Last year it was Bitcoin, in 2016 it was the near-doubling in US 10-year interest rates, and in 2015 was the oil price fall. This year, once again, there is really only one candidate for ‘Chart of the Year’ – it has to be the collapse of China’s shadow banking bubble:
- It averaged around $20bn/month in 2008, a minor addition to official lending
- But then it took off as China’s leaders panicked after the 2008 Crisis
- By 2010, it had shot up to average $80bn/month, and nearly doubled to $140bn in 2013
- President Xi then took office and the bubble stopped expanding
- But with Premier Li still running a Populist economic policy, it was at $80bn again in 2017
At that point, Xi took charge of economic policy, and slammed on the brakes. November’s data shows it averaging just $20bn again.
The impact on the global economy has already been immense, and will likely be even greater in 2019 due to cumulative effects. As we noted in this month’s pH Report:
“Xi no longer wants China to be the manufacturing Capital of the world. Instead his China Dream is based on the country becoming a more service-led economy based on the mobile internet. He clearly has his sights on the longer-term and therefore needs to take the pain of restructuring today.
“Financial deleveraging has been a key policy, with shadow bank lending seeing a $609bn reduction YTD November, and Total Social Financing down by $257bn. The size of these reductions has reverberated around Emerging Markets and more recently the West:
- The housing sector has nose-dived, with China Daily reporting that more than 60% of transactions in Tier 1 and 2 cities saw price drops in the normally peak buying month of October, with Beijing prices for existing homes down 20% in 2018
- It also reported last week under the heading ’Property firms face funding crunch’ that “housing developers are under great capital pressure at the moment”
- China’s auto sales, the key to global market growth since 2009, fell 14% in November and are on course for their first annual fall since 1990
- The deleveraging not only reduced import demand for commodities, but also Chinese citizens’ ability to move money offshore into previous property hotspots
- Real estate agents in prime London, New York and other areas have seen a collapse in offshore buying from Hong Kong and China, with one telling the South China Morning Post that “basically all Chinese investors have disappeared “
GLOBAL STOCK MARKETS ARE NOW FEELING THE PAIN
As I warned here in June (Financial markets party as global trade wars begin), the global stock market bubble is also now deflating – as the chart shows of the US S&P 500. It has been powered by central bank’s stimulus policies, as they came to believe their role was no longer just to manage inflation.
Instead, they have followed the path set out by then Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, in November 2010, believing that:
“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.”
Now, however, we are coming close to the to the point when it becomes obvious that the Fed cannot possibly control the economic fortunes of 325m Americans. Common sense tells us that demographics, not monetary policy, drive demand. Unfortunately, vast amounts of time and money have been wasted by central banks in this failed experiment.
The path back to fiscal sanity will be very hard, due to the debt that has been built up by the stimulus policies. The impartial Congressional Budget Office expects US government debt to rise to $1tn.
Japan – the world’s 3rd largest economy – is the Case Study for the problems likely ahead:
- Consumer spending is 55% of Japan’s GDP. It falls by around a third at age 70+ versus peak spend at 55, as older people already own most of what they need, and are living on a pension
- Its gross government debt is now 2.5x the size of its economy, and with its ageing population (median age will be 48 in 2020), there is no possibility that this debt can ever be repaid
- As the Nikkei Asian Review reported in July, the Bank of Japan’s stimulus programme means it is now a Top 10 shareholder in 40% of Nikkei companies: it is currently spending ¥4.2tn/year ($37bn) buying more shares
- Warning signs are already appearing, with the Nikkei 225 down 12% since its October peak. If global stock markets do now head into a bear market, the Bank’s losses will mount very quickly
CHINA MOVE INTO DEFLATION WILL MAKE DEBT IMPOSSIBLE TO REPAY
Since publishing ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: how the Ageing Boomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again“, in 2011 with John Richardson, I have argued that the stimulus policies cannot work, as they are effectively trying to print babies. 2019 seems likely to put this view to the test:
- China’s removal of stimulus is being matched by other central banks, who have finally reached the limits of what is possible
- As the chart shows, the end of stimulus has caused China’s Producer Price Inflation to collapse from 7.8% in February 2017
- Analysts Haitong Securities forecast that it will “drop to zero in December and fall further into negative territory in 2019“
China’s stimulus programme was the key driver for the global economy after 2008. Its decision to withdraw stimulus – confirmed by the collapse now underway in housing and auto sales – is already putting pressure on global asset and financial markets:
- China’s lending bubble helped destroy market’s role of price discovery based on supply/demand
- Now the bubble has ended, price discovery – and hence deflation – may now be about to return
- Yet combating deflation was supposed to be the prime purpose of Western central bank stimulus
This is why the collapse in China’s shadow lending is my Chart of the Year.
