Relax, Rotate, Reflate

Relax, Rotate, Reflate

Macro Letter – No 134 – 27-11-2020

Relax, Rotate, Reflate

  • With US elections over and a vaccine in sight, financial market uncertainty has declined
  • Rotation has seen a resurgence in those stocks battered by the onset of the pandemic
  • Monetary and fiscal spending will continue until inflation returns

November has been an interesting month for financial markets around the world. The US Presidential election came and went and with its passing financial market uncertainty diminished. This change of administration is undeniably important, but its effect was overshadowed by the arrival of three vaccines for Covid-19. As I write (Thursday 26th) the S&P 500 Index is within 30 points of its all-time high, amid a chemical haze of pharmaceutical hope, whilst the VIX Index has tested its lowest level since February (20.8%). The Nasdaq Composite is also near to its peak and the Russell 2000 Index (an index of smaller capitalisation stocks) burst through its highs from February 2020 taking out its previous record set in September 2018. The chart below shows the one year performance of the Russell 2000 versus the S&P500 Index: –

Source: Yahoo Finance, S&P, Russell

It is worth remembering that over the very long term Small Caps have outperformed Large Caps, however, during the last decade the rapid growth of index tracking investments such as ETFs has undermined this dynamic, investment flows are a powerful force. I wrote about this topic in June in – A Brave New World for Value Investing – in which I concluded: –

Stock and corporate bond markets have regained much of their composure since late March. Central banks and governments have acted to ameliorate the effects of the global economic slowdown. As the dust begins to settle, the financial markets will adjust to a new environment, one in which value-based stock and bond market analysis will provide an essential aid to navigation.

The geopolitics of trade policy, already a source of tension before the pandemic struck, has been turbo-charged by the simultaneous supply and demand shocks and their impact on global supply chains. Supply chains will shorten and diversify. Robustness rather than efficiency will be the watch-word in the months and years ahead. This sea-change in the functioning of the world economy will not be without cost. It will appear in increased prices or reduced corporate profits. Value-based investment analysis will be the best guide in this brave new world.

To date, evidence of a return to Value Investing seems premature, Growth still dominates and the structural acceleration of technology trends seems set to continue – one might say, ‘there is Value in that.’

The vaccine news led to a rotation out of technology stocks but this was more to do with profit taking, new ‘Tech’ buyers quickly emerged. The rotation into Small Caps was also echoed among a number of out of favour sectors such as Airlines and Energy. It was enough to prompt the creation of a new acronym – BEACHs – Booking, Entertainment, Airlines, Cruises and Hotels.

Source: Barchart.com, S&P

Above is the one year performance of the 11 S&P 500 industry sectors. Information Technology remains the leader (+38%) with Energy bringing up the rear (-32%) however the level of dispersion of returns is unusually which has presented an abundance of trading opportunities. The table below shows the one, three and six month performance for an expanded selection of these sectors: –

Source: Tradingview

Beyond the US, news of the vaccines encouraged both European and emerging markets, but the latter (EEM), helped by the strong performance of Chinese stocks, have tracked the US quite closely throughout the year, it is Europe (IEUR) which has staged the stronger recovery of late, although it has yet to retest its February highs: –

Source: Yahoo Finance, S&P, MSCI

In the aftermath of the US election, US bond yields have inched higher. From an all-time low of 32bp in March, 10yr yields tripled, testing 97bp in the wake of the Democrat win. Putting this in perspective, the pre-Covid low was seen at 1.32% in July 2016. The current concern is partly about the ‘socialist’ credentials of President-elect, Biden, but the vaccine announcement, together with the prospect of a return to some semblance of normality, has also raised the spectre of a less accommodative stance from the Fed. There was initial fear they might ‘take away the punch-bowl’ before the global economy gets back on its knees, let alone its feet. Governor Powell, quickly dispelled bond market fears and yields have since stabilised.

Longer-term, these bond market concerns may be justified, as this infographic from the McKinsey Institute reveals, combined central bank and government fiscal stimulus in 2020 has utterly eclipsed the largesse witnessed in the wake of the 2008 crisis: –

Source: McKinsey

Bond watchers can probably rest easy, however, should the global economy stage the much vaunted ‘V’ shaped recovery economists predicted back in the spring, only a fraction of the fiscal stimulus will actually materialise. Nonetheless, prospects for mass-vaccination, even in developed countries, remains some months away, both monetary and fiscal spigots will continue to spew for the present.

On the topic of monetary policy it is worth noting that the Federal Reserve previously employed ‘yield curve control,’ though it was not called by that name, back in April 1942, five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under this arrangement the Fed committed to peg T-Bills at 3/8th and implicitly cap long-dated T-Bonds at 2.5%. The aim was to stabilize the securities market and allow the government to engage in cheaper debt financing during the course of WWII. This arrangement only ended with the Treasury – Fed Accord of 1951 in response to a sharp peace-time resurgence in inflation. This chart shows the period from 1941 (when the US entered WWII) up to the middle of the Korean War: –

Source: US BLS

I believe we will need to see several years of above target inflation before the Fed to feel confident in raising rates aggressively. The experience of Japan, where deflation has been lurking in the wings for decades, will inform Fed decision making for the foreseeable future.

Returning to the present environment; away from the stock and bond markets, oil prices also basked in the reflected light shining from the end of the pandemic tunnel. West Texas Intermediate, which tested $33.64/bbl on 2nd, reached $46.26/bbl on 25th. The energy sector remains cautious, nonetheless, even the recent resurgence leaves oil prices more than $15/bbl lower than they were at the start of the year.

Looking ahead, the stock market may take a breather over the next few weeks. A vaccine is coming, but not immediately. US politics also remains in the spotlight, the Republicans currently hold 50 Senate seats to the Democrats 48. If Democrats secure the two seats in Georgia, in the runoff election on 5th January, VP Elect, Harris, will be able to use her ‘tie-break’ vote to carry motions, lending the Biden Presidency teeth and hastening the expansion of US fiscal policy.

The stock market has yet to make up its mind about whether Biden’s ‘New New Dealers’ are a positive or a negative. Unemployment and under-employment numbers remain elevated as a result of the pandemic: and, whilst bankruptcies are lower than at this time last year, the ending of the myriad schemes to prolong the existence of businesses will inevitably see those numbers rise sharply. Does the stock market benefit more from the fiscal spigot than the tax increase? This is a question which will be mulled, chewed and worried until long after Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.  

Meanwhile the trend accelerations in technology which I discussed in – The prospects for Emerging and Frontier Markets in the post-Covid environment – earlier this month, continue. The chart below shows how information industries have been transforming the makeup of global trade ever since the great financial crisis: –

Source: ECIPE, OECD, TiVA, van der Marel

Manufacturing trade is in retreat, trade in digital services is accelerating. The chart above stops at 2015, when we have the data to incorporate the period of the current pandemic, I expect the pace of growth in information industries to have gain even greater momentum.

