Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI V


Macro Letter – No 73 – 10-03-2017

Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI V

  • Low cost manufacturing is moving away from China
  • Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam will continue to benefit
  • Currency risks remain substantial
  • Stock market valuations are not cheap but they offer long term value

The MITI V is the latest acronym to emerge from the wordsmiths at Deloitte’s. Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. All these countries have a competitive advantage over China in the manufacture of labour intensive commodity type products like apparel, toys, textiles and basic consumer electronics. According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index they are either among, or destined to join, the top 15 most competitive countries in the world for manufacturing, by the end of the decade. Here is the Deliotte 2016 ranking:-


Source: Deliotte

The difficulty with grouping disparate countries together is that their differences are coalesced. Malaysia and Thailand are likely to excel in high to medium technology industries, their administrations are cognizant of the advantages of international trade. India, whilst it has enormous potential, both as an exporter and as a manufacturer for its vast domestic market, has, until recently, been less favourably disposed towards international trade and investment. Vietnam continues to benefit from its proximity to China. Indonesia, by contrast, has struggled with endemic corruption: its economy is decentralised and this vast country has major infrastructure challenges.

The table below is sorted by average earnings:-


Source: World Bank, Trading Economics

India and Vietnam look well placed to become the low-cost manufacturer of choice (though there are other contenders such as Bangladesh which should not be forgotten when considering comparative advantage).

Another factor to bear in mind is the inexorable march of technology. Bill Gates recently floated the idea of a Robot Tax, it met with condemnation in many quarters – Mises Institute – Bill Gates’s Robot Tax Is a Terrible Ideaexamines the issue. The mere fact that a Robot Tax is being contemplated, points to the greatest single challenge to low-cost producers of goods, namely automation. Deliotte’s does not see this aspect of innovation displacing the low-cost manufacturing countries over the next few years, but it is important not to forget this factor in one’s assessment.

Before looking at the relative merits of each market from an investment perspective, here is what Deliotte’s describe as the opportunities and challenges facing each of these Asian Tigers:-



…has a low cost base with workers earning a quarter of what their counterparts earn in neighboring Singapore. The country also remains strongly focused on assembly, testing, design, and development involved in component parts and systems production, making it well suited to support high-tech sectors.

…is challenged by a talent shortage, political unrest, and comparatively low productivity.


Sixty-two percent of global manufacturing executives’ surveyed rank India as highly competitive on cost, closely mirroring China’s performance on this metric.

…highly skilled workforce and a particularly rich pool of English speaking scientists, researchers, and engineers which makes it well-suited to support high-tech sectors. India’s government also offers support in the form of initiatives and funding that focus on attracting manufacturing investments.

…challenged by poor infrastructure and a governance model that is slow to react

…As 43 percent of its US$174 billion in manufacturing exports require high-skill and technological intensity, India may have a strong incentive to solve its regulatory and bureaucratic challenges if it is to strengthen its candidacy as an alternative to China.


When it comes to manufacturing exports (US$167 billion in 2014), Thailand stands slightly below India, but exceeds Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. This output is driven largely by the nation’s skilled workforce and high labor productivity, supported by a 90 percent national literacy rate, and approximately 100,000 engineering, technology, and science graduates every year.

…highly skilled and productive workforce creates relatively high labor costs at US$2.78 per hour in 2013.

…remains attractive to manufacturing companies, offering a lower corporate tax rate (20 percent) than Vietnam, India, Malaysia or Indonesia. Already well established with a booming automotive industry, Thailand may provide an option for manufacturers willing to navigate the political uncertainty that persists in the region.


Manufacturing labor costs in Indonesia are less than one-fifth of those in China.

…The island nation’s overall 10-year growth in productivity (50 percent) exceeds that of Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam,

…manufacturing GDP represents a significant portion of its overall GDP and with such a strong manufacturing focus, particularly in electronics, coupled with the sheer size of its population, Indonesia remains high on the list of alternatives for manufacturers looking to shift production capacity away from China in the future.


…comparatively low overall labor costs.

…has raised its overall productivity over the last 10 years, growing 49 percent during the period, outpacing other nations like Thailand and Malaysia. Such productivity has prompted manufacturers to construct billion-dollar manufacturing complexes in the country.

Deliotte’s go on to describe the incentives offered to multinational corporations by these countries:-

(1) numerous tax incentives in the form of tax holidays ranging from three to 10 years, (2) tax exemptions or reduced import duties, and (3) reduced duties on capital goods and raw materials used in export-oriented production.

Forecasts for 2017

In the nearer term the MITI V have more varied prospects, here are Focus Economics latest consensus GDP growth expectations from last month:-

Malaysia Economic Outlook 2017 GDP forecast 4.3%

…GDP recorded the strongest performance in four quarters in Q4, expanding at a better-than-expected rate of 4.5%.

…acceleration in fixed investment and resilient private consumption. Exports also showed a significant improvement, growing at the fastest pace since Q4 2015, thanks to a weaker ringgit and rising oil prices. However, the external sector’s net contribution to growth remained stable as imports also gained steam. Government consumption, which contracted for the first time since Q2 2014, was the only drag on growth in Q4, reflecting the government’s commitment to its fiscal consolidation agenda for 2016.

India Economic Outlook 2017 GDP forecast – 7.4%

Economic activity is beginning to firm after demonetization shocked the economy in the October to December period. The manufacturing PMI crossed into expansionary territory in January and imports rebounded.

…Despite the backdrop of more moderate growth, the government stuck to a market friendly budget for FY 2017

…which was presented on 1 February, pursues growth-supportive policies while targeting a narrower deficit of 3.2% of GDP…

…five states will conduct elections in February, with results to be announced on 11 March. The elections will test the electorate’s mood regarding the government after the economy’s tumultuous past months and ahead of the 2019 general vote.

Thailand Economic Outlook 2017 GDP forecast 3.2%

Growth decelerated mildly in the final quarter of 2016 due to subdued private consumption and a smaller contribution from the external sector. The economy expanded 3.0% annually in Q4, down from 3.2% in Q3.

…January, consumer confidence hit a nearly one-year high, while business sentiment receded mildly. On 27 January, the government announced supplementary fiscal stimulus of USD 5.4 billion for this year’s budget, which ends in September. The sum will be disbursed specifically in rural areas in a bid to close the growing inequality between urban and rural infrastructure and income. This shows that the military government is set to continue providing fiscal stimulus to GDP this year, which should spill over in the private sector via higher employment and improved economic sentiment.

Indonesia Economic Outlook 2017 GDP forecast 5.2%

…economy lost steam in the fourth quarter of last year as diminished government revenues caused public spending to fall at a multi-year low.

…household consumption remained healthy and the recent uptick in commodities prices boosted export revenues.

…for the start of 2017…momentum firmed up: the manufacturing PMI crossed into expansionary territory in January and surging exports pushed the trade surplus to an over three-year high.

…poised for a credit ratings upgrade after Moody’s elevated its outlook from stable to positive on 8 February. All three major ratings agencies now have a positive outlook on Indonesia’s credit rating and an upgrade could be a catalyst for improving investor sentiment.

Vietnam Economic Outlook 2017 GDP forecast 6.4%

…particularly strong performance in the external sector in 2016. Despite slower demand from important trading partners, merchandise exports, which consist largely of manufactured goods, grew 9.0% annually. The manufacturing sector is quickly expanding thanks to the country’s competitive labor costs, fueling manufacturing exports and bolstering job creation in the sector.

…industrial production nearly stagnated in January, it mostly reflected a seasonal effect from the Lunar New Year, which disrupted supply chains across the region.

…manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index, though it inched down in January, continues to sit well above the 50-point line, reflecting that business conditions remain solid in the sector. Moreover, the New Year festivities boosted retail sales, which grew robustly in January.

Currency Risk

The table below shows the structural nature of the MITI V’s exchange rate depreciation against the US$. The 20 year column winds the clock back to the period just before the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997:-

Currency_changes_MITI_V (1)

Source: Trading Economics, World Bank

Looking at the table another way, when investing in Indonesia it would make sense to factor in a 4% annual decline in the value of the Rupiah, a 2.2% to 2.4% decline in the Ringgit, Rupee and Dong and a 1.3% fall in the value of the Baht.

The continuous decline in these currencies has fuelled inflation and this is reflected to the yield and real yields available in their 10 year government bond markets. The table below shows the current bond yields together with inflation and their governments’ fiscal positions:-


Source: Trading Economics

Indonesian bonds offer insufficient real-yield to cover the average annual decline in the value of the Rupiah. Vietnam has an inverted yield curve which suggests shorter duration bonds would offer better value, its 10 year maturity offers the lowest real-yield of the group.

Whilst all these countries are running government budget deficits, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have current account surpluses and Indonesia’s government debt to GDP is a more manageable 27% – this is probable due to its difficulty in attracting international investors on account of the 82% decline in its currency over the past two decades.

Stock Market Valuations

All five countries have seen their stock markets rise this year, although the SET 50 (Thailand) has backed off from its recent high. To compare with the currency table above here are the five stock markets, plus the S&P500, over one, two, five, ten and twenty years:-

MITI_V and US_Stocks_in_20yr

Source: Investing.com

For the US investor, India and Indonesia have been the star performers since 1997, each returning more than six-fold. Thailand, which was at the heart of the Asian crisis of 1997/98, has only delivered 114% over the same period whilst Malaysia, which imposed exchange controls to stave off the worst excesses of the Asian crisis, has failed to deliver equity returns capable of countering the fall in its currency. Finally, Vietnam, which only opened its first stock exchange in 2000, is still recovering from the boom and bust of 2007. The table below translates the performance into US$:-


Source: Investing.com

Putting this data in perspective, over the last five years the S&P has beaten the MITI V not only in US$, but also in absolute terms. Looking forward, however, there are supportive valuation metrics which underpin some of the MITI V stock markets. The table below is calculated at 30-12-2016:-


Source: Starcapital.de, *Author’s estimates

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Vietnamese stocks look attractive, the country has the highest level of FDI of the group (6.1% of GDP) but there is a favourable case for investing in the stocks of the other members of the MITI V, even with FDI nearer 3%. They all have favourable demographics, except perhaps Thailand, and its age dependency ratio is quite low. High literacy, above 90% in all except India, should also be advantageous.

Thailand and Malaysia look less expensive from a price to earnings perspective, than India and Indonesia. Their dividend yields also look attractive relative to their bond yields, perhaps a hangover from the Asian Crisis of 1997.

