Linear Talk Macro Roundup for February
Linear Talk Macro Roundup for February
Macro Letter – No 92 – 09-03-2018
Are we nearly there yet? Employment, interest rates and inflation
There are two factors, above all others, which are spooking asset markets at present, inflation and interest rates. The former is impossible to measure with any degree of certainty – for inflation is in the eye of the beholder – and the latter is divergent depending on whether you look at the US or Japan – with Europe caught somewhere between the two extremes. In this Macro Letter I want to investigate the long term, demand-pull, inflation risk and consider what might happen if stocks, bonds and real estate all collapse in tandem.
It is reasonable to assume that US rates will rise this year, that UK rates might follow and that the ECB (probably) and BoJ (almost certainly) will remain on the side-lines. An additional worry for export oriented countries, such as Japan and Germany, is the protectionist agenda of the current US administration. If their exports collapse, GDP growth is likely to slow in its wake. The rhetoric of retaliation will be in the air.
For international asset markets, the prospect of higher US interest rates and protectionism, spells lower growth, weakness in employment and a lowering of demand-pull inflationary pressure. Although protectionism will cause prices of certain goods to rise – use that aluminium foil sparingly, baste instead – the overall effect on employment is likely to be swift.
Whilst US bond yields rise, European bond yields may fail to follow, or even decline, if export growth collapses. Stocks in the US, by contrast, may be buoyed by tax cuts and the short-term windfall effect of tariff barriers. The high correlation between equity markets and the international nature of multinational corporations, means global stocks may remain levitated a while longer. The momentum of recent economic growth may lead to increased employment and higher wages in the near-term – and this might even spur demand for a while – but the spectre of inflation at the feast, will loom like a hawk.
But is inflation really going to be a structural problem? In an attempt to answer this we must delve into the murky waters of the employment data. As a starting point, at what juncture can we be confident that the US and other countries at or near to full-employment? Let us start by looking at the labour force participation rate. It is a difficult measure to interpret. As the table below shows, in the US and Japan the trend has been downward whilst the UK and the EU are hitting record highs:-
Source: Trading Economics
One possible reason for this divergence between the EU and the US/Japan is that the upward trend in European labour participation has been, at least partially, the result of an inexorable reduction in the scope and scale of the social safety net throughout the region.
More generally, since the Great Recession of 2008/2009 a number of employment trends have been evident across most developed countries. Firstly, many people have moved from full-time to part-time employment. Others have switched from employment to self-employment. In both cases these trends have exerted downward pressure on earnings. What little growth in earnings there has been, has mainly emanated from the public sector, but rising government deficits make this source of wage growth unsustainable in the long run.
The Record of Meeting of the CAC and Federal Reserve Board of Governors – published last November, stated the following in relation to US employment:-
The data indicate that despite the drop in unemployment, there has not been an increase in the number of quality jobs—those that pay enough to cover expenses and enable workers to save for the future. The 2017 Scorecard reports that one in four jobs in the U.S. is in a low-wage occupation, which means that at the median salary, these jobs pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four. For the first time, the 2017 Scorecard includes a measure of income volatility that shows that one in five households has significant income fluctuations from month to month. The percentage varies by state, from a low of 14.7 percent of households in Virginia to a stunning 29.8 percent of households in Wyoming. In addition, 40 percent of those experiencing volatility reported struggling to pay their bills at least once in the last year because of these income fluctuations. These two factors contribute significantly to the fact that almost 37 percent of U.S. households, and 51 percent of households of color, live in the financial red zone of “liquid asset poverty.” This means that they do not have enough liquid savings to replace income at the poverty level for three months if their main source of income is disrupted, such as from job loss or illness. This level of financial insecurity has profound implications for the security of households, and for the overall economic growth of the nation.
Another trend that has been evident is the increase in the number of people no longer seeking employment. Setting aside those who, for health related reasons, have exited the employment pool, early retirement has been one of the main factors swelling the ranks of the previously employable. For this growing cohort, inflation never went away. In particular, inflation in healthcare has been one of the main sources of increases in the price level over the past decade.
At the opposite end of the working age spectrum, education is another factor which has reduced the participation rate. It has also exerted downward pressure on wages; as more students enrol in higher education in order to gain, hopefully, better paid employment, the increased supply of graduates insures that the economic value of a degree diminishes. Whilst a number of corporations have begun to offer apprenticeships or in-work degree qualifications, in order to address the skill gap between what is being taught and what these firms require from their employees, the overall impact of increased demand for higher education has been to reduce the participation rate.
