Posts tagged Global Economy
Pundits who follow financial markets are always ready to supply a narrative to the crisis of the day. “Stocks fell today because of X” is how the story usually goes, although “X,” whatever it may be, is likely only a strand of a larger fabric. These days market-watchers are focused on Turkey, and the “X” factor giving the story a human face is one Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina pastor who for the past two decades or so has lived in Turkey, ministering to a small flock of Turkish Protestants. Brunson was caught up in a 2016 political backlash following an attempted military coup, and has been detained on charges of collaboration (unfounded, he claims) against the Erdogan regime ever since.
Earlier this month the Trump administration anticipated Brunson’s release after protracted negotiations. Instead, the pastor was placed under arrest. The US responded with a new round of sanctions, including a 50 percent levy on imported steel. Team Erdogan dug its heels in. The currency collapsed and – voila! – the summer of 2018 now has its official crisis. For investors, the pressing question is whether this is an isolated event, or a larger peril with the potential to turn into a 1997-style contagion.
Shades of 1997
Once seen as the next likely candidate to join the European Union and pursue the traditional path to prosperity by linking in to the global economy, Turkey instead has become a dictatorship under Erdogan. Possessed of a less than perfect understanding of macroeconomics, Erdogan has doggedly refused to address the country’s currency crisis by raising interest rates, the normal course of action. Facing down external borrowing needs of $238 billion over the next twelve months, the regime improbably imagines relief coming from comrades-in-arms such as China, Russia and Qatar. These are Turkey-specific problems.
But currency woes are anything but local-only. Almost all major emerging markets currencies are having a terrible time of things in 2018. The chart below shows four of them, including the Turkish lira.
From this standpoint, the situation looks less like a simple tempest on the Bosphorus, and more like the summer of 1997. That was when Thailand, under speculative attack from foreign exchange traders, floated its currency and sparked a region-wide cataclysm of devaluations and stock market collapses. One of the issues contributing to the mess in 1997 was the vulnerability of countries with large amounts of dollar-denominated external debt – a falling currency makes it increasingly difficult to service interest and principal payments on this debt.
This is an issue of relevance today as well; indeed, countries with the largest non-local debt exposures have been hit hardest alongside the lira (see, for example, the South African rand in the above chart). Another theme of 1997 was current account deficits, a particularly important data point for countries where exports play a central role in growth strategies. That has been the driving force behind India’s currency woes this year (also shown above). High oil prices (a key import item) have raised India’s trade deficit to its highest level in five years. And, of course, the specter of a trade war looms over all countries active in global trade.
Sleepless in Shanghai
Arguably the biggest difference between 1997 and today is the role of China in the world’s economy. Back then the country was still in the early stages of the boom that spawned the great commodities supercycle of the 2000s. Now it is the world’s second-largest economy (and the largest when measured in purchasing power parity terms). China is currently dealing with its own growth challenges – very different from those facing trade deficit-challenged economies like India or near-basket cases like Turkey, but concerning nonetheless. The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets have been in bear market territory for much of the summer. China’s biggest challenge is managing the transition of its economy from the fixed investment and infrastructure strategy that powered those supercycle years into a more balanced, consumer-oriented market. That is the right thing to do – the infrastructure approach is not sustainable for the long term – but concerns about the transition persist even while the country putatively continues to hit its GDP growth targets.
So how much contagion risk is there? The main problem as we see it is not that the detention of a pastor in Turkey could bring down the global economy. It is that all these strands – debt exposures, trade deficits, growth concerns, trade war rhetoric – are percolating to the surface at the same time. The story is not as systemic as that of the ’97 currency crisis, where the same one or two problems could be ascribed to all the countries suffering the drawdowns. But with all of these strands front and center at the same time, we cannot rule out the potential for broader repercussions.
The ’97 crisis had only a limited impact on developed markets. US stocks paused only briefly before resuming their manically bullish late-1990s ways. So far, neither turmoil in Turkey nor sleepless nights in Shanghai are having much impact on things here at home. A little more volatility here and there, but stocks within striking distance of January’s record high for the S&P 500 (and still setting new highs when it comes to NASDAQ). But we’re closing in on the always-important fourth quarter, and need to be fully cognizant of all the different narratives, positive and negative, competing for attention as the lead theme.
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.