After the flood – Beyond fiscal and monetary intervention

After the flood – Beyond fiscal and monetary intervention

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

Macro Letter – No 130 – 26-06-2020

After the flood – Beyond fiscal and monetary intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CB Balance Sheets - Yardeni

Source: Yardeni, Haver Analytics

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

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

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

Source: IMF

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

20200502_BBC380

Source: The Economist, IMF, JP Morgan, iShares

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

Impact on Industry Sectors

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

Deloitte Fig 1 (1)

Source: Deloitte, BEA, Haver Analytics

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

Deloitte Fig 2 (1)

Source: Deloitte, BEA, Haver Analytics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Employment

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

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

Source: World Bank, ILO

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

A Brave New World for Value Investing

A Brave New World for Value Investing

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 129 – 05-06-2020

A Brave New World for Value Investing

  • Stock markets have rebounded from their March lows on fiscal and monetary stimulus
  • Corporate bond spreads have narrowed in their wake
  • The prospect of further fiscal spending and broader quantitative easing remains
  • The global economy has changed forever and value analysis is back in demand

Perhaps the most frequently used adjective during the Covid pandemic is ‘unprecedented.’ On the 14th February, when I published – Macro Letter – No 126 – 14-02-2020 – When the facts change – I wrote: –

My title is the first part of JM Keynes famous remark, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind.’ This phrase has been nagging at my conscience ever since the Coronavirus epidemic began to engulf China and send shockwaves around the world. From an investment perspective, have the facts changed? Financial markets have certainly behaved in a predictable manner. Government bonds rallied and stocks declined. Then the market caught its breath and stocks recovered. There have, of course been exceptions, while the S&P 500 has made new highs, those companies and sectors most likely to be effected by the viral outbreak have been hardest hit.

Much has happened since, yet, in my conclusion, I stated: –

…the facts always change but, unless the Covid-19 pandemic should escalate dramatically, the broad investment themes appear largely unchanged. Central banks still weld awesome power to drive asset prices, although this increasingly fails to feed through to the real economy.

… Like an addictive drug, the more the monetary stimulus, the more the patient needs in order to achieve the same high. The direct financial effect of lower interest rates is a lowering of bond yields; lower yields spur capital flows into higher yielding credit instruments and equities. However, low rates also signal an official fear of recession, this in turn prompts a reticence to lend on the part of banking intermediaries, the real-economy remains cut off from the credit fix it needs. Asset prices keep rising, economic growth keeps stalling; the rich get richer and the poor get deeper into debt. Breaking the market addiction to cheap credit is key to unravelling this colossal misallocation of resources, a trend which has been in train since the 1980’s, if not before. The prospect of reserving course on subsidised credit is politically unpalatable, asset owners, especially indebted ones, will suffer greatly if interest rates should rise, they will vote accordingly. The alternative is more of the same profligate policy mix which has suspended reality for the past decade. From an investment perspective, the facts have not yet changed and I have yet to change my mind.

To judge by the current level of the Nasdaq 100 (current level 9,683 as at COB 03-06-2020, just 1.6% below its all-time high) the unprecedented crisis has been met by an equally unprecedented policy response. The S&P 500 has lagged the Nasdaq somewhat and the MSCI World Index still more: –

Nasdaq 100 v SPX v MSCI - Yahoo Finance (1)

Source: Yahoo Finance

Returning to my letter from February, the facts have changed, governments and central bankers have responded to a crisis, a crisis which proved far worse than anticipated. The stock market collapsed, but has now regained composure, nevertheless, the main driver of stock market performance for more than a decade – ability of central banks to lower interest rates – has been exhausted. The central bankers’ armoury is not quiet empty, however, they still have the QE bazooka which can be aimed at corporate bonds and even common stocks, but, not wishing to exceed their mandates they have turned to their respective governments’ for guidance and succour.

Governments’ can and have responded to the pandemic in a manner which is both broader and more direct in its impact on the economy and businesses. Going forward the effect of government largesse will be felt in a less consistent manner than the largesse of central banks. For governments’ employment will take precedence over corporate profits, corporate executives would be wise to recognise the profound change in the terms of engagement. Stock performance can no longer be assured by increasing debt to repurchase stock. Mergers which rely on rationalisation will be thwarted from above. Wages are unlikely to rise given the increase in unemployment, but the cost of making incumbent employees redundant will have adverse consequences both seen and unseen. Firms that hire will find favour, those that trim payrolls will not.

We will witness the return of the Value Investor, an endangered species who underperformed the Index Trackers during the decade since the great financial crisis. The great rotation away from index tracking or hugging is about to begin. Technology will continue to provide new employment opportunities even as more roles in the wider economy become automated. The public sector will create opportunities. Infrastructure spending is set to bring a ‘New, new deal’ to those in need of work. Healthcare will continue to expand as the population of developed countries age and life expectancy increases.

Other changes are also afoot. Working from home is about to become the norm for many people. Video conferencing, now widely adopted, brings into question the need for excessive travel. Demand for office space is already in retreat. Many firms are reporting unexpected productivity gains from the enforced ‘work from home edict,’ and have cancelled leases in favour of smaller, more flexible office space. Meanwhile, those eponymous start-ups, for whom flexible office space was the norm, have made a virtue of necessity, slowing their cash-burn – and mollifying investors in the process – by closing their offices altogether.

As economies recover from the effects of the lockdown, companies will fall into three categories based on their prospects for recovery from the dual supply and demand shock – ‘L,’ ‘U’ and ‘V’. The Tech giants (V) have rebounded and their prospects remain strong, even at these exalted valuations. Investment Grade Corporates (U) will take longer to recover, but even before interest rates were lowered by the Federal Reserve (Fed) these corporations were preparing for an economic slowdown. Q1 corporate debt issuance surged to the highest since records began in 1980: –

1-US-debt-issuance-20-05-2020 refinitiv

Source: Refinitiv

The High-Yield bond market followed in the wake of Investment Grade issuers, although the sudden widening of credit spreads in March dampened their ardour. Issuance returned with renewed urgency as soon the Federal Reserve announced that ‘Junk bonds’ where to be included in its expanded asset purchase program: –

2-US-debt-issuance-20-05-2020

Source: Refinitiv

This chart from the St Louis Fed tracks yield changes year-to-date for the High Yield bond index: –

fredgraph (1) HY YTD

Source: Ice Data Indices, Federal Reserve

High yield bond yields remain elevated despite the interest rate cuts and Fed asset purchase promises. On 3rd June they averaged 5.8% up from 3.56% in mid-February, but far below their 23rd March high of 10.87%.

Many of the firms in the high yield sector (L) are involved in the Oil and Gas industry. As oil and gas prices rebound, they will regain some composure and, being high profile employers, they should receive government support. Other firms may fare less well, these are those destined to follow an ‘L-shaped’ recovery. Their survival will be dependent on their ability to provide employment, some will be saved, others will fail.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 127 – 13-03-2020

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Worldometer.com

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

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

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

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

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

Market Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

China PMI

Source: Trading Economics

Everywhere GDP forecasts are being revised lower: –

Economist GDP revisions from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020 OECD

Source: Economist

Policy Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government response to COVID-19

Source: Economist

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

The Spanish Flu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aside from wages, however the author concludes: –

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

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

dow-jones- 1918 to 1923 Macrotrends

Source: Macrotrends

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

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

fredgraph

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

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

US Bonds Jan 1918 to Dec 1919

Source: ECB

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

Conclusions and investment opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the facts change

When the facts change

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 126 – 14-02-2020

When the facts change

  • The coronavirus is a human tragedy, but the markets remain sanguine
  • A slowing of global growth is already factored into market expectations
  • Further central bank easing is expected to calm any market fears
  • A pick up in import price inflation has been discounted before it arrives

My title is the first part of JM Keynes famous remark, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind.’ This phrase has been nagging at my conscience ever since the Coronavirus epidemic began to engulf China and send shockwaves around the world. From an investment perspective, have the facts changed? Financial markets have certainly behaved in a predictable manner. Government bonds rallied and stocks declined. Then the market caught its breath and stocks recovered. There have, of course been exceptions, while the S&P 500 has made new highs, those companies and sectors most likely to be effected by the viral outbreak have been hardest hit.

