Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

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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.

AIER -U.S. Dollar Supremacy Could Quickly Fade

AIER -U.S. Dollar Supremacy Could Quickly Fade

American Institute for Economic Research

U.S. Dollar Supremacy Could Quickly Fade

As you may have seen elsewhere I have recently been invited to contribute to AIER. This article was first published in June.

https://www.aier.org/article/us-dollar-supremacy-could-quickly-fade

dollarfade

AIER also operate the Bastiat Society, a global network of business professionals committed to advancing free trade, individual freedom, and responsible governance. To find a chapter near you please click on the link below: –

https://www.aier.org/bastiatsociety/chapters

 

 

Chinese currency manipulation – Trump’s petard

Chinese currency manipulation – Trump’s petard

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Macro Letter – No 119 – 23-08-2019

Chinese currency manipulation – Trump’s petard

  • The risk that the Sino-US trade war morphs into an international currency war has risen
  • The US$ Index is up since 2010 but its only back to the middle of it range since 2000
  • The Chinese Yuan will weaken if the Trump administration pushes for higher tariffs
  • Escalation of domestic unrest in Hong Kong will see a flight to safety in the greenback

According to the US President, the Chinese are an official currency manipulator. Given that they have never relaxed their exchange controls, one must regard Trump’s statement as rhetoric or ignorance. One hopes it is the former.

Sino-US relations have now moved into a new phase, however, on August 5th, after another round of abortive trade discussions, the US Treasury officially designated China a currency manipulator too. This was the first such outburst from the US Treasury in 25 years. One has to question their motivation, as recently as last year the PBoC was intervening to stem the fall in their currency against the US$, hardly an uncharitable act towards the American people. As the Economist – The Trump administration labels China a currency manipulator – described the situation earlier this month (the emphasis is mine): –

After the Trump administration’s announcement of tariffs on August 1st added extra pressure towards devaluation, it seems that the PBOC chose to let market forces work. The policymaker most obviously intervening to push the yuan down against the dollar is Mr Trump himself.

China does not meet the IMF definition of a ‘currency manipulator’ but the US Treasury position is more nuanced. CFR – Is China Manipulating Its Currency? Explains, although they do not see much advantage to the US: –

Legally speaking, the issue of whether China meets the standard for manipulation set out in U.S. law is complex. The 2015 Trade Enforcement Act sets out three criteria a country must meet to be tagged a manipulator: a bilateral surplus with the United States, an overall current account surplus, and one-sided intervention in the foreign-exchange market to suppress the value of its currency. The Treasury Department’s most recent report [PDF] concluded that China only met the bilateral surplus criterion.

But the 1988 Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competiveness Act [PDF] has a different definition of manipulation, saying it can emerge either from action to “[impede] effective balance of payments adjustments” or action to “[gain an] unfair competitive advantage in international trade.” The United States is likely to argue that the recent depreciation was intended to give Chinese exports an edge. China would counter that it has no obligation to resist market pressures pushing the yuan down when the United States implements tariffs that hurt China’s exports.

In the past (2003-2013) China has intervened aggressively to stem the rise of its currency, since then it has intervened in the opposite direction, to the benefit of the US. Earlier this month it briefly appeared to withdrawn from the foreign exchange market, allowing the markets to set their own level based on perceptions of risk. As the Peterson Institute – Trump’s Attack on China’s Currency Policy – puts it: –

This depreciation is due to market forces: Trump’s tariffs push the dollar up against all currencies, the Chinese currency weakens as a result of the trade hit, and China will undoubtedly lower its interest rates to counter that slowdown. There is no evidence that China has sold renminbi for dollars to overtly push its exchange rate down.

Since the inflammatory pop above 7 Yuan to the US$, China has sought to calm frayed nerves, indicating that it wishes to maintain the US$ exchange rate at around current levels: nonetheless, a pre-US election sabre has been rattled.

Speculation about the next move by the Trump administration is, as always, rife, but the consensus suggests the ‘currency manipulator’ label may be used to justify an escalation of US tariffs on Chinese goods. In this new scenario, every tariff increase by the US, will precipitate a decline in the Yuan; it will be a zero-sum game, except for the US importer who will have to foot the bill for the tariffs or pass them on to the consumer. Either a weaker Yuan will mitigate their effect or the tariffs will bite, leading to either a slowdown in consumption or higher prices, or possibly both.

Barring a weaker Yuan, this sequence of events could also threaten the independence of the Federal Reserve. The central bank will be torn between the opposing policies required to meet the dual mandate of price stability and full employment. In the worst case, prices will be rise as employment falls.

Current estimates of the increased cost of tariffs to the US economy are in the region of 10%, yet during the past year the Yuan has already declined from 6.3 to 7 (11%). As the chart below shows, a move back towards 8 Yuan to the US$ cannot be ruled out, enough to significantly eclipse the impact of US tariffs to date: –

china-currency 1993-2019

Source: Trading Economics

Conclusions and investment opportunities

In the run-up to the November 2020 presidential election, US foreign policy towards China is likely to remain confrontational. China, as always, has the ability to play the long game, although the political tensions evident in Hong Kong may highjack even their gradualist agenda. Either way, the Yuan is liable to weaken, pressurising other Asian currencies to follow suit. The US$ may appear relatively strong of late but, as the chart below shows, it is more than 50% below its 1980’s peak: –

united-states-currency

Source: Trading Economics

A move above the 2016 highs at 103 would see the US$ Index push towards the early 2000’s highs at 120.

The US bond yield curve has been steadily inverting, a harbinger, some say, of a recession. The other interpretation is that US official rates are much too high. Relative to other developed nations US Treasury yields certainly offer value. I expect the Fed to cut rates and, if inflation rises above the 2% level, expect them to point to tariff increases as a one-off inflation effect. They will choose to target full-employment over price stability.

Barring a catastrophe in Hong Kong, followed a US military response (neither of which can be entirely ruled out) any risk-off weakening of stocks, offers a buying opportunity. Further down the road, when US 10yr bond yields turn negative, stocks will trade on significantly higher multiples.

Gold – is it all that glisters?

Gold – is it all that glisters?

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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.

