Inflated Opinions author Paul Wynn discusses the current plight of Active Investment
Inflated Opinions author Paul Wynn discusses the current plight of Active Investment
Macro Letter – No 100 – 13-07-2018
Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion
As US interest rates continue to normalise and US tariffs begin to bite, a number of emerging markets (EM’s) have come under pressure. Of course, the largest market to exhibit signs of stress is China, the MSCI China Index is down 7% since mid-June, whilst the RMB has also weakened against the US$ by more than 6% since its April low. Will contagion spread to developed markets and, if so, which country might be the ‘carrier’?
To begin to answer these questions we need to investigate this year’s casualties. Argentina is an obvious candidate. Other troubled countries include Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. In each case, government debt has exacerbated instability, as each country’s currency came under pressure. Other measures of instability include budget and trade deficits.
In an effort to narrow the breadth of this Macro Letter, I will confine my analysis to those countries with twin government and current account deficits. In the table which follow, the countries are sorted by percentage of world GDP. The colour coding reflects the latest MSCI categorisation; yellow, denotes a fully-fledged EM, white, equals a standard EM, green, is on the secondary list and blue is reserved for those countries which are so ‘frontier’ in nature as not to be currently assessed by MSCI: –
Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank
For the purposes of this analysis, the larger the EM as a percentage of world GDP and the higher its investment rating, the more likely it is to act as a catalyst for contagion. Whilst this is a simplistic approach, it represents a useful the starting point.
Back in 2005, in a futile attempt to control the profligacy of European governments, the European Commission introduced the Stability and Growth Pact. It established at maximum debt to GDP ratio of 60% and budget deficit ceiling of 3%, to be applied to all members of the Eurozone. If applied to the EM’s listed above, the budget deficit constraint could probably be relaxed: these are, generally, faster growing economies. The ratio of debt to GDP should, however, be capped at a lower percentage. The government debt overhang weighs more heavily on smaller economies, especially ones where the percentage of international investors tends to be higher. Capital flight is a greater risk for EM’s than for developed economies, which are insulated by a larger pool of domestic investors.
Looking at the table again, from a financial stability perspective, the percentage of non-domestic debt to GDP, is critical. A sudden growth stop, followed by capital flight, usually precipitates a collapse in the currency. External debt can prove toxic, even if it represents only a small percentage of GDP, since the default risk associated with a collapsing currency leads to a rapid rise in yields, prompting further capital flight – this is a viscous circle, not easily broken. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980’s was one of the more poignant examples of this pattern. Unsurprisingly, in the table above, the percentage of external debt to GDP grows as the economies become smaller, although there is a slight bias for South American countries to continue to borrow abroad. Perhaps a function of their proximity to the US capital markets. Interestingly, by comparison with developed nations, the debt to GDP ratios in most of these EM countries is relatively modest: a sad indictment of the effectiveness of QE as a policy to strengthen the world financial system – but I digress.
Our next concern ought to be the trade balance. Given the impact that US tariffs are likely to have on export nations, both emerging and developed, it is overly simplistic to look, merely, at EM country exports to the US. EM exports to Europe, Japan and China are also likely to be vulnerable, as US tariffs are enforced. Chile and Mexico currently run trade surpluses, but, since their largest trading partner is the US, they still remain exposed.
This brings us to the second table which looks at inflation, interest rates, 10yr bond yields, currencies and stock market performance: –
Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank
In addition to its absolute level, the trend of inflation is also an important factor to consider. India has seen a moderate increase since 2017, but price increases appear steady not scary. Brazil has seen a recent rebound after the significant moderation which followed the 2016 spike. Mexican inflation has moderated since late 2017, posing little cause for concern. Indonesian price rises are at the lower end of their post Asian crisis range. Turkey, however, is an entirely different matter. It inflation is at its highest since 2004 and has broken to multiyear highs in the last two months. Inflation trends exert a strong influence on interest rate expectations and Turkish 10yr yields have risen by more than 5% this year, whilst it currency has fallen further than any in this group, barring the Argentinian Peso. For comparison, the Brazilian Real is the third weakest, followed, at some distance, by the Indian Rupee.
