking at the Fed pre-2008:-
…the Fed got by with what now seems like a modest-sized balance sheet, the liabilities of which consisted mainly of circulating Federal Reserve notes, supplemented by Treasury and GSE deposit balances and by bank reserve balances only slightly greater than the small amounts needed to meet banks’ legal reserve requirements. Because banks held few excess reserves, it took only modest adjustments to the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, achieved by means of open-market purchases or sales of short-term Treasury securities, to make credit more or less scarce, and thereby achieve the Fed’s immediate policy objectives. Specifically, by altering the supply of bank reserves, the Fed could influence the federal funds rate — the rate banks paid other banks to borrow reserves overnight — and so keep that rate on target.
Then comes the era of QE – the sea-change into something rich and strange. The purchase of long-term Treasuries and Mortgage Backed Securities is funded using the excess reserves of the commercial banks which are held with the Fed. As Selgin points out this means the Fed can no longer use the federal funds rate to influence short-term interest rates (the emphasis is mine):-
So how does the Fed control credit now? Instead of increasing or reducing the availability of credit by adding to or subtracting from the supply of Fed deposit balances, the Fed now loosens or tightens credit by controlling financial institutions’ demand for such balances using a pair of new monetary control devices. By paying interest on excess reserves (IOER), the Fed rewards banks for keeping balances beyond what they need to meet their legal requirements; and by making overnight reverse repurchase agreements (ON-RRP) with various GSEs and money-market funds, it gets those institutions to lend funds to it.
Between them the IOER rate and the implicit ON-RRP rate define the upper and lower limits, respectively, of an effective federal funds rate target “range,” because most of the limited trading that now goes on in the federal funds market consists of overnight lending by GSEs (and the Federal Home Loan Banks especially), which are not eligible for IOER, to ordinary banks, which are. By raising its administered rates, the Fed encourages other financial institutions to maintain larger balances with it, instead of trading those balances for other interest-earning assets. Monetary tightening thus takes the form of a reduced money multiplier, rather than a reduced monetary base.
Selgin goes on to describe this as Confiscatory Credit Control:-
…Because instead of limiting the overall availability of credit like it did in the past, the Fed now limits the credit available to other prospective borrowers by grabbing more for itself, which it then passes on to the U.S. Treasury and to housing agencies whose securities it purchases.
The good news is that the Fed can adjust its balance sheet with relative ease (emphasis mine):-
It’s only because the Fed has been paying IOER at rates exceeding those on many Treasury securities, and on short-term Treasury securities especially, that banks (especially large domestic and foreign banks) have chosen to hoard reserves. Even today, despite rate increases, the IOER rate of 75 basis points exceeds yields on most Treasury bills. Were it not for this difference, banks would trade their excess reserves for Treasury securities, causing unwanted Fed balances to be passed around like so many hot-potatoes, and creating new bank deposits in the process. Because more deposits means more required reserves, banks would eventually have no excess reserves to dispose of.
Phasing out ON-RRP, on the other hand, would eliminate the artificial boost that program has been giving to non-bank financial institutions’ demand for Fed balances.
Because phasing out ON-RRP makes more reserves available to banks, while reducing IOER rates reduces banks’ own demand for such reserves, both policies are expansionary. They don’t alter the total supply of Fed balances. Instead they serve to raise the money multiplier by adding to banks’ capacity and willingness to expand their own balance sheets by acquiring non-reserve assets. But this expansionary result is a feature, not a bug: as former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder observed in December 2013, the greater the money multiplier, the more the Fed can shrink its balance sheet without over-tightening. In principle, so long as it sells enough securities, the Fed can reduce its ON-RRP and IOER rates, relative to prevailing market rates, without missing its ultimate policy targets.
Selgin expands, suggesting that if the Fed decide to announce a fixed schedule for adjustment (which they have) then they may employ another tool from their armoury, the Term Deposit Facility:-
…to the extent that the Fed’s gradual asset sales fail to adequately compensate for a multiplier revival brought about by its scaling-back of ON-RRP and IOER, the Fed can take up the slack by sufficiently raising the return on its Term Deposits.
And the Fed’s federal funds rate target? What happens to that? In the first place, as the Fed scales back on ON-RRP and IOER, by allowing the rates paid through these arrangements to decline relative to short-term Treasury rates, its administered rates will become increasingly irrelevant. The same changes, together with concurrent assets sales, will make the effective federal funds rate more relevant, by reducing banks’ excess reserves and increasing overnight borrowing. While the changes are ongoing, the Fed would continue to post administered rates; but it could also revive its pre-crisis practice of announcing a single-valued effective funds rate target. In time, the latter target could once again be more-or-less precisely met, making it unnecessary for the Fed to continue referring to any target range.
With unemployment falling and economic growth steady the Fed are expected to tighten monetary policy further but the balance sheet adjustment needs to be handled carefully, conditions may look benign but the Fed ultimately holds more of the nation’s deposits than at any time since the end of WWII. Bank lending (last at 1.6%) is anaemic at best, as the chart below makes clear:-
Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge
The global perspective
The implications of balance sheet adjustment for the US have been discussed in detail but what about the rest of the world? In an FT Article – The end of global QE is fast approaching – Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management makes some projections. He sees global QE reaching a plateau next year and then beginning to recede, his estimate for the Fed adjustment is slightly lower than the schedule announced last Wednesday:-
Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management
He then looks at the previous liquidity injections relative to GDP – don’t forget 2009 saw the world growth decline by -0.8%:-
Source: IMF, National Data, Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management
It is worth noting that the contraction of Emerging Market CB liquidity during 2016 was principally due to the PBoc reducing their foreign exchange reserves. The ECB reduction of 2013 – 2015 looks like a policy mistake which they are now at pains to rectify.