Trade and Protectionism post globalisation

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Macro Letter – No 78 – 02-06-2017

Trade and protectionism post globalisation

  • Protectionism is on the increase among developed nations
  • The benefits of free-trade have been most evident in developing countries
  • Short-term effects on financial markets may be reversed in the long run
  • The net impact on global growth will be negative

The success of free-trade and globalisation has been a boon for less developed countries but, to judge by the behaviour of the developed world electorate of late, this has been at the expense of the poorer and less well educated peoples of the developed nations. Income inequality in the west has been a focus of considerable debate among economists. The “Elephant Chart” below being but one personification of this trend:-

world-bank-economist-real-income-growth-1988-2008

Source: Economist, World Bank

If the graph looks familiar it’s because I last discussed this topic back in November 2016 in – Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion? This is what I said about the chart at that time:-

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

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

It can be argued that this chart is not a fair representation of the reality in the west. This excellent video by Johan Norberg – Dead Wrong – The Elephant Graph – makes some important observations but, as a portfolio manager, friend of mine reminded me recently, when considering human action one should not focus on absolute change in economic circumstances, but relative change. What did he I mean by this? Well, let’s take income inequality. The rich are getting richer and the poor are…getting richer less quickly.

In the dismal science, as Carlyle once dubbed economics, we often take a half-empty view of the world. Take real average income. Since 2008 people have become worse-off as the chart below for the UK shows:-

wages-inflation

Source: Economicshelp.org

However, in the long-run we have become better-off for generations. What really drives prosperity, by which I mean our quality of life, is productivity gains: our ability to harness technology to improve the production of goods and services.

Financial markets are said to be driven by fear and greed. Society in general is also driven by these factors but there is an additional driver: envy. Any politician who ignores the power of envy, inevitably truncates his or her career.

The gauntlet was thrown down recently by the new US administration: their focus was on those countries with trade surpluses with the US. Accusations of trade and currency manipulation play well to the disenfranchised American voter.

Well before the arrival of the new US President, however, a degree of rebalancing had already begun to occur when China adopted policies to increase domestic consumption back in 2012. A recent white paper entitled – Is the Global Economy Rebalancing? By Focus Economics – looks at the three countries with the largest persistent current account surpluses: China, Germany and Japan. As they comment in their introduction, a current account surplus may be derived by many different means:-

Decades of conflicting perspectives over the causes and effects of global trade imbalances have been thrust back into the spotlight in recent months by Donald Trump’s brazen criticism of almost every country with a significant current account surplus with the U.S. His controversial accusation that big exporter countries are deliberately weakening their currencies to gain a competitive advantage taps into an issue that has perplexed and divided economists and policymakers ever since the mid-1990s. At that time, countries such as the U.S. were starting to build up large current account deficits, while others such as China, Germany and Japan were accumulating large surpluses.

Put simply, a country’s current account balance measures the difference between how much it spends and makes abroad. Trade in goods usually—but not always—accounts for most of the current account, while the other components are trade in services, income from foreign investment and employment (known as ‘primary income’), and transfer payments such as foreign aid and remittances (known as ‘secondary income’).

A current account surplus or deficit is not necessarily in and of itself a good or bad thing, since a number of considerations must be factored in—for example, in the case of deficit countries, whether they make a return on their investments that exceeds the costs of funding them. A large current account surplus can be considered a desirable sign of an efficient and competitive economy if it comprises a positive trade balance generated by market forces. And yet such competitiveness can also be falsely created to an extent by policy decisions (e.g. a deliberate currency weakening), or may alternatively be a sign of overly weak domestic demand in a highly productive country. Therein lies the crux of the controversy, or at least one of many. 

Global imbalances were a critically important contributing factor to the financial crisis, although they did not in themselves cause it. Even if the precise nature of that connection has sparked different interpretations, there is at least more or less agreement on the fundamentals of the part played by trade relations between the U.S. and China, the two countries traditionally responsible for the lion’s share of global imbalances. Credit-fueled growth in the U.S. encouraged consumers to spend more, including on products originating in China, thereby further increasing the U.S. trade deficit with China and prompting China to “recycle” the dollars gained by buying U.S. assets (mostly Treasury notes). This, in turn, helped to keep U.S. interest rates low, encouraging ever greater bank lending, which pushed up housing prices, caused a subprime mortgage crisis and ultimately ended in a nasty deleveraging process.

Services and investment balances can be difficult to measure accurately; trade data is easier to calculate. Here are the three current account surplus countries in terms of their trade balances:-

china-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics, Chinese General Administration of Customs

Interestingly, China’s trade balance has declined despite the recent devaluation in the value of the Yuan versus the US$.

germany-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics, German Federal Statistics Office

The relative weakness of the Euro seems to have underpinned German exports. On this basis, the weakening of the Euro, resulting from the Brexit vote, has been an economic boon!

japan-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics, Japanese Ministry of Finance

The Abenomics policy of the three arrows whilst it has succeeded in weakening the value of the Yen, has done little to stem its steadily deteriorating trade balance. The Yen has risen ever since the ending of Bretton Woods, it behoves Japanese companies to invest aboard. The relative strength of the current account is the result of Japanese investment abroad.

Trade data is not without its flaws, even in a brand dominated business such as automobiles the origin of manufacture can turn out to be less obvious than it might at first appear. According to the Kogod – Made in America Auto Index 2016 – at 81% the Honda Accord ranks fifth out of all automobiles, in terms of the absolute percentage of an entire vehicle which is built in the USA, well above the level of many Ford and General Motors vehicles.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The financial markets will react differently in each country to the headwinds of de-globalisation and the rise of protectionism. The US, however, presents an opportunity to examine the outcome for a largest economy in the world.

The US currency’s initial reaction to the Trump election win was a significant rise. The US$ Index rallied from 97.34 on the eve of the election to test 103.81 at the beginning of January. Since then, as the absolute power, or lack thereof, of the new president has become apparent, the US$ Index has retraced the entire move. Protectionism on the basis of this analysis is likely to be UD$ positive. In the long run protectionist policies act as a drag on economic growth. The USA has the largest absolute trade deficit. Lower global economic growth will either lead to a rise in the US trade deficit or a strengthening of the US$, or, perhaps, a combination of the two.

