China’s renminbi and the global ring of fire

China’s property bubble puts it at the epicentre of the ring of fire © Reuters 

China’s devaluation could be the trigger for an international debt crisis, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

August has often seen the start of major debt crises. The Latin American crisis began on August 12, 1982. The Asian crisis began with Thailand’s IMF rescue on August 11, 1997. The Russian crisis began on August 17, 1998.

We fear that the renminbi’s fall below Rmb7 per dollar on August 5 will act as just such a catalyst — this time, for the onset of a global debt crisis that has long been in the category of an accident waiting to happen.

The risk is summarised in the chart below from the Institute of International Finance, showing the seemingly inexorable rise in global debt over the past 20 years

Central banks came to believe that business cycles could be abolished by the use of stimulus, first through subprime and then through quantitative easing. This would encourage the return of the legendary “animal spirits” and allow the debt created to be wiped out by a combination of growth and inflation.

© Institute of International Finance

Unfortunately, as we have argued here before, this belief took no account of demographics or the impact of today’s ageing populations in slowing demand growth.

The baby boomers, who created the growth supercycle when they moved into the wealth creator 25-54 generation, have now joined the cohort of perennials aged 55 and above. They already own most of what they need. The focus on stimulus means that policymakers have failed to develop the new social/economic policies needed to maintain soundly-based growth in a world of increasing life expectancy and falling fertility. Instead, stimulus policies have created overcapacity and today’s record levels of debt.

As William White, a former chief economist of the Bank for International Settlements, warned at Davos in 2016: “It will become obvious in the next recession that many of these debts will never be serviced or repaid, and this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people who think they own assets that are worth something.” Presciently, he suggested that the trigger for the crisis could be a Chinese devaluation.

Central banks have created a debt-fuelled ‘ring of fire’ with multiple fault-lines

The risk, outlined in our second chart, is that central banks have created a debt-fuelled global “ring of fire”. China has undertaken around half of all global stimulus since 2008, in effect creating subprime on steroids. As we noted here last year, its tier 1 cities boast some of the highest house-price-to-earnings ratios in the world, while profits from property speculation allowed car sales to rise fourfold from 500,000 a month in 2008 to 2m a month in 2017.

As the FT reported in April, investors have already been spooked by rising levels of dollar debt in China’s property sector. This debt is set to open the global ring of fire, as US president Donald Trump raises the stakes in his trade war. The president and his advisers seem to have chosen to ignore the very real risk of currency devaluation, as markets respond to the impact of tariffs on the economy:

  • China’s property bubble puts it at the epicentre of the ring of fire
  • This is now spreading out across Asia, impacting other Asian currencies and economies
  • The Bank of Japan is about to become the largest owner of Japanese stocks
  • The end of the property bubble is causing the end of the commodity bubble
  • In turn, this is impacting Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and the Middle East
  • ECB stimulus means eurozone government bonds have negative interest rates
  • Banks cannot make a profit and savers have no income
  • President Trump’s China trade war risks connecting all the dots
  • The UK’s potential no-deal Brexit in October further threatens global supply chains

The issue is the risk of contagion from one market to another. Risks in individual silos can be bad enough, but if they spread across boundaries it quickly becomes hard to know who is holding the risk. As US Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell warned in May while discussing potential problems in the market for collateralised loan obligations (CLO):

“Regulators, investors, and market participants around the world would benefit greatly from more information on who is bearing the ultimate risk associated with CLOs. We know that the US CLO market spans the globe . . . But right now, we mainly know where the CLOs are not — only $90bn of the $700bn in total CLOs are held by the largest US banks . . . In a downturn institutions anywhere could find themselves under pressure, especially those with inadequate loss-absorbing capacity or runnable short-term financing.”

The CLO market is just one part of the problem. As S&P Global reported recently, more than $3tn of US corporate debt is rated triple B, with $1tn rated triple B minus, the lowest level of investment grade. US companies account for 54 per cent of the world’s $7tn total triple B debt. The risk of contagion in any sell-off is clear, as many institutions would have to sell if recession forced rating agencies into downgrades, taking debt below investment grade.

