Posts tagged Global Economy
Investors price a variety of assumptions into their asset valuation models every day, based on cyclical factors like interest rates and inflation expectations. Behind all these short term variables, though, is a more fundamental assumption about how the world works. That assumption is grounded in the primacy of what, for want of a better phrase, we call the “global technocracy.” As well it should be – the technocracy has survived largely intact since the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 that set the postwar world order.
But the global technocracy is in trouble, and we don’t really have a good playbook for mapping out scenarios involving their eclipse by other forces. This may prove to be interesting times – in the sense of that old Chinese proverb – for analysts trying to distill tectonic shifts in the macro world order into an informed model of likely asset price trends.
Saving the World, One Crisis At a Time
The global technocracy is made up of the policymakers – central bankers, finance ministers and their ilk – who can always be counted on to steer markets away from the shoals of peril back into calmer seas. They may not necessarily solve the problem of the day, but they can paper it over for a later day. Think of the Greek debt crisis and the various US debt ceiling debacles in recent years, and the bailout of the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund in the late 1990s. Back then we had the “Committee to Save the World” as Time magazine dubbed the triumvirate of Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. In our present day we have Mario “Whatever It Takes” Draghi and of course the now-technocrat emeriti team of Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen who got us safely through the narrows of Scylla and Charybdis and back to growth after the Great Recession.
Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before
“They won’t pay their fair share!” “It’s time to put America, and working Americans, first!” “No more bad trade deals!” Sounds familiar, right? As in literally every day of life since January 2017. Please don’t think of this as anything unusual or unprecedented. Think, instead, of 1920. The Great War had ended, and our European allies, battered and destitute, owed America $10 billion in reparations for war debts (about $152 billion in present-day terms). World War I put an end to a glorious 40-year era of global technocracy, led by Great Britain.
With Britain severely weakened, the mantle of leadership now fell to the US. The major private investment interests of the day, led by the likes of J.P. Morgan and A.J. Drexel – card-carrying members of the global technocracy – saw the war debts as an albatross that would impede the ability of their European trading partners to return to commercial viability, and they argued for cancelling them. Their arguments – and those of the Europeans themselves – fell on deaf ears in Washington. The Republican Party that came to power in 1920 was highly protectionist and inclined to…well, put America first. Not only did the US insist on full reparation of war debts, but Congress enacted highly punitive protectionist tariffs in 1921 and 1922. They would follow this, of course, with the extreme measures of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930.
The global technocracy was out. Narrow-interest protectionism was in. How did that work out?
A Splendid Little Decade, Until…
Actually, it worked out splendidly…for quite a number of years. That decade, of course, went down in history as the “Roaring Twenties.” It was an era of rapid technological advancement. The modern production-line factory came of age. Radio and wireless communications made RCA an early prototype for dot-com and then “FAANG” mania. Retail outlets and catalogue merchandisers such as Sears and Woolworth’s streamlined their business models. Prosperity abounded.
It all came to a dismal end, of course, with the 1929 market crash and the Great Depression. America’s aggressive economic stance against its allies (“trench warfare by other means” as the cynics of the day termed it) hindered reconstruction in Europe and left a leadership vacuum all too happily filled by opportunistic political extremists on the Continent. It would take another war, even more brutal and destructive than the first, for America to willingly accept its role as economic superpower and de facto head of the global technocracy.
It’s All About the Timing
The moral of this story is quite simple. While we may indeed be on the cusp of another tectonic shift in world affairs – in which narrowly partisan self-interest once again pushes the global technocracy off center stage – there is no real playbook to instruct as to how and when asset markets will react accordingly. A thoughtful investor in 1920 would have had excellent arguments, based on the data available at the time, to go all cash. That investor would have been right…nine years and 240 percent of cumulative stock price appreciation later.
It’s all about the timing. In the absence of a good playbook, investors and prognosticators are likely to learn just how tricky that can be. Think about this, though, at those barbeques this summer when some know-it-all tries to tell you that the sky is falling and it’s time to get out. Or that you should double down, because we’re about to embark on the most prosperous age ever known to humankind. “If X, then Y” is how the pundits like to spin their arguments into gold. The more salient formulation, though, is “If X, WHEN Y?” And that’s a question with an exceedingly elusive answer.
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.