Is the impact of Covid-19 going to be seen in economic data? Absolutely. Will economic growth slow? Yes, though it will be felt most in Wuhan and the Hubei region, a region estimated to account for 4.5% in Chinese GDP and 7% of autopart manufacture. The impact will be less pronounced in other parts of the world, although Korea’s Hyundai has already ceased vehicle production at its factories due to a lack of Chinese car parts.

Will there be a longer-term impact on the global supply chain and will this affect stock and bond prices? These are more difficult questions to answer. Global supply chains have been shortening ever since the financial crisis, the Sino-US trade war has merely added fresh impetus to the process. As for financial markets, stock prices around the world declined in January but those markets farthest from the epicentre of the outbreak have since recovered in some cases making new all-time highs. The longer-term impact remains unclear. Why? Because the performance of the stock market over the last decade has been driven almost entirely by the direction of interest rates, whilst economic growth, since the financial crisis, has been anaemic at best. As rates have fallen and central banks have purchased bonds, so bond yields have declined making stocks look relatively more attractive. Some central banks have even bought stocks to add to their cache of bonds, but I digress.

Returning to my title, from an investment perspective, have the facts changed? Global economic growth will undoubtedly take a hit, estimates of 0.1% to 0.2% fall in 2020 already abound. In order to mitigate this downturn, central banks will cut rates – where they can – and buy progressively longer-dated and less desirable bonds as they work their way along the maturity spectrum and down the credit-structure. Eventually they will emulate the policy of the Japanese and the Swiss, by purchasing common stocks. In China, where the purse strings have been kept tight during the past year, the PBoC has already ridden to the rescue, flooding the domestic banking system with $173bln of additional liquidity; it seems, the process of saving the stock market from the dismal vicissitudes of a global economic slow-down has already begun.

Growth down, profits down, stocks up? It sounds absurd but that is the gerrymandered nature of the current marketplace. It is comforting to know, the central banks will not have to face the music alone, they can rely upon the usual allies, as they endeavour to keep the everything bubble aloft. Which allies? The corporate executives of publically listed companies. Faced with the dilemma of expanding capital expenditure in the teeth of an economic slowdown – which might turn into a recession – the leaders of publically listed corporations can be relied upon to do the honourable thing, pay themselves in stock options and buyback more stock.

At some point this global Ponzi scheme will inflect, exhaust, implode, but until that moment arrives, it would be unwise to step off the gravy-train. The difficulty of staying aboard, of course, is the same one as always, the markets climb a wall of fear. If there is any good news amid the tragic Covid-19 pandemic, it is that the January correction has prompted some of the weaker hands in the stock market to fold. When markets consolidate on a high plateau, should they then turn down, the patient investor may be afforded time to exit. This price action is vastly preferable to the hyperbolic rise, followed by the sharp decline, an altogether more cathartic and less agreeable dénouement.

Other Themes and Menes

As those of you who have been reading my letters for a while will know, I have been bullish on the US equity market for several years. That has worked well. I have also been bullish on emerging markets in general – and Asia in particular – over a similar number of years. A less rewarding investment. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been more tactical.

Looking ahead, Asian economies will continue to grow, but their stock markets may disappoint due to the uncertainty of the US administrations trade agenda. The US will continue to benefit from low interest rates and technological investment, together with buy-backs, mergers and privatisations. Elsewhere, I see opportunity within Europe, as governments spend on green infrastructure and other climate conscious projects. ESG investing gains more advocates daily. Socially responsible institutions will garner assets from socially responsible investors, while socially responsible governments will award contracts to those companies whose behaviour is ethically sound. It is a virtuous circle of morally commendable, albeit not necessarily economically logical, behaviour.

The UK lags behind Europe on environmental issues, but support for business and three years of deferred capital investment makes it an appealing destination for investment, as I explained last December in The Beginning of the End of Uncertainty for the UK.

Conclusions

Returning once more to my title, the facts always change but, unless the Covid-19 pandemic should escalate dramatically, the broad investment themes appear largely unchanged. Central banks still weld awesome power to drive asset prices, although this increasingly fails to feed through to the real economy. The chart below shows the diminishing power of the credit multiplier effect – Japan began their monetary experiment roughly a decade earlier than the rest of the developed world: –

Credit Multiplier

Source: Allianz/Refinitiv

Like an addictive drug, the more the monetary stimulus, the more the patient needs in order to achieve the same high. The direct financial effect of lower interest rates is a lowering of bond yields; lower yields spur capital flows into higher yielding credit instruments and equities. However, low rates also signal an official fear of recession, this in turn prompts a reticence to lend on the part of banking intermediaries, the real-economy remains cut off from the credit fix it needs. Asset prices keep rising, economic growth keeps stalling; the rich get richer and the poor get deeper into debt. Breaking the market addiction to cheap credit is key to unravelling this colossal misallocation of resources, a trend which has been in train since the 1980’s, if not before. The prospect of reserving course on subsidised credit is politically unpalatable, asset owners, especially indebted ones, will suffer greatly if interest rates should rise, they will vote accordingly. The alternative is more of the same profligate policy mix which has suspended reality for the past decade. From an investment perspective, the facts have not yet changed and I have yet to change my mind.

Value, Momentum and Carry – Is it time for equity investors to switch?

Value, Momentum and Carry – Is it time for equity investors to switch?

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 121 – 04-10-2019

Value, Momentum and Carry – Is it time for equity investors to switch?

  • Index tracking and growth funds have outperformed value managers for several years
  • Last month value was resurgent, but will it last?
  • In the long run, value has offered a better risk adjusted return
  • The long-term expected return from growth stocks remains hard to assess

Value, momentum and carry are the three principal means of extracting return from any investment. They may be described in other ways but these are really the only games in town. I was reminded of this during the last month as value based equity managers witnessed a resurgence of performance whilst index tracking products generally suffered. Is this a sea-change or merely a case of what goes up must come back down?

My premise over the last few years has been that the influence of central banks, in reducing interest rates to zero or below, has been the overwhelming driver of return for all asset classes. The stellar performance of government bonds has percolated through the credit markets and into stocks. Lower interest rates has also made financing easier, buoying the price of real-estate.

Traditionally, in the equity markets, investment has been allocated to stocks which offer growth or income, yet with interest rates falling everywhere, dividend yields offer as much or more than bonds, making them attractive, however, growth stocks, often entirely bereft of earnings, become more attractive as financing costs approach zero. In this environment, with asset management fees under increasing pressure, it is not surprising to observe fund investors accessing the stock market by the cheapest possible means, namely ETFs and index tracking funds.

During the last month, there was a change in mood within the stock market. Volatility within individual stocks remains relatively high, amid the geo-political and economic uncertainty, but value based active managers saw a relative resurgence, after several years in the wilderness. This may be merely a short-term correction driven more by a rotation out of the top performing stocks, but it could herald a sea-change. The rising tide of ever lower interest rates, which has floated all ships, may not have turned, but it is at the stand, value, rather than momentum, may be the best means of extracting return in the run up to the US presidential elections.

