Not waving but drowning – Stocks, debt and inflation?

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Macro Letter – No 103 – 26-10-2018

Not waving but drowning – Stocks, debt and inflation?

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

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

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

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

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

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

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

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

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

Wither the stock market?

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

united-states-inflation-cpi 1970 to 2018

Source: Trading Economics

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

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

Conclusions and investment opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

We are much further out than we thought,

And not waving but drowning.

Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion

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Macro Letter – No 100 – 13-07-2018

Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion

  • Emerging market currencies, bonds and stocks have weakened
  • Fears about the impact of US tariffs have been felt here most clearly
  • The risk to Europe and Japan is significant
  • Turkey may be the key market to watch

As US interest rates continue to normalise and US tariffs begin to bite, a number of emerging markets (EM’s) have come under pressure. Of course, the largest market to exhibit signs of stress is China, the MSCI China Index is down 7% since mid-June, whilst the RMB has also weakened against the US$ by more than 6% since its April low. Will contagion spread to developed markets and, if so, which country might be the ‘carrier’?

To begin to answer these questions we need to investigate this year’s casualties. Argentina is an obvious candidate. Other troubled countries include Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. In each case, government debt has exacerbated instability, as each country’s currency came under pressure. Other measures of instability include budget and trade deficits.

In an effort to narrow the breadth of this Macro Letter, I will confine my analysis to those countries with twin government and current account deficits. In the table which follow, the countries are sorted by percentage of world GDP. The colour coding reflects the latest MSCI categorisation; yellow, denotes a fully-fledged EM, white, equals a standard EM, green, is on the secondary list and blue is reserved for those countries which are so ‘frontier’ in nature as not to be currently assessed by MSCI: –

EM Debt and GDP

Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank

For the purposes of this analysis, the larger the EM as a percentage of world GDP and the higher its investment rating, the more likely it is to act as a catalyst for contagion. Whilst this is a simplistic approach, it represents a useful the starting point.

Back in 2005, in a futile attempt to control the profligacy of European governments, the European Commission introduced the Stability and Growth Pact. It established at maximum debt to GDP ratio of 60% and budget deficit ceiling of 3%, to be applied to all members of the Eurozone. If applied to the EM’s listed above, the budget deficit constraint could probably be relaxed: these are, generally, faster growing economies. The ratio of debt to GDP should, however, be capped at a lower percentage. The government debt overhang weighs more heavily on smaller economies, especially ones where the percentage of international investors tends to be higher. Capital flight is a greater risk for EM’s than for developed economies, which are insulated by a larger pool of domestic investors.

Looking at the table again, from a financial stability perspective, the percentage of non-domestic debt to GDP, is critical. A sudden growth stop, followed by capital flight, usually precipitates a collapse in the currency. External debt can prove toxic, even if it represents only a small percentage of GDP, since the default risk associated with a collapsing currency leads to a rapid rise in yields, prompting further capital flight – this is a viscous circle, not easily broken. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980’s was one of the more poignant examples of this pattern. Unsurprisingly, in the table above, the percentage of external debt to GDP grows as the economies become smaller, although there is a slight bias for South American countries to continue to borrow abroad. Perhaps a function of their proximity to the US capital markets. Interestingly, by comparison with developed nations, the debt to GDP ratios in most of these EM countries is relatively modest: a sad indictment of the effectiveness of QE as a policy to strengthen the world financial system – but I digress.

Our next concern ought to be the trade balance. Given the impact that US tariffs are likely to have on export nations, both emerging and developed, it is overly simplistic to look, merely, at EM country exports to the US. EM exports to Europe, Japan and China are also likely to be vulnerable, as US tariffs are enforced. Chile and Mexico currently run trade surpluses, but, since their largest trading partner is the US, they still remain exposed.

This brings us to the second table which looks at inflation, interest rates, 10yr bond yields, currencies and stock market performance: –

EM Markets and Inflation

Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank

In addition to its absolute level, the trend of inflation is also an important factor to consider. India has seen a moderate increase since 2017, but price increases appear steady not scary. Brazil has seen a recent rebound after the significant moderation which followed the 2016 spike. Mexican inflation has moderated since late 2017, posing little cause for concern. Indonesian price rises are at the lower end of their post Asian crisis range. Turkey, however, is an entirely different matter. It inflation is at its highest since 2004 and has broken to multiyear highs in the last two months. Inflation trends exert a strong influence on interest rate expectations and Turkish 10yr yields have risen by more than 5% this year, whilst it currency has fallen further than any in this group, barring the Argentinian Peso. For comparison, the Brazilian Real is the third weakest, followed, at some distance, by the Indian Rupee.