The US 10-year Treasury bond is the benchmark for global interest rates and stock markets. And for the past 30 years it has been heading steadily downwards as the chart shows:
- US inflation rates finally peaked at 13.6% in 1980 (having been just 1.3% in 1960) as the BabyBoomers began to move en masse into the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group
- Instead of simply boosting demand, as during the 1960s-1970s, they began to work and create new supply
- This meant supply/demand began to rebalance and interest rates then peaked at 16% in 1981
By 1983, the average Western Boomer (born between 1946-1970) had arrived in the Wealth Creator cohort, which dominates consumer spending, and the economy really began to hum. There was a final inflation scare in 1984, when US inflation suddenly jumped from 3% to 5%, but after that the trend was downwards all the way.
The Boomers were the largest and wealthiest generation that the world had ever seen. Their move to become Wealth Creators completely transformed the inflation outlook, as more and more Boomers joined the workforce. And they transformed the economy by moving it into the NICE era of Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion.
Central bankers took credit for this move, claiming it was due to monetary policy. But in reality, people are the key element in an economy, not monetary policy. You can’t have an economy without people. And sadly, the idea that the US Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had somehow become a Maestro, blinded everyone to 2 key issues for the future:
- Life expectancy was rising rapidly, meaning that the Boomers would not normally die just after retirement. Instead, they would likely live for another 15 – 20 years after reaching age 65
- From 1970, fertility rates had fallen below replacement level (2.1 babies/woman) across the Western world
This combination of a rise in life expectancy and a collapse in fertility rates was creating a timebomb for the economy.
THE RISE IN LIFE EXPECTANCY AND COLLAPSE OF FERTILITY RATES CREATED AN ECONOMIC TIMEBOMB
Western economies are based on consumer spending. And spending declines once people reach the age of 55 – they already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they approach retirement, as the second chart shows:
- There were 65m US Wealth Creator households in 2000, who spent an average of $62k ($2017)
- There were only 36m in the 55+ cohort, who spent just $45k each
- In 2017, there were 66m Wealth Creators (almost the same as in 2000) who spent $64k each
- But there were now 56m in the 55+ cohort, who spent just $51k each
The rise in 55+ spending was also only temporary, as large numbers of Boomers have just reached 55+ and have not yet retired. Spending by those aged 74+ was down by nearly 50% versus the peak spending 45-54 age group.
BELIEF IN MONETARISM LED TO THE DOTCOM AND SUBPRIME DISASTERS
The dot-com crash in 2000 should have been a wake-up call for the failure of monetarism. It also, after all, marked the moment when the oldest Boomers began to join the 55+ cohort. But instead, policymakers thought monetarism could solve “the problem” and cut interest rates to boost the housing market – causing the subprime crash in 2008.
One might have thought – as we wrote in Boom, Gloom and the New Normal in 2011 – that this disaster would have destroyed the monetarism myth. But no. Abandoning monetarism would have led to a difficult conversation with voters about the need for everyone to retrain in their 50s, and prepare to take on new, and less physically demanding, roles.
Instead, policymakers tried to replace lost BabyBoomer demand by printing vast amounts of free money via the Quantitative Easing and Zero Interest Rate Policies. Their aim was to avoid deflation, as inflation had fallen to just 0.6% in 2010 – although why this was a “bad thing” was never explained. But in reality, they were running uphill, and the pace of the climb was becoming more vertical, as the average Western Boomer joined the 55+ cohort in 2013.
Of course, flooding the market with cheap money boosted asset prices, as they intended. Stock markets and house prices soared for a second time. But it also created a major new risk. More and more investors began to panic as they hunted through the markets, trying to obtain a decent “return on capital”. They assumed central banks would never let markets fall, and so gave up worrying about the risk of making a dud investment.
