Economy faces slowdown as oil/commodity prices slide


Oil and commodity markets long ago lost contact with the real world of supply and demand. Instead, they have been dominated by financial speculation, fuelled by the vast amounts of liquidity pumped out by the central banks.  The chart above from John Kemp at Reuters gives the speculative positioning in the oil complex as published last Monday:

  • It shows hedge fund positioning in terms of the ratio of long to short positions across the complex
  • The ratio had been at a near-record low of 1.55x back in June last year, before the rally took off
  • On 30 January it had risen to a record 11.9x – far above even the 2014 and 2017 peaks

The size of the rally has also been extraordinary, as I noted 2 weeks ago.  At its peak, the funds owned 1.5bn barrels of oil and products – equivalent to an astonishing 16 days of global oil demand.  They had bought 1.2bn barrels since June, creating the illusion of very strong demand.  But, of course, hedge funds don’t actually use oil, they only trade it.

The funds also don’t normally hang around when the selling starts. And so last week, as the second chart shows, they began to sell their positions and take profits.  The rally peaked at $71/bbl at the end of January, and then topped out on 2 February at $70/bbl.  By last Friday, only a week later, Brent was at $63/bbl, having fallen 11% in just one week.

Of course, nothing had changed in the outlook for supply/demand, or for the global economy, during the week.  And this simple fact confirms how the speculative cash has come to dominate real-world markets.  The selling was due to nervous traders, who could see prices were challenging a critical “technical” point on the chart:

  • Most commodity trading is done in relation to charts, as it is momentum-based
  • The 200 day exponential moving average (EMA) is used to chart the trend’s strength
  • When the oil price reached the 200-day EMA (red line), many traders got nervous
  • And as they began to sell, so others began to follow them as momentum switched

The main sellers were the legal highwaymen, otherwise known as the high-frequency traders.  Their algorithm-based machines do more than half of all daily trading, and simply want a trend to follow, milli-second by milli-second.  As the Financial Times warned in June:

“The stock market has become a battlefield of algorithms, ranging from the simple – ETFs bought by retirees that may invest in the entire market, an industry, a specific factor or even themes like obesity – to the complex, commanded by multi-billion dollar “quantitative” hedge funds staffed by mathematicians, coders and data scientists.”

JP Morgan even estimates that only 10% of all trading is done by “real investors”:

“Passive and quantitative investors now account for about 60% of the US equity asset management industry, up from under 30% a decade ago, and reckons that only roughly 10% of trading is done by traditional, “discretionary” traders, as opposed to systematic rules-based ones.”

Probably prices will now attempt to stabilise again before resuming their downward movement.  But clearly the upward trend, which took prices up by 60% since June, has been broken.  Similar collapses have occurred across the commodity complex, with the CRB Index showing a 6% price fall across major commodities:

  • Typically, inventory build ahead of price rises can add an extra month of “apparent demand” to real demand
  • This inventory will now have to be run down as buyers destock to more normal levels again
  • This means we can expect demand to slow along all the major value chains
  • Western companies will now see slow demand through Easter: Asia will see slow demand after Lunar New Year

This disappointment will end the myth that the world is in the middle of a synchronised global recovery. In turn, it will cause estimates of oil demand growth to be reduced, further weakening prices.  It will also cause markets to re-examine current myths about the costs of US shale oil production:

  • As the charts from Pioneer Natural Resources confirm, most shale oil breakeven costs are below $30/bbl
  • Pioneer’s own operating costs, typical of most of the major players, are below $10/bbl
  • So the belief that shale oil needs a price of $50/bbl to support future production is simply wrong

PREPARE FOR PROFIT WARNINGS AND POTENTIAL BANKRUPTCIES BY THE SUMMER
Over the summer, therefore, many industrial companies will likely need to start issuing profit warnings, as it becomes clear that demand has failed meet expectations.  This will put stock markets under major pressure, especially if interest rates keep rising as I discussed last month.

Smart CEOs will now start to prepare contingency plans, in case this should happen.  We can all hope the recent downturn in global financial markets is just a blip.  But hope is not a strategy.  And the risk of profit warnings turning into major bankruptcies is extremely high, given that global debt now totals $233tn, more than 3x global GDP.

 

FORECAST MONITORING
I strongly believe that forecasts should be monitored, which is why I always review the previous Annual Budget forecast before issuing the next Outlook, and always publish the complete list of Annual Budget Outlooks.

Since January, I have also been monitoring my blog forecasts, using the percentage mechanism highlighted in Philip Tetlock’s masterly “Superforecasting” book. Today’s forecast for oil prices to fall initially to $50/bbl is therefore now added to those on ethylene/polyethylene and the US 10-year interest rate. I am also increasing the confidence level for the interest rate forecast to 70%, and will continue to update these levels when circumstances change.