Finally Davies looks at the breakdown by institution. The BoJ continues to expand its balance sheet, rising above 100% of GDP, whilst eventually the ECB begins to adjust as it breaches 40%:-
Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management
I am not as confident as Davies about the ECB’s ability to reverse QE. They were never able to implement a European equivalent of the US Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which incorporated the Troubled Asset Relief Program – TARP and the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Europe’s banking system remains inherently fragile.
ProPublica – Bailout Costs – gives a breakdown of cost of the US bailout. The policies have proved reasonable successful and at little cost the US tax payer. Since initiation in 2008 outflows have totalled $623.4bln whilst the inflows amount to $708.4bln: a net profit to the US government of $84.9bln. Of course, with $455bln of troubled assets still outstanding, there is still room for disappointment.
The effect of TARP was to unencumber commercial banks. Freed of their NPL’s they were able to provide new credit to the real economy once more. European banks remain saddled with an abundance of NPL’s; her governments have been unable to agree on a path to enlightenment.
Conclusions and Investment Opportunities
The chart below shows a selection of CB balance sheets as a percentage of GDP. It is up to the end of 2016:-
SNB: Swiss National Bank, BoC: Bank of Canada, CBC: Central Bank of Taiwan, Riksbank: Swedish National Bank
Source: National Inflation Association
The BoJ has since then expanded its balance sheet to 95.5% and the ECB, to 32%. With the Chinese economy still expanding (6.9% March 2017) the PBoC has seen its ratio fall to 45.4%.
More important than the sheer scale of CB balance sheets, the global expansion has changed the way the world economy works. Combined CB balance sheets ($22trln) equal 21.5% of global GDP ($102.4trln). The assets held are predominantly government and agency bonds. The capital raised by these governments is then invested primarily in the public sector. The private sector has been progressively crowded out of the world economy ever since 2008.
In some ways this crowding out of the private sector is similar to the impact of the New Deal era of 1930’s America. The private sector needs to regain pre-eminence but the transition is likely to be slow and uneven. The tide may be about to turn but the chance for policy mistakes, as flows reverse, is extremely high.
For stock markets the transition to QT – quantitative tightening – may be neutral but the risks are on the downside. For government bond markets there are similar concerns: who will buy the bonds the CBs need to sell? If interest rates normalise will governments be forced to tighten their belts? Will the private sector be in a position to fill the vacuum created by reduced public spending, if they do?
There is an additional risk. Yield curve flattening. Banks borrow short and lend long. When yield curves are positively sloped they can quickly recapitalise their balance sheets: when yield curves are flat, or worse still inverted, they cannot. Increases in reserve requirements have made government bonds much more attractive to hold than other securities or loans. The Commercial Bank Loan Creation chart above may be seen as a warning signal. The mechanism by which CBs foster credit expansion in the real economy is still broken. A tapering or an adjustment of CB balance sheets, combined with a tightening of monetary policy, may have profound unintended consequences which will be magnified by a severe shakeout in over-extended stock and bond markets. Caveat emptor.
Macro Letter – No 78 – 02-06-2017
Trade and protectionism post globalisation
The success of free-trade and globalisation has been a boon for less developed countries but, to judge by the behaviour of the developed world electorate of late, this has been at the expense of the poorer and less well educated peoples of the developed nations. Income inequality in the west has been a focus of considerable debate among economists. The “Elephant Chart” below being but one personification of this trend:-
Source: Economist, World Bank
If the graph looks familiar it’s because I last discussed this topic back in November 2016 in – Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion? This is what I said about the chart at that time:-
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.
It can be argued that this chart is not a fair representation of the reality in the west. This excellent video by Johan Norberg – Dead Wrong – The Elephant Graph – makes some important observations but, as a portfolio manager, friend of mine reminded me recently, when considering human action one should not focus on absolute change in economic circumstances, but relative change. What did he I mean by this? Well, let’s take income inequality. The rich are getting richer and the poor are…getting richer less quickly.
In the dismal science, as Carlyle once dubbed economics, we often take a half-empty view of the world. Take real average income. Since 2008 people have become worse-off as the chart below for the UK shows:-
However, in the long-run we have become better-off for generations. What really drives prosperity, by which I mean our quality of life, is productivity gains: our ability to harness technology to improve the production of goods and services.
Financial markets are said to be driven by fear and greed. Society in general is also driven by these factors but there is an additional driver: envy. Any politician who ignores the power of envy, inevitably truncates his or her career.
The gauntlet was thrown down recently by the new US administration: their focus was on those countries with trade surpluses with the US. Accusations of trade and currency manipulation play well to the disenfranchised American voter.
Well before the arrival of the new US President, however, a degree of rebalancing had already begun to occur when China adopted policies to increase domestic consumption back in 2012. A recent white paper entitled – Is the Global Economy Rebalancing? By Focus Economics – looks at the three countries with the largest persistent current account surpluses: China, Germany and Japan. As they comment in their introduction, a current account surplus may be derived by many different means:-
Decades of conflicting perspectives over the causes and effects of global trade imbalances have been thrust back into the spotlight in recent months by Donald Trump’s brazen criticism of almost every country with a significant current account surplus with the U.S. His controversial accusation that big exporter countries are deliberately weakening their currencies to gain a competitive advantage taps into an issue that has perplexed and divided economists and policymakers ever since the mid-1990s. At that time, countries such as the U.S. were starting to build up large current account deficits, while others such as China, Germany and Japan were accumulating large surpluses.
Put simply, a country’s current account balance measures the difference between how much it spends and makes abroad. Trade in goods usually—but not always—accounts for most of the current account, while the other components are trade in services, income from foreign investment and employment (known as ‘primary income’), and transfer payments such as foreign aid and remittances (known as ‘secondary income’).