INTEREST RATES ARE NOW HEADED HIGHER AS PEOPLE WORRY ABOUT RETURN OF CAPITAL
The end of the Bitcoin bubble has highlighted the fact that that risk and reward are normally related. Most investments that offer potentially high rewards are also high risk – a lot has to go right, for them to make the possible return. This process of price discovery – the balance of risk and reward – is the key role of markets.
Left to themselves, markets will price risk properly. But they have been swamped for the past decade by central bank liquidity and their crucial role has been temporarily destroyed. Now, the fact that the US 10-year bond has broken out of its 30-year downtrend tells us that markets they are finally starting to regain their role.
How high will interest rates now go? We cannot yet know, and we can also be sure they will not move in a straight line as central banks will continue to intervene. But as more and more investments, like Bitcoin, prove to be duds, so more and more investors will start to worry about return of capital when they invest.
4% therefore looks like the next level for rates, as we are now trading within the blue bars on the chart. It may not take very long for this level to be reached, given the fact that the world now has a record $233tn of debt – 3x the size of the global economy. After that, we shall have to wait and see.
I strongly believe that forecasts should be monitored, which is why I always review the previous Annual Budget forecast before issuing the next Outlook, and always publish the complete list of Annual Budget Outlooks.
I now plan to begin monitoring my blog forecasts, using the percentage mechanism highlighted in Philip Tetlock’s masterly “Superforecasting” book. The first forecasts relate to last week’s post on US polyethylene exports and today’s forecast for the US 10-year Treasury bond. I will change confidence levels as and when circumstances change.
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“There isn’t anybody who knows what is going to happen in the next 12 months. We’ve never been here before. Things are out of control. I have never seen a situation like it.“
This comment from former UK Finance Minister, Ken Clarke, aptly summarises the uncertainty facing companies, investors and individuals as we look ahead to the 2018 – 2020 Budget period. None of us have ever seen a situation like today’s. Even worse, is the fact that risks are not just focused on the economy, or politics, or social issues. They are a varying mix of all of these. And because of today’s globalised world, they potentially affect every country, no matter how stable it might appear from inside its own borders.
This is why my Budget Outlook for 2018 – 2020 is titled ‘Budgeting for the Great Unknown’. We cannot know what will happen next. But this doesn’t mean we can’t try to identify the key risks and decide how best to try and manage them. The alternative, of doing nothing, would leave us at the mercy of the unknown, which is never a good place to be.
RISING INTEREST RATES COULD SPARK A DEBT CRISIS
Central banks assumed after 2008 that stimulus policies would quickly return the economy to the BabyBoomer-led economic SuperCycle of the previous 25 years. And when the first round of stimulus failed to produce the expected results, as was inevitable, they simply did more…and more…and more. The man who bought the first $1.25tn of mortgage debt for the US Federal Reserve (Fed) later described this failure under the heading “I’m sorry, America“:
“You’d think the Fed would have finally stopped to question the wisdom of QE. Think again. Only a few months later—after a 14% drop in the U.S. stock market and renewed weakening in the banking sector—the Fed announced a new round of bond buying: QE2”
• And the Fed was not alone, as the chart shows. Today, the world is burdened by over $30tn of central bank debt
• The Fed, European Central Bank, Bank of Japan and the Bank of England now appear to “own a fifth of their governments’ total debt”
• There also seems little chance that this debt can ever be repaid. The demand deficit caused by today’s ageing populations means that growth and inflation remain weak, as I discussed in the Financial Times last month
China is, of course, most at risk – as it was responsible for more than half of the lending bubble. This means the health of its banking sector is now tied to the property sector, just as happened with US subprime. Around one in five of all Chinese apartments have been bought for speculation, not to be lived in, and are unoccupied.
China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, has warned that China risks a “Minsky Moment“, where lenders and investors suddenly realise they have overpaid for their assets, and all rush together for the exits – as in 2008. Similar risks face the main developed countries as they finally have to end their stimulus programmes:
• Who is now going to replace them as buyers of government debt?
• And who is going to buy these bonds at today’s prices, as the banks back away?