For a detailed assessment of the situation in the US, this paper from the Kansas City Federal Reserve – Why Are Prime-Age Men Vanishing from the Labor Force? provides some additional and fascinating insights. Here is the author’s conclusion:-
Over the past two decades, the nonparticipation rate among primeage men rose from 8.2 percent to 11.4 percent. This article shows that the nonparticipation rate increased the most for men in the 25–34 age group and for men with a high school degree, some college, or an associate’s degree. In 1996, the most common situation prime-age men reported during their nonparticipation was a disability or illness, while the least common situation was retirement. While the share of primeage men reporting a disability or illness as their situation during nonparticipation declined by 2016, this share still accounted for nearly half of all nonparticipating prime-age men. This result is in line with Krueger’s (2016) finding, as many of these men with a disability or illness are likely suffering from daily pain and using prescription painkillers.
I argue that a decline in the demand for middle-skill workers accounts for most of the decline in participation among prime-age men. In addition, I find that the decline in participation is unlikely to reverse if current conditions hold. In 2016, the share of nonparticipating prime-age men who stayed out of the labor force in the subsequent month was 83.8 percent. Moreover, less than 15 percent of nonparticipating prime-age men reported that they wanted a job. Together, this evidence suggests nonparticipating prime-age men are less likely to return to the labor force at the moment.
The stark increase in prime-age men’s nonparticipation may be the result of a vicious cycle. Skills demanded in the labor market are rapidly changing, and automation has rendered the skills of many less-educated workers obsolete. This lack of job opportunities, in turn, may lead to depression and illness among displaced workers, and these health conditions may become further barriers to their employment. Ending this vicious cycle—and avoiding further increases in the nonparticipation rate among prime-age men—may require equipping workers with the new skills employers are demanding in the face of rapid technological advancements.
For an even more nuanced interpretation of the disconnect between corporate profits and worker compensation this essay by Jonathan Tepper of Varient Perception – Why American Workers Aren’t Getting A Raise: An Economic Detective Story – is even more compelling:-
Rising industrial concentration is a powerful reason why profits don’t mean revert and a powerful explanation for the imbalance between corporations and workers. Workers in many industries have fewer choices of employer, and when industries are monopolists or oligopolists, they have significant market power versus their employees.
The role of high industrial concentration on inequality is now becoming clear from dozens recent academic studies. Work by The Economist found that over the fifteen-year period from 1997 to 2012 two-thirds of American industries were more concentrated in the hands of a few firms. In 2015, Jonathan Baker and Steven Salop found that “market power contributes to the development and perpetuation of inequality.”
One of the most comprehensive overviews available of increasing industrial concentration shows that we have seen a collapse in the number of publicly listed companies and a shift in power towards big companies. Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely have documented how despite a much larger economy, we have seen the number of listed firms fall by half, and many industries now have only a few big players. There is a strong and direct correlation between how few players there are in an industry and how high corporate profits are.
Tepper goes on to discuss monopolies and monopsonies. At the heart of the issue is the zombie company phenomenon. With interest rates at artificially low levels, companies which should have been liquidated have survived. Others have used their access to finance, gained from many years of negotiation with their bankers, to buy out their competitors. If interest rates were correctly priced this would not have been possible – these zombie corporations would have gone to the wall. I wrote a rather long two part essay on this subject in 2016 for the Cobden Centre – A history of Fractional Reserve Banking – or why interest rates are the most important influence on stock market valuations? This is about the long-run even by my standards but I commend it to those of you with an interest in economic history. Here is a brief quote from part 2:-
…This might seem incendiary but, let us assume that the rate of interest at which the UK government has been able to borrow is a mere 300bp below the rate it should have been for the last 322 years – around 4% rather than 7%. What does this mean for corporate financing?
There are two forces at work: a lower than “natural” risk free rate, which should make it possible for corporates to borrow more cheaply than under unfettered conditions. They can take on new projects which would be unprofitable under normal conditions, artificially prolonging economic booms. The other effect is to allow the government to crowd out private sector borrowing, especially during economic downturns, where government borrowing increases at the same time that corporate profitability suffers. The impact on corporate interest rates of these two effects is, to some extent, self-negating. In the long run, excessive government borrowing permanently reduces the economic capacity of the country, by the degree to which government investment is less economically productive than private investment.
To recap, more people are remaining in education, more people are working freelance or part-time and more people are choosing to retire early. The appreciation of the stock, bond and property markets has certainly helped those who are asset rich, choose to exit the ranks of the employable, but, I suspect, in many cases this is only because asset prices have been rising for the past decade. Pension annuity rates appear to have hit all-time lows, a reckoning for asset markets is overdue.
What happens come the next bust and beyond?
If inflation rises and Central Banks respond by raising interest rates, bond prices will fall and stocks will have difficulty avoiding the force of gravity. Once bond and stock markets fall, property prices are likely to follow, as the cost of financing mortgages increases. With all the major asset classes in decline, economic growth will slow and unemployment will rise. Meanwhile, the need to work, in order to supplement the reduction in income derived from a, no longer appreciating, pool of assets, will increase, putting downward pressure on average earnings. Here is the most recent wage, inflation and real wage data. For France, Germany and the UK, wages continue to lag behind prices. A 2% inflation target is all very well, just so long as wages can keep up:-
Source: Trading Economics
The first place where this trend in lower earnings will become evident is likely to be among freelance and part-time workers – at least they will still have employment. The next casualty will be the fully employed. Corporations will lay-off staff as corporate profit warnings force their hands. Governments will be beseeched to create jobs and, regardless of whether the inflation rate is still rising or not, Central Banks will be implored, cajoled (whatever it takes) to cut interest rates and renew their quest to purchase every asset under the sun.