In turn, this would add to the risks in US equity markets, which are already at extreme valuations. Pension funds would be most at risk as they have been major investors in corporate debt and in recent years have entered markets such as the Asian offshore US dollar market in their search for higher yields. A downturn in their returns would risk creating a vicious circle, forcing companies to increase their pension contributions just at the moment when their earnings are already under pressure as the trade war slows the global economy.

Mr Trump may come to regret his comment that “trade wars are good and easy to win”. We envisage a testing time ahead, particularly as only those over 60 have personal experience of even the “normal” business cycles seen before the boomer supercycle began.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

Resilience amidst headwinds is key for H2

Resilience is set to become the key issue as we look forward to H2, as I note in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business. None of us have ever seen the combinations of events that are potentially ahead of us. And none of us can be sure which way they will develop. So it seems essential that we start to create contingency plans to build corporate resilience ahead of their possible arrival.

Of course, we can all hope that we are just seeing a series of false alarms, and that business as usual will end up as the outcome. But hope is not a strategy. Even if we optimistically believe it is an 80% probability, the scale of the potential problems under more pessimistic scenarios suggests it would be prudent to decide ahead of time how to tackle them. Everyone will have their own list of possible outcomes. Mine is as follows:

  • Business as usual. Central bank rate cuts avoid recession risk; Presidents Trump and Xi reach stable agreement to roll back tariffs; oil market tensions disappear in the Middle East; Brexit uncertainty is put on hold with another extension period; sustainability concerns over single use plastics are put on back-burner
  • Gathering clouds. China’s vast offshore borrowing creates increasing risk of corporate defaults as growth slows, particularly if the trade war continues; geo-political risks mount in the Middle East; Brexit leads to major friction between the UK and EU27; more major consumer products companies decide to end use of single-use plastics
  • Storm warnings issued. Debt problems morph into major bankruptcies, impacting a range of supply chains around the world; US – Iran tensions mount in the Middle East causing oil prices to rise sharply; regional tensions mount as the world settles into a new Cold War between the USA and China; polymer volumes are hit by a rapid escalation of consumer concerns over single-use plastics

Asia is likely to prove the catalyst for this potential next crisis, if it hits. China has begun to deleverage over the past 2 years, taking $2tn out of its high-risk shadow banking sector. But unfortunately this tightening has driven many of the riskiest businesses into the offshore dollar markets, where naïve western fund managers have rushed to place their bets – driven by their need to achieve higher returns than are available in their domestic bond markets.

If world trade continues to slow as the chart from Reuters shows, and the remnimbi starts to weaken, then some of these borrowers will inevitably default. In turn, this risks a chain reaction across world markets, impacting not only the zombies but also their supply chain partners.

What would your company do in these circumstances? As the American writer Ernest Hemingway noted in ‘The Sun also Rises’, there are two ways to go bankrupt, “gradually, then suddenly”. And the suddenness of the final stage makes it almost impossible for companies to survive if they have not used the gradual stage to create contingency plans. History unfortunately shows that when markets turn, executives suddenly find they have very little time in which to think through how to respond.

Governments will also be in the line of fire, due to their debt levels. And it is unlikely that politicians will know how to respond. They used to be clear about the key issue for the voters, as Bill Clinton famously observed in 1992 – “it’s the economy, stupid”. But today’s politicians instead simply assume that central banks can always print more money to overcome financial and economic crises. They have forgotten the simple mnemonic that many of us learnt at school, namely that “to ASSUME can make an ASS of U and ME”.

Time spent now on building your company’s resilience to potential future challenges may therefore prove time very well spent, if hopes for ‘business as usual’ turn out to have been wishful thinking.

Please click here if you would like to download the full article.

Europe’s auto sector suffers as Dieselgate and China’s downturn hit sales

Trade wars, Dieselgate and recession risk are having a major impact on the European auto industry, as I describe in my new video interview with ICIS Chemical Business deputy editor, Will Beacham.

One key pressure point is created by the downturn in China’s auto industry. As the chart shows, it has been a fabulous growth market in recent years due to China’s stimulus policies, with sales growing nearly five-fold from 550k/month in 2008 to a peak of 2.5m/month last year. And German car exports did incredibly well as a result, due to their strong reputation amongst consumers.

