We came across one interesting little data point this week amid the usual news avalanche. The US birthrate reached a 30 year low in 2017: fewer babies were born here last year than any year since 1987. What caught our eye was the odd timing. Birth rates tend to be loosely, but positively, correlated with economic growth (rising during good times and falling when growth goes south). 2017 was the eighth year of what is now the second longest economic expansion in US history. And yet…fewer babies. The fertility rate has fallen from 2.1 kids per woman of childbearing age a decade ago to 1.8 today.
The Growth Recipe
Population data like birth rates don’t typically figure in to short term market movements; we would feel confident in opining that these latest reports, which came out yesterday, did not figure into the day’s movements of the S&P 500 or the 10-year Treasury yield or the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil. But they do matter for the bigger picture, which is why every now and then they will show up in one of our weekly commentaries. Population growth is one part of the long term economic growth equation, along with labor force participation and productivity. Right now, all three of these variables are either negative or stagnant, which puts a big asterisk next to that longevity record for the current recovery. What good is an expansion if the rate of expansion is, by historical standards, so low? And while there may not be much we can do about broad population trends, what is it going to take to bring back higher productivity? The chart below shows the long term trends (since 1950) for productivity and labor force participation.
This is a useful chart for understanding what we mean when we talk about “long term growth.” There are two notable dynamics here. The first was the remarkable burst of productivity that came in the immediate postwar era. This was the heyday of Pax Americana, when our factories and the goods they produced were the envy of the world. As the chart shows, the average rate of productivity (the thin blue vertical columns) was substantially higher during this period than it has been at any time since. Productivity stared to decline in the early 1970s as the economy globalized and other nations – notably a rebuilt Germany and Japan – caught up.
But another trend kicked in around the same time that kept the growth going. This was labor force participation, represented in the chart by the green line. The baby boom generation started to enter the workforce, and so did women, heralding the arrival of the two income household as mainstream. Labor force participation went on a massive surge that didn’t crest until the late 1990s. Then, another productivity boom (though less impressive than that of the 1950s-60s) happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this one driven mostly by the delayed impact of information technology in the office and new business processes, like just-in-time inventory management and enterprise resource management, that made efficient use of all that new computational capacity.
Alexa, Make the Economy Grow
Which brings us to today. The decline in the labor force participation rate appears to have stabilized at a level close to that of the late 1970s, while productivity for the last decade is the lowest since record-keeping began in 1948. Imagine for a moment that you are looking at the above chart in 2030, twelve years from now. Or even farther down the road, in 2040. What will it look like?
As for labor force participation, we have some clues in those population trends we observed in the opening paragraph of this commentary; namely, the US population is ageing and the fertility rate is moving farther away from the replacement rate (where each new generation has enough children to replace the outgoing generation). We are not likely to see another phenomenon akin to the sudden surge of two-income households in the 1970s and 1980s to boost participation rates.
That leaves productivity as the only variable with potential energy. If our kids and their kids are looking at this chart and remarking on the great growth cycle of the 2020s, it will be due to a new wave of productivity that we have not yet seen but that may well be lurking under the surface. Artificial intelligence, immersion reality, quantum computing…these are technologies that are known but that have not yet shown themselves to translate to economic growth. But that may be simply a matter of time. The computer technologies developed in the vast mainframe labs of the mid-20th century didn’t flex their commercial muscles until much later, after all.
Or maybe our grandkids won’t care about this chart at all. “Economic growth” didn’t become the go-to proxy for “quality of life,” with all the attendant statistics like GDP, inflation and labor productivity, until after the Great Depression (which is why all the official records for these numbers didn’t start until the 1940s). Maybe some other metric will matter more to them…and to us, in our advanced years.
In the meantime, though, a healthy dose of productivity would be a nice antidote to those baby blues.
You may recall, dear reader, that there was a national election in Italy back in March that proved to be highly inconclusive. We’ll give ourselves a modest pat on the back for prognosticating ahead of that event its most likely outcome – a non-decision with power hanging in the balance as ascendant populist parties try to figure out a workable cohabitation while the previous center-left government – here as elsewhere throughout Europe – fades into oblivion. That election returned to occupy market attention this week.
Not This Time
The string of recent elections in Europe that started with the Netherlands and France around this time last year, and continued on into Germany last autumn, managed in each case to avoid a decisive populist surge into power while at the same time underscoring just how unpopular traditional parties there are – particularly those of the once-dominant center-left. At some point, the run of dumb luck was due to come to an end. That seems to have happened. It remains to be seen, though, whether the increasing likelihood of a government variously hostile or (at best) indifferent to the EU and the single currency will unnerve investors. Despite a bit of a hiccup on the Milan bourse (shown in the chart below) and a slight widening of the spread between Italian benchmark bonds and German Bunds, the answer so far is – not much.
