Sustainable government debt – an old idea refreshed

Sustainable government debt – an old idea refreshed

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Macro Letter – No 109 – 01-02-2019

Sustainable government debt – an old idea refreshed

  • New research from the Peterson Institute suggests bond yields may fall once more
  • Demographic forces and unfunded state liabilities point to an inevitable reckoning
  • The next financial crisis may be assuaged with a mix of fiscal expansion plus QQE
  • Pension fund return expectations for bonds and stocks need to be revised lower

The Peterson Institute has long been one of my favourite sources of original research in the field of economics. They generally support free-market ideas, although they are less than classically liberal in their approach. I was, nonetheless, surprised by the Presidential Lecture given at the annual gathering of the American Economic Association (AEA) by Olivier Blanchard, ex-IMF Chief Economist, now at the Peterson Institute – Public Debt and Low Interest Rates. The title is quite anodyne, the content may come to be regarded as incendiary. Here is part of his introduction: –

Since 1980, interest rates on U.S. government bonds have steadily decreased. They are now lower than the nominal growth rate, and according to current forecasts, this is expected to remain the case for the foreseeable future. 10-year U.S. nominal rates hover around 3%, while forecasts of nominal growth are around 4% (2% real growth, 2% inflation). The inequality holds even more strongly in the other major advanced economies: The 10-year UK nominal rate is 1.3%, compared to forecasts of 10-year nominal growth around 3.6% (1.6% real, 2% inflation). The 10-year Euro nominal rate is 1.2%, compared to forecasts of 10-year nominal growth around 3.2% (1.5% real, 2% inflation). The 10-year Japanese nominal rate is 0.1%, compared to forecasts of 10-year nominal growth around 1.4% (1.0% real, 0.4% inflation).

The question this paper asks is what the implications of such low rates should be for government debt policy. It is an important question for at least two reasons. From a policy viewpoint, whether or not countries should reduce their debt, and by how much, is a central policy issue. From a theory viewpoint, one of pillars of macroeconomics is the assumption that people, firms, and governments are subject to intertemporal budget constraints. If the interest rate paid by the government is less the growth rate, then the intertemporal budget constraint facing the government no longer binds. What the government can and should do in this case is definitely worth exploring.

The paper reaches strong, and, I expect, surprising, conclusions. Put (too) simply, the signal sent by low rates is that not only debt may not have a substantial fiscal cost, but also that it may have limited welfare costs.

Blanchard’s conclusions may appear radical, yet, in my title, I refer to this as an old idea, allow me to explain. In business it makes sense, all else equal, to borrow if the rate of interest paid on your loan is lower than the return from your project. At the national level, if the government can borrow at below the rate of GDP growth it should be sustainable, since, over time (assuming, of course, that it is not added to) the ratio of debt to GDP will naturally diminish.

There are plenty of reasons why such borrowing may have limitations, but what really interests me, in this thought provoking lecture, is the reason governments can borrow at such low rates in the first instance. One argument is that as GDP grows, so does the size of the tax base, in other words, future taxation should be capable of covering the on-going interest on today’s government borrowing: the market should do the rest. Put another way, if a government become overly profligate, yields will rise. If borrowing costs exceed the expected rate of GDP there may be a panicked liquidation by investors. A government’s ability to borrow will be severely curtailed in this scenario, hence the healthy obsession, of many finance ministers, with debt to GDP ratios.

There are three factors which distort the cosy relationship between the lower yield of ‘risk-free’ government bonds and the higher percentage levels of GDP growth seen in most developed countries; investment regulations, unfunded liabilities and fractional reserve bank lending.

Let us begin with investment regulations, specifically in relation to the constraints imposed on pension funds and insurance companies. These institutions are hampered by prudential measures intended to guarantee that they are capable of meeting payment obligations to their customers in a timely manner. Mandated investment in liquid assets are a key construct: government bonds form a large percentage of their investments. As if this was not sufficient incentive, institutions are also encouraged to purchase government bonds as a result of the zero capital requirements for holding these assets under Basel rules.

A second factor is the uncounted, unfunded, liabilities of state pension funds and public healthcare spending. I defer to John Mauldin on this subject. The 8th of his Train-Wreck series is entitled Unfunded Promises – the author begins his calculation of total US debt with the face amount of all outstanding Treasury paper, at $21.2trln it amounts to approximately 105% of GDP. This is where the calculations become disturbing: –

If you add in state and local debt, that adds another $3.1 trillion to bring total government debt in the US to $24.3 trillion or more than 120% of GDP.