Technically all five stock markets are at or near recent highs:-


Source: Investing.com

The Vietnamese VN Index is a long way below its high and on a P/E, P/B and dividend yield basis it is the cheapest of the five stock markets, but it is worth remembering that it is still regarded at a Frontier Market, It was not included in the MSCI Emerging Markets indices last year. This remains a prospect at the next MSCI review in May/June.

Given how far global equity markets have travelled since the November US elections, it makes sense to be cautious about stock markets in general. Technically a break to new highs in any of these markets is likely to generate further upside momentum but Vietnam looks constructive both over the shorter term (as it makes new highs for the year) and over the longer term (being well below its all-time highs of 2007). In the Long Run, I expect these economies to the engines of world growth and their stock markets to reflect that growth.

Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion?

Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion?


Macro Letter – No 66 – 25-11-2016

Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion?

  • As globalisation goes into reverse, fiscal policy will take the strain
  • Countries with government debt to GDP ratios <70% represent >45% of global GDP
  • Fiscal expansion by less indebted countries could increase total debt by at least $3.48trln

…But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…

Matthew Arnold – Dover Beach

Over the course of 2016 the world’s leading central banks have subtly changed their approach to monetary policy. Although they have not stated that QE has failed to stimulate global growth they have begun to pass the baton for stimulating the world economy back to their respective governments.

The US election has brought protectionism and fiscal stimulus back to the centre of economic debate: but many countries are already saddled with uncomfortably high debt to GDP ratios. Which countries have room for manoeuvre and which governments will be forced to contemplate fiscal expansion to offset the headwinds of protectionism?

Anti-globalisation – the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

The “Elephant” chart below explains, in economic terms, the growing political upheaval which has been evident in many developed countries:-


Source: The Economist, World Bank, Lakner and Milanovic

This chart – or at least the dark blue line – began life in a World Bank working paper in 2012. It shows the global change in real-income, by income percentile, between 1988 and 2008. The Economist – Shooting an elephant provides more information.

What this chart reveals is that people earning between the 70th and 90th percentile have seen considerably less increase in income relative to their poor (and richer) peers. I imagine a similar chart up-dated to 2016 will show an even more pronounced decline in the fortunes of the lower paid workers of G7.

The unforeseen consequence to this incredible achievement – bringing so many of the world’s poor out of absolute poverty – has been to alienate many of the developed world’s poorer paid citizens. They have borne the brunt of globalisation without participating in much, if any, of the benefit.

An additional cause for concern to the lower paid of the developed world is their real-inflation rate. The chart below shows US inflation for specific items between 1996 and 2016:-


Source: American Enterprise Institute

At least the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” can afford a cheaper television, but this is little comfort when they cannot afford the house to put it in.

Anti-globalisation takes many forms, from simple regulatory protectionism to aspects of the climate-change lobby. These issues, however, are not the subject of this letter.

Which countries will lose out from protectionism?

It is too early to predict whether all the election promises of President-elect Trump will come to pass. He has indicated that he wants to impose a 35% tariff on Mexican and, 45% tariff on Chinese imports, renegotiate NAFTA (which the Peterson Institute estimate to be worth $127bln/annum to the US economy) halt negotiations of the TPP and TTIP and, potentially, withdraw from the WTO.

Looking at the “Elephant” chart above it is clear that, in absolute per capita terms, the world’s poorest individuals have benefitted most from globalisation, but the largest emerging economies have benefitted most in monetary terms.

The table below ranks countries with a GDP in excess of $170bln/annum by their debt to GDP ratios. These countries represent roughly 95% of global GDP. The 10yr bond yields were taken, where I could find them, on 21st November:-

Country GDP Base Rate Inflation Debt to GDP 10yr yield Notes
Japan 4,123 -0.10% -0.50% 229% 0.03
Greece 195 0.00% -0.50% 177% 6.95
Italy 1,815 0.00% -0.20% 133% 2.06
Portugal 199 0.00% 0.90% 129% 3.70
Belgium 454 0.00% 1.81% 106% 0.65
Singapore 293 0.07% -0.20% 105% 2.36
United States 17,947 0.50% 1.60% 104% 2.32
Spain 1,199 0.00% 0.70% 99% 1.60
France 2,422 0.00% 0.40% 96% 0.74
Ireland 238 0.00% -0.30% 94% 0.98
Canada 1,551 0.50% 1.50% 92% 1.57
UK 2,849 0.25% 0.90% 89% 1.41
Austria 374 0.00% 1.30% 86% 0.54
Egypt 331 14.75% 13.60% 85% 16.95
Germany 3,356 0.00% 0.80% 71% 0.27
India 2,074 6.25% 4.20% 67% 6.30
Brazil 1,775 14.00% 7.87% 66% 11.98
Netherlands 753 0.00% 0.40% 65% 0.43
Israel 296 0.10% -0.30% 65% 2.14
Pakistan 270 5.75% 4.21% 65% 8.03
Finland 230 0.00% 0.50% 63% 0.46
Malaysia 296 3.00% 1.50% 54% 4.39
Poland 475 1.50% -0.20% 51% 3.58
Vietnam 194 6.50% 4.09% 51% 6.10
South Africa 313 7.00% 6.10% 50% 8.98
Venezuela 510 21.73% 180.90% 50% 10.57
Argentina 548 25.75% 40.50% 48% 2.99
Philippines 292 3.00% 2.30% 45% 4.40
Thailand 395 1.50% 0.34% 44% 2.68
China 10,866 4.35% 2.10% 44% 2.91
Sweden 493 -0.50% 1.20% 43% 0.52
Mexico 1,144 5.25% 3.06% 43% 7.39
Czech Republic 182 0.05% 0.80% 41% 0.59
Denmark 295 -0.65% 0.30% 40% 0.40
Romania 178 1.75% -0.40% 38% 3.55
Colombia 292 7.75% 6.48% 38% 7.75
Australia 1,340 1.50% 1.30% 37% 2.67
South Korea 1,378 1.25% 1.30% 35% 2.12
Switzerland 665 -0.75% -0.20% 34% -0.15
Turkey 718 7.50% 7.16% 33% 10.77
Hong Kong 310 0.75% 2.70% 32% 1.37
Taiwan 524 1.38% 1.70% 32% 1.41
Norway 388 0.50% 3.70% 32% 1.65
Bangladesh 195 6.75% 5.57% 27% 6.89
Indonesia 862 4.75% 3.31% 27% 7.85
New Zealand 174 1.75% 0.40% 25% 3.11
Kazakhstan 184 12.00% 11.50% 23% 3.82 ***
Peru 192 4.25% 3.41% 23% 6.43
Russia 1,326 10.00% 6.10% 18% 8.71
Chile 240 3.50% 2.80% 18% 4.60
Iran 425 20.00% 9.50% 16% 20.00 **
UAE 370 1.25% 0.60% 16% 3.57 *
Nigeria 481 14.00% 18.30% 12% 15.97
Saudi Arabia 646 2.00% 2.60% 6% 3.97 *


*Estimate from recent sovereign issues

**Estimated 1yr bond yield

***Estimated from recent US$ issue

Source: Trading economics, Investing.com, Bangledesh Treasury

Last month in their semi-annual fiscal monitor – Debt: Use It Wisely – the IMF warned that global non-financial debt is now running at $152trln or 225% of global GDP, with the private sector responsible for 66% – a potential source of systemic instability . The table above, however, shows that many governments have room to increase their debt to GDP ratios substantially – which might be of luke-warm comfort should the private sector encounter difficulty. Interest rates, in general, are at historic lows; now is as good a time as any for governments to borrow cheaply.

If countries with government debt/GDP of less than 70% increased their debt by just 20% of GDP, ceteris paribus, this would add $6.65trln to total global debt (4.4%).

Most Favoured Borrowers

Looking more closely at the data – and taking into account budget and current account deficits -there are several governments which are unlikely to be able to increase their levels of debt substantially. Nonetheless, a sizable number of developed and developing nations are in a position to increase debt to offset the headwinds of US protectionism should it arrive.

The table below lists those countries which could reasonably be expected to implement a fiscal response to slower growth:-

Country GDP Debt to GDP 10yr yield Gov. Debt 70% Ratio 90% Ratio 12m fwd PE CAPE Div Yld.
Saudi Arabia 646 6% 3.97 38 452 581 ? ? ?
Chile 240 18% 4.60 42 168 216 15.6 ? ?
New Zealand 174 25% 3.11 43 122 157 19.3 22 4.1%
Peru 192 23% 6.43 44 134 173 12.1 ? ?
Bangladesh 195 27% 6.89 53 137 176 ? ? ?
UAE 370 16% 3.57 58 259 333 ? ? ?
Colombia 292 38% 7.75 111 204 263 ? ? ?
Norway 388 32% 1.65 123 272 349 14.2 11.5 4.3%
Philippines 292 45% 4.40 132 204 263 16.4 22.6 1.6%
Malaysia 296 54% 4.39 160 207 266 15.6 16 3.1%
Taiwan 524 32% 1.41 166 367 472 12.8 19 3.9%
Thailand 395 44% 2.68 175 277 356 13.8 17.7 3.1%
Israel 296 65% 2.14 192 207 266 9.4 14.6 2.8%
Sweden 493 43% 0.52 214 345 444 16.1 19.8 3.6%
Indonesia 862 27% 7.85 233 603 776 14.7 19.6 1.9%
South Korea 1,378 35% 2.12 484 965 1,240 9.6 13.1 1.7%
Australia 1,340 37% 2.67 493 938 1,206 15.6 16.1 4.3%
Mexico 1,144 43% 7.39 494 801 1,030 16.6 22.4 1.9%
India 2,074 67% 6.30 1,394 1,452 1,867 15.9 18.6 1.5%
4,649 8,114 10,432

 Source: Trading economics, Investing.com, Bangledesh Treasury, Star Capital, Yardeni Research

The countries in the table above – which have been ranked, in ascending order, by outstanding government debt – have total debt of $4.65trln. If they each increased their ratios to 70% they could raise an additional $3.47trln to lean against an economic downturn. A 90% ratio would see $5.78trln of new government debt created. This is the level above which economies cease to benefit from additional debt according to  Reinhart and Rogoff in their paper Growth in a Time of Debt.