Interest rates and bonds may be less affected by the strength of the US currency in a protectionist scenario, but domestic wage inflation is likely to increase in the medium term, especially if border controls are tightened further, closing off the flow of immigrant workers.

US stocks should initially benefit from the reduction in competition derived from a protectionist agenda but in the process the long run competitiveness of these firms will be undermined. The continual breaching to new highs which has been evident in the S&P 500 (and recently, the Nasdaq) is at least partially due to expectation of the agenda of the new administration. These policies include the lowering of corporation tax rates (from 35% to 15%) to bring them in line with Germany, infrastructure spending (in the order of $1trln) and protectionist pressure to “Buy American, Hire American”. Short term the market is still rising but valuations are becoming stretched by many metrics, as I said recently in Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train:-

Pro-business US economic policy will continue to drive US stocks: the words of Pink Floyd spring to mind…we call it riding the gravy train.

Central Banks – Ah Aaaaahhh! – Saviours of the Universe?

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Macro Letter – No 48 – 29-01-2016

Central Banks – Ah Aaaaahhh! – Saviours of the Universe?

Flash-Gordon-flash-gordon-23432257-1014-1600

Copryright: Universal Pictures

  • Freight rates have fallen below 2008 levels
  • With the oil price below $30 many US producers are unprofitable
  • The Fed has tightened but global QE gathers pace
  • Chinese stimulus is fighting domestic strong headwinds

Just in case you’re not familiar with it here is a You Tube video of the famous Queen song. It is seven years since the Great Financial Crisis; major stock markets are still relatively close to their highs and major government bond yields remain near historic lows. If another crisis is about to engulf the developed world, do the central banks (CBs) have the means to avert catastrophe once again? Here are some of the factors which may help us to reach a conclusion.

Freight Rates

Last week I was asked to comment of the prospects for commodity prices, especially energy. Setting aside the geo-politics of oil production, I looked at the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) which has been plumbing fresh depths this year – 337 (28/1/16) down from August 2015 highs of 1200. Back in May 2008 it touched 11,440 – only to plummet to 715 by November of the same year. How helpful is the BDI at predicting the direction of the economy? Not very – as this 2009 article from Business Insider – Shipping Rates Are Lousy For Predicting The Economy – points out. Nonetheless, the weakness in freight rates is indicative of an inherent lack of demand for goods. The chart below is from an article published by Zero Hedge at the beginning of January – they quote research from Deutsche Bank.

BDI_-_1985_-_2016 (4)

Source: Zerohedge

A “Perfect Storm Is Coming” Deutsche Warns As Baltic Dry Falls To New Record Low:

…a “perfect storm” is brewing in the dry bulk industry, as year-end improvements in rates failed to materialize, which indicates a looming surge in bankruptcies.

The improvement in dry bulk rates we expected into year-end has not materialized.

…we believe a number of dry bulk companies are contemplating asset sales to raise liquidity, lower daily cash burn, and reduce capital commitments. The glut of “for sale” tonnage has negative implications for asset and equity values. More critically, it can easily lead to breaches in loan-to-value covenants at many dry bulk companies, shortening the cash runway and likely necessitating additional dilutive actions.

Dry bulk companies generally have enough cash for the next 1yr or so, but most are not well positioned for another leg down in asset values.

China

The slowing and rebalancing of the Chinese economy may be having a significant impact on global trade flows. Here is a recent article on the subject from Mauldin Economics – China’s Year of the Monkees:-

China isn’t the only reason markets got off to a terrible start this month, but it is definitely a big factor (at least psychologically). Between impractical circuit breakers, weaker economic data, stronger capital controls, and renewed currency confusion, China has investors everywhere scratching their heads.

When we focused on China back in August (see “When China Stopped Acting Chinese”), my best sources said the Chinese economy was on a much better footing than its stock market, which was in utter chaos. While the manufacturing sector was clearly in a slump, the services sector was pulling more than its fair share of the GDP load. Those same sources have new data now, which leads them to quite different conclusions.

…Now, it may well be the case that China’s economy is faltering, but its GDP data is not the best evidence.

…To whom can we turn for reliable data? My go-to source is Leland Miller and company at the China Beige Book.

…China Beige Book started collecting data in 2010. For the entire time since then, the Chinese economy has been in what Leland calls “stable deceleration.” Slowing down, but in an orderly way that has generally avoided anything resembling crisis. 

…China Beige Book noticed in mid-2014 that Chinese businesses had changed their behavior. Instead of responding to slower growth by doubling down and building more capacity, they did the rational thing (at least from a Western point of view): they curbed capital investment and hoarded cash. With Beijing still injecting cash that businesses refused to spend, the liquidity that flowed into Chinese stocks produced the massive rally that peaked in mid-2015. It also allowed money to begin to flow offshore in larger amounts. I mean really massively larger amounts.

Dealing with a Different China

China Beige Book’s fourth-quarter report revealed a rude interruption to the positive “stable deceleration” trend. Their observers in cities all over that vast country reported weakness in every sector of the economy. Capital expenditures dropped sharply; there were signs of price deflation and labor market weakness; and both manufacturing and service activity slowed markedly.

That last point deserves some comment. China experts everywhere tell us the country is transitioning from manufacturing for export to supplying consumer-driven services. So if both manufacturing and service activity are slowing, is that transition still happening?

The answer might be “yes” if manufacturing were decelerating faster than services. For this purpose, relative growth is what counts. Unfortunately, manufacturing is slowing while service activity is not picking up all the slack. That’s not the combination we want to see.

Something else China Beige Book noticed last quarter: both business and consumer loan volume did not grow in response to lower interest rates. That’s an important change, and probably not a good one. It means monetary stimulus from Beijing can’t save the day this time. Leland thinks fiscal stimulus isn’t likely to help, either. Like other governments and their central banks, China is running out of economic ammunition.