Mauldin goes on to suggest that this still underestimates the true cost. He turns to the Congressional Budget Office 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook – which assumes that federal spending will grow significantly faster than federal revenue. On the basis of their assumptions, all federal tax revenues will be consumed in meeting social security, health care and interest expenditures by 2041.

Extrapolate this logic to other developed economies, especially those with more generous welfare commitments than the US, and the outlook for rapidly aging, welfare addicted developed countries is bleak. In a 2017 white paper by Mercer for World Economic Forum – We Will Live to 100 – the author estimates that the unfunded liabilities of US, UK, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Canada, China and India will rise from $70trln in 2015 to $400trln in 2050. These countries represent roughly 60% of global GDP. I extrapolate global unfunded liabilities of around $120trln today rising to nearer $650trln within 20 years: –

image_2_20180622_tftf

Source: Mercer analysis

For an in depth analysis of the global pension crisis this 2016 research paper from Citi GPS – The Coming Pensions Crisis – is a mine of information.

In case you are still wondering how, on earth, we got here? This chart from Money Week shows how a combination of increased fiscal spending (to offset the effect of the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000) combined with the dramatic fall in interest rates (since the great financial recession of 2008/2009) has damaged the US state pension system: –

pensionshortfallinussince1998-moneyweek

Source: Moneyweek

The yield on US Treasury bonds has remained structurally higher than most of the bonds of Europe and any of Japan, for at least a decade.

The third factor is the fractional reserve banking system. Banks serve a useful purpose intermediating between borrowers and lenders. They are the levers of the credit cycle, but their very existence is testament to their usefulness to their governments, by whom they are esteemed for their ability to purchase government debt. I discuss – A history of Fractional Reserve Banking – or why interest rates are the most important influence on stock market valuations? in a two part essay I wrote for the Cobden Centre in October 2016. In it I suggest that the UK banking system, led by the Bank of England, has enabled the UK government to borrow at around 3% below the ‘natural rate’ of interest for more than 300 years. The recent introduction of quantitative easing has only exaggerated the artificial suppression of government borrowing costs.

Before you conclude that I am on a mission to change the world financial system, I wish to point out that if this suppression of borrowing costs has been the case for more than 300 years, there is no reason why it should not continue.

Which brings us back to Blanchard’s lecture at the AEA. Given the magnitude of unfunded liabilities, the low yield on government bonds is, perhaps, even more remarkable. More alarmingly, it reinforces Blanchard’s observation about the greater scope for government borrowing: although the author is at pains to advocate fiscal rectitude. If economic growth in developed economies stalls, as it has for much of the past two decades in Japan, then a Japanese redux will occur in other developed countries. The ‘risk-free’ rate across all developed countries will gravitate towards the zero bound with a commensurate flattening in yield curves. Over the medium term (the next decade or two) an increasing burden of government debt can probably be managed. Some of the new borrowing may even be diverted to investments which support higher economic growth. The end-game, however, will be a monumental reckoning, involving wholesale debt forgiveness. The challenge, as always, will be to anticipate the inflection point.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Since the early-1990’s analysts have been predicting the end of the bond bull market. Until quite recently it was assumed that negative government bond yields were a temporary aberration reflecting stressed market conditions. When German schuldscheine (the promissory notes of the German banking system) traded briefly below the yield of German Bunds, during the reunification in 1989, the ‘liquidity anomaly’ was soon rectified. There has been a sea-change, for a decade since 2008, US 30yr interest rate swaps traded at a yield discount to US Treasuries – for more on this subject please see – Macro Letter – No 74 – 07-04-2017 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

With the collapse in interest rates and bond yields, the unfunded liabilities of governments in developed economies has ballooned. A solution to the ‘pension crisis,’ higher bond yields, would sow the seeds of a wider economic crisis. Whilst governments still control their fiat currencies and their central banks dictate the rate of interest, there is still time – though, I doubt, the political will – to make the gradual adjustments necessary to right the ship.

I have been waiting for US 10yr yields to reach 4.5%, I may be disappointed. For investors in fixed income securities, the bond bull market has yet to run its course. Negative inflation adjusted returns will become the norm for risk-free assets. Stock markets may be range-bound for a protracted period as return expectations adjust to a structurally weaker economic growth environment.