Back in 1987, MIT economist and Nobel Laureate, Robert Solow, observed that the computer age was everywhere except for the productivity statistics. During the 1990’s technology productivity growth was finally observed, but the past decade has seen a string of disappointing productivity growth statistics, yet they have coincided with digitisation transforming vast swathes of the global economy, perhaps the next decade will see the fruit of these labours. I believe we can look forward to significant productivity improvements in the coming years. Stock prices, however, are forward looking, their valuations may seem extended but this may be entirely justified if technology ushers in a new golden age.

Global Money Supply Growth and the Great Inflation Getaway

Global Money Supply Growth and the Great Inflation Getaway

Back in June I wrote about the prospects for inflation in the wake of global money supply growth. The deflationary forces of the pandemic and demographic aging still maintain the upper hand for now, but there’s a tug of war which governments need to win if debt is to be inflated away.

Global Money Supply Growth and the Great Inflation Getaway

Step-change at the Fed – Reaching for the stars

Step-change at the Fed – Reaching for the stars

Macro Letter No 132 – 04-09-2020

Step-change at the Fed – Reaching for the stars

  • The Federal Reserve has changed the emphasis of their dual mandate
  • Inflation targeting will become more flexible in the long-run
  • Full employment has become the Bank’s priority
  • Asset markets will be the immediate beneficiaries

In a speech entitled – New Economic Challenges and the Fed’s Monetary Policy Review – given on August 27th, at the Jackson Hole, Kansas City Federal Reserve Economic Policy Symposium, Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, announced a change in the emphasis of the dual mandate. The new focus is on promoting full-employment even at the expense of price stability.

The policy review was, of course, more nuanced. Past policy decisions were analysed and found wanting – especially the rate increases witnessed between 2015 and 2018. The extraordinary flatness of the Phillips Curve was noted; the lower trend rate of economic growth, contemplated; the stickiness of inflation expectations, contextualised: and the ever rising, pre-pandemic participation rate, considered. What the speech omitted was any discussion of forward guidance or expectations of the change in size, composition or direction of the Fed’s, already historically large, balance sheet.

For financial markets the key change is contained in this paragraph: –

Our statement emphasizes that our actions to achieve both sides of our dual mandate will be most effective if longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. However, if inflation runs below 2 percent following economic downturns but never moves above 2 percent even when the economy is strong, then, over time, inflation will average less than 2 percent. Households and businesses will come to expect this result, meaning that inflation expectations would tend to move below our inflation goal and pull realized inflation down. To prevent this outcome and the adverse dynamics that could ensue, our new statement indicates that we will seek to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time. Therefore, following periods when inflation has been running below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.

The initial market response saw stocks rally whilst 10yr T-bond yields rose – testing 0.79%. During the week which followed, 10yr yields slipped back to 0.62%. Equity markets subsequently switched focus and moved on, returning to their obsession with the ever rising tide of technology stock earnings expectations. Even the Dow Jones Industrials Average Index has been effected by the tech boom, as reported by S&P – Dow Jones Industrial Average: 124 Years and It Keeps Changing – the index changes, announced on August 31st included, Salesforce.com (CRM) replacing Exxon Mobil (XOM), Amgen (AMGN) replacing Pfizer (PFE), and a tech switch with Honeywell International (HON) replacing Raytheon Technologies (RTX).

Returning to monetary policy, the Fed announcement was hardly a surprise, the August 10th, FRBSF Economic Letter – Average-Inflation Targeting and the Effective Lower Bound had already set the tone. The chart below reveals the Fed’s inflation targeting dilemma: –

Source: FRBSF

If the average for Total PCE over the last decade has been less than 1.5%, allowing it to rise above 3% for a few years is just what is needed for the Fed to get back on track.

Setting aside the vexed questions of whether an Inflation Target is appropriate or, deflation, a good or bad phenomenon, we need to investigate the structural cause of the decline in inflation. Here I will resort to the monetary equation of exchange: –

MV = PQ

Where: –

M            is the total nominal amount of money supply in circulation on average in an economy.

V             is the velocity of money, or the average frequency with which a unit of money is spent.

P             is the price level.

Q             is an index of real expenditures for newly produced goods and services.

The basic problem for the Fed is that, despite their success in expanding money supply (see below): –

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The velocity of circulation has continued to plummet: –

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

I discussed the rapid expansion of money supply in more detail in a June article for AIER – Global Money Supply Growth and the Great Inflation Getaway:

I suspect, fearful of repeating the mistakes made by the Bank of Japan, that once the inflation genie is finally out of the bottle, central bankers will forsake the hard-learned lessons of the 1970’s and 1980’s and allow inflation to conjure away the fiscal deficits of their governments at the expense of pensioners and other long-term investors.

Of course, consumer price inflation may not return, even with such egregious debasement as we have seen thus far, as Michel Santi suggests in Japan: a sleeping beauty: –

A global battle has thus been raging on pretty much since the deflationary episodes of the 2010s in an attempt to relaunch economies by dint of inflation. In this respect, the Japanese experiment, or rather multiple experiments, remains a case study to show that inflation is still proving a difficult spectre to revive.

Santi, points to demographic decline, a trend in which Japan is a world leader, together with, what he considers to be, an irrational fear of debt and deficits, which renders people unwilling to spend. In this scenario, government, corporate and consumer debt cannot be inflated away and sits like a giant toad atop all the animal spirits that might reignite economic growth. He also alludes to the profound changes in the nature of work – from permanent to temporary, from employed to self-employed, from office based to remote. These changes have rendered the Phillips Curve redundant.

The dual mandate of full employment and price stability has never been so easy for the Federal Reserve to achieve. That, at least, was the case until the global pandemic unknit the fabric of the global market economy. Now, the Federal Reserve – and central bankers in general – are faced with the prospect that printed money, whether it be sterilised or not, will either be invested or hoarded. In this scenario, the greater the debt the less likely prices are to rise as a result of demand-pull inflation. On the opposite side of the inflation equation, the shortening of global supply chains and the need for dual-redundancy, agin another unwelcome and unexpected lockdown, has created the classic bottlenecks which lead to product scarcity, personified in cost-push inflation.

Interest Rates, Global Value Chains and Bank Reserve Requirements– published in June of last year, notes that Global Value Chains have suffered and shortened since 2009; that, despite low interest rates, financing costs remain too high and yet, at the same time, bank profitability has not recovered from the damage caused by the great financial recession. Nonetheless, those same banks, which were supposed to have been broken up or dramatically deleveraged, remain still too big to fail. My conclusion looks dismally prescient: –

The logical solution to the problem of the collapse of global value chains is to create an environment in which the credit cycle fluctuates less violently. A gradual normalisation of interest rates is the first step towards redemption. This could be accompanied by the removal of the moral hazard of central bank and government intervention. The reality? The societal pain of such a gargantuan adjustment would be protracted. It would be political suicide for any democratically elected government to commit to such a meaningful rebalancing. The alternative? More of the same. Come the next crisis central banks will intervene, if they fail to avert disaster, governments’ will resort to the fiscal spigot.