History is simply a collection of the biographies of great people, the charismatic heroes and anti-heroes whose supreme self-confidence, fanatical drive and decisiveness write the chapters of the ages. So believed Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish philosopher and historian who penned works on Napoleon, Frederick II of Prussia and a “Great Man Theory of History” in general.
Or, history is actually not that at all. History enslaves all humankind, great and small alike, to bit-player roles in a complexity of events, near-events and non-events that evolve in ways unfathomable and inaccessible to simplistic storytelling. So believed the great Russian writer Tolstoy, who devoted over 1,000 pages to a novel, War and Peace, to make this point.
To read War and Peace is to read of the cacophony of random events, missed communications, uninformed decisions and human behavioral traps that ultimately shaped events like the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino – not the genius of Napoleon, nor the resolve of Tsar Alexander I, but those thousands of probable and improbable things that had nothing to do with the supposed destinies of great men. “The tsar” wrote Tolstoy “is but a slave to history.” Outcomes have as much to do with weird supply-line hiccups, melting ice on river crossings and rioting prisoners as they do with those bold commands from the top generals.
Tolstoians Under Fire
Investment markets have been in a decidedly Tolstoian frame of mind for several years now. This view aligns with an understanding of the global economy as its own inscrutable, constantly evolving sea of complexity wherein rulers of nations and titans of industry float and bob like tiny specks on the surface. Geopolitical flare-ups happen; currency crises spring up in the Eurozone, citizens vote in seemingly irrational ways, but the global economy just keeps on keeping on. Real GDP keeps growing, corporate earnings grow even faster, job markets and consumer prices reassure us that there are no nasty recessions lurking around the corner. This mindset reached its high point in 2017, when volatility reached historically low levels no matter how crazy, dire or improbable the news of the day.
But this Tolstoian view has run into some stiff headwinds among investors in early 2018. There seems to be a newfound sense, among many, that humans vested with considerable power can, in fact, make consequential decisions that directly impact the value of portfolios of risk assets. The specific catalyst bringing out investors’ inner Carlyle is the growing threat of a trade war. Thursday’s reversal of 2.5 percent on major benchmark indexes was driven in large part by the latest show of bellicosity by the Trump administration and threats of retaliation by China, currently the primary intended target of a new round of punitive tariffs. Investors who were hoping for a quick V-shaped recovery from the original sell-off a few weeks ago can blame that original announcement of new tariffs on aluminum and steel for cutting off the nascent recovery in share prices.
Great (by which we mean “vested with lots of power,” not to be confused with “good”) leaders making bad decisions: a Carlyle-esque reprise of that ill-fated summer of 1914? Or, ultimately, a brief tempest that sooner or later will fall back into an inconsequential ripple on the ever-expanding sea of the global economy? Your own view of markets in 2018 may well be shaped by whether you are more inclined to agree with Carlyle or with Tolstoy.
The Corporate America Variable
If Trump and his inner circle continue to raise the stakes on a trade war, they will be due for an earful from many corners of Corporate America for whom such an outcome is the very opposite of their business growth models. S&P 500 corporations derive in the aggregate more than half their revenues from outside the US. Almost any major company that produces a good or service with a viable market in China is focused on that market for a considerable amount of its potential future growth. This doesn’t just apply to the obvious names of retailers like Starbucks, Nike and Yum! Brands that have been in that market for years, but to firms in any industry from property & casualty insurance to pediatric nutrition to semiconductors. Sure, steel producers may cheer the prospects for protective tariffs in the short run, but their collective market cap weight is considerably less than that of those who forcefully champion more open trade.
So what will it be? Is the global economy, the creation of millions of random interactions of events and non-events and near-events over the past four decades, destined to simply keep evolving, too massive and too necessary in its current form for a sudden reversal into autarkic nation-states waging economic war on each other? Our general inclination is to take a Tolstoian view of things, and we think it likelier than not that the threat of $60 or even $100 billion in punitive tariffs and associated bellicose posturing will not have the power to topple a global economy worth more, in nominal GDP, than $85 trillion.
That is not to say that we have a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” take on things. Tolstoy never said that history always works out for the best. Sometimes those random, incoherent things that happen or that don’t happen lead to unhappy outcomes – see 1914, 1917 and 1933 as examples of this in the last century. Disciplined investing requires keeping emotions in check, but it also requires us to not rule out improbable, but possible, scenarios.