India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia may be among the largest economies in this ‘contagion risk’ group, but Turkey, given its geographic proximity to the EU may be the linchpin.
Is Turkey the canary?
The recent Turkish elections gave President Erdogan an increased majority. His strengthened mandate does not entirely remove geopolitical risk, but it simplifies our analysis of the country from an economic perspective. Short-term interest rates are 17.75%, the second highest in the group, behind Argentina. The yield curve is inverted: and both the currency and stock market have fared poorly YTD. Over the last 20 years, Turkish GDP has averaged slightly less than 5%, but this figure is skewed by three sharp recessions (‘98, ‘01 and ‘08). The recent trend has been volatile but solid. 10yr bond yields, by contrast, have been influenced by a more than doubling of short-term interest rates, in defence of the Turkish Lira. This aggressive action, by their central bank, makes the economy vulnerable to an implosion of growth, as credit conditions deteriorate rapidly.
Conclusion and investment opportunities
In Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018 – Is the US exporting a recession? I concluded in respect of Europe that: –
…the [stock] market has failed to rise substantially on a positive slew of earnings news. This may be because there is a more important factor driving sentiment: the direction of US rates. It certainly appears to have engendered a revival of the US$. It rallied last month having been in a downtrend since January 2017 despite a steadily tightening Federal Reserve. For EURUSD the move from 1.10 to 1.25 appears to have taken its toll. On the basis of the CESI chart, above, if Wall Street sneezes, the Eurozone might catch pneumonia.
Over the past few months EM currencies have declined, their bond yields have increased and their stock markets have generally fallen. In respect of tariffs, President Trump has done what he promised. Markets, like Mexico and Chile, reacted early and seem to have stabilised. Argentina had its own internal issues with which to contend. The Indian economy continues its rapid expansion, despite higher oil prices and US tariffs. It is Turkey that appears to be the weakest link, but this may be as much a function of the actions of its central bank.
If, over the next few months, the Turkish Lira stabilises and official rates moderate, the wider economy may avoid recession. Whilst much commentary concerning EM risks will focus on the fortunes of China, it is still a relatively closed, command economy: and, therefore, difficult to predict. It will be at least as useful to focus on the fortunes of Turkey. It may give advanced warning, like the canary in the coal-mine, which makes it my leading indicator of choice.
Macro Letter – No 99 – 22-06-2018
Where in the world? Hunting for value in the bond market
In my last Macro Letter – Italy and the repricing of European government debt – I said: –
I have never been a great advocate of long-term investment in fixed income securities, not in a world of artificially low official inflation indices and fiat currencies. Given the de minimis real rate of return I regard them as trading assets.
Suffice to say, I received a barrage of advice from some of my good friends who have worked in the fixed income markets for the majority of their careers. I felt I had perhaps been flippant in dismissing an entire asset class without so much as a qualm. In this letter I distil an analysis of more than one hundred markets around the world into a short list of markets which may be worthy of further analysis.
To begin with I organised countries by their most recent inflation rate, then I added their short term interest rate and finally, where I was able to find reliable information, a 10 year yield for the government bond of each country. I then calculated the real interest rate, real yield and shape of the yield curve.
At this point I applied three criteria, firstly that the real yield should be greater than 1.5%, second, that the real interest rate should also exceed that level: and finally, that the yield curve should be more than 2% positive. These measures are not entirely arbitrary. A real return of 1.5% is below the long-run average (1.7%) for fixed income securities in the US since 1900, though not by much. For an analysis of the data, this article from Observations and Notes is informative – U.S. 10-Year Treasury Note Real Return History: –
As you might have expected, the real returns earned were consistently below the initial coupon rate. The only exceptions occur around the time of the Great Depression. During this period, because of deflation, the value of some or all of the yearly interest payments was often higher than the original coupon rate, increasing the yield. (For more on this important period see The 1929 Stock Market Crash Revisited)
While the average coupon rate/nominal return was 4.9%, the average real return was only1.7%. Not surprisingly, the 3.2% difference between the two is the average inflation experienced for the century.
