The litmus test for the global economy

China’s property sector is at the epicentre of the crisis

A branch of Centaline Property Agency in Hong Kong © Bloomberg

Indebted Chinese property developers threaten a domino effect on western credit markets , as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Second-order impacts are starting to appear as a result of China’s lockdowns. These are having a big impact on the critical property sector, which makes up as much as 25 per cent of gross domestic product.

Housing sales fell almost 40 per cent in February and seem likely to be down again in March, while developer Evergrande cut prices to try and maintain its cash flow. This creates growing risk in the offshore dollar market, where property developers have been significant borrowers, with Fitch already warning of possible defaults. It is unclear whether local authorities can provide much support, as their dependence on revenue from land sales means their own position is weakening.

Rightly, the world’s attention has focused on the impact on public health of the coronavirus pandemic and the best ways of mitigating it. But as Martin Wolf highlights in the Financial Times, the virus is an economic emergency too, with the ability to plunge the world into a depression. Talk of the reforms made to the world’s banking systems since 2008 misses the point. The risk is now centred on the vast build-up of corporate debt since the global financial crisis, under the easy money policies of the world’s central banks.


China’s property sector is unfortunately the epicentre of this debt. As we noted in the FT in August: “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.” Last month’s collapse of car sales back to 2005 levels of 244,000 confirms the damage that has been done.

Sales by China’s top 100 property developers plunged by 44 per cent in February, and Caixin reports that over 100 builders went bust in the January-February period, normally one of the busiest times for property sales. Equally worrying, as Caixin’s chart below illustrates, is that, although the largest developer, Evergrande, bucked the trend, this was only because it cut prices by 25 per cent in February and offered 22 per cent reductions this month.

There are few signs of a sustained upturn, with S&P reporting that housing starts were down 45 per cent across January-February. S&P adds that property sales could fall 20 per cent this year, if the effects of the lockdowns are still being felt in April, as seems likely.


The issue is that we are now starting to see second-order impacts of the lockdowns emerge, particularly in terms of consumer affordability and supply chain disruption:

  • The economic impact of the initial lockdowns was focused on two areas — companies and consumers. Companies were shut down, and consumers were quarantined
  • In turn, this led to a number of key impacts within and outside China
  • Within China, demand disappeared for a wide range of products as consumers were unable to leave their homes; supply also disappeared as companies shut down
  • And ‘out of sight’, critical logistic arrangements were being completely upended by quarantine measures, and the need to prioritise essential food/medical supplies

We can probably assume that truck drivers have now been released from emergency duties and from quarantine (if they travelled from infected areas across provincial borders). But we have no idea if their basic equipment — containers, specialist materials, etc — is in its normal place. We do know, however, from the shipping industry that its activity has been severely disrupted, with ships away from their usual moorings and many idled due to lack of work; containers and crew are equally disrupted.

It is safe to assume that most Chinese companies and consumers are short of cash and that consumers will cut back on all but essential spending, further depressing demand. This creates the risk of a vicious circle, whereby property sales remain depressed, reducing developer cash flow still further after most building activity came to a standstill during the lockdowns.

Fitch Ratings identified five Chinese corporations with a high risk of refinancing in a recent report, four of which are in the homebuilding sector, citing concerns about near-term capital market debt maturities and the unpredictability of the epidemic. A further sign of stress, as the Financial Times has reported, is that land sales are now running at less than a quarter of average levels.

Two key facts highlight our concerns:

  • Chinese developers ramped up their offshore dollar borrowing by 52 per cent to an all-time high of $75.2bn last year, according to Centaline Property Agency, as onshore funding became more difficult. And as S&P reported in November, before coronavirus hit: “For some developers, offshore yields to maturity have surged well beyond the mid-teens, reflecting low investor confidence.”
  • Chinese borrowers also tend to operate on a short-term basis, with an ICE BofA index of Chinese high-yield securities in dollars having 2.7 years to maturity, compared with 5.9 years for a similar US index.

We have warned here for some time that China’s property market has been ‘subprime on steroids’. Property sales have been buoyed by vast government stimulus programmes. And western investors have flocked to lend in the offshore dollar market, attracted by the high interest rates on offer compared to those in their domestic markets under central banks’ zero-interest rate policies.

The renminbi’s weakening beyond Rmb7 to the US dollar adds to the difficulties developers will face in servicing their dollar debts.

