CEOs need new business models amid downturn

Many indicators are now pointing towards a global downturn in the economy, along with paradigm shifts in demand patterns. CEOs need to urgently build resilient business models to survive and prosper in this New Normal world, as I discuss in my 2019 Outlook and video interview with ICIS.

Global recession is the obvious risk as we start 2019.  Last year’s hopes for a synchronised global recovery now seem just a distant memory.  Instead, they have been replaced by fears of a synchronised global downturn.

Capacity Utilisation in the global chemical industry is the best leading indicator that we have for the global economy.  And latest data from the American Chemistry Council confirms that the downtrend is now well-established.  It is also clear that key areas for chemical demand and the global economy such as autos, housing and electronics moved into decline during the second half of 2018.

In addition, however, it seems likely that we are now seeing a generational change take place in demand patterns:

  • From the 1980s onwards, the demand surge caused by the arrival of the BabyBoomers into the Wealth Creating 25 – 54 cohort led to the rise of globalisation, as companies focused on creating new sources of supply to meet their needs
  • At the same time the collapse of fertility rates after 1970 led to the emergence of 2-income families for the first time, as women often chose to go back into the workforce after childbirth. In turn, this helped to create a new and highly profitable mid-market for “affordable luxury”
  • Today, however, only the youngest Boomers are still in this critical generation for demand growth. Older Boomers have already moved into the lower-spending, lower-earning 55+ age group, whilst the younger millennials prefer to focus on “experiences” and don’t share their parents’ love of accumulating “stuff”

The real winners over the next few years will therefore be companies who not only survive the coming economic downturn, but also reposition themselves to meet these changing demand patterns.  A more service-based chemical industry is likely to emerge as a result, with sustainability and affordability replacing globalisation and affordable luxury as the key drivers for revenue and profit growth.

Please click here to download the 2019 Outlook (no registration necessary) and click here to view the video interview.

Chart of the Year – China’s shadow banking collapse means deflation may be round the corner

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.

BASF’s second profit warning highlights scale of the downturn now underway

The chemical industry is easily the best leading indicator for the global economy.  And thanks to Kevin Swift and his team at the American Chemistry Council, we already have data showing developments up to October, as the chart shows.

It confirms that consensus hopes for a “synchronised global recovery” at the beginning of the year have again proved wide of the mark.  Instead, just as I warned in April (Chemicals flag rising risk of synchronised global slowdown), the key  indicator – global chemical industry Capacity Utilisation % – has provided fair warning of the dangers ahead.

It peaked at 86.2%, in November 2017, and has fallen steadily since then. October’s data shows it back to June 2014 levels at 83.6%. And even more worryingly, it has now been falling every month since June. The last time we saw a sustained H2 decline was back in 2012, when the Fed felt forced to announce its QE3 stimulus programme in September.  And it can’t do that again this time.

The problem, as I found when warning of subprime risks in 2007-8 (The “Crystal Blog” foresaw the global financial crisis), is that many investors and executives prefer to adopt rose-tinted glasses when the data turns out to be too downbeat for their taste.  Whilst understandable, this is an incredibly dangerous attitude to take as it allows external risks to multiply, when timely action would allow them to be managed and mitigated.

It is thus critical that everyone in the industry, and those dependent on the global economy, take urgent action in response to BASF’s second profit warning, released late on Friday, given its forecast of a “considerable decrease of income” in 2018 of “15% – 20%”, after having previously warned of a “slight decline of up to 10%”.

I have long had enormous respect for BASF and its management. It is therefore deeply worrying that the company has had to issue an Adjustment of outlook for the fiscal year 2018 so late in the year, and less than 3 weeks after holding an upbeat Capital Markets Day at which it announced ambitious targets for improved earnings in the next few years.

The company statement also confirmed that whilst some problems were temporary, most of the issues are structural:

  • The impact of low water on the Rhine has proved greater than could have been earlier expected
  • But the continuing downturn in isocyanate margins has been ongoing for TDI since European contract prices peaked at €3450/t in May — since when they had fallen to €2400/t in October and €2050/t in November according to ICIS, who also reported on Friday that
    “Supply is still lengthy at year end in spite of difficulties at German sellers BASF and Covestro following low Rhine water levels”
  • The decline is therefore a very worrying insight into the state of consumer demand, given that TDI’s main applications are in furniture, bedding and carpet underlay as well as packaging applications.
  • Even more worrying is the statement that:
    “BASF’s business with the automotive industry has continued to decline since the third quarter of 2018; in particular, demand from customers in China slowed significantly. The trade conflict between the United States and China contributed to this slowdown.”

