Last week, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, its chief Brexit negotiator and several junior ministers, resigned. President Trump gave an interview attacking the UK prime minister, Theresa May, and suggesting her policies would “kill” any future trade deal with the US. And the EU 27’s main negotiator on the critical Brexit issue, Michel Barnier, warned:
“On both sides of the Channel, businesses… should analyse their exposure to the other side and be ready, when necessary, to adapt their logistical channels, supply chains and existing contracts. They should also prepare for the worst case scenario of a “no deal”, which would result in the return of tariffs under WTO rules.” (My emphasis)
It was quite a week. None of us know what may happen next, as I warned when Ready for Brexit launched last month.
WHAT ARE WTO RULES?
It is now less than 9 months until the UK officially leaves the EU on 29 March. Yet according to a ReadyforBrexit poll:
- Only around a quarter of businesses have begun to plan for what happens next
- Nearly three-quarters have so far done nothing
They could have a considerable shock ahead of them, as the Brexplainer video above explains.
Currently, the UK trades with the world on the basis of around 750 agreements negotiated by the EU. Trade between the current 28 EU members is covered by the Single Market and Customs Union. But as Barnier warns, if there is no deal agreed by 29 March, then WTO rules will apply:
- WTO rules would mean that a tax, called “Tariffs”, would be reintroduced for trade in goods between the UK and the EU27. Services, including financial services, could also be impacted by restrictions on market access
- Border controls and customs checks could add time to shipments and impact supply chains. This could be particularly important for highly regulated sectors such as chemicals
- Documentation and paperwork will increase, as businesses will need to be able to prove the nature and origin of their goods, especially if they use parts or components from several different countries
HAS YOUR BUSINESS PLANNED AHEAD FOR A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT?
Most major businesses have been planning for a ‘no deal’ scenario for some time:
- They are increasing warehouse space, in case deliveries are delayed
- They are checking their cash flow, as VAT could be payable up-front under WTO rules
- They are working out the possible ‘no deal’ impact in key areas such Customs & Tariffs, Finance, Legal, Services & Employment and their Supply Chain
Most smaller businesses have assumed they don’t need to do anything. Yet 29 March is now only 257 days away.
SURELY ITS CERTAIN THAT WITHDRAWAL AND TRANSITION AGREEMENTS WILL BE SIGNED?
After the Brexit vote in June 2016, the chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, was confident that all the major trade deals would be finalised by July 2018:
“Be under no doubt, we can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly… So within two years, before the negotiation with the EU is likely to be complete, and therefore before anything material has changed, we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.”
But by September last year, he had changed his mind and was instead warning as the Telegraph noted:
“Nobody ever pretended this would be simple or easy.”
And now, of course, Davis has resigned along with his fellow Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson.
NOBODY KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT
The truth is that nobody knows what will happen next. After last week, any UK business that trades with the EU, or any EU business that trades with the UK, would be wise to start planning ahead for a ‘no deal’ WTO rules scenario:
- Have you asked your suppliers about their plans for a ‘no deal’ scenario?
- Have you asked your customers about their plans for one?
- Have you checked if your ‘just in time’ deliveries will still arrive?
- Have you checked if your insurance policies will still be valid?
As the UK’s main business organisation, the CBI, warned on Friday “It will be a make or break summer:
‘With three months left to go, it is now a race against time. The EU must now engage constructively and flexibly, as must politicians from all UK parties. This is a matter of national interest. There’s not a day to lose.’
We can all hope that negotiations are successful. But hope is not a strategy. And after the events of the last week, prudent managers now need to start start planning for ‘no deal’. Please click here to watch the Brexplainer video.
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I was interviewed on Friday about the likely impact of President Trump’s trade wars on the global chemical industry by Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business. His interview is below.
The introduction on Friday of trade tariffs by China and the US is the first step in a trade war that could turn into a global polyethylene (PE) price war as the wave of new US production is sent to new markets, likely Europe.