Whilst this analysis is overly simplistic, the quantum of new issuance is not beyond the realms of possibility – India’s ratio reached 84% in 2003, Indonesia’s, hit 87% in 2000 and Saudi Arabia’s, 103% in 1999. Nonetheless, the level of indebtedness is higher than many countries have needed to entertain in recent years – ratios in Australia, Mexico and South Korea, though relatively low, are all at millennium highs.

Apart from the domestic imperative to maintain economic growth, there will be pressure on these governments to pull their weight from their more corpulent brethren. Looking at the table above, if the top seven countries, by absolute increased issuance, raised their debt/GDP ratios to 90%, this would add $3.87trln to global debt.

Despite US debt to GDP being above 100%, the new US President-elect has promised $5.3trln of fiscal spending during his first term. Whether this is a good idea or not is debated this week by the Peterson Institute – What Size Fiscal Deficits for the United States?

Other large developed nations, including Japan, are likely to resort to further fiscal stimulus in the absence of leeway on monetary policy. For developing and smaller developed nations, the stigma of an excessively high debt to GDP ratio will be assuaged by the company keep.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Despite recent warnings from the IMF and plentiful academic analysis of the dangers of excessive debt – of which Deleveraging? What Deleveraging? is perhaps the best known – given the way democracy operates, it is most likely that fiscal stimulus will assume the vanguard. Monetary policy will play a supporting role in these endeavours. As I wrote in – Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE – I believe the Bank of Japan has already passed the baton.

Infrastructure spending will be at the heart of many of these fiscal programmes. There will be plenty of trophy projects and “pork barrel” largesse, but companies which are active in these sectors of the economy will benefit.

Regional and bilateral trade deals will also become more important. In theory the EU has the scale to negotiate with the US, albeit the progress of the TTIP has stalled. Asean and Mercosur have an opportunity to flex their flaccid muscles. China’s One Belt One Road policy will also gain additional traction if the US embark on policies akin to the isolationism of the Ming Dynasty after the death of Emperor Zheng He in 1433. The trade-vacuum will be filled: and China, despite its malinvestments, remains in the ascendant.

According to FocusEconomics – Economic Snapshot for East & South Asia – East and South Asian growth accelerated for the first time in over two years during Q3, to 6.2%. Despite the economic headwinds of tightening monetary and protectionist trade policy in the US, combined with the very real risk of a slowdown in the Chinese property market, they forecast only a moderate reduction to 6% in Q4. They see that growth rate continuing through the first half of 2017.

Indian bond yields actually fell in the wake of the US election – from 6.83% on 8th to 6.30% by 21st. This is a country with significant internal demand and capital controls which afford it some protection. Its textile industry may even benefit in the near-term from non-ratification of the TPP. Indian stocks, however are not particularly cheap. With a PE 24.3, CAPE 18.6, 12 month forward PE 15.9 the Sensex index is up more than 70% from its December 2011 lows.

Stocks in Israel, Taiwan and Thailand may offer better value. They are the only emerging countries which offer a dividend yield greater than their bond yield. Taiwanese stocks appear inexpensive on a number of other measures too. With East and South Asian growth set to continue, emerging Asia looks most promising.

A US tax cut will stimulate demand more rapidly than the boost from US fiscal spending. Protectionist tariffs may hit Mexico and China rapidly but other measures are likely to be implemented more gradually. As long as the US continues to run a trade deficit it makes sense to remain optimistic about several of the emerging Asian markets listed in the table above.

Saudi Arabian bonds and stocks – is it time to buy?


Macro Letter – No 64 – 28-10-2016

Saudi Arabian bonds and stocks – is it time to buy?

  • Saudi Arabia issued $17.5bln of US$ denominated sovereign bonds – the largest issue ever
  • Saudi Aramco may float 5% of their business in the largest IPO ever
  • The TASI stock index is down more than 50% from its 2014 high
  • OPEC agreed to cut output by 640,000 to 1,140,000 bpd

The sovereign bond issue

The Saudi Arabia’s first international bond deal raised $17.5bln. They tapped the market across the yield curve issuing 5yr, 10yr and 30yr bonds. The auction was a success – international investors, mostly from the US, placed $67bln of bids. The issues were priced slightly higher than Qatar, which raised $9bln in May, and Abu Dhabi, which issued $2.5bln each of 5yr and 10yr paper in April.

The Saudi issue appears to have been priced to go, as the table below, showing the basis point spread over US Treasuries, indicates. According to the prospectus the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) want to tap the US$ sovereign bond market extensively in the future, raising as much as $120bln; attracting investors has therefore been a critical aspect of their recent charm offensive:-

Issuer 5yr Spread 10yr Spread 30yr Spread Bid to Cover
Saudi Arabia 135 165 210 3.82
Qatar 120 150 210 2.56
Abu Dhabi 85 125 N/A 3.4

Source: Bloomberg

The high bid to cover ratio (3.8 times) enabled the Kingdom to issue $2.5bln more paper than had been originally indicated: and on better terms – 40bp over, higher rated, Qatar rather than 50bp which had been expected prior to the auction.

The bonds immediately rose in secondary market trading and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issues also caught a bid. The Saudi issue was also unusual in that the largest tranche ($6.5bln) was also the longest maturity (30yr). The high demand is indicative of the global quest for yield among investors. This is the largest ever Emerging Market bond issue, eclipsing Argentina’s $16.5bln offering in April.

The Aramco IPO

Another means by which the Kingdom plans to balance the books is through the Saudi Aramco IPO – part of the Vision 2030 plan – which may float as much as 5% of the company, worth around $100bln, in early 2018. This would be four times larger than the previous record for an IPO set by Alibaba in September 2014.

An interesting, if Machiavellian, view about the motivation behind the Aramco deal is provided by – Robert Boslego – Why Saudi Arabia Will Cut Production To Achieve Vision 2030:-

As part of the implementation of this plan, Saudi Aramco and Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B) are dividing up their U.S. joint venture, Motiva, which will result in Saudi’s full ownership of the Port Author refinery. Aramco will fully own Motiva on April 1, 2017, and has been in talks of buying Lyondell’s Houston refinery.

I suspect Motiva may also purchase U.S. oil shale properties (or companies) that are in financial trouble as a result of the drop in prices since 2014. According to restructuring specialists, about 100 North American oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy, and there may be another 100 to go. This would enable Aramco to expand market share as well as control how fast production is brought back online if prices rise.

By using its ability to cut production to create additional spare capacity, Aramco can use that spare capacity to control prices as it wishes. It probably does not want prices much above $50/b to keep U.S. shale production to about where it is now, 8.5 mmbd. And it doesn’t want prices below $45/b because of the adverse impact of such low prices on its budget. And so it will likely adjust its production accordingly to keep prices in a $45-$55/b range.


Although I authored a series of articles stating that OPEC was bluffing (and it was), I now think that Saudi Arabia has formulated a plan and will assume the role of swing producer to satisfy its goals. It can and will cut unilaterally to create excess spare capacity, which it needs to control oil prices.

This will make the company attractive for its IPO. And by selling shares, Aramco can use some of the proceeds to buy U.S. shale reserves “on the cheap,” not unlike John D. Rockefeller, who bankrupted competitors to acquire them.

The Saudi’s long-term plan is to convert Aramco’s assets into a $2 trillion fund, which can safely reside in Swiss banks. And that is a much safer investment than oil reserves in the ground subject to external and internal political threats.

Whatever the motives behind Vision 2030, it is clear that radical action is needed. The Tadawul TASI Stock Index hit its lowest level since 2011 on 3rd October at 5418, down more than 50% from its high of 11,150 in September 2014 – back when oil was around $90/bbl.

As a starting point here is a brief review of the Saudi economy.

The Saudi Economy

The table below compares KSA with its GCC neighbours; Iran and Iraq have been added to broaden the picture of the oil producing states of the Middle East:-

Country GDP YoY Interest rate Inflation rate Jobless rate Gov. Budget Debt/GDP C/A Pop.
Saudi Arabia 1.40% 2.00% 3.30% 5.60% -15.00% 5.90% -8.2 31.52
Iran 0.60% 20.00% 9.40% 11.80% -2.58% 16.36% 0.41 78.8
UAE 3.40% 1.25% 0.60% 4.20% 5.00% 15.68% 5.8 9.16
Iraq 2.40% 4.00% 0.20% 16.40% -2.69% 37.02% -0.8 35.87
Qatar 1.10% 4.50% 2.60% 0.20% 16.10% 35.80% 8.3 2.34
Kuwait 1.80% 2.25% 2.90% 2.20% 26.59% 7.10% 11.5 3.89
Oman -14.10% 1.00% 1.30% 7.20% -17.10% 9.20% -15.4 4.15
Bahrain 2.50% 0.75% 2.60% 3.70% -5.00% 42.00% 3.3 1.37

Source: Trading Economics

In terms of inflation the KSA is in a better position than Iran and its unemployment rate is well below that of Iran or Iraq, but on several measures it looks weaker than its neighbours.

Moody’s downgraded KSA in May – click here for details – citing concern about their reliance on oil. They pointed to a 13.5% decline in nominal GDP during 2015 and forecast a further fall this year. This concurs with the IMF forecast of 1.2% in 2016 versus 3.5% GDP growth in 2015. It looks likely to be the weakest economic growth since 2009.

The government’s fiscal position has deteriorated in line with the oil price. In 2014 the deficit was 2.3%, by 2015 it was 15%:-


Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

Despite austerity measures, including proposals to introduce a value added tax, the deficit is unlikely to improve beyond -13.5% in 2016. It is estimated that to balance the Saudi budget the oil price would need to be above $79/bbl.

At $98bln, the 2015 government deficit was the largest of the G20, of which Saudi Arabia is a member. According to the prospectus of the new bond issue Saudi debt increased from $37.9bln in December 2015 to $72.9bln in August 2016. Between now and 2020 Moody’s estimate the Kingdom will have a cumulative financing requirement of US$324bln. More than half the needs of the GCC states combined.  Despite the recent deterioration, Government debt to GDP was only 5.8% in 2015:-


Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

They have temporary room for manoeuvre, but Moody’s forecast this ratio rising beyond 35% by 2018 – which is inconsistent with an Aa3 rating. Even the Saudi government see it rising to 30% by 2030.

The fiscal drag has also impacted foreign exchange reserves. From a peak of US$731bln in August 2014 they have fallen by 23% to US$562bln in August 2016:-


Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

Reserves will continue to decline, but it will be some time before the Kingdom loses its fourth ranked position by FX reserves globally. Total private and public sector external debt to GDP was only 15% in 2015 up from 12.3% in 2014 and 11.6% in 2013. There is room for this to grow without undermining the Riyal peg to the US$, which has been at 3.75 since January 2003. A rise in the ratio to above 50% could undermine confidence but otherwise the external debt outlook appears stable.