A review of recent market commentary helps to put this idea in perspective. Firstly, there is the case for growth stocks, eloquently argued by Jack Neele at Robeco – Buying cheap is an expensive business: –

One of the most frequent questions I have been asked in recent years concerns valuation. My focus on long-term growth trends in consumer spending and the companies that can benefit from these often leads me to stocks with high absolute and relative valuations. Stocks of companies with sustainability practices that give them a competitive edge, global brand strength and superior growth prospects are rewarded with an above-average price-earnings ratio.

It is only logical that clients ask questions about high valuations. To start with, you have the well-known value effect. This is the principle that, in the long term, value stocks – adjusted for risk – generate better returns that their growth counterparts. Empirical research has been carried out on this, over long periods, and the effect has been observed in both developed and emerging markets. So if investors want to swim against the tide, they need to have good reasons for doing so.

f226feaceadbe054cd0a2a9c19c06082_buying-cheap-fig1_tcm17-20864_639x0

Source: Robeco, MSCI

In addition, there are – understandably – few investors who tell their clients they have the market’s most expensive stocks in their portfolio. Buying cheap stocks is seen as prudent: a sign of due care. However, if we zoom in on the last ten years, there seems to have been a structural change since the financial crisis. Cheap stocks have done much less well and significantly lagged growth stocks.

e918dbcd886cb734f02aff26c491667f_buying-cheap-fig-2_tcm17-20865_639x0

Source: Robeco, MSCI

Nevertheless, holding expensive stocks is often deemed speculative or reckless. This is partly because in the financial industry the words ‘expensive’ and ‘overvalued’ are often confused, despite their significant differences. There are many investors who have simply discarded Amazon shares as ‘much too expensive’ in the last ten years. But in that same period, Amazon is up more than 2000%. While the stock might have been expensive ten years ago, with hindsight it certainly wasn’t overvalued.

The same applies for ‘cheap’ and ‘undervalued’. Stocks with a low price-earnings ratio, price-to-book ratio or high dividend yield are classified as cheap, but that doesn’t mean they are undervalued. Companies in the oil and gas, telecommunications, automotive, banking or commodities sectors have belonged to this category for decades. But often it is the stocks of these companies that structurally lag the broader market. Cheap, yes. Undervalued, no.

The author goes on to admit that he is a trend follower – although he actually says trend investor – aside from momentum, he makes two other arguments for growth stocks, firstly low interest rates and secondly the continued march of technology, suggesting that investors have become much better at evaluating intangible assets. The trend away from older industries has been in train for many decades but Neele points out that since 1990 the total Industry sector weighting in the S&P Index has fallen from 34.9% to 17.3% whilst Technology has risen from 5.9% to 15.6%.

If the developed world is going to continue ageing and interest rates remain low, technology is, more than ever, the answer to greatest challenges facing mankind. Why, therefore, should one contemplate switching from momentum to value?

A more quantitative approach to the current environment looks at the volatility of individual stocks relative to the main indices. I am indebted to my good friend Allan Rogers for his analysis of the S&P 100 constituents over the past year: –

OEF, the ETF tracking the S&P 100, increased very modestly during the period from 9/21/2018 to 9/20/2019.  It rose from 130.47 to 132.60, a gain of 1.63%.  During the 52 weeks, it ranged between 104.23 and 134.33, a range of 28.9% during a period where the VIX rarely exceeded 20%.  Despite the inclusion of an additional 400 companies, SPY, the ETF tracking the S&P 500, experienced a comparable range of 29.5%, calculated by dividing the 52 week high of 302.63 by the 52 week low of 233.76.  SPY rose by 2.2% during that 52 week period.  Why is this significant?  Before reading on, pause and make your own estimate of the average 52 week range for the individual stocks in the S&P 100.  15%?  25%?  The average 52 week price range for the components was 49%.  The smallest range was 18%.  The largest range was 134%.  For a portfolio manager tasked with attempting to generate a return of 7% per annum, the 100 largest company stocks offer potential profit of seven times the target return if one engages in active trading.  Credit risk would appear to be de minimus for this group of companies.  This phenomenon highlights remarkable inefficiency in stock market liquidity.

This analysis is not in the public domain, however, please contact me if you would like to engage with the author.

This quantitative approach when approaching the broader topic of factor investing – for a primer Robeco – The Essentials of Factor Investing – is an excellent guide. Many commentators discuss value in relation to investment factors. Last month an article by Olivier d’Assier of Axioma – Has the Factor World Gone Mad and Are We on the Brink of Another Quant Crisis? caught my eye, he begins thus: –

To say that fundamental style factor returns have been unusual this past week would be the understatement of the year—the decade, in fact. As reported in yesterday’s blog post “Momentum Nosedives”, Momentum had a greater-than two standard deviation month-to-date negative return in seven of the eleven markets we track. Conversely, Value, which has been underperforming year-to-date everywhere except Australia and emerging markets, has seen a stronger-than two standard deviation month-to-date positive return in four of those markets. The growth factor also saw a sharp reversal of fortune last week in the US, while leverage had a stronger-than two standard deviation positive return in that market on the hopes for more monetary easing by the Fed.

The author goes on to draw parallels with July 2007, reminding us that after a few weeks of chaotic reversals, the factor relationships returned to trend. This time there is a difference, equities in 2007 were not a yield substitute for bonds, today, they are. Put into the context of geopolitical and economic growth concerns, the author expects lower rates and sees the recent correction in bond yields as corrective rather than structural. As for the recent price action, d’Assier believes this is due to unwinding of exposures, combined with short-term traders buying this year’s losing factors, Value and Dividend Yield, and selling winners such as Momentum and Growth. Incidentally, despite the headline, Axioma does not envisage a quant crisis.

Returning to the broader topic of momentum versus value, a recent article from MSCI – Growth’s recent outperformance was and wasn’t an anomaly – considers whether the last decade represents a structural shift, here is their summary: –

Growth strategies have performed well over the past few years. For investors, an important question is whether the recent performance is an anomaly.

For a growth strategy that simply picks stocks with high growth characteristics, the recent outperformance is out of line with that type of growth strategy’s historical performance.

For a strategy that targets the growth factor while controlling for other factors, the recent outperformance has been in line with its longer historical performance.

The chart below attempts to show the performance of the pure growth factor adjusted for non-growth factors: –

GrowthFactors_Exhibit_2

Source: MSCI

If anything, this chart shows a slightly reduced return from pure growth over the last three years. The authors conclude: –

…to answer whether growth’s recent performance is an anomaly really depends on what we mean by growth. If we mean a simple strategy that selects high-growth stocks, then the recent performance is not representative of that strategy’s long-term historical performance. In this case, we can attribute the recent outperformance relative to the long term to non-growth factors and particular sectors — exposure to which has not been as detrimental recently as it has been over the long run. But for a factor- and sector-controlled growth strategy, the performance is mainly driven by exposure to the growth factor. In this case, the recent outperformance has been in line with the longer-term outperformance.

As I read this I am reminded of a quant hedge fund manager with whom I used to do business back in the early part of the century. He had taken a tried a tested fundamental short-selling strategy and built a market neutral, industry neutral, sector neutral portfolio around it, unfortunately, by the time he had hedged away all these risks, the strategy no longer made any return. What we can probably agree upon is that growth stocks have outperformed income and value not simply because they are growth stocks.