Paul Hodges, chairman at London-based International eChem, said that around 6m tonnes/year of new US PE capacity has to find a home and, with China largely out of reach, the obvious destination would be Europe, where the surplus production will put downward pressure on prices there and around the world.
“The main hit from a trade war is going to be the US PE expansions – clearly it is being targeted so the opportunity to export to China is sharply reduced,” said Hodges. “But this won’t just be a US problem because they will still want to move their product – it has got to come to Europe as there is no surplus demand in Asia, the Middle East or Latin America.”
He added that this first wave of tariffs were a wake-up call to those who thought globalisation was going to continue as it did in the past. “We have reached a tipping point where we have to expect that trade wars are more rather than less likely”, he said.
“If you assume the US production will come onstream, then where will those 6m tonnes of product go? It can’t go to China, it can’t go to Latin America as that is too small a market, the Middle East is in surplus, Africa is too small – so Europe is the only place,” said Hodges.
US PE producers that are integrated up to the wellhead need to extract ethane in order to monetise their gas production:
- These producers will continue to export happily at whatever price because essentially the ethane is a distressed product and has to be sold
- However, non-integrated players’ margins could come under pressure.
In Europe, there is a parallel to the US, said Hodges, as regional production is generally tied into refineries.
Naphtha is a relatively small part of the product flow from a refinery, so prices can go down quite a long way before you start to think about cutting back on refinery operating rates.
“The risk for the second half of this year and 2019 is that you have two heavyweights in the boxing ring – one integrated back to the gas wellhead in the US and the other refinery-integrated in Europe – and people get squeezed in between,” he added.
EUROPE VALUE CHAINS
Hodges pointed out that if cracker operating rates decline in Europe it will hit all the other product streams such as propylene, butadiene (BD) and pygas. There are tremendous knock-on risks across all the value chains, not just ethylene.
“This won’t happen this year, but if it continues and gets worse over the next 12-18 months, do you start to look at cracker shutdowns in Europe? What will the implications be for people relying on those crackers for feedstocks?” said Hodges. “It’s a hornet’s nest of unintended consequences: people don’t send a ship load of PE to Europe expecting it to shut down a PP plant.”
Hodges urged the industry to make contingency plans now to manage these future risks. European producers will have to think about how they protect feedstock supplies for value chains on a Europe-wide and country basis so that pipelines are not shut down.
“You’d have to focus on a number of core hubs and reinvest in those to give the infrastructure you need for the future. You need to do it now – while there is time to take action,” he said. “You might end up spending money you don’t need to spend, but that’s much better than waking up and realising you don’t have a feedstock supply,” he said.
According to ICIS data, the US is forecast to export a total of 1.37m tonnes of low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low linear density polyethylene (LLDPE) to China (see LLDPE map above). Although HDPE is not included in the current tariffs, it could be added later, according to Hodges.
He added that a price war in PE would impact other polymers because of inter-polymer competition. It may only be 5-10% that is substituted, but to lose that amount of volume at the margin would be quite significant.
He described the trade war as a paradigm shift for the whole global industry as the era of globalisation switches to regional and nationalism. “I’m worried that a lot of people in this industry have grown up with globalisation and they assume that is how it is,” he said.
Trade policy and geopolitics are like a chess game with lots of moving pieces and the approach is that you give up something in order to gain more, he added. This has been a very successful approach by the US since the Second World War, when it implemented the Marshall Plan or ‘European Recovery Plan’. Almost the equivalent of $110bn in today’s money was invested to rebuild the continent.
“This boosted the European economy in order to make it a bigger import market for US exports. Trade expands opportunities and the overall economy. There may be some short-term successes going into a trade war but ultimately the US economy will lose,” Hodges conclude.
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The blog has now been running for 11 years since the first post was written from Thailand at the end of June 2007. And quite a lot has happened since then:
Sadly, although central banks and commentators have since begun to reference the impact of demographics on the economy, they have not changed their basic belief that the right combination of tax and spending policies can always create growth.