The fall in the oil price has also led to a dramatic reversal in the current account, from a surplus of 9.8% in 2014 to a deficit of 8.2% last year. In 2016 the deficit may reach 12% or more. It has been worse, as the chart below shows, but not since the 1980’s and the speed of deterioration, when there is no global recession to blame for the fall from grace, is alarming:-


Source: Trading Economics, SAMA

The National Vision 2030 reform plan has been launched, ostensibly, to wean the Kingdom away from its reliance on oil – which represents 85% of exports and 90% of fiscal revenues. In many ways this is an austerity plan but, if fully implemented, it could substantially improve the economic position of Saudi Arabia. There are, however, significant social challenges which may hamper its delivery.

Perhaps the greatest challenge domestically is youth unemployment. More than two thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population (31mln) is under 30 years of age. A demographic blessing and a curse. Official unemployment is 5.8% but for Saudis aged 15 to 24 it is nearer to 30%. A paper, from 2011, by The Woodrow Wilson International Center – Saudi Arabia’s Youth and the Kingdom’s Future – estimated that 37% of all Saudis were 14 years or younger. That means the KSA needs to create 3mln jobs by 2020. The table below shows the rising number unemployed:-


Source: Trading Economics, Central Department of Statistics and Economics

If you compare the chart above with the unemployment percentage shown below you would be forgiven for describing the government’s work creation endeavours as Sisyphean:-


Source: Trading Economics, Central Department of Statistics and Economics

Another and more immediate issue is the cost of hostilities with Yemen – and elsewhere. Exiting these conflicts could improve the government’s fiscal position swiftly. More than 25% ($56.8bln) of the 2016 budget has been allocated to military and security expenditure. It has been rising by 19% per annum since the Arab spring of 2011 and, according to IHS estimates, will reach $62bln by 2020.

The OPEC deal and tightness in the supply of oil

After meeting in Algiers at the end of September, OPEC members agreed, in principle, to reduce production to between 32.5 and 33mln bpd. A further meeting next month, in Vienna, should see a more concrete commitment. This is, after all, the first OPEC production agreement in eight years, and, despite continuing animosity between the KSA and Iran, the Saudi Energy Minister, Khalid al-Falih, made a dramatic concession, stating that Iran, Nigeria and Libya would be allowed to produce:-

…at maximum levels that make sense as part of any output limits.

Iranian production reached 3.65mln bpd in August – the highest since 2013 and 10.85% of the OPEC total. Nigeria pumped 1.39mln bpd (4.1%) and although Libya produced only 363,000 bpd, in line with its negligible output since 2013, it is important to remember they used to produce around 1.4mln bpd. Nigeria likewise has seen production fall from 2.6mln bpd in 2012. Putting this in perspective, total OPEC production reached a new high of 33.64mln bpd in September.

The oil price responded to the “good news from Algiers” moving swiftly higher. Russia has also been in tentative discussions with OPEC since the early summer. President Putin followed the OPEC communique by announcing that Russia will also freeze production. Russian production of 11.11mln bpd in September, is the highest since its peak in 1988. Other non-OPEC nations are rumoured to be considering joining the concert party.

Saudi Arabia is currently the largest producer of oil globally, followed by the USA. In August Saudi production fell from 10.67mln bpd to 10.63mln bpd. It rebounded slightly to 10.65mln bpd in September – this represents 32% of OPEC output.

There are a range of possible outcomes, assuming the OPEC deal goes ahead. Under the proposed terms of the agreement, production is to be reduced by between 1.14mln and 640,000 bpd. Saudi Arabia, as the swing producer, is obliged to foot the bill for an Iranian production freeze and adjust for any change in Nigerian and Libyan output. The chart below, which is taken from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas – Signs of Recovery Emerge in the U.S. Oil Market – Third Quarter 2016 make no assumptions about Saudi Arabia taking up the slack but it provides a useful visual aid:-


Source: EIA, OPEC, Dallas Fed

They go on to state in relation to US production:-

While drilling activity has edged up, industry participants believe it will be awhile before activity significantly increases. When queried in the third quarter 2016 Dallas Fed Energy Survey, most respondents said prices need to exceed $55 per barrel for solid gains to occur, with a ramp-up unlikely until at least second quarter 2017.

Assuming the minimum reduction in output to 33mln bpd and Iran, Nigeria and Libya maintaining production at current levels, Saudi Arabian must reduce its output by 300,000 bpd. If the output cut is the maximum, Iran freezes at current levels but Nigeria and Libya return to the production levels of 2012, Saudi Arabia will need to reduce its output by 623,000 bpd. The indications are that Nigeria and Libya will only be able to raise output by, at most, 500,000 bpd each, so a 623,000 bpd cut by Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be needed, but even in the worst case scenario, if the oil price can be raised by $3.11/bbl the Saudi production cut would be self-financing. My “Median” forecast below assumes Nigeria and Libya increase output by 1mln bpd in total:-

OPEC Cut ‘000s bpd KSA Cut ‘000s bpd KSA % of total OPEC Cut Oil Price B/E for KSA/bbl
Max 1,140 623 54.68% +$3.11
Median 890 422 47.41% +$2.06
Minimum 640 300 47.07% +$1.45

Source: OPEC

Many commentators are predicting lower oil prices for longer; they believe OPEC no longer has the power to influence the global oil price. This article by David Yager for Oil Price – Why Oil Prices Will Rise More And Sooner Than Most Believe – takes a different view. His argument revolves around the amount of spare capacity globally. The author thinks OPEC is near to full production, but it is his analysis of non-OPEC capacity which is sobering:-

…RBC Capital Markets was of the view oil prices would indeed rise but not until 2019. RBC says 2.2 million b/d of new non-OPEC production will enter the markets this year, 1.3 million b/d next year and 1.6 million b/d in 2018. Somehow U.S. production will rise by 900,000 b/d from 2017 and 2019 despite falling by 1.1 million b/d in the past 15 months and with rigs count at historic lows. At the same time RBC reported the 124 E&P companies it follows will cut spending another 32 percent in 2016 from 2015, a $US106 billion reduction.

…The Telegraph ran it under the title, “When oil turns it will be with such lightning speed that it could upend the market again”. Citing the lowest levels of oil discoveries since 1952, annual investment in new supplies down 42 percent in the past two years and how the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates 9 percent average annual global reservoir depletion, the article stated, “…the global economy is becoming dangerously reliant on crude supply from political hotspots”. “Drillers are not finding enough oil to replace these (depletion) barrels, preparing the ground for an oil price spike and raising serious questions about energy security”.

Depletion of 9 percent per year is about 8.6 million b/d. Add demand growth and you’re approaching 10 million b/d. How do the crystal ball polishers of the world who see flat oil prices for the foreseeable future figure producers can replace this output when others report $US1 trillion in capital projects have been cancelled or delayed over the rest of the decade?

The last ingredient in the oil price confusion in inventory levels. OECD countries currently hold 3.1 billion barrels of oil inventory. That sounds like lot. But what nobody reports is the five-year average is about 2.7 billion barrels. Refinery storage tanks. Pipelines. Field locations. Tankers in transit. It’s huge. The current overhang is about 6 days of production higher than it has been for years, about 60 days. So inventories are up roughly 10 percent from where they have been.

Obviously this is going to take a change in the global supply/demand balance to return to historic levels and will dampen prices until it does. But don’t believe OECD inventories must go to zero.

…The current production overhang suppressing markets is only about 1 million b/d or less depending upon which forecast you’re looking at. Both the IEA (Paris) and the EIA (Washington) see the curves very close if they haven’t crossed already. Neither agency sees any overhang by the end of the next year.

…OPEC has no meaningful excess capacity. Non-OPEC production is flat out and, in the face of massive spending cuts, is more likely to fall than rise because production increases will be more than offset by natural reservoir depletion.

Since this article was published OECD inventories have declined a fraction. Here is the latest EIA data:-

  2014 2015 2016 2017
Non-OPEC Production 55.9 57.49 56.84 56.94
OPEC Production 37.45 38.32 39.2 40.07
OPEC Crude Oil Portion 30.99 31.76 32.45 33.03
Total World Production 93.35 95.81 96.04 97.01
OECD Commercial Inventory (end-of-year) 2688 2967 3049 3073
Total OPEC surplus crude oil production capacity 2.08 1.6 1.34 1.21
OECD Consumption 45.86 46.41 46.53 46.6
Non-OECD Consumption 46.69 47.63 48.8 50.07
Total World Consumption 92.55 94.04 95.33 96.67

Source: EIA

Whether or not David Yager is correct about supply, the direct cost to Saudi Arabia, of a 623,000 bpd reduction in output, pales into insignificance beside the cost of domestic oil and gas subsidies – around $61bln last year. Subsidies on electricity and water add another $10bln to the annual bill. These subsidies are being reduced as part of the Vison 2030 austerity plan. The government claim they can save $100bln by 2020, but given the impact of removing subsidies on domestic growth, I remain sceptical.

The Kingdom’s domestic demand for crude oil continues to grow. Brookings – Saudi Arabia’s economic time bomb forecast that it will reach 8.2mln bpd by 2030. By some estimates they may become a net importer of oil by their centenary in 2032. Saudi oil reserves are estimated at 268bln bbl. Her gas reserves are estimated to be 8.6trln M3 (2014) but exploration may yield considerable increases in these figures.

The Kingdom is also planning to build 16 nuclear power stations over the next 20 years, along with extensive expansion of solar power generating capacity. Improvements in technology mean that solar power stations will, given the right weather conditions, produce cheaper electricity than gas powered generation by the end of this year. This article from the Guardian – Solar and wind ‘cheaper than new nuclear’ by the time Hinkley is built – looks longer term.

According to EIA data US production in July totalled 8.69mln bpd down from 9.62mln bpd in March 2015. A further 200,000 bpd reduction is forecast for next year.

