Uncharted British waters – the risk to growth, the opportunity to reform

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Macro Letter – No 59 – 15-07-2016

Uncharted British waters – the risk to growth, the opportunity to reform

  • Uncertainty will delay investment and damage growth near term
  • A swift resolution of Britain’s trade relations with the EU is needed
  • Without an aggressive liberal reform agenda growth will be structurally lower
  • Sterling will remain subdued, Gilts, trade higher and large cap stocks well supported

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

W.H. Auden

thames-chart-collins-3057

Source: Captain Greenvile Collins – Great Britain’s Coasting Pilot – 1693

Captain Greenvile Collins was the Hydrographer in Ordinary – to William and Mary. His coastal pilot was the first, more or less, accurate guide to the coastline of England, Scotland and Wales, prior to this period mariners had relied mainly on Dutch charts. Collins’s charts do not comply with the convention of north being at the top and south at the bottom – the print above, of the Thames estuary, has north to the right. This, and the extract from W. H. Auden with which I began this letter, seem appropriate metaphors for the new way we need to navigate the financial markets of the UK post referendum.

Sterling has borne the brunt of the financial maelstrom, weakening against the currencies of all our major trading partners. Gilts have rallied on expectations of further largesse from the Bank of England (BoE) and a more generalised international flight to quality in “risk-free” government bonds. This saw Swiss Confederation bonds trade at negative yields to maturity out to 48 years.

With interest rates now at historic lows around the developed world and investors desperate for yield, almost regardless of risk, equity markets have remained well supported. Many individual UK companies with international earnings have made new all-time highs. Banks and construction companies have not fared so well.

Now the dust begins to settle, we have the more challenging task of anticipating the longer term implications of the British schism, both for the UK and its European neighbours. In this letter I will focus principally on the UK.

A Return to the Astrolabe?

Astrolabe

Source: University of Cambridge

The Greeks invented the astrolabe sometime around 200BCE. The one above of Islamic origin and dates from 1309. Before the invention of the sextant this was the only reliable means of navigation.

Our aids to navigation have been compromised by the maelstrom of Brexit – it’s not quite a return to the Astrolabe but we may have lost the use of GPS and AIS.

This week the OECD was forced to suspend the publication of its monthly Composite Leading Indicators (CLI). Commenting on the decision they said:-

The CLIs cannot…account for significant unforeseen or unexpected events, for example natural disasters, such as the earthquake, and subsequent events that affected Japan in March 2011, and that resulted in a suspension of CLI estimates for Japan in April and May 2011. The outcome of the recent Referendum in the United Kingdom is another such significant unexpected event, which is affecting the underlying expectation and outturn indicators used to construct the CLIs regularly published by the OECD, both for the UK and other OECD countries and emerging economies.

It will be difficult to draw any clear conclusions from the economic data produced by the OECD or other national and international agencies for some while.

Speaking to the BBC prior to the referendum, OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurria had already suggested that UK growth would be damaged:-

It is the equivalent to roughly missing out on about one month’s income within four years but then it carries on to 2030. That tax is going to be continued to be paid by Britons over time.

Back in March Open Europe – What if…? The consequences, challenges and opportunities facing Britain outside the EU put it thus:-

UK GDP could be 2.2% lower in 2030 if Britain leaves the EU and fails to strike a deal with the EU or reverts into protectionism. In a best case scenario, under which the UK manages to enter into liberal trade arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world, whilst pursuing large-scale deregulation at home, Britain could be better off by 1.6% of GDP in 2030. However, a far more realistic range is between a 0.8% permanent loss to GDP in 2030 and a 0.6% permanent gain in GDP in 2030, in scenarios where Britain mixes policy approaches.

…Based on economic modelling of the trade impacts of Brexit and analysis of the most significant pieces of EU regulation, if Britain left the EU on 1 January 2018, we estimate that in 2030:

In a worst case scenario, where the UK fails to strike a trade deal with the rest of the EU and does not pursue a free trade agenda, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be 2.2% lower than if the UK had remained inside the EU.

In a best case scenario, where the UK strikes a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, pursues very ambitious deregulation of its economy and opens up almost fully to trade with the rest of the world, UK GDP would be 1.6% higher than if it had stayed within the EU.

Open_Europe_Brexit_Impact_Table

Source: Open Europe, Ciuriak Consulting

Given that UK annual GDP growth averaged 2.46% between 1956 and 2016, the range of outcomes is profoundly important. GDP forecasts are always prone to error but the range of outcomes indicated above is exceedingly broad – divination might prove as useful.

Also published prior to the referendum Global Counsel – BREXIT: the impact on the UK and the EU assessed the prospects both for the UK and EU in the event of a UK exit. The table below is an excellent summary, although I don’t entirely agree with all the points nor their impact assessment:-

Global_Counsel_-_Brexit

Source: Global Counsel

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

Curiouser and Curiouser – the myth of devaluation continues. The 1992 experience….

“The UK’s trade performance since the onset of the economic downturn in 2008 has been one of the more curious developments in the UK economy” according to a recent report from the Office for National Statistics. “Explanation beyond exchange rates: trends in UK trade since 2007. 

We would argue, it is only curious for those who choose to ignore history. 

Much reference is made to the period 1990 – 1995 when the last “great depreciation led to an improvement in the balance of payments” – allegedly. Analysing the trade in goods data [BOKI] from the ONS own report demonstrates the failure of depreciation to improve the net trade in goods performance in the period 1990 – 1995.

Despite the fall in sterling, the inexorable structural decline in net trade in goods continued throughout. As we have long argued would be the case, in the most recent episode. Demand co-efficients are powerful, the price co-efficients much weaker and almost inelastic with regard to imports. Check out the slide show below for more information. 

The conclusions from the ONS report do not add up. Curiouser and Curiouser, policy makers just like Alice, sometimes choose to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

A brief history of devaluation from 1925 onwards…. 

The great devaluation of 1931 – 24%

In 1925, the dollar sterling exchange rate was $4.87. Britain had readopted the gold standard. Unfortunately, the relative high value of the pound placed considerable pressure on the trade and capital account, the balance of payments problem developed into a “run on the pound”. The UK left the gold standard in 1931, the floating pound quickly dropped to $3.69, providing an effective devaluation of 24%. The gain, if such it was, could not be sustained. Over the next two years, confidence in the currency returned, the dollar weakened, sterling rallied in value to a level of $5.00 but…Fears of conflict in Europe placed pressure on the sterling. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II the rate dropped to $3.99 from $4.61. In March, 1940, the British government pegged the value of the pound to the dollar, at $4.03.

The great devaluation of 1949 – 30%

Post war, Britain was heavily indebted to the USA. Despite a soft loan agreement with repayments over fifty years, the pound remained once again under intense pressure In 1949 Stafford Cripps devalued the pound by over 30%, giving a rate of $2.80. 

The great devaluation of 1967 – 14%

In 1967 another “balance of payments” crisis developed in the British economy with a subsequent “run on the pound. Harold Wilson announced, in November 1967, the pound had been devalued by just over 14%, the dollar sterling exchange rate fell to $2.40. This the famous “pound in your pocket” devaluation. Wilson tried to reassure the country by pointing out that the devaluation would not affect the value of money within Britain. 

In 1971, currencies began to float, depreciation not devaluation became the guideline

In 1977, sterling fell against the dollar with pound plummeting to a low of $1.63 in the autumn 1976. Another sterling crisis and a run on the pound. The British government was forced to borrow from the IMF to bridge the capital gap. The princely sum of £2.3 billion was required to restore confidence in the pound.  

By 1981, the pound was trading back at the $2.40 level but not for long. Parity was the pursuit by 1985 as the pound fell in value to a month low of $1.09 in February 1985.

In the late 1980s, Chancellor Lawson was pegging the pound to the Deutsche Mark to establish some form of stability for the currency. In October of 1990, Chancellor Major persuaded Cabinet to enter the ERM, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The DM rate was 2.95 to the pound and $1.9454 against the dollar. 

Less than two years later, Britain left the European experiment. 

The strains of holding the currency within the trading band had pushed interest rates to 12% in September, with some suggestions that rates would have to rise to 20% to maintain the peg. 

In September 1992, Chancellor Lamont announced the withdrawal from the ERM. The Pound fell in value against the dollar from $1.94 to $1.43, an effective depreciation of 26%. According to the wider Bank of England Exchange rate the weighted depreciation was 15%. 

The chart below shows GBPUSD since 1953, it doesn’t capture everything mentioned above but it highlights the volatility and terminal decline of the world’s ex-reserve currency:-

Cable since 1953

Source: FX Top

Reform, reform, reform

The UK needs to renegotiate terms with the EU as quickly as possible in order to minimise the damage to UK and global economic growth. I believe there are four options: –

EEA – the Norwegian Option

Pros

  • Maintain access to the Single Market in goods and services and movement of capital.
  • Ability to negotiate own trade deals.
  • Least disruptive alternative to EU membership.

Cons

  • Commitment to free movement of people and the provision of welfare benefits to EU citizens.
  • Accept EU regulation but have no influence over them.
  • Must comply with “rules of origin” – which impose controls on the use of products from outside the EU in goods which are subsequently exported within the EU. The cost of determining the origin of products is estimated to be at least 3.0% – the average tariff on goods from the US and Australia is 2.3% under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
  • Comply with EU rules on employment, consumer protection, environmental protection and competition policy.
  • Pay an annual fee to access the Single Market, although less than for full EU membership.

EFTA – the Swiss Option

Pros

  • Maintain access to the Single Market in goods.
  • Ability to negotiate own trade deals.
  • Greater independence over the direction of social and employment law.

Cons

  • Commitment to free movement of people.
  • Must comply with “rules of origin”.
  • Restricted access to the EU market in services – particularly financial services.

WTO – the Default Option

Pros

  • Subject to Most Favoured Nation tariffs under WTO guidelines. In 2013, the EU’s trade-weighted average MFN tariff was 2.3% for non-agricultural products.
  • Ability to negotiate own trade deals.
  • Independence over legislation.

Cons

  • Tariffs on agricultural products range from 20% to 30%.
  • Tariffs for automobiles are 10%.
  • Services sector would face higher levels of non-tariff barriers such as domestic laws, regulations and supervision. Services made up 37% of total UK exports to the EU in 2014 – the WTO option will be costly.

Bilateral Free-Trade Agreement – the Canadian Option

Pros

  • Negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with the EU – sometimes called the Canada option after the, still unratified, Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Cons

  • Must comply with “rules of origin” – if it mirrors the CETA deal.
  • Services are only partially covered.
  • Negotiations may take years.

The quickest solution would be the WTO default option, the least cathartic would be to join the EEA. I suspect we will end up somewhere between these two extremes; The Peterson Institute – Theresa May—More Merkel than Thatcher? Is of a different opinion:-

To survive politically at home, May must deliver Brexit at almost any cost, suggesting that she might well in the end be compelled to accept a “hard Brexit” that puts the UK entirely outside the internal market. Lacking a public mandate in a fractious party that retains only a slim parliamentary majority, May not surprisingly opposes new general elections, which would focus on Brexit and thus easily cost the Conservatives their majority, along with their new prime minister’s job. Unless the UK suffers substantially additional economic hardship in the coming years, the next UK elections may well occur as late as 2020.

For the financial markets there is a certain elegance in the “hard Brexit” WTO option. Uncertainty is removed, unilateral trade negotiations can be undertaken immediately and the other options remain available in the longer term.