As an investor I require a positive expected real return with the minimum of risk, therefore if short term interest rates offer a real return of more than 1.5% I will incline to favour a floating rate rather than a fixed rate investment. Students of von Mises and Rothbard may beg to differ perhaps; for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Austrian view of the shape of the yield curve in an unhampered market, this article by Frank Shostak – How to Interpret the Shape of the Yield Curve provides an excellent primer. Markets are not unhampered and Central Banks, at the behest of their respective governments, have, since the dawn of the modern state, had an incentive to artificially lower short-term interest rates: and, latterly, rates across the entire maturity spectrum. For more on this subject (6,000 words) I refer you to my essay for the Cobden Centre – A History of Fractional Reserve Banking – the link will take you to part one, click here for part two.
Back to this week’s analysis. I am only interested in buying 10yr government bonds of credit worthy countries, where I can obtain a real yield on 10yr maturity which exceeds 1.5%, but I also require a positive yield curve of 2%. As you may observe in the table below, my original list of 100 countries diminishes rapidly: –
Source: Investing.com, Trading Economics, WorldBondMarkets.com
Five members of this list have negative real interest rates – Italy (the only G7 country) included. Despite the recent prolonged period of negative rates, this situation is not normal. Once rates eventually normalise, either the yield curve will flatten or 10yr yields will rise. Setting aside geopolitical risks, as a non-domicile investor, do I really want to hold the obligations of nations whose short-term real interest rates are less than 1.5%? Probably not.
Thus, I arrive at my final cut. Those markets where short-term real interest rates exceed 1.5% and the yield curve is 2% positive. Only nine countries make it onto the table and, perhaps a testament to their governments ability to raise finance, not a single developed economy makes the grade: –
Source: Investing.com, Trading Economics, WorldBondMarkets.com
There are a couple of caveats. The Ukrainian 10yr yield is derived, I therefore doubt its accuracy. 3yr Ukrainian bonds yield 16.83% and the yield curve is mildly inverted relative to official short-term rates. Brazilian bonds might look tempting, but it is important to remember that its currency, the Real, has declined by 14% against the US$ since January. The Indonesian Rupiah has been more stable, losing less than 3% this year, but, seen in the context of the move since 2012, during which time the currency has lost 35% of its purchasing power, Indonesian bonds cannot but considered ‘risk-free’. I could go on – each of these markets has lesser or greater currency risk.
I recant. For the long term investor there are bond markets which are worth consideration, but, setting aside access, liquidity and the uncertainty of exchange controls, they all require active currency management, which will inevitably reduce the expected return, due to factors such as the negative carry entailed in hedging.
Conclusions and investment opportunities
Investing in bond markets should be approached from a fundamental or technical perspective using strategies such as value or momentum. Since February 2012 Greek 10yr yields have fallen from a high of 41.77% to a low of 3.63%, although from the July 2014 low of 5.47% they rose to 19.44% in July 2015, before falling to recent lows in January of this year. For a trend following strategy, this move has presented abundant opportunity – it increases further if the strategy allows the investor to be short as well as long. Compare Greek bonds with Japanese 10yr JGBs which, over the same period, have fallen in yield from 1.02 in January 2012 to a low of -0.29% in July 2016. That is still a clear trend, although the current BoJ policy of yield curve control have created a roughly 10bp straight-jacket beyond which the central bank is committed to intervene. The value investor can still buy at zero and sell at 10bp – if you trust the resolve of the BoJ – it is likely to be profitable.
The idea of buying bonds and holding them to maturity may be profitable on occasion, but active management is the only logical approach in the current global environment, especially if one hopes to achieve acceptable real returns.
Oil and Italy were the main themes last month.
Macro Letter – No 98 – 08-06-2018
Italy and the repricing of European government debt
I have never been a great advocate of long-term investment in fixed income securities, not in a world of artificially low official inflation indices and fiat currencies. Given the de minimis real rate of return I regard them as trading assets. I will freely admit that this has led me to make a number of investment mistakes, although these have generally been sins of omission rather than actual investment losses. The Italian political situation and the sharp rise in Italian bond yields it precipitated, last week, is, therefore, some justification for an investor like myself, one who has not held any fixed income securities since 2010.