Wage deflation will, of course, continue, harming those who have no alternative but to work; those who lack sufficient unearned income to survive. Government debt will accelerate, Central Bank balance sheets will balloon and asset prices will eventually recover. Bond yields may even reach new record lows, prompting assets to flow into stocks – the ones Central Banks have not yet purchased as part of their QQE programmes – despite their inflated valuations. Corporate executives will no doubt take the view that interest rates are artificially low and conclude that they can best serve their shareholders by buying back their own stock – accompanied by the occasional special dividend to avoid accusations for impropriety.
As economic growth takes a nose drive, inflation will moderate, providing justification for the pre-emptive rate cutting and balance sheet expanding actions of the Central Banks. Articles will begin to appear, in esteemed journals, talking of a new era of low economic trend growth. Finally, after several years of QE, QQE and whatever the stage beyond that may be – helicopter money anyone? – the world economy will start to grow more rapidly and the labour force participation rate, increase once more. Inflation will start to rise, interest rates will be tightened, bond yields, increase. At this point, stocks will fall and the next downward leg of the economic cycle will have to be averted by renewed QQE and fiscal stimulus. If this is reminiscent of a scene from Groundhog Day, I regret to inform you, it is.
There will be a point at which the financialisation of the global economy and the nationalisation of the stock market can no longer deliver the markets from the deleterious curse of debt, but, sadly, I do not believe that moment has yet arrived. Are we nearly there yet? Not even close.
Given what has happened this month, this video might seem out of date but this was my roundup from 6th February.
Macro Letter – No 91 – 16-02-2018
A safe place to hide – inflation and the bond markets
I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody – James Carville 1993
Back in the May 1981 US official interest rates hit 20% for the third time in 14 months, the yield on US 10yr Treasury Bond yields lagged somewhat and only reached their zenith in September of that year, at 15.82%. In those days the 30yr Bond was the global bellwether for fixed income securities; its yield high was only 15.20%, the US yield curve was inverted and America languished in the depths of a deep recession.
More than a decade later in 1993 James Carville, then advisor to President Bill Clinton, was still in awe of the power of the bond market. But is that still the case today? Back then, inflation was the genie which had escaped from the bottle with the demise of the Bretton Woods agreement. Meanwhile, Paul Volker, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve was putting into practice what William McChesney Martin, one of his predecessors, had only talked about, namely taking away the punch bowl. Here, for those who are unfamiliar with the speech, is an extract; it was delivered, by Martin, to the New York Bankers Association on 19th October 1955:-
If we fail to apply the brakes sufficiently and in time, of course, we shall go over the cliff. If businessmen, bankers, your contemporaries in the business and financial world, stay on the sidelines, concerned only with making profits, letting the Government bear all of the responsibility and the burden of guidance of the economy, we shall surely fail. … In the field of monetary and credit policy, precautionary action to prevent inflationary excesses is bound to have some onerous effects–if it did not it would be ineffective and futile. Those who have the task of making such policy don’t expect you to applaud. The Federal Reserve, as one writer put it, after the recent increase in the discount rate, is in the position of the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.
Back in the October 1955 the Discount rate was 2.30% and the 10yr yield was 2.88%. The economy had just emerged from a recession and would not embark on its next downturn until mid-1957.
Today the US yield curve is also unusually flat, especially by comparison with the inflationary era of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. In some ways, however, (barring the inflationary blip in 1951-52) it looks similar to the 1950’s. Here is a chart showing the 10yr yield (blue – LHS) and US inflation (dotted – RHS):-
Source: Trading Economics
I believe that in order to protect the asset markets (by which I mean, principally, stocks and real estate) the Federal Reserve (charged as it is with the twin, but not mutually exclusive, objectives of full-employment and stable prices) may decide to focus on economic growth and domestic harmony at the expense of a modicum of, above target, inflation. When Fed Chairman, Martin, talked of removing the punch bowl back in 1955, inflation had already subsided from nearly 10% – mild deflation was actually working its way through the US economy.
