The BoE’s pre-emptive strike is not without risk

The Financial Times has kindly printed my letter below, arguing that it seems the default answer to almost any economic question has now become “more stimulus” from the central bank.

After 15 years of subprime lending and then quantitative easing, last week’s warning from the Bank of England suggests there are fewer and fewer economic questions to which the default answer is not “more stimulus”.

But it is still disappointing to find the Financial Times supporting this reflex reaction when considering the risks associated with Brexit next month (“Bank of England must grapple with the risks of a no-deal Brexit”, February 6). Nobody would dispute that the bank has a critical role in terms of ensuring financial stability through the Brexit transition. As the FT says, the “potential outcomes are discrete and the impacts vary widely”.

But the bank has already fulfilled this role by publishing its November assessment of the no-deal risks for government and parliament to consider. There is therefore no justification for the bank to pre-emptively impose its views by deciding to keeping interest rates artificially low.

The political risks associated with such an intervention would be large, particularly if the bank’s assessment or its proposed solution proves wrong. And there is also the risk of unintended consequences.

The history of stimulus does, after all, suggest that the only certain outcome of lower interest rates would be a further rise in today’s already sky-high level of asset prices.

Paul Hodges
The pH Report

Fed’s magic money tree hopes to overcome smartphone sales downturn and global recession risk

Last November, I wrote one of my “most-read posts”, titled Global smartphone recession confirms consumer downturn. The only strange thing was that most people read it several weeks later on 3 January, after Apple announced its China sales had fallen due to the economic downturn.

Why did Apple and financial markets only then discover that smartphone sales were in a downturn led by China?  Our November pH Report “Smartphone sales recession highlights economic slowdown‘, had already given detailed insight into the key issues, noting that:

“It also confirms the early warning over weakening end-user demand given by developments in the global chemical industry since the start of the year. Capacity Utilisation was down again in September as end-user demand slowed. And this pattern has continued into early November, as shown by our own Volume Proxy.

The same phenomenon had occurred before the 2008 Crisis, of course, as described in The Crystal Blog.  I wrote regularly here, in the Financial Times and elsewhere about the near-certainty that we were heading for a major financial crisis. Yet very few people took any notice.

And even after the crash, the consensus chose to ignore the demographic explanation for it that John Richardson and I gave in ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’.

Nothing seems to change.  So here we are again, with the chart showing full-year 2018 smartphone sales, and it is clear that the consumer downturn is continuing:

  • 2018 sales at 1.43bn were down 5% versus 2017, with Q4 volume down 6% versus Q4 2017
  • Strikingly, low-cost Huawei’s volume was equal to high-priced Apple’s at 206m
  • Since 2015, its volume has almost doubled whilst Apple’s has fallen 11%

And this time the financial outlook is potentially worse than in 2008.  The tide of global debt built up since 2008 means that the “World faces wave of epic debt defaults” according to the only central banker to forecast the Crisis.

“WALL STREET, WE HAVE A PROBLEM”

So why did Apple shares suddenly crash 10% on 3 January, as the chart shows? Everything that Apple reported was already known.  After all, when I wrote in November, I was using published data from Strategy Analytics which was available to anyone on their website.

The answer, unfortunately, is that markets have lost their key role of price discovery. Central banks have deliberately destroyed it with their stimulus programmes, in the belief that a strong stock market will lead to a strong economy. And this has been going on for a long time, as newly released Federal Reserve minutes confirmed last week:

  • Back in January 2013, then Fed Governor Jay Powell warned that policies “risked driving securities above fundamental values
  • He went on to warn that the result would be “there is every reason to expect a sharp and painful correction
  • Yet 6 years later, and now Fed Chairman, Powell again rushed to support the stock market last week
  • He took the prospect of interest rate rises off the table, despite US unemployment dropping for a record 100 straight months

The result is that few investors now bother to analyse what is happening in the real world.

They believe  they don’t need to, as the Fed will always be there, watching their backs. So “Bad News is Good News”, because it means the Fed and other Western central banks will immediately print more money to support stock markets.