An excellent overview of the Italian political situation is contained in the latest essay from John Mauldin of Mauldin Economics – From the Front Line – The Italian Trigger:-
Italy had been without a government since its March 4 election, which yielded a hung parliament with no party or coalition holding a majority. The Five Star Movement and Lega Nord finally reached a deal, to most everyone’s surprise since those two parties, while both broadly populist, have some big differences. Nonetheless, they found enough common ground to propose a cabinet to President Sergio Mattarella.
Italian presidents are generally seen as rubberstamp figureheads. They really aren’t supposed to insert themselves into the process. Yet Mattarella unexpectedly rejected the coalition’s proposed finance minister, 81-year-old economist Paolo Savona, on the grounds Savona had previously opposed Italy’s eurozone membership. This enraged Five Star and Lega Nord, who then ended their plans to form a government and threatened to impeach Mattarella.
The whole article is well worth reading and goes on to look at debt from a global perspective. John anticipates what he calls, ‘The Great Reset,’ when the reckoning for the excessive levels of debt arrives.
Returning to the repricing of Eurozone (EZ) debt last month, those readers who have followed my market commentaries since the 1990’s, might recall an article I penned about the convergence of European government bond yields in the period preceding the introduction of the Euro. At that juncture (1998) excepting Greece, every bond market, whose government was about to adopt the Euro, was trading at a narrower credit spread to 10yr German bunds than the yield differential between the highest and lowest credit in the US municipal bond market. The widest differential in the muni-market at that time was 110bp. It was between Alabama and California – remember this was prior to the bursting of the Tech bubble.
In my article I warned about the risk of a significant repricing of European credit spreads once the honeymoon period of the single currency had ended. I had to wait more than a decade, but in 2010/2011 it looked as if I might be vindicated – this column is not entitled In the Long Run without just cause – then what one might dub the Madness of Crowds of Central Bankers intervened, saved the EZ and consigned my cautionary oracles, on the perils of the quest for yield, to the dustbin of history.
In the intervening period, since 2011, I have watched European yields inexorably converge and absolute yields turn negative, in several EZ countries, with a temerity which smacks of permanence. I have also arrived at a new conclusion about the limits of credit risk within a currency union: that they are governed by fiat in much the same manner as currencies. As long as the market believes that Mr Draghi will do, ‘…whatever it takes,’ investors will be enticed by relatively small yield enhancements.
Let me elaborate on this newly-minted theory by way of an example. Back in March 2012, Greek 10yr yields reached 41.77% at that moment German 10yr yields were a mere 2.08%. The risk of contagion was steadily growing, as other peripheral EZ bond markets declined. Greece, in and of itself, was and remains, a small percentage of EZ GDP, but, as Portuguese and Spanish bonds began to follow the lead of Greece, the fear at the ECB – and even at the Bundesbank – was that Italy might succumb to contagion. Due to its size, the Italian bond market, was then, and remains today, the elephant in the room.
During the course of last month, European bond markets diverged. The table below shows the change in 10yr yields between 1st and 31st May:-
A certain degree of contagion is evident, although the PIGS have lost an ‘I’ as Irish Gilts have escaped the pejorative acronym.
At the peaks of the previous crisis, Irish 10yr Gilts made a yield high of 14.61% in July 2011, at which point their spread versus 10yr Bunds was 11.34%. When Italy entered her own period of distress, in November of that year, the highest 10yr BTP yield recorded was 7.51% and the spread over Germany reached 5.13%. By the time Greek 10yr yields reached their zenith, in March 2012, German yields were already lower and Irish and Italian spreads had begun to narrow.
During the course of last month the interest rate differential between 10yr Bunds and their Irish, Greek and Italian counterparts widened by 41, 100 and 114bp respectively. Italian 10yr yields closed at 4.25% over Bunds, less than 100bp from their 2011 crisis highs. With absolute yields significantly lower today (German 10yr yields were 2.38% in November 2011 they ended May 2018 at 36bp) the absolute percentage return differential is even higher than during the 2011 period. At 2.72% BTPs offer a return which is 7.5 times greater than 10yr Bunds. Back in 2011 the 7.51% yield was a little over three times the return available from 10yr Bunds.
