We are living in a strange world. As in 2007 – 2008, financial news continues to be euphoric, yet the general news is increasingly gloomy. As Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, has warned, “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.” Both views can’t continue to exist alongside each other for ever. Whichever scenario comes out on top in 2018 will have major implications for investors and companies.
It therefore seems prudent to start building scenarios around some of the key risk areas – increased volatility in oil and interest rates, protectionism and the threat to free trade (including Brexit), and political disorder. One key issue is that the range of potential outcomes is widening.
Last year, for example, it was reasonable to use $50/bbl as a Base case forecast for oil prices, and then develop Upside and Downside cases using a $5/bbl swing either way. But today’s rising levels of uncertainty suggests such narrow ranges should instead be regarded as sensitivities rather than scenarios. In 2018, the risks to a $50/bbl Base case appear much larger:
- On the Downside, US output is now rising very fast given today’s higher prices. The key issue with fracking is that the capital cost is paid up-front, and once the money has been spent, the focus is on variable cost – where most published data suggests actual operating cost is less than $10/bbl. US oil and product exports have already reached 7mbd, so it is not hard to see a situation where over-supplied energy markets cause prices to crash below $40/bbl at some point in 2018
- On the Upside, instability is clearly rising in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman is already engaged in proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has also arrested hundreds of leading Saudis, and fined them hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for their release. If he proves to have over-extended himself, the resulting political confusion could impact the whole Middle East, and easily take prices above $75/bbl
Unfortunately, oil price volatility is not the only risk facing us in 2018. As the chart shows, the potential for a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates cannot be ignored, given that the current $34tn total of central bank debt is approaching half of global GDP. Most media attention has been on the US Federal Reserve, which is finally moving to raise rates and “normalise” monetary policy. But the real action has been taking place in the emerging markets. 10-year benchmark bond rates have risen by a third in China over the past year to 4%, whilst rates are now at 6% in India, 7.5% in Russia and 10% in Brazil.
An “inflation surprise” could well prove the catalyst for such a reappraisal of market fundamentals. In the past, I have argued that deflation is the likely default outcome for the global economy, given its long-term demographic and demand deficits. But markets tend not to move in straight lines, and 2018 may well bring a temporary inflation spike, as China’s President Xi has clearly decided to tackle the country’s endemic pollution early in his second term. He has already shutdown thousands of polluting companies in many key industries such as steel, metal smelting, cement and coke.
His roadmap is the landmark ‘China 2030’ joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition: “From policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.
But, of course, transitions can be a dangerous time, as China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, highlighted at the 5-yearly Party Congress in October, when warning 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 in the west.
“Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t face a 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“. Nobody wanted to be focusing on contingency plans when everybody else seemed to be laughing all the way to the bank.
I discuss these issues in more detail in my annual Outlook for 2018. Please click here to download this, and click here to watch the video interview with ICB deputy editor, Will Beacham.
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‘What is this block of waste plastic doing on an Arctic ice-floe’, thousand of miles from where it was manufactured? Even more worrying is the question, ‘what will happen to it next?’ As David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II‘ programmes have shown, plastic can break down into micro-particles after it has been used. And these micro-particles can then enter the food chain and the water supply:
- Around 150 million tonnes of plastic “disappear” from the world’s waste stream each year according to the BBC
- The United Nations estimates each square mile of sea contains 46000 pieces of waste plastic
- In turn, this plastic breaks up into micro-plastics, which can be eaten by fish and birds, and absorbed by plankton
- And then, as well as harming wildlife, it may well enter the food chain
- Micro-plastics also enter the water supply, and have even been found in drinking water at Trump Tower in the US
Now governments are starting to take action, with last week’s UN meeting of environment ministers formally agreeing that “the flow of plastics into the ocean must be stopped”. As the official Conference statement noted:
“We have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes…. we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe.”
As I noted back in July at the launch of a major Study on waste plastic:
“Nobody is claiming that this waste was created deliberately. Nobody is claiming that plastics aren’t incredibly useful – they are, and they have saved millions of lives via their use in food packaging and other critical applications. The problem is simply, ‘What happens next?’ As one of the Study authors warns:
““We weren’t aware of the implications for plastic ending up in our environment until it was already there. Now we have a situation where we have to come from behind to catch up.””
We also know how this story will end, because we have seen it played out many times over the past 75 years.
As the photo on the left shows from 1953, most major Western cities used to be covered in smog during the winter, with people routinely wearing masks to try and protect themselves. The same is still true today in China and many cities in the Emerging Markets, as the photo on the right confirms.