This confirms the warnings that I have been giving here since August when reviewing H1 auto sales (Trump’s auto trade war adds to US demographic and debt headwinds).

I noted then that President Trump’s auto trade tariffs were bad news for the US and global auto industry, given that markets had become dangerously dependent on China for their continued growth:

  • H1 sales in China had risen nearly 4x since 2007 from 3.1m to 11.8m this year
  • Sales in the other 6 major markets were almost unchanged at 23m versus 22.1m in 2007

Next year may well prove even more challenging if the current “truce” over German car exports to the USA breaks down,

INVESTORS HAVE WANTED TO BELIEVE THAT INTEREST RATES CAN DOMINATE DEMOGRAPHICS

The recent storms in financial markets are a clear sign that investors are finally waking up to reality, as Friday night’s chart from the Wall Street Journal confirms:

“In a sign of the breadth of the global selloff in stocks, Germany’s main stock index fell into a bear market Thursday, the latest benchmark to have tumbled 20% or more from its recent peak….Other markets already in bear territory are home to companies exposed to recent trade fights between the U.S. and China.

The problem, as I have argued since publishing ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: how the Ageing Boomers are Changing Demand Patterns, again“, in 2011 with John Richardson, is that the economic SuperCycle created by the dramatic rise in the number of post-War BabyBoomers is now over.

I highlighted the key risks is my annual Budget Outlook in October, Budgeting for the end of “Business as Usual”.  I argued then that 2019 – 2021 Budgets needed to focus on the key risks to the business, and not simply assume that the external environment would continue to be stable.  Since then, others have made the same point, including the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, who warned on Friday:

“In an instant Europe has gone from being the most stable region in the world to anything but. Paris is burning, the Merkel era is ending, Italy is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the EU, Russia is carving up Ukraine, and the UK is consumed by Brexit. History is resuming.

It is not too late to change course, and focus on the risks that are emerging.  Please at least read my Budget Outlook and consider how it might apply to your business or investments. And please, do it now.

 

You can also click here to download and review a copy of all my Budget Outlooks 2007 – 2018.

Brexit moves from ‘Snakes and Ladders’ to cricket

The Brexit debate had appeared to be a simple game of Snakes & Ladders till now.  The Leave campaign landed on the ladders that led to its goal of No Deal, whilst the throw of the dice left Remain on the snakes, tumbling down towards irrelevance.

Yet today, at the very last minute, there are signs that we might instead now be starting to play the far more complex English game of cricket where captaincy is all-important, as one famous Australian cricketer has remarked:

“Captaincy is 90% luck and 10% skill. But don’t try it without that 10%”.

The Brexiters should certainly have won by now, if we were playing Snakes & Ladders.  They landed on a ladder early in the game when premier May set 29 March 2019 as Brexit Day.  By default, this meant the UK would then leave the EU without a deal – unless a Withdrawal and Transition Agreement could be finalised before then.

No Deal is, of course, the Brexiter dream as the leading Brexit economist, Prof Patrick Minford, argued in May when suggesting its result would be:

“Plus £651 billion ($875bn) for the UK versus minus £507bn for the EU: it could not be more open and shut who least wants a breakdown.“

As I noted in The pH Report at the time:

“Even if May can somehow achieve a deal with the DUP (the Democratic Unionists on whom she depends for her Commons majority), she would still have to agree it with the Leave enthusiasts in the Conservative Party. They are convinced that the real cost of Brexit will be borne by the EU27…. 

It therefore seems unlikely May can find a deal that is acceptable to the Leavers, given their belief that a “hard Brexit” represents the best negotiating strategy for the UK.

Today, it is clear that the DUP and the Tory Leavers will indeed vote against May’s Deal next week.

So by now, the Leavers should be celebrating.  But they aren’t.  Somehow leading Leavers such as Boris Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab all managed to land on their own personal snakes by resigning from the Cabinet at critical moments.