US interest rates will converge towards those of Europe and Japan. Higher stock/earnings multiples will be sustainable, leverage will increase, share buy-backs will continue: and the trend rate of economic growth will decline. Economics maybe the dismal science, but this gloomy economic prognosis will be quite marvellous for assets.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

According to data from S&P, US share buybacks were lower for the second quarter in a row in Q2, 2020. They amounted to $166bln, versus $205bln in Q1 and $190bln in Q2, 2019 – this is still the seventh highest quarterly amount ever recorded. The chart below shows the evolution of buybacks over the last two decades: –

Source: S&P, FT

The consolidation of the US equity market continues – from a high of 7,562 on July 31, 1998, the Wilshire 5000 Index list of constituents has shrunk to just 3,473 names. This is a side effect of the fact that debt finance remains cheaper than equity finance. According to a recent article published by the Financial Times – US corporate bond issuance hits $1.919tn in 2020, beating full-year record corporate issuers have raised more capital in the first eight months of 2020 than in any previous full year. Low rates going to no rates, thanks to the actions of the Fed, is said to have driven this step-change in activity. The reticence of commercial banks to extend finance, despite the favourable interest rate and liquidity environment, is a contributing factor: –

Source: Refinitiv, FT

The Covid pandemic has accelerated many of the economic and financial market trends which have been in train since the end of the 2008/2009 financial crisis. Lower interest rates, more quantitative easing, further share buy-backs and greater debt issuance – by borrowers’ individual, corporate and national – look set to continue.

A global economic depression is looming, yet the price of many assets continues to rise. In a similar manner to the Tech bubble of the late 1990’s, today’s valuations rely more on the willing suspension of disbelief than on any sober assessment of earnings potential. The US stock market has outperformed partly due to the high proportion of technology stocks, as the chart below (from May) shows: –

Source: FactSet, Goldman Sachs

The magnitude of this fiscal and monetary response has already reached far beyond the United States. The table below shows those national stock markets with a positive year to date performance exceeding 5%: –

Source: Trading Economics, Local Stock Exchanges

I have deliberately excluded the Nasdaq 100 which is currently up more than 57%. Other countries will catch up. The US$ has weakened, since February, on a trade weighted basis: –

Source: BIS, Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

In a competitive race to the bottom, other central banks (and their governments) will expand monetary (and fiscal) policy to stop their currencies appreciating too fast.

Global bond yield convergence will continue, stock market strength will endure. Inflation will creep into consumer prices gradually and the central banks will turn a blind eye until it is too late. The world economy may be on its knees but, in general, asset prices will continue to reach for the stars.

When does a recession become a depression?

When does a recession become a depression?

Macro Letter – No 131 – 21-08-2020

When does a recession become a depression?

  • Defining a depression as opposed to a recession is open to wide interpretation
  • Recessions are a natural part of the credit cycle
  • Depressions are destroyers of a nation’s wealth
  • Fiscal policy can help ease the pain of ‘creative destruction’ but long-term planning is key

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

When your neighbour loses their job, it’s a recession.

When you lose your job, that’s a depression!

Harry S. Truman (33rd President of the Unites States)

The common knowledge definition above is grim and highly specific, but its banality serves to highlight the fact that the recession/depression question is not that simple to answer. Back in 2007 The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – What is the difference between a recession and a depression? – attempted to reach a conclusion. They embraced the NBER definition of a recession: –

A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion. Expansion is the normal state of the economy; most recessions are brief and they have been rare in recent decades.

And turned to Gregory Mankiw to distinguish between the two states of economic contraction: –

There are repeated periods during which real GDP falls, the most dramatic instance being the early 1930s. Such periods are called recessions if they are mild and depressions if they are more severe.

Despite the Federal Reserve’s valiant efforts, the simpler and more commonly accepted definition of a recession is a consecutive two quarters of decline in GDP. When it comes to depressions, however, there is little consensus; the two most common descriptions are: –

  • A decline in GDP of more than 20%
  • A period of more than two years of declining GDP

Whilst the two definitions are not mutually exclusive, they are broadly different. I believe the difference between a recession and a depression is more nuanced. A recession is a natural part of the business (or perhaps we should say credit) cycle, a depression, by contrast, involves the physical destruction of the economy – businesses are irreparably broken, employment opportunities terminally destroyed, investment has to be totally written off.

An alternative approach is to examine previous great depressions. Alas, this method proves equally inconsistent, for example the Great Depression of the 1930’s is generally considered to have lasted from 1929 to 1941 and yet, as the chart below reveals, there were only two distinct periods of declining GDP growth between 1930 and 1933 and again between 1937 and 1938: –

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Notwithstanding my more prosaic definition above, I favour the two year plus definition over that of a sharp decline in GDP. A recession hurts some parts of an economy, a depression is more widespread.

Another factor often associated with recessions and depressions is a rise in the rate of unemployment. Historically, rising unemployment has preceded the onset of recessions and only once recessions have become protracted have they been dubbed depressions.

A further differentiator relates to the absolute level of inflation. In general, as inflation rises, central banks respond by raising short-term interest rates. This helps to cool overheating economies, however, if they tighten too aggressively they may prompt a recession as the credit cycle is forced into a sharp contraction. By contrast a depression is often accompanied by an absolute fall in the price level, caused by an excessive overhang of domestic or corporate debt.

As an investor, why does a depression definition matter? Because financial markets are forward looking. If investors believe the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will be ‘V’ Shaped, then, even a 20% decline in GDP, together with zero interest rates, price support for government bonds and a fiscal expansion on a scale not witnessed since the ‘New Deal’ of FDR, will rapidly translate inot a sharply rising stock market. If, by contrast, it becomes clear that a tsunami of creative destruction is sweeping away entire industries, then even the most lavish of New New Deals may be insufficient to hold back the tide of stock liquidation as market participates rush to the safety of cash.

So far the official policy response has been sufficient to convince investors that a depression will be avoided. Scratch the surface of the S&P 500, however, and a rather different picture appears. The chart below shows market performance up to the end of May. The same five technology stocks have continued to drive S&P 500 index performance since then: –

Source: FactSet, Goldman Sachs

Technology has been the top performing sector. One argument for such elevated valuations rests on the premise that the pandemic has accelerated a wide range of technology trends bringing with it the potential for much swifter profits. In finance parlance, the net present value of future technology cash-flows has been brought forward by, some analysts suggest, several years. No wonder, they argue, that these stocks have broken to new all-time highs: and will continue, higher.

Since May, the broader stock market has hung of tech coattails (at the time of writing – 19-8-2020 -the MSCI World Index is up 1.73% YTD). For the present, hope triumphs over fear, yet vaccines remain many months from being widely available, meanwhile, for the Northern hemisphere, autumn – and fears of a second wave of infections – draws imminently near.