But the start of the US/China trade war last year – plus the $2tn taken out of China’s speculative shadow banking sector over the past 2 years by the government’s deleveraging campaign – means sales have been in decline for almost a year. 2018 saw the first downturn in the market since 1992, and since then the pace of decline has been accelerating with May volumes down 17%.

European car sales have also been falling since September as the second chart confirms. And unfortunately, the industry is confronted by a near-perfect storm of problems, which make it likely that the current downward trend will continue and probably accelerate.

The most immediate issue is the slowdown in the EU economy, with consumers becoming nervous about making high-ticket car purchases. Added to this, of course, are concerns over Brexit – which led sales in the UK (the 2nd largest market) to hit a 6-year low in the normally buoyant sales month of March, 14.5% below the 2017 level.

And then, of course, there are concerns over China’s slowdown, particularly for Germany’s export-oriented manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche – plus rising concerns over the potential for a European trade war with the USA.

But the real concern arises from the continuing fall-out from Dieselgate, which led diesel’s share of the EU market to fall by 18% in 2018 versus 2017 to 5.59m. Diesel cars accounted for only 35% of EU auto sales, the lowest level since 2001. And in turn this is wrecking the industry’s plans for meeting the new EU rules on CO2 emissions, which VW estimates has already cost it around €30bn, at a time when all the carmakers are also having to invest heavily in EV technology.

As the European Environment Agency (EEA) noted last month:

“For the first year since 2009, petrol cars constituted the majority of new registrations in 2017 (53 %). New diesel cars, which were on average around 300kg heavier than new petrol cars, emitted on average 117.9g CO2/km, which is 3.7g CO2/km less than the average petrol car. The average fuel efficiency of new petrol cars has been constant in 2016 and 2017, whereas the fuel-efficiency of new diesel cars has worsened compared to 2016 (116.8 g CO2/km). If similar petrol and diesel segments are compared, new conventional petrol cars emitted 10%-40% more than new conventional diesel cars.”

Manufacturers have no easy options. They can, of course, aim to accelerate Electric Vehicle (EV) sales in order to gain “super-credits” towards the new limits. But EVs are currently less than 2% of the EU market, so the scope for a major ramp-up in volume is very limited, and their profit margins are much lower due to the battery cost. UBS therefore suggest that automakers earnings per share will be badly hit, with PSA down 25%, VW down 13%, Renault down 10%, Daimler down 9% and BMW down 7%.

The saga highlights how the diesel makers’ decision to cheat on reported emission levels in order to maximise short-term profit has led to major long-term damage for many manufacturers. FCA’s need to enter a “pooling arrangement“ with Tesla to reduce its potential fines, and to exit sales of its most heavily polluting models, highlights the scale of the problems.

In turn, as I discuss, this is all very bad news for major suppliers to the auto industry such as the petrochemical sector.  Please click here if you would like to see the full interview.

Recession risk rises as Iran tensions and US-China trade war build

Oil markets are once again uneasily balanced between two completely different outcomes – and one again involves Iran.

Back in the summer of 2008, markets were dominated by the potential for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, as I summarised at the time:

“Nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes. But it is hard to see markets becoming less volatile until either an attack takes place, or a peaceful solution is confirmed. And with oil now around $150/bbl, two quite different outcomes seem possible:

• In the event of an Israeli attack, prices might well rise $50/bbl to reach $200/bbl, at least temporarily

• But if diplomacy works, they could easily fall $50/bbl to $100/bbl”

In the event, an attack was never launched and prices quickly fell back to $100/bbl – and then lower as the financial crisis began.

Today, Brent’s uneasy balance around $70/bbl reflects even more complex fears:

  • One set of worries focuses on potential supply disruption from a war in the Middle East
  • The other agonises over the US-China trade war and the rising risk of recession

It is, of course, possible that both fears could be realised if war did break out in the Gulf and oil prices then rose above $100/bbl.

The issue is highlighted in the Reuters chart on the left, which shows that Brent has moved from a contango of $1/bbl at the beginning of the year into a backwardation of nearly $4/bbl on the 6-month calendar spread. As they note:

“Backwardation is associated with periods of under-supply and falling inventories, while contango is associated with the opposite, so the current backwardation implies stocks are expected to fall sharply.”

