Global economy hits stall speed, whilst US S&P 500 sets new records

Whisper it not to your friends in financial markets, but the global economy is moving into recession.

The US stock markets keep making new highs, thanks to the support from the major western central banks. But in the real world, where the rest of us live, the best leading indicator for the global economy is clearly flashing a red light:

  • On the left is Prof Robert Shiller’s CAPE Index, showing the US S&P 500’s valuation is at levels only seen before in 1929 and 2000
  • On the right is the American Chemistry Council’s  global chemical Capacity Utilisation (CU%), which has fallen back to May 2013’s level

They can’t both be right about the outlook.

Chemicals are known to be the best leading indicator for the global economy. Their applications cover virtually all sectors of the economy, from plastics, energy and agriculture to pharmaceuticals, detergents and textiles.  And every country in the world uses relatively large volumes of chemicals.

The chart shows the very high correlation with IMF GDP data. Even more usefully, the data is never more than a few weeks old. So we can see what is happening in almost real time.

And the news is not good.  The CU% has been in decline since January 2018, and it is showing no sign of recovery. In fact, our own ‘flash report’ on the economy, The pH Report’s Volume Proxy Index, is showing a very weak performance as the charts confirm:

  • The Index focuses on the past 6 months, and shows a very weak performance. It has gone negative even though September – November should be seasonally strong months, as businesses ramp up their activity again after the holidays
  • Even more worrying is that the main Regions are currently in a synchronised slowdown. And each time they have tried to rally, they have fallen back again – a sign of weak underlying demand

And, of course, we are now moving into the seasonally slower part of the year, when companies often destock for year-end inventory management reasons. So it is unlikely that we will see a recovery in the rest of 2019, whether or not a US-China trade deal is signed.

The problem is very simple:

They see no need to focus on understanding major challenges such as the potential impact of ageing populations on economic growth, the retreat from globalisation and the rise of protectionism, or the increasing importance of sustainability.

Perhaps they are right. But the evidence from the CU% on developments in the real world suggests a wake-up call is just around the corner.

Oil markets hold their ‘flag shape’ for the moment, as recession risks mount

Oil markets can’t quite make up their mind as to what they want to do, as the chart confirms. The are trapped in a major ‘flag shape’.

Every time they want to move sharply lower, the bulls jump in to buy on hopes of a major US-China trade deal and a strong economy. But when they want to make new highs, the bears start selling again.

Its been a long journey  for the flag, stretching back to the pre-Crisis peaks at nearly $150/bbl in the summer of 2008. And the bottom of the flag was made back in 2016, after the last collapse from 2014 $115/bbl peak.

Recent weeks have seen the bulls jump back in, when prices again threatened to break the flag’s floor below $60/bbl. And, of course, OPEC keeps making noises about further output cuts in an effort to talk prices higher.

But as the charts from the International Energy Agency’s latest monthly report confirm:

“The OPEC+ countries face a major challenge in 2020 as demand for their crude is expected to fall sharply.”

This is OPEC’s problem when it aims for higher prices than the market will bear. Other producers, inside and outside OPEC, always take advantage of the opportunity to sell more volume. And once they have spent the capital on drilling new wells, the only factor holding them back is the actual production cost.

Capital-intensive industries like oil have always had this problem. They raise capital from investors when prices are high – but high prices naturally choke off demand growth, and so the new wells come on stream just when the market is falling. Next year the IEA suggests will see 2.3mbd of new volume come on stream from the US, Canada, Brazil, Norway and Guyana as a result.

OPEC’s high prices have already impacted demand, as the IEA notes:

Sluggish refinery activity in the first three quarters has caused crude oil demand to fall in 2019 for the first time since 2009.”

OPEC has had a bit of a free pass until recently, though, in respect of the new volumes from the USA. As the chart shows, the shale drilling programme led to a major volume of “drilled but uncompleted wells”. In other words, producers drilled lots of wells, but the pipelines weren’t in place to then take the new oil to potential markets.