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A world of debt – where are the risks?

A world of debt – where are the risks?

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Macro Letter – No 108 – 18-01-2019

A world of debt – where are the risks?

  • Private debt has been the main source of rising debt to GDP ratios since 2008
  • Advanced economies have led the trend
  • Emerging market debt increases have been dominated by China
  • Credit spreads are a key indicator to watch in 2019

Since the financial crisis of 2008/2009 global debt has increased to reach a new all-time high. This trend has been documented before in articles such as the 2014 paper from the International Center for Monetary and Banking Studies – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? The IMF have also been built a global picture of the combined impact of private and public debt. In a recent publication – New Data on Global Debt – IMF – the authors make some interesting observations: –

Global debt has reached an all-time high of $184 trillion in nominal terms, the equivalent of 225 percent of GDP in 2017. On average, the world’s debt now exceeds $86,000 in per capita terms, which is more than 2½ times the average income per-capita.

The most indebted economies in the world are also the richer ones. You can explore this more in the interactive chart below. The top three borrowers in the world—the United States, China, and Japan—account for more than half of global debt, exceeding their share of global output.

The private sector’s debt has tripled since 1950. This makes it the driving force behind global debt. Another change since the global financial crisis has been the rise in private debt in emerging markets, led by China, overtaking advanced economies. At the other end of the spectrum, private debt has remained very low in low-income developing countries.

Global public debt, on the other hand, has experienced a reversal of sorts. After a steady decline up to the mid-1970s, public debt has gone up since, with advanced economies at the helm and, of late, followed by emerging and low-income developing countries.

The recent picture suggests that the old world order, dominated by advanced economies, may be changing. For investors, this is an important consideration. Total debt in 2017 had exceeded the previous all-time high by more than 11%, however, the global debt to GDP ratio fell by 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, led by developed nations.

Setting aside the absolute level of interest rates, which have finally begun to rise from multi-year lows, it makes sense for rapidly aging, developed economies, to begin reducing their absolute level of debt, unfortunately, given that unfunded pension liabilities and the escalating cost of government healthcare provision are not included in the data, the IMF are only be portraying a partial picture of the state of developed economy obligations.

For emerging markets, the trauma of the 1998 Asian Crisis has finally waned. In the decade since the great financial recession of 2008 emerging economies, led by China, have increased their borrowing. This is clearly indicated in the chart below: –

eng-december-26-global-debt-1

Source: IMF

The decline in the global debt to GDP ratio in 2017 is probably related to the change in Federal Reserve policy; the largest proportion of global debt is still raised in US$. Rather like the front-loaded US growth which transpired due the threat of tariff increases on US imports, I suspect, debt issuance spiked in expectation of a reversal of quantitative easing and an end to ultra-low US interest rates.

The IMF goes on to show the breakdown of debt by country, separating them into three groups; advanced economies, emerging markets and low income countries. The outlier is China, an emerging market with a debt to GDP ratio comparable to that of an advanced economy. The table below may be difficult to read (an interactive one is available on the IMF website): –

imf chart of debt by country december 2018

Source: IMF

At 81%, China’s private debt is much greater than its public debt, meanwhile its debt to GDP ratio is 254% – comparable with the US (256%). Fortunately, the majority of Chinese private debt is denominated in local currency. Advanced economies have higher debt to GDP ratios but their government debt ratios are relatively modest, excepting Japan. The Economist – Economists reconsider how much governments can borrow – provides food for thought on this subject.

Excluding China, emerging markets and low income countries have relatively similar levels of debt relative to GDP. In general, the preponderance of government debt in lower ratio countries reflects the lack of access to capital markets for private sector borrowers.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Setting aside China, which, given its control on capital flows and foreign exchange reserves is hard to predict, the greatest risk to world financial markets appears to be from the private debt of advanced economies.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, corporate credit spreads narrowed, but not by as much as one might have anticipated, as interest rates tended towards the zero bound. The inexorable quest for yield appears to have been matched by equally enthusiastic issuance. The yield-quest also prompted the launch of a plethora of private debt investment products, offering enticing returns in exchange for illiquidity. An even more sinister trend has been the return of many of the products which exacerbated the financial crisis of 2008 – renamed, repackaged and repurposed. These investments lack liquidity and many are leveraged in order to achieve acceptable rates of return.