A current account surplus or deficit is not necessarily in and of itself a good or bad thing, since a number of considerations must be factored in—for example, in the case of deficit countries, whether they make a return on their investments that exceeds the costs of funding them. A large current account surplus can be considered a desirable sign of an efficient and competitive economy if it comprises a positive trade balance generated by market forces. And yet such competitiveness can also be falsely created to an extent by policy decisions (e.g. a deliberate currency weakening), or may alternatively be a sign of overly weak domestic demand in a highly productive country. Therein lies the crux of the controversy, or at least one of many.
Global imbalances were a critically important contributing factor to the financial crisis, although they did not in themselves cause it. Even if the precise nature of that connection has sparked different interpretations, there is at least more or less agreement on the fundamentals of the part played by trade relations between the U.S. and China, the two countries traditionally responsible for the lion’s share of global imbalances. Credit-fueled growth in the U.S. encouraged consumers to spend more, including on products originating in China, thereby further increasing the U.S. trade deficit with China and prompting China to “recycle” the dollars gained by buying U.S. assets (mostly Treasury notes). This, in turn, helped to keep U.S. interest rates low, encouraging ever greater bank lending, which pushed up housing prices, caused a subprime mortgage crisis and ultimately ended in a nasty deleveraging process.
Services and investment balances can be difficult to measure accurately; trade data is easier to calculate. Here are the three current account surplus countries in terms of their trade balances:-
Source: Trading Economics, Chinese General Administration of Customs
Interestingly, China’s trade balance has declined despite the recent devaluation in the value of the Yuan versus the US$.
Source: Trading Economics, German Federal Statistics Office
The relative weakness of the Euro seems to have underpinned German exports. On this basis, the weakening of the Euro, resulting from the Brexit vote, has been an economic boon!
Source: Trading Economics, Japanese Ministry of Finance
The Abenomics policy of the three arrows whilst it has succeeded in weakening the value of the Yen, has done little to stem its steadily deteriorating trade balance. The Yen has risen ever since the ending of Bretton Woods, it behoves Japanese companies to invest aboard. The relative strength of the current account is the result of Japanese investment abroad.
Trade data is not without its flaws, even in a brand dominated business such as automobiles the origin of manufacture can turn out to be less obvious than it might at first appear. According to the Kogod – Made in America Auto Index 2016 – at 81% the Honda Accord ranks fifth out of all automobiles, in terms of the absolute percentage of an entire vehicle which is built in the USA, well above the level of many Ford and General Motors vehicles.
Conclusions and Investment Opportunities
The financial markets will react differently in each country to the headwinds of de-globalisation and the rise of protectionism. The US, however, presents an opportunity to examine the outcome for a largest economy in the world.
The US currency’s initial reaction to the Trump election win was a significant rise. The US$ Index rallied from 97.34 on the eve of the election to test 103.81 at the beginning of January. Since then, as the absolute power, or lack thereof, of the new president has become apparent, the US$ Index has retraced the entire move. Protectionism on the basis of this analysis is likely to be UD$ positive. In the long run protectionist policies act as a drag on economic growth. The USA has the largest absolute trade deficit. Lower global economic growth will either lead to a rise in the US trade deficit or a strengthening of the US$, or, perhaps, a combination of the two.
Interest rates and bonds may be less affected by the strength of the US currency in a protectionist scenario, but domestic wage inflation is likely to increase in the medium term, especially if border controls are tightened further, closing off the flow of immigrant workers.
US stocks should initially benefit from the reduction in competition derived from a protectionist agenda but in the process the long run competitiveness of these firms will be undermined. The continual breaching to new highs which has been evident in the S&P 500 (and recently, the Nasdaq) is at least partially due to expectation of the agenda of the new administration. These policies include the lowering of corporation tax rates (from 35% to 15%) to bring them in line with Germany, infrastructure spending (in the order of $1trln) and protectionist pressure to “Buy American, Hire American”. Short term the market is still rising but valuations are becoming stretched by many metrics, as I said recently in Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train:-
Pro-business US economic policy will continue to drive US stocks: the words of Pink Floyd spring to mind…we call it riding the gravy train.
Macro Letter – No 77 – 19-05-2017
Hard Brexit maths – walking away
…How selfhood begins with a walking away…
It has been estimated that if the UK accedes to EU demands for a further EUR 100bln in order to begin the process of establishing a bi-lateral trade deal with the EU post-Brexit, it will cost the UK economy 4.4% of GDP. According to estimates from the NIESR, to revert to WTO Most Favored Nation terms (the Hard Brexit option) would only cost between -2.7% and -3.7% of GDP (EUR 61bln to EUR 84bln).
In January UK MP May stated:-
No deal is better than a bad deal.
It looks, on this basis, as though the UK may indeed walk away from its purported EU obligations.
A more considered analysis from, the politically influential Brussels based thin-tank Bruegel – Divorce settlement or leaving the club? A breakdown of the Brexit bill – suggests a more modest final bill:-
Depending on the scenario, the long-run net Brexit bill could range from €25.4 billion to €65.1 billion, possibly with a large upfront UK payment followed by significant EU reimbursements later.
This substantial price range is due to the way the UK’s share of liabilities is calculated. At 12% (the UK’s rebate-adjusted share of EU commitments) it is EUR 25.4bln. At 15.7% (the UK’s gross contributions without a rebate adjustment) it rises to EUR 65.1bln.
The House of Lords legal interpretation – Brexit and the EU budget:-
Article 50 provides for a ‘guillotine’ after two years if a withdrawal agreement is not reached unless all Member States, including the UK, agree to extend negotiations. Although there are competing interpretations, we conclude that if agreement is not reached, all EU law—including provisions concerning ongoing financial contributions and machinery for adjudication—will cease to apply, and the UK would be subject to no enforceable obligation to make any financial contribution at all.