- The smog problem was caused by coal, and governments were forced by popular pressure to greatly reduce its use in the West. Too many people were dying, or developing major lung and other diseases
- Then there were similar environmental problems with lead in gasoline, and with pollution from cigarette smoke. Again, governments moved to ban the use of lead, and to ban or restrict smoking in public places
The simple fact is that as societies become richer, people become more demanding about the quality of their lives. It is no longer enough to tell them that they are lucky to be alive, and to have some food to eat and water to drink. We can see the same development in China today, where President Xi knows that he has to tackle pollution, if the Communist Party wants to stay in power. As I noted last week:
“Joint inspection teams from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the party’s anti-graft watchdog and its personnel arm have already punished 18,000 polluting companies with fines of $132m, and disciplined 12,000 officials.”
October’s 5-yearly National People’s Congress stepped up the enforcement measures:
“For those areas that have suffered ecological damage, their leaders and cadres will be held responsible for life,” said Yang Weimin, the deputy director of the Communist Party’s Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs. “Our people will be able to see stars at night and hear birds chirp.”
Smart companies and investors in the plastics industry already know “business as usual” strategies are no longer viable. Instead, they are starting to map out the enormous opportunities that these changes will create.
The issue is simply that plastic waste is no longer just seen as being unsightly. It is now recognised as a major environmental hazard. As the 3rd chart shows, 480bn plastic bottles were sold in 2016 around the world, but only 7% were recycled. This waste is becoming unacceptable to public opinion. As a result, the UK government is now considering a tax or ban on all single use items.
Equally important is that the momentum for change has been building for a decade, as one can see from a look back over some of my posts on plastic bags:
Globalisation was the great trend of the past 30 years, and it changed the world very profoundly. Today, the focus is on sustainability and the development of the circular economy.
It is an exciting time for people who want to solve the problem of plastics pollution by thinking “out of the box”, and developing the more service-driven businesses of the future.
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China is no longer seeking ‘growth at any cost’, with global implications, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
A pedestrian covers up against pollution in Beijing © Bloomberg
China’s President Xi Jinping faced two existential threats to Communist party rule when he took office 5 years ago.
He focused on the first threat, from corruption, by appointing an anti-corruption tsar, Wang Qishan, who toured the country gathering evidence for trials as part of a high-profile national campaign.
More recently, Mr Xi has adopted the same tactic on an even broader scale to tackle the second threat, pollution. Joint inspection teams from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the party’s anti-graft watchdog and its personnel arm have already punished 18,000 polluting companies with fines of $132m, and disciplined 12,000 officials.
The ICIS maps below confirm the broad nature of the inspections. They will have covered all 31 of China’s provinces by year-end, as well as the so-called “2+26” big cities in the heavily polluted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area.
The inspections’ importance was also underlined during October’s five-yearly People’s Congress, which added the words “high quality, more effective, more equitable, more sustainable” to the Party’s Constitution to describe the new direction for the economy, replacing Deng’s focus from 1977 on achieving growth at any cost.
It is hard to underestimate the likely short and longer-term impact of Mr Xi’s new policy. The Ministry has warned that the inspections are only “the first gunshot in the battle for the blue sky”, and will be followed by more severe crackdowns.
In essence, Mr Xi’s anti-pollution drive represents the end for China’s role as the manufacturing capital of the world.
The road-map for this paradigm shift was set out in March 2013 in the landmark China 2030 joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition “from policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.
The report focused on the need for “improvement of the quality of growth”, based on development of “broader welfare and sustainability goals”.
However, little was achieved on the environmental front in Xi’s first term, as Premier Li Keqiang continued the Populist “growth at any cost” policies of his predecessors. According to the International Energy Agency’s recent report, Energy and Air Pollution, “Average life expectancy in China is reduced by almost 25 months because of poor air quality”.
But as discussed here in June, Mr Xi has now taken charge of economic policy. He is well aware that as incomes have increased, so China is following the west in becoming far more focused on ‘quality of life issues’. Land and water pollution will inevitably take longer to solve. So his immediate target is air pollution, principally the dangerously high levels of particulate matter, PM2.5, caused by China’s rapid industrialisation since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.
As the state-owned China Daily has reported, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is the main focus of the new policy. Its high concentration of industrial and vehicle emissions is made worse in the winter by limited air circulation and the burning of coal, as heating requirements ramp up. The region has been told to reduce PM2.5 levels by at least 15% between October 2017 and March 2018. According to Reuters, companies in core sectors including steel, metal smelting, cement and coke have already been told to stagger production and reduce the use of trucks.