Central Bank balance sheets
Today there are several profound differences with the 1950’s, not least, the percentage of the US bond market which is held by Central Banks. As the chart below shows, Central Banks balance sheet expansion continues, at least, at the global level: it now stands at $14.6trn:-
Source: Haver Analytics, Yardeni Research
Like the Fed, the BoJ and ECB have been purchasing their own obligations, by contrast the PBoC’s modus operandi is rather different. The largest holders of US public debt (principally T-Bonds and T-Bills) are foreign institutions. Here is the breakdown as at the end of 2016:-
Source: US Treasury
As of November 2017 China has the largest holding of US debt – US$1.2trn (a combination of the PBoC and state owned enterprises), followed by Japan -US$1.1trn, made up of both private and public pension fund investments. It is not in the interests of China or Japan to allow a collapse in the US bond market, nor is it in the interests of the US government; their ability borrow at historically low yields during the last few years has not encouraged the national debt to decline, nor the budget to balance.
Bond Markets in Europe and Japan
The BoJ continues its policy of yield curve control – targeting a 10bp yield on 10yr JGBs. Its balance sheet now stands at US$4.8trn, slightly behind the ECB and PBoC which are vying for supremacy mustering US$5.5trn apiece. Thanks to the persistence of the BoJ, JGB yields have remained between zero and 10bp since November 2016. As of December 2017 the BoJ owned 46.2% of the total issuance. The ECB, by contrast, holds a mere 19.2% of Eurozone debt.
Another feature of the Eurozone bond market, during the last couple of years, has been the continued convergence in yields between the core and periphery. The chart below shows the evolution of the yield of 10yr Greek Government Bonds (LHS) and German Bunds (RHS). The spread is now at almost its lowest level ever. This may be a reflection of the improved performance of the Greek economy but it is more likely to be driven by fixed income investors continued quest for yield:-
Source: Trading Economics
By contrast with Greece (where yields have fallen) and Germany (where they are on the rise) 10yr Italian BTPs and Spanish Bonos have remained broadly unchanged, whilst French OATs have seen yields rise in sympathy with Germany. Hopes of a Eurobond backed by the EU, to replace the obligations of peripheral nation states, whilst vehemently denied in official circles, appears to remain high.
Japanese and European economic growth, which has surprised on the upside over the past year, needs to prove itself more than purely cyclical. Both regions are reliant on the relative strength of US the economic recovery, together with the continued structural expansion of China and India. The jury is out on whether either Japan or the EU can achieve economic terminal velocity without strong export markets for their goods and services.
The one country in the European area which is behaving differently is the UK; yields have risen but, it stands apart from the rest of the Eurozone; UK Gilts dance to a different tune. Uncertainty about Brexit caused Sterling to decline, especially against the Euro, import prices rose in response, pushing inflation higher. 10yr Gilt yields bottomed in August 2016 at 50bp. Since then they have risen to 1.64% – this is still some distance from the highs of January 2014 when they tested 3.09%. 2yr Gilts are different matter, with a current yield of 71bp they are 63bp from their lows but just 22bp away from the 2014 high of 93bp.
Conclusions and Investment Opportunities
From a personal investment perspective, I have been out of the bond markets since 2013. My reasoning (which proved expensive) was that the real-yields on the majority of markets was already extremely negative and the notional yields were uncomfortably close to zero. Of course these markets went much, much further than I had anticipated. Now I am tempted by the idea of reallocating, despite yields being lower than they were when I exited previously. Inflation in the US is 2.1%, in the Euro Area it is 1.3% whilst in Japan it is still just 1%.
As a defensive investment one should look for short duration bonds, but in the US this brings the investor into conflict with the hawkish policy stance of the Fed; that is, what my friend Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory dubs, the Inflation Narrative. For a contrary view this Kansas City Fed paper may be of interest – Has the Anchoring of Inflation Expectations Changed in the United States during the Past Decade?
In Japan yields are still too near the zero bound to be enticing. In Germany you need to need to go all the way out to 6yr maturity Bunds before you receive a positive yield. There is an alternative to consider – 2yr Gilts:-
Source: Trading Economics
UK inflation is running at 3% – that puts it well above the BoE target of 2%. Rate increases are anticipated. 2yr Gilt yields have recently followed the course steered by the US and Germany, taking out the highs last seen in December 2015, however, if (although I really mean when) a substantial stock market correction occurs, 2yr Gilt yields have the attraction of being near the top of their five year range – unlike 2yr Schatz which are nearer the bottom of theirs. 2yr Gilts will benefit from a slowdown in Europe and any uncertainty surrounding Brexit. The BoE will be caught between the need to quell inflation and the needs of the economy as a whole. 2yr Gilts also offer the best roll-down on the UK yield curve. The 1yr maturity yields 49bp, whilst the 3yr yields 83bp.
With inflation fears are on the rise, especially in the US and UK, 2yr Gilts make for an uncomfortable investment today, however, they are a serious contender as a safe place to hide, come the real stock market correction.
Macro Letter – No 90 – 02-02-2018
A warning knell from the housing market – inciting a riot?
As anyone who owns a house will tell you, all property markets are, ‘local.’ Location is key. Nonetheless, when looking for indicators of a change in sentiment with regard to asset prices in general, residential real estate lends support to equity bull markets. Whilst it usually follows the performance of the stock market, this time it may be a harbinger of austerity to come.