The Case for Value

They say that history is written by the winners, nowhere is this truer than in investment management. Investors move in herds, they want what is hot and not what is not. In a paper published last month by PGIM – Value vs. Growth: The New Bubble – the authors’ made several points, below are edited highlights (the emphasis is mine): –

  1. We have been through an extraordinary period of value factor underperformance over the last 18 months. The only comparable periods over the last 30 years are the Tech Bubble and the GFC.

  2. Historically, we would expect a very sharp reversal of value performance to follow. This was the case in each of the two previous extreme periods.

  3. We tested the drivers of recent value underperformance to see if we are in a “value trap.” Historically, fundamentals have somewhat deteriorated, but prices expected a bigger deterioration, so the bounce-back more than offset the fundamental deterioration. In a value trap environment, we would expect a greater deterioration in fundamentals. In the last 18 months, we have actually seen an improvement in fundamental earnings for value stocks, but a deterioration in pricing. This combination is unprecedented, and signals the opposite of a value trap environment.

  4. …we examined the behavior of corporate insiders… The relative conviction of insiders regarding cheaper stocks is higher than ever, which reinforces our conviction about the magnitude of the performance opportunity from here.

  5. It is never easy to predict what it will take to pop a bubble, but there are multiple scenarios that we envisage as potential catalysts, including both growth and recessionary conditions.

These views echo an August 2019 article by John Pease at GMO – Risk and Premium – A Tale of Value – the author concludes (once again the emphasis is mine): –

Value has underperformed the market in 10 of the last 12 months, including the last 7. Its most recent drawdown began in 2014 and the factor is quite far from its high watermark. The relative return of traditional value has been flat since late 2004. All in all, it has been a harrowing decade for those who have sought cheap stocks, and we have tried to understand why.

We approached this problem by decomposing the factor’s relative returns. The relative growth profile of value has not changed with time; the cheapest half (ex-financials) in the U.S. has continued to undergrow the market, but by no more than what we have come to expect. These companies have also not compromised their quality to keep growth stable, suggesting that any shifts that have occurred in the market have not disproportionately hurt value’s fundamentals.

The offsets to value’s undergrowth, however, have come under pressure. Value’s yield advantage has fallen as the market has become more expensive. The group’s rebalancing – the tendency of cheap companies to see their multiples expand and rotate out of the group while expensive companies see their multiples contract and come into value – is also slower, with behavioral and structural aspects both at play. Though these drivers of relative outperformance have diminished, they still exceed value’s undergrowth by more than 1%, indicating that going forward, cheap stocks (at least as we define them) are likely to reap a decent, albeit smaller, premium.

This premium has not materialized over the last decade for a simple reason: relative valuations. Value has seen its multiples expand a lot less than the market. This makes sense – because value tends to have significantly lower duration than other equities, a broad risk rally shouldn’t be as favorable to cheap stocks as it should be to their expensive counterparts. And we have had quite a rally.

It isn’t possible to guarantee that the next decade will be kinder to value than the previous one was. The odds would seem to favor it, however. Cheap stocks still provide investors with a premium, allowing them to outperform even if their relative valuations remain low. If relative valuations rise – not an inconceivable event given a long history of mean-reverting discount rates – the ensuing relative returns will be exceptional. And value, after quite the pause, might look valuable again.

A key point in this analysis is that the low interest rate environment has favoured growth over value. Unless the next decade sees a significant normalisation of interest rates, unlikely given the demographic headwinds, growth will continue to benefit, even as momentum strategies falter due to the inability of interest rates to fall significantly below zero (and that is by no means certain either).

These Macro Letters would not be In the Long Run without taking a broader perspective and this July 2019 paper by Antti Ilmanen, Ronen Israel, Tobias J. Moskowitz, Ashwin Thapar, and Franklin Wan of AQR – Do Factor Premia Vary Over Time? A Century of Evidence – fits the bill. The author examine four factors – value, momentum, carry, and defensive (which is essentially a beta neutral or hedged portfolio). Here are their conclusions (the emphasis is mine): –

A century of data across six diverse asset classes provides a rich laboratory to investigate whether canonical asset pricing factor premia vary over time. We examine this question from three perspectives: statistical identification, economic theory, and conditioning information. We find that return premia for value, momentum, carry, and defensive are robust and significant in every asset class over the last century. We show that these premia vary significantly over time. We consider a number of economic mechanisms that may drive this variation and find that part of the variation is driven by overfitting of the original sample periods, but find no evidence that informed trading has altered these premia. Appealing to a variety of macroeconomic asset pricing theories, and armed with a century of global economic shocks, we test a number of potential sources for this variation and find very little. We fail to find reliable or consistent evidence of macroeconomic, business cycle, tail risks, or sentiment driving variation in factor premia, challenging many proposed dynamic asset pricing theories. Finally, we analyze conditioning information to forecast future returns and construct timing models that show evidence of predictability from valuation spreads and inverse volatility. The predictability is even stronger when we impose theoretical restrictions on the timing model and combine information from multiple predictors. The evidence identifies significant conditional return premia from these asset pricing factors. However, trading profits to an implementable factor timing strategy are disappointing once we account for real-world implementation issues and costs.

Our results have important implications for asset pricing theory, shedding light on the existence of conditional premia associated with prominent asset pricing factors across many asset classes. The same asset pricing factors that capture unconditional expected returns also seem to explain conditional expected returns, suggesting that the unconditional and conditional stochastic discount factors may not be that different. The lack of explanatory power for macroeconomic models of asset pricing challenges their usefulness in describing the key empirical factors that describe asset price dynamics. However, imposing economic restrictions on multiple pieces of conditioning information better extracts conditional premia from the data. These results offer new features for future asset pricing models to accommodate.

This paper suggests that, in the long run, broad asset risk premia drive returns in a consistent manner. Macroeconomic and business cycle models, which attempt to forecast asset values based on expectations for economic growth, have a lower predictive value.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

I have often read market commentators railing against the market, complaining that asset prices ignored the economic fundamentals, the research from AQR offers a new insight into what drives asset returns over an extended time horizon. Whilst this does not make macroeconomic analysis obsolete it helps to highlight the paramount importance of factor premia in forecasting asset returns.

Returning to the main thrust of this latter, is this the time to switch from momentum to value? I think the jury is still out, although, as the chart below illustrates, we are near an all-time high for the ratio between net worth and disposable income per person in the US: –

fredgraph (8)

Source: Federal Reserve

This is a cause for concern, it points to severe imbalances within households: it is also a measure of rising income inequality. That stated, many indicators are at unusual levels due to the historically low interest rate environment. Investment flows have been the principal driver of asset returns since the great recession, however, now that central bank interest rates in the majority of developed economies are near zero, it is difficult for investors to envisage a dramatic move into negative territory. Fear about an economic slowdown will see risk free government bond yields become more negative, but the longer-term driver of equity market return is no longer solely based on interest rate expectations. A more defensive approach to equities is likely to be seen if a global recession is immanent. Whether growth stocks prove resurgent or falter in the near-term, technology stocks will continue to gain relative to old economy companies, human ingenuity will continue to benefit mankind. Creative destruction, where inefficient enterprises are replaced by new efficient ones, is occurring despite attempts by central banks to slow its progress.

For the present I remain long the index, I continue to favour momentum over value, but, as was the case when I published – Macro Letter – No 93 back in March 2018, I am tempted to reduce exposure or switch to a value based approach, even at the risk of losing out, but then I remember the words of Ryan Shea in his article Artificial Stupidity: –

…investment success depends upon behaving like the rest of the crowd almost all of the time. Acting rational when everyone else is irrational is a losing trading strategy because market prices are determined by the collective interaction of all participants.