The potential for a domino impact on western credit markets from a coronavirus-related downturn in China’s property market should already be keeping regulators up at night.

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

“They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands”

The wisdom of Sir Robert Walpole, the UK’s first premier, seems the only possible response to this weekend’s headline from the Wall Street Journal. How can a National Emergency ever be the basis for a major rise in stock markets?

Of course, we all know that stock markets have become addicted to stimulus. But the problem with stimulus is that the patient needs more and more of it, to keep markets moving higher:

But the headlines surrounding the National Emergency clearly did the job as far as the High-Frequency Traders were concerned. They still dominate equity and other major markets, and Friday afternoon was exactly the kind of bumper payday that they adore.

The only problem is that neither stock markets, nor even the Federal Reserve, can cure coronavirus. And if the pandemic continues as the experts expect:

  • Between 160 million and 214 million Americans will become infected
  • Between 2.4 million and 21 million people could require hospitalisation

Clearly, no hospital system in the world could cope with the higher end of this range, particularly if they all come at once. And although the US system is easily the most expensive in the world, its performance is relatively poor by comparison with other major Western nations.

One key issue, of course, is testing. Nobody can know the actual size of the problem until we know how many people are already affected. And yet, as the WSJ reports from the President’s speech on Friday:

“By early next week, Mr. Trump said, there would be a half-million additional tests available, with 5 million tests available within a month.”

By comparison, China already has the capacity to do 1.7 million tests a week, according to the World Health Organisation.

This, of course, is why the experts are talking about trying to ‘delay’ the pandemic, rather than ‘contain’ it, as the chart based on US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis (interpreted by Vox) confirms.

The US lack of a proper social support system is also a major disadvantage. Around 34 million American workers have no access to paid sick leave, for example, and 27 million don’t have health insurance.  These people may well feel they have to keep working even if infected in order to pay the rent.

Hopefully, the new support package agreed on Friday night will help solve these problems. But who knows how long it will take to actually roll out the measures, and how many people will benefit?

The essence of populism, of course, is that it supplies simple answers to complex problems. And coronavirus is likely to prove a classic case of this weakness in action:

  • Experts suggest the virus will keep returning unless ‘herd immunity’ can be established
  • They estimate this means around 60% of the population therefore need to be infected

Data from China and Italy confirms that the main risk from coronavirus is to people over the age of 70, as the chart shows. The CDC also recommend that people with serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease need to take special precautions.

But their voice is being drowned out. People are understandably frightened, and they need wise and well-informed leaders to give them clear messages. Leaders should be focused on aiming to manage the pandemic and on taking the obvious steps to protect those most vulnerable.  Unfortunately, the opposite is happening as former UK Finance Minister, Lord Darling  has noted:

“There is a striking lack of global cooperation in dealing with coronavirus”.

The issue is that effectively closing down large parts of the economy in response to coronavirus is a very high risk strategy:

  • Millions of businesses could well go bankrupt around the world, and tens of millions lose their jobs
  • And as watchdog the Institute of International Finance already warned on Thursday:

“Global growth is potentially approaching 1% this year (anything below 2.5% is essentially recession). The multitude of shocks in the system now risks a global “sudden stop”. Falling oil prices potentially accelerate mounting credit stress in the US. Vulnerable emerging markets are already seeing large outflows”.

Friday saw Wall Street celebrating its latest “fix” of easy money. But as Bloomberg also noted:

“For context, this was the S&P 500’s best day since Oct. 28, 2008. At the end of that day, the bottom was more than 4 months away, and there was a 29% fall before hitting the intraday low.”

We may well all come to regret, as we wring our hands in the summer, that the bells rang too soon.

 

 

Chain’s smartphone and auto sales tumble as coronavirus hits demand

China is the world’s largest market for smartphones and autos – responsible for c30% of global sales for both.  Yet as Reuters notes:

“Most western policymakers and journalists view the world economy through a framework that is 10-15 years out of date, failing to account fully for the enormous shift in activity towards China and the rest of Asia.”

The critical fact is that both markets are now about to go into a severe downturn as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. This is already having a major impact on domestic sales in China, and is starting to create major disruption to today’s globalised supply chains.

SMARTPHONES SALES HAVE BEEN IN DECLINE SINCE 2017

As the chart shows, global smartphone sales were down again in Q4.  2019 sales were 1.4bn, versus their 2017 peak of 1.5bn. And, of course, Q1 is going to be a terrible period for sales, given the coronavirus impacts.