For emerging markets the situation is worse still. As Carmen and Vincent Reinhart, writing in Foreign Affairs – The Pandemic Depression– put it: –

Although dubbed a “global financial crisis,” the downturn that began in 2008 was largely a banking crisis in 11 advanced economies. Supported by double-digit growth in China, high commodity prices, and lean balance sheets, emerging markets proved quite resilient to the turmoil of the last global crisis. The current economic slowdown is different. The shared nature of this shock—the novel coronavirus does not respect national borders—has put a larger proportion of the global community in recession than at any other time since the Great Depression. As a result, the recovery will not be as robust or rapid as the downturn. And ultimately, the fiscal and monetary policies used to combat the contraction will mitigate, rather than eliminate, the economic losses, leaving an extended stretch of time before the global economy claws back to where it was at the start of 2020.

The World Bank estimates globally more than 60mln people will be pushed into severe poverty. Meanwhile, in developed countries, bankruptcies, which have been postponed by government intervention, may meet their personal epiphanies as fiscal largesse is suddenly withdrawn. Unless the lockdown restrictions are lifted and people feel safe, both medically and financially, to venture out and spend, the destruction of large swathes of developed market economies has simply been deferred.

By next month we will have experienced two quarters of diminished growth – this is a deep recession already. Swathes of the economy have been permanently altered, making a depression highly likely. Millions of workers have been displaced, it will take more than a handful of months for them to be retrained. Without the consumption demand from these erstwhile workers, it will be difficult for new and existing companies to create the growth they need to hire new employees.

Fiscal spending will need to be undertaken on a much larger scale, and for much longer, than has been envisaged so far. In all the major financial crises since 1850, the average time for per capita GDP to recover to the pre-crisis level was eight years. To date it is estimated that the G20 response to the pandemic has amounted to $11trln. Most of these measures have been ‘temporary’ or ‘short-term.’ It is quickly becoming clear, the disruption to employment, business and sectors of the economy will be protracted and, in many cases, permanent, The IMF estimate that for advanced economies the deficit-to-GDP ratio will rise from 3.3% in 2019 to 16.6% this year. For emerging economies, where the capacity for fiscal expansion is more limited, the ratio is expected to swell from 4.9% last year to 10.6% in 2020. Whilst for advanced economies the cost of borrowing has remained low in emerging markets financing costs have risen. The burden of fiscal stimulus will inevitably fall most heavily upon the treasuries of the advanced economies.

Conclusion

As Sir Winston Churchill once said: –

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

In the aging societies of the West (and elsewhere) the individual need for income remains key. Developed nation governments are fortunate in their ability to borrow more cheaply than at any time in economic history. Whilst it is at odds with my Austrian, free-market instincts, I am forced to admit that fiscal policy is the least panful weapon available to combat the economic catharsis created by the pandemic. Economically, there will be a heavy price to pay, but the alternative is a dangerous cocktail of political fragmentation and polarisation.

For investors the task of securing steady real income remains challenging. Private debt and asset backed lending, which offers high yield, comes with both default and liquidity risk. The chart below looks at some of the public market options, financial repression is rife across the credit spectrum: –

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

High income stocks might be an alternative but they offer no guarantee, no matter how ‘blue-chip’ the name. An addition to the acceleration in technology trends, growth stocks in general are benefitting from the exceptionally low interest environment, but there will be a greater number of failures because the cost of speculative finance is also at an historical low. Active management has been unfashionable for at least a decade but looking ahead preservation of capital is going to be more important than capturing out-sized gains.

I wrote about value investing back in June in – A Brave New World for Value Investing – concluding that:

Stock and corporate bond markets have regained much of their composure since late March. Central banks and governments have acted to ameliorate the effects of the global economic slowdown. As the dust begins to settle, the financial markets will adjust to a new environment, one in which value-based stock and bond market analysis will provide an essential aid to navigation.

The geopolitics of trade policy, already a source of tension before the pandemic struck, has been turbo-charged by the simultaneous supply and demand shocks and their impact on global supply chains. Supply chains will shorten and diversify. Robustness rather than efficiency will be the watch-word in the months and years ahead. This sea-change in the functioning of the world economy will not be without cost. It will appear in increased prices or reduced corporate profits. Value-based investment analysis will be the best guide in this brave new world.

I would add an additional strategy to the investment armoury, a momentum overlay. With fiscal and monetary policy continuing to support economies as they transition to the new world order, capital flows will be a powerful arbiter of investment return. Technology stocks may look expensive by most normal metrics but the trend is patently clear. Do not emulate Cnut The Great, but do as Brutus advises in the opening quote, after all, financial market liquidity flows like tide.

After the flood – Beyond fiscal and monetary intervention

After the flood – Beyond fiscal and monetary intervention

in-the-long-run-small-colour-logo

Macro Letter – No 130 – 26-06-2020

After the flood – Beyond fiscal and monetary intervention

  • Monetary and fiscal stimulus to ameliorate the effect of the pandemic has exceeded $9trln
  • Stock markets have recovered, although most are below their February highs
  • The combined supply and demand shock of Covid-19 is structural
  • A value-based investment approach is critical to navigate the transition

In my last Macro Letter – A Brave New World for Value Investing – I anticipated the beginning of a new phase for equity investment. In this Letter I look at the existing business and economic trends which have been accelerated by the pandemic, together with the new trends ignited by this sea-change in human behaviour.

In economic terms, the Covid pandemic began with a supply-shock in China as they were forced to lockdown the Wuhan region. This exacerbated strains which had already become evident in trade negotiations between China and the US, but also revealed weaknesses in the global supply chains. A kind of ‘Mexican Wave’ has followed, with a variant on the initial supply-shock occurring in successive countries as the virus spreads from region to region and governments responded with lockdowns.

The supply-shock has gone hand in hand with a global demand-shock. The key difference between this recession and previous crises is the degree to which it has impacted the service sector. According to 2017 data, the service sector represents 65% of global GDP, whilst Industrial/Manufacturing accounts for 25%, Agriculture represents only 3.43%. Over time, Agriculture and Manufacturing has become more increasingly automated, the principle growth sector for employment is Services. The ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Fourth edition states:  –

As at 17 May 2020, 20 per cent of the world’s workers lived in countries with required workplace closures for all but essential workers. An additional 69 per cent lived in countries with required workplace closures for some sectors or categories of workers, and a further 5 per cent lived in countries with recommended workplace closures.

The latest ILO estimate for Q2, 2020 indicates a 10.7% decline in working hours – equivalent to 305mln lost jobs worldwide. 60% of these job losses have been in four industries, leisure, retail, education and, perhaps counter-intuitively, healthcare. The knock-on effects have been felt almost everywhere.