Mauldin goes on to discuss the devaluation of the RMB – which I also discussed in my last letter – Is the ascension of the RMB to the SDR basket more than merely symbolic? The RMB has been closely pegged to the US$ since 1978 though with more latitude since 2005, this has meant a steady appreciation in its currency relative to many of its emerging market trading partners. Now, as China begins to move towards full convertibility, the RMB will begin to float more freely. Here is a five year chart of the Indian Rupee and the CNY vs the US$:-

INR vs RMB - Yahoo

Source: Yahoo finance

The Chinese currency could sink significantly should their government deem it necessary, however, expectations of a collapse of growth in China may be premature as this article from the Peterson Institute – The Price of Oil, China, and Stock Market Herding – indicates:-

A collapse of growth in China would indeed be a world changing event. But there is just no evidence of such a collapse. At most there is suggestive evidence of a mild slowdown, and even that is far from certain. The mechanical effects of such a mild decrease on the US economy should, by all accounts, and all the models we have, be limited. Trade channels are limited (US exports to China represent less than 2 percent of GDP), and so are financial linkages. The main effect of a slowdown in China would be through lower commodity prices, which should help rather than hurt the United States.

Peterson go on to suggest:-

Maybe we should not believe the market commentaries. Maybe it was neither oil nor China. Maybe what we are seeing is a delayed reaction to the slowdown in the world economy, a slowdown that has now gone on for a few years. While there has been no significant news in the last two weeks, maybe markets are only realizing that growth in emerging markets will be lower for a long time, that growth in advanced economies will be unexciting. Maybe…

I think the explanation is largely elsewhere. I believe that to a large extent, herding is at play. If other investors sell, it must be because they know something you do not know. Thus, you should sell, and you do, and so down go stock prices. Why now? Perhaps because we have entered a period of higher uncertainty. The world economy, at the start of 2016, is a genuinely confusing place. Political uncertainty at home and geopolitical uncertainty abroad are both high. The Fed has entered a new regime. The ability of the Chinese government to control its economy is in question. In that environment, in the stock market just as in the presidential election campaign, it is easier for the bears to win the argument, for stock markets to fall, and, on the political front, for fearmongers to gain popularity.

They are honest enough to admit that economics won’t provide the answers.

Energy Prices

The June 2015 BP – Statistical Review of World Energy – made the following comments:-

Global primary energy consumption increased by just 0.9% in 2014, a marked deceleration over 2013 (+2.0%) and well below the 10-year average of 2.1%. Growth in 2014 slowed for every fuel other than nuclear power, which was also the only fuel to grow at an above-average rate. Growth was significantly below the 10-year average for Asia Pacific, Europe & Eurasia, and South & Central America. Oil remained the world’s leading fuel, with 32.6% of global energy consumption, but lost market share for the fifteenth consecutive year.

Although emerging economies continued to dominate the growth in global energy consumption, growth in these countries (+2.4%) was well below its 10-year average of 4.2%. China (+2.6%) and India (+7.1%) recorded the largest national increments to global energy consumption. OECD consumption fell by 0.9%, which was a larger fall than the recent historical average. A second consecutive year of robust US growth (+1.2%) was more than offset by declines in energy consumption in the EU (-3.9%) and Japan (-3.0%). The fall in EU energy consumption was the second-largest percentage decline on record (exceeded only in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009).

The FT – The world energy outlook in five charts – looked at five charts from the IEA World Energy Outlook – November 2015:-

Demand_Growth_in_Asia

Source: IEA

With 315m of its population expected to live in urban areas by 2040, and its manufacturing base expanding, India is forecast to account for quarter of global energy demand growth by 2040, up from about 6 per cent currently.

India_moving_to_centre

Source: IEA

Oil demand in India is expected to increase by more than in any other country to about 10m barrels per day (bpd). The country is also forecast to become the world’s largest coal importer in five years. But India is also expected to rely on solar and wind power to have a 40 per cent share of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030.

A_new_chapter_in_Chinas_growth_story

Source: IEA

China’s total energy demand is set to nearly double that of the US by 2040. But a structural shift in the Asian country away from investment-led growth to domestic-demand based economy will “mean that 85 per cent less energy is required to generate each unit of future economic growth than was the case in the past 25 years.”

A_new_balancing_item_in_the_oil_market

Source: IEA

US shale oil production is expected to “stumble” in the short term, but rise as oil price recovers. However the IEA does not expect crude oil to reach $80 a barrel until 2020, under its “central scenario”. The chart shows that if prices out to 2020 remain under $60 per barrel, production will decline sharply.

Power_is_leading_the_transformation

Source: IEA

Renewables are set to overtake coal to become the largest source of power by 2030. The share of coal in the production of electricity will fall from 41 per cent to 30 per cent by 2040, while renewables will account for more than half the increase in electricity generation by then.

The cost of solar energy continues to fall and is now set to “eclipse” natural gas, as this article from Seeking Alpha by Siddharth Dalal – Falling Solar Costs: End Of Natural Gas Is Near? Explains:-

A gas turbine power plant uses 11,371 Btu/kWh. The current price utilities are paying per Btu of natural gas are $3.23/1000 cubic feet. 1000 cubic feet of natural gas have 1,020,000 BTUs. So $3.23 for 90kWh. That translates to 3.59c/kWh in fuel costs alone.

A combined cycle power plant uses 7667 Btu/kWh, which translates to 2.42c/kWh.

Adding in operating and maintenance costs, we get 4.11c/kWh for gas turbines and 3.3c/kWh for combined cycle power plants. This still doesn’t include any construction costs.

…The average solar PPA is likely to go under 4c/kWh next year. Note that this is the total cost that the utility pays and includes all costs.

And the trend puts total solar PPA costs under gas turbine fuel costs and competitive with combined cycle plant total operating costs next year.

At this point it becomes a no brainer for a utility to buy cheap solar PPAs compared to building their own gas power plants.

The only problem here is that gas plants are dispatchable, while solar is not. This is a problem that is easily solved by batteries. So utilities would be better served by spending capex on batteries as opposed to any kind of gas plant, especially anything for peak generation.