China has been the world’s largest market since 2012, but sales were down 37% in January as consumers began to worry about the risks from the virus.  February will clearly be much worse, as a result of the major lockdowns in place.  As Strategy Analytics warn:

“The smartphone market will be adversely impacted by the slowing GDP growth and the plunging consumer spending. It will also impact global smartphone supply and manufacturing, because China makes 70% of all smartphones sold on the planet.”

Research firms IDC and Canalys are already forecasting that China’s market will be down 40% in Q1. But this is likely an under-estimate, given the impact of the lockdowns.  Most retail stores, including Apple’s, have been shut during February, after all. And as Chinese business paper Caixin reported:

“China’s capital might be officially back to work, but it would be hard to tell from walking around the normally congested city. Tourist sites and other popular destinations remain unusually free of sightseers, customers or pedestrians.”

Outside China, parts arriving in the West today came from factories that were still open before Lunar New Year.  But now, supply chain problems are about to become evident:

  • Port calls in China fell 30% last month, as ships worried about crews being quarantined
  • Los Angeles – the largest US gateway for seaborne China imports – saw volumes drop 25%
  • Things will now get worse, as shipping times of 4 – 6 weeks mean new supplies are reducing
  • And back in China, it seems workers are often frightened to return – Apple’s main supplier, Foxconn, is having to offer $1k bonuses to persuade new workers to join

And, of course, the recession is also seeing major paradigm shifts take place.

For example, used smartphones are now becoming a viable market in their own right for the first time.  207m were sold last year, up 18% from 2018, and IDC see the market growing to over 300m phones by 2023. As they note:

“In contrast to the recent declines in the new smartphone market, as well as the forecast for minimal growth in new shipments over the next few years, the used market for smartphones shows no signs of slowing down across all parts of the globe. Refurbished and used devices continue to provide cost-effective alternatives to both consumers and businesses that are looking to save money when purchasing a smartphone.”

CHINA’S AUTO MARKET IS IN CRISIS

China’s auto market also matters. It is easily the largest in the world, with peak sales in 2017 of 24.7m, versus 17.9m in the USA and 15.3m in Europe.  And without China’s four-fold stimulus-powered sales increase since 2008, the global market would have seen no growth at all.

But today, the used market has become key to auto sales growth, as the chart confirms.  Consensus opinion still believes that its new car sales would continue to grow until at least the end of the decade. But this conclusion fails to reflect the unique nature of China’s market:

  • Back in 2000, there were just 16m cars on the road – and the quality was so bad, they mostly fell apart within a few years. There were still only 65m cars in 2008, before stimulus began
  • As a result, used car sales hardly existed. Instead, as in most poor countries, local mechanics would strip out parts from abandoned cars and reuse them to keep others on the road
  • It was only when China’s “subprime on steroids” stimulus programme began in 2009, with shadow banks funding speculative house purchases, that Western companies introduced their technology
  • Even then, it took until 2014 for used sales to start motoring, and they have still not reached a 50:50 ratio with new cars. And the direction of travel is clear, as used sales are normally 2x-3x new in most countries

China’s used sales rose 8% in 2019, whilst new sales fell 9%. They may well equal new sales this year for the first time, given the collapse underway in new sales.

Thus the virtuous circle of the last decade is turning vicious.  China’s new car sales fell by 90% in February, and salary losses during the lockdowns make it unlikely that the crisis has left a backlog of pent-up demand to create a V-shaped recovery.

Similarly, used car sales are set to cannibalise new car sales in all the major markets. Lending standards are already tightening, making new cars simply unaffordable.

THE WORLD WILL SEE MAJOR CHANGE DURING THE RECESSION

People sometimes say they ‘can’t plan until they know what is happening’. But in reality, what they mean is that they have become used to doing tactical planning, based on the idea of ‘business as usual’.  Today, however, we all have to relearn how to plan for uncertainty.

The question now for investors and companies is to start contingency planning for what may happen next.  We have to ask the question – how quickly will used smartphones and cars cannibalise new sales over the next year? Will they take 10%, 20% or more?  And what will happen to prices and margins as a result?

As the saying goes – “to fail to plan, is to plan for failure.”

China’s lockdown makes global debt crisis now almost certain

Beijing has a population of 21.5 million, but you wouldn’t know it from this BBC video from last Thursday.  Normally busy streets and transport systems are eerily empty, with food deliveries often the main traffic on the roads.