And there is even a new concept, ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ (MMT), to justify what they are doing.

THE MAGIC MONEY TREE PROVIDES ALL THE MONEY WE NEED

There are 3 key points that are relevant to the Modern Monetary Theory:

  • The Federal government can print its own money, and does this all the time
  • The Federal government can always roll over the debt that this money-printing creates
  • The Federal government can’t ever go bankrupt, because of the above 2 points

The scholars only differ on one point.  One set believes that pumping up the stock market is therefore a legitimate role for the central bank. As then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in November 2010:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

The other set believes instead that government can and should spend as much as they like on social and other programmes:

“MMT logically argues as a consequence that there is no such thing as tax and spend when considering the activity of the government in the economy; there can only be spend and tax.

The result is that almost nobody talks about debt any more, and the need to repay it.  Whenever I talk about this, I am told – as in 2006-8 – that “I don’t understand”.  This may be true. But it may instead be true that, as I noted last month:

“Whilst Apple won’t go bankrupt any time soon, weaker companies in its supply chain certainly face this risk – as do other companies dependent on sales in China. And as their sales volumes and profits start to fall, investors similarly risk finding that large numbers of companies with “Triple B” ratings have suddenly been re-rated as “Junk”:

  • Bianco Research suggest that 14% of companies in the S&P 1500 are zombies, with their earnings unable to cover interest expenses
  • The Bank of International Settlements has already warned that Western central banks stimulus lending means that >10% of US/EU firms currently “rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT. They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

I fear the coming global recession will expose the wishful thinking behind the magic of the central banks’ money trees.

CEOs need new business models amid downturn

Many indicators are now pointing towards a global downturn in the economy, along with paradigm shifts in demand patterns. CEOs need to urgently build resilient business models to survive and prosper in this New Normal world, as I discuss in my 2019 Outlook and video interview with ICIS.

Global recession is the obvious risk as we start 2019.  Last year’s hopes for a synchronised global recovery now seem just a distant memory.  Instead, they have been replaced by fears of a synchronised global downturn.

Capacity Utilisation in the global chemical industry is the best leading indicator that we have for the global economy.  And latest data from the American Chemistry Council confirms that the downtrend is now well-established.  It is also clear that key areas for chemical demand and the global economy such as autos, housing and electronics moved into decline during the second half of 2018.

In addition, however, it seems likely that we are now seeing a generational change take place in demand patterns:

  • From the 1980s onwards, the demand surge caused by the arrival of the BabyBoomers into the Wealth Creating 25 – 54 cohort led to the rise of globalisation, as companies focused on creating new sources of supply to meet their needs
  • At the same time the collapse of fertility rates after 1970 led to the emergence of 2-income families for the first time, as women often chose to go back into the workforce after childbirth. In turn, this helped to create a new and highly profitable mid-market for “affordable luxury”
  • Today, however, only the youngest Boomers are still in this critical generation for demand growth. Older Boomers have already moved into the lower-spending, lower-earning 55+ age group, whilst the younger millennials prefer to focus on “experiences” and don’t share their parents’ love of accumulating “stuff”

The real winners over the next few years will therefore be companies who not only survive the coming economic downturn, but also reposition themselves to meet these changing demand patterns.  A more service-based chemical industry is likely to emerge as a result, with sustainability and affordability replacing globalisation and affordable luxury as the key drivers for revenue and profit growth.

Please click here to download the 2019 Outlook (no registration necessary) and click here to view the video interview.