Beyond renegotiation with the EU there is a broader reform agenda. Dust off your copy of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, this could see a return to the liberal policies, of smaller government and freer trade, which we last witnessed in the 1980’s. The IEA’s Ryan Bourne wrote an article this week for City AM – Forget populist executive pay curbs: Prime Minister May should embrace these six policies to revitalise growth in which he advocated:-

1) Overhaul property taxation: the government should abolish both council tax and stamp duty entirely and replace them with a single tax on the “consumption” of property – i.e. a tax on imputed rent. It is well known among economists that taxes on transactions like stamp duty are highly damaging, and we have already seen the high top rates significantly slow transactions since April.

2) Abolish corporation tax entirely: profit taxes discourage capital investment by lowering returns, which makes workers less productive and results in lower wage growth. In a globalised world, profits taxation also encourages capital to move elsewhere, both because it makes the UK less attractive as a location for “real” economic activity and because it creates incentives for avoidance through complex business structures. Rather than continuing this goose chase, let’s abolish it entirely and tax dividends at an individual level, as Estonia does.

Read more: Ignore Google’s corporation tax bill and scrap the tax altogether

3) Planning liberalisation: if you ask anyone to name the UK’s main economic problems, you’ll probably hear “poor productivity performance”, “a high cost of living” and “entrenched economic difficulties in some areas”. Constraining development through artificial boundaries and regulations is acknowledged to be a key driver of high house price inflation. Less acknowledged is that, for sectors like childcare, social care, restaurants and even many office-based industries, high rents and property prices raise other prices for consumers, with a dynamic strain on our growth prospects brought about by a reduction in competition and innovation. That’s not to mention the impact on labour mobility. Liberalisation of planning, including greenbelt reform – which May has sadly already seemingly ruled out – is probably the closest thing to a silver bullet as far as productivity improvements are concerned.

4) Sensible energy policy: the UK government has gone further than many EU countries on the “green agenda”. But the EU’s framework, with binding targets for renewables, has certainly helped shape policy in the direction of subsidies and subsidy-like obligations and interventions. Even if one accepts the need to reduce carbon emissions, an economist would suggest the implementation of either a straight carbon tax or, less optimally, a cap-and-trade scheme, rather than the current raft of interventions which make energy more expensive than it need be.

5) Agricultural liberalisation: exiting the EU Common Agricultural Policy gives us the opportunity to reassess agricultural policy. The UK should gradually phase out all subsidies, as New Zealand did, opening up the sector to global competition. This improved agricultural productivity in that country significantly. Combined with a policy of unilateral free trade, it would deliver substantially lower food prices for consumers too.

6) Deregulation: in the long term, Britain should extricate itself from the Single Market and May should set up a new Office for Deregulation, tasked with examining all existing EU laws and directives, with the clear aim of removing unnecessary burdens and lowering costs. In particular, this should focus on labour market regulation, financial services, banking and transport

In a departure from my normal focus on the nexus of macroeconomics and financial markets I wrote a reformist article last week for the Cobden Centre – A Plan to Engender Prosperity in Perfidious Albion – from Pariah to Paragon; in it, I made some additional reform proposals:-

Banking Reform: The financialisation of the UK economy has reached a point where productive, long term capital investment is in structural decline. Increasing bank capital requirements by 1% per annum and abolishing a zero weighting for government securities would go a long way to reversing this pernicious trend.

Monetary Reform: The key to long term prosperity is productivity growth. The key to productivity growth is investment in the processes of production. Interest rates (the price of money) in a free market, act as the investment signal. Free banking (a banking system without a lender of last resort) is a concept which all developed countries have rejected. Whilst the adoptions of Free banking is, perhaps, too extreme for credible consideration in the aftermath of Brexit, a move towards the free-market setting of interest rates is desirable to attempt to avert any further malinvestment of capital.

Labour Market Reform: A repeal of the Working Time Directive and the Agency Workers Directive would be a good start but we must resist the temptation to close our borders to immigration. Immigrants, both regional and international, have been essential to the economic prosperity of Britain for centuries. There will always be individual winners and losers from this process, therefore, the strain on public services should be addressed by introducing a contribution-based welfare system that ensures welfare for all – migrants and non-migrants – contingent upon a record of work.

Educational Reform: investment in technology to deliver education more efficiently would yield the greatest productivity gains but a reform of the incentives based on individual choice would also help to improve the quality of provision.

Free Trade Reform: David Ricardo defined the economic law of comparative advantage. In the aftermath of the UK exit from the EU it would be easy for the UK to slide towards introspection, especially if our European trading partners close ranks. We should resist this temptation if at all possible; it will undermine the long term productivity of the economy. We should promote global free trade, unilaterally, through our membership of the World Trade Organisation. In the last 43 years we have lost the art of negotiating trade deals for ourselves. It will take time to reacquire these skills but gradual withdrawal from the EU by way of the EEA/EFTA option would give the UK time to adjust. The EEA might even prove an acceptable longer term solution. I suspect the countries of EFTA will be keen to collaborate with us.

We should apply to rejoin the International Organization for Standardization , the International Electrotechnical Commission , and the International Telecommunication Union (all of which are based in Geneva) and, under the auspices of EFTA, we can rejoin the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), and the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM).

Conclusion

Financial markets will remain unsettled for an extended period; domestic capital investment will be delayed, whilst international investment may be cancelled altogether. If growth slows, and I believe it will, further easing of official interest rates and renewed quantitative easing are likely from the BoE. Gilts will trade higher, pension funds and insurance companies will continue to purchase these fixed income assets but the BoE will acquire an ever larger percentage of outstanding issuance. In 2007 Pensions and Insurers held nearly 50%, with Banks and Building Societies accounting for 17% of issuance. By Q3 2014 Pensions and Insurers share had fallen to 29%, Banks and Building Societies to 9%. Over seven years, the BoE had acquired 25% of the entire Gilt issuance.

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

 

China – Rebalancing, Debt and the Stock Market

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Macro Letter – No 58 – 08-07-2016

China – Rebalancing, Debt and the Stock Market

  • Chinese growth has been slowing since 2007
  • Total debt to GDP has risen from 148% in 2007 to 237% today
  • Oversupply in real-estate is still a concern but lower interest rates are helping
  • Infrastructure spending may help and Chinese stocks are cheap

I was prompted to write this rather longer letter by the recent weakness of the Chinese currency. The chart below tracks the progress of the USDCNY over the last three years, compared with many emerging markets the devaluation is minimal:-

china-currency 2yr

Source: Trading Economics

A longer term chart shows how far the currency has travelled over the last 12 years:-

china-currency 12 yr

Source: Trading Economics

It was at the National People’s Congress of March 2013 that the policy of “rebalancing” was introduced, however, the CNY continued to strengthen. This gradual appreciation against the US$ had created large imbalances within the Chinese economy. The economic-policy adjustment of “rebalancing” had one objective: shifting China from a production-oriented economy to one focused on household consumption. If, in the process, it could alleviate international pressure on the Chinese administration to allow the CNY to float freely, so much the better. Now it looks as if the outcome of allowing the CNY to float freely would see it sink like a stone.

A Review of Rebalancing

A detailed analysis of the rebalancing challenge is contained in this February 2013 paper from the ECB – China’s Economic Growth and Rebalancing it highlights international concerns:-

China’s leadership is well aware of the limitations of the producer-biased and export-led model. Interestingly, there is no major disagreement between the Chinese and the international community about the need for rebalancing policies to ensure China’s smooth transition to a more sustainable model. The disagreement is more about how fast the reform measures should be implemented.

It has been argued that intertwined economic and political interests make China’s rebalancing more difficult and cause the reform process to advance slowly. Political resistance to the reforms stems from various sources. First, in a system where political success at the local level has been historically dependent on quantitative growth, reforms that emphasise the quality of growth are bound to meet some resistance. Second, the current growth model required to keep some strategic sectors of the economy closed and under state control (e.g. financial markets, services, heavy industry). The planned opening up of these sectors to competition does not only meet resistance from SOEs and banks, but is also questioned in government circles owing to worries about exhausting the “privilege” of direct macroeconomic policy management. Not surprisingly, major resistance is observed in the export lobby, which is one of the most influential in China and the one which reforms affect most directly.

Reviewing the policy initiative in June 2014 – shortly after the, once in a decade, handover of power from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – McKinsey – China’s great rebalancing: Promise and peril concluded:-

Of course, there is no guarantee that rebalancing will succeed. Part of the problem is that the politics associated with it—boosting the income of Chinese households at the expense of state-owned companies and other large investment-oriented entities—is actually more complicated than the economics. But one thing is certain. China is rapidly reaching the point of diminishing economic and political returns from its investment-driven model, which is headed for change one way or another: either through a proactive rebalancing, with reforms and policy adjustments, or a forced rebalancing precipitated by rising stresses in and beyond the financial system. So far, the signs are encouraging that the new leadership is serious about changing China’s growth model, and this is reason enough for global firms that have benefited from China’s investment boom to rethink their strategies for the years ahead.

Three years on the challenges of rebalancing an $11trln economy of 1.4bln people are becoming evident. McKinsey – China’s Choice – Capturing the $5 Trillion Productivity Opportunity, published last month, makes the case for continued reform based on boosting productivity:-

…Government can do a great deal to improve the odds of success by transforming institutions in six priority areas:

I. Open more sectors up to competition. SOEs still account for 43 percent of service sector fixed-asset investment, compared with 8 percent in manufacturing

.…In telecommunications, for instance, an effort to introduce mobile virtual network operators to target underserved segments has not yet had a substantial impact because the big three players in the sector still have considerable clout in negotiations and strong influence on pricing. In health care, fixing the economics model to make hospitals less dependent on drug sales and encourage more qualified doctors to work at private hospitals could help improve the quality of service.

II. Improve the breadth and quality of capital markets. China would benefit from a financial system where market forces allocate capital efficiently; that means well functioning bond and equity markets that attract a diverse set of investors, including institutional and overseas players. The municipal bond market could lower financing costs for local government while bringing market discipline to managing investment projects. To facilitate this shift, China needs to strengthen the foundations of an effective financial system, such as strong, independent credit-rating agencies, more transparent public data on the economy, and more effective communication about government monetary policy. Inviting new players (such as internet banks) to supply capital and helping banks build capabilities to undertake more lending for underserved segments such as small and medium-sized enterprises and rural consumers will be important.

III. Enable corporate restructuring. Shifting successfully to a productivity-led growth model will mean a sea change—letting inefficient companies fail rather than protecting and propping them up and rationalizing excess capacity.

…enforcing bankruptcy law and improving the bankruptcy process. Strengthening capabilities of asset-management companies tasked with handling restructuring could help to turn around companies in default. China will need to expand the securitization of non-performing loans to be prepared for any larger-scale bad debt situation and to ensure that banks put effective risk management in place.

IV. Invest in talent and enhance labor mobility. China has made great strides in educating its people, but more is needed. Among the measures that the government could now take are providing more funding for education, designing programs that rotate effective teachers to places they are most needed, and engaging the private sector to define job-ready skills, build those into curricula, and establish an education to-employment pipeline. On top of this, the government could enhance labor mobility to optimize employment across different regions of the country. Expansion of unemployment insurance and training can help smooth the transition for displaced workers and help them back into jobs. Ensuring gender equality in opportunities in education and in the labor market, while supporting women as well as men as they develop their careers, can further strengthen China’s talent base.

V. Boost aggregate demand. As inequality grows, the government can revise fiscal and tax policies to give households more spending power. For families in need, it could consider conditional cash transfers. Improving social safety net programs by raising health-care and retirement benefits, for example, can reduce the need for precautionary saving for out-of-pocket medical expenses, facilitate consumption, and reduce income inequality. Broadening affordable-housing programs to include migrant workers, with market-based subsidies on both the supply and demand side, can also help low-income families to consume more.