The most expensive real estate is to be found in areas of limited supply; as Mark Twain once quipped, when asked what asset one should invest in, he replied, ‘Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.’ Mega cities are a good example of this phenomenon. They are a sign of progress. As Ian Stewart of Deloittes put it in this week’s Monday Briefing – How distance survived the communication revolution:-
In 2014, for the first time, more of the world’s population, some 54%, lived in urban than rural areas. The UN forecasts this will rise to 66% by 2050. Businesses remain wedded to city locations. More of the UK’s top companies are headquartered in London than a generation ago. The lead that so-called mega cities, those with populations in excess of 10 million, such as Tokyo and Delhi, have over the rest of the country has increased.
Proximity matters, and for good reasons. Cities offer business a valuable shared pool of resources, particularly labour and infrastructure. Bringing large numbers of people and businesses together increase the chances of matching the right person with the right job. The scale of cities improves matching in other areas, from restaurants to education and the choice of a partner. Scale, in terms of the number of businesses, tend to stimulate competition and productivity. Nor has technology fulfilled its promise to work equally well everywhere. By and large, technology tends to work better in urban areas than the country.
Urbanisation facilitates learning and the diffusion of knowledge, two vital processes for the modern economy. Workers in cities can more easily change jobs without changing homes, enabling the transfer of ideas across businesses. On-line learning has supplemented, but shows few signs of usurping the classroom, lecture theatre or face to face contact. Despite the collapsing cost of communication, competition for entry to the best schools and universities has intensified in the last three decades.
For all the transformative effects of the communication revolution the lead that cities have over the rest of the country seems to be widening. The LSE reports that in the UK workers in urban areas earn 8% more than those elsewhere; in London the premium is 24%. Buoyant property prices in major cities underscore the gap.
The world’s mega-cities have seen the highest house price inflation but at the national level the momentum of house price increases has begun to slow as prices approach the 2008 highs once more. The chart below, care of the IMF, shows the strength of momentum still increasing in Q2 2017:-
By Q3 2017 Global Property Guide analysis suggested a sea-change had begun:-
During the year to the third quarter of 2017:
House prices rose in 24 out of the 46 world’s housing markets which have so far published housing statistics, using inflation-adjusted figures.
The more upbeat nominal figures, more familiar to the public, showed house price rises in 38 countries, and declines in 8 countries.
Upwards price momentum is weakening.
Europe, Canada, Hong Kong, and Macau continue to experience strong price rises. But most of the Middle East, Latin America, New Zealand and some parts of Asia are experiencing either house price falls – or a sharp deceleration of house price rises.
The five strongest housing markets in our global house price survey for the third quarter of 2017 were: Iceland (+18.76%), Hong Kong (+13.14%), Macau (+10.53%), Canada (+9.69%), and Romania (+9.36%).
The biggest y-o-y house-price declines were in Egypt (-8.68%), Kiev, Ukraine (-6.81%), Russia (-6.69%), Mongolia (-5.7%), and Qatar (-2.85%).
Only 15 of the 46 markets analysed showed increased upward momentum. Hardly cause for concern, one might think; after all, during the nine year equity bull-market, stock momentum has waxed and waned. However, one market in particular (which, incidentally, is not covered by Global Property Guide analysis) has seen falling prices during the past quarter – Australia.
As the chart below shows, Australian house prices were among the fastest rising in Q2:-
Sydney has been even more extreme:-
Source: Core Logic
On the basis that, what goes up must, inevitably, come back down, one could argue that a price correction is needed, however, unlike the stock market, house prices have a much stronger impact on the spending habits of the consumer.
The consumer is impacted by the cost of financing mortgage borrowing and their ability to remortgage, relies on a steady increase in the value of housing stock. Rising bond yields, led by the US, where 10yr yields have broken through 2.62% to the upside this week, are likely to be a cause for concern. In Australia, however, fixed rate deals (where they exist) tend to be only two to three years in duration. The remainder of mortgages are variable rate. 1yr Australian bond yields are higher – touching 1.78% this month – but they are still only 40bp off their August 2016 lows.
Housing affordability is also a function of price to income and price to rent:-
Australia remains one of the most expensive places to buy a house, although their planning constrained neighbour New Zealand is even less affordable, which helps to explain the 1.24% fall in prices for Q3.
Australia is not the most expensive market on a price to rent basis either, yet, despite relatively low interest rates (and rising commodity prices which have supported the currency) residential real estate prices have begun to decline. The table below shows the quarter on quarter and year on year price change for the five major cities as at 31st January:-
The residential real estate market in Perth has been depressed for several years, but Sydney (led by high-end central Sydney apartments) has begun to follow its western neighbour.