Voi Volete Governare?
The question left pending after the March election was whether any such “workable cohabitation” for governing would be possible between the party platforms of the Five Star Movement (FSM) – the creation of a popular comedian, Beppe Grillo, the unifying message of which seems to be nothing more than “throw all the bums out” – and the more ideological Northern League, an ethno-nationalist party with roots in a movement for Italy’s prosperous north to secede from the rest of the country. As early as Tuesday this week that question appeared unresolved, and the chatter turned to the embarrassing possibility of a second election just months after the first.
Send In the Clown
Then, on Wednesday, the contours of Italy’s next government became clearer. Former prime minister and walking evidence for why the #MeToo movement exists, Silvio Berlusconi, gave his tacit blessing to a League-FSM governing union. Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia party underperformed in the March elections, but retained enough clout to give its still-politically viable leader a kingmaker role. The respective leaders of the League and the FSM, Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, have instructed their key staff to reconcile platform positions by the end of the weekend. There is still the possibility that these will not bear fruit, but the consensus among insiders familiar with the process is that the next government of this G-7 nation will be run by a coalition decidedly at odds with Brussels on many important issues ranging from immigration to Eurozone fiscal policy to the need for sanctions against Russia (like many other European populist movements, both the FSM and the League are generally pliant towards Russia and Putin).
Nothing to See Here…Yet
There is a grain or two of rationality in the market’s relative complacency towards Italy. On the bond side, the ongoing presence of the ECB is a strong counterweight against wild fluctuations in yields. The central bank holds about 15 percent of the total float of Eurozone sovereign debt, which creates stability. The return to stagnation in the Eurozone economy (see last week’s commentary) reduces the likelihood that the ECB will move soon in any drastic way to curtail its QE program.
In equity-land, the large cap Italian companies that account for the lion’s share of total tradable market cap are largely multinationals with a diverse geographic footprint and thus less directly exposed to a potential economic downturn in their home market.
The current sense of calm notwithstanding, investors have long wondered whether a populist/nationalist government at the head of one of the major Eurozone nations poses a critical threat to the viability of the single currency region. An answer to that question, one way or the other, may be forthcoming in the months ahead.
Yes, it’s already May. Three days into the year’s fifth month, we are pleased to say we have not yet had to listen to the first seasonal “sell in May and go away” pronouncement by a stupidly grinning CNBC pundit. It’s coming, though, as surely as May flowers follow April showers. Meanwhile, as equities tread water between the support and resistance levels that were the subject of last week’s commentary, we are giving a second look to one of the key drivers of the default macro narrative: the synchronized global growth theme. In the crosshairs of this analysis is the Eurozone. The Cinderella story of 2017, with a growth trajectory in line with that of the US, seems to be morphing back into one of the dowdy stepsisters.
The Return of La Malaise
We’ve been here of course, before. The economy of the single currency zone experienced an existential crisis in 2011 as Greece’s debt debacle threatened to spread to other troubled “periphery” markets like Italy, Spain and Portugal. Mario Draghi brought it back from a near-coma with his “whatever it takes” avowal in June 2012 and the subsequent introduction of the ECB’s quantitative easing program. But growth languished until a surprising run of data last year. Production output, service sector growth, employment and confidence improved across the region. Inflation, which two years earlier seemed poised to sink into a deflation trap, rebounded and made the ECB’s 2 percent target seem almost reasonable. With Japan also joining in the fun, by the second half of last year the world’s major developed economies seemed almost to be growing in lockstep. “Global synchronized growth” became the go-to shorthand for explaining last year’s good times in risk asset markets.
But real Eurozone GDP growth for the first quarter, released yesterday, came in at 0.4 percent, the lowest quarterly figure in eighteen months. Today, the flash estimate of core inflation (excluding the energy and food & beverage sectors) shows consumer prices growing at just 0.7 percent – not exactly within striking distance of that elusive 2 percent target. As this is the first reading of the data, the jury is still out on what is driving the slowdown (or, for that matter, whether this is just a one-off bump in the road or the onset of something more prolonged).