VI. Improve public-sector effectiveness. Ensuring that government raises its own productivity is an important part of any transition to a productivity-led model. Such an effort can start by using household income and productivity indicators to evaluate officials and departments rather than rewarding them largely for the GDP growth their cities or regions achieve. Digitizing government operations and service delivery is an important part of the mix. Government also needs to develop better conflict-resolution capabilities to mediate between different stakeholders so that restructuring and reforms can proceed.

Another aspect of President Xi’s reform is in foreign policy, it has been dubbed the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). Last week the Economist – Our bulldozers, our rules discussed the potential of the initiative:-

…Asia needs new infrastructure—about $770 billion a year of it until 2020, according to the Asian Development Bank. This demand should eventually ease today’s worries about a lack of projects. Bert Hofman, the World Bank’s chief in Beijing, adds that individual countries will benefit more if they align their plans with one another and with China. It does not pay to plan and build separately.

Next, China needs OBOR. At home, its businesses are being squeezed by rising costs and growing demands that they pay more attention to protecting the environment. It makes sense for them to shift some manufacturing overseas—as long as the infrastructure is there.

Lastly, Xi Jinping needs it. He has made OBOR such a central part of his foreign policy and has gone to such lengths to swing the bureaucracy behind the project that it is too late to step back now.

None of this means the new Silk Road will be efficient, nor does it mean China’s plans will always be welcome in countries suspicious of its expanding reach. But the building blocks are in place. The first projects are up and running. OBOR is already beginning to challenge the notion of Europe and Asia existing side by side as different trading blocs.

This is reminiscent of the economic development of Japan during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Despite these policy initiatives, the Chinese economy has been slowing for the past six years. An excellent overview of the current situation was provided last month by the China-United States Exchange Foundation – China’s Incomplete Growth Strategy, in which they highlighted the policies for and challenges to achieve growth, both in the long and short run. Most of the problems are associated with the oversupply evident in the real-estate market and the economic drag from the debt associated with this over-supply. Their solution, as McKinsey suggested above, is infrastructure development:-

…last November, they officially placed the blame on long-term supply-side shortcomings, which they pledged to address with far-reaching structural reforms.

…the supply-side focus largely ignores the present. China faces two separate challenges: the long-term issue of a declining potential growth rate and the immediate problem of below-potential actual growth.

Among the long-term factors undermining potential growth are diminishing returns to scale, a widening income gap, and a narrowing scope for technological catch-up through imitation. Moreover, even as the country’s demographic dividend dissolves, its carrying capacity (the size of the population the environment can sustain) is being exhausted – a situation that high levels of pollution are certainly not helping. Finally, and most important, the country is suffering from inadequate progress on market-orientated reform.

While some of these factors are irreversible, others can be addressed effectively. And, indeed, the government’s supply-side reform strategy will go a long way toward doing just that, ultimately stabilizing and even raising China’s growth potential. But, contrary to popular belief, they will not boost China’s actual growth rate today.

Why are so many economists convinced that a long-term reform strategy is all China needs? One reason is the widely held notion that today’s overcapacity reflects supply-side problems, not insufficient demand. According to this view, China should implement policies like tax cuts to encourage companies to produce products for which there is genuine demand. That way, the government would not inadvertently sustain “zombie enterprises” that cannot survive without bank loans and support from local governments.

But only some of China’s overcapacity can be attributed to bad investment decisions. A large share has emerged because of a lack of effective demand. And that is, at least partly, a result of the government’s effort to moderate real-estate investment, which has caused the sector’s annual growth to tank, plunging from 38% in 2010 to 1% at the end of 2015.

With real-estate investment still accounting for more than 14% of GDP last year, plummeting growth in the sector has put considerable downward pressure on the economy as a whole, helping to push China into a debt-deflation spiral. As overcapacity drives down the producer price index – which has now been falling for 51 consecutive months – real debt rises. This is undermining corporate profitability, spurring companies to deleverage and reduce investment, and fuelling further declines in PPI.

The enduring importance of real-estate investment to China’s economic growth is reflected in trends from the first quarter of this year. Annual GDP growth of 6.7%, despite being the slowest rate for any quarter in seven years, exceeded market expectations. And it was driven partly by an unforeseen increase in real-estate investment growth, to 6%.

This is not to say that what China needs is more real-estate investment. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China had 718 million square meters of unsold commercial and residential floor space at the end of 2015; when space under construction is factored in, inventory expands to more than five billion square meters. With an average of only 1.2 billion square meters of housing being sold each year, the best way to reduce this supply glut is clear: limit future construction. One of the most important reasons for the recent investment surge was abundant liquidity driving speculative demand – and that is hardly sustainable.

…Infrastructure investment, in particular, may well be the key to tackling China’s economic woes. After all, such investment, which grew at 19.6% in the first quarter of 2016, has already proved to be a critical driver of economic growth – and, unlike real-estate investment, it has not worsened China’s resource allocation or set the stage for major imbalances.

When there is slack in the economy, the only way to escape the debt-deflation trap is to grow strongly. Given that China is saddled with large local-government and corporate debts, but also enjoys large domestic savings and a strong fiscal position, this message could not be more pertinent. In an ideal world, domestic consumption would serve as the main engine of growth; under current circumstances, infrastructure investment is the most reliable option.

In the short term, when overcapacity and deflation are the main obstacles, infrastructure investment boosts growth through the economy’s demand side. In the long run, it operates through the supply side to boost productivity and thus raise growth potential. China can fund such investment with fiscal deficits, given strong demand for government bonds. And, with China’s major banks still state-owned, and capital controls still in place, the risk of an imminent financial crisis is very low.

Of course, China’s government must uphold its commitment to implement structural reforms. But infrastructure investment is also badly needed, not just to prevent the economy from sliding further, but also to enable China to generate the sustained long-term growth that it requires to achieve developed-country status.

The slowdown in Chinese growth has finally prompted concerns around the world. In their May Economic Letter, the Dallas Fed – Impact of Chinese Slowdown on U.S. No Longer Negligible noted that the knock on effect of slowing Chinese growth had taken 20% off US GDP. The chart below shows Chinese and US annual GDP growth over the last 10 years, China is the left hand scale, the negative impact of Chinese growth on US GDP since 2010 has been roughly 0.4%:-

China vs US GDP 10 yr

Source: Trading Economics

The Problem of Debt

The current environment in China – as it is in much of the rest of the world – is dominated by the incessant increase in debt. In May, in what many observers regard to be a reversal of their opinion on the dangers of China’s debt mountain, the Economist – The coming debt bust attempted to quantify the magnitude of the problem facing the Chinese financial system:-

China was right to turn on the credit taps to prop up growth after the global financial crisis. It was wrong not to turn them off again. The country’s debt has increased just as quickly over the past two years as in the two years after the 2008 crunch. Its debt-to-GDP ratio has soared from 150% to nearly 260% over a decade, the kind of surge that is usually followed by a financial bust or an abrupt slowdown.

China will not be an exception to that rule. Problem loans have doubled in two years and, officially, are already 5.5% of banks’ total lending. The reality is grimmer. Roughly two-fifths of new debt is swallowed by interest on existing loans; in 2014, 16% of the 1,000 biggest Chinese firms owed more in interest than they earned before tax. China requires more and more credit to generate less and less growth: it now takes nearly four yuan of new borrowing to generate one yuan of additional GDP, up from just over one yuan of credit before the financial crisis. With the government’s connivance, debt levels can probably keep climbing for a while, perhaps even for a few more years. But not for ever.

When the debt cycle turns, both asset prices and the real economy will be in for a shock. That won’t be fun for anyone. It is true that China has been fastidious in capping its external liabilities (it is a net creditor). Its dangers are home-made. But the damage from a big Chinese credit blow-up would still be immense. China is the world’s second-biggest economy; its banking sector is the biggest, with assets equivalent to 40% of global GDP. Its stockmarkets, even after last year’s crash, are together worth $6 trillion, second only to America’s. And its bond market, at $7.5 trillion, is the world’s third-biggest and growing fast. A mere 2% devaluation of the yuan last summer sent global stockmarkets crashing; a bigger bust would do far worse. A mild economic slowdown caused trouble for commodity exporters around the world; a hard landing would be painful for all those who benefit from Chinese demand.

Brace, brace

Optimists have drawn comfort from two ideas. First, over three-plus decades of reform, China’s officials have consistently shown that once they identified problems, they had the will and skill to fix them. Second, control of the financial system—the state owns the major banks and most of their biggest debtors—gave them time to clean things up.

Both these sources of comfort are fading away. This is a government not so much guiding events as struggling to keep up with them. In the past year alone, China has spent nearly $200 billion to prop up the stockmarket; $65 billion of bank loans have gone bad; financial frauds have cost investors at least $20 billion; and $600 billion of capital has left the country. To help pump up growth, officials have inflated a property bubble. Debt is still expanding twice as fast as the economy.

…“shadow assets” have increased by more than 30% annually over the past three years. In theory, shadow banks diversify sources of credit and spread risk away from the regular banks. In practice, the lines between the shadow and formal banking systems are badly blurred.

That creates two risks. The first is higher-than-expected losses for the banks. Hungry for profits in a slowing economy, plenty of Chinese banks have mis-categorised risky loans as investments to dodge scrutiny and lessen capital requirements. These shadow loans were worth roughly 16% of standard loans in mid-2015, up from just 4% in 2012. The second risk is liquidity. The banks have become ever more reliant on “wealth management products”, whereby they pay higher rates for what are, in effect, short-term deposits and put them into longer-term assets. For years China restricted bank loans to less than 75% of their deposit base, ensuring that they had plenty of cash in reserve. Now the real level is nearing 100%, a threshold where a sudden shortage in funding—the classic precursor to banking crises—is well within the realm of possibility. Midsized banks have been the most active in expanding; they are the place to look for sudden trouble.

Pandamonium

The end to China’s debt build-up would not look exactly like past financial blow-ups. China’s shadow-banking system is big, but it has not spawned any products nearly as complex or international in reach as America’s bundles of subprime mortgages in 2008. Its relatively insulated financial system means that parallels with the 1997-98 Asian crisis, in which countries from Thailand to South Korea borrowed too much from abroad, are thin. Some worry that China will look like Japan in the 1990s, slowly grinding towards stagnation. But its financial system is more chaotic, with more pressure for capital outflows, than was Japan’s; a Chinese crisis is likely to be sharper and more sudden than Japan’s chronic malaise.

One thing is certain. The longer China delays a reckoning with its problems, the more severe the eventual consequences will be. For a start, it should plan for turmoil. Policy co-ordination was appalling during last year’s stockmarket crash; regulators must work out in advance who monitors what and prepare emergency responses. Rather than deploying both fiscal and monetary stimulus to keep growth above the official target of at least 6.5% this year (which is, in any event, unnecessarily fast), the government should save its firepower for a real calamity. The central bank should also put on ice its plans to internationalise the yuan; a premature opening of the capital account would lead only to big outflows and bigger trouble, when the financial system is already on shaky ground.

Most important, China must start to curb the relentless rise of debt. The assumption that the government of Xi Jinping will keep bailing out its banks, borrowers and depositors is pervasive—and not just in China itself. It must tolerate more defaults, close failed companies and let growth sag. This will be tough, but it is too late for China to avoid pain. The task now is to avert something far worse.