THE LEAVERS HAVE FAILED TO PRESS HOME THEIR ADVANTAGE

In life, as in cricket, one has to seize the advantage when it comes your way.  This is where the 10% of skill is all important, as it tells you when to grasp the moment.  Clearly Leave, led by the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, has so far failed to hit the all important ball to the boundary and secure victory.

In cricketing terms, Remain may therefore have just managed to avoid an innings defeat, giving them the chance to go into bat again.  Skillful captaincy will then be all-important.  The next few weeks will therefore be the most critical period for the UK economy in recent history as competing visions of the future battle it out:

  • Prof Minford told the UK Treasury Committee in October that the UK auto industry needs to disappear: “You are going to have to run it down … in the same way we ran down the coal industry and steel industry. These things happen.”
  • Yet it is not clear that UK’s industrial heartlands who gave Leave its majority share this vision.  They, after all, were told at the time that Brexit would simply mean giving the National Health Service “the £350m the EU takes every week

3 Scenarios therefore seem possible over the next few weeks.

SCENARIO 1 – MAY LOSES NEXT WEEK’S VOTE, AND LOSES A NEW VOTE IN JANUARY
A week is a long time in politics, but it seems relatively safe to say that May is unlikely to win next week’s Commons vote on her Withdrawal Agreement. Her aides, however, have been busy playing up the likely size of her defeat, suggesting she could lose by 100+ votes.  And so, politics being politics, they will likely spin this as a success if she now loses by “only” 50 votes.

In turn, this would probably enable her to defeat a motion of No Confidence, and then bring a slightly modified version of the Agreement back for a new vote in January.  At that stage, it would be too late for any new deal to be agreed with the EU27.  So if she then loses this second vote, the Brexiters will win by default.  No Deal would become almost inevitable on 29 March.

SCENARIO 2 – MAY WINS A NEW VOTE IN JANUARY
UK politics is tribal, as I have been told many times over the past 2 years by leading MPs from all parties.  As such, it is very, very difficult for a Tory MP to vote to bring down their government.  So if May does “only” lose by less than 50 votes next week, then it is also possible that the Christmas break would provide time for reflection and give her a small majority in a second vote.

This, of course, would still mean the UK exiting the EU on 29 March.  But in cricketing terms, it would essentially be a draw – where neither side could claim victory, due to the Irish “backstop” (originally a cricket term).  In today’s Brexit version, it means that the UK would be bound to the EU unless and until the 27 agreed that the nightmare of a hard Irish border had disappeared.

SCENARIO 3 – MAY LOSES THE VOTE(S) BY A LARGE MARGIN AND THERE IS A NEW REFERENDUM

Scenario 1 is clearly the most likely outcome.  But the current row over the legal advice being given to the government gives Remain the chance to build a solid opening stand in the battle for a new People’s Vote.

It is a complex legal area, as the timeline from the House of Commons Library confirms, which is why skilful tactics by the Remain captain, Sir Keir Starmer, will continue to be critical:

  • Remain go in to bat this week to secure the detailed legal advice given to the government
  • By resisting this move, May risks alienating the moderate Tory MPs that she needs for her survival
  • If they vote against her on the issue of Parliamentary privilege, they might feel emboldened to do so again
  • But this would still represent an extraordinary development as it has only happened twice before in recent history
    • After premier Eden was forced to resign after the humiliation of the Suez crisis in 1956
    • After the disastrous Norwegian campaign in May 1940, when Churchill replaced Chamberlain

In the background, however, is the key fact that an overwhelming majority of MPs voted to Remain.  It is therefore not impossible that they could force a new referendum – particularly as the first was only “advisory”.  Remain would then have to campaign positively on the issue of peace and prosperity – as I argued here in May 2016.

But then, at least, the British people would have a real chance to decide on the future they wanted for themselves and their children.

Asian downturn worsens, bringing global recession nearer

The chemical industry is the best leading indicator for the global economy.  And my visit to Singapore last week confirmed that the downturn underway in the Asian market creates major risks for developed and emerging economies alike.

The problem is focused on China’s likely move into recession, now its stimulus policies are finally being unwound.  And the result is shown in the above chart from The pH Report, updated to Friday:

  • It confirms that the downturn began before oil prices peaked at the beginning of October, confirming that companies were responding to a downturn in end-user demand
  • Since then, of course, the oil price has – rather dramatically – entered a bear market, with prices down by nearly a third

The question now is whether finance directors will choose to aggressively destock ahead of year-end results, to mitigate the volume decline with a decline in working capital. This would be a bold move given continuing geo-political uncertainty in the Middle East, and would also conflict with the more upbeat guidance that was given earlier with Q3 results.