Budgeting for the end of “Business as Usual”

Companies and investors are starting to finalise their plans for the coming year.  Many are assuming that the global economy will grow by 3% – 3.5%, and are setting targets on the basis of “business as usual”.  This has been a reasonable assumption for the past 25 years, as the chart confirms for the US economy:

  • US GDP has been recorded since 1929, and the pink shading shows periods of recession
  • Until the early 1980’s, recessions used to occur about once every 4 – 5 years
  • But then the BabyBoomer-led economic SuperCycle began in 1983, as the average Western Boomer moved into the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group that drives economic growth
  • Between 1983 – 2000, there was one, very short, recession of 8 months.  And that was only due to the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Since then, the central banks have taken over from the Boomers as the engine of growth.  They cut interest rates after the 2001 recession, deliberately pumping up the housing and auto markets to stimulate growth.  And since the 2008 financial crisis, they have focused on supporting stock markets, believing this will return the economy to stable growth:

  • The above chart of the S&P 500 highlights the extraordinary nature of its post-2008 rally
  • Every time it has looked like falling, the Federal Reserve has rushed to its support
  • First there was co-ordinated G20 support in the form of low interest rates and easy credit
  • This initial Quantitative Easing (QE) was followed by QE2 and Operation Twist
  • Then there was QE3, otherwise known as QE Infinity, followed by President Trump’s tax cuts

In total, the Fed has added $3.8tn to its balance sheet since 2009, whilst China, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan added nearly $30tn of their own stimulus.  Effectively, they ensured that credit was freely available to anyone with a pulse, and that the cost of borrowing was very close to zero.  As a result, debt has soared and credit quality collapsed.  One statistic tells the story:

“83% of U.S. companies going public in the first nine months of this year lost money in the 12 months leading up to the IPO, according to data compiled by University of Florida finance professor Jay Ritter. Ritter, whose data goes back to 1980, said this is the highest proportion on record.  The previous highest rate of money-losing companies going public had been 81% in 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble.

And more than 10% of all US/EU companies are “zombies” according to the Bank of International Settlements (the central banks’ bank), as they:

“Rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT (Earnings before Interest and Taxes). They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

2019 – 2021 BUDGETS NEED TO FOCUS ON KEY RISKS TO THE BUSINESS
For the past 25 years, the Budget process has tended to assume that the external environment will be stable.  2008 was a shock at the time, of course, but time has blunted memories of the near-collapse that occurred.  The issue, however, as I noted here in September 2008 is that:

“A long period of stability, such as that experienced over the past decade, eventually leads to major instability.

“This is because investors forget that higher reward equals higher risk. Instead, they believe that a new paradigm has developed, where high leverage and ‘balance sheet efficiency’ should be the norm. They therefore take on high levels of debt, in order to finance ever more speculative investments.

This is the great Hyman Minsky’s explanation for financial crises and panics. Essentially, it describes how confidence eventually leads to complacency in the face of mounting risks.  And it is clear that today, most of the lessons from 2008 have been forgotten.  Sadly, it therefore seems only a matter of “when”, not “if”, a new financial crisis will occur.

So prudent companies will prepare for it now, whilst there is still time.  You will not be able to avoid all the risks, but at least you won’t suddenly wake up one morning to find panic all around you.

The chart gives my version of the key risks – you may well have your own list:

  • Global auto and housing markets already seem to be in decline; world trade rose just 0.2% in August
  • Global liquidity is clearly declining, and Western political debate is ever-more polarised
  • Uncertainty means that the US$ is rising, and geopolitical risks are becoming more obvious
  • Stock markets have seen sudden and “unexpected” falls, causing investors to worry about “return of capital”
  • The risks of a major recession are therefore rising, along with the potential for a rise in bankruptcies

Of course, wise and far-sighted leaders may decide to implement policies that will mitigate these risks, and steer the global economy into calmer waters.  Then again, maybe our leaders will decide they are “fake news” and ignore them.

Either way, prudent companies and investors may want to face up to these potential risks ahead of time.  That is why I have titled this year’s Outlook, ‘Budgeting for the end of “Business as Usual“.  As always, please contact me at phodges@thephreport.com if you would like to discuss these issues in more depth.

Please click here to download a copy of all my Budget Outlooks 2007 – 2018.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

I well remember the questions a year ago, after I published my annual Budget Outlook, ‘Budgeting for the Great Unknown in 2018 – 2020‘.  Many readers found it difficult to believe that global interest rates could rise significantly, or that China’s economy would slow and that protectionism would rise under the influence of Populist politicians.