The chart below shows the 10yr maturity Corporate Baa spread versus US Treasuries since March 2007: –

baa 10yr spread 2007 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The Baa spread has widened since its low of 1.58% in January 2018, but, at 2.46%, it is still only halfway between the low of 2018 and the high of February 2016 (3.6%).

The High Yield Bond spread experienced a more dramatic reaction into the close of 2018, but, since the beginning of January, appears to have regained its composure. The chart shows the period since September 2015: –

high yield spread 10yr 2016 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Nonetheless, this looks more like a technical break-out. The spread may narrow to retest the break of 4% seen on November 15th, but the move looks impulsive. A return to the 3.25% – 3.75% range will be needed to quell market fears of an imminent full-blown credit-crunch.

If the next crisis does emanate from the private debt markets, governments will still be in a position to intervene; the last decade has taught us to accept negative government bond yields as a normal circumstance. Demographic trends have even led long dated interest rate swaps to trade even lower than risk-free assets.

A decade after the financial crisis, markets are fragile and, with an ever increasing percentage of capital market transactions dictated by non-bank liquidity providers, liquidity is ever more transitory. Credit spreads have often been the leading indicator of recessions, they may not provide the whole picture this time, but we should watch them closely during 2019.

A global slowdown in 2019 – is it already in the price?

A global slowdown in 2019 – is it already in the price?

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Macro Letter – No 106 – 07-12-2018

A global slowdown in 2019 – is it already in the price?

  • US stocks have given back all of their 2018 gains
  • Several developed and emerging stock markets are already in bear-market territory
  • US/China trade tensions have eased, a ‘No’ deal Brexit is priced in
  • An opportunity to re-balance global portfolios is nigh

The recent shakeout in US stocks has acted as a wake-up call for investors. However, a look beyond the US finds equity markets that are far less buoyant despite no significant tightening of monetary conditions. In fact a number of emerging markets, especially some which loosely peg themselves to the US$, have reacted more violently to Federal Reserve tightening than companies in the US. I discussed this previously in Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018 – Is the US exporting a recession?

In the wake of the financial crisis, European lacklustre growth saw interest rates lowered to a much greater degree than in the US. Shorter maturity German Bund yields have remained negative for a protracted period (7yr currently -0.05%) and Swiss Confederation bonds have plumbed negative yields never seen before (10yr currently -0.17%, but off their July 2016 lows of -0.65%). Japan, whose stock market peaked in 1989, remains in an interest rate wilderness (although a possible end to yield curve control may have injected some life into the market recently) . The BoJ balance-sheet is bloated, yet officials are still gorging on a diet of QQE policy. China, the second great engine of world GDP growth, continues to moderate its rate of expansion as it transitions away from primary industry and towards a more balanced, consumer-centric economic trajectory. From a peak of 14% in 2007 the rate has slowed to 6.5% and is forecast to decline further:-

china-gdp-growth-annual 1988 - 2018

Source: Trading Economics, China, National Bureau of Statistics

2019 has not been kind to emerging market stocks either. The MSCI Emerging Markets (MSCIEF) is down 27% from its January peak of 1279, but it has been in a technical bear market since 2008. The all-time high was recorded in November 2007 at 1345.

MSCI EM - 2004 - 2018

Source: MSCI, Investing.com

A star in this murky firmament is the Brazilian Bovespa Index made new all-time high of 89,820 this week.

brazil-stock-market 2013 to 2018

Source: Trading Economics

The German DAX Index, which made an all-time high of 13,597 in January, lurched through the 10,880 level yesterday. It is now officially in a bear-market making a low of 10,782. 10yr German Bund yields have also reacted to the threat to growth, falling from 58bp in early October to test 22bp yesterday; they are down from 81bp in February. The recent weakness in stocks and flight to quality in Bunds may have been reinforced by excessively expansionary Italian budget proposals and the continuing sorry saga of Brexit negotiations. A ‘No’ deal on Brexit will hit German exporters hard. Here is the DAX Index over the last year: –

germany-stock-market 1yr

Source: Trading Economics

I believe the recent decoupling in the correlation between the US and other stock markets is likely to reverse if the US stock market breaks lower. Ironically, China, President Trump’s nemesis, may manage to avoid the contagion. They have a command economy model and control the levers of state by government fiat and through currency reserve management. The RMB is still subject to stringent currency controls. The recent G20 meeting heralded a détente in the US/China trade war; ‘A deal to discuss a deal,’ as one of my fellow commentators put it on Monday.