I am forced to believe the reaction of the BTP market has been excessive and that spreads will narrow during the next few months. If I am incorrect in my expectation, it will fall to Mr Draghi to intervene. The Outright Monetary Transactions – OMT – policy of the ECB allows it to purchase a basket of European government bonds on a GDP weighted basis. If another crisis appears immanent they could adjust this policy to duration weight their purchases. It would then permit them to buy a larger proportion of the higher yielding, higher coupon bonds of the southern periphery. There would, no doubt, be complaints from those countries that practice greater fiscal rectitude, but the policy shift could be justified on investment grounds. If the default risk of all members of the EZ is equal due to the political will of the European Commission, then it makes sense from an investment perspective for the ECB to purchase higher yielding bonds if they have the same credit risk. A new incarnation of the Draghi Put could be implemented without too many objections from Frankfurt.
Conclusions and investment opportunities
I doubt we will see a repeat of the 2011/2012 period. Lightening seldom strikes twice in the same way. The ECB will continue with its QE programme and this will ensure that EZ government bond yields remain at artificially low levels for the foreseeable future.
Unusually, I have an actionable trade idea: caveat emptor! I believe the recent widening of the 10yr Italian BTP/Spanish Bonos spread has been excessive. If there is bond market contagion, as a result of the political situation in Italy, Bonos yields may have difficulty defying gravity. If the Italian political environment should improve, the over-sold BTP market should rebound. If the ECB are forced to act to avert a new EZ crisis by increasing OMT or implementing a duration weighted approach to QE, Italy should benefit more than Spain until the yield differential narrows.
Macro Letter – No 97 – 18-05-2018
Robots, employment and the mis-measurement of productivity
The subject matter of this Macro Letter is broad, so I shall confine my investigation to the UK. It was, after all, one of the first countries where services became a larger percentage of GDP than manufacturing. The crossover between manufacturing and services is estimated to have happened around 1881. When Napoleon Bonaparte described England as, ‘A nation of shopkeepers,’ his intension may have been derisive, but his observation was prescient. Of course, M. Bonaparte was actually quoting Adam Smith, who first coined the phrase in his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776: now, he really was prescient.
As we stare into the abyss, anticipating the huge percentage of manufacturing – and now, many services – jobs which are expected to be replaced by machines, it behoves us to begin by reviewing the accuracy with which we measure services in general. A recent paper from the Centre for Economic and Business Research does just that for one sub-sector, although it suggests that mis-measurement of economic activity in services, always difficult to define, may be a factor in the poor productivity record of the UK. I have often described Britain as a post-industrial nation but this research, into one of the most vibrant corners of the economy, makes fascinating reading – The True Value of Creative Industries Digital Exports – CIC, CBER – March 2018 – finds, among other things that: –
The UK’s creative industries exports are: –
£46bn in goods and services – 24% higher than the official figure
£31bn of total creative exports are services – 41% higher than the official figure
£21bn of these creative services are digital services – 40% higher than the official figure
The CEBR goes on to point out other weaknesses in current measurements of economic activity: –
…estimated official figures for 2016 highlight that the majority of creative industries sub-sectors are exporting digital services. The IT, software and computer services sector, for example, exports £8.95bn in digital services. However, according to these figures, the crafts and museums, galleries and libraries sectors’ digital services exports are zero – which we know is not the case.
Many UK YouTube channels, for example, are watched by millions of viewers across the world. It is through these types of platforms that the creative industries export audiovisual content, music, and tutorials. Such platforms and the content they offer, however, may not be registered as a service export. This is due to difficulties capturing data for business models such as those offering free content and based on advertising revenues.
There are also structural challenges with collecting data on such exports. Often, it is difficult for digital intermediaries to determine the point of sale and purchase. The borderless way in which many global firms operate presents additional complications and the origin of the creative content, and of those who consume it, is frequently hard to track.