• $8tn of government and corporate bonds now have negative interest rates, which guarantee the buyer will lose money unless major deflation takes place – and major deflation would make it very difficult to repay the capital invested
There is only one strategy to manage this risk, and that is to avoid debt. Companies or individuals with too much debt will go bankrupt very quickly if and when a Minsky Moment takes place.
THE CHINA SLOWDOWN RISK IS LINKED TO THE PROPERTY LENDING BUBBLE
After 2008, it seemed everyone wanted to believe that China had suddenly become middle class by Western standards. And so they chose to ignore the mounting evidence of a housing bubble, as shown in the chart above.
Yet official data shows average incomes in China are still below Western poverty levels (US poverty level = $12060):
• In H1, disposable income for urban residents averaged just $5389/capita
• In the rural half of the country, disposable income averaged just $1930
• The difference between income and expenditure was based on the lending bubble
As a result, average house price/earnings ratios in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are now more than 3x the ratios in cities such as New York – which are themselves wildly overpriced by historical standards.
Having now been reappointed for a further 5 years, it is clear that President Xi Jinping is focused on tackling this risk. The only way this can be done is to take the pain of an economic slowdown, whilst keeping a very close eye on default risks in the banking sector. As Xi said once again in his opening address to last week’s National Congress:
“Houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation. China will accelerate establishing a system with supply from multiple parties, affordability from different channels, and make rental housing as important as home purchasing.”
China will therefore no longer be powering global growth, as it has done since 2008. Prudent companies and investors will therefore want to review their business models and portfolios to identify where these are dependent on China.
This may not be easy, as the link to end-user demand in China might well be further down the supply chain, or external via a second-order impact. For example, Company A may have no business with China and feel it is secure. But it may suddenly wake up one morning to find its own sales under attack, if company B loses business in China and crashes prices elsewhere to replace its lost volume.
PROTECTIONISM IS ON THE RISE AROUND THE WORLD
Trade policy is the third key risk, as the chart of harmful interventions from Global Trade Alert confirms.
These are now running at 3x the level of liberalising interventions since 2008, as Populist politicians convince their voters that the country is losing jobs due to “unfair” trade policies.
China has been hit most times, as its economy became “the manufacturing capital of the world” after it joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. At the time, this was seen as being good news for consumers, as its low labour costs led to lower prices.
But today, the benefits of global trade are being forgotten – even though jobless levels are relatively low. What will happen if the global economy now moves into recession?
The UK’s Brexit decision highlights the danger of rising protectionism. Leading Brexiteer and former cabinet minister John Redwood writes an online diary which even campaigns against buying food from the rest of the European Union:
“There are many great English cheese (sic), so you don’t need to buy French.”
No family tries to grow all its own food, or to manufacture all the other items that it needs. And it used to be well understood that countries also benefited from specialising in areas where they were strong, and trading with those who were strong in other areas. But Populism ignores these obvious truths.
• President Trump has left the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have linked major Pacific Ocean economies
• He has also said he will probably pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement
• Now he has turned his attention to NAFTA, causing the head of the US Chamber of Commerce to warn:
“There are several poison pill proposals still on the table that could doom the entire deal,” Donohue said at an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico, where he said the “existential threat” to NAFTA threatened regional security.
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.
POLITICAL CHAOS IS GROWING AS PEOPLE LOSE FAITH IN THE ELITES
The key issue underlying these risks is that voters no longer believe that the political elites are operating with their best interests at heart. The elites have failed to deliver on their promises, and many families now worry that their children’s lives will be more difficult than their own. This breaks a century of constant progress in Western countries, where each generation had better living standards and incomes. As the chart from ipsos mori confirms:
• Most people in the major economies feel their country is going in the wrong direction
• Adults in only 3 of the 10 major economies – China, India and Canada – feel things are going in the right direction
• Adults in the other 7 major economies feel they are going in the wrong direction, sometimes by large margins
• 59% of Americans, 62% of Japanese, 63% of Germans, 71% of French, 72% of British, 84% of Brazilians and 85% of Italians are unhappy
This suggests there is major potential for social unrest and political chaos if the elites don’t change direction. Fear of immigrants is rising in many countries, and causing a rise in Populism even in countries such as Germany.
“Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t have to face the need to make major changes. But we all know that change is inevitable over time. And at a certain moment, time can seem to literally “stand still” whilst sudden and sometimes traumatic change erupts.