If China manages to avoid the worst ravages of a developed market downturn, it will support its near neighbours. Vietnam should certainly benefit, especially since Chinese policy continues to favour re-balancing towards domestic consumption. Other countries such as Malaysia, should also weather the coming downturn. Twin-deficit countries such as India, which has high levels of exports to the EU, and Indonesia, which has higher levels of foreign currency debt, may fare less well.

Evidence of China’s capacity to consume is revealed in recent internet sales data (remember China has more than 748mln internet users versus the US with 245mln). The chart below shows the growth of web-sales on Singles Day (11th November) which is China’s equivalent of Cyber Monday in the US: –

China Singles day sales Alibaba

Source: Digital Commerce, Alibaba Group

China has some way to go before it can challenge the US for the title of ‘consumer of last resort’ but the official policy of re-balancing the Chinese economy towards domestic consumption appears to be working.

Here is a comparison with the other major internet sales days: –

Websales comparison

Source: Digital Commerce, Adobe Digital Insights, company reports, Internet Retailer

Conclusion and Investment Opportunity

Emerging market equities are traditionally more volatile than those of developed markets, hence the, arguably fallacious, argument for having a reduced weighting, however, those emerging market countries which are blessed with good demographics and higher structural rates of economic growth should perform more strongly in the long run.

A global slowdown may not be entirely priced into equity markets yet, but fear of US protectionist trade policies and a disappointing or protracted resolution to the Brexit question probably are. In financial markets the expression ‘buy the rumour sell that fact’ is often quoted. From a technical perspective, I remain patient, awaiting confirmation, but a re-balancing of stock exposure, from the US to a carefully selected group of emerging markets, is beginning to look increasingly attractive from a value perspective.

The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle

The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle

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Macro Letter – No 105 – 23-11-18

The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle

recovery_saltaire

Source: Stromness Lifeboat

  • Rising bond yields may already have tempered economic growth
  • Global stocks are in a corrective phase but not a bear-market
  • With oil prices under pressure inflation expectations have moderated

The first self-righting vessel was a life-boat, designed in 1789. It needed to be able to weather the most extreme conditions and its eventual introduction (in the 1840’s) transformed the business of recuse at sea forever. The current level of debt, especially in the developed economies, seems to be acting rather like the self-righting ship. As economic growth accelerates and labour markets tighten, central banks gradually tighten monetary conditions in expectation of inflation. As short-term rates increase, bond yields follow, but, unlike the pattern seen in the higher interest rate era of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the effect of higher bond yields quickly leads to a tempering of credit demand.

Some commentators will rightly observe that this phenomenon has always existed, but, at the risk of saying this time it’s different, the level at which higher bond yields act as a break on credit expansion are much lower today in most developed markets.

When in doubt, look to Japan

For central bankers, Japan is the petri dish in which all unconventional monetary policies are tested. Even today, QQE – Quantitative and Qualitative Easing – is only seriously being undertaken in Japan. The Qualitative element, involving the provision of permanent capital by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) through their purchases of common stocks (at present, still, indirectly via ETFs), remains avant garde even by the unorthodox standards of our times.

Recently the BoJ has hinted that it may abandon another of its unconventional monetary policies – yield curve control. This is the operation whereby the bank maintains rates for 10yr maturity JGBs in a range of between zero and 10 basis point – the range is implied rather than disclosed – by the purchase of a large percentage of all new Japanese Treasury issuance, they also intervene in the secondary market. During the past two decades, any attempt, on the part of the BoJ, to reverse monetary easing has prompted a rise in the value of the Yen and a downturn in economic growth, this time, however, might be different – did I use that most dangerous of terms again? It is a long time since Japanese banks were able to function in a normal manner, by which I mean borrowing short and lending long. The yield curve is almost flat and any JGBs with maturities shorter than 10 years tend to trade with negative yields in the secondary market.

Japanese banks were not heavily involved in the boom of the mid-2000’s and therefore weathered the 2008 crisis relatively well. Investing abroad has been challenging due to the continuous rise in the value of the Yen, but during the last few years the Japanese currency has begun to trade in a broad range rather than appreciating inexorably.