This brings me to the vexed question of productivity growth in the new machine age. In the Deloitte – Monday Briefing – Thoughts on the global economy – from 30th April, the author reflects on the discussions which occurred at the annual global gathering of Deliotte’s economic experts. I’m cherry picking, of course, the whole article is well worth reading: –
Despite discussion of recession risks I was struck by a cautious optimism about the long-term outlook. There was a general view that the slowdown in productivity growth in the West has been overstated, partly because of problems in capturing gains from technological change and quality improvements. As a result most of us felt that Western economies should be able to improve upon the lacklustre growth rates seen in the last ten years.
We agreed too that apocalyptic media stories about new technologies destroying work were overcooked; technology would continue to create more jobs than it destroys. The challenge would be to provide people with the right skills to prosper. The question was, what skills? We had a show of hands on what we would recommend as the ideal degree subjects for an 18-year-old planning for a 40-year career. Two-thirds advocated STEM subjects, so science, technology, engineering and maths. A third, myself included, opted for humanities/liberal arts as a way of honing skills of expression, creativity and thinking.
Mr Stewart ends by referring to a letter to the FT from Dr Lawrence Haar, Associate Professor at the University of Lincoln, in which he argues that poor UK productivity is a function of the low levels of UK unemployment. In other words, when everyone, even unproductive workers, are employed, productivity inevitably declines:-
…it does not have to be this way. Some economies, including Singapore, Switzerland and Germany, combine low unemployment and decent productivity growth. The right training and education can raise productivity rates for lower skilled workers.
This theme of productivity growth supported by the right education and training is at the heart of a recent paper written by Professor Shackleton of the IEA – Current Controversies No. 62 – Robocalypse Now? IEA – May 2018 – the essay cautions against the imposition of robotaxes and makes the observation that technology has always created new jobs, despite the human tendency to fear the unknown: why should the adoption of a new swath of technologies be different this time? Here is his introduction: –
It is claimed that robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence are going to destroy jobs on an unprecedented scale.
These developments, unlike past bouts of technical change, threaten rapidly to affect even highly-skilled work and lead to mass unemployment and/or dramatic falls in wages and living standards, while accentuating inequality.
As a result, we are threatened with the ‘end of work’, and should introduce radical new policies such as a robot tax and a universal basic income.
However the claims being made of massive job loss are based on highly contentious technological assumptions and are contested by economists who point to flaws in the methodology.
In any case, ‘technological determinism’ ignores the engineering, economic, social and regulatory barriers to adoption of many theoretically possible innovations. And even successful innovations are likely to take longer to materialise than optimists hope and pessimists fear.
Moreover history strongly suggests that jobs destroyed by technical change will be replaced by new jobs complementary to these technologies – or else in unrelated areas as spending power is released by falling prices. Current evidence on new types of job opportunity supports this suggestion.
The UK labour market is currently in a healthy state and there is little evidence that technology is having a strongly negative effect on total employment. The problem at the moment may be a shortage of key types of labour rather than a shortage of work.
The proposal for a robot tax is ill-judged. Defining what is a robot is next to impossible, and concerns over slow productivity growth anyway suggest we should be investing more in automation rather than less. Even if a workable robot tax could be devised, it would essentially duplicate the effects, and problems, of corporation tax.
Universal basic income is a concept with a long history. Despite its appeal, it would be costly to introduce, could have negative effects on work incentives, and would give governments dangerous powers.
Politicians already seem tempted to move in the direction of these untested policies. They would be foolish to do so. If technological change were to create major problems in the future, there are less problematic policies available to mitigate its effects – such as reducing taxes on employment income, or substantially deregulating the labour market.
Professor Shackleton provides a brief history of technological paranoia. Riccardo added a chapter entitled ‘On Machinery’ to the third edition of his ‘Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,’ stating: –
‘I am convinced that the substitution of machinery for human labour is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers’.
While Marx, writing only a few decades later, envisaged a time when man would be enabled to: –
‘…to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’
As for Keynes essay on the, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, his optimism is laudable if laughable – 15 hour working week anyone?
The paranoia continues, nonetheless – The Economist – A study finds nearly half of jobs are vulnerable to automation – April 2018 – takes up the story:-
A wave of automation anxiety has hit the West. Just try typing “Will machines…” into Google. An algorithm offers to complete the sentence with differing degrees of disquiet: “…take my job?”; “…take all jobs?”; “…replace humans?”; “…take over the world?”