An article in Bruegal – Chinese banks: the way forward, which was published in April, looks in greater detail at the expansion of Chinese bank credit:-

The extensive credit expansion in January and February, especially from the banking sector, has several implications. First, it masks the growth of the non-performing loan ratio as the denominator has experienced such a big increase. Second, such surge in credit granted must have had a surge in demand as well. Whether that new demand reflects an improvement in the economy or simply more financing needs is a key question. If it is the latter then it reflects an increasing demand for new funds to repay outstanding loans.

Having said that, China had a bad-loan coverage ratio of 150%, which is considered high for international standards. However, there is rumor that this will be lowered to 120%. In any event, credit risk is rapidly rising in China as the economy slows down and financial conditions are lax enough for corporates to continue to leverage. The question, thus, is how weak are Chinese banks in the current circumstances.

No review of the financial position of China would be complete without a comment from Michael Pettis; last month he wrote Rebalancing, wealth transfers, and the growth of Chinese debt, this is a long research paper so I have only included extracts below:-

There is no way Beijing can address the debt without a sharp drop in GDP growth, but as unwilling as Beijing may be to see much lower growth, it doesn’t have any other option. It must choose either much lower but manageable growth today or a chaotic decline in growth tomorrow. The debt burden cannot stop rising, in other words, until Beijing adjusts its growth expectations sharply downwards and forcefully implements the kinds of reforms that the XI administration has talked about implementing, albeit against powerful political opposition, since the Third Plenum of October 2013.

Pettis then produces a set of scenarios, firstly with growth remaining at current levels:-

Growth remains at 6-7% 2016 -2019 2020-2023
No government transfers

 

 

 

 

 

 

·    Debt growth is steady at 12-14%

·    Investment growth is steady at current levels

·    Consumption growth is steady at current levels

·    Growth in household income is steady and household share of GDP is unchanged

·    No rebalancing

 

·    Period begins with 25% higher debt-to-GDP ratio, and consumption and investment account for roughly equal shares of GDP

·    Debt growth rises to 15-18%

·    Investment growth is steady at current levels

·    Consumption growth is steady at current levels

·    Growth in household income is steady and household share of GDP is unchanged

·    No rebalancing

 

Growth remains at 6-7% 2016 -2019 2020-2023
Annual government transfers of 1-2% of GDP

 

 

 

 

 

 

·   Debt growth drops to 9-10%

·   Investment growth declines by 2-3 percentage points

·   Consumption growth rises by 2-3 percentage points

·   Growth in household income rises by 2-3 percentage points and household share of GDP rises slightly

·   Minimal rebalancing

 

·   Period begins with 10-15% higher debt-to-GDP ratio, and consumption exceeds investment as a source of growth

·   Debt growth rises to 11-13%

·   Investment growth declines by another percentage point

·   Consumption growth is steady

·   Growth in household income is steady and household share of GDP rises

·   Gradual rebalancing

 

Growth remains at 6-7% 2016 -2019 2020-2023    
Annual government transfers of 3-4% of GDP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·    Debt growth drops to 8-10%

·    Investment growth declines by 6-7 percentage points

·    Consumption growth rises by 6-7 percentage points

·    Growth in household income rises by 6-7 percentage points and household share of GDP is materially higher

·    Material rebalancing

 

·    Period begins with 5-10% higher debt-to-GDP ratio, and consumption significantly exceeds investment as a source of growth

·    Debt growth rises to 6-8%

·    Consumption growth declines by 1-2 percentage points

·    Growth in household income declines by 1-2 percentage points and household share of GDP is materially higher

·    Material rebalancing

 

 

Next, Pettis looks at the same scenarios adjusting growth lower:-

Growth drops to 3-4% 2016 -2019 2020-2023
No government transfers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·    Debt growth drops to 6-8%

·    Investment growth declines by 4-6 percentage points

·    Consumption growth declines by 2-4 percentage points

·    Growth in household income declines by 2-4 percentage points and household share of GDP is slightly higher

·    Material rebalancing

 

 

·    Period begins with 10-15% higher debt-to-GDP ratio, and consumption exceeds investment as a source of growth

·    Debt growth is steady at 6-8%

·    Investment growth is steady at current levels

·    Consumption growth is steady at current levels

·    Growth in household income is steady at current levels and household share of GDP is materially higher

·    Material rebalancing

 

Growth drops to 3-4% 2016 -2019 2020-2023
Annual government transfers of 1-2% of GDP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·   Debt growth drops to 5-6%

·   Investment growth declines by 7-9 percentage points

·   Consumption growth is flat

·   Growth in household income is flat and household share of GDP is higher

·   Material rebalancing

 

 

 

·   Period begins with slightly higher debt-to-GDP ratio, and consumption significantly exceeds investment as a source of growth

·   Debt growth is steady at 5-6%

·   Investment growth is steady at current levels

·   Consumption growth is steady at current levels

·   Growth in household income is steady at current levels and household share of GDP is materially higher

·   Material rebalancing

 

 

 

Growth drops to 3-4% 2016 -2019 2020-2023
Annual government transfers of 3-4% of GDP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·   Debt growth drops to close to zero

·   Investment growth is zero

·   Consumption growth rises from current levels

·   Growth in household income rises from current levels and household share of GDP is materially higher

·   Substantial rebalancing

 

·   Period begins with lower debt-to-GDP ratio, and consumption significantly exceeds investment as a source of growth

·   Debt growth drops to well below GDP growth

·   Investment growth is steady at current levels

·   Consumption growth is steady at current levels

·   Growth in household income is steady at current levels and household share of GDP is substantially higher

·   Substantial rebalancing

 

Pettis concludes:-

A massive debt burden significantly reduces the options available to policy-makers and a severely unbalanced structure of demand forces policy-makers to choose between rising unemployment, rising debt, or rising wealth transfers. Economists who do not understand how this fairly simply trade-off dominates all policymaking simply will not be able to provide useful policy advice.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

China, like many other countries has a problem with debt. The FT recently published an estimate that the Chinese debt to GDP ratio was only 237% (lower than the Economist’s 260%) and government debt to GDP is only 43.9%, whilst household debt to GDP is 39.5%. The Heritage Foundation – Index of Economic Freedom 2016 – estimates China’s government spending to GDP at 29.3%, below that of many developed nations. The Rahn curve below shows how government spending can help to accelerate growth but the diminishing return once it rises above 15% of GDP:-

1DFA0969D85ED690F4E4B05858404992

Source: The Heritage Foundation, Peter Brimelow

Nonetheless, China compares favourably with Japan where government spending is 40.2%.

Stocks, Bonds and the Currency

The Shanghai Composite, shown below, has turned higher since the middle of May. A break above 3,075 could see it retest the highs of 2015 but this is unlikely to be the policy of the Xi administration:-

china-stock-market 10 yr

Source: Trading Economics, Shanghai Stock Exchange

 

10 year Chinese Government bonds have declined in yield as a result of the international turmoil created by Brexit, but, unlike many of major, international government bonds, they have not made new lows so far:-

china-government-bond-yield 1 yr

Source: Trading Economics, Chinese Ministry of Finance

I believe the recent rally in stocks is a function of the lower yield on bonds. The Chinese government has the whip hand. During the rally and subsequent collapse in the stock market during 2015, the government did not respond in a coordinated manner. Amongst a plethora of initiatives, and I may well have missed some, they relaxed margin requirements, fuelling the speculative bubble,  then, as the shake out gathered momentum, suspended the trading in shares listed on multiple markets. As liquidity conditions became more severe they froze 38 individual trading accounts – including certain algorithmic liquidity providers. The regulators also banned short selling and margin loans enabling investors to sell short on T=) settlement. They forced certain brokers to execute buy orders; one broker was bailed out with a CNY 260bln cash injection.

The rules on insurance companies purchasing stock were relaxed, certain shareholders (specifically SOE’s) were prohibited from selling and, under Announcement 18, senior managers and major shareholder (ones holding a stake of 5 % or more) were threatened with “severe punishment” if they sold shares of any listed company during a period of six months. IPO issuance was also suspended – a recent article from the  FRBSF – China’s IPO Activity and Equity Market Volatility looks at possible reforms of the IPO market. The authorities will not want to make the same mistakes a second time.

Margin lending has, so far, remained subdued. The chart below has data up to March 2016. Chinese investors were wounded last year but 10 year bond yields have fallen 80bp since June 2015:-

BN-NE269_CMARGI_G_20160321002958

Source: Wind Information Co, WSJ

Returning to the first chart, tracing the fortunes of the CNY, China appears to be exporting its way out of trouble at the expense of its trading partners. Its largest export market is the EU, US followed by Japan and South Korea.  Here is the US census bureau data for US-China trade since 2008:-

Month Exports Imports Balance
Jan-16 8212 37146 -28934
Feb-16 8049 36161 -28112
Mar-16 8952 29853 -20901
Apr-16 8667 32973 -24306
May-16 8518 37535 -29017
Month Exports Imports Balance
Jan-15 9482 38588 -29107
Feb-15 8759 31574 -22814
Mar-15 9882 41139 -31257
Apr-15 9307 36116 -26809
May-15 8763 39073 -30310
Jun-15 9622 41455 -31833
Jul-15 9514 41216 -31703
Aug-15 9169 44142 -34973
Sep-15 9424 45718 -36294
Oct-15 11410 44319 -32908
Nov-15 10618 41908 -31290
Dec-15 10122 37996 -27874
Year
2015 116072 483245 -367173
2014 123621 468484 -344863
2013 121746 440430 -318684
2012 110517 425619 -315103
2011 104122 399371 -295250
2010 91911 364953 -273042
2009 69497 296374 -226877
2008 69733 337773 -268040

 

Source: US Census Bureau

To help stem the decline in Chinese growth the National Bureau of Statistics has revised the way it calculates GDP. Zero Hedge – China To Boost “Economic Growth” By Changing Definition Of GDP quotes Yu Song of Goldman Sachs:-

Under the new method, the size of the economy is larger than previously estimated2015 GDP was revised up by 1.3% to 11tn USD, the Real growth rate was also revised up (rates vary from year to year and averaged 0.06% (6 bps) over the past 5 years). The upward revision is because China’s R&D expenditure growth has been consistently faster than that of overall GDP–though the difference the change makes to the GDP growth rate is small as R&D is a small part of the economy. The NBS announced 1Q real growth was revised up by 0.04% (4bps), but it did not specify whether the growth rate is now 6.8% yoy or remains at 6.7% yoy. We believe the latter case is slightly more likely as an upward revision would have been highlighted. A higher trend level would mean 2Q GDP growth should be higher as well. As a result, we revise our Q2 real GDP growth forecast to 6.7% yoy from 6.6% yoy previously with slight upside risk to our full-year forecast of 6.6% yoy.

Whether the markets are taken in by this sleight of hand remains to be seen, but, when statisticians are making comparisons in a couple of years from now, the higher growth rate will most likely be taken as gospel.

State Owned Enterprises are investing even as the private sector continues to withdraw – Reuters – China needs the private sector to step up. Residential and commercial construction continues to grow despite 718 M2 of vacant floor space. It is worth remembering that 75% of Chinese individual net worth is tied up in Real-Estate – in the US the figure is 28%. Lagarde’s second in command, David Lipton, of the IMF said China had made only “limited progress” in reducing its debt load but government bonds are near historic lows, making non-performing loans easier to extend. Back in the summer of 2014 I wrote about the importance of the housing market – Macro Letter – No 18 – 29-08-2014The second arrow of Likonomics and the Chinese property market, the stock market subsequently rallied but then collapsed. Now the policy of “rebalancing” seems to be taking a breather.