Readers of a certain age might remember a perennial favorite among the many outstanding skits performed by late-night TV host Johnny Carson (hi, kids! – ask your parents or their parents). Playing a manic movie review host named Art Fern, Carson would suddenly display a spaghetti-like road map and start giving inane directions to somewhere, leading to the gag: “And then you come to – a fork in the road” at which moment he points to a space on the map where an actual, eating utensil-style fork is crudely taped over the incoherent network of roads. Ah, kinder, simpler, Twitter-less times, those were.
The fork in the road was a key theme of our annual outlook a couple months ago (no match for Art Fern in wit or delivery, but still…). Are we heading down one path towards above-trend growth powered by an inflationary catalyst, or another one characterized by the kind of below-trend, muted growth to which we have become accustomed in this recovery cycle thus far? For now, the data continue to point to the latter.
No Seventies Show, This
Carson’s heyday as host of the Tonight Show was in the 1970s, that era of cringe-worthy hairstyles, mirror balls and chronic stagflation. When the Bretton Woods framework of fixed currencies and a gold exchange standard fell apart in the early years of the decade it freed countries from their exchange rate constraints and encouraged massive monetary stimulation. The money supply in Britain, to cite one example, grew by 70 percent in 1972-73 alone. More money chasing the same amount of goods is the classic recipe for inflation, which is exactly what happened. OPEC poured flames on the fire when, as a geopolitical show of strength, it raised crude oil prices by a magnitude of five times in late 1973. A crushing global recession soon followed as industrial output and then employment went sharply into reverse, with countries unable to stimulate their way out of the mess caused by inflation.
A popular delusion in the immediate wake of the 2016 US presidential election was that some modern day variation of that early-70s stimulus bonanza was about to flood the economy with hyper-stimulated growth. Interest rates and consumer prices would soar as the new administration tossed out regulations, slashed taxes, lit a fire under massive public infrastructure and induced companies to kick their production facilities into high gear. The “reflation-infrastructure trade” flamed out a couple months into 2017 (though CNBC news hosts never got tired of hopefully invoking the shopworn “Trump trade is back!” mantra for months afterwards, every time financial or materials shares had a good day).
Herd-like investor tendencies aside, though, there was – and to an extent there continues to be – a case to make for the return of higher levels of inflation. Economies around the world are growing more or less in sync, which should push both output and prices higher. Taxes were indeed slashed – the one piece of the reflation trade puzzle that actually transpired – and as a result the consensus estimates for US corporate earnings have moved sharply higher. And yet, the numbers keep telling us something different.
Secular Stagnation Then, and Now
When we say “numbers” we refer generally to the flow of macroeconomic data about growth, production, consumption, labor, prices et al, but we’ve been paying particular attention to inflation. The core (excluding food and energy) Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) index, which is how the Fed gauges inflation, has been stuck around 1.5 percent for seemingly forever. This past Tuesday gave us a fresh reading on the core Consumer Price Index (CPI), the one more familiar to households, holding steady at 1.8 percent. We also got another lackluster reading on retail sales this week, suggesting that consumption (the largest driver of GDP growth) is not proceeding at red-hot levels. And last week’s jobs report showed only a modest pace of hourly wage gains despite a much larger than expected increase in payrolls. These numbers all seem to point, at least for now, towards the path of below-trend growth. Perhaps the bond market agrees with this assessment: the yield on the 10-year Treasury has been cooling its heels in a tight range between 2.8 – 2.9 percent for the past several weeks.
The economist Alvin Hansen coined the phrase “secular stagnation” back in the late 1930s, at a time when it seemed that long term growth lacked any catalyst to kick it in to a higher gear. We know what happened next. The war came along and rekindled productive output, followed by the three decades of Pax Americana when we ruled the roost while the rest of the world rebuilt itself from the ashes of destruction. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers brought the term “secular stagnation” back into popular use earlier in this recovery cycle. The numbers seem to tell us that this remains the default hypothesis.
But the story of the late 1930s reminds us that all a hypothesis needs to knock it off the “most likely” perch is the introduction of new variables and resulting new data. Foremost among those variables would be productivity (hopefully productivity from benign sources, and not from hot geopolitical conflict). It may well be that we have not yet arrived at that “fork in the road” but are still somewhere else on Art Fern’s indecipherable road map – and that a new productivity wave will pull us off the path of secular stagnation. The data, though, aren’t helping much in signaling when, where, and how that might happen.