For the active portfolio manager, value factors may offer a better risk reward profile, but, given the individual stock volatility dispersion, a market neutral defensive factor model, along the lines proposed by AQR, may deliver the best risk adjusted return of all.

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 120 – 13-09-2019

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

  • JP Morgan analyse the impact of 14,000 presidential Tweets
  • Gold breaks out to the upside despite US$ strength
  • China backs down slightly over Hong Kong
  • Trump berates Fed Chair and China

These are just a few of the news stories which drove financial markets during the summer: –

VOX – The Volfefe Index, Wall Street’s new way to measure the effects of Trump tweets, explained

DailyFX – Gold Prices Continue to Exhibit Strength Despite the US Dollar Breakout

BBC – Carrie Lam: Hong Kong extradition bill withdrawal backed by China

FT – Trump lashes out at China and US Federal Reserve — as it happened.

For financial markets it is a time of heightened uncertainty. The first two articles are provide a commentary on the way markets are evolving. The impact of social media is rising, with Trump in the vanguard. Geopolitical uncertainty and the prospect of fiscal debasement are, meanwhile, upsetting the normally inverse relationship between the price of gold and the US$.

The next two items are more market specific. The stand-off between the Chinese administration and the people of the semi-autonomous enclave of Hong Kong, prompts concern about the political stability of China, meanwhile the US Commander in Chief persists in undermining the credibility of the notionally independent Federal Reserve and seems unable to resist antagonising the Chinese administration as he raises the stakes in the Sino-US trade war. Financial markets have been understandably unsettled.

Ironically, despite the developments high-lighted above, during August, US bonds witnessed sharp reversals lower, suggesting that geopolitical tensions might have moderated. Since the beginning of September prices have rebounded, perhaps there were simply more sellers than buyers last month. In Europe, by contrast, German bunds reached new all-time highs, only to suffer sharp reversal in the past week. Equity markets responded to the political uncertainty in a more consistent manner, plunging and then recovering during the past month. As the chart below illustrates, there has been increasing debate about the challenge of increased volatility since the end of July: –

VIX Index Daily

Source: Investing.com

Yet, as always, it is not the volatility or even risk which presents a challenge to financial market operators, it is uncertainty. Volatility is a measure derived from the mean and variance of a price. It is a cornerstone of the measurement of financial risk: the key point is that it is measurable. Risk is something we can measure, uncertainty is that which we cannot. This is not a new observation, it was first made in 1921 by Frank Knight – Risk, Uncertainty and Profit.

Returning to the current state of the financial markets, we are witnessing a gradual erosion of belief in the omnipotence of central banks. See Macro Letter’s 48, 79 and 94 for some of my previous views. What has changed? As Keynes might have put it, ‘The facts.’ Central Banks, most notably the Bank of Japan, Swiss National Bank and European Central Bank, have been using zero or negative interest rate policy, in conjunction with balance sheet expansion, in a valiant attempt to stimulate aggregate demand. The experiment has been moderately successful, but the economy, rather like a chronic drug addict, requires an ever increasing fix to reach the same high.

In Macro Letter – No 114 – 10-05-2019 – Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory – I discussed the latest scientific justification for debasement. My conclusion: –

The radical ideas contained in MMT are unlikely to be adopted in full, but the idea that fiscal expansion is non-inflationary provides succour to profligate politicians of all stripes. Come the next hint of recession, central banks will embark on even more pronounced quantitative and qualitative easing, safe in the knowledge that, should they fail to reignite their economies, government mandated fiscal expansion will come to their aid. Long-term bond yields will head towards the zero-bound – some are there already. Debt to GDP ratios will no longer trouble finance ministers. If stocks decline, central banks will acquire them: and, in the process, the means of production. This will be justified as the provision of permanent capital. Bonds will rise, stocks will rise, real estate will rise. There will be no inflation, except in the price of assets.

As this recent article from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – Negative Interest Rates and Inflation Expectations in Japan – indicates, even central bankers are beginning to doubt the efficacy of zero or negative interest rates, albeit, these comments emanate from the FRBSF research department rather than the president’s office. If the official narrative, about the efficacy of zero/negative interest rate policy, is beginning to change, state sponsored fiscal stimulus will have to increase dramatically to fill the vacuum. The methadone of zero rates and almost infinite credit will be difficult to quickly replace, I anticipate widespread financial market dislocation on the road to fiscal nirvana.

In the short run, we are entering a period of transition. Trump may continue to berate the chairman of the Federal Reserve and China, but his room for manoeuvre is limited. He needs Mr Market on his side to win the next election. For Europe and Japan the options are even more constrained. Come the next crisis, I anticipate widespread central bank buying of stocks (in addition to government and corporate bonds) in order to provide liquidity and insure economic stability. The rest of the task will fall to the governments. Non-inflationary fiscal profligacy will be de rigueur – I can see the politicians smiling all the way to the hustings, safe in the knowledge that deflationary forces have awarded them a free-lunch. Someone, someday, will have to pay, of course, but they will be long since retired from public office.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

During the next year, markets will continue to gyrate erratically, driven by the politics of European budgets, Brexit and the Sino-US trade war. These issues will be eclipsed by the twittering of Donald Trump as he seeks to win a second term in office. Looked at cynically, one might argue that Trump’s foreign policy has been deliberately engineered to slow the US economy and hold back the stock market. During the next 14 months, a new nuclear weapons agreement could be forged with Iran, relations with North Korea improved and a trade deal negotiated with China. Whether this geopolitical largesse is truly in the President’s gift remains unclear, but for a maker of deals such as Mr Trump, the prospect must be tantalising.

For the US$, the countdown to the US election remains positive, for stocks, likewise. For the bond market, the next year may be broadly neutral, but given the signs of faltering growth across the globe, it seems unlikely that yields will rise significantly. Economies will see growth slow, leading to an accelerated pace of debt issuance. Bouts of volatility, similar to August or Q4 2018, will become more commonplace. I remain bullish for asset markets, nonetheless.

Interest Rates, Global Value Chains and Bank Reserve Requirements

Interest Rates, Global Value Chains and Bank Reserve Requirements

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 117 – 28-06-2019

Interest Rates, Global Value Chains and Bank Reserve Requirements

  • Global Value Chains have suffered since 2009
  • Despite low interest rates, financial costs remain too high
  • Bank profitability has not recovered, yet banks are still too big to fail

In a recent speech, Hyun Song Shin, Head of Research at the BIS, discussed – What is behind the recent slowdown? The speech focused on the weakening of global value chains (GVC’s) in manufactured goods. The manufacturing sector is critical, since it accounts for 70% of global merchandise trade: –

During the heyday of globalisation in the late 1980s and 1990s, trade grew at twice the pace of GDP. In turn, trade growth in manufactured goods was driven by the growing importance of multinational firms and the development of GVCs that knit together the production activity of firms around the world.

The chart below reveals the transformation of the world economy over the past 17 years: –

The Arrival Of China 2000-2017

Source: BIS, X Li, B Meng and Z Wang, “Recent patterns of global production and GVC participation”, in D Dollar (ed), Global Value Chain Development Report 2019, World Trade Organization et al.

Hyun’s next chart tracks the sharp reversal in the relationship between world trade and GDP growth as a result of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC): –

Ratio of World Goods to GDP 2000 - 2018

Sources: IMF, World Economic Outlook; World Trade Organization; Datastream; national data; BIS calculations

The important point, highlighted by Hyun, is that the retrenchment in trade occurred almost a decade before the trade war began. China, growing at 6% plus, has captured an increasing share of global trade at the expense of the developed nations, most notably the US. Europe went through a similar transition during the second half of the 19th century, as the US transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society.