In the non-financial sector a number of heavily indebted companies continue to limp on, living beyond their useful life on a debt-fuelled last hurrah. Elsewhere, however, Japan has a number of world class companies trading at reasonable multiples to earnings. If the BoJ allows rates to rise the zombie corporations will finally exit the gene pool and new entrepreneurs will be able to fill the gap created in the marketplace more cheaply and to the benefit of the beleaguered Japanese consumer. My optimism about a sea-change at the BoJ may well prove misplaced. Forsaking an inflation target and offering Japanese savers positive real-interest rates is an heretically old-fashioned idea.

Whilst for Japan, total debt consists mainly of government obligations, for the rest of the developed world, the distribution is broader. Corporate and consumer borrowing forms a much larger share of the total sum. Giving the historically low level of interest rates in most developed economies today, even a moderate rise in interest rates has an immediate impact. Whereas, in the 1990’s, an increase from 5% to 10% mortgage rates represented a doubling payments by the mortgagee, today a move from 2% to 4% has the same impact.

The US stock market as bellwether for global growth

Last month US stocks suffered a sharp correction. The rise had been driven by technology and it was fears of a slowdown in the technology sector that precipitated the rout. Part of the concern also related to US T-Bonds as they breached 3% yields – a level German Bund investors can only dream of. Elsewhere stock markets have been in corrective (0 – 20%) or bear-market (20% or more) territory for some time. I wrote about this decoupling in Macro Letter – No 101 – 31-08-2018 – Divergent – the breakdown of stock market correlations, temp or perm? Now the divergence might be about to reverse. US stocks have yet to correct, whilst China and its vassals have already reacted to the change in global growth expectations. Globally, stocks have performed well for almost a decade: –

MSCI World

Source: MSCI and Yardeni

The next decade may see a prolonged period of range trading. After 10 years, during which momentum investing has paid handsomely, value investing may be the way to navigate the next.

Along with stocks, oil prices have fallen, despite geopolitical tensions. The Baker Hughes rig count reached 888 this week, the highest since early 2015. With WTI still above $60/bbl, the number of active rigs is likely to continue growing.

US 10yr bond yields have already moderated (down to 3.06% versus their high of 3.26%) and stocks have regained some composure after the sudden repricing of last month. The ship has self-righted for the present but the forecast remains turbulent.     

Not waving but drowning – Stocks, debt and inflation?

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Macro Letter – No 103 – 26-10-2018

Not waving but drowning – Stocks, debt and inflation?

  • The US stock market is close to being in a corrective phase -10% off its highs
  • Global debt has passed $63trln – well above the levels on 2007
  • Interest rates are still historically low, especially given the point in the economic cycle
  • Predictions of a bear-market may be premature, but the headwinds are building

The recent decline in the US stock market, after the longest bull-market in history, has prompted many commentators to focus on the negative factors which could sow the seeds of the next recession. Among the main concerns is the inexorable rise in debt since the great financial recession (GFR) of 2008. According to May 2018 data from the IMF, global debt now stands at $63trln, with emerging economy debt expansion, over the last decade, more than offsetting the marking time among developed nations. The IMF – Global Debt Database: Methodology and Sources WP/18/111 – looks at the topic in more detail.

The title of this week’s Macro letter comes from the poet Stevie Smith: –

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

It seems an appropriate metaphor for valuation and leverage in asset markets. In 2013 Thomas Pickety published ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ in which he observed that income inequality was rising due to the higher return on unearned income relative to labour. He and his co-authors gathering together one of the longest historical data-set on interest rates and wages – an incredible achievement. Their conclusion was that the average return on capital had been roughly 5% over the very long run.

This is not the place to argue about the pros and cons of Pickety’s conclusions, suffice to say that, during the last 50 years, inflation indices have tended to understate what most of us regard as our own personal inflation rate, whilst the yield offered by government bonds has been insufficient to match the increase in our cost of living. The real rate of return on capital has diminished in the inflationary, modern era. Looked at from another perspective, our current fiat money and taxation system encourages borrowing rather than lending, both by households, corporates, for whom repayment is still an objective: and governments, for whom it is not.