Conclusions and Investment Opportunities
The residential real estate market often reacts to a fall in the stock market with a lag. As commentators put it, ‘Main Street plays catch up with Wall Street.’ The Central Bank experiment with QE, however, makes housing more susceptible to, even, a small rise in interest rates. The price of Australian residential real estate is weakening but its commodity rich cousin, Canada, saw major cities price increases of 9.69% y/y in Q3 2017. The US market also remains buoyant, the S&P/Case-Shiller seasonally-adjusted national home price index rose by 3.83% over the same period: no sign of a Federal Reserve policy mistake so far.
As I said at the beginning of this article, all property investment is ‘local’, nonetheless, Australia, which has not suffered a recession for 26 years, might be a leading indicator. Contagion might seem unlikely, but it could incite a riot of risk-off sentiment to ripple around the globe.
Macro Letter – No 89 – 19-01-2018
The risk of a correction in the equity bull market
Since March 2009, the US stock market has been trending broadly higher. If we can continue to make new highs, or at least, not correct to the downside by more than 20%, until August of this year it will be the longest equity bull-market in US history.
The optimists continue to extrapolate from the unexpected strength of 2017 and predict another year of asset increases, but by many metrics the market is expensive and the risks of a significant correction are become more pronounced.
Equity volatility has been consistently low for the longest period in 60 years. Technical traders are, of course, long the market, but, due to the low level of the VIX, their stop-loss orders are unusually close the current market price. A small correction may trigger a violent flight to the safety of cash.
Meanwhile in Japan, after more than two decades of under-performance, the stock market has begun to play catch-up with its developed nation counterparts. Japanese stock valuation is not cheap, however, as the table below, which is sorted by the CAPE ratio, reveals:-
Source: Star Capital
Global economic growth surprised on the upside last year. For the first time since the great financial crisis, it appears that the Central Bankers experiment in balance sheet expansion has spilt over into the real-economy.
An alternative explanation is provided in this article – Is Stimulus Responsible for the Recent Improved Trends in the U.S. and Japan? – by Dent Research – here are some selected highlights:-
Since central banks began their B.S. back in 2001, when the Bank of Japan first began Quantitative Easing efforts, I’ve warned that it wouldn’t be enough… that none of them would be able to commit to the vast sums of money they’d ultimately need to prevent the Economic Winter Season – and its accompanying deflation – from rolling over us.
Demographics and numerous other cycles, in my studied opinion, would ultimately overwhelm central bank efforts…
Are such high levels of artificial stimulus more important than demographic trends in spending, workforce growth, and productivity, which clearly dominated in the real economy before QE? Is global stimulus finally taking hold and are we on the verge of 3% to 4% growth again?…Fundamentals should still mean something in our economy…
And my Generational Spending Wave (immigration-adjusted births on a 46-year lag), which predicted the unprecedented boom from 1983 to 2007, as well as Japan’s longer-term crash of the 1990s forward, does point to improving trends in 2016 and 2017 assuming the peak spending has edged to 47 up for the Gen-Xers.
The declining births of the Gen-X generation (1962 – 1975) caused the slowdown in growth from 2008 forward after the Baby Boom peaked in late 2007, right on cue. But there was a brief, sharp surge in Gen-X births in 1969 and 1970. Forty-seven years later, there was a bump… right in 2016/17…
Source: Dent Research
The next wave down bottoms between 2020 and 2022 and doesn’t turn up strongly until 2025. The worst year of demographic decline should be 2019.
Japan has had a similar, albeit larger, surge in demographics against a longer-term downtrend.
Its Millennial generation brought an end to its demographic decline in spending in 2003. But the trends didn’t turn up more strongly until 2014, and now that they have, it’ll only last through 2020 before turning down dramatically again for decades…
Source: Dent Research
Prime Minister Abe is being credited with turning around Japan with his extreme acceleration in QE and his “three arrows” back in 2013. All that certainly would have an impact, but I don’t believe that’s what is most responsible for the improving trends. Rather, demographics is the key here as well, and this blip Japan is enjoying won’t last for more than three years!..
If demographics does still matter more, we should start to feel the power of demographics in the U.S. as we move into 2018.
If our economy starts to weaken for no obvious reason, and despite the new tax reform free lunch, then we will know that demographics still matter…
A different view of the risks facing equity investors in 2018 is provided by Louis-Vincent Gave of Gavekal, care of Mauldin Economics – Questions for the Coming Year – he begins with Bitcoin:–
…a recent Bloomberg article noted that 40% of bitcoins are owned by around 1,000 or so individuals who mostly reside in the greater San Francisco Bay area (the early adopters). Sitting in Asia, it feels as if at least another 40% must be Chinese investors (looking to skirt capital controls), and Korean and Japanese momentum traders. After all, the general rule of thumb in Asia is that when things go up, investors should buy more.