As a result, the world has become a much more complex and confusing place. None of us can be sure what will happen over the next 12 months, given today’s rising geo-political tensions.
In times of short-term uncertainly, it can be useful to take a longer-term view. It is therefore perhaps helpful to look back at Chapter 4 of Boom, Gloom, which gave “Our 10 predictions for how the world would look from 2021:
- “A major shake-out will have occurred in Western consumer markets.
- Consumers will look for value-for-money and sustainable solutions.
- Young and old will focus on ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’.
- Housing will no longer be seen as an investment.
- Investors will focus on ‘return of capital’ rather than ‘return on capital’.
- The term ‘middle-class’ when used in emerging economies will be recognised as having no relevance to Western income levels.
- Trade patterns and markets will have become more regional.
- Western countries will have increased the retirement age beyond 65 to reduce unsustainable pension liabilities.
- Taxation will have been increased to tackle the public debt issue.
- Social unrest will have become a more regular part of the landscape.
“The transition to the New Normal will be a difficult time. The world will be less comfortable and less assured for many millions of Westerners. The wider population will find itself following the model of the ageing boomers, consuming less and saving more. Rather than expecting their assets to grow magically in value every year, they may find themselves struggling to pay-down debt left over from the credit binge.
“Companies will need to refocus their creativity and resources on real needs. This will require a renewed focus on basic research. Industry and public service, rather than finance, will need to become the destination of choice for talented people, if the challenges posed by the megatrends are to be solved. Politicians with real vision will need to explain to voters that they can no longer expect all their wants to be met via endless ‘fixes’ of increased debt.
“We could instead decide to ignore all of this potential unpleasantness.
“But doing nothing is not a solution. It will mean we miss the opportunity to create a new wave of global growth from the megatrends. And we will instead end up with even more uncomfortable outcomes.”
Most of these forecasts are now well on the way to becoming reality, and the pace of change is accelerating all the time. It may therefore be helpful to include them in your planning processes for the 2019 – 2021 period, to test how your business (and your personal life) might be impacted if they become real.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT OVER THE PAST 11 YEARS
It is a great privilege to write the blog, and to be able to meet many readers at speaking events and conferences around the world. Thank you for all your support.
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More people left poverty in the past 70 years than in the whole of history, thanks to the BabyBoomer-led economic SuperCycle. World Bank and OECD data show that less than 10% of the world’s population now live below the extreme poverty line of $1.90/day, compared to 55% in 1950.
Globalisation has been a key element in enabling this progress, as countries and regions began to trade with each other. But now global trade is starting to decline, as the chart from the authoritative Dutch World Trade Monitor shows:
- After a good start to 2018, February saw trade fall 0.7% in February and 1.2% in March
- The major slowdown was in Asia, particularly China, as its lending began to slow
And then on Friday, President Trump confirmed the opening of his long-planned trade wars:
- He imposed 25% import tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminium from Canada, Mexico and the European Union
- Similar tariffs were already in place on imports from China, Russia and other countries
- America’s longest standing allies have since imposed their own sanctions in retaliation
- The stage is now set for a developing global trade war as more countries join in
PRESIDENT TRUMP IS IMPLEMENTING THE POLICIES ON WHICH HE WAS ELECTED
None of this should have been a surprise, as it simply follows the agenda that President Trump set out in his Gettysburg speech just before the election. His policy proposals then, which I featured here in depth in January 2017, were crystal clear about his objectives, as the slide shows:
- Those policies marked in red are now being introduced
- Only 2 of them – around China being a currency manipulator, and infrastructure – are still to be delivered
- Yet companies, commentators and analysts have preferred to ignore the obvious
It was clear then, and is even clearer today, that Trump intends to abandon the policies followed by all post-War Republican and Democratic presidents including Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton, and summarised in President Kennedy’s 1961 Inauguration Speech:
“To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”
As I noted after Trump’s own Inauguration Speech in January last year, he broke very explicitly with these policies:
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
BAD NEWS HAS ALWAYS LED TO MORE STIMULUS IN THE PAST
Unsurprisingly, financial markets have chosen to ignore this rise in protectionism. For them, bad news is always good news, as they expect the central banks to provide more stimulus via their money-printing policies. As the left-hand chart shows of Prof Robert Shiller’s CAPE Index (Cyclically Adjusted Price/Earnings ratio) since 1881:
- When Trump took office, the ratio was already at 28.5 – above the 1901 and 1966 peaks
- Since then it has peaked at 33.3, above the 1929 peak
- Only 2000 was higher at 44, when the end of the SuperCycle coincided with the Fed’s first liquidity programme to prevent any problems with the Y2K issue
The right-hand chart confirms the bubble nature of the rally:
- It compares S&P 500 developments with the level of margin debt in the New York Stock Exchange
- Until 1985, the Fed operated on the principle of “taking away the punchbowl as the party gets going“
- Since then, it has increasingly believed, as then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said 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.”