The influence of the oil price, whilst diminishing, still dominates. In the near term the importance of the oil price on financial market prices will relate to the breakeven cost of production for companies involved in oil exploration. Oil companies have shelved more than $400bln of planned investment since 2014. The FT – US junk-rated energy debt hits two-decade lowtakes up the story:-

US-High Yield - Thompson Reuters

Source: Thomson Reuters Datastream, FT

The average high-yield energy bond has slid to just 56 cents on the dollar, below levels touched during the financial crisis in 2008-09, as investors brace for a wave of bankruptcies.

…The US shale revolution which sent the country’s oil production soaring from 2009 to 2015 was led by small and midsized companies that typically borrowed to finance their growth. They sold $241bn worth of bonds during 2007-15 and many are now struggling under the debts they took on.

Very few US shale oil developments can be profitable with crude at about $30 a barrel, industry executives and advisers say. Production costs in shale have fallen as much as 40 per cent, but that has not been enough to keep pace with the decline in oil prices.

…On Friday, Moody’s placed 120 oil and gas companies on review for downgrade, including 69 in the US.

…The yield on the Bank of America Merrill Lynch US energy high-yield index has climbed to the highest level since the index was created, rising to 19.3 per cent last week, surpassing the 17 per cent peak hit in late 2008.

More than half of junk-rated energy groups in the US have fallen into distress territory, where bond yields rise more than 1,000 basis points above their benchmark Treasury counterpart, according to S&P.

All other things equal, the price of oil is unlikely to rally much from these levels, but, outside the US, geo-political risks exist which may create an upward bias. Many Middle Eastern countries have made assumptions about the oil price in their estimates of tax receipts. Saudi Arabia has responded to lower revenues by radical cuts in public spending and privatisations – including a proposed IPO for Saudi Aramco. As The Guardian – Saudi Aramco privatisation plans shock oil sector – explains, it will certainly be difficult to value – market capitalisation estimates range from $1trln to $10trln.

Outright energy company bankruptcies are likely to be relatively subdued, unless interest rates rise dramatically – these companies locked in extremely attractive borrowing rates and their bankers will prefer to renegotiate payment schedules rather than write off the loans completely. New issuance, however, will be a rare phenomenon.

Technology

“We don’t want technology simply because it’s dazzling. We want it, create it and support it because it improves people’s lives.”

These words were uttered by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, at Davos last week. The commodity markets have been dealing with technology since the rise of Sumer. The Manhattan Institutes – SHALE 2.0 Technology and the Coming Big-Data Revolution in America’s Shale Oil Fields highlights some examples which go a long way to explaining the downward trajectory in oil prices over the last 18 months – emphasis is mine:-

John Shaw, chair of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, recently observed: “It’s fair to say we’re not at the end of this [shale] era, we’re at the very beginning.” He is precisely correct. In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

…Compared with 1986—the last time the world was oversupplied with oil—there are now 2 billion more people living on earth, the world economy is $30 trillion bigger, and 30 million more barrels of oil are consumed daily. The current 33 billion-barrel annual global appetite for crude will undoubtedly rise in coming decades. Considering that fluctuations in supply of 1–2 MMbd can swing global oil prices, the infusion of 4 MMbd from U.S. shale did to petroleum prices precisely what would be expected in cyclical markets with huge underlying productive capacity.

Shipbuilding has also benefitted from technological advances in a variety of areas, not just fuel efficiency. This article (please excuse the author’s English) from Marine Insight – 7 Technologies That Can Change The Future of Shipbuilding – highlights several, I’ve chosen five:-

3-D Printing Technology:…Recently, NSWC Carderock made a fabricated model of the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) using its 3-D printer, first uploading CAD drawings of ship model in it. Further developments in this process can lead the industry to use this technique to build complex geometries of ship like bulbous bow easily. The prospect of using 3-D printers to seek quick replacement of ship’s part for repairing purpose is also being investigated. The Economist claims use this technology to be the “Third Industrial Revolution“.

Shipbuilding Robotics: Recent trends suggest that the shipbuilding industry is recognizing robotics as a driver of efficiency along with a method to prevent workers from doing dangerous tasks such as welding. The shortage of skilled labour is also one of the reasons to look upon robotics. Robots can carry out welding, blasting, painting, heavy lifting and other tasks in shipyards.

LNG Fueled engines

…In the LNG engines, CO2 emission is reduced by 20-25% as compared to diesel engines, NOX emissions are cut by almost 92%, while SOX and particulates emissions are almost completely eliminated.

…Besides being an environmental friendly fuel, LNG is also cheaper than diesel, which helps the ship to save significant amount of money over time.

…Solar & Wind Powered Ships:

…The world’s largest solar powered ship named ‘Turanor’ is a 100 metric ton catamaran which motored around the world without using any fuel and is currently being used as a research vessel. Though exclusive solar or wind powered ships look commercially and practically not viable today, they can’t be ruled out of future use with more technical advancements.

Recently, many technologies have come which support the big ships to reduce fuel consumption by utilizing solar panels or rigid sails. A device named Energy Sail (patent pending) has been developed by Eco Marine Power will help the ships to extract power from wind and sun so as to reduce fuel costs and emission of greenhouse gases. It is exclusively designed for shipping and can be fitted to wide variety of vessels from oil carrier to patrol ships.

Buckypaper: Buckypaper is a thin sheet made up of carbon nanotubes (CNT). Each CNT is 50,000 thinner than human air. Comparing with the conventional shipbuilding material (i.e. steel), buckypaper is 1/10th the weight of steel but potentially 500 times stronger in strength  and 2 times harder than diamond when its sheets are compiled to form a composite. The vessel built from this lighter material would require less fuel, hence increasing energy efficiency. It is corrosion resistant and flame retardant which could prevent fire on ships. A research has already been initiated for the use of buckypaper as a construction material of a future aeroplane. So, a similar trend can’t be ruled out in case of shipbuilding.

Shipping has always been a cyclical business, driven by global demand for freight on the one hand and improvements in technology on the other. The cost of production continues to fall, old inventory rapidly becomes uncompetitive and obsolete. The other factor effecting the cycle is the cost of finance; this is true also of energy exploration and development. Which brings us to the actions of the CBs.