Asia’s fondness for chasing rising asset prices means that it tends to have the best bubbles. To this day, nothing has topped the late 1980s Taiwanese bubble, although perhaps, left to its own devices, the bitcoin bubble may take on a truly Asian flavor and outstrip them all? Already in Japan, some 1mn individuals are thought to day-trade bitcoins, while 300,000 shops reportedly have the capacity to accept them for payment. In South Korea, which accounts for about 20% of daily volume in bitcoin and has three of the largest exchanges, bitcoin futures have now been banned. For its part, Korea’s justice ministry is considering legislation that would ban payments in bitcoin all together.
At the very least, it sounds like the Bank of Korea’s recent 25bp interest rate hike was not enough to tame Korean animal spirits. So will the unfolding bitcoin bubble trigger a change of policy from the BoK and, much more importantly, from the Bank of Japan in 2018?
Mr Gave then goes on to highlight the risks he perceives as under-priced for 2018, starting with the Bank of Japan:-
In recent years, the BoJ has been the most aggressive central bank, causing government bond yields to stay anchored close to zero across the curve, while acting as a “buyer of last resort” for equities by scooping up roughly three quarters of Japanese ETF shares. Yet, while equities have loved this intervention, Japanese insurers and banks have had a tougher time. Indeed, a chorus of voices is now calling for the BoJ to let the long end of the yield curve rise, if only to stop regional banks hitting the wall.
So could the BoJ tighten monetary policy in 2018? This may be more of an open question than the market assumes. Indeed, the “short yen” trade is popular on the premise that the BoJ will be the last central bank to stop quantitative easing. But what if this isn’t the case?
The author then switches to highlight the pros and cons. It’s the cons which interest me:-
I doubt the risk of BoJ tightening is very great – they made the mistake of tightening too early on previous occasions to their cost. In any case, raising short-term rates will more likely lead to a yield curve inversion making the banks position even worse. The trade surplus remains small and the Yen remains remarkably strong by long-term comparisons.
This brings us to the author’s next key risk (which, given Gavekal’s deflationist credentials, is all the more remarkable) that inflation will surprise on the upside:-
Migrant workers are no longer pouring into Chinese cities. With about 60% of China’s citizens now living in urban areas, urbanization growth was always bound to slow. Combine that with China’s aging population and the fact that a rising share of rural residents are over 40 (and so less likely to move), and it seems clear that the deflationary pressure arising from China’s urban migration is set to abate.
Reduced excess capacity in China is real: from restrictions on coal mines, to the shuttering of shipyards and steel mills, Xi Jinping’s supply-side reforms have bitten. At the very least, some 10mn industrial workers have lost their jobs since Xi’s took office (note: there are roughly 12.5m manufacturing workers in the US today!).
To say that most “excess investment” China unleashed with its 2015-16 monetary and regulatory policy stimulus went into domestic real estate is only a mild exaggeration. Very little went into manufacturing capacity, which may explain why the price of goods exports from China has, after a five-year period, shown signs of breaking out on the upside. Another part of the puzzle is that Chinese producer prices are also rising, so it is perhaps not surprising that export prices have followed suit. The point is, if China’s export prices do rise in a concerted manner, it will happen when inflation data in the likes of Japan, the US and Germany are moving northward…
…The real reason I worry about inflation today is that inflation has the potential to seriously disrupt the happy policy status quo that has underpinned markets since the February 2016 Shanghai G20 meeting.
Mr Gave recalls the Plaza and Louvre accords of 1985 and ‘87, reminding us that the subsequent rise in bond yields in the summer of 1987 brought the 1980’s stock market bubble to an abrupt halt.
…for the past 18 months, I have espoused the idea that, after a big rise in foreign exchange uncertainty – triggered mostly by China with its summer 2015 devaluation, but also by Japan and its talk of helicopter money, and by the violent devaluation of the euro that followed the eurozone crisis – the big financial powers acted to calm foreign exchange markets after the February 2016 meeting of the G20 in Shanghai.
…as in the post-Louvre accord quarters, risk assets have broadly rallied hard. It’s all felt wonderful, if not quite as care-free as the mid-1980s. And as long as we live under this Shanghai accord, perhaps we should not look a gift horse in the mouth and continue to pile on risk?
This brings me to the nagging worry of “what if the Shanghai agreement comes to a brutal end as in 1987?”
Again the author is at pains to point out that, for the bubble to burst an inflation hawk is required. A Central Bank needs to assume the mantle of the Bundesbank of yesteryear. He anticipates it will be the PBoC:-
…(let’s face it: the last two upswings in global growth, namely 2009 and 2016, were triggered by China more than the US). Indeed, the People’s Bank of China may well be the new Bundesbank for the simple reason that most technocrats roaming the halls of power in Beijing were brought up in the Marxist church. And the first tenet of the Marxist faith is that historical events are shaped by economic forces, with inflation being the most powerful of these. From Marx’s perspective, Louis XVI would have kept his head, and his throne, had it not been for rapid food price inflation the years that preceded the French Revolution. And for a Chinese technocrat, the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 only happened because food price inflation was running at above 20%. For this reason, the one central bank that can be counted on to be decently hawkish against rising inflation, or at least more hawkish then others, is the PBoC.