As a result, the S&P 500 has risen along with margin debt, which peaked at $659bn in January ($2018).
FINANCIAL MARKETS HAVE AN UNPLEASANT “SURPRISE” AHEAD AS CHINA SLOWS
It is therefore no great surprise that financial markets have continued to ignore developments in the real world.
Yet a decline in world trade, and the rise in protectionism, will inevitably produce Winners and Losers. This will be quite different from the SuperCycle, when the rise of globalisation created “win-win opportunities” for countries and regions:
- Essentially the deal was that consumers in richer countries got cheaper, well-made, products
- People in poorer countries gained paid employment for the first time in history by making these products
History also suggests President Trump will be proved wrong with his March suggestion that: “Trade wars are good and easy to win”. Like all wars, they are easy to start and increasingly difficult to end.
So far, financial markets have ignored these uncomfortable facts. They still believe that any bad news will lead to even more central bank stimulus, and a further rise in margin debt.
But as I noted last week, China – not the Fed – was in fact the major source of stimulus lending. Now its lending bubble is history, the party in financial markets is inevitably entering its end-game.
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There should be no surprise that President Trump has launched his trade war with China. The real surprise is that financial markets, and business leaders, are so surprised it is happening. He was, after all, elected on a platform that called for a trade war, as I noted originally back in November 2016 – and many times since, even just last month.
Nor is it a surprise that China has chosen to target chemicals in its proposed list of products for retaliation. As my colleague John Richardson has noted:
“On Tuesday, China’s reaction to that first round of $50bn US tariffs included proposed tariffs of 25% on US exports of low and linear-low density polyethylene. The same tariffs could also be levied on US polycarbonate, polyvinyl chloride, plastic products in general, acrylonitrile, catalysts, lubricants, epoxy resin, acrylic polymers, vinyl polymers, polyamides (nylon) and surfactants.”
China, unlike almost everyone else it seems, has used the past 15 months to prepare for Trump’s trade war. So they are naturally targeting the chemicals industry – which was a great supporter of Trump in the early days, and has also come to depend on China for much of its growth.
They will have seen this December 2016 photo of Dow Chemicals CEO, Andrew Liveris, joining Trump at a victory rally in Michigan.
They will also have read Liveris’ tribute to the new President, when announcing the opening of a new R&D centre in Michigan:
“This decision is because of this man and these policies,” Mr. Liveris said from the stage of the 6,000-seat Deltaplex Arena here, adding, “I tingle with pride listening to you.”
The fact that Liveris stepped down last year as head of Trump’s manufacturing council will also have been noticed in Beijing, but clearly did not change their strategy.