Chinese stocks, meanwhile, are cheap relative to many other markets. As at the end of June the CAPE was 12.4, PE 6.1 – the lowest of any major stock market globally, PC 3.2, PB 0.8, PS 0.6 and the dividend yield was 4.7%. Only the differential between the dividend yield and the 10 year bond yield (1.93%) looks unremarkable.

Chinese Q2 GDP data is released next week, an unnamed official suggested the PBoC might still have room to cut interest rates, although any further loosening of bank reserve requirements appears unlikely. As we head into the summer lull, Chinese stocks, especially those with an exposure to infrastructure, may offer an excellent buying opportunity.

Will Japan be the first to test the limits of quantitative easing?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 57 – 24-06-2016

Will Japan be the first to test the limits of quantitative easing?

  • The Bank of Japan made its first provision against losses from QQE
  • As the JPY has strengthened the Nikkei 225 has fallen more than 16% YTD
  • Domestic institutions have been switching from bonds to stocks
  • Japanese share buy backs are on the rise

The Japanese stock market peaked in December 1989, marking the end of a period of economic expansion which briefly saw Japan eclipse the USA to become the world’s largest economy. Since its zenith, Japan has struggled. I wrote about this topic, in relation to the economic reform package dubbed Abenomics, in my first Macro Letter – Japan: the coming rise back in December 2013:-

As the US withdrew from Japan the political landscape became dominated by the LDP who were elected in 1955 and remained in power until 1993; they remain the incumbent and most powerful party in the Diet to this day. Under the LDP a virtuous triangle emerged between the Kieretsu (big business) the bureaucracy and the LDP. Brian Reading (Lombard Street Research) wrote an excellent, and impeccably timed, book entitled Japan: The Coming Collapse in 1989. By this time the virtuous triangle had become, what he coined the “Iron Triangle”.

Nearly twenty five years after the publication of Brian’s book, the” Iron Triangle” is weaker but alas unbroken. However, the election of Shinzo Abe, with his plan for competitive devaluation, fiscal stimulus and structural reform has given the electorate hope. 

In the last two years Abenomics has delivered some transitory benefits but, as this Japan Forum on International Relations – No. 101: Has Abenomics Lost Its Initial Objective? describes, it may have lost its way:-

The key objective of Abenomics is a departure from 20 year deflation. For this purpose, the Bank of Japan supplied a huge amount of base money to cause inflation, and carried out quantitative and qualitative monetary easing so that consumers and businesses have inflationary mindsets. This “first arrow” of Abenomics was successful to boost corporate profits and raising stock prices by devaluing the exchange rate, but falling oil price makes it unlikely to achieve a 2% inflation rate, despite BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s dedicated effort. The quantitative and qualitative monetary easing will not accomplish the core objective.

Another reason for such a huge amount of base money supply is to expand export through currency depreciation and to stimulate economic growth, but that has neither boosted export nor contributed to economic growth. We cannot dismiss world economic downturn, notably in China, but actually, Japanese big companies that lead national export, have shifted their business bases overseas during the last era of strong yen. From this point of view, I suspect that the Japanese government overlooked such structural changes that deterred export growth, even if the yen was devalued. The “second arrow” is flexible fiscal expenditure to support the economy, and the result of which has revealed that it is virtually impossible to keep the promise to the global community to achieve the equilibrium of the primary balance in 2020.

In view of the above changes, I would like to lay my hopes on the “third arrow” of economic growth strategy. The growth strategy has been announced three times up to now, in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively. The strategy in 2013 launched three action plans, but they were insufficient. The 2014 strategy was highly evaluated internationally, as it actively involved in the reform of basic nature of the Japanese economy, such as capital market reform, agricultural reform, and labor reform. But it takes ten to twenty years for a structural reform like this to work. Meanwhile, it is quite difficult to understand the growth strategy approved by the cabinet in June 2015. Frankly, this is empty and the quality of it has become even poorer. Abenomics was heavily dependent on monetary policy, and did not tackle long term issues so much, such as social security and regional development. However, people increasingly worry about dire prospects of long term problems like 2 population decrease, aging, and so forth, while the administration responds to such trends with mere slogans like “regional revitalization” and “dynamic engagement of all citizens”. But it is quite unlikely that these “policies” will really revitalize the region, or promote dynamic engagement by the people.

The Bank of Japan (BoJ) has held up its side of the bargain but the “Third Arrow” of structural reform seems to be stuck in the quiver. It is prudent, in light of this policy failure, for the BoJ to look ahead to the time when they are required by the government or forced by the markets, to unwind QQE. Last month they began that process.

As this article from the Nikkei Asian Review – BOJ seen preparing for exit from easing with reserves  explains, the BoJ has made a provision of JPY 450bln for the year ending March 2016 against potential capital losses which might be incurred upon liquidation of their JGB holdings. This is the first provision of its kind and substantially reduces the percentage of seigniorage profits remitted to the Japanese government.  The level of remittances has been falling –from JPY 757bln in 2014 to JPY 425bln last year. As at the end of May 2016 the BoJ held JPY 319.5trln of JGBs – 36.6% of outstanding issuance. Japan Macro Advisors estimate this will reach 49.3% by the end of 2017. This year’s provision, whilst prudent, is a drop in the ocean. Under the current Quantitative and Qualitative Easing (QQE) programme they are obligated to purchase JPY 80tln per annum. The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies – The Fiscal Costs of Unconventional Monetary Policy put it like this:-

It is quite likely that quantitative easing through high-volume purchases of long-term bonds will cause the Bank of Japan enormous losses over the medium to long term, imposing burdens on taxpayers both directly and indirectly. If the current quantitative easing continues, the Bank of Japan may find itself in the near future unable to cover such losses even using all of its seigniorage profits.

…The BoJ’s seigniorage will be roughly equivalent in present value to the balance of banknotes issued. If the BoJ procures funds by issuing cash at a zero interest rate and purchases JGBs, the present discounted value of the principal and interest earned by the BoJ from its JGBs will equal the balance of banknotes. If interest rates are about 2%, Japan’s demand for banknotes will fall from 19% of GDP at present to less than 10% of GDP, and the BoJ’s aforementioned losses would even exceed the present value of its seigniorage.

Here is an extract from the BoJ’s 16th June Statement on Monetary Policy the emphasis is mine:-

Quantity Dimension: The guideline for money market operations

The Bank decided, by an 8-1 majority vote, to set the following guideline for money market operations for the intermeeting period:[Note 1]

The Bank of Japan will conduct money market operations so that the monetary base will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

Quality Dimension: The guidelines for asset purchases

With regard to the asset purchases, the Bank decided, by an 8-1 majority vote, to set the following guidelines:[Note 1]

a) The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen. With a view to encouraging a decline in interest rates across the entire yield curve, the Bank will conduct purchases in a flexible manner in accordance with financial market conditions. The average remaining maturity of the Bank’s JGB purchases will be about 7-12 years.

b) The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual paces of about 3.3 trillion yen1 and about 90 billion yen, respectively.

c) As for CP and corporate bonds, the Bank will maintain their amounts outstanding at about 2.2 trillion yen and about 3.2 trillion yen, respectively.

Interest-Rate Dimension: The policy rate

The Bank decided, by a 7-2 majority vote, to continue applying a negative interest rate of minus 0.1 percent to the Policy-Rate Balances in current accounts held by financial institutions at the Bank.[Note 2]

[Note 1] Voting for the action: Mr. H. Kuroda, Mr. K. Iwata, Mr. H. Nakaso, Mr. K. Ishida, Mr. T. Sato, Mr. Y. Harada, Mr. Y. Funo, and Mr. M. Sakurai. Voting against the action: Mr. T. Kiuchi. Mr. T. Kiuchi proposed that the Bank conduct money market operations and asset purchases so that the monetary base and the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings increase at an annual pace of about 45 trillion yen, respectively. The proposal was defeated by a majority vote.

[Note 2] Voting for the action: Mr. H. Kuroda, Mr. K. Iwata, Mr. H. Nakaso, Mr. K. Ishida, Mr. Y. Harada, Mr. Y. Funo, and Mr. M. Sakurai. Voting against the action: Mr. T. Sato and Mr. T. Kiuchi. Mr. T. Sato and Mr. T. Kiuchi dissented considering that an interest rate of 0.1 percent should be applied to current account balances excluding the amount outstanding of the required reserves held by financial institutions at the Bank, because negative interest rates would impair the functioning of financial markets and financial intermediation as well as the stability of the JGB market.

The decision by the BoJ not to increase QQE at its last two meetings has surprised the markets and lead to a further strengthening of the JPY. Governor Kuroda, gave a speech Keio University on June 20thOvercoming Deflation: Theory and Practice in which he described the history of BoJ policy in its attempts to stimulate the Japanese economy:-

As mentioned, the aim of QQE is to overcome the prolonged deflation that has gripped Japan. Even if this deflation has been mild, the fact that it has continued for more than 15 years means that its cumulative costs have been extremely large. Looked at in terms of the price level, an annual inflation rate of minus 0.3 percent over a period of 15 years implies that the price level will fall by around 5 percent, but an annual inflation rate of 2 percent over a period of 15 years means that the price level will rise by around 35 percent.

It is worth noting that the UK and USA was subject to a long period of deflation during the “Great Depression” between 1873 and 1896 (approximately -2% per annum) by this comparison Japan’s experience has been very mild indeed. The BoJ has a 2% inflation target, however, so we should anticipate more QQE. Kuroda-san, who has previously stated that the effect of NIRP will take time to feed through and that NIRP may be increased from -0.1% to -0.5%, gave no indication as to what the BoJ may do next; although he did say that Japan provides an interesting case study for academia.

On June 8th Professor George Selgin delivered the Annual IEA Hayek Memorial Lecture – Price Stability and Financial Stability without Central Banks – lessons from the past for the future in which he discussed good and bad deflation together with “Free Banking” – the concept of financial stability without central banks (if you have 45 minutes and enjoy economic history, the whole speech it is well worthwhile). With regard to the current situation in Japan – and elsewhere – he highlights the different between good deflation which is driven by supply expansion and bad deflation which is the result of demand shrinkage. Selgin also goes on to allude to Hayek’s view that that stability of spending should be the objective of monetary policy rather than the stability of prices – akin to what Market Monetarists dub the stability of monetary velocity.

Japan’s monetary base has expanded by 170% since March 2013 but at the same time the money multiplier – Money Stock/BoJ Monetary Base – has declined from 8.27 times (April 2013) to 3.35 times (March 2016). Lending market growth was at its weakest for three years in March (+2%) principally due to household hoarding.

Bloomberg - Japan Money Mult and Money base

Source: Bloomberg, BoJ

Since the announcement of Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP) in January the sale of safes for domestic residences has increased dramatically. Whilst I have not found evidence from Japan, this article from Bloomberg – Cash in Vaults Tested by Munich Re Amid ECB’s Negative Rates reports that MunichRE – the world’s second largest reinsurer – is setting a worrying precedent, it’s one thing when individuals hoard paper money but, when financial institutions follow suit, monetary velocity is liable to plummet. I suspect institutions in Switzerland and Japan are also assessing the merits of stuffing their proverbial mattresses with fiat money.

The chart below reveals that declining monetary velocity is not exclusively a Japanese phenomenon:-

Monetary Velocity - CLSA

Source: CLSA, CEIC

The Yotai Gap – the difference between bank deposits and loans – is another measure of household hoarding. It widened to JPY 207.6trln in March, close to its record high of JPY 209.9trln in May 2015. The unintended consequences of NIRP is an increase in demand for paper money and a reduction of demand for retail loans even as interest rates decline.