Job-grabbing robots are no longer science fiction. In 2013 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University used—what else?—a machine-learning algorithm to assess how easily 702 different kinds of job in America could be automated. They concluded that fully 47% could be done by machines “over the next decade or two”.
A new working paper by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, employs a similar approach, looking at other developed economies. Its technique differs from Mr Frey and Mr Osborne’s study by assessing the automatability of each task within a given job, based on a survey of skills in 2015. Overall, the study finds that 14% of jobs across 32 countries are highly vulnerable, defined as having at least a 70% chance of automation. A further 32% were slightly less imperilled, with a probability between 50% and 70%. At current employment rates, that puts 210m jobs at risk across the 32 countries in the study.
For a robust analysis, if not refutation, of the findings of Frey and Osborne, I refer you back to Professor Shackleton’s IEA paper. He is more favourably disposed towards the OECD research, which is less apocalyptic in its conclusions. He goes on to find considered counsel in last year’s report from McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A Future that Works: Automation Employment and Productivity.
The IEA paper highlights another factor which makes it difficult to assess the net impact of technological progress, namely, the constantly changing nature of the labour market. As the table below reveals it has hardly been in stasis since the turn of the millennium: –
Percentage change in employment 2001-2017, selected occupations
Notes: April-June of years. Figures in brackets are April-June 2017 levels of employment.
Source: Author’s calculation from ONS
The job losses are broadly predictable; that technology has usurped the role of the travel agent is evident to anyone who booked a flight, hotel or hire-car online recently. For economists there are always challenges in capturing the gains; back in 1987 Robert Solow, a recipient of the Nobel prize from economics, famously observed, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics’ – perhaps the technology has been creating more jobs than thought. Does the 170% rise in Animal Care and Control owe a debt to technology? You might be inclined to doubt it but the 400,000 Uber drivers of London probably do. We are still seeking signs in the economic data for something we know instinctively should be evident.
Between the mis-measurement of economic activity (if technology is being under-estimated to the tune of 24% in the creative industries sector to what extent are productivity gains from technology being underestimated elsewhere?) and the ever changing employment landscape, I believe the human race will continue to be employed in a wide and varied range of increasingly diverse roles. If some of the more repetitive and less satisfying jobs are consigned to robots and machine learning computer code, so much the better for mankind. For more on, what is sometimes termed, the routinisation of work, this working paper from Bruegel – The impact of industrial robots on EU employment and wages: A local labour market approach – April 2018 is inciteful. They examine six EU countries and make comparisons, or highlighting contrasts, with the patterns observed in the US. Their conclusions are somewhat vague, however, which appears to be a function of the difficulty of measurement: –
We only find mixed results for the impact of industrial robots on wage growth, even after accounting for potential endogeneity and potential offsetting effects across different population or sectoral groups.
…We believe that future research on the topic should focus on exploiting more granular data, to explore whether insignificant aggregate effects (on wages) are to the result of counterbalancing developments happening at the firm level.
Bruegel refrain from proposing cuts to personal taxation as favoured by the IEA, suggesting that a more complex policy response may be required, however, their conclusions are only marginally negative. I am inclined to hope that market forces may be allowed to deal with the majority of the adjustment; they have worked well if history is any guide.
Conclusions and investment opportunities
Ignoring the fact that we are nine years into an equity bull market and that interest rates are now rising from their lowest levels ever recorded, the long term potential for technology remains supportive for equity markets, for earnings growth and for productivity. If history repeats, or even if it simply rhymes, it should also be good for employment.
With interest rates looking more likely to rise than fall over the next few years, companies will remain reticent to invest in capital projects. Buying back stock and issuing the occasional special dividend will remain the policy du jour. Assuming we do not suffer a repeat of the great financial recession of 2008 – and that remains a distinct possibility – the boon of technology will create employment with one invisible hand as it creatively destroys it with the other (with apologies to Smith and Schumpeter). If governments can keep their budgets in check and resist the temptation to siphon off investment from the productive sectors of the economy (which, sadly, I doubt) then, in the long run, the capital investment required to create the employment opportunities of the future will materialise.