Budgeting for paradigm shifts and a debt crisis

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

Unfortunately, as we feared, policymakers refused to junk their out-of-date models, despite the lesson of the 2008 financial crisis.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradigm shifts create Winners and Losers

MY ANNUAL BUDGET OUTLOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT WEEK
Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2020-2022 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“.  Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.

LAST YEAR’S OUTLOOK WARNED OF KEY RISKS TO THE ECONOMY AND BUSINESS
My argument last year was that companies should be ‘Budgeting for the end of ‘Business as Usual‘:

A year later, this view is starting to become consensus:

  • Global auto markets are now clearly in decline, down 5% in January-September versus 2018, whilst the authoritative CPB World Trade Monitor showed trade down 0.8% in Q2 after a 0.3% fall in Q1
  • Liquidity is clearly declining in financial markets as China’s slowdown spreads, and US repo markets confirm: Western political debate is ever-more polarised
  • The US$ has been rising due to increased uncertainty, creating currency risk for those who have borrowed in dollars; geopolitical risks are becoming more obvious
  • “Bubble stocks” such as WeWork, Uber and Netflix have seen sharp falls in their valuations, leading at least some investors to worry about “return of capital”
  • The ongoing decline in global chemicals Capacity Utilisation, the best leading indicator for the global economy, suggests recession is close. This will lead to bankruptcies in over-leveraged firms and to major downgrades in the BBB corporate bond market

The rising risks in the US repo market confirm the concerns over the level of debt in global markets.

Developments over the past month suggest New York markets are now systemically short of overnight money, with the Fed’s balance sheet suddenly starting to expand again. It was $3.76tn on 4 Sept, but reached $3.97tn on 16 October, a $210bn rise in just 5 weeks.

It is therefore looking more and more likely that we are at the start of a  global debt crisis.

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.

Unfortunately, they also have a political dimension, as they encourage voters to listen to new voices, such as the Populists, who offer seemingly simple solutions to the problems which have been ignored by the elites.

The one redeeming feature of the 2008 Crisis was that global leaders did at least manage to come together to restore financial liquidity.  It is hard to be confident that this would happen again, if a debt crisis does begin.

Markets face major paradigm shifts as recession approaches

Major paradigm shifts are occurring in the global economy, as I describe in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business

Over the past 25 years, the budget process has tended to assume that the external environment will be relatively stable. 2008 was a shock at the time, of course, but many have now forgotten the near-collapse that occurred. Yet if we look around us, we can see that a number of major paradigm shifts are starting to occur in core markets – autos, plastics and others – which mean that ‘business as usual’ is highly unlikely to continue.

In turn, this means we can no longer operate a budget planning cycle on the assumption that demand will be a multiple of IMF GDP forecasts. Our business models will have to change in response to today’s changing demand patterns. Of course, change on this scale is always uncomfortable, but it will also create some major new opportunities.

Chemical companies in particular are clearly best placed to develop the new products and services that will be needed in a world where sustainability and affordability have become the key drivers for market success.

The transition periods created by paradigm shifts are never easy, however, due to the level of risk they create. The table gives my version of the key risks – you may well have your own list:

■ Global auto markets are already in decline, down 5% in January-August versus 2018, whilst the authoritative CPB World Trade Monitor showed trade down 0.7% in Q2 after a 0.3% fall in Q1

■ Liquidity is clearly declining in financial markets as China’s slowdown spreads, and Western political debate is ever-more polarised

■ The US$ has been rising due to increased uncertainty, creating currency risk for those who have borrowed in dollars; geopolitical risks are becoming more obvious

■ Some of the main “bubble stocks” such as WeWork, Uber and Netflix have seen sharp falls in their valuations, leading some investors to worry about “return of capital”

■ Chemical industry capacity utilisation, the best leading indicator for the global economy, has been in decline since December 2017, suggesting recession is close, and that bankruptcies among over-leveraged firms will inevitably increase

AUTOS PARADIGM SHIFT

The paradigm shift now underway in the global auto industry typifies the scale of the potential threat to sales and profits. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will likely be lost over the next 5-10 years in auto manufacturing and its supply chains as consumers transition to electric vehicles (EVs). The issue is that EVs have relatively few parts . And because there is much less to go wrong, many servicing jobs will also disappear.