But as the second Reuters chart confirms, traders are also aware that forecasts for oil demand are based on optimistic IMF forecasts for global growth. And recent hedge fund positioning confirms that caution may be starting to appear.

Traders are also aware of the key message from the above chart, which shows that periods when oil prices cost 3% of global GDP have almost always led to recession.  The only exception was after the financial crisis when central banks were printing as much money as possible to boost liquidity.

The reason is that consumers only have a certain amount of discretionary income.  If oil prices are low, then they have spare cash to buy the products and services that create economic growth. But if prices are high, their cash is instead spent on transport and heating/cooling costs, and so the economy slows.

“To govern is to choose” and President Trump therefore has some hard choices ahead:

  • His trade war with China currently appeals to many voters, Democrat and Republican.  But will that support continue as the costs bite?  The New York Federal Reserve reported on Friday that the latest round of tariffs will cost the average American household $831/year
  • Similarly, many voters favour taking a hard line with Iran.  But average US gasoline prices are already $2.94/gal as the US driving season starts this weekend, and today’s high prices will particularly impact the President’s core blue collar and rural voters

History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes as the famous American writer, Mark Twain, noted. If the President now chooses to fight a trade war with China and a real war with Iran, then he risks losing popularity very quickly as the costs in terms of lives and cash become more apparent.  Yet as we have seen since Lyndon Johnson’s time, this is usually something that politicians only learn after the event.

Investors and companies therefore have little to lose, and potentially much to gain, by accepting that we can only guess at how the two situations may play out.  Developing a scenario approach that plans for all the possible outcomes – as in 2008 – is much the most prudent option.

Chemical output signals trouble for global economy

A petrochemical plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Chinese chemical industry production has been negative on a year-to-date basis since February

Falling output in China and slowing growth globally suggest difficult years ahead, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Chemicals are the best leading indicator for the global economy. Data for both Chinese and global chemical production, shown in the first chart, are warning that we may now be headed into recession.

China’s stimulus programme has been the key driver for the world’s post-2008 recovery, as we discussed here in May (“China’s lending bubble is history”).

It accounted for about half of the global $33tn in stimulus programmes and its decline is currently having a dual impact, as it reduces both demand for EM commodities and the availability of global credit.

In turn, this reversal is impacting the global economy — already battling headwinds from trade tariffs and higher oil prices.

Initially the impact was most noticeable in emerging markets but the scale of the downturn is now starting to hit the wider economy:

  • China’s demand has been the growth engine for the global economy since 2008, and its scale has been such that this lost demand cannot be compensated elsewhere
  • China’s shadow banking bubble has been a major source of speculative lending, helping to finance property bubbles in China and many global cities
  • It also financed a domestic construction boom in China on a scale never seen before, creating excess demand for a wide range of commodities

But now the lending bubble is bursting. The second chart shows the extent of the downturn this year. Shadow banking is down 84%  ($557bn) in the year to September, according to official People’s Bank of China data. Total Social Financing is down 12% ($188bn), despite an increase in official bank lending to support strategic companies.

It seems highly likely that the property bubble has begun to burst, with China Daily reporting that new home loans in Shanghai were down 77% in the first half. In turn, auto sales fell in each month during the third quarter, as buyers can no longer count on windfall gains from property speculation to finance their purchases.

The absence of speculative Chinese buyers, anxious to move their cash offshore, is also having a significant impact on demand outside China in former property hotspots in New York, London and elsewhere.

The chemical industry has been flagging this decline with increasing urgency since February, when Chinese production went negative on a year-to-date basis. The initial decline was certainly linked to the government’s campaign to reduce pollution by shutting down many older and more polluting factories.

But there has been no recovery over the summer, with both August and September showing 3.1% declines according to American Chemistry Council data. Inevitably, Asian production has also now started to decline, due to its dependence on exports to China. In turn, like a stone thrown into a pond, the wider ripples are starting to reach western economies.

President Trump’s trade wars aren’t helping, of course, as they have already begun to increase prices for US consumers. Ford, for example, has reported that its costs have increased by $1bn as a result of steel and aluminium tariffs. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has also caused oil prices as a percentage of GDP to rise to levels typically associated with recession in the past.