Governments and central banks have responded. The chart below shows the rapid expansion in central bank balance sheets: –

CB Balance Sheets - Yardeni

Source: Yardeni, Haver Analytics

The Federal Reserve began their latest round of quantitative easing in August 2019, well before the onset of the pandemic. They have added $3.3tlrn in nine months, seeing their balance sheet balloon to $7.1trln.

Around the world, governments have also reacted with vigour; on May 20th the IMF updated their estimate of the global fiscal response to $9trln, of which $8trln has emanated from G20 countries. The geographic breakdown as a percentage of GDP can be seen in the table below: –

REVISED-fiscal-firepower-eng-may-11-image-fm-chap-1-chart-2-2-600x757

Source: IMF

The majority of global stimulus has come from the richer developed nations. Assuming this pattern continues, emerging market equities are likely to lag. The table below ranks a selection of emerging economies by four measures of financial strength, public debt, foreign debt, cost of borrowing and reserve cover: –

20200502_BBC380

Source: The Economist, IMF, JP Morgan, iShares

Overall, whilst the flood may subside, global expenditure should continue to rise as the pandemic sweeps on across the globe. Whilst loan forbearance and forgiveness, together with state guarantees, will help to maintain the solvency of many existing corporations, new spending will be aimed at stimulating employment. Infrastructure projects will be legion.

Impact on Industry Sectors

For investors, the abrupt changes in supply and demand, combined with the impact of the fiscal and monetary response, make navigating today’s stock markets especially challenging. To begin, here is a chart from 2019 showing a breakdown of industry sectors in the US by their contribution to GDP: –

Deloitte Fig 1 (1)

Source: Deloitte, BEA, Haver Analytics

This tells us that finance, insurance and real estate are the largest sector but it fails to tell us which sectors are thriving and which are not: –

Deloitte Fig 2 (1)

Source: Deloitte, BEA, Haver Analytics

Here we see the continued march of digital transformation, but also the ever increasing share of healthcare services in GDP; near to four decades of asset price appreciation has created an asset rich aging cohort in developed economies which, if not healthier then definitely wealthier. Looking ahead, developed nations are better equipped to weather the crisis better than their developing nation peers. Within developed nations, however, smaller businesses, especially those which cannot access capital markets, will fail, whilst larger firms will fare far better. Private Equity funds will also find rich pickings among the plethora of distressed private market opportunities.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, several trends have accelerated, others have been truncated or reversed. Social behaviour has had a negative impact on travel, leisure and retail. Declining demand for travel has damaged a range of industries including airlines, autos, oil and gas. The leisure sector has been hit even harder with hotels, restaurants and bars closed, in many cases forever. The sports industry has been severely undermined. Meanwhile the decline in retail has accelerated into a downward spiral.

Nonetheless, several industries have benefitted. Within retail, online sales have hit new records, grocery sales have ballooned. Healthcare has gone digital, from consulting to dispensing productivity gains have been evident. The home improvements industry has benefitted even as commercial real estate has suffered. Working from home will be a permanent feature for many office workers. Every existing home owner will need to create a permanent office space, every new home buyer will need more space to incorporate an office. Longer, occasional, commutes will lead people to move further from the city. Some workers will move to more clement climes, requiring less energy. Structural changes in where we live and how we live present threats and opportunities in equal measure. For example, every house will require better communications infrastructure, high speed connectivity and broad, broadband will become the norm.

Changes in the delivery of goods (direct to homes rather than to retail outlets) means more inventory will held in out-of-town locations. Inner city retail and commercial property businesses will consolidate as out-of-town commercial thrives. New out-of-town property demand will also emerge from the manufacturing sector. The on-shoring of production was already in train, with robots replacing cheap labour from developing countries, now, concern about the robustness of supply chains, especially for critical manufactures such as pharmaceuticals, will encourage a wave of old industries in developing countries to be reborn. Whereas in retail, larger inventory may become more prevalent, in manufacturing, ‘just-in-time’ delivery and lower transportation costs will compensate for higher fixed production costs.

The energy sector has suffered a medium-term setback, for example, 28% of all US gasoline is consumed in the daily commute. After the lockdown, some commuters will choose to travel alone rather than by public transport, many more will now work permanently from home. Yet whilst gasoline demand falls, demand for diesel, to fuel the home delivery revolution, will rise. Home heating (and cooling) is also set to rise and, with it, demand for heating oil and natural gas. Overall demand may be lower but there will be many investment opportunities.

In healthcare, aside from tele-medicine, which is forecast to capture between one third and half of consultation demand, there is also increased appetite for bio-sensors to measure multiple aspects of health. Hospital consolidation will continue in an attempt to drive efficiency. On-shoring of drug manufacture may well be mandated, online delivery is likely to become the new normal, especially to the elderly and infirm who are advised to shelter-in-place. On-shoring creates domestic jobs, government favour will focus on these companies.

Airlines will be forced to diversify or merge; I envisage a mixture of both strategies. A diversification into car hire, travel insurance and hotels seems likely. Many airlines are national carriers, they possess an implicit government guarantee, their financing costs will remain lower, their low-budget competitors will diminish, fare discounts will become fewer and, thereby, their fortunes may conceivably rebound.

The automobile industry remains in a state of turmoil, but new technology will continue to determine its fortune. If de-urbanisation continues, whilst commuting will decline, there will be an increased demand for individual car ownership, especially electric vehicles. In the fullness of time, the industry will transform again with the adoption of driverless transportation.

Technology will, of course, be ubiquitous. The fortunes of the cybersecurity sector have been ascendant since the crisis began, but even relatively ‘non-tech’ businesses will benefit. Commercial real estate will gain as tech firms seek out ever larger data centres to support their cloud computing needs. The auto industry will benefit from improvements in battery storage and charging times. This will also change the economics of electricity for homes and factories. Green energy will come of age.

Tourism will recover, the human race has not lost the desire to travel. In Europe tourism is down between 30% and 40% – it accounts for 10% of GDP. The rebound will be gradual but the travellers will return. More consumers will buy on-line.

Banking and finance will evolve to meet the challenges and needs of the industrial and services sector. Certain trends will continue, bricks and mortar will give way to on-line solutions, branch networks will consolidate. With government support, or threat, existing loans will be extended, new loans made. As household savings rise, new credit will be granted to new and existing entities, few questions will be asked.

Insurance companies will consolidate, once claims are paid, premiums will rise and competition lessened. As with banking more consumers will move on-line.

Employment

Looking beyond the business potential of different industry sectors and the technological advances which will support them, we should remember that governments around the globe will direct fiscal policy to alleviate unemployment, the initial flood of fiscal aid may moderate but if the tide goes out the ebb will be gradual, this is one of the benefits of a fiat currency system. According to the ILO, in 2019, employment in services accounted for 50%, Industry 23% and Agriculture 27%. The chart below shows how employment by sector has evolved over the last 28 years: –

Global Employment by Sector – Services – Agriculture - Industry (1)

Source: World Bank, ILO

The services sector has embraced employees leaving agriculture, whilst industry has grown without significant employment growth. The leisure industry, including hotels, restaurants and bars, is one of the largest employers of low-skilled, part-time employment. Consolidation within the hotels sector is inevitable. Larger, better capitalised groups will benefit as smaller enterprises fail. Corporations from beyond the leisure sector will diversify and private equity will fill the gaps which public companies step aside.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

In my previous Macro Letter I concluded that value-based analysis would be the best approach to equity investment. On closer examination, one can find risk and opportunity in almost every industry sector. In the last three month, stock markets have risen, but stock return dispersion remains heightened. A prudent, value-oriented, framework should yield the best results in the next few years.