At such moments, as in 2008, commentators rush to argue that “nobody could have seen this coming“. But, of course, this is nonsense. What they actually mean is that “nobody wanted to see this coming“. The threat from subprime was perfectly obvious from 2006 onwards, as I warned in the Financial Times and in ICIS Chemical Business, as was 2014’s oil price collapse. Today’s risks are similarly obvious, as the “Ring of Fire” map describes.
You may well have your own concerns about other potential major business risks. Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, for example, worries that:
“We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.”
We can all hope that none of these scenarios will actually create major problems over the 2018 – 2020 period. But hope is not a strategy, and it is time to develop contingency plans. Time spent on these today could well be the best investment you will make. As always, please do contact me at email@example.com if I can help in any way.
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Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2018-2020 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“
The 2010 Outlook was ‘Budgeting for Uncertainty’. This introduced the concept of Scenario planning, to help deal with “today’s increasingly uncertain New Normal environment.”
2011 was ‘Budgeting for Austerity’. It anticipated weak growth across Europe as a result of the austerity measures being introduced, and disappointing global growth, whilst arguing that major new opportunities were opening up as a result of changing demographic trends
2012 was ‘Budgeting for an L-shaped recovery’, arguing that recovery was unlikely to meet expectations
2013 was ‘Budgeting for a VUCA world‘ where Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity would dominate
2014 was ‘Budgeting for the Cycle of Deflation‘, 2015 was ’Budgeting for the Great Unwinding of policymaker stimulus’, 2016 was ‘Budgeting for the Great Reckoning’
Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.
My argument last year was that companies and investors would begin to run up against the reality of the impact of today’s “demographic deficit”. They would find demand had fallen far short of policymakers’ promises. As the chart shows, the IMF had forecast in 2011 that 2016 growth would be 4.7%, but in reality it was a third lower at just 3.2%. I therefore argued:
“This false optimism has now created some very negative consequences:
Companies committed to major capacity expansions during the 2011 – 2013 period, assuming demand growth would return to “normal” levels
Policymakers committed to vast stimulus programmes, assuming that the debt would be paid off by a mixture of “normal” growth and rising inflation
Today, this means that companies are losing pricing power as this new capacity comes online, whilst governments have found their debt is still rising in real terms
“This is the Great Reckoning that now faces investors and companies as they plan their Budgets for 2017 – 2019.”
Oil markets are just one example of what has happened. A year ago, OPEC had forecast its new quotas would “rebalance the oil market” in H1 this year. When this proved over-optimistic, they had to be extended for a further 9 months into March 2018. Now, it expects to have to extend them through the whole of 2018. And even today’s fragile supply/demand balance is only due to China’s massive purchases to fill its Strategic Reserve.
Policymakers’ unrealistic view of the world has also had political and social consequences, as I noted in the Outlook:
“The problem, of course, is that it will take years to undo the damage that has been done. Stimulus policies have created highly dangerous bubbles in many financial markets, which may well burst before too long. They have also meant it is most unlikely that governments will be able to keep their pension promises, as I warned a year ago.
Of course, it is still possible to hope that “something may turn up” to support “business as usual” Budgets. But hope is not a strategy. Today’s economic problems are already creating political and social unrest. And unfortunately, the outlook for 2017 – 2019 is that the economic, political and social landscape will become ever more uncertain.”
As the second chart confirms from Ipsos MORI, most people in the world’s major countries feel things are going in the wrong direction. Voters have lost confidence in the political elite’s ability to deliver on its promises. Almost everywhere one looks today, one now sees potential “accidents waiting to happen”.
Understandably, Populism gains support in such circumstances as people feel they and their children are losing out.
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.
Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2018 – 2020 period, and the key risks that have developed as a result of the policy failures of the past decade.
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Western central bankers are convinced reflation and economic growth are finally underway as a result of their $14tn stimulus programmes. But the best leading indicator for the global economy – capacity utilisation (CU%) in the global chemical industry – is saying they are wrong. The CU% has an 88% correlation with actual GDP growth, far better than any IMF or central bank forecast.