India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia may be among the largest economies in this ‘contagion risk’ group, but Turkey, given its geographic proximity to the EU may be the linchpin.

Is Turkey the canary?

The recent Turkish elections gave President Erdogan an increased majority. His strengthened mandate does not entirely remove geopolitical risk, but it simplifies our analysis of the country from an economic perspective. Short-term interest rates are 17.75%, the second highest in the group, behind Argentina. The yield curve is inverted: and both the currency and stock market have fared poorly YTD. Over the last 20 years, Turkish GDP has averaged slightly less than 5%, but this figure is skewed by three sharp recessions (‘98, ‘01 and ‘08). The recent trend has been volatile but solid. 10yr bond yields, by contrast, have been influenced by a more than doubling of short-term interest rates, in defence of the Turkish Lira. This aggressive action, by their central bank, makes the economy vulnerable to an implosion of growth, as credit conditions deteriorate rapidly.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

In Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018 – Is the US exporting a recession? I concluded in respect of Europe that: –

…the [stock] market has failed to rise substantially on a positive slew of earnings news. This may be because there is a more important factor driving sentiment: the direction of US rates. It certainly appears to have engendered a revival of the US$. It rallied last month having been in a downtrend since January 2017 despite a steadily tightening Federal Reserve. For EURUSD the move from 1.10 to 1.25 appears to have taken its toll. On the basis of the CESI chart, above, if Wall Street sneezes, the Eurozone might catch pneumonia.

Over the past few months EM currencies have declined, their bond yields have increased and their stock markets have generally fallen. In respect of tariffs, President Trump has done what he promised. Markets, like Mexico and Chile, reacted early and seem to have stabilised. Argentina had its own internal issues with which to contend. The Indian economy continues its rapid expansion, despite higher oil prices and US tariffs. It is Turkey that appears to be the weakest link, but this may be as much a function of the actions of its central bank.

If, over the next few months, the Turkish Lira stabilises and official rates moderate, the wider economy may avoid recession. Whilst much commentary concerning EM risks will focus on the fortunes of China, it is still a relatively closed, command economy: and, therefore, difficult to predict. It will be at least as useful to focus on the fortunes of Turkey. It may give advanced warning, like the canary in the coal-mine, which makes it my leading indicator of choice.

 

 

Robots, employment and the mis-measurement of productivity

Robots, employment and the mis-measurement of productivity

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Macro Letter – No 97 – 18-05-2018

Robots, employment and the mis-measurement of productivity

  • UK productivity – output/hour has risen 1.5% in a decade
  • UK unemployment, at 4.2%, is the lowest since April 1975
  • UK real-wages have risen by 1.1% per annum over the last four years
  • Robots may be coming but it’s not showing up in the data

The subject matter of this Macro Letter is broad, so I shall confine my investigation to the UK. It was, after all, one of the first countries where services became a larger percentage of GDP than manufacturing. The crossover between manufacturing and services is estimated to have happened around 1881. When Napoleon Bonaparte described England as, ‘A nation of shopkeepers,’ his intension may have been derisive, but his observation was prescient. Of course, M. Bonaparte was actually quoting Adam Smith, who first coined the phrase in his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776: now, he really was prescient.

As we stare into the abyss, anticipating the huge percentage of manufacturing – and now, many services – jobs which are expected to be replaced by machines, it behoves us to begin by reviewing the accuracy with which we measure services in general. A recent paper from the Centre for Economic and Business Research does just that for one sub-sector, although it suggests that mis-measurement of economic activity in services, always difficult to define, may be a factor in the poor productivity record of the UK. I have often described Britain as a post-industrial nation but this research, into one of the most vibrant corners of the economy, makes fascinating reading – The True Value of Creative Industries Digital Exports – CIC, CBER – March 2018 – finds, among other things that: –

The UK’s creative industries exports are: –

£46bn in goods and services – 24% higher than the official figure

£31bn of total creative exports are services – 41% higher than the official figure

£21bn of these creative services are digital services – 40% higher than the official figure

The CEBR goes on to point out other weaknesses in current measurements of economic activity: –

…estimated official figures for 2016 highlight that the majority of creative industries sub-sectors are exporting digital services. The IT, software and computer services sector, for example, exports £8.95bn in digital services. However, according to these figures, the crafts and museums, galleries and libraries sectors’ digital services exports are zero – which we know is not the case.