The central role of the central banks

Had $100 per barrel oil encouraged a rise in consumer price inflation in the major economies, it might have been appropriate for their CBs to raise interest rates, however, high levels of debt kept inflation subdued. The “unintended consequences” or, perhaps we should say “collateral damage” of allowing interest rates to remain unrealistically low, is overinvestment. The BIS – Self-oriented monetary policy, global financial markets and excess volatility of international capital flows – looks at the effect developed country CB policy – specifically the Federal Reserve – has had on emerging markets:-

A major policy question arising from these events is whether US monetary policy imparts a global ‘externality’ through spillover effects on world capital flows, credit growth and asset prices. Many policy makers in emerging markets (e.g. Rajan, 2014) have argued that the US Federal Reserve should adjust its monetary policy decisions to take account of the excess sensitivity of international capital flows to US policy. This criticism questions the view that a ‘self-oriented’ monetary policy based on inflation targeting principles represents an efficient mechanism for the world monetary system (e.g. Obstfeld and Rogoff, 2002), without the need for any cross-country coordination of policies.

…Our results indicate that the simple prescriptions about the benefits of flexible exchange rates and inflation targeting are very unlikely to hold in a global financial environment dominated by the currency and policy of a large financial centre, such as the current situation with the US dollar and US monetary policy. Our preliminary analysis does suggest however that an optimal monetary policy can substantially improve the workings of the international system, even in the absence of direct intervention in capital markets through macro-prudential policies or capital controls. Moreover, under the specific assumptions maintained in this paper, this outcome can still be consistent with national independence in policy, or in other words, a system of ‘self-oriented’ monetary policy making.

Whether CBs should consider the international implications of their actions is not a new subject, but this Cobden Centre article by Alisdair Macleod – Why the Fed Will Never Succeed – suggests that the Fed should be mandated to accept a broader role:-

That the Fed thinks it is only responsible to the American people for its actions when they affect all nations is an abrogation of its duty as issuer of the reserve currency to the rest of the world, and it is therefore not surprising that the new kids on the block, such as China, Russia and their Asian friends, are laying plans to gain independence from the dollar-dominated system. The absence of comment from other central banks in the advanced nations on this important subject should also worry us, because they appear to be acting as mute supporters for the Fed’s group-think.

This is the context in which we need to clarify the effects of the Fed’s monetary policy. The fundamental question is actually far broader than whether or not the Fed should be raising rates: rather, should the Fed be managing interest rates at all? Before we can answer this question, we have to understand the relationship between credit and the business cycle.

There are two types of economic activity, one that correctly anticipates consumer demand and is successful, and one that fails to do so. In free markets the failures are closed down quickly, and the scarce economic resources tied up in them are redeployed towards more successful activities. A sound-money economy quickly eliminates business errors, so this self-cleansing action ensures there is no build-up of malinvestments and the associated debt that goes with it.

When there is stimulus from monetary inflation, it is inevitable that the strict discipline of genuine profitability that should guide all commercial enterprises takes a back seat. Easy money and interest rates lowered to stimulate demand distort perceptions of risk, over-values financial assets, and encourages businesses to take on projects that are not genuinely profitable. Furthermore, the owners of failing businesses find it possible to run up more debts, rather than face commercial reality. The result is a growing accumulation of malinvestments whose liquidation is deferred into the future.

Macleod goes on to discuss the Cantillon effect, at what point we are in the Credit Cycle and why the Fed decided to raise rates now:-

We must put ourselves in the Fed’s shoes to try to understand why it has raised rates. It has seen the official unemployment rate decline for a prolonged period, and more recently energy and commodity prices have fallen sharply. Assuming it believes government unemployment figures, as well as the GDP and its deflator, the Fed is likely to think the economy has at least stabilised and is fundamentally healthy. That being the case, it will take the view the business cycle has turned. Note, business cycle, not credit-driven business cycle: the Fed doesn’t accept monetary policy is responsible for cyclical phenomena. Therefore, demand for energy and commodities is expected to increase on a one or two-year view, so inflation can be expected to pick up towards the 2% target, particularly when the falls in commodity and energy prices drop out of the back-end of the inflation numbers. Note again, inflation is thought to be a demand-for-goods phenomenon, not a monetary phenomenon, though according to the Fed, monetary policy can be used to stimulate or control it.

Unfortunately, the evidence from multiple surveys is that after nine years since the Lehman crisis the state of the economy remains suppressed while debt has continued to increase, so this cycle is not in the normal pattern. It is clear from the evidence that the American economy, in common with the European and Japanese, is overburdened by the accumulation of malinvestments and associated debt. Furthermore, nine years of wealth attrition through monetary inflation (as described above) has reduced the purchasing power of the average consumer’s earnings significantly in real terms. So instead of a phase of sustainable growth, it is likely America has arrived at a point where the economy can no longer bear the depredations of further “monetary stimulus”. It is also increasingly clear that a relatively small rise in the general interest rate level will bring on the next crisis.

So what will the Fed – and, for that matter, other major CBs – do? I look back to the crisis of 2008/2009 – one of the unique aspects of this period was the coordinated action of the big five: the Fed, ECB, BoJ, BoE and SNB. In 1987 the Fed was the “saviour of the universe”. Their actions became so transparent in the years that followed, that the phase “Greenspan Put” was coined to describe the way the Fed saved stock market investors and corporate creditors. CEPR – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? which I have quoted from in previous letters, is an excellent introduction to the unintended consequences of CB largesse.

Since 2009 economic growth has remained sluggish; this has occurred despite historically low interest rates – it’s not unreasonable to surmise that the massive overhang of debt, globally, is weighing on both demand pull inflation and economic growth. Stock buy-backs have been rife and the long inverted relationship between dividend yields and government bond yields has reversed. Paying higher dividends may be consistent with diversifying a company’s investor base but buying back stock suggests a lack of imagination by the “C” Suite. Or perhaps these executives are uncomfortable investing when interest rates are artificially low.

I believe the vast majority of the rise in stock markets since 2009 has been the result of CB policy, therefore the Fed rate increase is highly significant. The actions of the other CBs – and here I would include the PBoC alongside the big five – is also of significant importance. Whilst the Fed has tightened the ECB and the PBoC continue to ease. The Fed appears determined to raise rates again, but the other CBs are likely to neutralise the overall effect. Currency markets will take the majority of the strain, as they have been for the last couple of years.