Euro Up, Euro Down
One possible culprit for the return of stagnation is the currency. In December 2016, at the height of the “Trump trade” follies that took control of investor brains, one euro bought just $1.04. Parity was surely around the corner. Instead, the euro went off on a tear, surging to $1.20 by last fall and then as high as $1.25 earlier this year. The simple rule of thumb is that a strong currency is a drag on an economy’s net exports because it makes those exports less price-competitive on world markets. That drag takes time to show up in actual figures, though, so it is possible that a yearlong appreciation of the euro is finally starting to show up in the GDP data.
If currency is the culprit – and we don’t have enough data yet to arrive at a firm conclusion – then we may get a signal in the not too distant future that the stagnation won’t last for long. The dollar has surged against most major currencies, including the euro, since the middle of April. The euro is back down below the $1.20 threshold. The trend reversal is indicated in fairly striking fashion in the chart below. This shows a side-by-side comparison of the MSCI EU equity index in US dollar (left) and euro (right) terms over the last three months.
The “divergence” trade that many had predicted more than a year ago, with a growing gulf between tighter monetary policy in the US and still-accommodative measures in Europe (and Japan) may be coming into its own. A stronger dollar would be a key presumption of the divergence trade, along with widening spreads between US and Eurozone benchmark yields (the 10-year German Bund yield is around 15 percent off its recent high while the 10-year Treasury is close to its highest levels since 2014).
It is quite possible, of course, that the euro’s trajectory is not the main story when it comes to the question of what may be pushing Europe’s economy out of sync with US growth trends. Not much was ever actually fixed following the 2011-12 crisis – most policy issues and questions about member states’ economic obligations to each other were just kicked down the road to be reckoned with later. The time for reckoning may be at hand. Breaking up the “global synchronized growth” narrative is about the last thing an already jittery market environment needs.
We’ve sort of gotten into the habit of referring to the 2018 equity market pullback in the past tense, which is not technically correct as the S&P 500 still languishes around 7 percent below its late-January record high. But the sense of drama that accompanied those big plunges in February in March, alongside the breathless narrative of a global trade war, is no longer clear and present. Is it too early to do a post-mortem and contemplate what may lie ahead? That’s entirely possible – whatever the market decides to do on May Day and the rest of next week is as murky as always. Nonetheless, we have our forensic tools out and will do a little dissecting of the present state of things. As volatile as things have been, this has so far been a remarkably well-behaved little correction.
Highly Relevant Nonsense
Perhaps nowhere is this well-tempered aspect more visible than in the market’s price performance vis a vis its technical moving averages, particularly the 50-day and 200-day averages. Now, we have made the point before and we will make it again: there is nothing magical or transcendental about moving averages. They are just methodical calculations. But they are given relevance because short-term trading strategies make them relevant – another example of the “observation affects reality” phenomenon we have described in other recent commentaries. The chart below shows the year-to-date performance of the S&P 500 along with the 50- and 200-day averages, and also the yield on the 10-year Treasury (which we will discuss in further detail below).
The 200-day moving average often serves as a support level. Technical traders get worried when the market breaches this downside support and fails to reestablish a position above it. No such worries this time: the index breached the 200-day average a handful of times in intraday trading but only closed once below it. Enough of those algo strategies were wired to kick in at this level, and there wasn’t enough prevailing negative sentiment to push prices into further negative territory. This played out most recently during this past week.
Our takeaway message from this is more or less what we’ve been saying throughout this period; namely that the catalyzing X-factors of this pullback – first the inflation fears after the February jobs report and then the new US tariffs – weren’t convincing enough to detract from the background narrative of continuing global growth and healthy corporate earnings.
On the other hand, though, the S&P 500 has had a similarly hard time staying above the resistance level of the 50-day moving average. Sentiment then, while not bearish, is also not wildly bullish. Investors wanting to see a clear “W” shape emerging from the pullback may have to bide their time for a while longer, or at least until the momentum strategy funds that got burned in February have worked through all their pain trades and those moving averages become less relevant to the daily flow of things.
Stocks and Bonds: Not Quite a Pas de Deux
Another observation that’s done a few laps on the financial pundit circuit recently is the idea that stock prices and bond yields have been moving in the same direction for much of the year. Well, sort of. In the aggregate that observation is clearly not true: stock prices are struggling to break even for the year to date, while the 10-year Treasury yield is up sharply from where it was in early January. But the chart above does show some degree of correlation during different sub-periods, most especially in the first three weeks of January when they did seem to move almost in tandem. Yields also reverted to traditional safe haven behavior during the second (trade war) prong of the pullback in mid-late March.