The table below, which is taken from the IEA – Medium Term Oil Market Report – 2016suggests this tightness in supply may last well beyond 2018:-


Source: IEA – MTOMR 2016

According to Baker Hughes data, US rig count has rebounded to 443 since the low of 316 at the end of May, but this is still 72% below its October 2014 peak of 1609. This March 2016 article from Futures Magazine – How quickly will U.S. energy producers respond to rising prices? Explains the dynamics of the US oil industry:-

Crude oil produced by shale made up 48% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2015, up from 22% in 2007 according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which warns that the horizontal wells drilled into tight formations tend to have very high initial production rates–but they also have steep initial decline rates. Some wells lose as much as 70% of their initial production the first year. With steep decline rates, constant drilling and development of new wells is necessary to maintain or increase production levels. The problem is that many of these smaller shale companies do not have the capital nor the manpower to keep drilling and keep production going.

This is one of the reasons that the EIA is predicting that U.S. oil production will fall by 7.4%, or roughly 700,000 barrels a day. That may be a modest assessment as we are hearing of more stress and bankruptcies in the space. The EIA warns that with the U.S. oil rig count down 76% since the fall of 2014, that unless capital spending picks up, the EIA says that U.S. oil production will keep falling in 2017, ending up 1.2 million barrels a day lower than the 2015 average at 8.2 million barrels a day.

The bearish argument that shale will save the day and keep prices under control does not fit with the longer term reality. When more traditional energy projects with much slower decline rates get shelved, there is the thought that the cash strapped shale producers can just drill, drill. Drill to make up that difference is a fantasy. The problem is that while shale may replace that oil for a while, in the long run it can never make up for the loss of projects that are more sustainable.

OPEC might just have the whip hand for the first time in several years.

The chart below, taken from the New York Federal Reserve – Oil Price Dynamics Report – 24th October 2016 – shows how increased supply since 2012 has pushed oil prices lower. Now oversupply appears to be abating once more; combine this with the inability of the fracking industry to “just drill” and the reduction in inventories and conditions may be ripe for an aggressive short squeeze:-


Source: NY Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics, Reuters, Bloomberg

But, how sustainable is any oil price increase?

Longer term prospects for oil demand


Source: Trading Economics

In the short term there are, as always, a plethora of conflicting opinions about the direction of the price of oil. Longer term, advances in drilling techniques and other technologies – especially those relating to fracking – will exert a downward pressure on prices, especially as these methods are adopted more widely across the globe. Recent evidence supports the view that tight-oil extraction is economic at between $40 and $60 per bbl, although the Manhattan Institute – Shale 2:0 – May 2015 – suggests:-

In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

These reductions in extraction costs, combined with improvements in fuel efficiency and the falling cost of alternative energy, such as solar power, will constrain prices from rising for any length of time.

Published earlier this month, the World Energy Council – World Energy Scenarios 2016 – The Grand Transitionpropose three, very different, global outlooks, with rather memorable names:-

  1. Modern Jazz – digital disruption, innovation and market based reform
  2. Unfinished Symphony – intelligent and sustainable economic growth with low carbon
  3. Hard Rock – fragmented, weaker, inward-looking and unsustainable growth

They go on to point out that, despite economic growth – especially in countries like China and India – global reliance on fossil fuels has fallen from 86% in 1970 to 81% in 2014 – although in transportation reliance remains a spectacular 92%. The table below shows rising energy consumption under all three scenarios, but an astonishing divergence in its rise and source of supply, under the different regimes:-

Scenario – 2060 % increase in energy consumption % reliance on oil Transport % reliance on oil
Modern Jazz 22 50 67
Unfinished Symphony 38 63 60
Hard Rock 46 70 78

Source: World Energy Council

The authors expect demand for electricity to double by 2060 requiring $35trln to $43trln of infrastructure investment. Solar and Wind power are expected to increase their share of supply from 4% in 2014 to between 20% and 39% dependent upon the scenario.

As to the outlook for fossil fuels, global demand for coal is expected to peak between 2020 and 2040 and for oil, between 2030 and 2040.

…peaks for coal and oil have the potential to take the world from stranded assets predominantly in the private sector to state-owned stranded resources and could cause significant stress to the current global economic equilibrium with unforeseen consequences on geopolitical agendas. Carefully weighed exit strategies spanning several decades need to come to the top of the political agenda, or the destruction of vast amounts of public and private shareholder value is unavoidable. Economic diversification and employment strategies for growing populations will be a critical element of navigating the challenges of peak demand.

The economic diversification, to which the World Energy Council refer, is a global phenomenon but the impact on nations which are dependent on oil exports, such as Saudi Arabia, will be even more pronounced.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

As part of Vision 2030 – which was launched in the spring by the King Salman’s second son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the Saudi government introduced some new measures last month. They cancelled bonus payments to state employees and cut ministers’ salaries by 20%. Ministers’ perks – including the provision of cars and mobile phones – will also be withdrawn. In addition, legislative advisors to the monarchy have been subjected to a 15% pay cut.

These measures are scheduled to take effect this month. They are largely cosmetic, but the longer term aim of the plan is to reduce the public-sector wage bill by 5% – bringing it down to 40% of spending by 2020. Government jobs pay much better than the private sector and the 90/90 rule applies –that is 90% of Saudi Arabians work for the government and the 10% of workers in the private sector are 90% non-Saudi in origin. The proposed pay cuts will be deeply unpopular. Finally, unofficial sources claim, the government has begun cancelling $20bln of the $69bln of investment projects it had previously approved. All this austerity will be a drag on economic growth – it begins to sound more like Division 2030, I anticipate social unrest.

The impact of last month’s announcement on the stock market was unsurprisingly negative – the TASI Index fell 4% – largely negating the SAR20bln ($5.3bln) capital injection by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) from the previous day.

Saudi Bonds

Considering the geo-political uncertainty surrounding the KSA, is the spread over US Treasuries sufficient? In the short term – two to five years – I think it is, but from a longer term perspective this should be regarded as a trading asset. If US bond yield return to a more normal level – they have averaged 6.5% since 1974 – the credit spread is likely to widen. Its current level is a function of the lack of alternative assets offering an acceptable yield, pushing investors towards markets with which many are unfamiliar. KSA bonds do have advantages over some other emerging markets, their currency is pegged to the US$ and their foreign exchange reserves remain substantial, nonetheless, they will also be sensitive to the price of oil.

Saudi stocks

For foreign investors ETFs are still the only way to access the Saudi stock market, unless you already have $5bln of AUM – then you are limited to 5% of any company and a number of the 170 listed stocks remain restricted. For those not deterred, the iShares MSCI Saudi Arabia Capped ETF (KSA) is an example of a way to gain access.

Given how much of the economy of KSA relies on oil revenues, it is not surprising that the TASI Index correlates with the price of oil. It makes the Saudi stock exchange a traders market with energy prices dominating direction. Several emerging stock markets have rallied dramatically this year, as the chart below illustrates, the TASI has not been among their number:-


Source: Saudi Stock Exchange, Trading Economics


Tightness in supply makes it likely that oil will find a higher trading range, but previous OPEC deals have been wrecked by cheating on quotas. Longer term, improvements in technology will reduce the cost of extraction, increase the amount of recoverable reserves and diminish our dependence on fossil fuels by improving energy efficiency and developing, affordable, renewable, alternative sources of energy. By all means trade the range but remember commodities have always had a negative real expected return in the long run.

Which parts of the UK economy and which stocks will be the winners from Brexit?


Macro Letter – No 63 – 14-10-2016

Which parts of the UK economy and which stocks will be the winners from Brexit?

  • Sterling has fallen to its lowest since 1985 on fears of a “Hard Brexit”
  • UK stocks, led by the FTSE100, have rallied sharply
  • Sectors such as IT and Pharmaceuticals will benefit long-term
  • Even construction and financial services present investment opportunities

If you are in the habit of reading the mainstream financial press you will see headlines such as:-

The Times – Leak of gloomy Brexit forecast pushes pound to 31-year low – 12th October

The Economist – The pound and the fury – Brexit is making Britons poorer, and meaner – 11th October

Over the last three months, this has been typical of almost all financial media commentary. Sterling, meanwhile, has fallen, on a trade weighted basis, to a low not seen since the effective exchange rate index was recalibrated in 1990. At 73.79 it has even breached its close of December 2008 (73.855):-


Source: Bank of England

The recent weakness in Sterling has been linked to the publication of parts of draft cabinet committee papers, suggesting UK revenues could drop by £66bln. From a technical perspective the “Flash Crash” in Cable (GBPUSD) last week has exacerbated the situation, creating the need for the currency to retest the low of 1.18 during normal market hours – the market reached 1.2086 on 11th – more downside is likely:-


Source: DailyFX.com

As the two charts above reveal, Sterling has weakened by 16% versus the US$ and by 18.5% on a trade-weighted basis.

Here is the chart of GBPUSD since 1953. It reinforces my expectation, from a technical perspective, that we will see further downside:-


Source: fxtop.com

Given the seismic impact of a “Hard Brexit” on the UK economy, it would not be surprising to see a return to the February 1985 low of 1.0440.

I am not alone in my expectation of further weakness, Ashoka Mody – who organised the EU-IMF bailout of Ireland – told the Telegraph this week that Sterling was between 20% and 25% overvalued going into the Brexit vote.


The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, accounting for 44% of goods and services exports in 2015 – though this was a decline the on previous year. Of greater concern to the neighbours, is the 53% of UK imports which emanate from the EU. In theory Sterling weakness should benefit UK exports; the impact has been minimal, so far:-


Source: Tradingeconomics.com, ONS

Similarly, imports should be falling – they are not:-


Source: Trading Economics, ONS

I discussed the prospects for UK growth and the effect of Sterling weakness on the balance of trade in Macro Letter – No 59 – 15-07-2016 – Uncharted British waters – the risk to growth, the opportunity to reform – quoting in turn from John Ashcroft – The Saturday Economist – The great devaluation myth:-

There was no improvement in trade as a result of the exit from the ERM and the subsequent devaluation of 1992, despite allusions of policy makers to the contrary.

…1 Exporters Price to Market…and price in Currency…there is limited pass through effect for major exporters

2 Exporters and importers adopt a balanced portfolio approach via synthetic or natural hedging to offset the currency risks over the long term

3 Traders adopt a medium term view on currency trends better to take the margin boost or hit in the short term….rather than price out the currency move

4 Price Elasticities for imports are lower than for exports…The Marshall Lerner conditions are not satisfied…The price elasticities are too limited to offset the “lost revenue” effect

5 Imports of food, beverages, commodities, energy, oil and semi manufactures are relatively inelastic with regard to price. The price co-efficients are much weaker and almost inelastic with regard to imports

6 Imports form a significant part of exports, either as raw materials, components or semi manufactures. Devaluation increases the costs of exports as a result of devaluation

7 There is limited substitution effect or potential domestic supply side boost

8 Demand co-efficients are dominant

If Sterling weakness will not improve the UK terms of trade, what will happen to growth? Again, in Macro Letter 59  I quote, Open Europe’s worst case scenario – that UK economic growth will be 2.2% less, on an annual basis, than its current trend, by 2030. Trend GDP growth between 1956 and 2015 averaged 2.46%. Is the media gloom justified and…

Are there any winners?