Japanese industry looks little better than the household sector, as this excellent article from Alhambra Investment Partners – It’s Not Stupidity, It Is Apathy (For Now) explains:-

Japanese industry has not gained anything for the surrender of Japanese households, with industrial production falling 3.5% in April, the 18th time in the past the 22 months. IP in April 2016 was slightly less than the production level in April 2013 when QQE began. Worse, IP is still 3.4% below April 2012, which further suggests both continued economic decline and a distinct lack of any effect from all the “stimulus.”

Barron’s – Unintended Consequences of NIRP listed the following additional effects:-

1) compress net interest margins and bank profits;
2) damage consumer and business confidence;
3) provide little incentive for business invest in capital rather than buy back stock;
4) hurt savers;
5) makes active management more difficult by dampening dispersion;
6) increase demand for gold and other hard assets; and,
7) likely widen the wealth gap

The BoJ can continue to buy JGBs, Commercial Paper, Corporate Bonds, ETFs and, once these avenues have been exhausted, move on to the purchase of common stocks and commercial loans. It can nationalise the stock market and circumvent the banking system in order to provide liquidity to end users or even consumers. At what point will the markets realise that they have been pushing on a string for decades? I suspect, not yet, but a dénouement, an epiphany, draws near.

Markets since the announcement of NIRP

Since the BoJ NIRP announcement at the end of January, the JPY has strengthened by around 14%. The five year chart below shows the degree to which the hopes for the first arrow of Abenomics have been dashed:-

japan-currency 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

Currency weakness has put pressure on stocks. International investors sold around JPY 5trln during in a 13 week selling binge to the beginning of April:-

japan-stock-market 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

The Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) and other domestic institutions took up the slack – the GPIF has moved from 12% to 23% equities since October 2014 – here is the 31st December breakdown of the asset mix for the JPY 140trln fund:-

31-12-15 % Allocation Policy Target Permitted Deviation
Domestic Bonds 37.76 35 10
Domestic Equity 23.35 25 9
International Bonds 13.5 15 4
International Equities 22.82 25 8
Short term assets 2.57

Source: GPIF

In theory the GPIF could buy another JPY 15.5trln of domestic stocks and reduce its holdings of JGBs by nearly JPY 18trln. I expect other Japanese pension funds and Trust Banks to follow the lead of the GPIF. Domestic demand for stocks is likely to continue.

As I mentioned earlier, JGBs are being steadily accumulated by the BoJ even as the GPIF and other institutions switch to equities. This is the five year yield chart for the 10 year maturity:-

japan-government-bond-yield 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

JGBs made new all-time lows earlier this month, with maturities out as far as 15 years turning negative, amid international concerns about the potential impact of Brexit.

Looking more closely at Japanese stocks, non-financial corporations have followed the lead of the eponymous Mrs Watanabe, accumulating an historically high cash pile. Barron’s – Abenomics Watch: Japan’s Corporates Are Hoarding Cash, Too takes up the story:-

During the three years of Abenomics between 2013 and 2015, Japan’s non-financial corporate sector increased its holding of cash and deposits by roughly 30 trillion yen, or 6% of GDP. This amount is equivalent to about 35% of retained earnings, estimates Credit Suisse.

This amount is high by historical standards. During the previous economic upswing between the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2008, Japan’s corporations held only 11.5% of their retained earnings.

So why are Japanese companies hoarding cash?

One explanation is larger intangible assets. It is easy for companies to put up their fixed assets as collateral for loans, but how should banks value intangible assets such as intellectual property? Cash would be a viable collateral option. However, Credit Suisse finds that there is not much correlation between cash and intangible asset positions. The ratio of cash to intangible fixed assets investments has moved broadly between 8.6 years and 11.6 years over the two decades since 1994.

A second explanation is lax corporate governance, which Abe has been trying to fix. Are Japanese companies only paying him lip service?

A third explanation is increasing pension liabilities. As Japanese society ages, companies feel compelled to hoard more cash to pay off employees who are due to retire in the coming years. Encouraging women to enter the labor force is a key component of Abenomics’ Third Arrow. He has not gone very far.

Last, perhaps Japanese companies are feeling uncertain about the future? Toyota Motor, for instance, drastically changed its yen assumption from 120 to 105 in the new fiscal year. Companies hoard more cash when they don’t know what’s going to happen.

According to the latest flow of funds data from the BoJ – corporate cash was estimated to be JPY 246trln in Q1 2016 – the 29th consecutive quarterly increase, whilst household assets rose to JPY 902trln the highest on record and the 36th quarterly increase in a row. A nine year trend.

Another trend which has been evident in Japan – and elsewhere – is an increase in share buybacks. The chart below tells the story since 2012:-

Topix Share buy backs

Source: FT, Goldman Sachs

Compared to the level of share buy backs seen in the US, Japanese activity is minimal, nonetheless the trend is growing and NIRP must assume some responsibility. Perhaps it was the precipitous decline in capital expenditure, which prompted the BoJ to introduce NIRP. The chart below is taken from the December 2015 Tankan report:-

japan-tankan-capex-index-q1-2016

Source: Business Insider Australia, BoJ

In the March 2016 Tankan, the Business Conditions Diffusion Index remained generally positive but the decline of momentum is of concern:-

Dec-15 Mar-16 June-16(F/C)
Large
Manufacturers 12 6 3
Non-Manufacturers 25 22 17
 
Medium
Manufacturers 5 5 -2
Non-Manufacturers 19 17 9

 Source; BoJ

I doubt capital expenditure will rebound while share buy backs appear safer to the executive officers of these companies. The Japanese stock market is also attractive by several valuation metrics. The table below compares the seven most liquid stock markets, as at 31st March, is sorted by the yield premium to 10 year government bonds (DY-10y):-

Country CAPE PE PC PB PS DY 10y DY-10y
Switzerland 20.3 22.5 13.9 2.3 1.8 3.50% -0.33% 3.83%
France 16 20.9 6.5 1.5 0.8 3.50% 0.41% 3.09%
Germany 16.8 19 8 1.6 0.7 2.90% 0.15% 2.75%
United Kingdom 12.7 35.4 12.8 1.8 1.1 4.00% 1.42% 2.58%
Italy 11.1 31.5 5 1.1 0.5 3.50% 1.23% 2.27%
Japan 22.7 15.3 7.9 1.1 0.7 2.20% -0.04% 2.24%
United States 24.6 19.9 11.6 2.8 1.8 2.10% 1.77% 0.33%

Source: StarCapital.de, Investing.com

For international allocators, the strength of the JPY has been a significant cushion this year, but, for the domestic investor, the Nikkei 225 is down 16.2% YTD. Technically the market is consolidating around the support region between 16,300 and 13,900. If it breaks lower we may see a return towards to 10,000 – 11,000 area. If it recovers, a push through 18,000 should see the market retest its highs. I believe the downside is supported by domestic demand for stocks as bond yields turn increasingly negative.

International investors will remain wary of the risks associated with the currency. Further BoJ largesse must be anticipated; that they have made a first provision against losses from the unwinding of QQE is but a warning shot across the bows of the ministry of finance. As I suggested in Macro Letter – No 49 – 12-02-2016 Why did Japanese NIRP cause such surprise in the currency market and is it more dangerous? a currency hedged equity investment is worth considering. Prime Minister Abe, who began campaigning, this week, for the upper house elections on July 10th, has promised to boost the economy if he wins a majority of the 121 seats being contested. The monetary experiment looks set to continue but the BoJ may be the first central bank to discover the limits of largesse.

 

What to do if the Brexit hits the fan? Prepare to Invest

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Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 3 – 17-6-2016

What to do if the Brexit hits the fan? Prepare to Invest

  • Opinion polls suggest that the Brexit camp may win the referendum this month
  • GBPUSD has made new lows on the news
  • UK stocks have fallen to levels last seen in March
  • UK Gilt yields have reached historic lows and credit spreads have widened

Whilst I still think it most likely that we will vote to remain in the EU, if the UK electorate vote to leave the EU on 23rd June, this is what I believe may happen and here is one investment opportunity which might be worth considering:-

Short-term

Sterling will weaken, International capital outflows will hit UK stocks and Gilts. A “technical recession” will ensue.

Medium-term

A weaker currency will cause inflation and exports to rise. Higher yields and a more competitive currency will lead to capital inflows into UK stocks and Gilts. Sterling will recover.

Background

Governor Carney of the Bank of England sees the risk of a “technical recession” should the UK leave the EU. Christine Legarde, MD of the IMF, says she has “not seen anything positive” about Brexit in economic terms, predicting a rebound in growth if the UK remains, but the possibility of a stock and housing market crash if we leave.

Countering these Cassandras’, Iain Mansfield, the director of trade and industry at the British Embassy in Manilla, won the IEA prize for his essay A Blueprint for Britain: Openness not isolation, stating:-

 

The outcome would be to accelerate the shifting pattern of UK’s exports and total trade away from the EU to the emerging markets, where the majority of the world’s growth is located. A more business-friendly regulatory regime and the new security of the City of London from European interference will enhance competitiveness and compensate for the partial loss of access to the European market.

Elsewhere commentators talk of a “Neverendum” even in the event of Brexit.

What to do

The FTSE100 Index is slightly below the middle of its 2,000 point range of the last five years. Despite recent weakness, a Brexit vote will lead to a further weakening of the Sterling Effective Exchange rate. Capital outflows will hit stocks, however, a weaker currency will help the Bank of England to meet its inflation target and exporters will benefit, especially those trading with structurally faster growing economies such as China, India and a number of Commonwealth countries.

Prime Minister Cameron announced the date for the UK referendum on 20th February. The chart below compares the DAX against the FTSE and the S&P500 over the past six months. On the face of it the UK stock market has paid little notice of the vote, although the weakening of Sterling may have been supportive for the more international FTSE companies:-

FTSE SPX DAX 6months

Source: Yahoo Finance

Another interpretation of the price action in financial markets suggests that the markets expect the UK to remain. Similar price action proved more reliable than the opinion polls both during the Scottish Referendum of 2014 and the Quebec Referendum of 1995. Cable (GBPUSD) dipped in March but has since recovered, partly spurred on by initial polls predicting that UK voters would choose to remain, lately it has weakened once more. The charts below are from Wednesday 15th, the Sterling has weakened further since:-

GBPUSD 6 months

Source: Barchart.com

EURGBP has been weakening over the past year:-

EURGBP 1 yr

Source: Tradingview.com

When viewed over the past ten years, however, the nature of the price move appears less remarkable. Eurozone (EZ) growth has been improving after a period of protracted weakness. Could an improvement in sentiment towards the EZ be the catalyst rather than expectations of the demise of Sterling?

EURGBP Monthly since 2007

Source: Tradingview.com

Once the initial turmoil of Brexit subsides, fears about the stability of the Eurozone will return; during the last decade the UK witnessed “safe haven” investment flows from Europe, especially into real estate. Inflows will resume as the European political landscape polarizes further. The UK construction sector will benefit. Reform of planning legislation, more likely once the UK has regained control of its borders, could substantially increase the attractiveness of the building sector. In many ways the housing sector represents an each-way bet. Should the UK electorate vote to remain deferred demand for property is likely to resume.

The UK stock market dividend yield is around 4%: by other metrics, including the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings ratio, the market is not overly expensive either. A Brexit decline may provide an excellent buying opportunity. Prepare to invest.

Here comes summer – Did you sell in May?

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Macro Letter – No 56 – 10-06-2016

Here comes summer – Did you sell in May?