But now the situation is changing, particularly in the prolific Permian basin region, as Argus report:

“The Permian basin has been a juggernaut for US producers, with output quadrupling from under 1mbd in 2010 to more than 4.5mbd in October.  US midstream developers have responded with a wave of new long-haul pipelines to shuttle the torrent of supply to Houston, Corpus Christi and beyond.

“The 670kbd Cactus 2 and the 400kbd Epic line went into service in August moving Permian crude to the Corpus Christi area. Phillips 66’s 900kbd Gray Oak pipeline is expected to enter service this month, moving Permian basin crude to Corpus Christi, Texas, for export.”

As a result, some of that oil trapped in drilled but uncompleted wells is starting to come to market. So if OPEC wants to keep prices high, it will either have to cut output further, or hope that the world economy starts to pick up.

But the news on the economic front is not good, as everyone outside the financial world knows.  Central banks are still busy pumping out $bns to keep stock markets moving higher. But in the real world outside Wall Street, high oil prices, trade wars, Brexit uncertainty and many other factors are making recession almost a certainty.

As the chart shows, there is a high correlation between the level of oil prices and global GDP growth. Once oil takes ~3% of GDP, consumers start to cut back on other purchases. They have to drive to work and keep their homes warm in winter. And with inflation weak, their incomes aren’t rising to pay the extra costs.

The US sums up the general weakness.  The impact of President Trump’s tax cuts has long disappeared. And now concerns are refocusing on the debt that it has left behind. As the function of debt is to bring forward demand from the future, growth must now reduce.  US GDP growth was just 1.9% in Q3, and the latest Q4 forecast from the Atlanta Fed is just 0.3% .

Its still too early to forecast which way prices will go, when they finally break out of the flag shape. But their failure to break upwards in the summer, when the bulls were confidently forecasting war with Iran, suggests the balance of risks is now tilting to the downside.

Budgeting for paradigm shifts and a debt crisis

It is now 8 years since John Richardson and I published our 10-year forecast for 2021 in Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’. Remarkably, its core conclusions are very relevant today, as the summary confirms.

Unfortunately, as we feared, policymakers refused to junk their out-of-date models, despite the lesson of the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, they doubled down on their failed stimulus policies.

  • Yet nearly 1/3rd of the world’s High Income population are in the Perennials 55+ age group and are a replacement economy
  • As a result, and as we suggested in 2011, central bank policies have not, and cannot, produce sustainable growth or inflation

As a result, they have created record levels of government, corporate and individual debt – which can never be repaid. Even the IMF has now started to recognise the timebomb that has been created:

“We look at the potential impact of a material economic slowdown – one that is half as severe as the global financial crisis of 2007-08. Our conclusion is sobering: debt owed by firms unable to cover interest expenses with earnings, which we call corporate debt at risk, could rise to $19tn. That is almost 40% of total corporate debt in the economies we studied.”

Already we are starting to see the unwinding of some of the most extreme examples of the bubbles that have been created in asset prices:

And if the IMF are right, which is almost certain, we must expect major bankruptcies to take place over the next few years.  Over-leveraged businesses go bust very quickly when profits decline, as they can no longer pay their interest bills.

As with the run-up to the 2008 crisis, the signs of trouble are already building. The Fed has had to provide $200bn of support to overnight money markets in New York over the past 6 weeks, and is having to add another $60bn/month into next year.

Companies now face a binary choice as they finalise their Budgets for 2020-2022.

They can choose to ignore what is happening in the real world and continue to hope ‘business as usual’ will continue? Or they can start contingency planning by working through the implications of our forecasts for their Downside Scenario?