I concluded my July article saying:-

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

The UK stock market has already jumped the gun. The chart below shows the strong upward momentum of the FTSE100, dragging the, less international, FTSE250 in its wake; yet UK property has been hit hard by expectations of a slowdown in foreign demand:-


Source: Daily Telegraph

The obvious winners in the short term are companies with non-Sterling earnings – the constituents of the FTSE100 have an estimated 77% of overseas revenues – 47 of them pay their dividends in US$. The FTSE250 is not far behind, its members have 50% of foreign revenues. This is not dissimilar to the French CAC40 and German DAX. The table below lists the top and bottom ten FTSE350 companies by Sterling revenues:-

10 FTSE 350 companies with lowest sterling revenues
Company Sterling revenues
Vedanta Resources (VED) 0%
Hikma Pharmaceuticals (HIK) 0.20%
BHP Billiton (BLT) 0.30%
Antofagasta (ANT) 0.40%
Mondi (MNDI) 0.40%
Tate & Lyle (TATE) 0.60%
Rio Tinto (RIO) 0.70%
British American Tobacco (BATS) 1%
Laird (LRD) 1.60%
Victrex (VCT) 1.80%
10 FTSE 350 companies with highest sterling revenues
Company Sterling revenues
Saga (SAGAG) 69.80%
Capita (CPI) 70.40%
Wm Morrison (MRW) 70.60%
Booker Group (BOK) 70.80%
Intu Properties (INTU) 71.60%
Home Retail Group (HOME) 72.10%
OneSavings Bank (OSBO) 72.50%
Standard Life (SL) 88.90%
Grainger (GRI) 96.30%

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Some of these companies are not exactly household names. Below is a table of the top 30 stocks in the FTSE100 by market capitalisation as at 28th September. The table also shows the year to date performance by stock as at 12th October:-

Company Ticker Sector Market cap-£mln (28-09) YTD (12-10) >50% Non-£ revenue % of non-£ revenue
Royal Dutch Shell RDSA Oil and gas 149,100 16.33% Yes 85%?
HSBC HSBA Banking 113,455 15.97% Yes
British American Tobacco BATS Tobacco 92,162 28.58% Yes 99%
BP BP Oil and gas 81,196 25.99% Yes 85%?
GlaxoSmithKline GSK Pharmaceuticals 80,629 32.02% Yes 91%
AstraZeneca AZN Pharmaceuticals 64,771 18.72% Yes 93%
Vodafone Group VOD Telecomms 59,259 6.10% Yes
Diageo DGE Beverages 55,931 20.41% Yes
Reckitt Benckiser RB Consumer goods 50,446 20.66% Yes
Unilever ULVR Consumer goods 46,917 32.18% Yes 85%?
Shire plc SHP Pharmaceuticals 45,899 16.56% Yes 96%
National Grid plc NG Energy 41,223 15.14% Yes
Lloyds Banking Group LLOY Banking 39,634 -29.62%
BT Group BT.A Telecomms 38,996 -15.03%
Imperial Brands IMB Tobacco 37,677 13.35% Yes
Prudential plc PRU Finance 35,544 -3.61% Yes 60%
Rio Tinto Group RIO Mining 34,715 6.72% Yes 99%
Glencore GLEN Mining 30,135 94.96% Yes
Barclays BARC Banking 28,089 -34.34% Yes
Compass Group CPG Food 24,528 37.40% Yes
WPP plc WPP Media 23,330 16.44% Yes 87%
BHP Billiton BLT Mining 23,169 5.18% Yes 97%
CRH plc CRH Building materials 21,314 50.45% Yes
Royal Bank of Scotland Group RBS Banking 20,799 -46.12%
Associated British Foods ABF Food 20,481 -27.11%
Standard Chartered STAN Banking 20,403 -9.76% Yes
Aviva AV. Insurance 17,925 -3.27% Yes 60%
BAE Systems BA. Military 16,698 16.87% Yes
RELX Group REL Publishing 15,842 27.83% Yes 85%?
SSE plc SSE Energy 15,548 -1.75%

Source: Stockchallenge.co.uk, Financial Times

The table indicates where non-Sterling revenues exceed 50% and, where I have been able to glean current data, the most recent percentage of international revenues. These 30 names represent 70% of the total market capitalisation of the FTSE100 Index. The positive impact of the fall in Sterling on the performance of the majority of these stocks is unequivocal.

On a sectoral basis this is a continuation of the price action evident in the week following the Brexit vote. The chart below was published by the FT on 29th June:-


Source: Bloomberg, FT

The underperforming sectors are not difficult to explain. Banks and Insurance companies, despite having international revenues, have been hurt by concerns about the loss of access to EU markets after Brexit. Real Estate remains nervous about a collapse in international demand, now the UK is no longer the gateway to Europe. Meanwhile, the retail and household sectors are likely to suffer as UK economic growth slows, consumer spending declines, inflation – driven by higher import prices – squeezes corporate profit margins and the Bank of England is forced to respond to higher consumer prices with monetary tightening.

Yet, looking at the table below, the dividend cover of the consumer sector is robust and the data we have seen since Brexit – retails sales +6.2% in July and 6.3% in August, combined with the rebound in consumer confidence – suggests that the consumer is what might be deemed serene:-


Source: Daily Telegraph, Highcharts

Other UK economic indicators also seem to be rebounding. Manufacturing PMI was 55.4 in September –its highest level since the middle of 2014. Services PMI, at 52.6, is still expanding and Construction PMI, at 52.3, has returned to growth. Rumours of the death of the consumer may be grossly exaggerated. Even consumer credit, which dipped in July, rebounded in August.

The “Sterling Effect” on stock valuation has more to deliver in the near-term, but once the currency stabilises this one-off benefit will diminish.

Who will the longer term winners be?

It is difficult to assess the long run impact of a “Hard Brexit” without reviewing the WTO – Most Favoured Nation – Tariff schedule for the EU. The trade weighted average tariff for 2013 was 3.2%, but on agricultural products it was a much higher 22.3% whilst it was only 2.3% on Non-Agricultural products:-


Source: WTO

A “Hard Brexit” will probably entail a reversion to Most Favoured Nation terms with the EU under WTO rules.

The 18.5% decline in the Sterling Effective Exchange Rate means the cost to the UK of exporting, even agricultural products – excepting dairy – has been priced in. No wonder economists are busy revising their 2016/2017 growth forecasts higher – until Brexit actually happens, UK exports to the EU, and the majority of our other trading partners, will remain incredibly competitive.

Developing beyond this theme, a recent speech – The economic outlook – by Michael Saunders, a Bank of England MPC Member, reminded the Institute of Directors in Manchester:-

…we should not lose sight of the UK economy’s considerable supply-side advantages, with relatively flexible labour and product markets, openness to foreign investment, low-ish tax rates, strength in knowledge-intensive services and hi-tech manufacturing…

And the winners are…

This by no means an exhaustive list – some sectors are an obvious response to the decline in the currency, others are rather less certain.

Tourism – with the UK suddenly an inexpensive destination for tourists from around the world. In 2015, 7.3mln tourists visited the UK, of which 4.6mln were from the EU. Tourism Alliance estimates the UK tourist industry was worth £126.9bln in 2013. The chart below shows the volatile but upward sloping evolution of tourism revenues:-


Source: Trading Economics, ONS

Here is an edited table of the Leisure and Travel constituents of the FTSE350, it excludes bookmakers, travel agents and airlines:-

Ticker Company
CCL Carnival
CINE Cineworld Group
CPG Compass Group
DOM Domino’s Pizza Group
FGP FirstGroup
GNK Greene King
GOG Go-Ahead Group
GVC GVC Holdings
IHG InterContinental Hotels Group
JDW Wetherspoon (J.D.)
MAB Mitchells & Butlers
MARS Marston’s
MERL Merlin Entertainments
MLC Millennium & Copthorne Hotels
NEX National Express Group
RNK Rank Group
RTN Restaurant Group
SGC Stagecoach Group
WTB Whitbread

Source: Shareprices.com

There should also be a positive impact on construction, as many operators, particularly within the unlisted sector, upgrade their facilities to capture the increased demand.

Not all the omens are positive; many of the jobs created by tourism are temporary and seasonal, the impact of a “Hard Brexit” is likely to lead to an increase in average earnings – good for employees, though not necessary for employers:-


Source: Trading Economics, ONS

The trend in wage growth has been steady for several years, but as inflation picks up and UK immigration declines, wages will rise.

Value Added Industries such as IT, Technology, Pharmaceuticals – these are growth industries in which the UK has a comparative advantage. Typically their growth is delivered through productivity enhancing innovation. That they will also benefit, from a structurally lower exchange rate, is an added bonus.

Property and Construction should recover strongly – according to the Nationwide, UK house prices increased again in September. Only in central London, where stamp duty increases on higher value properties has undermined sentiment, have prices eased.

The UK has a shortage of residential property. Whether interest rates remain low or not, this situation will not change until there is genuine planning reform. The three largest housebuilders Barratt Developments (BDEV) Taylor Wimpey (TW) and Persimmon (PSN) are all trading with P/E ratios below 10 times. The only real concern is the difficulty these companies may experience in securing skilled manual labour – Barrett Developments source between 30% and 40% of their current workforce from mainland Europe.

There are other companies in the construction sector such as Balfour Beatty (BBY) Carillion (CLLN) and Kier Group (KIE) which will benefit from increased public investment in infrastructure projects. Monetary policy is nearing the end of its effectiveness – although the central banks still have plenty of stocks they could buy. The next step is to pass the gauntlet back to their respective governments’. I believe fiscal stimulus on a substantial scale will be the next phase.