  • Are Central Bankers approaching the limit of their power?
  • Individual stock volatility is reaching extremes relative to the indices
  • When dispersion of stock returns is high the risk relative to reward also rises
  • Some hedge fund strategies offer long-term benefits in this environment

This week’s letter is a departure from my normal format. Enclosed is a commentary on the prospects for the financial markets from my friend Allan Rogers whom I have been fortunate enough to know since the early 1990’s. Latterly the CIO of Loews Corporation’s Continental Assurance, Allan was a proprietary trader at Bankers Trust when the bank was in its heyday. Here is the note he kindly sent me on 14th May:-

Summer 2016 features a rising wave of frustration and voter antipathy toward most governing bodies and central banks, with good reason.  Ballot box dynamics threaten numerous incumbent government officials.  Demographic aging phenomena, technological innovation and minimum wage adjustments combine to thwart cyclical labor market improvement.  As post-war economic models fail to anticipate these rapid market adjustments, Central Banks cling desperately to their Milton Friedman monetary theory and Keynesian fiscal assumptions, relying on their imaginations, luck, and prayer to launch wave after wave of novel liquidity infusions.  So far, no good.  In their haste to revive growth after the financial crisis, they have handcuffed the dealer liquidity providers with ill-conceived regulations that endanger the liquidity network plumbing whenever expectations shift abruptly.  We have devolved into a nightmare of ZIRP, NIRP, QE, and God knows what’s next.  But, rather than wring our hands over this dilemma, let’s contemplate sensible portfolio management strategy for a few minutes.

As discussed last year, foreign exchange currency reserves still exceed $14 trillion.  Their potential deployment for economic stimulus remains intact.  Sovereign wealth funds, mostly invested in equity proxies, provide additional support for equity markets.  Central Banks are squeezing private investors as they desperately acquire dominant portions of the most liquid segments of risk-free(?) sovereign debt, corporate debt in Europe, and ETF’s and equities in Asia.  As a result, P/E ratios are elevated and yields bear little relationship to economic fundamentals.  As the political outlook befuddles the experts and aggravates voters, portfolio managers, facing new accountability regulations and third-quarter restrictions on Money Market Funds, need to become even more tactical in their asset allocation until clarity on Trump/Clinton, Brexit, etc. emerges later this year.  Until then, counter-trading the price action makes the most sense.  Even the hedge funds and private equity managers are struggling to perform in this turbulence as previous experience appears to provide useful insights.  The erratic price action reminds me of the late 1970’s when thirty years of fixed rates were followed by the oil price shocks that ushered in the Volcker era. Desperate pension funds and insurance companies might applaud such a development now as their yield assumptions fall 100’s of basis points short of any hope of meeting their forward liabilities.  In a market where the Yen and Euro rally despite explicit efforts to devalue them, one might surmise that their appreciation is only driven by the final unwinding of the massive Yen-carry trade by hedge funds facing redemptions after disappointing performance.

Amid all the chaos, do not expect central banks to abandon their printing presses. Syrian immigration issues in Europe and Trumpian nationalism will retard global trade and risk a replay of more intense competitive devaluation.  When we do reach the point of exhaustion for monetary stimulus, central banks have NO exit strategy. Bond markets will break down abruptly, but until then, US Treasuries should out-perform all other sovereigns. 10 year notes may well flirt with 1% as NIRP experimentation continues. Debates about the number of Fed “tightening” moves are irrelevant. The outlook, going forward, is all about liquidity management.  Although gold has rallied sharply so far this year, I suggest owning some gold, although one should heed the cautious brilliance of Stan Druckenmiller in conceivably buying a more significant percentage.

In this climate, equity markets offer the most promising net returns, IF one is willing to trade them actively.  “Buy and Hold” is a death wish. For over ten years, opportunistic equity traders have encountered volatile, but profitable equity markets. As we sit close to record high prices and valuations, why now? Amid illiquid markets, individual equities experience incredible price volatility despite the tame VIX market. The table below details the price ranges of the Dow Jones Industrials over the previous 52 weeks. If a money manager budgets an annual return of 7-8%, as many pension funds do, then opportunistic trading of these large-cap, blue chips makes achievement of those returns possible. Incremental usage of options and dividends sweeten the results.  But, you must trade these ranges, or, only buy weakness. I know this runs counter to indexing and most notions of prudent investment, but look at the table and draw your own conclusions. Incidentally, these ranges are not atypical, even in years where the averages experience only modest annual changes.

Stock  52 wk low 52 wk high 52 wk range % change
AAPL 89.47 132.97 43 48
AXP 50.27 81.92 31 63
BA 102.1 150.58 48 47
CAT 56.36 89.62 33 59
CSCO 22.46 29.9 7 33
CVX 69.58 109.3 40 57
DD 47.11 75.72 28 61
DIS 86.25 122.08 37 42
GE 19.37 32.05 12 65
GS 139.05 218.77 80 57
HD 97.17 137.82 40 42
IBM 116.9 174.44 57 49
INTC 24.87 35.59 11 43
JNJ 81.79 115 33 41
JPM 50.07 70.61 20 41
KO 36.56 47.13 10 29
MCD 87.5 131.96 44 51
MMM 134 171.27 37 28
MRK 45.69 61.7 16 35
MSFT 39.72 56.85 17 43
NKE 47.25 68.19 21 44
PFE 28.25 36.46 8 29
PG 65.02 83.87 19 29
TRV 95.21 118.28 23 24
UNH 95 135.11 40 42
UTX 83.39 119.66 36 43
V 60 81.73 22 36
VZ 38.06 54.49 16 43
WMT 56.3 79.94 24 42
XOM 66.55 90 23 35
         
Average       43
         
DIA 150.57 183.35 32 22
SPY 181.02 213.78 33 18

 

Source: Yahoo Finance

These data observations, while hardly profound, illustrate the range of possibility for trading profit, even in the largest stocks. Notice that the average price range of individual equities is more than twice the range of the large-cap averages, as reflected in their ETF’s. If you need to earn 8% per annum and the average Dow Industrial offers a 43% annual trading range, you don’t need to channel Jesse Livermore to achieve your objective. These results do not include dividends or option writing benefits.

This series of macro letters is entitled “In the Long Run” so you may, quite reasonably assume that I have “sold out”. I have not, but Allan, highlights the essence of the dilemma facing long-term investors looking ahead. During the past eight years interest rates have fallen in several countries to the lowest levels since records began. Being long government bonds below ones own rate of inflation (and there are few people whose living costs genuinely rise as slowly at RPI, HICP etc.) is irrational, since your real return will be negative – switching to “risker” assets makes sense.

With the Fed expected to tighten, if not this month then very soon, and other central banks contemplating how they may unwind the QE experiment, it seems likely that government yields may rise, credit spreads widen and equities decline.  As Mark Twain once proclaimed, “History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes” the aforementioned scenario occurred in January and February – this spooked central bankers who promptly enacted the secret “Shanghai Accord”. The next round of “risk off” will be different.

Strategies not Asset Classes

It is well documented that the average “long only” portfolio manager underperforms the benchmark over time. Unconstrained investing, either of a “long only” absolute return type or “long/short” makes sense, but make sure your expectations are realistic. Assets such as commodities have a structurally negative real-return, even if they can perform strongly on a cyclical basis. Even “risk free” government bonds can suffer restructuring or be subject to default.

Alternative investments may provide a solution but many liquid alternative strategies (by which I mean Hedge Funds) are highly correlated to equity or fixed income indices, although they offer similar returns with substantially lower volatility. Others, are either negatively or non-correlated. For example, the discipline of the short biased manager is undervalued, given that they actively bet against the long term trend of the stock market. As an addition to a portfolio they can offer a form of active risk management. At the end of April the Barclay Hedge – Equity Short Bias Index was +3.37% YTD whilst the Equity Long Biased Index was still languishing at -1.85%; that is 1.52% of Alpha if the general market is your index.

Two other strategies worth maintaining an exposure to are Global Macro and Managed Futures. Global Macro incorporates the widest array of approaches and exposures – at the index level it is unsurprising that it rarely does well, choose carefully and keep the faith. Managed futures is also diverse but there is still a concentration on systematic momentum and trend following strategies which provide negative correlation during equity bear markets and non-correlation during other periods. It also has the advantage that you can, usually, discover the investment process prior to investment. If style drift should subsequently occur this is your signal to redeem; otherwise you should not need to intervene. It can be a remarkably light touch investment.

I could describe a number of other strategies which have merit in the current market conditions but in the interests of brevity I will close with a recent assessment of the three main risks to financial markets according to Gavekal’s Anatoly Kelestsky:-

  • The June 23 “Brexit” vote in the UK
  • US elections on November 7th
  • German elections in mid-2017

Allan Rogers sees this as a traders market whilst ex-Dallas Fed President – Richard Fisher, speaking at the Mauldin SIC event last month, described his portfolio positioning as “Fetal”. Perhaps this year, more than most, the old adage “Sell in May and go away, return again St Leger’s day” (2nd October) may be apposite.

The levee gonna break – Debt, demographics, productivity and financialization

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Macro Letter – No 55 – 20-05-2016

The levee gonna break – Debt, demographics, productivity and financialization

  • Debt and leverage since the financial crisis has continued to rise
  • Demographics trends in developed countries are not supportive of economic growth
  • Productivity growth has been rising much slower since the Great Recession
  • Financialization of the global economy has amplified the business cycle

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
Some people still sleepin’, some people are wide awake

 Bob Dylan

 In a March paper from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank – The Lasting Damage from the Financial Crisis to U.S. Productivity – the authors observe that total factor productivity in the US has not returned to its pre-financial crisis trajectory. They ascribe this to the tightness of credit conditions:-

Our empirical analysis shows the crisis indeed altered this relationship. During normal times, total factor productivity growth fluctuates over the business cycle along with changes in the intensity with which available labor and capital are used; credit conditions are unimportant.

During the crisis, however, distressed credit markets and tighter lending conditions were significant drags on total factor productivity growth. Because productivity’s sensitivity to credit conditions once again diminished after the crisis, the post-crisis easing of credit conditions did not boost productivity growth. As a result, the financial crisis left productivity, and therefore output, on a lower trajectory. Adverse credit conditions appear to have dampened total factor productivity growth by curtailing productivity-boosting innovation during the crisis rather than by hampering the efficient allocation of the economy’s productive resources through reduced creation and destruction of firms and jobs.

The conclusion is a telling indictment on the ability of the mainstream economics profession to unravel the conundrum total factor productivity:-

Our analysis does not explain the slow pace of productivity growth since the crisis, which has been a source of great concern among economists and policymakers. From 2010 to 2014, TFP growth averaged just 0.6 percent per year, well below its average growth rate of 1 percent from 1970 to 2010.

An attempt to counter this deficiency was undertaken by Mauldin Economics – Delta Force and summed up by this simple equation:-

The Greek letter delta (Δ) is the symbol for change. So the change in GDP is written as:-

ΔGDP = ΔPopulation + ΔProductivity

In other words, GDP growth can be achieved by an increase in the working age population or an increase in productivity. They go on to state that the problem of reduced investment is being exacerbated by low interest rates:-

Rather than encouraging businesses to compete by investing in productive assets and trying to take market share, excessive central bank stimulus encourages businesses to buy their competition and consolidate – which typically results in a reduction in the labor force. When the Federal Reserve makes it cheaper to buy your competition than to compete and cheaper to buy back your shares than to invest in new productivity, is it any wonder that productivity drops?

Mauldin go on to discuss demographics and labour force participation, they conclude:-

This demographic cast iron lid on growth helps explain why the Federal Reserve, ECB, and other central banks seem so powerless. Can they create more workers? Not really.