This suggests all of the UK’s commitments to the EU are linked to membership. If that legal interpretation is correct, there would be no Brexit bill at the moment of departure. Apparently EU legal experts have arrived at similar conclusions. The Telegraph – €100bn Brexit bill is ‘legally impossible’ to enforce, European Commission’s own lawyers admit has more on this contentious subject.
Setting aside the legal obligations in favour of a diplomatic solution, what is the price range where a potential agreement may lie? The cost to the UK appears to be capped at EUR 84bln in a worst case scenario. One may argue that the ability of Sterling to decline, thus improving the UK’s terms of trade, makes this scenario unrealistically high, but as I discussed in – Uncharted British waters – the risk to growth, the opportunity to reform historic evidence doesn’t support the case very well at all:-
Another factor to consider, since the June vote, is whether the weakness of Sterling will have a positive impact on the UK’s chronic balance of payments deficit. This post from John Ashcroft – The Saturday Economist – The great devaluation myth suggests that, if history even so much as rhymes, it will not:-
If devaluation solved the problems of the British Economy, the UK would have one of the strongest trade balances in the global economy…. the depreciation of sterling in 2008 did not lead to a significant improvement in the balance of payments. There was no “re balancing effect”. We always argued this would be the case. History and empirical observation provides the evidence.
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. Check out our chart of the day and the more extensive slide deck below.
Seven reasons why devaluation doesn’t improve the UK balance of payments …
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
But what is the economic impact on the EU? CIVITAS – Potential post-Brexit tariff costs for EU-UK trade postulates some estimates:-
Our analysis shows that if the UK leaves the EU without a trade deal UK exporters could face the potential impact of £5.2 billion in tariffs on goods being sold to the EU. However, EU exporters will also face £12.9 billion in tariffs on goods coming to the UK.
Exporters to the UK in 22 of the 27 remaining EU member states face higher tariffs costs when selling their goods than UK exporters face when selling goods to those countries.
German exporters would have to deal with the impact of £3.4 billion of tariffs on goods they export to the UK. UK exporters in return would face £0.9 billion of tariffs on goods going to Germany.
French exporters could face £1.4 billion in tariffs on their products compared to UK exporters facing £0.7 billion. A similar pattern exists for all the UK’s major EU trading partners.
The biggest impact will be on exports of goods relating to vehicles, with tariffs in the region of £1.3 billion being applied to UK car-related exports going to the EU. This compares to £3.9 billion for the EU, including £1.8 billion in tariffs being applied to German car-related exports.
The net Trade Effect of a Hard Brexit on the basis of these calculations is EUR 7.7bln in favour of the UK.
Then we must consider the UK contribution to the EU budget, which, if the House of Lords assessment is confirmed, will be zero after Brexit. This will cost the EU EUR7.8bln, based on the 2017 net EU budget of EUR 134bln, to which the UK is currently the second largest contributor at 5.8%.
Next there is the question of the impact on EU27 economic growth. These headwinds will be felt especially in the Netherlands, Ireland and Cyprus but the largest absolute cost will be borne by Germany.
According to a February 2016 study by DZ Bank, a Hard Brexit would be to reduce German economic growth by -0.5%, from 1.7% to 1.4% – EUR 18.5bln. Credit Agricole published a similar study of the impact on the French economy in June 2016. They estimated that French GDP would be reduced by -0.4% in the event of a free-trade agreement and -0.6% in the event of a Hard Brexit – EUR 13.2bln. The Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) estimated the cost to the Netherlands at -1.2% – EUR 8.2bln. Italian Government forecasters estimate the impact at -0.5 to -1% – taking the best case scenario – EUR 8.3bln. A leaked Spanish Government report from March 2017 (interestingly, the only estimate I have been able to uncover since the Brexit vote) indicates a cost of between -0.17% and -0.34% of GDP – again, taking the best case – EUR 2bln. Ireland, given its geographic position, shared language and border, has, perhaps the closest ties with the UK of any EU27 country. Back in 2016 the Irish ERSI estimated the impact on Ireland at only -1%, I suspect it might be greater but I will take them at their word – EUR 2.6bln.
In the paragraph above I have looked at just five out of the EU27. Added together the cost to just these five countries is EUR 52.8bln, but I believe it to be representative, they accounted for 84.74% of EU GDP in 2016. From this I arrive at an extrapolated cost to the EU of a Hard Brexit of EUR 62.3bln.
The European Commission has indicated that the cost for the UK to begin negotiating the terms of a new free-trade agreement with the EU may be as much as EUR 100bln. The cost to the UK, of simply walking away – Hard Brexit – is estimated at between EUR 61bln and EUR 84bln per annum. The cost of Hard Brexit to the EU is estimated (I should probably say guesstimated, since there are so many uncertainties ahead) at EUR 62bln. A simple cost benefit analysis suggests that both sides have relatively similar amounts to lose in the short term. And I hate to admit it, but looked at from a negative point of view, in the long run, the UK, with its structural current account and trade deficit, may have less to lose from simply walking away.
Conclusion and Investment Opportunities
Brexit negotiations are already and will remain deeply political. From a short-term economic perspective it makes sense for the UK to walk away and re-establish its relationships with its European trading partners in the longer run. Given the UK trade deficit with the EU it has the economic whip-hand. Working on the assumption that Jean Claude Junker is not Teresa May’s secret weapon (after all, suggesting ever higher costs for negotiating a free-trade deal makes it more likely that the UK refuses to play ball) one needs to step back from the economics of the situation. The politics of Brexit are already and will probably become even more venal. For the sake of the UK economy, and, for that matter the economies of the EU, I believe it is better for the UK to walk away To those of you who have read my previous articles about Brexit, I wish to make clear, this is a change of opinion, politics has trumped economic common sense.