Financial innovation and deregulation has helped to oil the wheels of industry, making it easier to service or reschedule debt today than in the past. The depth of secondary capital markets has made it easier to raise debt (and indeed equity) capital than at any time in history. These financial markets are underpinned by central banks which control interest rates. Since the GFR interest rates have been held at exceptionally low levels, helping to stimulate credit growth, however, that which is not seen, as Bastiat might have put it, is the effect that this credit expansion has had on the global economy. It has led to a vast misallocation of capital. Companies which would, in an unencumbered interest rate environment, have been forced into liquidation, are still able to borrow and continue operating; their inferior products flood the market place crowding out the market for new innovative products. New companies are confronted by unfair competition from incumbent firms. Where there should be a gap in the market, it simply does not exist. At a national and international level, productivity slows and the trend rate of GDP growth declines.

We are too far out at sea and have been for decades. Markets are never permitted to clear, during economic downturns, because the short-term pain of recessions is alleviated by the rapid lowering of official interest rates, prolonging the misallocation of capital and encouraging new borrowing via debt – often simply to retire equity capital and increase leverage. The price of money should be a determinant of the value of an investment, but when interest rates are held at an artificially low rate for a protracted period, the outcome is massively sub-optimal. Equity is replaced by debt, leverage increases, zombie companies limp on and, notwithstanding the number of technology start-ups seen during the past decade, innovation is crushed before it has even begun.

In an unencumbered market with near price stability, as was the case prior to the recent inflationary, fiat currency era, I suspect, the rate of return on capital would be approximately 5%. On that point, Pickety and I are in general agreement. Today, markets are as far from unencumbered as they have been at any time since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971.

Wither the stock market?

With US 10yr bond yields now above 3%, stocks are becoming less attractive, but until real-yields on bonds reach at least 3% they still offer little value – US CPI was at 2.9% as recently as August. Meanwhile higher oil prices, import tariffs and wage inflation all bode ill for US inflation. Nonetheless, demand for US Treasuries remains robust while real-yields, even using the 2.3% CPI data for September, are still exceptionally low by historic standards. See the chart below which traces the US CPI (LHS) and US 10yr yields (RHS) since 1971. Equities remain a better bet from a total return perspective: –

united-states-inflation-cpi 1970 to 2018

Source: Trading Economics

What could change sentiment, among other factors, is a dramatic rise in the US$, an escalation in the trade-war with China, or a further increase in the price of oil. From a technical perspective the recent weakness in stocks looks likely to continue. A test of the February lows may be seen before the year has run its course. Already around ¾ of the stocks in the S&P 500 have suffered a 10% plus correction – this decline is broad-based.

Many international markets have already moved into bear territory (declining more than 20% from their highs) but the expression, ‘when the US sneezes the world catches a cold,’ implies that these markets may fall less steeply, in a US stock downturn, but they will be hard-pressed to ignore the direction of the US equity market.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Rumours abound of another US tax cut. Federal Reserve Chairman, Powell, has been openly criticised by President Trump; whilst this may not cause the FOMC to reverse their tightening, they will want to avoid going down in history as the committee that precipitated an end to Federal Reserve independence.

There is a greater than 50% chance that the S&P 500 will decline further. Wednesday’s low was 2652. The largest one month correction this year is still that which occurred in February (303 points). We are not far away, however, a move below 2637 will fuel fears. I believe it is a breakdown through the February low, of 2533, which will prompt a more aggressive global move out of risk assets. The narrower Dow Jones Industrials has actually broken to new lows for the year and the NASDAQ suffered its largest one day decline in seven years this week.

A close below 2352 for the S&P 500 would constitute a 20% correction – a technical bear-market. If the market retraces to the 2016 low (1810) the correction will be 38% – did someone say, ‘Fibonacci’ – if we reach that point the US Treasury yield curve will probably be close to an inversion: and from a very low level of absolute rates. Last week the FRBSF – The Slope of the Yield Curve and the Near-Term Outlook – analysed the recession predicting power of the shape of the yield curve, they appear unconcerned at present, but then the current slope is more than 80bp positive.

If the stock correction reaches the 2016 lows, a rapid reversal of Federal Reserve policy will be required to avoid accusations that the Fed deliberately engineered the disaster. I envisage the Fed calling upon other central banks to render assistance via another concert party of quantitative, perhaps backed up by qualitative, easing.

At this point, I believe the US stock market is consolidating, an immanent crash is not on the horizon. The GFR is still too fresh in our collective minds for history to repeat. Longer term, however, the situation looks dire – history may not repeat but it tends to rhyme. Among the principal problems back in 2008 was an excess of debt, today the level of indebtedness is even greater…

We are much further out than we thought,

And not waving but drowning.