Many UK YouTube channels, for example, are watched by millions of viewers across the world. It is through these types of platforms that the creative industries export audiovisual content, music, and tutorials. Such platforms and the content they offer, however, may not be registered as a service export. This is due to difficulties capturing data for business models such as those offering free content and based on advertising revenues.

There are also structural challenges with collecting data on such exports. Often, it is difficult for digital intermediaries to determine the point of sale and purchase. The borderless way in which many global firms operate presents additional complications and the origin of the creative content, and of those who consume it, is frequently hard to track.

This brings me to the vexed question of productivity growth in the new machine age. In the Deloitte – Monday Briefing – Thoughts on the global economy – from 30th April, the author reflects on the discussions which occurred at the annual global gathering of Deliotte’s economic experts. I’m cherry picking, of course, the whole article is well worth reading: –

Despite discussion of recession risks I was struck by a cautious optimism about the long-term outlook. There was a general view that the slowdown in productivity growth in the West has been overstated, partly because of problems in capturing gains from technological change and quality improvements. As a result most of us felt that Western economies should be able to improve upon the lacklustre growth rates seen in the last ten years.

We agreed too that apocalyptic media stories about new technologies destroying work were overcooked; technology would continue to create more jobs than it destroys. The challenge would be to provide people with the right skills to prosper. The question was, what skills? We had a show of hands on what we would recommend as the ideal degree subjects for an 18-year-old planning for a 40-year career. Two-thirds advocated STEM subjects, so science, technology, engineering and maths. A third, myself included, opted for humanities/liberal arts as a way of honing skills of expression, creativity and thinking.

Mr Stewart ends by referring to a letter to the FT from Dr Lawrence Haar, Associate Professor at the University of Lincoln, in which he argues that poor UK productivity is a function of the low levels of UK unemployment. In other words, when everyone, even unproductive workers, are employed, productivity inevitably declines:-

…it does not have to be this way. Some economies, including Singapore, Switzerland and Germany, combine low unemployment and decent productivity growth. The right training and education can raise productivity rates for lower skilled workers. 

This theme of productivity growth supported by the right education and training is at the heart of a recent paper written by Professor Shackleton of the IEA – Current Controversies No. 62 – Robocalypse Now? IEA – May 2018 – the essay cautions against the imposition of robotaxes and makes the observation that technology has always created new jobs, despite the human tendency to fear the unknown: why should the adoption of a new swath of technologies be different this time? Here is his introduction: –

It is claimed that robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence are going to destroy jobs on an unprecedented scale.

These developments, unlike past bouts of technical change, threaten rapidly to affect even highly-skilled work and lead to mass unemployment and/or dramatic falls in wages and living standards, while accentuating inequality.

As a result, we are threatened with the ‘end of work’, and should introduce radical new policies such as a robot tax and a universal basic income.

However the claims being made of massive job loss are based on highly contentious technological assumptions and are contested by economists who point to flaws in the methodology.

In any case, ‘technological determinism’ ignores the engineering, economic, social and regulatory barriers to adoption of many theoretically possible innovations. And even successful innovations are likely to take longer to materialise than optimists hope and pessimists fear.

Moreover history strongly suggests that jobs destroyed by technical change will be replaced by new jobs complementary to these technologies – or else in unrelated areas as spending power is released by falling prices. Current evidence on new types of job opportunity supports this suggestion.

The UK labour market is currently in a healthy state and there is little evidence that technology is having a strongly negative effect on total employment. The problem at the moment may be a shortage of key types of labour rather than a shortage of work.

The proposal for a robot tax is ill-judged. Defining what is a robot is next to impossible, and concerns over slow productivity growth anyway suggest we should be investing more in automation rather than less. Even if a workable robot tax could be devised, it would essentially duplicate the effects, and problems, of corporation tax.

Universal basic income is a concept with a long history. Despite its appeal, it would be costly to introduce, could have negative effects on work incentives, and would give governments dangerous powers.

Politicians already seem tempted to move in the direction of these untested policies. They would be foolish to do so. If technological change were to create major problems in the future, there are less problematic policies available to mitigate its effects – such as reducing taxes on employment income, or substantially deregulating the labour market.

Professor Shackleton provides a brief history of technological paranoia. Riccardo added a chapter entitled ‘On Machinery’ to the third edition of his ‘Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,’ stating: –

‘I am convinced that the substitution of machinery for human labour is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers’.

While Marx, writing only a few decades later, envisaged a time when man would be enabled to: –

‘…to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’

As for Keynes essay on the, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, his optimism is laudable if laughable – 15 hour working week anyone?