The chemicals industry, as always, is providing early insight into the potentially big disruption ahead for historical business and trade patterns:
- Benzene is a classic early indicator of changing economic trends, as we highlighted for FT Data back in 2012. The chart above confirms its importance once again, showing how the reduction in its coal-based production has already led to a doubling of China’s imports in the January to October period versus previous years, with Northeast and Southeast Asian exporters (NEA/SEA) the main beneficiaries
- But there is no “one size fits all” guide to the policy’s impact, as the right-hand panel for polypropylene (PP) confirms. China is now close to achieving self-sufficiency, as its own PP production has risen by a quarter over the same period, reducing imports by 9%. The crucial difference is that PP output is largely focused on modern refining/petrochemical complexes with relatively low levels of pollution
Investors and companies must therefore be prepared for further surprises over the critical winter months as China’s economy responds to the anti-pollution drive. The spring will probably bring more uncertainty, as Mr Xi accelerates China’s transition towards his concept of a more service-led “new normal” economy based on the mobile internet, and away from its historical dependence on heavy industry.This paradigm shift has two potential implications for the global economy.
One is that China will no longer need to maintain its vast stimulus programme, which has served as the engine of global recovery since 2008. Instead, we can expect to see sustainability rising up the global agenda, as Xi ramps up China’s transition away from the “policies that served it so well in the past”.
A second is that, as the chart below shows, China’s producer price index has been a good leading indicator for western inflation since 2008. Its recovery this year under the influence of the shutdowns suggests an “inflation surprise” may also await us in 2018.
Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.
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“Average UK wages in 2022 could still be lower than in 2008”
UK Office for Budget Responsibility
While Western stock markets boom under the influence of central bank money-printing, wages for ordinary people are not doing so well. So it is no wonder that Populism is rising, as voters worry their children will be worse off than themselves at a similar age.
The chart above is the key to the story. It shows births in the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA) since 1921. They are important as until recently, they represented around 50% of the global economy. Equally important is the fact that consumer spending represents 60% – 70% of total GDP in each country.
As the chart shows, the absolute number of consumers saw a massive boost during what became known as the BabyBoom after the end of World War 2:
- The US Boom lasted from 1946 – 1964, and saw a 52% increase in births versus the previous 18 years
- The Boom lasted longer in the other G7 countries, from 1946 – 1970, but was less intense
- In total, there were 33 million more G7 births in 1946 – 1970 versus the previous 25 years
- This was the equivalent of adding a new G7 country the size of Canada to the global economy
Today’s dominant economic theories were also developed during the BabyBoom period, as academics tried to understand the major changes that were taking place in the economy:
- Milton Friedman’s classic ‘A Monetary History of the United States’ was published in 1963, and led him to argue that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”
- Franco Modigliani’s ‘The Life Cycle Hypothesis of Saving‘ was published in 1966, and argued that consumers deliberately balanced out their spending through their lives
Today’s problem is that although both theories appeared to fit the facts when written, they were wrong.
We cannot blame them, as nobody during the 1960s realised the extraordinary nature of the BabyBoom. The word “BabyBoom” was only invented after it had finished, in 1970, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Friedman had no way of knowing that the number of US babies had risen by such an extraordinary amount. As these babies grew up, they created major inflation as demand massively outgrew supply. But once they entered the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age cohort in large numbers and began working, supply began to catch up – and inflation to fall.
Similarly, Modigliani had no way of knowing that people’s spending began to decline dramatically after the age 55, as average US life expectancy during the BabyBoom was only around 68 years.
But today, average US life expectancy is over 10 years higher. And as the second chart shows, the number of households in the 55+ age group is rocketing, up by 55% since 2000. At 56m, it is fast approaching the 66m households in the critical 25 – 54 Wealth Creator cohort, who dominate consumer spending:
- Each Wealth Creator household spent an average of $64k in 2017, versus just $51k for those aged 55+
- Even this $51k figure is flattered by the large number of Boomers moving out of the Wealth Creator cohort
- Someone aged 56 spends almost the same as when they were 55. But at 75+, they are spending 47% less
- Older people already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they approach retirement
Unfortunately, today’s central bankers still base policy on these theories, just as Keynes’ warned:
“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”.
The result is seen in the third chart from the Brookings Institute. It highlights how labour’s share of income has collapsed from 64% in 2000 to 57% today. The date is particularly significant, given that the oldest Boomers (born in 1946), reached 55 in 2001 and the average US Boomer became 55 in 2010.
- Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan tried to compensate for this paradigm shift from 2003 by boosting house prices – but this only led to the 2008 subprime crisis which nearly collapsed the global economy
- Since then, Fed Chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have focused on boosting the stock market, as Bernanke noted 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.”