The chart shows June data from the American Chemistry Council, and confirms the CU% remains stuck at the 80% level, well below the 91% average between 1987 – 2008, and below the 82% average since then. This is particularly concerning as H1 is seasonally the strongest part of the year – July/August are typically weak due to the holiday season, and then December is slow as firms de-stock before Christmas.
The interesting issue is why these historically low CU% have effectively been ignored by companies and investors. They are still pouring money into new capacity for which there is effectively no market – one example being the 4.5 million tonnes of new N American polyethylene capacity due online this year, as I discussed in March.
The reason is likely shown in the above chart of force majeures (FMs) – incidents when plants go suddenly offline, creating temporary shortages. These are at record levels, with H1 2017 seeing 4x the number of FMs in H1 2009.
In the past, most companies prided themselves on their operating record, having absorbed the message of the Quality movement that “there is no such thing as an accident”. Companies such as DuPont and ICI led the way in the 1980s with the introduction of Total Quality Management. They consciously put safety ahead of short-term profit and at the top of management agendas. As the Chartered Quality Institute notes:
“Total quality management is a management approach centred on quality, based on the participation of an organisation’s people and aiming at long-term success.”
Today, however, the pressure for short-term financial success has become intense
The average “investor” now only holds their shares for 8 months, according to World Bank data
This time horizon is very different from that of the 1980s, when the average NYSE holding period was 33 months
And it is a very long way from the 1960s average of 100 months
As a result, even some major companies appear to have changed their policy in this critical area, prioritising concepts such as “smart maintenance”. Such cutbacks in maintenance spend mean plants are more likely to break down, as managers take the risk of using equipment beyond its scheduled working life. Similarly, essential training is delayed, or reduced in length, to keep within a budget.
ICIS Insight editor Nigel Davies highlighted the key issue 2 years ago as the problems began to become more widespread around the world:
“The situation in Europe has exposed underlying trends and issues that will need to be addressed. Companies appear not to have sustained an adequate pace of maintenance capital expenditure. That has been for economic as well as structural (cost) reasons. Spending in high feedstock and energy cost Europe has certainly not been considered de rigeur….Having maintained plants to run at between 80% and 85% of capacity, suddenly pushing them hard does little good. Sometimes, they fail.”
The end-result has been to mask the growing problem of over-capacity, as plants fail to operate at their normal rates. This has supported profits in the short-term by making actual supply/demand balances far tighter than the nominal figures would suggest. But this trend cannot continue forever.
THE END OF CHINA’S STIMULUS WILL HIGHLIGHT TODAY’S EXCESS CAPACITY
The 3rd chart suggests its end is now fast approaching. It shows developments in China’s shadow banking sector, which has been the real cause of the apparent “recovery” and reflation seen in recent months:
Premier Li began a major stimulus programme a year ago, hoping to boost his Populist faction ahead of October’s 5-yearly National People’s Congress, which decides the new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)
Populist Premier Wen did the same in 2011-2 – shadow lending rose six-fold to average $174bn/month
But Wen’s tactic backfired and President Xi’s Princeling faction won a majority in the 7-man PSC, although the Populist Li still had responsibility for the economy as Premier
Li’s efforts have similarly run into the sand
As the 3-month average confirms (red line), Li’s stimulus programme saw shadow lending leap to $150bn/month. Unsurprisingly, as in 2011-2, commodity and asset prices rocketed around the world,funding ever-more speculative investments. But in February, Xi effectively took control of the economy from Li and put his foot on the brakes. Lending is already down to $25bn/month and may well go negative in H2, with Xi highlighting last week that:
“China’s development is standing at a new historical starting point, and … entered a new development stage”.
“Follow the money” is always a good option if one wants to survive the business cycle. We can all hope that the IMF and other cheerleaders for the economy are finally about to be proved right. But the CU% data suggests there is no hard evidence for their optimism.
There is also little reason to doubt Xi’s determination to finally start getting China’s vast debts under control, by cutting back on the wasteful stimulus policies of the Populists. With China’s debt/GDP now over 300%, and the prospect of a US trade war looming, Xi simply has to act now – or risk financial meltdown during his second term of office.
Prudent investors are already planning for a difficult H2 and 2018. Companies who have cut back on maintenance now need to quickly reverse course, before the potential collapse in profits makes this difficult to afford.