The implications for the UK financial markets over the next 22 months is uncertainty, although May’s decision to adopt a Hard Brexit starting point has mitigated a substantial part of these risks. Sterling is likely to act as the principle safety valve, however, a fall in the trade-weighted value of the currency will feed through to higher domestic inflation. Short term interest rates, and in their wake Gilt yields, are likely to rise in this scenario. Domestic stocks are also likely to be vulnerable to the negative impact of currency weakness and higher interest rates on economic growth. The FTSE 100, however, with 70% of its earnings derived from outside the UK, should remain relatively immune.
Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 4 – 12-5-2017
Is there any value in the government bond markets?
Since the end of the great financial recession, bond yields in developed countries have fallen to historic lows. The bull market in stocks which began in March 2009, has been driven, more than any other factor, by the fall in the yield of government bonds.
With the Federal Reserve now increasing interest rates, investors are faced with a dilemma. If they own bonds already, should they continue to remain invested? Inflation is reasonable subdued and commodity prices have weakened recently as economic growth expectations have moderated once more. If investors own stocks they need to be watching the progress of the bond market: bonds drove stocks up, it is likely they will drive them back down as well.
The table below looks at the relative valuation between stocks and bonds in the major equity markets. The table (second item below) is ranked by the final column, DY-BY – Dividend Yield – Bond Yield, sometimes referred to as the yield gap. During most of the last fifty years the yield gap has been inverse, in other words dividend yields have been lower than bond yields, the chart directly below shows the pattern for the S&P500 and US 10yr government bonds going back to 1900:-
Source: Newton Investment Management
Source: StarCapital, Investing.com, Trading Economics
The CAPE – Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings Ratio and Dividend Yield Data is from the end of March, bond yields were taken on Monday morning 8th May, so these are not direct comparisons. The first thing to notice is that an inverse yield gap tends to be associated with countries which have higher inflation. This is logical, an equity investment ought to offer the investor an inflation hedge, a fixed income investor, by contrast, is naturally hedged against deflation.
Looking at the table in more detail, Turkey tops the list, with an excess return, for owning bonds rather than stocks, of more than 7%, yet with inflation running at a higher rate than the bond yield, the case for investment (based simple on this data) is not compelling – Turkish bonds offer a negative real yield. Brazil offers a more interesting prospect. The real bond yield is close to 6% whilst the Bovespa real dividend yield is negative.
Some weeks ago in Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI V – I looked more closely at India and Indonesia. For the international bond investor it is important to remember currency risk:-
Source: Trading Economics, World Bank
If past performance is any guide to future returns, and all investment advisors disclaim this, then you should factor in between 2% and 4% per annum for a decline in the value of the capital invested in Indian and Indonesian bonds over the long run. This is not to suggest that there is no value in Indian or Indonesian bonds, merely that an investor must first decide about the currency risk. A 7% yield over ten years may appear attractive but if the value of the asset falls by a third, as has been the case in India during the past decade, this may not necessarily suffice.
Looking at the first table again, the relationship between bond yields in the Eurozone has been distorted by the actions of the ECB, nonetheless the real dividend yield for Finnish stocks at 3.2% is noteworthy, whilst Finnish bonds are not. Greek 10yr bonds are testing their lowest levels since August 2014 this week (5.61%) which is a long way from their highs of 2012 when yields briefly breached 40% during the Eurozone crisis. Emmanuel Macron’s election as France’s new President certainly helped but the German’s continue to baulk at issuing Eurobonds to bail out their profligate neighbours.
Conclusion and Investment Opportunity
Returning to the investor’s dilemma. Stocks and bonds are both historically expensive. They have been driven higher by a combination of monetary and quantitative easing by Central Banks and subdued inflation. For long-term investors such as pension funds, which need to invest in fixed income securities to match liabilities, the task is Herculean, precious few developed markets offer a real yield at all and none offer sufficient yield to match those pension liabilities.
During the bull-market these long-term investors actively increased the duration of their portfolios whilst at the same time the coupons on new issues fell steadily: new issues have a longer duration as well. It would seem sensible to shorten portfolio duration until one remembers that the Federal Reserve are scheduled to increase short term interest rates again in June. Short rates, in this scenario will rise faster than long-term rates. Where can the fixed income portfolio manager seek shelter?
Emerging market bonds offer limited liquidity since their markets are much smaller than those of the US and Europe. They offer the investor higher returns, but expose them to heady cocktail of currency risk, credit risk and the kind of geopolitical risk that ultra-long dated developed country bonds do not.
A workable solution is to consider credit and geopolitical risk at the outset and then actively manage the currency risk, or sub-contract this to an overlay manager. Sell long duration, low yielding developed country bonds and buy a diversified basket of emerging market bonds offering acceptable real return and, given that in many emerging markets corporate bonds offer lower credit risk than their respective government bond market, buy a carefully considered selection of liquid corporate names too. Sadly, many pension fund managers will not be permitted to make this type of investment for fiduciary reasons.
In answer to the original question in my title? Yes, I do believe there is still value in the government bond markets, but, given the absence of liquidity in many of the less developed markets – which are the ones offering identifiable value – the portfolio manager must be prepared to actively hedge using liquid markets to avoid a forced liquidation – currency hedging is one aspect of the strategy but the judicious use of interest rate swaps and options is a further refinement managers should consider.
This strategy shortens the duration of the bond portfolio because, not only purchase bonds with a shorter maturity, but also ones with a higher coupon. Actively managing currency risk (or delegating this role to a specialist currency overlay operator) whilst not entirely mitigating foreign exchange exposures, substantially reduces them.