The rationale is simply that consumers only have so much cash to spend, and money they spend on rising gasoline and heating costs can’t be spent on the discretionary items that drive GDP growth.

It seems unlikely, however, that Trump’s trade war with China will lead to his expected “quick win”. China has faced far more severe hardships in recent decades, and there are few signs that it is preparing to change core policies. The trade war will inevitably have at least a short-term negative economic impact but, paradoxically, it also supports the government’s strategy to escape the “middle income trap” by ending China’s role as the “low-skilled factory of the world”, and moving up the ladder to more value-added operations and services.

The trade war therefore offers an opportunity to accelerate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially by moving unsophisticated and often polluting factories offshore. It also emphasises the priority given to the services sector:

  • Already companies, both private and state-owned, are focusing their international acquisitions in BRI countries. According to EY, 12 per cent of overall Chinese (non-financial) outbound investment was in BRI countries in 2017, versus 9 per cent in 2016, and 2018 is likely to be considerably higher. Apart from south-east Asia, we expect eastern and central Europe to be beneficiaries, given the new BRI infrastructure links, as the map highlights
  • Data from the Caixin/Markit services purchasing managers’ index for September suggests the sector remains in growth mode. And government statistics suggest the services sector was slightly over half of the economy in the first half, with its official growth reported at 7.6 per cent versus overall GDP growth of 6.8 per cent

We expect China to come through the pain caused by the unwinding of the stimulus bubbles, and ultimately be strengthened by the need to refocus on sustainable rather than speculative growth. But it will not be an easy few years for China and the global economy.

The rising tide of stimulus has led many investors and chief executives to look like geniuses. Now the downturn will probably lead to the appearance of winners and losers, with the latter likely to be in the majority.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

I well remember the questions a year ago, after I published my annual Budget Outlook, ‘Budgeting for the Great Unknown in 2018 – 2020‘.  Many readers found it difficult to believe that global interest rates could rise significantly, or that China’s economy would slow and that protectionism would rise under the influence of Populist politicians.

MY ANNUAL BUDGET OUTLOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT WEEK
Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2019-2021 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.

THE 2017 OUTLOOK WARNED OF 4 KEY RISKS
My argument last year was essentially that confidence had given way to complacency, and in some cases to arrogance, when it came to planning for the future.  “What could possibly go wrong?” seemed to be the prevailing mantra.  I therefore suggested that, on the contrary, we were moving into a Great Unknown and highlighted 4 key risks:

  • Rising interest rates would start to spark a debt crisis
  • China would slow as President Xi moved to tackle the lending bubble
  • Protectionism was on the rise around the world
  • Populist appeal was increasing as people lost faith in the elites

A year later, these are now well on the way to becoming consensus views.

  • Debt crises have erupted around the world in G20 countries such as Turkey and Argentina, and are “bubbling under” in a large number of other major economies such as China, Italy, Japan, UK and USA.  Nobody knows how all the debt created over the past 10 years can be repaid.  But the IMF reported earlier this year that total world debt has now reached $164tn – more than twice the size of global GDP
  • China’s economy in Q3 saw its slowest level of GDP growth since Q1 2009 with shadow bank lending down by $557bn in the year to September versus 2017.  Within China, the property bubble has begun to burst, with new home loans in Shanghai down 77% in H1.  And this was before the trade war has really begun, so further slowdown seems inevitable
  • Protectionism is on the rise in countries such as the USA, where it would would have seemed impossible only a few years ago.  Nobody even mentions the Doha trade round any more, and President Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico specifically targets so-called ‘non-market economies’ such as China, with the threat of losing access to US markets if they do deals with China
  • Brexit is worth a separate heading, as it marks the area where consensus thinking has reversed most dramatically over the past year, just as I had forecast in the Outlook:

“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.”

  • Populism is starting to dominate the agenda in an increasing number of countries.  A year ago, many assumed that “wiser heads” would restrain President Trump’s Populist agenda, but instead he has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers; Italy now has a Populist government; Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland made major gains in last year’s election, and in Bavaria last week.

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.  As a result, voters start to listen to Populists, who offer seemingly simple solutions to the problems which have been ignored by the elites.

Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2019 – 2021 period, as we enter the endgame for the policy failures of the past decade.

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