The paranoia continues, nonetheless – The Economist – A study finds nearly half of jobs are vulnerable to automation – April 2018 – takes up the story:-

A wave of automation anxiety has hit the West. Just try typing “Will machines…” into Google. An algorithm offers to complete the sentence with differing degrees of disquiet: “…take my job?”; “…take all jobs?”; “…replace humans?”; “…take over the world?”

Job-grabbing robots are no longer science fiction. In 2013 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University used—what else?—a machine-learning algorithm to assess how easily 702 different kinds of job in America could be automated. They concluded that fully 47% could be done by machines “over the next decade or two”.

A new working paper by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, employs a similar approach, looking at other developed economies. Its technique differs from Mr Frey and Mr Osborne’s study by assessing the automatability of each task within a given job, based on a survey of skills in 2015. Overall, the study finds that 14% of jobs across 32 countries are highly vulnerable, defined as having at least a 70% chance of automation. A further 32% were slightly less imperilled, with a probability between 50% and 70%. At current employment rates, that puts 210m jobs at risk across the 32 countries in the study.

For a robust analysis, if not refutation, of the findings of Frey and Osborne, I refer you back to Professor Shackleton’s IEA paper. He is more favourably disposed towards the OECD research, which is less apocalyptic in its conclusions. He goes on to find considered counsel in last year’s report from McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A Future that Works: Automation Employment and Productivity.

The IEA paper highlights another factor which makes it difficult to assess the net impact of technological progress, namely, the constantly changing nature of the labour market. As the table below reveals it has hardly been in stasis since the turn of the millennium: –

Percentage change in employment 2001-2017, selected occupations

Percentage change in employment 2001 - 2017 - IEA,ONS, Shackleton

Notes: April-June of years. Figures in brackets are April-June 2017 levels of employment.

Source: Author’s calculation from ONS

The job losses are broadly predictable; that technology has usurped the role of the travel agent is evident to anyone who booked a flight, hotel or hire-car online recently.  For economists there are always challenges in capturing the gains; back in 1987 Robert Solow, a recipient of the Nobel prize from economics,  famously observed, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics’ – perhaps the technology has been creating more jobs than thought. Does the 170% rise in Animal Care and Control owe a debt to technology? You might be inclined to doubt it but the 400,000 Uber drivers of London probably do. We are still seeking signs in the economic data for something we know instinctively should be evident.

Between the mis-measurement of economic activity (if technology is being under-estimated to the tune of 24% in the creative industries sector to what extent are productivity gains from technology being underestimated elsewhere?) and the ever changing employment landscape, I believe the human race will continue to be employed in a wide and varied range of increasingly diverse roles. If some of the more repetitive and less satisfying jobs are consigned to robots and machine learning computer code, so much the better for mankind. For more on, what is sometimes termed, the routinisation of work, this working paper from Bruegel – The impact of industrial robots on EU employment and wages: A local labour market approach – April 2018 is inciteful. They examine six EU countries and make comparisons, or highlighting contrasts, with the patterns observed in the US. Their conclusions are somewhat vague, however, which appears to be a function of the difficulty of measurement: –

We only find mixed results for the impact of industrial robots on wage growth, even after accounting for potential endogeneity and potential offsetting effects across different population or sectoral groups.

…We believe that future research on the topic should focus on exploiting more granular data, to explore whether insignificant aggregate effects (on wages) are to the result of counterbalancing developments happening at the firm level.

Bruegel refrain from proposing cuts to personal taxation as favoured by the IEA, suggesting that a more complex policy response may be required, however, their conclusions are only marginally negative. I am inclined to hope that market forces may be allowed to deal with the majority of the adjustment; they have worked well if history is any guide.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Ignoring the fact that we are nine years into an equity bull market and that interest rates are now rising from their lowest levels ever recorded, the long term potential for technology remains supportive for equity markets, for earnings growth and for productivity. If history repeats, or even if it simply rhymes, it should also be good for employment.

With interest rates looking more likely to rise than fall over the next few years, companies will remain reticent to invest in capital projects. Buying back stock and issuing the occasional special dividend will remain the policy du jour. Assuming we do not suffer a repeat of the great financial recession of 2008 – and that remains a distinct possibility – the boon of technology will create employment with one invisible hand as it creatively destroys it with the other (with apologies to Smith and Schumpeter). If governments can keep their budgets in check and resist the temptation to siphon off investment from the productive sectors of the economy (which, sadly, I doubt) then, in the long run, the capital investment required to create the employment opportunities of the future will materialise.