Emerging market equities may well offer the best long run return, but a portfolio of emerging market bonds, with positive rather than negative real-yields, is far more compelling than continuously extending duration among the obligations of the governments of the developed world.
Macro Letter – No 76 – 05-05-2017
Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train
“Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
Donald J. Trump
The current US debt ceiling is set at $19.8trln. Debt levels are already close to that level and special accounting measures have already been implemented by the US Treasury. This year alone total federal expenditures will be $3.7trln – leaving a tax shortfall of $559bln. Meanwhile, last week, Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin announced the long awaited tax cut plan. It included a proposal to reduce the US corporate tax rate to 15% from the current level of 35%. This, it is estimated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, will increase the government deficit by $5.5trln over the next decade.
The Trump administrations other spending plans remain on the agenda, including $1trln for infrastructure, $54bln for the military and – assuming the Mexican’s can’t pay and won’t pay – $10bln for the Southern Border Wall.
How can this possibly add up? Through spending cuts, is the simple answer. Cuts have already been made to the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, Inland Revenue Service and Department of Education but around 65% of government expenditure, in areas such as welfare and healthcare, have been ring-fenced – they will remain off-limits. Balancing the books is going to be an awesome conjuring trick.
Even by the more conservative estimates of the Tax Foundation, the proposed tax cut will cost $2.2trln over the next 10 years. They estimate economic growth would increase by 0.4% as a result of the tax reduction, but point out that +0.9% annual GDP growth is required to offset the estimated decline in tax revenues. The sums do not appear to balance.
The chart below looks at US investment as a percentage of GDP going back to 1950, the era of Reaganomics (1981-1989) when the last substantial tax cuts occurred, suggests that the positive impact of tax reduction on economic growth, if Art Laffer is correct, may be, to borrow a phrase from Milton Friedman, long and variable:-
Source: The Economist, BEA
The Cato Institute – Lessons from the Reagan Tax Cuts which was published at this week, makes a number of observations (see below) but this chart, showing the GDP growth in the Reagan and Obama recessions, is instructive:-
Source: Cato Institute
One may argue that the Reagan period was an era of much higher inflation and therefore dispute the real-GDP growth differential, but the Cato Institute produce further evidence to support their argument, that tax cuts boost economic growth. Here are some of the highlights:-
Lesson #1: Lower Tax Rates Can Boost Growth
We can draw some conclusions by looking at how low-tax economies such as Singapore and Hong Kong outperform the United States. Or we can compare growth in the United States with the economic stagnation in high-tax Europe.
Source: Maddison, Cato
We can also compare growth during the Reagan years with the economic malaise of the 1970s.
Moreover, there’s lots of academic evidence showing that lower tax rates lead to better economic performance
The bottom line is that people respond to incentives. When tax rates climb, there’s more “deadweight loss” in the economy. So when tax rates fall, output increases.
Lesson #2: Some Tax Cuts “Pay for Themselves”
The key insight of the Laffer Curve is not that tax cuts are self-financing. Instead, the lesson is simply that certain tax cuts (i.e., lower marginal rates on productive behavior) lead to more economic activity. Which is another way of saying that certain tax cuts lead to more taxable income.
It’s then an empirical issue to assess the level of revenue feedback.
In the vast majority of the cases, the revenue feedback caused by more taxable income isn’t enough to offset the revenue loss associated with lower tax rates. However, we do have very strong evidence that upper-income taxpayers actually paid more to the IRS because of the Reagan tax cuts.
This is presumably because wealthier taxpayers have much greater ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.
Lesson #3: Reagan Put the United States on a Path to Fiscal Balance
I already explained above why it is wrong to blame the Reagan tax cuts for the recession-driven deficits of the early 1980s. Indeed, I suspect most leftists privately agree with that assessment.
Source: CBO, Cato
But there’s still a widespread belief that Reagan’s tax policy put the United States on an unsustainable fiscal path.
Yet the Congressional Budget Office, as Reagan left office in early 1989, projected that budget deficits, which had been consistently shrinking as a share of GDP, would continue to shrink if Reagan’s policies were left in place.
Moreover, the deficit was falling because government spending was projected to grow slower than the private sector, which is the key to good fiscal policy.
The Border Tax
One of the ways the Trump administration intend to balance the books is through the imposition of border taxes. They may become embroiled in the quagmire of legal challenges, that they are in contravention of World Trade Organisation rules, but I shall leave that topic for another time.
This February 2017 article from the Peterson Institute – PIIE Debates Border Adjustment Tax is an excellent primer on the pros and cons of this controversial policy proposal. The Peterson conference delegates did manage to concur that the corporate tax rate should be lower – the Trump proposal would merely bring the rate in line with the current level of corporate tax in Germany. The delegates also agreed that some form of ad valorem tax should be introduced to make up the tax shortfall, although they accepted that this would directly encroach on individual State taxation systems. Peterson’s Adam Posen raised the valid concern that VAT tends to fall most heavily upon the poorest in society, thus increasing income inequality still further. Adjusting the tax system is always fraught with dangers.
At the heart of the Peterson debate was the impact a Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) would have on US businesses:-
Figure 1 below shows net exports to total trade in a sector, relative to how labor intensive the sector is. The size of the bubbles reflects the size of total trade in the sector. Two things are important: (1) Most industries are net importers, thus they believe they will be forced to raise prices under the proposal. (2) The industries that will gain the most—those with a relatively high labor cost share and positive net exports—are largely absent in the United States. The aerospace industry is the lone exception. This breakdown implies that many more big lobbies will be against the BAT than in favor.