…What Fed policy is clearly not doing is to encourage businesses to invest in growth. Business loan availability is still a problem in many sectors

…Buyouts help shareholders but not workers, as they typically entail a consolidation of company workforces and a reduction in the number of “duplicated” workers. While this culling may be good for the individual businesses, it is not so good for the overall economy. It circumvents Joseph Schumpeter’s law of creative destruction.

…unless something happens to boost worker productivity dramatically, we’re facing lower world GDP growth for a very long time. Could we act to change that? Yes, but as I look at the political scene today, I wonder where the impetus for change is going to come from, absent a serious crisis.

…Given what we did in the last crisis, it is not clear that we still have that capacity.

For investors, this is reality: developed-world economies are going to grow slower. And companies, whose revenue is essentially a function of the growth of the overall economy, are going to grow slower, too…

The absolute level of debt is another factor which is impeding economic potential. Whilst credit creation in the private sector has been choked by continuous regulatory tightening of leverage rules for financial institutions, the capital requirements for investing in “risk-free” assets – ie. Bankrolling the state – has remained unchanged. Meanwhile the reduction of official interest rates to below the level of inflation has enabled governments around the world to dramatically expand deficit financing.

In September 2014 – Buttiglione, Lane, Reichlin and Reinhart produced the 16th Geneva Report on the World Economy – Deleveraging, What Deleveraging? Here is the chart of the growth of world debt to GDP – it caused something of a sensation:-

World Debt growth

Source: voxeu.com, CEPR

Contrary to widely held beliefs, the world has not yet begun to delever and the global debt-to-GDP is still growing, breaking new highs. At the same time, in a poisonous combination, world growth and inflation are also lower than previously expected, also – though not only – as a legacy of the past crisis. Deleveraging and slower nominal growth are in many cases interacting in a vicious loop, with the latter making the deleveraging process harder and the former exacerbating the economic slowdown. Moreover, the global capacity to take on debt has been reduced through the combination of slower expansion in real output and lower inflation.

McKinsey Global Institute – Debt and (not much) deleveraging February 2015 picked up the gauntlet:-

Global debt has grown by $57 trillion and no major economy has decreased its debt-to-GDP ratio since 2007. High government debt in advanced economies, mounting household debt, and the rapid rise of China’s debt are areas of potential concern.

They go on to highlight three areas of risk:- rise of government debt – which increased by $25trln between 2007 and 2015 – the continued rise in household debt (especially mortgages in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand ) and the quadrupling of China’s debt to $28trln or 282% of GDP.

China has been attempting its own brand of regulatory tightening of late alongside the great rebalancing towards consumption, but even official measures of GDP suggest that the economy has stalled and stimulus has resumed during the last few months.

Global real-estate continues to benefit from the low interest rate environment, although planning restrictions in many prime locations is the principle driver of price appreciation, notwithstanding Chinese anti-corruption measures which have tempered demand recently.

The rise in government debt continues to crowd out the opportunities for private sector investment, whilst central bank quantitative easing (QE) programmes act as a natural buyer of these securities.

The BIS Working Papers No 559 A comparative analysis of developments in central bank balance sheet composition – provides an insight into the changing structure of the balance sheets of a variety of central banks. For a snapshot of the quantum, Yardeni Research – Global Economic Briefing: Central Bank Balance Sheets published on Monday, is more instructive. At end April Fed, ECB, BoJ and PBoC had a combined record total of $16.7trln, up from around $9trln at the beginning of 2010. The ECB and the BoJ have been the main drivers of growth this year, whilst the Fed and the PBoC balance sheets have marked time.

To summarise: the factors stifling economic growth are demographics, public sector crowding out of private investment, regulatory tightening of credit conditions and artificially low interest rates, however, I believe there is another factor to consider – the Financialization and the World Economy. As far as I can discern, the first academic work on this subject was published by Prof. Gerald Epstein in October 2005. Here is an extract from the introduction:-

Using the case of the US economy, Crotty argues that financialization has had a profound and largely negative impact on the operations of US nonfinancial corporations. This is partly reflected in the increasing incomes extracted by financial markets from these corporations.

…the payments US NFCs paid out to financial markets more than doubled as a share of their cash flow between the 1960s and the 1970s, on one hand, and the 1980s and 1990s on the other. As NFCs came under increasing pressure to make payments, they also came under increasing pressure to increase the value of their stock prices.

…Financial markets’ demands for more income and more rapidly growing stock prices occurred at the same time as stagnant economic growth and increased product market competition made it increasingly difficult to earn profits.

The authors conclude that the solution is redistributive taxation, I would counter that a better solution would be to reduce the tax and regulatory privileges associated with government debt, thus freeing the private sector from the yoke of unfair public sector competition. But this is a polemic for another time and place. What is clear is that the availability of credit and leverage amplifies business cycles in both directions.

Conclusions

Increasing debt and leverage for an economy with a diminishing working age population is not sustainable. Without the demographic windfall of immigration or procreation, increasing productivity is the only way to sustain real economic growth. The short term financial wizardry of the share buy-back is a function of the artificially low price of credit. The longer central bank sponsored largesse continues, the lower the trend rate of GDP growth will become. A combination of fiscal reform and gradual normalisation of monetary policy could redress the situation but I believe it is politically unachievable. Markets climb a wall of fear, even at these exalted levels, it still makes sense to be long bonds, stocks and real-estate but, once the limit of government intervention has been reached, thelevee gonna break”.

 

 

 

Brexit, Grexit and the rise and fall and rise again of the Euro

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Macro Letter – No 54 – 06-05-2016

Brexit, Grexit and the rise and fall and rise again of the Euro

  • Should the UK leave the EU, Euro volatility will follow
  • If the UK remains, the Euro experiment might still be scuppered
  • The problems of the EU periphery are not solved by the UK remaining

Whilst the majority of articles between now and the 23rd June will focus on whether the UK will leave or remain in the EU and what this might mean, I want to consider the impact Brexit is likely to have on the long-run fortunes of the Euro.

Since December 2008 the EURGBP has fallen from 0.979 to a low of 0.694 in July 2015. Since the end of last year concern, about the outcome of a UK referendum on whether to remain or leave the EU, has seen the EUR strengthen to 0.810 – just over a 38.2% retracement. The UK economy has already begun to show signs of economic slowdown due to uncertainty. A vote to leave is likely to have a negative impact on the GBP, initially, if for no other reason than the continuation of uncertainty; neither the government nor the opposition has presented a road map for exit should the electorate decide to leave. In the event of a UK departure I could envisage a move back to 0.865 or even 0.971:-

EURGBP 10 yr

Source: fxtop.com

I believe the impact on the UK economy of Brexit would therefore be a substantial weakening of the GBP, a rise in UK inflation and an initial slowing of economic growth. Our exports would rise and our imports would decline, improving our trade balance. Those European countries for whom the UK is their largest export market would suffer.

The cost of the UK leaving the EU would not stop there. The UK is the second largest member of the union. In terms of the economic and political strength of the EU, Britain’s inclusion is significant. By leaving the Schengen Agreement area we would impose higher costs on the remaining members, potentially hastening its interruption or demise. The ECIPE Five Freedom Project – The Cost of Non-Schengen for the Single Market published this week, provides an alarming vision of what that cost to EU growth might be:-

If Schengen would be suspended for the two-year period or even in full, trade and economic growth in the EU could be severely damaged. The Schengen Agreement is not just a symbol of European integration, it creates real economic value by facilitating cross-border exchange. Obviously, the Schengen Agreement promotes the free movement of people, but that is not all. It also boosts the flow of goods, services and capital across borders.

…In 2015 intra-EU trade in goods made up for approximately 60% of the EU’s overall trade.

…The Bertelsmann Stiftung estimated the impact of reintroduced border controls on the EU’s gross domestic product (GDP). Border checks which stop and control trucks cause time delays which increase transport costs and lead to higher product prices. According to their results these higher product prices can cause a yearly reduction in GDP growth of 0.04 percentage points compared to intra-EU trade with open borders. Furthermore, the study argues that the time delays at the border would make just-in-time production and decentralized production more difficult for European firms. As a result, production costs for intra-European value chains would increase and the price competitiveness of European producers would decrease. This could affect location and investment decisions by foreign firms.

A recent Ifo study finds that for EU member states the removal of border controls leads to an increase of 3.8% in goods trade or a cost saving equivalent to a tariff reduction of 0.7 percentage points for every internal border which a good needs to cross. As a result, countries which are at the periphery of the Schengen Area benefit more from the Agreement because their costs savings are greater if goods have to cross several borders until they reach their markets.

Such an integral pillar of EU membership as the Schengen Agreement may not be suspended, but concerns about the indebtedness of some of the more profligate peripheral countries is likely to return to the fore by the summer. As reported earlier this week by Reuters – Greek bank stocks could rise 90 percent on bailout cash deal: Morgan Stanley:-

…upgraded Greek banks to “overweight” saying current valuations did not reflect the compression in bond yield spreads that would follow a deal with Athens’ lenders and took an overly pessimistic view on the banks’ return on equity targets.

The Economist – The threat of Grexit never really went away sees it rather differently: –

Greece badly needs the next dollop of the €86 billion ($99 billion) bail-out creditors promised it last summer, in exchange for promises of austerity and reform. But it will not get the money until the creditors complete a review of its progress, which has been dragging on since November. The government has scraped together enough cash (by raiding independent public agencies) to pay salaries and pensions in May, perhaps even in June. But by July 20th, when a bond worth more than €2 billion matures, the country once again faces default and perhaps a forced exit from the euro zone. The threat of Grexit is not exactly back; it never really went away.

Meanwhile the creation of the “Atlas Fund” which will purchase non-performing loans of Italian banks which are in distress, appears to have averted the, potentially fatal, run on the Italian banking system which was developing earlier this year. Bruegel – Italy’s Atlas bank bailout fund: the shareholder of last resort takes up the story:-

Italy’s new bank fund Atlas might be what is needed in the short run, but in the longer term the fund will increase systemic risk. What ultimately matters is how this initiative will affect the quality of bank governance, a key issue for the future resilience of the system.

The Atlas fund has a heavy task, although probably not as heavy as that of its mythological namesake. In the short run, it might be what most commentators have described: an imperfect but needed second-best way to avoid bail-in and resolution, matching repeated calls from the Bank of Italy for a revision of the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) framework after Italy negotiated and approved it.

However, by acting as a bank shareholder of last resort the fund increases systemic risk in the longer term, weakening the stronger banks and involving a publicly controlled institution whose main source of funding is postal savings into a rather risky venture.

While it’s unclear whether the aim is to keep foreign capital out of the Italian banking system, what ultimately matters is how this initiative will affect (or avoid affecting) the quality of bank governance, a key issue for the future resilience of the system. Regardless of whether we think that keeping weak banks alive at all costs is a good idea, the idea of such a shareholder of last resort appears at odds with the aim of making progress towards a solid European Banking Union.

Conclusion

The implications of a UK exit from the EU would, initially, lead to a strengthening EURGBP, although not necessarily EURUSD. This will be followed by a period of increased uncertainty about the survival of the Eurozone (EZ) during which the EUR will decline against its main trading partners. The chart below shows the Euro effective Exchange rate over the last 15 years:-

real_effective_exchange_rate_reer_monthly_index_base_year_100

Source: Bluenomics, Eurostat

Once the first country leaves the EZ, sentiment will change once more. Investors will realise that the departure of the periphery strengthens the prospects of the currency union for those countries which remain; the EUR will begin to look less like a Drachma and more like a Deutschemark. The 2009 highs on the chart above will be within reach and a long-term trajectory similar to, though less steep than, the path of the CHF could become the norm.

For those who thrive on market volatility, over the next few years, opportunities to trade the EUR will be golden.