Mr Gave foresees inflation delivering a potential a triple punch; lower valuations for asset markets, followed by tighter monetary and fiscal policy in China, which will then trigger an incendiary end to the unofficial ‘Shanghai Agreement’. In 1987 it was German Bunds which offered the safe haven, short-dated RMB bonds may be their counterpart in the ensuing crisis.
This brings our author to the vexed question of the way in which the Federal Reserve will respond. The consensus view is that it will be business as usual after the handover from Yellen to Powell, but what if it’s not?
…imagine a parallel universe, such that within a few months of being sworn in, Powell faces a US economy where:-
Unemployment is close to record lows and government debt stands at record highs, yet the federal government embarks on an oddly timed fiscal stimulus through across-the-board tax cuts.
Shortly afterwards, the government further compounds this stimulus with a large infrastructure spending bill.
As inflationary pressures intensify around the world (partly due to this US stimulus), the PBoC, BoJ and ECB adopt more hawkish positions than have been discounted by the market.
The unexpected tightening by non-US central banks leads other currencies higher, and the US dollar lower.
The combination of low interest rates, expansionary fiscal policy and a weaker dollar causes the US economy to properly overheat, forcing the Fed to tighten more aggressively than expected.
Gave proposes four scenarios:-
…In the first two scenarios, the US dollar will likely rise, either a little, or a lot. In the latter two scenarios, the dollar would likely be very weak. So if this analysis is broadly correct, shorting the dollar should be a good “tail risk” policy. If the global economy rolls over and/or a shock appears, the dollar will weaken. And if global nominal GDP growth accelerates further from here, the dollar will also likely weaken. Being long the dollar is a bet that the current investment environment is sustained.
The final risk which the author assesses is the impact of rising oil prices. It has often been said that a rise in the price of oil is a tax on consumption. Louis-Vincent Gave gives us an excellent worked example:-
…assume that the world consumes 100mn barrels of oil a day…Then further assume that about 100 days of inventory is kept “in the system”… if the price of oil is US$60/bbl, then oil inventories will immobilize around US$600bn in working capital. But if the price drops to US$40/bbl, then the working capital needs of the broader energy industry drops by US$200bn.
The chart below shows the decline in true money supply:-
The Baker Hughes US oil rig count jumped last week from 742 to 752 but it is still below the highs of last August and far below the 1609 count of October 2014. The break-even oil price for US producers is shown in the chart below:-
Source: Geopolitical Futures
If the global price of oil were entirely dependent on the marginal US producer, there would be little need to worry but the World Rig Count has also been slow to respond and Non-US producers are unable to bring additional rigs on-line as quickly, in response to price rises, as their US counterparts:-
Source: Baker Hughes
An additional concern for the oil price is the lack of capital investment over recent years. Many of the recent fracking wells in the US are depleting more rapidly. This once dynamic sector may have become less capable of reacting to the recent price increase. I’m not convinced, but a structurally higher oil price is a risk to consider.
Conclusion and investment opportunities
As Keynes famously said, ‘The markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent.’ Global equity markets have commenced the year with gusto, but, after the second longest bull-market in history, it makes sense to be cautious. Growth stocks and Index tracking funds were the poster children of 2017. This year a more defensive approach is warranted, if only on the basis that lightening seldom strikes twice in the same place. Inflation may not become broad-based but industrial metals prices and freight rates have been rising since 2016. Oil has now broken out on the upside, monetary tightening and balance sheet reduction as the watch words of the leading Central Banks – even if most have failed to act thus far – these actions compel one to tread carefully.
A traditional value-based approach to stocks should be adopted. Japan may continue to play catch up with its developed nation peers – the demographic up-tick, mentioned by Dent research, suggests that the recent breakout may be sustained. The Federal Reserve is leading the reversal of the QE experiment, so the US stock market is probably most vulnerable, but the high correlations between global stock markets means that, if the US stock market catches a cold, the rest of the world is unlikely to avoid infection.
High-yield bonds have been the alternative to stocks for investors seeking income for several years. Direct lending and Private Debt funds have raised a record amount of assets in the past couple of years. If the stock market declines, credit spreads will widen and liquidity will diminish. In the US, short dated government bond yields have been rising steadily and yield curves have been flattening, nonetheless, high grade floating rate notes and T-Bills may be the only place to hide, especially if inflation should rise even as stocks collapse.
There will be a major stock market correction at some point, there always is. When, is still in doubt, but we are nearer the end of the bull-market than the beginning. Technical analysis suggests that one must remain long, but in the current low volatility environment it makes sense to use a trailing stop-loss to manage the potential downside risk. Many traders are adopting a similar strategy and the exit will be crowded when you reach the door. Expect slippage on your stop-loss, it’s a price worth paying to capture the second longest bull-market in history.
With best wishes to all my readers for the holiday season.