Returning to the present, supporting GVCs is capital intensive. Historically low interest rates have allowed these chains to flourish, but the recent reversal of interest rate policy by the Federal Reserve has caused structural cracks to emerge in the edifice. The BIS describes the situation for multi-national manufacturing firms in this way (the emphasis is mine): –

…firms enmeshed in global value chains could be compared to jugglers with many balls in the air at the same time. Long and intricate GVCs have many balls in the air, necessitating greater financial resources to knit the production process together. More accommodative financial conditions then act like weaker gravity for the juggler, who can throw many more balls into the air, including large balls that represent intermediate goods with large embedded value. However, when the shadow price of credit rises, the juggler has a more difficult time keeping all the balls in the air at once.

When financial conditions tighten, very long and elaborate GVCs will no longer be viable economically. A rationalisation of supply chains through “on-shoring” and “re-shoring” of activity towards domestic suppliers, or to suppliers that are closer geographically, will help reduce the credit costs of supporting long GVCs. 

It is interesting to note the use of the phrase ‘shadow price of credit,’ this suggests that concern about the intermediation process by which changes in the ‘risk-free’ rate disseminate into the real-economy. In a 2014 study, the BIS Committee on the Global Financial System (CGFS) found that 65% of world trade is still financed through ‘open account financing’ or through the buyer paying in advance. For GVC’s, short-term US interest rates matter, especially when 80% of trade finance is still transacted in the US$. Even when rates reached their nadir, banks were reluctant to lend at such favourable terms as they had prior to the GFC. The recent rise in short-term interest rates has supported the US$, accelerating the reversal in the trade to GDP ratio.

A closer investigation of bank lending since the GFC reveals structural weakness in the intermediation process. Since 2009, at the same time as interest rates fell, bank capital requirements rose. The impact of this fiscal offsetting of monetary accommodation can be seen most clearly in the global collapse the velocity of circulation of money supply: –

Global Money Velocity - Tom Drake, BEA, FRED, ECB, BoJ, China NBS, UK ONS

Source: Tom Drake, National Data, Macrobond

The mechanism by which credit reaches the real economy has been choked. Banks have gradually repaired their balance sheets, but the absurd incentives, such as the inducement to purchase zero risk-weighted government debt rather than lending to corporates, have been given fresh impetus through a combination of structurally higher capital requirements and lower interest rates.

In their January 2018 publication – Structural changes in banking after the crisis – the BIS examines how credit intermediation has changed (the emphasis is mine): –

The crisis revealed substantial weaknesses in the banking system and the prudential framework, which had led to excessive lending and risk-taking unsupported by adequate capital and liquidity buffers…

There is no clear evidence of systematic and long-lasting retrenchment of banks from credit intermediation. The severity of the crisis was not uniform across banks and systems. Weaker banks cut back credit more strongly, and riskier borrowers saw their access to credit more tightly curtailed. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis the response of policymakers and bank managers was also differentiated across systems, with some moving more decisively than others to address the problems revealed. Bank credit has since grown relative to GDP in most jurisdictions, but has not returned to pre-crisis highs in the most affected countries, reflecting necessary deleveraging and the unwinding of pre-crisis excesses. While disentangling demand and supply drivers remains a challenging exercise, the evidence gathered by the Working Group does not point to systematic change in the willingness of banks to lend locally. In line with the objectives of post-crisis reforms, lenders have become more sensitive to risk and more discriminating across borrowers

The last two sentences appear to contradict, but measuring of loan quality from without is always a challenge. The authors’ continue to perceive credit quality and intermediation, through a glass darkly (once again, the emphasis is mine): –

If anything, the shift towards commercial banking activities suggests that banks are putting more emphasis on lending than trading activities. Still, given the range of changes in the banking sector over the past decade, policymakers should remain attentive to potential unintended “gaps” in credit to the real economy. Legacy asset quality problems can be an obstacle to credit growth. Excessive pre-crisis credit growth left a legacy of problem assets, especially high levels of NPLs, which continue to distort the allocation of fresh credit in several countries…

Persistently high NPLs are likely to lead to greater ultimate losses, impede credit growth and distort credit reallocation, potentially incentivising banks to take on more risk….

Again, the evidence seems to be contradictory. What is different between the cyclical patterns of the past and the current state of affairs? The tried and tested central bank solution to previous crises, stretching all the way back to the 1930’s, if not before, is to cut short-term interest rates – regardless of the level of inflation. The yield curve steepens sharply and banks rapidly repair their balance sheets by borrowing short-term and lending long-term. In the wake of the GFC, however, rates declined yet the economy failed to respond to the stimulus, at least in part, because the central banks accommodative actions were being negated by the tightening of regulatory conditions. Collectively the central banks and the national regulators were robbing Peter to pay Paul. The result (please pardon my emphasis once more): –

Post-crisis bank profitability has remained subdued. This reflects many factors, including bank-specific drivers (eg business model choices), cyclical macroeconomic drivers (eg low growth and interest rates) and structural drivers that will have a more persistent impact. An example of this latter group includes regulatory reforms that have implied lower leverage and the curbing of certain higher risk activities, and a reduction of implicit subsidies for large or systemically important banks…

…all else constant, lower leverage and reduced risk-taking should reduce return on equity. Sluggish revenues have dampened profits and, combined with low interest rates, may have contributed to the slower progress made by some banks in dealing with legacy problem assets…

Sufficient levels of capital are needed for banks to deal with unexpected shocks, and low profitability can weaken banks’ ability to maintain sufficient buffers. Banks that lack a steady stream of earnings to repair their capital base after an unexpected loss will have to rely on fresh equity issuance. Yet, markets are usually an expensive source of capital for banks, when accessed under duress….

In this scenario banks have an incentive to extend and reschedule zombie loans in order to avoid right-downs. Companies which should have been forced into administration linger on, banks’ ability to make new loans is curtailed and new ventures are starved of cash.

The BIS go on to make a number of suggestions in order to deal with low bank profitability and the problem of non-performing legacy assets: –

If overcapacity is a key driver of low profitability, institutional barriers to mergers must be reviewed and exit regimes applied. If the problem lies with legacy assets (such as NPLs), these should be fully addressed, which might entail a dialogue between prudential authorities and other policymakers (eg those in charge of mechanisms dealing with insolvency)…

The exit of financial institutions might be politically costly in the short run, but may pay off in the longer term through more stable banking systems, sounder lending and better allocation of resources. The implicit subsidisation of non-viable business models might have lower short-term costs but could lead to resource misallocation. Similarly, any assessment of consolidation trends needs to take into account potential trade-offs between efficiency and stability, as well as examine the nature and impact of barriers to exit for less profitable banks.

These suggestions make abundant sense but that is no guarantee the BIS recommendations will be heeded.

I am also concerned that the authors’ may be overly optimistic about the resilience of the global banking system: –

Compared with the pre-crisis period, banks are better capitalised and have lower exposure to liquidity and funding risks. They have also reduced activities that contributed to the build-up of vulnerabilities, such as exposure to high-risk assets, and excessive counterparty risk through OTC derivatives and repo transactions, among others. That said, given that markets have not yet evolved through a full financial cycle, bank restructuring efforts remain under way. In addition, as many relevant reforms have not yet been fully implemented, it is too early to assess their full effect.

Thankfully the BIS outlook is not entirely rose-tinted, they do acknowledge: –

…some trends in banking systems that we have observed since the crisis, such as the decline in wholesale funding, might be affected by unconventional monetary policy and may not persist. Success in addressing prior problems does not guarantee that banks will be able to respond to future risks…

Problems of bank governance and risk management contributed to the crisis and have been a key focus of reform. Given that the sources of future vulnerabilities are hard to predict, banks need to have robust frameworks of risk governance and management to identify and understand emerging risks and their potential impacts for the firm.

