Ageing Perennials set to negate central bank stimulus as recession approaches

The world’s best leading indicator for the global economy is still firmly signalling recession.  That’s the key conclusion from the chart above, showing latest data on global chemical industry Capacity Utilisation (CU%) from the American Chemistry Council.

The logic behind the indicator is compelling:

  • Chemicals are one of the world’s largest industries, and also one of the most diverse
  • Every country in the world uses relatively large volumes of chemicals
  • And their applications cover virtually all sectors of the economy
  • They include plastics, energy and agriculture as well as detergents and textiles

If you want to know the outlook for the global economy, the chemical industry will provide the answers.

It also has an excellent correlation with IMF data, and benefits from the fact it has no “political bias”. It simply tells us what is happening in real-time in the world’s 3rd largest industry.

And now it is telling us that the CU% is continuing to fall. It was down at 83.1% in January, well below the long-term average of 86.5%.  In fact, it has fallen sharply from that level since December 2017.

Ironically, it was exactly a year ago that the world’s major central banks were congratulating themselves on the success of their policies. “Yes”, they said, “it had taken longer than expected, but we can finally declare victory for our post-2008 stimulus policies”.

Unfortunately, however, this confidence was misplaced as the second chart suggests.

It shows there was a brief rebound in 2010 after the 2008 Crisis as the first round of stimulus took place. But then growth fell back again.

Instead of learning the lesson, the banks decided to do more of the same.  But repeating the same action in the hope of a different result is not terribly sensible.  And so it has proved.

Next month will see the IMF’s new estimate for 2018’s GDP growth (black line). Chemical industry CU% data (the red line) suggests it will have to be revised downwards, once again.

Already, it seems, the central banks are preparing their next round of stimulus. They have finally recognised the slowdown underway in the key areas of the economy such as autos, housing and electronics:

  • China has already panicked, with January seeing record levels of loans
  • Similarly the US Federal Reserve has promised it will go slowly with any further interest rate rises, or might even reduce them
  • The Bank of Japan’s former deputy governor has warned of recession as global demand weakens
  • Most recently, the European Central Bank has completely reversed course, after suggesting as recently as December that strong growth meant further stimulus was unnecessary

As the 3rd chart shows, the key aim for the western central banks is simply to support stock markets such as the S&P 500. They are determined to keep them moving steadily upwards, in the belief this will stimulate growth. But this, of course, is wishful thinking.  As the Financial Times reported last week, the combined result of stimulus and President Trump’s tax cuts has been that:

“US companies handed their shareholders a record-shattering $1.25tn through dividends and buybacks last year, lifting the post-crisis bonanza to nearly $8tn.”

And as the independent Pew Research Center reported last year:

“Today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.”

YOU CAN’T PRINT BABIES – AND IT IS PEOPLE THAT CREATE DEMAND

The final chart highlights the “problem” for the central banks.  Their financial models, and all their thinking, are based on the experience of the post-1945 BabyBoomer SuperCycle.

The vast numbers of babies born between 1946-70 first created massive inflation in the 1960s-70s, as demand outstripped supply. But then they created more or less constant growth as the Boomers moved into the workforce. They turbo-charged demand as Western women stopped having enough children to replace the population after 1970, and instead went back into the workforce – creating the two-income family for the first time in history.

But after 2000, this growth began to weaken as the oldest Boomers moved out of the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group, when consumption peaks along with earnings.  And today’s “problem” is really that, wonderfully, we now have a entirely new generation of Perennials aged 55+.

They will soon be over one-fifth of the global population, double the percentage in 1950.  In the developed western economies, they are already a third of the population, due to the collapse of fertility rates.  This is great news for us as individuals. But it is bad news for economic growth as Perennials already own most of what they need, and their earnings reduce as they retire.

The S&P 500 and other asset markets are already rising due to central bank promises of more support.

But one thing is certain. Third time around, the main result of more stimulus will again be to increase today’s already high levels of debt and inequality.  It cannot return us to SuperCycle levels of growth.

Déjà vu all over again for oil markets as recession risks rise

Back in 2015, veteran Saudi Oil Minister Ali  Naimi was very clear about Saudi’s need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.

As Naimi recognised, high oil prices created a short-term win for Saudi’s budget between 2011-4.  But they also allowed US frackers to enter the market – posing a major threat to Saudi’s control – whilst also reducing overall demand.  And his “boss”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) agreed with him, saying:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil. We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

Today, however, Saudi oil policy has reversed course, with MbS now trying to push prices towards the $80/bbl level assumed in this year’s Budget.

Saudi’s dilemma is that its growing population, and its need to diversify the economy away from oil, requires increases in public spending. As a result, it has conflicting objectives:

  • Its long-term need is to defend its market share, to guarantee its ability to monetise its vast oil reserves
  • But its short-term need is to support prices by cutting production, in order to fund its spending priorities

The result, as the chart above confirms, is that prices are now at levels which have almost always led to recession in the past.  It compares the total cost of oil* as a percentage of global GDP with IMF data for the economy, with the shaded areas showing US recessions. The tipping point is when the total cost reaches 3% of global GDP. And this is where we are today.

The reason is that high oil prices reduce discretionary spending.  Consumers have to drive to work and keep their homes warm (and cool in the summer).  So if oil prices are high, they have to cut back in other areas, slowing the economy.

CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS MADE OIL PRICES “AFFORDABLE” IN 2011-2014

There has only been one occasion in the past 50 years when this level failed to trigger a recession. That was in 2011-14, when all the major central bank stimulus programmes were in full flow, as the left-hand chart shows.

They were creating tens of $tns of free cash to support consumer spending.  But at the same time, of course, they were creating record levels of consumer debt, as the right-hand chart shows from the latest New York Federal Reserve’s Household Debt Report.  It shows US household debt is now at a record $13.54tn. And it confirms that consumers have reached the end of the road in terms of borrowing:

“The number of credit inquiries within the past six months – an indicator of consumer credit demand – declined to the lowest level seen in the history of the data.

SAUDI ARABIA IS NO LONGER THE SWING SUPPLIER IN OIL MARKETS

Oil prices are therefore now on a roller-coaster ride:

  • Saudi tried to push them up last year, but this meant demand growth slowed and Russian/US output rose
  • The rally ran out of steam in September and Brent collapsed from $85/bbl to $50/bbl in December

Now Saudi is trying again. It agreed with OPEC and Russia in December to cut production by 1.2mbd – with reductions to be shared between OPEC (0.8 million bpd) and its Russia-led allies (0.4 million bpd).  But as always, its “allies” have let it down.  So Saudi has been forced to make up the difference. Its production has fallen from over 11mbd to a forecast 9.8mbd in March.

Critically however, as the WSJ chart shows, it has lost its role as the world’s swing supplier:

Of course, geo-politics around Iran or Venezuela or N Korea could always intervene to support prices. But for the moment, the main support for rising prices is coming from the hedge funds.  As Reuters reports, their ratio of long to short positions in Brent has more than doubled since mid-December in line with rising stock markets.

But the hedge funds did very badly in Q4 last year when prices collapsed. And so it seems unlikely they will be too bold with their buying, whilst the pain of lost bonuses is so recent.

Companies and investors therefore need to be very cautious.  Saudi’s current success in boosting oil prices is very fragile, as markets are relying on more central bank stimulus to offset the recession risk. If market sentiment turns negative, today’s roller-coaster could become a very bumpy ride.

Given that Saudi has decided to ignore al-Naimi’s warning, the 2014-15 experience shows there is a real possibility of oil prices returning to $30/bbl later this year.

 

*Total cost is number of barrels used multiplied by their cost

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.