It’s the same picture in industry, with the Baidu Migration Index reporting only 26% of migrant workers had returned to work across 19 sample cities by 19 February, compared with 101% a year earlier.

The position is even worse in Hubei province, the most important industrial manufacturing province in the country, as this South China Morning Post video, also from last Thursday, confirms.


China is clearly nowhere near getting “back to normal”, as the SCMP reports:

“Choked off from suppliers, workers, and logistics networks, China’s manufacturing base is facing a multitude of unprecedented challenges, as coronavirus containment efforts hamper factories’ efforts to reopen. 

“Many of those that have been granted permission to resume operations face critical shortages of staff, with huge swathes of China still under lockdown and some local workers afraid to leave their homes. Others cannot access the materials needed to make their products, and even if they could, the shutdown of shops and marketplaces around China means demand has been sapped. 

“Those who manage to assail the challenges, meanwhile, have found that trucking, shipping and freight services are thin on the ground, as China’s famed logistical machine also struggles to find workers and navigate provincial border checkpoints that have popped up across the country.”

Cash-flow is also drying up at thousands of companies, large and small.  It is now a month since the emergency began. Bloomberg reports, for example, that the Hainan provincial government is in talks to takeover HNA’s $143bn airline to property development business empire.

THE LOCKDOWN CONTINUES TO HAVE MAJOR IMPACT ON THE ECONOMY
It would be nice to believe that the epidemic will have no impact on China’s economy. But common sense tells us this can’t be true. We just have to ask ourselves 5 obvious questions.  What would happen to:

  1. Our own country’s economy, if our capital and a major manufacturing base shutdown for a month?
  2. Businesses, large and small, if orders stopped and transport was severely disrupted?
  3. Imports and exports, if critical shipping schedules and flights were cancelled?
  4. Cash-flow, if the above happened and we still had to pay interest bills on debt?
  5. Supply chains, if workers at one or more partners couldn’t get to work for a month?

South Korea’s president Moon-Jae has given the obvious answer as the Financial Times reports:

“We should take all possible measures we can think of” to support the economy, Mr Moon told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “The current situation is more serious than we thought . . . we need to take emergency steps in this time of emergency.”

Of course, ‘this time may be different’. But common sense tells us that China’s economy is under enormous pressure today. The charts above highlight the range of areas that are affected:

  • Property sales are down 79%, with Evergrande offering 22% discounts through March
  • Construction is 25% of GDP, with Fitch identifying 6 developers with high risk of default
  • Ports are often at a standstill – and many shippers have simply stopped calling at Chinese ports
  • Car sales collapsed by 92% in the world’s largest auto market in the first two weeks of February

5 LIKELY IMPACTS FROM THE LOCKDOWN
1. Domestic sales.  Thousands of stores have been shut since the epidemic began, and people are understandably too scared to venture out – even if this was allowed. So we must assume most areas of domestic consumption are being hit.

2. Imports for manufacturing. Chemicals are an excellent guide to the overall position, as the charts show based on Trade Data Monitor data. Given the shipping problems, large volumes of cancelled imports must now be sitting in suppliers’ tanks and warehouses, waiting to find a new market

3. Exports as part of supply chains. Apple’s profit warning highlights how even major companies have been caught out, as they cannot obtain the component supplies on which their global sales depend. Car and electronics companies are probably most at risk, and we will no doubt see more profit warnings as companies realise inventory is running short

4. Domestic suppliers. There is little data available about the virus’ impact on smaller Chinese companies. But presumably many have already gone bust, especially if they were unlucky enough to be in the centre of the downturn, such as those in Hubei and Wuhan

5. Oil and currency markets.  Caixin reports that Chinese refinery runs are at just 10mbd, compared to an average 13mbd in 2019:

“The deepening run cuts belie optimism that the impact of the epidemic may have peaked, a sentiment that’s helped spur a recovery in oil prices over the last week and a half. Many people are still trapped in their homes and unable to go to work, while curbs on travel have pummeled demand for transport fuels.”

Currency markets are also realising the worst may yet be to come.  Companies such as HNA have been major borrowers in the offshore dollar market – hoping to take advantage of low US interest rates. But as we have seen many times before, when the currency starts to fall, those debts quickly become impossible to service.