Companies and investors have some big decisions ahead of them as we start the second half of the year. They can be summed up in one super-critical question:
“Do they believe that global reflation is finally now underway?”
The arguments in favour of this analysis were given last week by European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi:
“For many years after the financial crisis, economic performance was lacklustre across advanced economies. Now, the global recovery is firming and broadening…monetary policy is working to build up reflationary pressures…we can be confident that our policy is working and its full effects on inflation will gradually materialise.”
The analysis has been supported by other central bankers. The US Federal Reserve has raised interest rates 3 times since December, whilst the Bank of England has sent the pound soaring with a hint that it might soon start to raise interest rates. Most importantly, Fed Chair Janet Yellen told a London conference last week that she:
“Did not expect to see another financial crisis in our lifetime”.
The chart above from Nobel Prizewinner Prof Robert Shiller confirms that investors certainly believe the reflation story. His 10-year CAPE Index (Cyclically Adjusted Price/Earnings Index) has now reached 30—a level which has only been seen twice before in history – in 1929 and 2000. Neither were good years for investors.
Even more striking is the fact that veteran value-investor, Jeremy Grantham, now believes that investors will have “A longer wait than any value manager would like, including me” before the US market reverts to more normal valuation metrics. Instead, he argues that “this time seems very, very different” – echoing respected economist Irving Fisher in 1929 who suggested “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau“.
But are they right?
One concern is that central bankers might be making a circular argument. We saw this first with Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, who flooded stock markets with free cash before the dot-com crash in 2000, and then flooded housing markets with free cash to cause the subprime crash in 2008. His successor, Ben Bernanke continued the free cash policy, arguing in November 2010 that boosting the stock market was critical to the recovery:
“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 second chart highlights how the Fed’s zero interest rate policy has driven the rally since the US S&P 500 Index bottomed in March 2009:
Margin debt in the New York market (money borrowed to invest in stocks) is at an all-time record of $539bn ($2017)
It has increased 197% since March 2009, almost exactly matching the S&P’s rise of 216%
Stock market capitalisation (the total value of stocks) versus GDP is close to a new all-time high at 133%
Meanwhile, the Bank of Japan now owns 2/3rds of the entire Japanese ETF market (Exchange Traded Funds). And the Swiss National Bank owns $100bn of US/European stocks including 26 million Microsoft shares.
Unsurprisingly, given central bank policies, the world is now awash with debt. New data from the Institute of International Finance shows total world debt has now reached $217tn – more than 3x global GDP. As a result, respected financial commentator Andreas Evans-Pritchard argued last week:
“The Fed caused the dotcom bubble in the 1990s. It caused the pre-Lehman subprime bubble. Whatever Ms Yellen professes, it has already baked another crisis into the pie. The next downturn may be so intractable that it calls into question the political survival of capitalism. The Faustian pact is closing in.”
Evans-Pritchard’s concern is echoed by Claudio Borio, head of the central bankers’s bank – the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). Under his predecessor, William White, the BIS was the only central bank to warn of the subprime crisis. And Borio has warned:
“Financial booms can’t go on indefinitely. They can fall under their own weight.”
WHO IS RIGHT – THE CENTRAL BANKS OR THEIR CRITICS?
This is why companies and investors have some big decisions ahead of them. Of course, it is easy to assume that everything will be just wonderful, when everyone else seems to believe the same thing. Who wants to spoil the party?
But then there is the insight from one of the world’s most famous analysts, Bob Farrell, captured in the headline to this post. The chart of The pH Report’s Boom/Gloom Index highlights how the concept of the Trump reflation trade has sent the S&P into an exponential rally – even whilst sentiment, as captured in the Index, has been relatively subdued.
You could argue that this means the market can continue to go higher for years to come, as Grantham and the central banks believe. Or you could worry that “the best view is always from the top of the mountain” and that there are now very few people left to buy. And you might also be concerned that:
Political uncertainty is rising across the Western world, as well as in the Middle East and Latin America
Oil prices are already in a bear market
China’s growth and lending is clearly slowing
And Western central banks also seem set on trying to unwind their expansionary policies
We can all hope that today’s exponentially rising markets continued to rise.
But what would happen to your business and your investments if instead they began to correct – and not by going sideways? It might be worth developing a contingency plan, just in case.