We will be publishing and distributing our Annual Outlook next week, a 24-page opus reflecting not only our analysis of the quotidian variables likely to be at play in the economy over the coming twelve months, but also a commentary on today’s world in a larger historical context. Meanwhile, we will use the opportunity of this week’s regular commentary to share with you the executive summary from the forthcoming Outlook, to give you an advance look of what you will read in further detail next week.
• “Moderate growth, low inflation, improving labor market”: this would have been a reasonable way to characterize US economic trends in 2013. And in 2014, 2015 and 2016. So it was not exactly an earth-shaking surprise when 2017 delivered…yes, moderate growth, low inflation and a still-improving labor market, if the latter slowed down just a bit in net new job creation. Tracking the macroeconomy has become something akin to watching daily episodes of Seinfeld. Not much of any consequence ever happens, and every now and then some amusing diversion appears to briefly engage one’s attention. Try as we might to unearth some new piece of information suggesting the approaching end of this placid state of affairs, we cannot. The data say what the data say. 2018, for the moment, looks set to deliver more of the same.
• The key difference between 2017 and earlier years in this recovery cycle was that the rest of the developed world came on board. Organic demand and consumer confidence perked up in the Eurozone, Britain managed to at least temporarily forestall a reckoning with the consequences of Brexit, Japan stayed positive while ex-Japan Asia Pacific countries did just fine. China, meanwhile, met its growth benchmarks by initially going back to the tried and true mix of debt-sourced spending on infrastructure and property. Beijing reversed course midyear, though, with a concerted program to reduce borrowing and recommit to economic rebalancing (this coincided with a further consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping). Elsewhere in emerging Asia and beyond, concerns about looming trade wars faded and domestic assets, including long-beleaguered currencies, perked up for a winner of a year. Again – while there are plenty of geopolitical variables that could form into tangible threats at any time – the basic macroeconomic variables appear stable. Markets ignored geopolitics last year, we expect them to do the same in the year ahead.
• Calendar-gazers are filling up the airwaves with the observation that the current recovery – from July 2009 to the present – is one of the longest on record. If we manage to avoid a recession between now and May, the current growth cycle will move ahead of that of 1961-70 as the second-longest, trailing only the ten years of good times from 1991 to 2001. To those nervously ticking off elapsed calendar days we offer two ripostes. First, markets and economies don’t pay attention to calendars, which are entirely a human construct. Second, there are potentially valid reasons why the current uptrend could go on for longer. From 2009 to 2014, arguably the main force behind continued growth was the Fed and its quantitative easing mechanics that flooded the world with money. Only more recently has the growth started to look more traditional – more like actual improvements in business and consumer sentiment begetting a virtuous cycle of increased supply feeding increased demand. If anything, the perky demand trends we see today more resemble those of an early than of a late stage in the cycle. The uniqueness of that multi-year experiment in unorthodox monetary policy may make comparisons with other growth periods less meaningful.
• So if the default assumption is that 2018 will be a year of very few changes to the presiding macroeconomic trends, what alternative scenarios could upend the base case? The key X-factor, we believe, is the one that nobody from Fed governors to that fellow holding court at the end of the bar completely understands; namely, the curious absence of inflation. The inflation rate has fallen short of the Fed’s explicit target of 2 percent throughout the entire recovery to date (when excluding the volatile categories of energy and foodstuffs). This despite the dramatic fall in the unemployment rate from 10 percent at its peak to just 4.1 percent today. The economic models built over the decades following the Second World War baked in the fundamental assumption of a trade-off between inflation and employment: be prepared to sacrifice one in pursuit of the other. That assumption has not held up at all in recent years. But before pronouncing last rites on the Phillips Curve, we again draw your attention to our observation in the previous bullet point: the kind of growth one normally sees early in a recovery cycle may only now be showing up. If so, then a sudden surge of higher than expected inflation would not be entirely implausible.