The correlation pattern diverged more prominently during the S&P 500’s mini-retreat of late last week and the first half of this week. The 10-year yield spiked to puncture the 3 percent level for the first time since 2014. Meanwhile, stocks fell back as investors, digesting a healthy stream of corporate earnings, did their best impression of a bratty kid who didn’t get the exact Christmas present he was expecting. “Peak quarter” seems to be the phrase of the day: the idea that this is about as good as it will get, even though the hard evidence for that glass half empty conclusion appears sparse.
What’s the overall takeaway? There’s a whiff of 2015 in the air. In that year stock prices set a record high in May and didn’t break new high ground until June of the following year (ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, go figure). Cautious sentiment – neither pessimistic nor optimistic – may keep share prices in a sideways pattern. Those silly moving averages may continue to restrain directional breakouts. This kind of environment often suggests a return to quality, where things like free cash flow and debt ratios actually matter again and careful stock selection can pay off.
Then again, none of that could be true. If there’s anything one learns over the days and years in this profession, it is to always expect the unexpected.
Investors who went bullish on emerging markets equities in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election must have looked daft to the conventional wisdom of the day. That wisdom (such as it was) saw non-US markets generally and EMs in particular being on the wrong side of the “reflation trade” – furious, price-busting growth in the US, a resurgent dollar and export-oriented economies left out in the cold by “America first.” EM investors who stuck to their guns got the last laugh. Since the beginning of 2017 the MSCI Emerging Markets index, a popular benchmark for the asset class, has appreciated more than 32 percent in local currency terms. The index has done even better in dollar terms (which is how a US-domiciled investor would tally her performance), largely because that anticipated dollar rally last year never happened, and EM currencies mostly rallied against the greenback.
Climbing the Wall of Worry
The first four months of 2018, of course, have produced a very different market for risk assets than the previous year. With all the clear and present fears of a trade war casting a pall on markets for the past two months it would be fair to say that emerging markets – prominent representative members of which are front and center in the trade war crosshairs – have had to climb a wall of worry. But for the most part climb they have, as the chart below illustrates.
EM equities took a big hit in early February, along with most other risk asset classes. But MSCI EM is still up by about 2.3 percent for the year to date (in price terms), which is better than either US large caps or most non-US developed markets. This, even though (a) the MSCI EM index is disproportionately represented by China and other Asia Pacific economies (more than 70 percent of the index’s total market cap) and (b) these very same Asian economies are central to the trade disputes making daily headlines. The relatively healthy recovery following the initial February pullback seems to offer persuasive evidence that investors do not ascribe a high probability to a scenario of all-out trade war. It also underscores some fundamental changes in global trade flows over the past decade. The old model of China and other emerging Asian economies largely dependent on exports of basic, low-value goods to the US is no longer valid. Trade flows are much more diversified, with an increasing percentage denoting trade among emerging economies themselves.
Additionally, Asia is now home to a larger number of world-beating companies domiciled in these countries, across a broad range of industry sectors including high value-add segments of research-driven technology like robotics, clean energy and quantum computing. Earnings prospects for these companies are strong, which keeps valuation levels from being excessive even after the strong growth of the past 16 months. In fact, regional forward price-earnings ratios in the low teens make for comparatively attractive value plays versus the current 17 times next twelve months (NTM) P/E ratio for the S&P 500.
A Rupee For Your Thoughts
Investors still have a habit of treating emerging markets as a single asset class, despite the fact that differences between the key economies in this group are profound. A look at some recent trends in currency markets illustrates that what looks at first glance to be a dominant directional play is actually driven by very different variables. The chart below shows the performance of four currencies: the Brazilian real, Turkish lira, Russian ruble and Indian rupee.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, each of these dysfunctional currency trends is unhappy in its own special way. Brazil’s woes are a mix of politics and technicalities in the currency swaps market. Russia took a hit from renewed concern over sanctions in the wake of the recent US missile strikes in Syria. Volatility in the Turkish lira stems from local geopolitics as well as concern over a potential forthcoming rate hike. India’s economy has been in something of a funk of late, and recently it was added to the US’s list of currency manipulators (at the same time that, surprising to many observers, China was left off).
These all being local rather than asset class-wide stories, there may be little about which to be concerned for investors in a broad emerging markets equity play like the MSCI benchmark. It’s also worth noting that China’s currency is not suffering the same fate as the four shown above: the renminbi has gained ground this year and held steady throughout the recent trade war posturing. Fundamentally, the EM story would appear largely to remain sound. But historical trends have shown that investor perceptions of EM flows can turn on a dime. Those four individual currency stories illustrated above could morph into a single narrative that the asset class’s fortunes are due for a turn and it’s time to get out. Not what we would recommend at present – but it’s worth keeping an eye on how this plays out.