The BIS choose to gloss over the fact that many banks are still far too big to fail. They avoid discussing whether artificially low interest rates and the excessive flatness of yield curves may be contributing to a different breed of systemic risk. Commercial banks are for-profit institutions, higher capital requirements curtail their ability to achieve acceptable returns on capital. The adoption of central counterparties for the largest fixed income market in the world, interest rate swaps, whilst it reduces the risk for individual banking institutions, increases systemic risk for the market as a whole. The default of a systemically important central counterparties could prove catastrophic.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

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

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

Gold – is it all that glisters?

Gold – is it all that glisters?

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 116 – 14-06-2019

Gold – is it all that glisters?

  • Uncertainty about US trade policy has truncated the rally in stocks
  • Gold remains supported by central bank buying and fears of a US$ collapse
  • Gold miners look best placed to reap the benefits regardless of direction
  • A collapse in the U$ is needed for gold to rally substantially

In Q4 2018, as stocks declined, gold rallied 8.1% and gold mining stocks 13.7%. It was a prescient reminder of the value of gold as a portfolio diversifier. There have, however, been some other developments both for gold and gold mining stocks which are worthy of closer investigation.

Central Banks

Central bank net purchases of gold reached 651.5 tons in 2018, up 74% from 2017, when 375 tons were bought. The Russian central bank, perhaps fearing US sanctions, sold almost all of its US Treasury bonds to buy 274.3 tons of gold last year. For probably similar reasons, the Turkish central bank bought 51.5 tons, down from the 88 tons purchased the previous year. Other big central bank buyers included Kazakhstan, India, Iraq, Poland and Hungary.

In the first quarter of 2019 central banks purchased a further 145.5 tons, up 68% on Q1 2018. The trend is not new, central bank purchases have been rising since 2009: –

Central Banks Gold Holdings - BIS, IMF GEMS, Reuters

Source: BIS, IMF, GEMS, Reuters

Putting global reserve holdings in perspective, here is the central bank world ranking as at March 2019: –

statistic_id267998_value-of-gold-reserves-2019-by-country

Source: IMF, Statistica

Despite the substantial buying from central banks the price of gold has been broadly range bound for the past five years.

commodity-gold 10 year

Source: Trading Economics

The absence of a sustained rally suggests that many investors have forsaken the barbarous relic, however, concern that the gold price will collapse have to be tempered by the cost of mining an ounce of gold. Mining costs have increased substantially since the early 2000’s due to increasingly expensive exploration costs and a general decline in ore quality. In the chart below Money Metals Exchange shows Barrick (GOLD) and Newmont (NEM) average cost of production since 2000: –

saupload_Barrick-Newomnt-Production-Cost-vs-Gold-Price_thumb1

Source: SRSrocco Report, Kitco

In a July 2018 post for Seeking Alpha – Money Metals Exchange –  Never Before Seen Charts: Gold Mining Industry’s Costs Are Higher Than Market Realizes show that the amount of ore needed to produce an ounce of gold at Barrick’s (GOLD) Nevada Goldstrike and Cortez Mines has increased four-fold since 1998: –

saupload_barrick-nevada-goldstrike-cortez-mines

Source: SRSrocco Report, Barrick

The market capitalisation of the sector has halved since 2012, leading to understandable consolidation and deleveraging. Gold, however, is an unusual commodity in that its stock is far larger than its annual production. About 3000 tons of gold is mined annually, this is dwarfed by the 190,000 tons that have been mined throughout history according to World Gold Council estimates. Since it has little industrial use, almost all the gold ever mined remains in existence: central bank reserves are a key determinant of its price. Interesting research on the subject of what drives gold prices can be found in this article from the London Bullion Market Association – Do Extraction Costs Drive Gold Prices? They conclude that, due to the large stock relative to production, the price of gold is the principal influence on the mining industry.

The US$ and inflation expectations

The rally in the gold price in 2011-2012 was linked to the Eurozone crisis, the moderation since then has coincided with a recovery in the US Dollar Index. Other factors which traditionally drive gold higher include inflation expectations, these fears have continually failed to materialise whilst the inexorable increase in debt has led some to speculate about a debt deflation spiral; an environment in which gold would not be expected to excel: –

united-states-currency DXY 2000 - 2019

Source: Trading Economics

A different approach to gold valuation is the ratio of the gold price to the total-return index for ten-year US government bonds. This ratio has been moving steadily higher, suggesting a shift to an era of structural inflation, according to Gavekal Research. Other evidence of inflation remains muted, however.

Is gold perfectly priced or do the central banks know something we do not?

A look back at the decade after the end of gold reserve standard is a good starting point. The Bretton Woods agreement collapsed in 1971. In the years that followed currency fluctuations were substantial and the US$ lurched steadily lower: –

USD Index 1971 - 1981

Source: Trading Economics

The US$ was so little revered that in 1978 the US Treasury had to issue foreign currency denominated Carter Bonds in Swiss Francs and German Marks, such was the level of distrust in the mighty greenback.

Confidence was finally restored when Paul Volker took the helm of the Federal Reserve. Volker did what his predecessor but three, William McChesney Martin, had only talked about – taking away the punch bowl just as the party got started – he hiked interest rates and managed to subdue inflation: the fiat US$ was back in favour.

Today the US$ is undoubtedly the first reserve currency. In the era of digital money and crypto currencies the barbarous relic has stiff competition. Added to which it is traditionally an unexpected inflation hedge and traditionally affords scant protection in a deflationary environment. Given the global overhang of US$ denominated debt, many believe this is the next challenge to the international order.

Considering the conflagration of factors alluded to above, I believe gold is destined to remain a much watched side-line. Gold mining stocks may fare better, as S&P Global Market Intelligence – Outlook 2019: US$3.9B Increase In Earnings For Majors – explains: –

…rising production in 2019, higher metals prices and lower costs could increase free cash flow by US$1.3 billion, or 19%, year over year. Companies will use this increased cash flow to lower net debt, which is expected to fall 19% year over year in 2019, placing the majors at their lowest level of leverage in five years. The majors have been focusing on returns to shareholders. Higher earnings have led to dividend payouts increasing 103% to US$2.0 billion in 2017 from US$1.0 billion in 2016 and remaining at about US$2.0 billion in 2018.

As for price of gold itself? The attractive fundamentals underpinning mining stocks is likely to cap the upside, whilst continued central bank buying will insure the downside is muzzled too. When I have little fundamental conviction I am inclined to follow the trend. A break to the upside maybe closer, but the long period of price consolidation favours a break to the downside in the event of a global crisis.

Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory

Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 114 – 10-05-2019

Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory

  • Populist politicians are turning to Modern Monetary Theory
  • Fiscal stimulus has not led to significant inflation during the last decade
  • MMT is too radical to be adopted in full but the allure of fiscal expansion is great
  • Asset markets will benefit over the medium-term

A recent post from the Peterson Institute – Further Thinking on the Costs and Benefits of Deficits – follows on from the Presidential Lecture given by Olivier Blanchard at the annual gathering of the American Economic Association (AEA) Public Debt and Low Interest Rates . The article discusses a number of issues which are linked to Blanchard’s speech: –

  1. Is the political system so biased towards deficit increases that economists have a responsibility to overemphasize the cost of deficits?

  2. Do the changing economics of deficits mean that anything goes and we do not need to pay attention to fiscal constraints, as some have inferred from modern monetary theory (MMT)?