• The second alternative scenario that could disrupt the smooth sailing of most capital markets asset classes would be, perhaps, the other end of the spectrum from a growth-fueled resurgence of inflation. The Fed intends to raise rates again this year – three times if the stated expectations of the FOMC’s voting members are to be believed – and to begin winding down the balance sheet that grew to $4.5 trillion over the course of the QE years. These intentions reflect a confidence that the economy is fully ready to stand on its own two feet – which confidence, of course, proceeds from those same steady macro trends we described a few bullet points ago. But there is still a chance, and not necessarily a small one, that today’s bubbly sentiment is ephemeral and will dissipate once the crutch of monetary policy is finally and conclusively removed. Specifically, not one of the three structural drivers of long-term growth – population, labor force participation and productivity – are demonstrably stronger now than they were two years ago when we devoted some number of pages in our Annual Outlook to the concept of secular stagnation. There may be less to the current growth uptick than meets the eye. If so, a Fed misstep on the pace of unwinding easy money – too much, too soon – could be the trigger that boots the Goldilocks economy to the exit door.
• What both those alternative scenarios – an unexpected inflation surge and a Fed policy fumble – have in common is the potential to wreak havoc on credit markets. From an asset markets perspective, credit markets hold the key to how virtually any asset class – debt, equity or alternative – will perform. Here’s why. The risk-free rate – in general practice the yield on intermediate / long Treasury notes – is employed in just about every standard asset valuation model. All else being equal, an increase in interest rates has the effect of decreasing the present value of future cash flows. Asset managers will reprice their models if reality outstrips expectations about yields. A likely ripple effect resulting from a Treasury rate repricing would be widened risk spreads (affecting, for example, corporate investment grade and high yield bonds), a pullback in equity prices and a commensurate uptick in volatility. Whether the riskier conditions persist would be situation-specific, but there would very likely be at least some damage done.
• Again, we view these as alternative scenarios to be a more benign base case. Even if one of the other were to come to pass, though, it would not necessarily start the clock on a countdown to the end of this long bull market. For that to occur, we believe one of three events would have to emerge: a full-blown recession (which is different in nature from a periodic surge in inflation), a crisis such as the implosion of the financial system that led to the 2008 crash, or the outbreak of an actual hot war somewhere in the world that significantly involved the US and/or other large powers. The risk of any of these things happening in 2018 is not zero, but we would ascribe a probability of less than 25 percent to any of them.
• US equity valuations are stretched, particularly for the large cap growth segment of the total market that has consistently outperformed over the past several years. Relying on relative valuations alone would potentially lead investors to other areas, like Europe or emerging markets, that still have some catching up to do even after a strong performance in 2017. In the long run valuations matter – there is no coherent way to view a share price as anything other than the present value of a series of future cash flows. In the short run, valuations don’t always matter. Relative geographic performance in 2018 will be subject to other influences, not least of which will be the direction of the US dollar.
• The dollar was one of the big surprise stories of 2017. Long before equity shares in financial institutions or resource companies snapped out of their “reflation-infrastructure trade” myopia, the US currency had done a U-turn from its rapid post-election ascent. The dollar fell by nearly 10 percent against a basket of other major currencies last year, and that soft trend has continued thus far into 2018. Currency strength was a major force driving performance for developed and emerging market equities and debt last year. Whether a reprise of that trade is in store for the year ahead depends – again – on that tricky combination of alternative economic scenarios. If US interest rates rise substantially, with the ECB and the BoJ at the same time proceeding more cautiously, then a stronger dollar would be a rational expectation as investors pursue higher yields. That outcome is not set in stone, however. Major foreign investors – most notably China – may look to diversify their foreign exchange assets if their perception of US risk changes, which would, all else being equal, have a negative effect on the dollar.
• Commodities may stand on the other side of the dollar’s fortunes. A weaker dollar makes commodities more affordable in other currencies; that, along with the return of strong organic demand, may supply a tailwind to a range of energy and industrial commodities. But oil, which has recently surged to its highest levels in three years, remains vulnerable to the prospect of increased shale production in the US. As with currencies, there are many factors at play that could work either for or against key commodity classes.
• In conclusion, we could sum up the essence of our views thus: Things Don’t Change, Until They Do. The benign tailwinds of moderate, steady global growth will not last forever. Neither we nor anyone else can point with certainty to the date when the sea change happens. What we can do is pay close attention to the things that matter more. Farmers know how to sense an approaching storm: the rustle of leaves, slight changes in the sky’s color. In the capital marketplace, those rustling leaves are likely to be found in the bond market, from which a broader asset repricing potentially springs forth. Pay attention to bonds in 2018.