FINANCIAL MARKETS EXPECT THE FED TO BE A FAIRY GODMOTHER
Industry now has a few weeks left to plan for the inevitable. But if history is any guide, many business people will fail to take advantage of this narrowing window of opportunity. Instead, like most investors, they will continue with “business as usual”. The problem is simple:
- A whole generation has grown up expecting the central banks to act as a fairy godmother
- Whenever markets have moved downwards, Fed Chairmen and others have showered them with cash
- Therefore the winning strategy for the past 20 years and more has been to “buy on the dips”
- Similarly, industry no longer bothers with genuine scenario analysis, where bad things can and do happen
Another key factor in this developing drama is that not all the actors are equally important. China seems to have been initially wrong-footed, for example, by placing its trust in Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, to argue its case. They might appear on paper to be the right people to lobby, but at the end of the day, they are simply messengers – not the ones deciding policy.
The key people are the US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, and his aide, Peter Navarro. They are now being joined by arch-hawk John Bolton, who in his role as National Security Advisor can be expected to play a key role – along with newly appointed Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Like everything in the Trump White House, Lighthizer’s power comes from his relationship with the President, as the Wall Street Journal describes:
“To Mr. Trump, Mr. Lighthizer was a kindred spirit on trade—and one who shuns the limelight. The two men, who have a similar chip-on-the-shoulder sense of humor, bonded. Mr. Lighthizer caught rides to his Florida home on Air Force One. Mr. Trump summons Mr. Lighthizer regularly to the Oval Office to discuss trade matters, administration officials say.”
THE NEXT 6 MONTHS WILL BE A WAKE-UP CALL FOR MANY
The past 18 months have in many ways been a repeat of the 2007-8 period, when I was told my warnings of a subprime crisis were simply alarmist. This complacency even lasted into October 2008, after the Lehman collapse, when senior executives were still telling me the problems were “only financial” and wouldn’t impact “the real world”.
Similarly, I have been told since September 2015, when I first began warning of the dangers posed by populism in the US and Europe, that I “didn’t understand”. It was clear, I was told, that Trump could “never” become the Republican candidate and could “never ever” become President – and if he did, then Congress would “never ever ever” allow him to take charge of trade policy. Similarly, I was being told in March 2016 that the UK would “never” vote for Brexit.
I also understand why so many friends and colleagues have been blindsided by these developments, as I discussed in the same September 2015 post:
“The economic success of the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle meant that politics as such took a back seat. People no longer needed to argue over “who got what” as there seemed to be plenty for everyone. But today, those happy days are receding into history – hence the growing arguments over inequality and relative income levels.
“Companies and investors have had little experience of how such debates can impact them in recent decades. They now need to move quickly up the learning curve. Political risk is becoming a major issue, as it was before the 1990s.”
TIME TO DEVELOP PROPER SCENARIOS ANALYSIS
Nobody can forecast everything in detail over the next 6 months, let alone the next few years. And it is very easy to mock if one detail of the scenario analysis turns out to be wrong. But the point of scenario analysis is not to try and forecast every detail. It is instead to give you time to prepare, and to think of alternative strategies.
Just imagine, for example, if you had taken seriously my September 2015 warning about the rise of populism:
- Think about all the decisions you wouldn’t have made, if you had really believed that Trump could become President and Brexit could happen in the UK?
- Think of all the decisions you would have made instead, to create options in case these developments occurred?
I understand that you may worry about being mocked for being “stupid” and “alarmist”. But you should simply remind the mockers of the lesson learnt by insurer Aetna’s CEO, from his failure to undertake proper scenario analysis, as he described in November 2016:
“When Aetna ran through post-election expectations, the idea that Donald J. Trump would win the presidency and that Republicans would control both chambers of Congress seemed so implausible that it was not even in play. We started with a fresh piece of paper yesterday — we had no idea how to approach it. What we would have spent months doing if we thought it was even remotely possible, we had to do in a day.”
There is no doubt that he was the one feeling stupid, then.