MY ANNUAL BUDGET OUTLOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT WEEK
Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2019-2021 period. The aim, as always, will be to challenge conventional wisdom when this seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

Before publishing the new Outlook each year, I always like to review my previous forecast. Past performance may not be a perfect guide to the future, but it is the best we have:

The 2007 Outlook ‘Budgeting for a Downturn‘, and 2008′s ‘Budgeting for Survival’ meant I was one of the few to forecast the 2008 Crisis.  2009′s ‘Budgeting for a New Normal’ was then more positive than the consensus, suggesting “2010 should be a better year, as demand grows in line with a recovery in global GDP“.  Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.

THE 2017 OUTLOOK WARNED OF 4 KEY RISKS
My argument last year was essentially that confidence had given way to complacency, and in some cases to arrogance, when it came to planning for the future.  “What could possibly go wrong?” seemed to be the prevailing mantra.  I therefore suggested that, on the contrary, we were moving into a Great Unknown and highlighted 4 key risks:

  • Rising interest rates would start to spark a debt crisis
  • China would slow as President Xi moved to tackle the lending bubble
  • Protectionism was on the rise around the world
  • Populist appeal was increasing as people lost faith in the elites

A year later, these are now well on the way to becoming consensus views.

  • Debt crises have erupted around the world in G20 countries such as Turkey and Argentina, and are “bubbling under” in a large number of other major economies such as China, Italy, Japan, UK and USA.  Nobody knows how all the debt created over the past 10 years can be repaid.  But the IMF reported earlier this year that total world debt has now reached $164tn – more than twice the size of global GDP
  • China’s economy in Q3 saw its slowest level of GDP growth since Q1 2009 with shadow bank lending down by $557bn in the year to September versus 2017.  Within China, the property bubble has begun to burst, with new home loans in Shanghai down 77% in H1.  And this was before the trade war has really begun, so further slowdown seems inevitable
  • Protectionism is on the rise in countries such as the USA, where it would would have seemed impossible only a few years ago.  Nobody even mentions the Doha trade round any more, and President Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico specifically targets so-called ‘non-market economies’ such as China, with the threat of losing access to US markets if they do deals with China
  • Brexit is worth a separate heading, as it marks the area where consensus thinking has reversed most dramatically over the past year, just as I had forecast in the Outlook:

“At the moment, most companies and investors seem to be ignoring these developments, assuming that in the end, sense will prevail. But what if they are wrong? It seems highly likely, for example, that the UK will end up with a “hard Brexit” in March 2019 with no EU trade deal and no transition period to enable businesses to adjust.

“Today’s Populist politicians don’t seem to care about these risks. For them, the allure of arguing for “no deal”, if they can’t get exactly what they want, is very powerful. So it would seem sensible for executives to spend time understanding exactly how their business might be impacted if today’s global supply chains came to an end.”

  • Populism is starting to dominate the agenda in an increasing number of countries.  A year ago, many assumed that “wiser heads” would restrain President Trump’s Populist agenda, but instead he has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers; Italy now has a Populist government; Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland made major gains in last year’s election, and in Bavaria last week.

The last 10 years have proved that stimulus programmes cannot substitute for a lack of babies. They generate debt mountains instead of sustainable demand, and so make the problems worse, not better.  As a result, voters start to listen to Populists, who offer seemingly simple solutions to the problems which have been ignored by the elites.

Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2019 – 2021 period, as we enter the endgame for the policy failures of the past decade.

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Boomer SuperCycle unique in human history – Deutsche Bank

“The 1950-2000 period is like no other in human or financial history in terms of population growth, economic growth, inflation or asset prices.”

This quote isn’t from ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again‘, the very popular ebook that John Richardson and I published in 2011.  Nor is the chart from one of the hundreds of presentations that we have since been privileged to give at industry and company events around the world.