Epidemics, Economic Growth and Stock-market Performance – An Historical Perspective

Epidemics, Economic Growth and Stock-market Performance – An Historical Perspective

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Macro Letter – No 127 – 13-03-2020

Epidemics, Economic Growth and Stock-market Performance – An Historical Perspective

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic gathers momentum, history offers too few data points
  • The Spanish Flu is the nearest comparison – similarities are matched by differences
  • Clinical trials have started, but the rise in new cases is slowing in China already
  • Global economic growth will suffer, but monetary and fiscal stimulus should support stocks

As I write this article I am conscious that the Coronavirus is a very real and global tragedy. In all that follows I do not wish to detract from the dreadful human cost of this disaster in any way.

Putting the current pandemic in perspective, according to a 2017 estimate from the US Center for Disease Control, in a normal year, seasonal flu kills 291,000 to 646,000 globally. By contrast, the fatality rate for coronavirus seems to have stabilised at around 3.6% of those diagnosed. Of course, a more heartening figure of 0.79% can be found in South Korea which has tested almost 10 times more of its population than other country:-

Testing for COVID-19 - 9-3-2020 - Worldometer.com

Source: Worldometer.com

Suffice to say the current statistics are still confusing at best, but they are all we have to work with.

In a recent interview Dr Soumaya Swaminathan of the World Health Organisation (WHO) provided some insights (emphasis is mine): –

Of 44,000 Wuhan patients 80% had very mild symptoms, 15% of cases are severe and 5% critical. In terms of transmission rates, the R0 is still just an estimate of between 2 and 3 – in other words for every carrier between two and three people are infected.

…Two drugs, an antiretroviral called Lopinavir-ritonavir and an experimental drug used in the treatment of Ebola – Remdesivir, manufactured by Gilead (GILD) – are being tested in China where more than 80 clinical trials are already underway. The development of an effective vaccine it several months away. 

It was reported today (11-3-2020) that Gilead has begun trails with US nationals and signed a deal with the US military.

Market Impact

Given the continued lack of clarity about COVID-19 in terms of numbers infected and numbers suffering, it may seem futile to attempt to gauge the potential economic impact of the current Coronavirus outbreak. History, however, may be able to provide some guidance to investors who might otherwise be tempted to liquidate and hibernate, especially after the dramatic decline this week in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s decision to turn its back on the OPEC cartel.

In order to begin this assessment, there are a vast array of factors which need to be considered. Here are just a few: –

  1. Speed of spread – higher in urban areas due to population density
  2. Urban versus rural population – generally a function of GDP per capita
  3. Likelihood of a cure or vaccine – the majority of estimates range from three months to a year (hopefully it was be sooner)
  4. Health of demographic cohorts by country – a function of average age and GDP per capita
  5. Average income – also a function of GDP per capita
  6. Extent of healthcare coverage – generally a function of GDP (although European welfare arrangements are more developed than those of the US)

Each of these factors are complex and warrant an essay to themselves. Suffice to say, the economic impact is already becoming evident. Schools, factories and offices are closing. Those workers that can are beginning to work remotely. At the extreme, entire cities, towns and countries are being subjected to lock-downs. In these conditions, economic activity inevitably suffers, this is a supply and demand shock combined. The price of crude oil has already responded, encouraged by the actions of Saudi Arabia, it has collapsed. Transportation activity has been substantially reduced. Economic indicators from China point to a pronounced contraction in 2020 GDP growth. Will the pattern seen in China be repeated elsewhere? Are the nascent indications of a resumption of economic activity now evident in China a reliable indication of the speed of recovery to be expected elsewhere? The jury is still out.

For G20 countries the effect of the 2008/2009 financial crisis still lingers. According to a BIS report more than 12% of developed nation firms generate too little income to cover their interest payments. Meanwhile, at the individual level, the Federal Reserve estimates that more than 10% of American adults would be unable to meet a $400 unexpected expense, equivalent to around two days’ work at average earnings. There is concern among governments that people may start to hoard cash if the crisis deepens.

Where the viral epidemic began, in China, the Purchasing Managers Index for February was the lowest since the series began in 2004. According to China Beige Book’s flash survey for February, 31% of companies were still closed and many of those that have reopened lacked staff or materials. Other estimates suggest that between 40% and 50% of the China’s truck fleet remains idle – those essential materials are unlikely to be delivered anytime soon. This supply-shock slowdown has inevitably fuelled expectations of an actual contraction in the size of the Chinese economy, the first shrinkage since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976: –

China PMI

Source: Trading Economics

Everywhere GDP forecasts are being revised lower: –

Economist GDP revisions from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020 OECD

Source: Economist

Policy Response

For the world’s governments there are essentially three policy responses: –

  1. Provision of credit via banks and money markets – central banks are doing what they can
  2. Aid to corporates to meet fixed costs, such as rent and tax bills
  3. Protection of workers by subsidising wage costs

Central banks are limited in their ability to lend directly to firms, meanwhile the banking system, petrified by the recent widening of credit spreads for sub-investment grade debt, is likely to become a bottleneck. It will take more than gentle persuasion to force banks to lend new funds and reschedule existing non-performing loans. Other aid to corporates and individuals requires varying degrees of fiscal stimulus. Governments need to act quickly (today’s UK budget is an indication of the largesse to follow) it would also help if there were a coordinated global policy response.

The Peterson Institute – Designing an effective US policy response to coronavirus make the following suggestions: –

A first step is to lock in adequate public funding. In 2014, emergency funding of about $5.4 billion was provided to fight the Ebola outbreak. Much more than that should be provided today, given the apparently greater transmissibility of COVID-19 and the fact that it has already appeared in many locations around the United States and more than 60 countries around the globe.

…A classic recession involves a shortfall of demand relative to supply. In that more ordinary situation, economic policymakers know how to help fill in the missing demand. But this case is more complicated because it involves negative hits to both supply and demand.

No one knows how serious the economic damage from COVID-19 will be, so a key challenge is to design a fiscal countermeasure that clicks on when it’s needed and clicks off when it’s not. One approach that would fit that description would be to move immediately to pre-position a temporary cut in the payroll taxes that fund the Social Security and Medicare programs…

The final suggestion is a US-centric proposal, it is different from the income tax cut alluded to by President Trump and will directly benefit lower-income families, since healthcare costs will be a larger proportion of their after tax income. The authors’ propose a similar mechanism to click in when the unemployment rates rises and click off when re-employment kicks back in.