A GLOBAL DEBT CRISIS SEEMS ALMOST INEVITABLE
Observers such as myself have warned about this problem for years.  Earlier this month, an international G20 task force of currency experts warned:

“Central banks have lost control of global liquidity. The dollarised international financial system has become treacherously unstable and vulnerable to a sudden reversal in capital flows.  A decade of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing has flooded the globe with highly unstable forms of funding denominated in dollars, with no guarantor standing behind them. Glaring currency and maturity mismatches have accumulated.

“This structure is prone to an abrupt “dollar crunch” should borrowers in China, east Asia, emerging markets, or even parts of Europe suddenly start scrambling for scarce US currency to repay bonds and loans in a crisis.”

Central banks and governments either didn’t realise the risks or, more likely, simply hoped the problem would only hit once they had left the job.  But today, this “dollar crunch” may well be about to arrive:

  • After a brief rally, the Rmb has gone back below Rmb 7: US$ 1
  • This will make it even more impossible for many companies to repay their dollar loans

Many western pension funds felt forced to rush into the offshore dollar market in a ‘search for yield’. Zero rate interest policies meant they couldn’t get the level of yield they needed to fund future pensions in ‘safer’ markets at home. And employers weren’t willing to fill the gap, as this would have hit their earnings and share prices.

Unfortunately, as I noted 18 months ago, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises probably describes the end-game we have entered:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

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

Automakers face stiff headwinds in big emerging markets

Brazil, Russia, India and China disappoint as manufacturers face investment demands of EVs © Bloomberg

Less than a third of China’s 31,000 auto dealers were profitable in the first half of 2019, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Auto markets in the Bric countries are facing two major challenges. The first relates to the downturn already under way in the two largest markets, China and India, where 2019 sales seem likely to be at least 10 per cent below the previous year’s levels.

The second is the need for manufacturers and parts suppliers to spend billions of dollars on the transition to electric vehicles in order to meet Chinese government production targets in 2021-23.

It therefore seems probable that winners and losers will emerge over the next 18 months, as companies along the value chain find themselves short of cash to fund the new investments required.

China’s downturn is particularly important as sales in Brazil, Russia and India have already fallen by 20 per cent since peaking in 2012, as the chart below shows (January-November basis). Chinese sales have been in a downturn for more than a year, and the impact is broadening along the supply chain.


As Automotive News reported: “We knew China had been in a prolonged auto sales slump, and we knew the market was under pressure from tougher municipal and provincial emissions standards. Now, we’re seeing how these factors are devastating dealerships, to the tune of half of them being sold and several hundred being driven out of business.”

Less than a third of China’s 31,000 dealerships were profitable in the first half of 2019. The downturn is particularly bad news for western manufacturers, whose global profits have depended on China volumes.

US brands are worst hit, with January-November sales down 23 per cent due to frictions caused by the US-China trade war. General Motors reported third-quarter China sales down 17.5 per cent, continuing their slide since the second quarter of 2018, with sales also hit by strong competition in the key mid-priced sport utility vehicle segment. Ford saw its third-quarter sales fall 30 per cent — accelerating the downturn that began at the end of 2017.

French brands are having a difficult time, with volume down 54 per cent in January-November. Seventy per cent of Peugeot, Citroën and Renault’s dealerships were lossmaking in the first half of last year.

Korean brands were down 15 per cent, and even German brands had no growth over the previous year.

The problem is magnified by the fact that China’s market has seen rapid growth since 2008. Many companies and dealerships therefore assumed that the sales ramp-up from 550,000 vehicles a month in 2008 to 2m a month by 2016 was somehow “normal”. They have no concept of a slowdown, or how to survive it.

The downturn is likely to intensify as the government continues to squeeze the shadow banking sector and hence the property market. As the chart below shows, shadow lending remains well down on its earlier peaks, averaging just $67bn a month in the 10 months to October. This means, as we noted here a year ago, that “buyers can no longer count on windfall gains from property speculation to finance their purchase”.


As Reuters notes, the scale of the previous stimulus-driven growth also means that today, “much of the urban middle class has already purchased a vehicle. Household ownership rates were nearing 50 per cent in the provincial-level cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the wealthy province of Zhejiang by the end of 2017… Pushing ownership further down the income scale in urban areas as well as out into the poorer countryside is harder without generous tax incentives, plentiful credit and fast growth in incomes.”

Sales in the other Bric markets are also slowing. India’s sales were down 13 per cent at the end of November, while in Russia the industry is now forecasting a 2 per cent decline. Even in Brazil, industry trade group Anfavea has reduced its growth forecast to 8 per cent, due to the slowing Latin American economy.