  3. You advocate doing no harm, but is that enough to stabilize the debt at a reasonable level?

  4. Isn’t action on the deficit urgent in order to reduce the risk of a fiscal crisis?

  5. Do you think anything about fiscal policy is urgent?

Their answers are 1. Sometimes, although they question whether it is the role of economists to lean against the political wind. 2. No, which is a relief to those of a more puritanical disposition towards debt. The authors’ argument, however, omits any discussion of the function of interest rates in an unfettered market, to act as a signal about the merit of an investment. When interest rates are manipulated, malinvestment flourishes. They propose: –

…that the political system should adopt a “do no harm” approach, paying for new proposals but not necessarily making it an urgent priority to do any more than that. Adopting this principle would have the benefit of requiring policymakers to think harder about whether to adopt the next seemingly popular tax credit or spending program. Many ideas that seem appealing judged against an unspecified future cost are less appealing when you make their costs explicit today.

  1. Yes. At this point the authors’ make the case for addressing the shortfalls in the social security and health budgets. They make the admirable suggestion that better provision is not only necessary but desirable, however, to achieve their goal they warn more will need to be contributed by individuals. Sadly, I expect politicians to cherry pick from the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) menu, they will not champion the case for higher individual contributions. 4. No. Here I am in begrudging agreement with their conclusion, although I worry about their projections. Fiat currencies and artificially low interest rates underpin the current political system. It is hardly surprising that developed country government activity, as a share of GDP, has risen. 5. Yes. Again, I agree with the need to think about fiscal policy, though I anticipate that Peterson’s proposals are likely to exacerbate the current problems further.

A prelude to MMT

The reason for highlighting recent Peterson commentary is because it represents the acceptable face of a more dubious set of proposals, known collectively as MMT. These ideas are not particularly modern, beginning with the Chartalist tenet that countries which issue their own fiat currencies can never “run out of money.” For a measured introduction to this topic, Dylan Matthews has published a brilliant essay for Vox – Modern Monetary Theory, explained. Here are some of the highlights: –

[The starting point is]…endogenous money theory, that rejects the idea that there’s a supply of loanable funds out there that private businesses and governments compete over. Instead, they believe that loans by banks themselves create money in accordance with market demands for money, meaning there isn’t a firm trade-off between loaning to governments and loaning to businesses of a kind that forces interest rates to rise when governments borrow too much.

MMTers go beyond endogenous money theory, however, and argue that government should never have to default so long as it’s sovereign in its currency: that is, so long as it issues and controls the kind of money it taxes and spends. The US government, for instance, can’t go bankrupt because that would mean it ran out of dollars to pay creditors; but it can’t run out of dollars, because it is the only agency allowed to create dollars. It would be like a bowling alley running out of points to give players.

A consequence of this view, and of MMTers’ understanding of how the mechanics of government taxing and spending work, is that taxes and bonds do not and indeed cannot directly pay for spending. Instead, the government creates money whenever it spends…

And why does the government issue bonds? According to MMT, government-issued bonds aren’t strictly necessary. The US government could, instead of issuing $1 in Treasury bonds for every $1 in deficit spending, just create the money directly without issuing bonds.

The Mitchell/Wray/Watts MMT textbook argues that the purpose of these bond issuances is to prevent interest rates in the private economy from falling too low. When the government spends, they argue, that adds more money to private bank accounts and increases the amount of “reserves” (cash the bank has stocked away, not lent out) in the banking system. The reserves earn a very low interest rate, pushing down interest rates overall. If the Fed wants higher interest rates, it will sell Treasury bonds to banks. Those Treasury bonds earn higher interest than the reserves, pushing overall interest rates higher…

“In the long term,” they conclude, “the only sustainable position is for the private domestic sector to be in surplus.” As long as the US runs a current account deficit with other countries, that means the government budget has to be in deficit. It isn’t “crowding out” investment in the private sector, but enabling it.

The second (and more profound) aspect of MMT is that it proposes to reverse the roles of fiscal and monetary policy. Taxation is used to control aggregate demand (and thus inflation) whilst government spending (printing money) is used to prevent deflation and to stimulate consumption and employment. Since MMT advocates believe there is no need for bond issuance and that interest rates should reside, permanently, at zero, monetary policy can be controlled entirely by the treasury, making central banks superfluous.

At the heart of MMT is an accounting tautology, that: –

G − T = S – I

Where G = Government spending, T = Taxation, S = Savings and I = Investment

In other words…

Government Budget Deficit = Net Private Saving

wraybook

You may be getting the feeling that something does not quite tally. Robert Murphy of the Mises Institute – The Upside-Down World of MMT explains it like this (the emphasis is mine): –

When I first encountered such a claim — that the government budget deficit was necessary to allow for even the mathematical possibility of net private-sector saving — I knew something was fishy. For example, in my introductory textbook I devote Chapter 4 to “Robinson Crusoe” economics.

To explain the importance of saving and investment in a barter economy, I walk through a simple numerical example where Crusoe can gather ten coconuts per day with his bare hands. This is his “real income.” But to get ahead in life, Crusoe needs to save — to live below his means. Thus, for 25 days in a row, Crusoe gathers his ten coconuts per day as usual, but only eats eight of them. This allows him to accumulate a stockpile of 50 coconuts, which can serve as a ten-day buffer (on half-rations) should Crusoe become sick or injured.

Crusoe can do even better. He takes two days off from climbing trees and gathering coconuts (with his bare hands), in order to collect sticks and vines. Then he uses these natural resources to create a long pole that will greatly augment his labor in the future in terms of coconuts gathered per hour. This investment in the capital good was only possible because of Crusoe’s prior saving; he wouldn’t have been able to last two days without eating had he not been able to draw down on his stockpile of 50 coconuts.

This is an admittedly simple story, but it gets across the basic concepts of income, consumption, saving, investment, and economic growth. Now in this tale, I never had to posit a government running a budget deficit to make the story “work.” Crusoe is able to truly live below his means — to consume less than his income — and thereby channel resources into the production of more capital goods. This augments his future productivity, leading to a higher income (and hence consumption) in the future. There is no trick here, and Crusoe’s saving is indeed “net” in the sense that it is not counterbalanced by a consumption loan taken out by his neighbor Friday…

When MMTers speak of “net saving,” they don’t mean that people collectively save more than people collectively borrow. No, they mean people collectively save more than people collectively invest.

MMT goes on to solve the problem of achieving full employment by introducing a job guarantee and wage controls.

If, by this stage, you feel the need for an antidote to MMT, look no further than, Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls: How Not to Fight Inflation by Dr Eamon Butler of the ASI. Published in 1978, it documents the success of these types of policy during the past four thousand years.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

The radical ideas contained in MMT are unlikely to be adopted in full, but the idea that fiscal expansion is non-inflationary provides succour to profligate politicians of all stripes. Come the next hint of recession, central banks will embark on even more pronounced quantitative and qualitative easing, safe in the knowledge that, should they fail to reignite their economies, government mandated fiscal expansion will come to their aid. Long-term bond yields will head towards the zero-bound – some are there already. Debt to GDP ratios will no longer trouble finance ministers. If stocks decline, central banks will acquire them: and, in the process, the means of production. This will be justified as the provision of permanent capital. Bonds will rise, stocks will rise, real estate will rise. There will be no inflation, except in the price of assets.

John Mauldin describes the end-game of the debt-explosion as the Great Reset, but if government borrowing costs are zero (or lower) the Great Reset can be postponed, but the economy will suffer from low productivity growth due to malinvestment.