One key issue is that our 2021 predictions included paradigm shifts as well as economic forecasts. And as the chart above shows, the transitions associated with paradigm shifts are now accelerating:

  • It took decades for the telephone, electricity, autos and even the radio to reach most Americans
  • But it took only years for the microwave, computer, cellphone and internet to become mainstream

It is clear that a whole series of major paradigm shifts are now underway, as I noted 2 weeks ago:

  • Climate change is finally being taken seriously by legislators and many companies
  • This will lead to dramatic declines in the use of fossil fuels for both transport and petrochemicals
  • It highlights how sustainability is now the key issue for corporate strategy, replacing globalisation
  • Affordability is also moving up the agenda, and will become critical as the debt crisis starts to impact

The problem is that incumbents, as we have seen with central banks, are usually very slow to notice what is happening in the real world outside their office or factory.  The reason is simple – they forget what they have discussed with their friends and family once they go to work. Group-think instead takes over, and everyone goes blindly on believing their own propaganda until it is too late.

German car company VW was a classic example of a blinkered strategy. As top executives now recognise, it was only the “dieselgate” emissions disaster that enabled new management to introduce the Transform 2025 strategy based on a transition to Electric Vehicles.

Most companies don’t face the near-death challenge faced by VW in 2015. But they do face major challenges over the next 2-3 years, which will require them to implement major shifts in their strategy if they want to continue to grow revenue and profits in the future.

The good news is that these challenges can be turned into opportunities with hard work and imagination.  Please let me know if I can help you to achieve the necessary transformation.

Companies ignore the Perennials 55+ generation at their peril

Nearly a third of the the world’s High Income population are now in the Perennials 55+ generation.

Yet companies mostly ignore their needs – assuming that all they want are walking sticks and sanitary pads.  Instead, they continue to focus on the relatively declining number of younger people.

No wonder many companies are going bankrupt, and many investors are seeing their portfolios struggle.  As the chart shows:

  • The High Income group accounts for nearly two-thirds of the global economy
  • It includes everyone with an income >$12k/year, equal to $34/day
  • 31% of those in the world’s High Income population are now Perennials aged 55+
  • In other words, High Income Perennials account for a fifth of the global economy

This is a vast change from 1950, when most people still died around pension age.  But it seems very few people have realised what has happened.  When we talk about the global population expanding, we all assume this means more babies being born.  But in fact, 422m of the 754m increase in population between now and 2030 will be Perennials – only 120m will be under-25s.

It is therefore no surprise that central bank stimulus policies have failed.  Rather than focusing on this growth sector, they have instead slashed interest rates to near-zero.  But, of course, this has simply destroyed the spending power of the Perennials, as the incomes from their savings collapsed.

If the central banks had been smarter, they would have junked their out-of-date models long ago.  They would have instead encouraged companies to wake up to this new opportunity, and create new products and services to meet their needs.  Instead, companies and most investors have also continued to look backwards, focusing on the growth markets of the past.

The Perennials are the great growth opportunity of our time. Their needs are more service-based than product-focused – they want mobility,  for example, but aren’t so bothered about actually owning a car.  But it’s not too late to get on board with the opportunity, as the number of Perennials is going to continue to grow, thanks to the marvel of increased life expectancy.

I explore this opportunity in more detail in a new podcast with Will Beacham – please click here to download it.

China’s renminbi and the global ring of fire

China’s property bubble puts it at the epicentre of the ring of fire © Reuters 

China’s devaluation could be the trigger for an international debt crisis, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

August has often seen the start of major debt crises. The Latin American crisis began on August 12, 1982. The Asian crisis began with Thailand’s IMF rescue on August 11, 1997. The Russian crisis began on August 17, 1998.

We fear that the renminbi’s fall below Rmb7 per dollar on August 5 will act as just such a catalyst — this time, for the onset of a global debt crisis that has long been in the category of an accident waiting to happen.

The risk is summarised in the chart below from the Institute of International Finance, showing the seemingly inexorable rise in global debt over the past 20 years

Central banks came to believe that business cycles could be abolished by the use of stimulus, first through subprime and then through quantitative easing. This would encourage the return of the legendary “animal spirits” and allow the debt created to be wiped out by a combination of growth and inflation.