The auto industry itself was the product of such a paradigm shift in the early 19th century, when the horse-drawn industry mostly went out of business. Now it is seeing its own shift, as battery costs start to reach the critical $100/kWh levels at which EVs become cheaper to own and operate than an internal combustion engine (ICE) on a total cost of ownership basis.

China currently accounts for two-thirds of global EV sales and sold nearly 1.3m EVs in 2018 (up 62% versus 2017). They may well take 50% of the Chinese market by 2025, as the government is now focused on accelerating the transition via the rollout of a national charging network. Importantly, though, Europe is likely to emerge as the main challenger to China in the global EV market.

VW is likely to be one of the winners in the new market. It plans to spend €80bn to produce 70 EV models based on standardised motors, batteries and other components. This will enable it to cut costs and accelerate the roll-out:

■ Its new flagship ID.3 model will go on sale next year at a mid-market price of €30k ($33k)

■ Having disrupted that market segment, it will then expand into cheaper models

■ And it expects a quarter of its European sales to run on battery power by 2025

The risk for suppliers to the auto industry is that the disruption caused creates a new playing field. Those who delay making the investments required are almost certain to become losers. The reason is simple – if today’s decline in auto sales accelerates, as seems likely, the investment needed for EVs will become unaffordable for many companies.

Nothing lasts forever. ‘Business as usual’ was a great strategy for its time. But it is clear that future winners will be those who recognise that the disruptive paradigm shifts now underway require new thinking and new business models. Companies who successfully transition to focus on sustainability and affordability will be the great winners of the future.

Please click here if you would like to read the full analysis

No Deal Brexit still a likely option if opposition parties fail to support a new referendum

Canada’s normally pro-UK ‘Globe and Mail’ summed up the prevailing external view of Brexit last week:

“We begin this editorial with an apology to you, our faithful readers. In March, we described the Brexit situation, then careening through its third year and nowhere close to resolution, as an “omnishambles.

“An omnishambles is a state of utter chaos, total disorder and perfect mismanagement – which brings us to our apology. If you’ve been paying any attention to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, you know that, in declaring United Kingdom politics to have reached peak shambolic six months ago, we spoke too soon. Oh, did we ever.”

Within the UK, most people are totally confused by the mixed messaging surrounding Brexit.  Was it effectively postponed again when Parliament passed a law meant to stop No Deal? Or is it all still going to go ahead – deal or no deal – on 31 October, as the prime minister insists. Nobody knows.

There has also been no debate about what kind of policies should be pursued after Brexit. Instead, the media has often focused on the influence of  Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings (pictured above, in casual dress).

Cummings led the Leave campaign under Johnson, and continues to carry out Johnson’s strategy today.  And whether by accident or design, his apparent fondness for tee-shirts also seems to be proving a useful tactic for diverting media attention away from discussion of potential food shortages.


Behind all the spin, Johnson’s strategy is simply responding to the opinion polls above.  He knows he has to win back Brexit Party voters if he wants to win a General Election.  Understandably, therefore,  he is going hard for the exit, declaring that he’d “rather die in a ditch” than leave after 31 October.

“Luckily” for him, he is up against Jeremy Corbyn – my local MP – who has completely failed to present a coherent policy on Brexit.  And Johnson has exploited this position by focusing on the Opposition’s continued failure to answer the critical question – “what would any extension be for?

It seems the Liberal Democrats will finally come off the fence under their new leader, Jo Swinson, and decide to campaign to remain in the EU. But we will have to wait to see if Labour’s Conference can force Corbyn to abandon his long-standing opposition to the EU.

If not, it is quite possible that the EU27 could refuse the extension request at next month’s Summit, if it doesn’t seem likely to lead to a second referendum or a new government.

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has already set out her belief that Johnson wants to convert the UK to a form of Singapore-on-Thames. with a low tax, light-touch regulatory environment in direct opposition to the rules of the EU Single Market.