Banking and Financial Services may seem like the last place to look for performance. The regulators have been tightening the noose since 2008 – as the current crisis at Deutsche Bank highlights, this trend has yet to run its course. However, challenger banks and shadow banking institutions, including hedge funds, are beginning to fill the void. In the days before the financialisation of the economy, banking was the servant of industry. The real-economy still needs banking and credit facilities. The oldest of the Peer to Peer lenders (unlisted) Zopa, announced their first securitisation this summer. After a decade of development their business it is finally coming of age.

The CMA – Making the Banks Work Harder For You – August 9th is certainly supportive for the digital disruptors of traditional banking. Government support is no guarantee of success but it’s easier to have them on your side.

You may argue that the success of companies such as Zopa are based on technological advantages but the recent history of banking has been about harnessing technology to increase trading volumes and reduce the costs of financial transactions. Growth in the profitability of financial services is integrally tied to advances in technology.

A final argument for Banks is the FTSE350 Banks Index:-


Source: Bigcharts.com

The high in 2007 was 11,263, the low in March 2009, 2,782 – a 75% decline. The index nearly doubled in in the next six months, reaching 5,224 in September of the same year. This June the index failed to break to a new low after the Brexit vote. A base is forming – the banking sector may not have seen the last of fines and regulation but I believe the downside is limited.

Here comes summer – Did you sell in May?


Macro Letter – No 56 – 10-06-2016

Here comes summer – Did you sell in May?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: Yahoo Finance

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

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

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

Strategies not Asset Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?


Macro Letter – No 52 – 08-04-2016

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?

  • Negative interest rates are reducing the velocity of circulation
  • Qualitative easing is on the rise
  • Liquidity in government bond markets continues to decline
  • A lack of liquidity in equity markets will be next

Last year, in a paper entitled The Stock Market Crash Really Did Cause the Great Recession – Roger Farmer of UCLA argued that the collapse in the stock market was the cause of the Great Recession:-

In November of 2008 the Federal Reserve more than doubled the monetary base from eight hundred billion dollars in October to more than two trillion dollars in December: And over the course of 2009 the Fed purchased eight hundred billion dollars worth of mortgage backed securities. According to the animal spirits explanation of the recession (Farmer, 2010a, 2012a,b, 2013a), these Federal Reserve interventions in the asset markets were a significant factor in engineering the stock market recovery.

The animal spirits theory provides a causal chain that connects movements in the stock market with subsequent changes in the unemployment rate. If this theory is correct, the path of unemployment depicted in Figure 8 is an accurate forecast of what would have occurred in the absence of Federal Reserve intervention. These results support the claim, in the title of this paper, that the stock market crash of 2008 really did cause the Great Recession.

Central banks (CBs) around the globe appear to concur with his view. Their response to the Great Recession has been the provision of abundant liquidity – via quantitative easing – at ever lower rates of interest. They appear to believe that the recovery has been muted due to the inadequate quantity of accommodation and, as rates drift below zero, its targeting.

The Federal Reserve (Fed) was the first to recognise this problem, buying mortgages as well as Treasuries, perhaps guided by the US Treasury’s implementation of TARP in October 2008. The Fed was fortunate in being unencumbered by the political grid-lock which faced the European Central Bank (ECB). They acted, aggressively and rapidly, hoping to avoid the policy mistakes of the Bank of Japan (BoJ). The US has managed to put the great recession behind it. But at what cost? Only time will tell.

Other major CBs were not so decisive or lucky. In the immediate aftermath of the sub-prime crisis the Swiss Franc (CHF) rose – a typical “safe-haven” reaction. The SNB hung on grimly as the CHF appreciated, especially against the EUR, but eventually succumbed to “the peg” in September 2011 after the Eurozone (EZ) suffered its first summer of discontent. It was almost a year later before ECB President Draghi uttered his famous “Whatever it takes” speech on 26th July 2012.

Since 2012 government bond yields in the EZ, Switzerland, Japan and the UK have fallen further. In the US yields recovered until the end of 2013 but have fallen once more as international institutions seek yield wherever they can.

By 2013 CBs had begun to buy assets other than government bonds as a monetary exercise, in the hope of simulating economic growth. Even common stock became a target, since they were faced with the same dilemma as other investors – the need for yield.

In late April 2013 Bloomberg – Central Banks Load Up on Equities observed:-

Central banks, guardians of the world’s $11 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, are buying stocks in record amounts as falling bond yields push even risk-averse investors toward equities.

In a survey of 60 central bankers…23 percent said they own shares or plan to buy them. The Bank of Japan, holder of the second-biggest reserves, said April 4 it will more than double investments in equity exchange-traded funds to 3.5 trillion yen ($35.2 billion) by 2014. The Bank of Israel bought stocks for the first time last year while the Swiss National Bank and the Czech National Bank have boosted their holdings to at least 10 percent of reserves.

…The SNB allocated 82 percent of its 438 billion Swiss francs ($463 billion) in reserves to government bonds in the fourth quarter, according to data on its website. Of those securities, 78 percent had the top, AAA credit grade and 17 percent were rated AA.

…The survey of 60 central bankers, overseeing a combined $6.7 trillion, found that low bond returns had prompted almost half to take on more risk. Fourteen said they had already invested in equities or would do so within five years.

…Even so, 70 percent of the central bankers in the survey indicated that equities are “beyond the pale.”

the SNB has allocated about 12 percent of assets to passive funds tracking equity indexes. The Bank of Israel has spent about 3 percent of its $77 billion reserves on U.S. stocks.

…the BOJ announced plans to put more of its $1.2 trillion of reserves into exchange-traded funds this month as it doubled its stimulus program to help reflate the economy. The Bank of Korea began buying Chinese shares last year, increasing its equity investments to about $18.6 billion, or 5.7 percent of the total, up from 5.4 percent in 2011. China’s foreign-exchange regulator said in January it has sought “innovative use” of its $3.4 trillion in assets, the world’s biggest reserves, without specifying a strategy for investing in shares.

Reserves have increased at a slower pace since 2012, but the top 50 countries still accounted for $11.4trln, according to the latest CIA Factbook estimates. The real growth has been in emerging and developing countries – according to IMF data, since 2000, in the wake of the Asian crisis, their reserves grew from $700bln to above $8trln.

By June 2014 the Financial Times – Beware central banks’ share-buying sprees was sounding the alarm:-

An eye-catching report this week said that “a cluster of central banking investors has become major players on world equity markets”. An important driver was revenues foregone on bond portfolios.

Put together by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, which brings together secretive and normally conservative central bankers, the report’s conclusions have authority. Some equity buying was in central banks’ capacity as, in effect, sovereign wealth fund managers. China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which has $3.9tn under management, has become the world’s largest public sector holder of equities.

The boundary, however, with monetary policy making is not always clear. According to the Omfif report, China’s central bank itself “has been buying minority equity stakes in important European companies”.

…Central bank purchases of shares are not new. The Dutch central bank has invested in equities for decades. The benchmark for its €1.4bn portfolio is the MSCI global developed markets index.

The Italian, Swiss and Danish central banks also own equities. Across Europe, central banks face pressures from cash-strapped governments to boost income. As presumably cautious and wise investors, they have also been put in charge of managing sovereign wealth funds – Norway’s, for instance.

…the Hong Kong Monetary Authority launched a large-scale stock market intervention in 1998, splashing out about $15bn – and ended up making a profit. Since the Asian financial crisis of that year, official reserves have expanded massively – far beyond what might be needed in future financial crises or justified by trade flows.

The article goes on to state that CB transparency is needed and that it should be made clear whether the actions are monetary policy or investment activity. Equities are generally more volatile than bonds – losses could lead to political backlash, or worse still, undermine the prudent reputation of the CB itself.

Here is an example of just such an event, from July last year, as described by Zero Hedge – The Swiss National Bank Is Long $94 Billion In Stocks, Reports Record Loss Equal To 7% Of Swiss GDP:-

…17%, or CHF91 ($94 billion) of the foreign currency investments and CHF bond investments assets held on the SNB’s balance sheet are foreign stocks…

In other words, the SNB holds 15% of Switzerland’s GDP in equities!

Zero Hedge goes on to remonstrate against the lack of transparency of other CBs equity investment balances – in particular the Fed.

The ECB, perhaps due to its multitude of masters, appears reluctant to follow the lead of the SNB. In March 2015 it achieved some success by announcing that it would buy Belgian, French, Italian and Spanish bonds, under its QE plan, in addition to those of, higher rated, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. EZ Yield compression followed with Italy and Spain benefitting most.

The leading exponent of this “new monetary alchemy” is the BoJ. In an October 2015 report from Bloomberg – Owning Half of Japan’s ETF Market Might Not Be Enough for Kuroda the author states:-

With 3 trillion yen ($25 billion) a year in existing firepower, the BOJ has accumulated an ETF stash that accounted for 52 percent of the entire market at the end of September, figures from Tokyo’s stock exchange show.

…Japan’s central bank began buying ETFs in 2010 to spur more trading and promote “more risk-taking activity in the overall economy.” Governor Haruhiko Kuroda expanded the program in April 2013 and again last October.

BoJ ETF holdings - October 2015 - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg, TSE

More ETFs can be created to redress the balance, or the BoJ may embark on the purchase of individual stocks. They announced a small increase in ETF purchases in December, focused on physical and human capital firms – also advising that shares they bought from distressed financial institutions in 2002 will be sold (very gradually) at the rate of JPY 300bln per annum over the next decade. At the end of January the BoJ decided to adopt negative interest rate policy (NIRP) rather than expand ETF and bond purchases – this saw the Nikkei hit its lowest level since October 2014 whilst the JYP shed more than 8% against the US$. I anticipate that they will soon increase their purchases of ETFs or stocks once more. The NIRP decision was half-hearted and BoJ concerns, about corporates and individuals resorting to cash stashed in safes, may prove well founded – So it begins…Negative Interest rates Trickle Down in Japan – Mises.org discusses this matter in greater detail.

In early March the ECB acted with intent, CNBC – ECB pulls out all the stops, cuts rates and expands QE takes up the story:-

…the ECB announced on Thursday that it had cut its main refinancing rate to 0.0 percent and its deposit rate to minus-0.4 percent.

“While very low or even negative inflation rates are unavoidable over the next few months as a result of movement in oil prices, it is crucial to avoid second-round effects,” Draghi said in his regular media conference after the ECB statement.

The bank also extended its monthly asset purchases to 80 billion euros ($87 billion), to take effect in April.

…the ECB will add corporate bonds to the assets it can buy — specifically, investment grade euro-denominated bonds issued by non-bank corporations. These purchases will start towards end of the first half of 2016.