© Institute of International Finance

Unfortunately, as we have argued here before, this belief took no account of demographics or the impact of today’s ageing populations in slowing demand growth.

The baby boomers, who created the growth supercycle when they moved into the wealth creator 25-54 generation, have now joined the cohort of perennials aged 55 and above. They already own most of what they need. The focus on stimulus means that policymakers have failed to develop the new social/economic policies needed to maintain soundly-based growth in a world of increasing life expectancy and falling fertility. Instead, stimulus policies have created overcapacity and today’s record levels of debt.

As William White, a former chief economist of the Bank for International Settlements, warned at Davos in 2016: “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.” Presciently, he suggested that the trigger for the crisis could be a Chinese devaluation.

Central banks have created a debt-fuelled ‘ring of fire’ with multiple fault-lines

The risk, outlined in our second chart, is that central banks have created a debt-fuelled global “ring of fire”. China has undertaken around half of all global stimulus since 2008, in effect creating subprime on steroids. As we noted here last year, its tier 1 cities boast some of the highest house-price-to-earnings ratios in the world, while profits from property speculation allowed car sales to rise fourfold from 500,000 a month in 2008 to 2m a month in 2017.

As the FT reported in April, investors have already been spooked by rising levels of dollar debt in China’s property sector. This debt is set to open the global ring of fire, as US president Donald Trump raises the stakes in his trade war. The president and his advisers seem to have chosen to ignore the very real risk of currency devaluation, as markets respond to the impact of tariffs on the economy:

  • China’s property bubble puts it at the epicentre of the ring of fire
  • This is now spreading out across Asia, impacting other Asian currencies and economies
  • The Bank of Japan is about to become the largest owner of Japanese stocks
  • The end of the property bubble is causing the end of the commodity bubble
  • In turn, this is impacting Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and the Middle East
  • ECB stimulus means eurozone government bonds have negative interest rates
  • Banks cannot make a profit and savers have no income
  • President Trump’s China trade war risks connecting all the dots
  • The UK’s potential no-deal Brexit in October further threatens global supply chains

The issue is the risk of contagion from one market to another. Risks in individual silos can be bad enough, but if they spread across boundaries it quickly becomes hard to know who is holding the risk. As US Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell warned in May while discussing potential problems in the market for collateralised loan obligations (CLO):

“Regulators, investors, and market participants around the world would benefit greatly from more information on who is bearing the ultimate risk associated with CLOs. We know that the US CLO market spans the globe . . . But right now, we mainly know where the CLOs are not — only $90bn of the $700bn in total CLOs are held by the largest US banks . . . In a downturn institutions anywhere could find themselves under pressure, especially those with inadequate loss-absorbing capacity or runnable short-term financing.”

The CLO market is just one part of the problem. As S&P Global reported recently, more than $3tn of US corporate debt is rated triple B, with $1tn rated triple B minus, the lowest level of investment grade. US companies account for 54 per cent of the world’s $7tn total triple B debt. The risk of contagion in any sell-off is clear, as many institutions would have to sell if recession forced rating agencies into downgrades, taking debt below investment grade.

In turn, this would add to the risks in US equity markets, which are already at extreme valuations. Pension funds would be most at risk as they have been major investors in corporate debt and in recent years have entered markets such as the Asian offshore US dollar market in their search for higher yields. A downturn in their returns would risk creating a vicious circle, forcing companies to increase their pension contributions just at the moment when their earnings are already under pressure as the trade war slows the global economy.

Mr Trump may come to regret his comment that “trade wars are good and easy to win”. We envisage a testing time ahead, particularly as only those over 60 have personal experience of even the “normal” business cycles seen before the boomer supercycle began.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

London house prices edge closer to a tumble

After the excitement of Wimbledon tennis and a cricket World Cup final, Londoners were back to their favourite conversation topic last week – house prices. But now the news has become bittersweet as the price decline starts to accelerate.