The downturn creates a major dilemma for the industry, as it coincides with the need to commit to major new investments in EV manufacture.

China is proposing to set a 14 per cent target for EV production in 2021, rising to 16 per cent in 2022 and 18 per cent in 2023. Similarly, the industry ministry has called for EVs to be 25 per cent of total new car sales by 2025, and announced that “regions with ripe conditions have our support if they establish trial projects to establish no-go zones for gasoline-powered vehicles and replace them with new energy vehicles in the urban public transport system”.

Companies therefore have to move forward with EV investments, even though their profits are under pressure from the sales downturn.

Volkswagen, for example, is planning to open two Chinese EV factories this year with total capacity of 600,000 cars, and aims to produce 11.6m EVs in China by 2028. Tesla is opening capacity for 250,000 cars and plans to double production in the future.

With other manufacturers following suit, some in the industry expect EV prices to fall below those for internal combustion engines within the next two years, which would further accelerate the transition.

The industry is therefore faced with a stark choice. The need to commit to EV manufacture means there is no “business as usual” strategy for either manufacturers or parts suppliers. Those who decide to conserve their cash risk finding themselves without the relevant products and services in the world’s largest auto market.

Paul Hodges publishes The pH Report.

Will stock markets see a Minsky Moment in 2020?

Few investors now remember the days when price discovery was thought to be the key role of stock markets. Instead, we know that prices are really now set by central banks, on the model of the Politburo in the old Soviet Union.

How else can one explain the above chart? It shows the US S&P 500 Index has risen 50% over the past 5 years, even though US corporate profits have fallen 5% (using US Bureau of Economic Analysis data).

As in the old USSR, central banks have also abolished “bad news”.

All news is now good news, as any ‘bad news’ means the Federal Reserve will rush to provide more price support. It has been so successful that the Index hasn’t even suffered a 20% correction over the past decade, as my Chart of the Decade confirmed.

But does this mean that stock markets will never fall again?  That is the real question as we enter 2020.

On the positive side, we know that companies have also provided major support via buybacks.  Apple alone did $240bn of buybacks between 2014 – 2018. Companies spent $800bn in total in 2018, but cash now seems to be tighter with 2019 purchases down around 15% to $700bn.

We also know that President Trump believes a strong stock market is key to his re-election this year. His Trade Adviser, Peter Navarro, has already suggested 2020 will be another record:

“It’s going to be the roaring 2020s. ”Dow 32,000 is a conservative estimate of where we’ll be at the end of the year.”

Certainly investors seem to be very positive, as the above charts confirm.  Share prices for the FANGAM stocks – Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google and Amazon stocks have soared to new heights:

  • Apple for example, was up 32% in Q4 and nearly doubled in 2019
  • On its own, it provided 14% of the S&P’s gain in the quarter, and 8.5% of the annual gain

This wonderful performance took place even though Apple’s net income has fallen for the past 4 quarters. It is also hard to argue that Microsoft or the other FANGAM companies are suddenly about to see supercharged growth.

So is there a negative side?  Maybe old-fashioned investors were simply wrong to believe stock markets’ key role as price discovery and the efficient allocation of capital?

If one wants to worry, one has to instead look to the insights of Hyman Minsky, who warned that:

  • A long period of stability 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
  • They therefore take on high levels of debt to finance ever more speculative investments

His argument was that liquidity is not the same as solvency. Central banks can pump out trillions of dollars in stimulus, and make it ridiculously easy for companies to justify new investments. It is hard to argue with a CEO who claims:

“Why not borrow, as it’s not costing us anything with today’s interest rates“.

But what happens if the earnings from the new investments are too low to pay the interest due on the debt?

That is the risk we face today, given there is now a record $3tn of BBB grade debt – the lowest level of ‘investment grade’ debt. If some of these companies start to default, then confidence in the central banks’ ‘new paradigm’ will quickly disappear – and, with it, market liquidity

Investors will then find themselves unable to sell the under-performing asset, and suddenly realise they have over-paid.  In turn, this will prompt a rush for the exits. Prices will drop quite sharply, as ‘distress sales’ start to take place.

China’s former central bank governor has already warned that it may be facing its own Minsky Moment. As investors finish celebrating their 2019 success, they might find it prudent to ponder whether the good times can really continue forever.