It’s from the highly-respected Jim Reid and his team at Deutsche Bank in their latest in-depth Long-Term Asset Return Study, ‘The History (and future) of inflation’.  As MoneyWeek editor, John Stepek, reports in an excellent summary:

The only economic environment that almost all of us alive today have ever known, is a whopping great historical outlier….inflation has positively exploded during all of our lifetimes. And not just general price inflation – asset prices have surged too.  What is this down to? Reid and his team conclude that at its root, this is down to rampant population growth.” (my emphasis)

As Stepek reports, the world’s population growth since 1950’s has been far more than phenomenal:

“From 5000BC, it took the global population 2,000 years to double; it took another 2,000 years for it to double again. There weren’t that many of us, and lots of us died very young, so it took a long time for the population to expand.  Fast forward another few centuries, though, and it’s a different story.

“As a result of the Industrial Revolution, lifespans and survival rates improved – the population doubled again in the period between 1760-1900, for example. That’s just 140 years.  Yet that pales compared to the growth we’ve seen in the 20th century. Between 1950-2000,  a mere 50 years, the population more than doubled from 2.5bn to 6.1bn.”

Actually, it was almost certainly Jenner’s discovery of smallpox vaccination that led to the Industrial Revolution, as discussed here in detail in February 2015, Rising life expectancy enabled Industrial Revolution to occur’:

“Vaccination against smallpox was almost certainly the critical factor in enabling the Industrial Revolution to take place. It created a virtuous circle, which is still with us today:

  • Increased life expectancy meant adults could learn from experience instead of dying at an early age
  • Even more importantly, they could pass on this experience to their children via education
  • Thus children stopped being seen as ’little adults’ whose role was to work as soon as they could walk
  • By 1900, the concept of ‘childhood’ was becoming widely accepted for the first time in history*

The last point is especially striking, as US sociologist Viviana Zelizer has shown in Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. We take the concept of childhood for granted today, but even a century ago, New York insurance firms refused to pay death awards to the parents of non-working children, and argued that non-working children had no value.

Deutsche’s topic is inflation, and as Stepek notes, they also take issue with the narrative that says central banks have been responsible for taming this in recent years:

“The Deutsche team notes that inflation became less fierce from the 1980s. We all think of this as being the point at which Paul Volcker – the heroic Federal Reserve chairman – jacked up interest rates to kill off inflation.  But you know what else happened in the 1980s?

“China rejoined the global economy, and added a huge quantity of people to the working age population. A bigger labour supply means cheaper workers.  And this factor is now reversing. “The consequence of this is that labour will likely regain some pricing power in the years ahead as the supply of it now plateaus and then starts to slowly fall”.”

THE CENTRAL BANK DEBT BUBBLE IS THE MAIN RISK

The chart above from the New York Times confirms that that the good times are ending.  Debt brings forward demand from the future.  And  since 2000 central banks have been bringing forward $tns of demand via their debt-based stimulus programmes.  But they couldn’t “print babies” who would grow up to boost the economy.

Today, we just have the legacy of the debt left by the central banks’ failed experiment.  In the US, this means that the Federal government is almost at the point where it will be spending more on interest payments than any other part of the budget – defence, education, Medicaid etc.

Relatively soon, as the Congressional Budget Office has warned, the US will face decisions on whether to default on the Highway Trust Fund (2020), the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund (2025), Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund (2026) and then Social Security itself (2031).  If it decides to bail them out, then it will either have to make cuts elsewhere, or raise taxes, or default on the debt itself.

THE ENDGAME FOR THE DEBT BUBBLE IS NEARING – AND IT INVOLVES DEFAULT
Global interest rates are already rising as investors refocus on “return of capital”.  Investors are becoming aware of the risk that many countries, including the USA, could decide to default – as I noted back in 2016 when quoting William White of the OECD, “World faces wave of epic debt defaults” – central bank veteran:

It will become obvious in the next recession that many of these debts will never be serviced or repaid, and this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people who think they own assets that are worth something. The only question is whether we are able to look reality in the eye and face what is coming in an orderly fashion, or whether it will be disorderly. Debt jubilees have been going on for 5,000 years, as far back as the Sumerians.

The next recession is just round the corner, as President Reagan’s former adviser, Prof Martin Feldstein, warned last week.  This will increase the temptation for Congress to effectively default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.  Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises probably therefore describes the end-game we have entered:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

 

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