But fewer Americans own stocks than houses – only 54% versus 64% for homes. So “printing babies” cannot work.
The real issue is that the dramatic increase in life expectancy has created a paradigm change in our life cycle:
- It is no longer based on our being born, educated, working, retiring and then dying
- Instead, we have a new stage, where we are born, educated, work, and then retrain in our 50s/60s, before working again until we retire and then die
This transition would have been a difficult challenge to manage at the best of times. And having now gone in the wrong direction for the past 15 years, we are, as I warned last year, much closer to the point when it becomes:
“Obvious that the Fed could not possibly control the economic fortunes of 321m Americans. Common sense tells us that demographics, not monetary policy, drive demand. Unfortunately, vast amounts of time and money have been wasted as a result. The path back to fiscal sanity will be very hard indeed.”
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This wasn’t the chart that companies and investors expected to see when they were busy finalising $bns of investment in new US ethylene and polyethylene (PE) capacity back in 2013-4. They were working on 3 core assumptions, which they were sure would make these investments vastly profitable:
- Oil prices would always be above $100/bbl and provide US gas-based producers with long-term cost advantage
- Global growth would return to BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle levels; China would always need vast import volumes
- Globalisation would continue for decades and plants could be sited half-way across the world from their markets
The result is that US ethylene capacity is now expanding by 34% through 2019, adding 9.2m tonnes/year of new ethylene supply, alongside a 1.1m tonnes/year expansion of existing crackers. In turn, PE capacity is expanding by 40%, with supply expanding by 6.5m tonnes/year through 2019.
It was always known that most of this new product would have to be exported, as then ExxonMobil President, Stephen Pryor, explained in January 2014:
“The reality is that the US from a chemical standpoint is a very mature market. We have some demand growth domestically in the US but it’s a percentage or two – it’s not strong demand growth,” Pryor said, adding that PE hardly grew in the US in a decade. “That is not going to change…The [US] domestic market is what is it and therefore, part of these products, I would argue, most of these products, will have to be exported,” Pryor said.”
But now the plants are starting up, and sadly it is clear that none of these assumptions have proved to be correct:
- Oil prices have fallen well below $100/bbl, despite the OPEC/Russia cutback deal, and US output is soaring
- Companies were badly misled by the IMF; its forecasts of 4.5% global GDP growth proved hopelessly optimistic
- Protectionism is rising around the world, with President Trump withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatening to leave NAFTA
As a result, US PE exports are falling, just as all the new capacity starts to come online, as the chart shows:
- US net exports were down 15% in the January – September period, confirming the major decline seen this year
- Net exports to Latin America were down 29%, whilst volume to the Middle East was down 31%
- Volume has risen by 40% to China, but still amounts to just 440kt – enough to fill just one new reactor
And, of course, PE use is coming under sustained pressure on environmental grounds, with the UK government suggesting last week it might tax or even ban all single-use plastic in an effort to tackle ocean pollution.
The same assumptions also drove expansion in US PVC capacity, with 750kt coming online this year. US housing starts remain more than 40% below their peak in the subprime period, and so it was always known that much of this new capacity would also have to be exported. Yet as the second chart confirms:
- US net exports were down 6% in the January – September period, confirming the decline seen through 2017
- Exports to Latin America were down 9%: volumes to NAFTA, the Middle East and China were at 2016 levels
PRODUCERS NEED TO DEVELOP NEW BUSINESS MODELS
These developments are also unlikely to prove just a short-term dip. China is now accelerating its plans to become self-sufficient in the ethylene chain, with ICIS China reporting that current capacity could expand by 84%. And the pressures from pollution concerns are growing, not reducing.
The key issue is that a paradigm shift is underway as the info-graphic explains:
- Previously successful business models, based on the supply-driven principle, no longer work
- Companies now need to adopt demand-led strategies if they want to maintain revenue and profit growth
We explored these issues in depth in the recent IeC-ICIS Study, ‘Demand- the New Direction for Profit‘. It is the product of 5 years of ground-breaking forecasting work, since the publication of our jointly-authored book, ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: how the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again‘.
As we highlighted at the Study’s launch, companies and investors have a clear choice ahead:
- They can either hope that somehow stimulus policies will finally succeed despite past failure
- Or, they can join the Winners who are developing new revenue and profit growth via demand-led strategies
US export data doesn’t lie. It confirms that the expected export demand for all the planned new capacity has not appeared, and probably never will appear. But this does not mean the investments are doomed to failure. It just means that the urgency for adopting new demand-led strategies is ramping up.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help in any way.
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