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It is almost a year since Donald Trump became President. And whilst he has not followed through on many of his promises, he has indeed introduced the major policy changes that I began to discuss in September 2015, when I first suggested he could win the election and that the Republicans could control Congress:
“In the USA, the establishment candidacies of Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans are being upstaged by the two populist candidates – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump….Companies and investors have had little experience of how such debates can impact them in recent decades. They now need to move quickly up the learning curve. Political risk is becoming a major issue, as it was before the 1990s.”
Many people have therefore had to go up a steep learning curve over the past year, given that their starting point was essentially disbelief, as one commentator noted when my analysis first appeared:
“I have a very, very, very difficult time imagining that populist movements could have significant traction in the U.S. Congress in passing legislation that would seriously affect companies and investors.”
Yet this, of course, is exactly what has happened.
It is true that many of the promises in candidate Trump’s Contract with America have been ignored:
- Of his 174 promises, 13 have been achieved, 18 are in process, 37 have been broken, 3 have been partially achieved and 103 have not started
- His top priority of a Constitutional amendment on term limits for members of Congress has not moved forward
Yet on areas that impact companies and investors, such as trade and corporate tax, the President has moved forward:
- On trade, he has not (yet?) labelled China a currency manipulator or moved forward to fix water and environmental infrastructure
- But he has announced the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his intention to withdraw from the UN Climate Change programme and lifted restrictions on fossil fuel production
These are complete game-changers in terms of America’s position in the world and its trading relationships.
Over the decades following World War 2, Republican and Democrat Presidents alike saw trade as the key to avoiding further wars by building global prosperity. Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton all actively supported the growth of global trade and the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The US also led the world in environmental protection following publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring‘ in 1962, with its attack on the over-use of pesticides.
Clearly, today, these priorities no longer matter to President Trump. And already, US companies are starting to lose out as politics, rather than economics, once again begins to dominate global trade. We are returning to the trading models that operated before WTO:
- Until the 1990s, trade largely took place within trading blocs rather than globally – in Europe, for example, the West was organised in the Common Market and the East operated within the Soviet Union
- It is therefore very significant that one of the President’s first attacks has been on the WTO, where he has disrupted its work by blocking the appointment of new judges
Trump’s policy is instead based on the idea of bilateral trade agreements with individual countries, with the US dominating the relationship. Understandably, many countries dislike this prospect and are instead preferring to work with China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as One Belt, One Road).
US POLYETHYLENE PRODUCERS WILL BE A CASE STUDY FOR THE IMPACT OF THE NEW POLICIES
US polyethylene (PE) producers are likely to provide a case study of the problems created by the new policies.
They are now bringing online around 6 million tonnes of new shale gas-based production. It had been assumed a large part of this volume could be exported to China. But the chart above suggests this now looks unlikely:
- China’s PE market has indeed seen major growth since 2015, up 18% on a January – November basis. Part of this is one-off demand growth, as China moved to ban imports of scrap product in 2017. Its own production has also grown in line with total demand at 17%
- But at the same time, its net imports rose by 1.8 million tonnes, 19%, with the main surge in 2017. This was a perfect opportunity for US producers to increase their exports as their new capacity began to come online
- Yet, actual US exports only rose 194kt – within NAFTA, Mexico actually outperformed with its exports up 197kt
- The big winner was the Middle East, a key part of the BRI, which saw its volume jump 29% by 1.36 million tonnes
Sadly, it seems likely that 2018 will see further development of such trading blocs:
- The President’s comments last week, when he reportedly called Africa and Haiti “shitholes” will clearly make it more difficult to build long-term relationships based on trust with these countries
- They also caused anguish in traditionally pro-American countries such as the UK – adding to concerns that he has lost his early interest in the promised post-Brexit “very big and exciting” trade deal.
US companies were already facing an uphill task in selling all their new shale gas-based PE output. The President’s new trade policies will make this task even more difficult, given that most of it will have to be exported.
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