As the London Evening Standard headline confirms:

The London property slump has dramatically accelerated with prices falling at their fastest rate in a decade, official figures reveal… The latest “punishing” downward lurch means that more than £21k ($26k) was wiped from the value of the average London house over the period, according to the Land Registry… The number of sales is still in decline with just 5947 recorded in March, down from 7350 a year previously.”

‘Reversion to the mean’ is always the most reliable of investment guides, and the chart shows prices could have some way to fall before they reach this level – and, of course, prices often over-correct after the type of sharp rise that has been seen over the past 20 years:

  • Most people have to buy houses on a mortgage, where the ratio of price to income is the key factor
  • As the chart shows, prices and ratios have seen 2 distinct periods since 1971 (when records began)
  • Prices (inflation adjusted) have had an upward trend since 2000, with today’s 11% fall the worst
  • 1971-1999 saw more violent swings – eg between 1983-1993 they doubled and then halved
  • The average ratio since 2000 has been 9.3, which would bring prices down by a further 23%
  • The average ratio between 1971-1999 was 4.8, which would bring prices down by a further 60%

WHY DID PRICES RISE?
London prices have been boosted by 4 main factors since 1971:

Demographics.  Most fundamentally, the BabyBoomers (born between 1946-1970) began to move into their house-buying years. This dramatically increased demand (as I discussed last week), whilst supply was slow to respond due to planning restrictions etc.

In addition, women began to go back to work after having children, creating the phenomenon of 2-income families for the first time in history. The younger Boomers saw the benefit of this as affordability rose; those who followed them paid the price in terms of higher prices.

Buy to let. London became the capital of ‘Buy-to-let’. UK tenancy law changed in 1988 and by the mid-1990s, parents realised it would be cheaper and better to buy apartments for their student children, rather than paying high rents for shoddy lodgings. Others followed in the belief that property was “safer” than stock markets”.

Falling interest rates (they were 15% during the 1992 ERM crisis) made the mortgage payment very affordable – particularly with tax relief as well. But since 2017, tax relief has been reducing, and disappears next year. And today’s ageing UK population, where nearly 1 in 5 people are now aged 65+, means the Boomers no longer have spare cash to spend on buying property.

The global city.  After the financial crisis, London property appeared an oasis of calm as the Bank of England supported house prices by cutting interest rates to near-zero, dramatically boosting affordability. Everyone knew by then that “house prices only increased”, as memories of the 1970-1980s were forgotten, and so capital gains seemed assured.

This made London, along with other “global cities” such as New York, very attractive to Russians, Arabs, Asians and anyone else who was worried that their government might try to grab their money. Europeans also bought as the eurozone crisis developed. And then the success of the 2012 London Olympics made it the city where everyone wanted to live, especially as its financial sector was booming due to central bank stimulus programmes.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The question now is whether these drivers will continue.  Brexit, of course, has already cast a shadow over the idea of the UK as an island of stability in a troubled world. And whilst the collapse of the currency since the referendum makes property more affordable for foreign buyers, it means that those who bought at the peak are nursing even larger losses.

And, of course, the fall in the actual volume of sales is another worrying sign. Volume usually leads price, up or down. And housing markets aren’t like stock markets, where you can usually trade very quickly if you want to sell. Instead you have to wait for a buyer to appear – and even then, the UK’s property laws make it possible for them to pull out until the very last moment.

All in all, it would therefore be surprising if prices didn’t continue falling, back to the average house price/earnings ratio of the past 20 years.  A temporary over-correction, where they went even lower, would also be normal after such a long period without a major fall.

Whether they go lower than this, and return to the 1971-99 ratio, probably depends on what happens with Brexit.  If those who believe it will open up a new ‘golden age’ for the UK economy are right, then  prices might well stabilise and could even rise again, after the initial disruption. But if it proves an economic disaster, then a return to the troubled period of the 1970s would be no surprise at all.