Source: BLS, US Census Bureau
BAT revenues are estimated to be around $100bln per annum, about half the cost of the corporate tax cut, using the more conservative Tax Foundation estimate, however, this assumes that the trade deficit remains unchanged in response to the imposition of BAT. Whilst some countries will see their currencies decline versus the US$ the recent plight of the Mexican Peso begs caution. It depreciated from USDMXN 18.2 to 21 versus the US$ in the aftermath of the US election but has since recovered to around USDMXN 19.
Financial Market Response and Investment Opportunities
The table below shows the level of the US$ Index, S&P500 Stock Index and the US 10yr Government Bond Yield on elections week and yesterday:-
It is worth noting that the US$ Index initially strengthened into the end of 2016, testing 104. It has subsequently moderated. 10yr bond yields also rose sharply, reaching 2.64%, but have since consolidated. It is the US stock market, which continues to achieve new all-time highs, which maintains faith in the pro-business credentials of the new administration.
The US bond market is dogged by the twin concerns of the fiscal profligacy of the government on the one hand and the hawkish intentions of the Federal Reserve, determined to normalise interest rates whilst they still can, on the other.
US GDP growth moderated in Q1. Commodity prices for staples, such as Iron Ore, Copper and Oil have diminished, as Chinese demand has waned of late. Meanwhile rising purchasing managers indices seem to be correlating with a rise in inventories. Personal income continues to growth slowly and personal savings has remains subdued, household debt to GDP is rising slightly but it remains well below the levels seen early in the decade. Consumers are unlikely to increase spending dramatically until they are more confident about long-term employment prospects. I wrote, last month about the impact of technology on jobs, in – Will technology change the prospects for emerging market growth? The impact on developed market employment will also be profound, but, I believe, it is also influencing the consumers’ response to higher prices. As prices rise, demand will fall. Central Banks should not target an inflation rate because it distorts the efficient working of the economy, but wage inflation, about which they are inclined to obsess, is likely to be subdued for a protracted period – years rather than months – by the effects of new technology.
Where does this leave stocks and bonds? Bond yields may rise if the US government deficit explodes: and a significant increase in bond yields will inevitably detract from the allure of the stock market. For the present, however, we continue to make new highs in stocks – the Nasdaq finally breached its, dot-com induced, 2000 highs at the end of April, after sixteen years – S&P500 valuations are high (a PE of 23 times and a CAPE of 27 times earnings) and yet “Buy American, Hire American” is a compelling slogan. As an international firm, hoping to continue selling your products to the United States, it makes sense to invest there. Pro-business US economic policy will continue to drive US stocks: the words of Pink Floyd spring to mind…we call it riding the gravy train.
Macro Letter – No 75 – 21-04-2017
Will technology change the prospects for emerging market growth?
In July 2016 the International Labor Organisation (ILO) released a report entitled – ASEAN in Transformation – in the preface it relates the apocryphal story of a 1950’s conversation between Henry Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Company, and Walter Reuther, Leader of the United Automobile Workers Union.
Ford asked, “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?” to which Reuther responded, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?” It reminds us that disruptive technology is not new. As the latest wave of innovation begins to disrupt employment globally, it makes sense to reassess the prospects for some of the world’s fastest growing economies.
The ILO report goes on to focus on the impact of technology on ASEAN countries, a region with 632mln people. This is an under-researched topic. They highlight the industries which are most likely to be affected and suggest ways countries can adapt to minimise the impact of automation on employment. This is their conclusion:-
Considerable opportunities for growth exist within ASEAN. Importantly, the local domestic market is expanding, and ASEAN’s middle class is expected to grow to 125 million by 2025. This represents a massive and emerging regional market.
However, threats remain, and in some cases, are intensifying. In particular, a range of labour-intensive sectors in a number of less developed countries are susceptible to major technological disruption, leading to potential large-scale job displacement. The consequences for these countries could be profoundly negative if they are unprepared to adapt.
We are witnessing the emergence of new markets, the potential relocation of production, the rise of new hiring trends and the displacement of lower skilled jobs. Supplying workers with the appropriate skills and competencies remains a major challenge. Overall, concerted efforts are required from all ASEAN stakeholders. They should act now to build a future of innovation and growth shaped with better employment opportunities.
The World Bank Development Report 2016 – Digital Dividends provides a global perspective. Here are a couple of graphs which illuminate the challenging landscape:-
Source: World Bank
If the unadjusted percentages indicated in the graph above are realised the social and political stability of many countries maybe undermined, however, the next graph shows which occupations are likely to be most at risk. It also shows which occupations can be expected to benefit from the productivity enhancing impact of new technology:-
Source: World Bank
Be an expensive complement (stats knowhow) to something that’s getting cheaper (data).
—Hal Varian, Chief Economist, Google, 2014
Going back to the ILO report, the key to creating workers with the correct skills is designing appropriate education. According to Asian Nation:-
50.5% Asians, age 25 and older, who have a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education. Asians have the highest proportion of college graduates of any race or ethnic group in the country and this compares with 28 percent for all Americans 25 and older.
This graph shows the educational attainment across ASEAN:-
Singapore scores highly but so does Cambodia, however, it is the low skilled worker who will suffer; the retraining challenges, for Asia and elsewhere, will be substantial. More than 60% of salaried workers in Indonesia and 73% in Thailand are at risk from automation. The highest risk group are employed in Textiles, Clothing and Footware. More than 9mln people are employed in this sector across ASEAN and the ILO estimate that 64% are at risk in Indonesia, 86% in Vietnam whilst in Cambodia that figure rises to 88%.
Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) is another industry which is ripe for automation. There is a heavy concentration of BPO in the Philippines where more than 1mln salaried working are employed. The ILO estimate that 89% are at risk from automation.