But a review of ICIS news headlines over the past few days suggests they may have little choice.  Inventories are described as “piling up” in a wide range of major products, including polyethylene – the biggest volume polymer.  Indian producers are even offering “price protection” packages on polypropylene, to safeguard customers from losses if prices fall further.

Asian countries and their major partners (eg Argentina, S Africa, Turkey) were, of course, the first to be hit by China’s downturn.  But Q3’s fall in German GDP shows the downturn has now spread to the Western economy that most benefited from China’s post-2008 stimulus bubble.  As The Guardian noted:

“Goods exports make up 40% of German GDP – a much bigger proportion than for the next two biggest eurozone economies, France and Italy.”

OIL MARKETS CONFIRM THE RECESSION RISK

Of course, consensus opinion still believes that the US economy is sailing along, regardless of any problems elsewhere.  But the chart of oil prices relative to recession tells a different story:

  • The problem is that oil prices have been rising since 2016, with the summer proving the final blow-off peak.  As always, this meant consumers had to cut back on discretionary spending as costs of transport and heating rose
  • The cost of oil as a percentage of GDP reached 3.1% in Q3 – a level which has always led to recession in the past, with the exception of the post-2008 stimulus period when governments and central banks were pouring $tns of stimulus money into the global economy
  • In turn, this means a downturn is now beginning in US end-user demand in critical areas such as housing, autos and electronics

Oil markets have therefore provided a classic example of the trading maxim for weak markets – “Buy on the rumour, sell on the news”.

  • Prices had risen by 75% since June on supply shortage fears, following President Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal on November 4
  • As always, this created “apparent demand” as buyers in the US and around the world bought ahead to minimise the impact of higher prices
  • But the higher prices also negated the benefit of the earlier tax cuts for his core supporters just ahead of the mid-term elections, causing Trump to undertake a policy u-turn
  • He is now pushing Saudi Arabia and Russia to maintain production, and has announced 180-day exemptions for Iran’s 8 largest customers – China, India, S Korea, Japan, Italy, Greece, Taiwan and Turkey.

Understandably, oil traders have now decided that his “bark is worse than his bite“.  And with the downturn spreading from Asia to the West, markets are now refocusing on supply/demand balances, with the International Energy Agency suggesting stocks will build by 2mb/d in H1 2019. In response, OPEC are reportedly discussing potential cuts of up to 1.4mb/d from December.

CHINA’S SHADOW BANKING COLLAPSE IS CREATING A NEW FINANCIAL CRISIS

Unfortunately, as in 2008, the collapse in oil prices is coinciding with the end of stimulus policies, particularly in China, as the chart of its shadow bank lending confirms.  This has hit demand in two ways, as I discussed earlier this month in the Financial Times:

  • Just 3 years ago, it was pumping out an average $140bn/month in mainly property-related lending *
  • This created enormous demand for EM commodity exports
  • It also boosted global property prices as wealthy Chinese rushed to get their money out of the country
  • But during 2018, lending has collapsed by more than 80% to average just $23bn in October

China’s post-2008 stimulus programme was the growth engine for the global economy – with the efforts of the Western central banks very much a sideshow in comparison.  It was more than half of the total $33tn lending to date.  But now it is unwinding, prompting the Minsky Moment forecast a year ago by China’s central bank governor:

China’s financial sector is and will be in a period with high risks that are easily triggered. Under pressure from multiple factors at home and abroad, the risks are multiple, broad, hidden, complex, sudden, contagious, and hazardous.”

As I warned then:

“Companies and investors should not ignore the warnings now coming out from Beijing about the change of strategy. China’s lending bubble – particularly in property – is likely coming to an end. In turn, this will lead to a bumpy ride for the global economy.

The bumps are getting bigger and bigger as we head into recession.  Asia’s downturn is now spreading to the rest of the world, and is a major wake-up call for anyone still planning for “business as usual”.

 

* Lending has major seasonal peaks in Q1, so I use rolling 12 month averages to avoid distortions