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US Treasury benchmark yield heads to 4% as 30-year downtrend ends


The US 10-year Treasury bond is the benchmark for global interest rates and stock markets.  And for the past 30 years it has been heading steadily downwards as the chart shows:

  • US inflation rates finally peaked at 13.6% in 1980 (having been just 1.3% in 1960) as the BabyBoomers began to move en masse into the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group
  • Instead of simply boosting demand, as during the 1960s-1970s, they began to work and create new supply
  • This meant supply/demand began to rebalance and interest rates then peaked at 16% in 1981

By 1983, the average Western Boomer (born between 1946-1970) had arrived in the Wealth Creator cohort, which dominates consumer spending, and the economy really began to hum.  There was a final inflation scare in 1984, when US inflation suddenly jumped from 3% to 5%, but after that the trend was downwards all the way.

The Boomers were the largest and wealthiest generation that the world had ever seen.  Their move to become Wealth Creators completely transformed the inflation outlook, as more and more Boomers joined the workforce.  And they transformed the economy by moving it into the NICE era of Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion.

Central bankers took credit for this move, claiming it was due to monetary policy.  But in reality, people are the key element in an economy, not monetary policy.  You can’t have an economy without people.  And sadly, the idea that the US Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had somehow become a Maestro, blinded everyone to 2 key issues for the future:

  • Life expectancy was rising rapidly, meaning that the Boomers would not normally die just after retirement.  Instead, they would likely live for another 15 – 20 years after reaching age 65
  • From 1970, fertility rates had fallen below replacement level (2.1 babies/woman) across the Western world

This combination of a rise in life expectancy and a collapse in fertility rates was creating a timebomb for the economy.

THE RISE IN LIFE EXPECTANCY AND COLLAPSE OF FERTILITY RATES CREATED AN ECONOMIC TIMEBOMB

Western economies are based on consumer spending.  And spending declines once people reach the age of 55 – they already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they approach retirement, as the second chart shows:

  • There were 65m US Wealth Creator households in 2000, who spent an average of $62k ($2017)
  • There were only 36m in the 55+ cohort, who spent just $45k each
  • In 2017, there were 66m Wealth Creators (almost the same as in 2000) who spent $64k each
  • But there were now 56m in the 55+ cohort, who spent just $51k each

The rise in 55+ spending was also only temporary, as large numbers of Boomers have just reached 55+ and have not yet retired.  Spending by those aged 74+ was down by nearly 50% versus the peak spending 45-54 age group.

BELIEF IN MONETARISM LED TO THE DOTCOM AND SUBPRIME DISASTERS 
The dot-com crash in 2000 should have been a wake-up call for the failure of monetarism.  It also, after all, marked the moment when the oldest Boomers began to join the 55+ cohort.  But instead, policymakers thought monetarism could solve “the problem” and cut interest rates to boost the housing market – causing the subprime crash in 2008.

One might have thought – as we wrote in Boom, Gloom and the New Normal in 2011 – that this disaster would have destroyed the monetarism myth.  But no.  Abandoning monetarism would have led to a difficult conversation with voters about the need for everyone to retrain in their 50s, and prepare to take on new, and less physically demanding, roles.

Instead, policymakers tried to replace lost BabyBoomer demand by printing vast amounts of free money via the Quantitative Easing and Zero Interest Rate Policies.  Their aim was to avoid deflation, as inflation had fallen to just 0.6% in 2010 – although why this was a “bad thing” was never explained.  But in reality, they were running uphill, and the pace of the climb was becoming more vertical, as the average Western Boomer joined the 55+ cohort in 2013.

Of course, flooding the market with cheap money boosted asset prices, as they intended.  Stock markets and house prices soared for a second time. But it also created a major new risk.  More and more investors began to panic as they hunted through the markets, trying to obtain a decent “return on capital”.  They assumed central banks would never let markets fall, and so gave up worrying about the risk of making a dud investment.

INTEREST RATES ARE NOW HEADED HIGHER AS PEOPLE WORRY ABOUT RETURN OF CAPITAL
The end of the Bitcoin bubble has highlighted the fact that that risk and reward are normally related.  Most investments that offer potentially high rewards are also high risk – a lot has to go right, for them to make the possible return.  This process of price discovery – the balance of risk and reward – is the key role of markets.

Left to themselves, markets will price risk properly.  But they have been swamped for the past decade by central bank liquidity and their crucial role has been temporarily destroyed.  Now, the fact that the US 10-year bond has broken out of its 30-year downtrend tells us that markets they are finally starting to regain their role.

How high will interest rates now go?  We cannot yet know, and we can also be sure they will not move in a straight line as central banks will continue to intervene.  But as more and more investments, like Bitcoin, prove to be duds, so more and more investors will start to worry about return of capital when they invest.

4% therefore looks like the next level for rates, as we are now trading within the blue bars on the chart.  It may not take very long for this level to be reached, given the fact that the world now has a record $233tn of debt – 3x the size of the global economy.  After that, we shall have to wait and see.

 

FORECAST MONITORING
I strongly believe that forecasts should be monitored, which is why I always review the previous Annual Budget forecast before issuing the next Outlook, and always publish the complete list of Annual Budget Outlooks.

I now plan to begin monitoring my blog forecasts, using the percentage mechanism highlighted in Philip Tetlock’s masterly “Superforecasting” book.  The first forecasts relate to last week’s post on US polyethylene exports and today’s forecast for the US 10-year Treasury bond.  I will change confidence levels as and when circumstances change.

 

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