Earlier this year I discussed the demise of China as a low-cost manufacturing hub in – Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI V – Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. I concluded:-
Vietnamese stocks look attractive, the country has the highest level of FDI of the group (6.1% of GDP) but there is a favourable case for investing in the stocks of the other members of the MITI V, even with FDI nearer 3%. They all have favourable demographics, except perhaps Thailand, and its age dependency ratio is quite low. High literacy, above 90% in all except India, should also be advantageous.
Over the next few years I remain confident about these economies but the headwinds of technology will blow through these markets, nonetheless. Low cost manufacturing has to be set alongside, efficient inventory management and transit costs. In the apparel industry, where trends change in a rapid and unpredictable fashion, the advantage of fast design to production lead times makes the benefits of robotic production, geographically close to the consumer, much more alluring.
In a fascinating post on LinkedIn – Robots Take Over – The Apparel Production – Susanna Koelblin – discusses the decision by Adidas to transfer a part of the production of their sports shoes back to Germany for the first time in more than 20 years. Another “Speed factory” will open in the US later this year. Here are some of her observations:-
It took 50 years for the world to install the first million industrial robots. The next million will take only eight. Importantly, much of the recent growth happened in particular in China, which has an aging population and where wages have risen…
German robot maker Kuka, acquired last year by China’s Midea, estimates a typical industrial robot costs about 5 euros an hour. Manufacturers spend 50 euros an hour to employ someone in Germany and about 10 euros an hour in China. Rather than seek out an even cheaper source of labor elsewhere – in another emerging Asian economy, say – Chinese manufacturers are choosing to install more robots, especially for more complex tasks. China isn’t getting rid of the work, just the workers…
It is in fact China which is leading the world in terms of the installation of industrial robots, but relative to the size of its workforce these concentrations are still relatively low. China boasts 4.9 robots/1,000 workers while Germany tops the world ranking at 30.1/1,000. That is almost twice the concentration of the US and four times that of the UK.
The current level of earnings in manufacturing still favours the work force of the MITI V but as the cost of automation continues to fall and average earnings in, lower cost Asia, rises, an inflection point will be reached:-
Source: Trading Economics
Manufacturing wage inflation has been high in Indonesia partly in response to earlier currency depreciations – over 10 years the Rupiah has declined by 46% against the US$ whilst manufacturing wages have increased by 164%. All these emerging economies maintain a manufacturing cost advantage relative to robotic automation, however, for countries like Malaysia, which has seen its currency decline by 46.7% over the last five years, whilst manufacturing wages have only risen by 37.6%, the competitive advantage versus robotic automation is narrowing. Malaysia now has a manufacturing wage cost which is slightly higher than China’s.
Interestingly, India has seen a real-terms improvement in export competitiveness. Its currency has fallen 21.4% over five years but manufacturing wages have only risen by 14.6%. Vietnam and Thailand have seen export competitiveness decline, yet in both cases they have had considerable room for manoeuvre.
I am in agreement with Dr. Jing Bing Zhang, Research Director of IDC Worldwide Robotics, we should not be worried about automation derailing the emerging market growth model over the next decade. This is what he said in a recent interview with the Diplomat:-
There are different schools of thought… From my research, I don’t see it. Maybe we will be less dependent on human labor. But there is no way this will eliminate the need for people in the next 15-20 years. We are entering high speed growth for robotics but in 2014 global density for robotics was still very low at 66 per 10,000 employees, 36 in China, 57 in Thailand, and close to none in India.
The uptake of robots does not appear to have damaged employment in Germany where unemployment recently dipped below 4%, the lowest level since 1981. One can argue that demographic forces are at work here but Germany has the highest concentration of robots relative to workers globally.
Chatham House – Robots and pensioners to the rescue – examines a different aspect of automation and demographics, focussing on Japan:-
Bleak demographics saddle Japan with a potential growth rate of less than 1 per cent, economists say, unless there are aggressive moves to accept more immigrants, boost the role of women in the workforce and overhaul workplace inefficiencies to increase productivity.
Yet despite its real and chronic problems, Japan may arguably be faring better than the image often projected of a country on the brink of an abyss. Japan still feels safe, prosperous and dazzlingly futuristic. While the overall economy has stagnated, GDP per head has outperformed most of the developed world, including Germany and France, according to World Bank figures − partly a consequence of the population crunch…
Most importantly, a shrinking population fosters innovation to boost productivity. Writing in the Financial Times, Michael Lind, a senior fellow at New America, a Washington think-tank, argued that a labour shortage can be a blessing rather than a curse: ‘Where labour is scarce and expensive, businesses have an incentive to invest in labour-saving technology,’ he wrote, ‘which boosts productivity growth by enabling fewer workers to produce more.’
That is precisely what is happening in today’s Japan, with investment pouring into robotics, industrial automation and artificial intelligence. Furuta notes that a similar phenomenon took place in 18th-century Japan, under the Tokugawa shoguns, when sharp population declines due to famine and natural disaster spurred an age of innovation in science, the arts and agriculture. Such thinking has prompted Prime Minister Abe to embrace the idea that Japan’s population crunch may have a silver lining: ‘Japan may be losing its population. But these are incentives,’ Abe said in a speech last year. ‘Japan’s demography, paradoxically, is not an onus, but a bonus.’
In my previous Macro Letter – No 72 – Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI V – I reproduced the latest Deloitte Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index, here it is again:-
The MITI V are all expected to rise up the competitiveness ranking over the next three years – with the exception of Thailand which remains unchanged in 14th place.
I remain optimistic about emerging market growth, but keep in mind the industries which will benefit from technology and those which will be harmed. For example, the software developers of India look well placed to thrive; the garment workers of China may not.