The table below shows actions taken by 4th March: –

Government response to COVID-19

Source: Economist

It is worth mentioning that Hong Kong, still reeling from the civil unrest of last year, has pressed ahead with ‘helicopter money’ sending cheques to every tax payer. This approach may be more widely adopted elsewhere over the coming weeks.

The Spanish Flu

In an attempt to find an historical parallel for the current Corona outbreak, there are only two episodes which are broadly similar, the Black Death of 1347 to 1351 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1919. Data from the middle ages is difficult to extrapolate but it is thought that the Plague wiped out between 20% and 40% of Europe’s population. The world population is estimated to have fallen from 475mnl to between 350mln and 375mln. The world economy shrank, but, if data for England is any guide, per capita economic activity increased and the economic wellbeing of the average individual improved. For more on this topic I would recommend a working paper from the Federal Trade Commission – The English Economy Following the Black Death by Judith R. Gelman -1982.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the next global pandemic. It began in August of 1918, three month prior to the end of the First World War, and, by the time it had ended, in March of 1919, it had infected 500mln out of a global population of 1.8bln. The fatality rate was high, 40mln people lost their lives. Following the war, which cost almost 20mln lives, the combined loss of life was similar in absolute terms to the Black Death although in percentage terms the fatality rate was only 2%.

An excellent assessment of the Spanish epidemic can be found in the Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic – Thomas A. Garrett – Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis – 2007 – here are some key findings: –

The possibility of a worldwide influenza pandemic… is of growing concern for many countries around the globe. The World Bank estimates that a global influenza pandemic would cost the world economy $800 billion and kill tens-of-millions of people. Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate that deaths in the United States could reach 207,000 and the initial cost to the economy could approach $166 billion, or roughly 1.5 percent of the GDP. Longrun costs are expected to be much greater. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services paints a more dire picture—up to 1.9 million dead in the United States and initial economic costs near $200 billion.

Despite technological advances in medicine and greater health coverage throughout the 20th century, deaths from a modern-day influenza pandemic are also likely to be related to race, income and place of residence.

The Spanish-flu was different from COVID-19 in that the highest mortality was among those aged 18 to 40 years and was often found among those with the strongest immune systems.

Garrett goes on to assess the economic impact with the aid stories from newspapers and the limited amount of previously published (and some unpublished) research. National statistics on unemployment and economic activity had yet to be compiled, but the simultaneous supply and demand shocks were broadly similar to the patterns we are witnessing today.

…One research paper examines the immediate (short-run) effect of influenza mortalities on manufacturing wages in U.S. cities and states for the period 1914 to 1919. The testable hypothesis of the paper is that

influenza mortalities had a direct impact on wage rates in the manufacturing sector in U.S. cities and states during and immediately after the 1918 influenza. The hypothesis is based on a simple economic model of the labor market: A decrease in the supply of manufacturing workers that resulted from influenza mortalities would have had the initial effect of reducing manufacturing labor supply, increasing the marginal product of labor and capital per worker, and thus increasing real wages. In the short term, labor immobility across cities and states is likely to have prevented wage equalization across the states, and a substitution away from relatively more expensive labor to capital is unlikely to have occurred.

The empirical results support the hypothesis: Cities and states having greater influenza mortalities experienced a greater increase in manufacturing wage growth over the period 1914 to 1919.

Another study explored state income growth for the decade after the influenza pandemic using a similar methodology. In their unpublished manuscript, the authors argue that states that experienced larger numbers of influenza deaths per capita would have experienced higher rates of growth in per capita income after the pandemic. Essentially, states with higher influenza mortality rates would have had a greater increase in capital per worker, and thus output per worker and higher incomes after the pandemic. Using state-level personal income estimates for 1919-1921 and 1930, the authors do find a positive and statistically significant relationship between state-wide influenza mortality rates and subsequent state per capita income growth.

Aside from wages, however the author concludes: –

…Most of the evidence indicates that the economic effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic were short-term. Many businesses, especially those in the service and entertainment industries, suffered double-digit losses in revenue. Other businesses that specialized in health care products experienced an increase in revenues.

How did financial markets react? The chart below shows the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the period from 1918 to 1923. The shaded areas indicate recessions: –

dow-jones- 1918 to 1923 Macrotrends

Source: Macrotrends

When reinvested dividends are included, the total return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1918 was 10.5%, despite influenza wiping out 0.4% of the US population. Fears about a slowdown in economic activity, resulting from the end of WWI, were the underlying cause of the brief recession which coincided with the pandemic, the stock market had already reacted, dipping around 10% earlier in the year. The subsequent recession of 1920 had other causes.

As is evident from the chart below, the newly created (1913) Federal Reserve felt no compunction to cut interest rates: –

fredgraph

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

US 10 year Treasury Bonds simply reflected the actions of the Federal Reserve: –

US Bonds Jan 1918 to Dec 1919

Source: ECB

One is forced to concede, financial markets behaved in a very different manner 100 years ago, but they may yet have something to teach us about the global impact of a pandemic – that it is an economic interruption rather than a permanent impediment to progress.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Whilst there are similarities between the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic of today, there are also profound differences. Urban areas, for example, are expected to suffer higher fatalities than rural areas today. In 1919 only 51% of the population of the US was urban, today it is above 80%. Population density has also increased three-fold over the last century, if 500mln were infected in 2018/2019 then the comparable figure today would be 1.5bln. Changes in the ease of transportation mean that the spread of a pandemic will be much more rapid today than in the first quarter of the 20th century. Tempering this gloom, for many people, communications have transformed the nature of work. Many aspect of business can now be transacted remotely. Unlike in 1918 self-isolation will not bring commerce to a standstill.

The economic impact will also be felt more rapidly. Supply chains have been optimised for efficiency, they lack resilience. Central banks have already begun to cut interest rates (where they can) and provide liquidity. Governments have picked up the gauntlet with a range of fiscal measures including tax cuts and benefit payments.

Many commentators are calling the COVID-19 pandemic a Black Swan event, yet SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009), and MERS (2012) preceded this outbreak. Predictions that just such an event would occur have been circulating for more than a decade.

Financial markets have behaved predictably. The oil price has collapsed as Saudi Arabia has broken with the OPEC cartel, stocks have fallen (especially those related to oil) and government bonds have rallied. Gold, which saw significant inflows during the last few years, has vacillated as holders have liquidated to meet commitments elsewhere even as new buyers have embraced the time-honoured ‘safe haven.’ Looking ahead, we do not know how long this pandemic will last nor how widespread it will become. The two prior pandemics of a similar stature provide little useful guidance, the Spanish Flu lasted seven months, the Black Death, by contrast, spread over more than four years and was still flaring up into the 17th century.