A collapse in equity markets will puncture confidence and this will undermine growth prospects globally. Whilst some of the malinvestments of the last seven years will be unwound, I expect CBs to provide further support. The BoJ is currently the only CB with an overt policy of “qualitative easing” – by which I mean the purchasing of common stock – I fully expect the other CBs to follow to adopt a similar approach. For some radical ideas on this subject this paper by Professor Roger Farmer – Qualitative Easing: How it Works and Why it Matters – which was presented at the St Louis Federal Reserve conference in 2012 – makes interesting reading.

Investment opportunities

In comparison to Europe– especially Germany – the US economy is relatively immune to the weakness of China. This is already being reflected in both the currency and stocks markets. The trend is likely to continue. In the emerging market arena Brazil still looks sickly and the plummeting price of oil isn’t helping, meanwhile India should be a beneficiary of cheaper oil. Some High yield non-energy bonds are likely to be “tarred” (pardon the pun) with the energy brush. Meanwhile, from an international perspective the US$ remains robust even as the US$ Index approaches resistance at 100.

US_Index_-_5_yr_Marketwatch

Source: Marketwatch

An Autumn Reassessment – Will the fallout from China favour equities, bonds or the US Dollar?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 40 – 28-08-2015

An Autumn Reassessment – Will the fallout from China favour equities, bonds or the US Dollar?

  • The FOMC rate increase may be delayed
  • An equity market correction is technically overdue
  • Long duration bonds offer defensive value
  • The US$ should out-perform after the “risk-off” phase has run its course

It had been a typical summer market until the past fortnight. Major markets had been range bound, pending the widely-anticipated rate increase from the FOMC and the prospect of similar, though less assured, action from the BoE. The ECB, of course, has been preoccupied with the next Greek bailout, whilst EU politicians wrestle with the life and death implications of the migrant crisis.

What seems to have changed market sentiment was the PBoC’s decision to engineer a 3% devaluation in the value of the RMB against the US$. This move acted as a catalyst for global markets, commentators seizing on the news as evidence that the Chinese administration has lost control of its rapidly slowing economy. As to what China should do next, opinion is divided between those who think any conciliatory gesture is a sign of weakness and those who believe the administration must act swiftly and with purpose, to avoid an inexorable and potentially catastrophic deterioration in economic conditions. The PBoC reduced interest rates again on Wednesday by 25bp – 1yr Lending Rate to 4.6% and 1yr Deposit Rate to 1.75% – they also reduced the Reserve Ratio requirement from 18.5% to 18%. This is not exactly dramatic but it leaves them with the flexibility to act again should the situation worsen.

Markets, especially equities, have become more volatile. The largest bond markets have rallied as equities have fallen. This is entirely normal; that the move has occurred during August, when liquidity is low, has, perhaps, conspired to exacerbate the move – technical traders will await confirmation when new lows are seen in equity markets during normal liquidity conditions.

Has anything changed in China?    

The Chinese economy has been rebalancing since 2012 – this article from Michael Pettis – Rebalancing and long term growth – from September 2013 provides an excellent insight. The process still has a number of years to run. Meanwhile, pegging the RMB to the US$ has made China uncompetitive in certain export markets. Other countries have filled the void, Mexico, for example, now appears to have a competitive advantage in terms of labour costs whilst transportation costs are definitely in its favour when meeting demand for goods from the US. This April 2013 article from the Financial Times – Mexican labour: cheaper than China elaborates:-

Mexico_vs_China_-_wages_Merrill_Lynch

Source: BofA Merrill Lynch

China’s economy continues to slow, a lower RMB is not unexpected but how are the major economies faring under these conditions?

US growth and lower oil prices?

I recently wrote about the US economy – US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment? My conclusion was that US stock earnings were improving. The majority of Q2 earnings reports have been released and the improvement is broad-based. This article from Pictet – US and Europe Q2 Earnings Results: positive surprises but no game changer which was published last week, looks at both the US and Europe:-

US earnings: strong profit margins and strong financials

Almost all S&P500 (456) companies published their Q2 results. At the sales level, 46% of companies beat their estimates; meanwhile, the corresponding number was 54% at the net profit level. Companies beat their sales and net profit estimates by 1.2% and 2.2% respectively, thus demonstrating strong cost control. Financials were big contributors as sales and net profit surprises came out at +0.5% and 1.5% respectively excluding this sector. Banks (37% of financials) beat sales estimates by 9% sales surprises and 8.4% at the net profit level. This sector’s hit ratio was especially impressive with 92% of reporting companies ahead of the street estimates. Oil and gas companies, which suffered from very large downgrades in 2015, reported earnings in line with expectations. Sales of material-related sectors (basic resources, chemicals, construction materials) suffered from the decline in global commodity prices, but those companies were able to post better than expected net profits. While positive, these numbers were not sufficient to alter the general US earnings picture. Thus the 2015 expected growth remains anaemic at 1.6% for the whole S&P500 and at 9.1% excluding the oil sector.

Q2 GDP came out at 2.3% vs forecasts of 2.6%, nonetheless, this was robust enough to raise expectations of a September rate increase from the FOMC.

European growth – lower oil a benefit?

The European Q2 reporting season is still in train, however, roughly half the earnings reports have now been published; here’s Pictet’s commentary:-

European earnings: positive surprises, strong banks but no substantial currency impact

A little more than half of Stoxx Europe 600 constituents published their numbers. Sales and net earnings surprises came out at 4% and 4.3% respectively. Excluding financials, the beat was less impressive with 0.8% at the sales level and 2.7% at the net income level. Banks had a strong quarter on the back of a rebound in loan volumes and improvements in some peripheral economies. This sector’s published sales and net income were thus 33% and 11% higher respectively than estimates. One of the key questions going into the earnings season was whether the very weak euro would boost European earnings. Unfortunately, this element failed to impact Q2 earning in a meaningful way. Investors counting on the weaker currency to boost European companies’ profit margins were clearly disappointed as this process remains very gradual. Thus, European corporates’ profit margins remain well below their US counterparts (11% versus 15%).