3 alternative and quite different scenarios therefore exist for the Brexit endgame:

  • No Deal. Johnson finds a way round Parliament and the No Deal Act, and leaves without a deal on 31 October. He then campaigns on the theme of ‘The People v Parliament’ and blames Parliament for blocking his hopes of getting a deal
  • 2nd referendum. The opposition parties threaten to install an interim government that would replace Johnson, and ask the Summit for an extension to allow an election and 2nd referendum.
  • ‘Plan B’.  Johnson understands the value of contingency planning.  Given his key policy is to leave on 31 October, he is already exploring the opportunity for a deal on the basis of accepting the EU’s proposed N Ireland-only backstop option.  He could then still campaign having (a) achieved a deal and (b) left as promised.

At the moment, Johnson clearly sees No Deal as his best option, as it means he doesn’t have to compromise.  So it is no surprise that the Foreign Secretary has warned they will “test (the No Deal Act) to the limit”, in order to leave on 31 October without a deal.

The compromise of a Plan B would clearly lose him DUP and Brexit Party votes.  But it might offer Johnson his best chance of staying in office, if the Opposition did agree to push for a new referendum. It would be humiliating, to say the least, if his term in office proved the shortest in history.

The next few weeks may therefore compel the ‘Globe and Mail’ to issue yet another apology to its readers.

 

UK, EU27 and EEA businesses need to start planning for a No Deal Brexit on 31 October

New UK premier, Boris Johnson, said last week that the UK must leave the EU by 31 October, “do or die, come what may”.

This means UK, EU27 and EEA companies now have less than 100 days to prepare for a UK No Deal Brexit. That’s less than 70 working days – and even less if you plan to take a holiday over the summer.

If the UK leaves without a deal, it will also leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. So everything will change overnight – 400 million Customs Declarations will likely be needed each year, plus compliance with Rules of Origin and thousands of other major/minor regulatory changes.

Of course, it is still just possible that the UK might change its mind. Or that the new UK government might persuade the EU27 to give up the so-called “Irish backstop”. This aims to avoid the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

But neither outcome looks very likely today.

THE AUTO INDUSTRY IS ALREADY WARNING OF THE RISKS AHEAD 
Businesses therefore now need to prepare for a No Deal Brexit on 31 October.

What does this mean?  It means that companies have to assume there will be no transition period. Instead, the UK will operate under WTO rules.   The UK car industry has highlighted the risks this creates in a letter to the new premier:

“We are highly integrated with Europe, and a no-deal Brexit would result in huge tariff costs and disruption that would threaten production, as well as further undermining international investors’ confidence in the UK. We need a deal with the EU that secures frictionless and tariff free trade.

“A no-deal Brexit presents an existential threat to our industry.  Above all, we must ensure the sector continues to enjoy — without interruption — preferential trade with critical markets around the world, including the EU”.

The chart above highlights the potential impact on the Nissan car factory in NE England.

THE NEW UK GOVERNMENT IS NOW PREPARING A MAJOR COMMUNICATIONS CAMPAIGN

Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, has been put in charge of No Deal preparations. And the aim is to quickly launch a major communications campaign to help the public and businesses get ready for leaving the EU without an agreement. As Boris Johnson said last week:

“What we will do, is we will encourage people in a very positive way. From the get-go, we start saying, ‘Look, what do you need, what help do you need, what reassurances do you need?’”

This will add to the information already available by clicking on the Gov.uk website:

READY FOR BREXIT PROVIDES PLANNING AND AUDIT TOOLS, PLUS DETAILED LINKS  

A No Deal Brexit will impact companies and supply chains.  This is why I co-founded Ready for Brexit a year ago, with a number of highly-experienced industry colleagues. It is subscription-based, and features detailed Brexit checklists, a No Deal Brexit planning tool and a BrexSure audit tool to check your suppliers and customers are also fully prepared.

It focuses on the key areas for business, as our Brexit Directory above shows:

  • Customs & Tariffs: Export/Import Registration, Labelling, Testing, VAT
  • Finance: Payment Terms, Tax & VAT, Transfer Pricing
  • Legal: Contracts, Free Trade Agreements, Intellectual Property
  • Services & Employment: Banking, Insurance, Investment, Property
  • Supply Chain: Documentation, Regulation, Transport

We can all hope that Johnson’s renegotiation with the EU27 is successful. But hope is not a strategy.

With the new government committed to the 31 October deadline, businesses really are taking an enormous risk if they don’t focus all their energies on planning for ‘No Deal’.

London house prices edge closer to a tumble

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

As the London Evening Standard headline confirms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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