…the bank will launch a new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTROs) with maturities of four years, starting in June.

The Communique from the G20 meeting in Shanghai alluded to the need for increased international cooperation, but it appears that a sub-rosa agreement may have been reached to insure the Chinese did not devalue the RMB – in return for a cessation of monetary tightening by the Fed.

In an unusually transparent move, a report appeared on March 31st on Reuters – China forex regulator buys $4.2 bln in stocks via new platform:-

Buttonwood Investment Platform Ltd, 100 percent owned by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), and Buttonwood’s two fully-owned subsidiaries, have bought shares in a total of 13 listed companies, the newspaper reported, citing top 10 shareholder lists in the companies latest earnings reports.

Shanghai Securities News said the investments are part of SAFE’s strategy to diversify investment channels for the country’s massive foreign exchange reserves.

Recent earnings filings show Buttonwood is among the top 10 shareholders of Bank of China, Bank of Communications , Shanghai Pudong Development Bank , Everbright Securities and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The major CBs are beginning to embrace the idea of providing capital to corporates via bond or stock purchases. With next to no yield available from government bonds, corporate securities appear attractive, especially when one has the ability to expand ones balance sheet, seemingly, without limit.

The CBs are unlikely to buy when the market is strong but will provide liquidity in distressed markets. Once they have purchased securities the “free-float” will be almost permanently reduced. The lack of, what might be termed, “trading liquidity”, which has been evident in government bond markets, is likely to spill over into those corporate bonds and ETFs where the CBs hold a significant percentage. In the UK, under our takeover code, a 30% holding in a stock would obligate the holder to make an offer for the company – the 52% of outstanding ETFs held by the BoJ already seems excessive.

The ECB has plenty of government, agency and corporate bonds to purchase, before it moves on to provide permanent equity capital. The BoE and the Fed are subject to less deflationary forces; they will be the last guests to arrive at the “closet nationalisation” party. The party, nonetheless, is getting underway. Larger companies will benefit to a much greater extent than smaller listed or unlisted corporations because the CBs want to appear to be “indiscriminate” buyers of stock.

As the pool of available bonds and stocks starts to dry up, trading liquidity will decline – markets will become more erratic and volatile. Of greater concern in economic terms, malinvestment will increase; interest rates no longer provide signals about the value of projects.

For stocks, higher earning multiples are achievable due to the rising demand for equities from desperate investors with no viable “yield” alternative. CBs are unelected stewards on whom elected governments rely with increasing ease. For notionally independent CBs to purchase common stock is de facto nationalisation. The economic cost of an artificially inflated stock market is difficult to measure in conventional terms, but its promotion of wealth inequality through the sustaining of asset bubbles will do further damage to the fabric of society.

Will Nigeria be forced to devalue the naira?

Will Nigeria be forced to devalue the naira?


Macro Letter – No 50 – 26-02-2016

Will Nigeria be forced to devalue the naira?

  • The Nigerian government met the World Bank to discuss its deficit – loan pending
  • The Bank of Nigeria cut rates in November – bond prices suggest further cuts are imminent
  • Foreign Exchange controls tightened further in December
  • President Buhari states he won’t “kill the naira”

I last wrote about Nigeria back in early June – Nigeria and South Africa – what are their prospects for growth and investment? My favoured investment was long Nigerian bonds – then trading around 13.7%. They rose above 16% as naira exchange controls tightened. Here is a chart showing what happened next:-


Source: Trading Economics, Central Bank of Nigeria

The catalyst for lower yields was an unexpected interest rate cut by the Central Bank of Nigeria. This is how it was reported by Reuters back on 25th November:-

Nigeria’s central bank cut benchmark interest rate to 11 percent from 13 percent on Tuesday, its first reduction in the cost of borrowing in more than six years.

…The stock market, which has the second-biggest weighting after Kuwait on the MSCI frontier market index , erased seven days of losses to climb to 27,662 points following the rate cut. The index has fallen 20.4 percent so far this year.

“On the back of the reduction in policy rates … investors are reconsidering investment in the equities market to earn higher return,” said Ayodeji Ebo, head of research at Afrinvest. “We anticipate further moderation in bond yields.”

He expected stocks in the industrial sector such as Dangote Cement and Lafarge Africa to gain from the liquidity surge as infrastructure projects boom. Ebo said the rate cut may hurt bank earnings as consumer firms reel from dollar shortages.

Yield on the most liquid 5-year bond fell 264 basis points to a five-year low of 7 percent while the benchmark 20-year bond closed 150 basis points down at 10.8 percent on Wednesday, traders said.

Bond yields had traded above 11 percent across maturities prior to Tuesday’s rate decision, with the 2034 bond trading at 12.30 percent.

The central bank has been injecting cash into the banking system since October in a bid to help the economy. Banking system credit stood at 290 billion naira ($1.5 bln) as of Wednesday, keeping overnight rates as low as 0.5 percent .

…The rate cut also weakened the naira on the unofficial market, which fell 0.8 percent to 242 to the dollar. The currency is pegged at 197 naira on the official market.

Non-deliverable currency forwards, a derivative product used to hedge against future exchange rate moves, indicated markets expected the naira’s exchange rate at 235.56 to the dollar in 12 months’ time – the strongest level in five months – and compared to 245.25 at Tuesday’s close

“Our economists still believe a devaluation will happen in a couple of quarters but I think they have had opportunities,” said Luis Costa, head of CEEMEA debt and FX strategy at Citi.

Here is a chart showing the naira spot and three month forward rate – a good surrogate for the differential between the official and black market rate:-

Naira spot vs forwards

Source: Bloomberg

December saw a further tightening of exchange controls, the FT – Capital controls curtail spending of Nigeria’s jet set elaborates:-

Nigeria’s central bank introduced currency controls last spring as the naira came under pressure after the collapse in the price of oil, the country’s main export and the lifeblood of its economy.

As well as in effect banning imports of goods from rice to steel pipes to protect dwindling foreign exchange reserves, the central bank has also enforced spending limits on foreign currency-denominated Nigerian bank cards, much to the chagrin of Nigeria’s well-heeled travellers. These are needed, it says, to curb black market activity such as “arbitraging”: when a customer turns a quick profit by withdrawing foreign exchange from an overseas ATM to sell on the black market back home.

Another less publicised aim of the controls, according to one senior official, is to limit the flight of billions of dollars suspected to have been fraudulently obtained and then hoarded in cash by business people and officials under the former government of Goodluck Jonathan.

Last month, the central bank extended the policy by banning the use of naira-denominated debit cards altogether for overseas transactions or withdrawals. The central bank has said it will not lift the restrictions until foreign reserves, which have fallen to $29bn from $34.5bn a year ago, are restored.

There is speculation among economists about the true level of foreign exchange reserves – suffice to say $29bln is regarded as an overestimate.

The January Central Bank of Nigeria Communiqué looked back to the rate cut in November but left rates unchanged, here are some of the highlights:-


…Domestic output growth in 2015 remained moderate. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), real GDP grew by 2.84 per cent in the third quarter of 2015, almost half a percentage point higher than the 2.35 per cent recorded in the second quarter. However, third quarter expansion remained substantially below the 3.96 and 6.23 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 and corresponding period of 2014, respectively. The major impetus to growth continued to come from the non-oil sector which grew by 3.05 per cent compared with the growth of 3.46 per cent posted in the preceding quarter. The major drivers of expansion in the non-oil sector were Services, Agriculture and Trade.

…The economy is expected to continue on its growth path in the first quarter 2016, albeit less robust than in the corresponding period of 2015. This expectation is predicated on the current low global oil price trend which is projected to hold low over the medium-to long term, and with attendant implications for government revenue and foreign exchange earnings. Other downside risks to growth in 2016 include: capital flow reversal, high lending rates, sluggish credit to private sector and bearish trends in the equities market.


…Core inflation declined for the third consecutive month to 8.70 per cent in November and December from 8.74 per cent in October 2015, while food inflation inched up to 10.32 per cent from 10.13 and 10.2 per cent over the same period.

Monetary, Credit and Financial Markets Developments

Broad money supply (M2) rose by 5.90 per cent in December 2015, over the level at end-December 2014, although below the growth benchmark of 15.24 per cent for 2015. Net domestic credit (NDC) grew by 12.13 per cent in the same period, but remained below the provisional benchmark of 29.30 per cent for 2015. Growth in aggregate credit reflected mainly growth in credit to the Federal Government by 151.56 per cent in December 2015 compared with 145.74 per cent in the corresponding period of 2014. The renewed increase in credit to government may be partly attributable to increased government borrowing to implement the 2015 supplementary budget.

Committee’s Considerations

The Committee observed that the last episode of low oil prices in 2005 lasted for a maximum period of 8 months. However, the current episode of lower oil prices is projected to remain over a very long period.

At the end of January, President Buhari stated that he would not “kill the naira” – this prompted some commentators to question the independence of the central bank. It also suggests that foreign exchange controls will remain in place, despite pressure from the IMF for their removal.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Whilst foreign exchange controls remain in place it is difficult to access the Nigerian markets: stubbornly high inflation remains a concern which these controls will only exacerbate – see chart below:-


Source: Trading Economics, Nigerian Statistics Bureau

In this, high inflation, environment, it is difficult to envisage much further upside for government bonds. If you have been long I would take profit before the currency comes under renewed pressure. On 21st January Nigeria’s finance minister Kemi Adeosun announced that the government would borrow $5bln from international agencies to plug the shortfall in tax receipts, she has since then been in talks with the AfDB and the World Bank – after all, oil represents 95% of exports and more than two thirds of government revenue.

Stocks have fallen by more than 45% since their July 2014 highs, but further devaluation looks likely. The non-oil sector will outperform in the current environment but should the central bank “throw in the towel” it will be the energy sector which benefits in the short-term. According to Knoema, Nigerian oil production offshore is around $30/bbl whilst the smaller on-shore production is nearer $15/bbl. Other estimates suggest that only 16% of Nigerian oil reserves are worth exploiting at prices below $40/bbl. A 20% to 40% decline in the naira will reduce the break-even immediately. I remain side-lined until the valuation of the naira has been resolved.

As for the naira – a prolonged period of low oil prices will see the three month forward rate return towards NGNUSD 250 – a break towards 280 could represent a capitulation point. I believe this offers value, being 40% above the official rate. Will it happen? Yes, I think so.