The weakness of the oil price doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on European growth. This video from Bruegel – The impact of the oil price on the EU economy from early June, suggests that the benefit of lower energy prices may still feed through to the wider European economy, however they conclude that the weakening of prices for industrial materials supports the view that the driver of lower oil prices is a weakening in the global economy rather than the result of a positive supply shock. The views expressed by Lutz Kilian, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, are particularly worth considering – he sees the oil price decline as being a marginal benefit to the global economy at best.

When attempting to gain a sense of how economic conditions are changing, I find it useful to visit a country or region. The UK appears to be in reasonably rude health by this measure, however, mainland Europe has been buffeted by another Greek crisis during the last few months, so my visit to Spain, this summer, provided a useful opportunity for observation. The country seems more prosperous than last year – albeit I visited a different province – despite the lingering problems of excess debt and the overhang of housing stock. The informal economy, always more flexible than its regulated relation, seems to be thriving, but most of the seasonal workers are non-Spanish – mainly of North African descent. This suggests that the economic adjustment process has not yet run its course – unemployment benefits are still sufficiently generous to make menial work unattractive, whilst unemployment remains stubbornly high:-

spain-unemployment- youth unemployment rate

Source: Trading Economics

Euro area youth unemployment remains stubbornly high at 22% – down from 24% in 2013 but well above the average for the period prior to the 2008 financial crisis (15%).

If structural reforms are working, Greece should be leading the adjustment process. Wages should be falling and, as the country regains competitiveness, and employment opportunities should rise:-

greece-german unemployment-rate

Source: Trading Economics

The chart above shows Greek vs German unemployment since the introduction of the Euro in 1999. Germany always had structurally lower unemployment and a much smaller “black economy”. During the early part of the 2000’s it suffered from a lack of competitiveness whilst other Eurozone countries benefitted from the introduction of the Euro. Between 2003 and 2005 Germany introduced the Hartz labour reforms. Whilst average earnings in Germany remained stagnant its economic competitiveness dramatically improved.

During the same period Greek wages increased substantially, the Greek government issued a vast swathe of debt and unemployment fell marginally – until the 2008 crisis. Since 2013 the adjustment process has begun to reduce unemployment, yet, with youth unemployment (see chart below) still above 50% and migrants arriving by the thousands, this summer, it appears as though the economic adjustment process has barely begun:-

greece-german youth-unemployment-rate

Source: Trading Economics

Japan – has Abenomics failed?

Japanese Q2 GDP was -1.6% y/y, Q1 was revised to an annualised +4.5% from 3.9% – itself a revision from 2.4%, so there may be room for some improvement in subsequent revisions. The weakness was blamed on lower exports to the US and China – despite policies designed to depreciate the JYP – and a weather related lack of domestic demand. The IMF – Conference Call from 23rd July urged greater efforts to stimulate growth by means of “third arrow” structural reform:-

In terms of the outlook for growth, we project growth at 0.8 percent in 2015 and 1.2 percent in 2016, and potential growth over the medium term under current policies we estimate to be about 0.6 percent. Although this near-term growth forecast looks modest, we would like to emphasize that it is above potential and, therefore, we think that the output gap will be closing by early 2017.

Still, we need to emphasize that the risks are on the downside, including from external developments, weaker growth in the United States and China, and global financial turbulence that could lead to safe haven appreciation of the yen, which would take the wind out of the recovery to some degree.

The key domestic risks include weaker than expected real wage growth in the short term and weak domestic demand and incomplete fiscal and structural reforms over the medium term. These scenarios could result in stagnation or stagflation and trigger a jump in JGB yields.

 

Conclusions and investment opportunities

I want to start by reviewing the markets; here are three charts comparing equities vs 10yr government bonds – for the Eurozone I’ve used German Bunds as a surrogate:-

Dow - T-Bond 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Eurostoxx - Bunds - 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Nikkei - JGB 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

With the exception of the Dow – and its pattern is similar on the S&P500 – the uptrend in stocks hasn’t been broken, nonetheless, a significant stock market correction is overdue. Below is a 10 year monthly chart for the S&P500:-

S&P500 10yr

Source: Barchart.com

US Stocks

Looking at the chart above, a retest of the November 2007 highs (1545) would not be unreasonable – I would certainly view this as a buying opportunity from a shorter term trading perspective. A break of the October 2014 low (1821) may presage a move towards this level, but for the moment I remain neutral. This is a change to my position earlier this year, when I had become more positive on the prospects for US stocks – earnings may have improved, but the recent price action suggests doubts are growing about the ability of US corporates to deliver sufficient multi-year growth to justify the current price-multiples in the face of potential central bank rate increases.

US Bonds

T-Bonds have been a short term beneficiary of “flight to quality” flows. A more gradual move lower in stocks will favour Treasuries but FOMC rate increases will lead to curve-flattening and may completely counter this effect. Should the FOMC relent – and the markets may well test their mettle – it will be a reactive, rather than a proactive move. The market will perceive the rate increases as merely postponed. Longer duration bonds will be less susceptible to the vagaries of the stock market and will offer a more attractive yield by way of recompense when a new tightening cycle begin in earnest.

Europe and Japan – stocks and bonds

Since the recent stock market decline and bond market rally are a reaction to the exogenous impact of China’s economic fortunes, I expect correlation between the major markets to increase – whither the US so goes the world.

The US$ – conundrum

Finally, I feel compelled to mention the recent price action of the US$ Index:-

US Dollar Index

Source: Barchart.com

Having been the beneficiary of significant inflows over the past two years, the US$ has weakened versus its main trading partners since the beginning of 2015, however, the value of the US$ has been artificially reduced over multiple years by the pegging of emerging market currencies to the world’s reserve currency – especially the Chinese RMB. The initial reaction to the RMB devaluation on 12th August was a weakening of the US$ as “risk” trades were unwound. The market correction this week has seen a continuation of this process. Once the deleveraging and risk-off phase has run its course – which may take some weeks – fundamental factors should favour the US$. The FOMC is still more likely to raise rates before other major central banks, whilst concern about the relative fragility of the economies of emerging markets, Japan and Europe all favour a renewed strengthening of the US$.