Expectations of a cure and a vaccine remain a matter of conjecture, but epidemiologists suggest that within a year we will have a viable solution. At the time of writing (Wednesday 11th March) the total number of infections has reached 120,588, there have been 4,365 deaths while 66,894 patients have recovered – a 55.47% recovery rate, although the Chinese recovery rate has been steadily rising and now stands at 76.22%. The global fatality rate is 3.62%, whilst individual country fatality rates range from Italy at 6.22% to South Korea (where 210,000 people have been tested – ten times the per capita global average) at a heartening 0.79%. The WHO still expect the fatality rate to stabilise at around 1% which implies that 99% should eventually recover.

Whilst a larger correction in stocks should not be ruled out, the relative lack of selling pressure suggests that investors are prepared to reappraise their estimates of what price to earnings they will accept – remember interest rates have been cut and will probably be cut again. Where rates can be lowered no further, quantitative easing (including the purchase of stocks) and fiscal stimulus will aim to preserve value.

The historical evidence of the Spanish Flu suggests this pandemic will be short-lived. The recent market correction may prove sufficient but, with only two data points in more than 600 years, it is unwise to assume that it will not be different this time. Defensive equity strategies which focus on long-term value have been out of favour for more than a decade. Good companies with strong balance sheets and low levels of debt are well placed to weather any protracted disruption. They may also benefit from rotation out of index funds. When markets stabilise, the reduced level of interest rates will see a renewed wave of capital pouring into stocks. The only question today is whether there will be another correction or whether now is the time to buy.

US Bonds – 2030 Vision – A decade in the doldrums

US Bonds – 2030 Vision – A decade in the doldrums

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Macro Letter – No 125 – 17-01-2020

US Bonds – 2030 Vision – A decade in the doldrums

  • US bond yields have been in secular decline since 1981
  • Predictions of a bond bear-market have been premature for three decades
  • High indebtedness will see any inflationary yield surges quickly subdued

Having reached their yield low at 1.32% in July 2016, US 10yr bond yields have been locked in, just shy of, a 2% range for the last two and half years (subsequent high 3.25% and low 1.43%). For yields to fall again, supply must fall, demand rise or central banks, recommence their experimental monetary policies of negative interest rates and quantitative easing. For yields to rise, supply must rise, demand fall or central banks, reverse their multi-year largesse. Besides supply, demand and monetary policy there are, however, other factors to consider.

Demographics

One justification for a rise in US bond yields would be an uptick in inflationary pressure. Aging demographic have been the principal driver of the downward trajectory of secular inflation. During the next decade, however, Generation Y borrowing will accelerate whilst Generation X has yet to begin their aggressive saving spree. The table below looks at the borrowing and saving patterns of the demographic cohorts in the US: –

Demographics

Source: US Census Bureau

Excepting the obesity and opioid epidemics, life expectancy will, nonetheless, continue to extend. The Gen Y borrowing binge will not override the aging demographic effect. It’s influence on the inflation of the next decade is likely to be modest (on these grounds alone we will not see the return of double-digit inflation) and the longer term aging trend, bolstered by improvements in healthcare, will return with a vengeance during the 2030’s, undermining the last vestiges of current welfare provisions. Much more saving will be required to pay for the increasing cost of healthcare and pensions. With bond yields of less than 4%, an aging (and hopefully healthier) population will need to continue working well beyond current retirement age in order to cover the shortfall in income.

Technology

Another secular factor which has traditionally kept a lid on inflation has been technology. As Robert Solo famously observed back in 1987, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.’ Part of the issue is that productivity is measured in currency terms. If the price of a computer remains unchanged for a decade but its capacity to compute increases 10-fold over the same period, absent new buyers of computers, new sales are replacements. In this scenario, the improvement in productivity does not lead to an uptick in economic growth, but it does demonstrably improve our standard of living.

Looking ahead the impact of machine learning and artificial intelligence is just beginning to be felt. Meanwhile, advances in robotics, always a target of the Luddite fringe, have been significant during the last decade, spurred on by the truncation of global supply chains in the wake of the great financial crisis. This may be to the detriment of frontier economies but the developed world will reap the benefit of cheaper goods.

Central Bank Omnipotence

When Paul Volcker assumed the helm of the Federal Reserve in the late 1970’s, inflation was eroding any gains from investment in government bonds. Armed with Friedman’s monetary theories, the man who really did remove the punch-bowl, raised short-term rates to above the level of CPI and gradually forced the inflation genie back into its bottle.

After monetary aggregate targets were abandoned, inflation targeting was widely adopted by many central banks, but, as China joined the WTO (2001) and exported their comparative advantage in labour costs to the rest of the world, those same central bankers’, with Chairman Bernanke in the vanguard, became increasingly petrified by the prospect of price deflation. Memories of the great depression and the monetary constraints of the gold exchange standard were still fresh in their minds. For an economy to expand, it was argued, the supply of money must expand in order to maintain the smooth functioning of markets: a lack of cash would stifle economic growth. Inflation targets of around 2% were deemed appropriate, even as technological and productivity related improvements insured that the prices of many consumer goods actually declined in price.

Inflation and deflation can be benign or malign. Who does not favour a stock market rally? Yet, who cares to witness their grocery bill spiral into the stratosphere? Who cheers when the latest mobile device is discounted again? But does not panic when the value of their property (on which the loan-to-value is already a consumption-sapping 90%) falls, wiping out all their equity? Blunt inflation targeting is frankly obtuse, but it remains the mandate of, perhaps, the most powerful unelected institutions on the planet.

When economic historians look back on the period since the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement, they will almost certainly conclude that the greatest policy mistake, made by central banks, was to disregard asset price inflation in their attempts to stabilise prices. Meanwhile, in the decade ahead, upside breaches of inflation targets will be largely ignored, especially if growth remains anaemic. Central bankers’, it seems, are determined to get behind the curve, they fear the severity of a recession triggered by their own actions. In the new era of open communications and forward guidance they are reticent to increase interest rates, too quickly or by too great a degree, in such a heavily indebted environment. I wrote more about this in November 2018 in The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle: –

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.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

There have been several drivers of disinflation over the past decade including a tightening of bank regulation, increases in capital requirements and relative fiscal austerity. With short-term interest rates near to zero in many countries, governments will find themselves compelled to relax regulatory impediments to credit creation and open the fiscal spigot, at any sign of a recession, after all, central bank QE appears to have reached the limits of its effectiveness. The table below shows the diminishing returns of QE over time: –

QE effect

Source: M&G, Deutsche Bank, World Bank

Of course the central banks are not out of ammunition just yet, the Bank of Japan experiment with qualitative easing (they currently purchase ETFs, common stock may be next on their agenda) has yet to be adopted elsewhere and the Federal Reserve has so far resisted the temptation to follow the ECB into corporate bond acquisition.

For the US bond market the next decade may well see yields range within a relatively narrow band. There is the possibility of new record lows, but the upside is likely to be constrained by the overall indebtedness of both the private and public sector.