US-China trade war confirms political risk is now a key factor for companies and the economy

There are few real surprises in life, and President Trump’s decision to launch a full-scale trade war with China wasn’t one of them.  He had virtually promised to do this in his election campaign, as I noted here back in September 2015:

“The economic success of the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle meant that politics as such took a back seat.  People no longer needed to argue over “who got what” as there seemed to be plenty for everyone.  But today, those happy days are receding into history – hence the growing arguments over inequality and relative income levels.

“Companies and investors have had little experience of how such debates can impact them in recent decades.  They now need to move quickly up the learning curve.  Political risk is becoming a major issue, as it was before the 1990s.”

Of course, I received major push-back for this view at the time, just as I did in 2007-8 when warning of a likely US subprime crisis.  Most people found it very hard to believe that politics could trump economic logic, as one American commentator wrote in response to my analysis:

“I have a very, very, very difficult time imagining that populist movements could have significant traction in the U.S. Congress in passing legislation that would seriously affect companies and investors”.

But, sadly or not, depending on your political persuasion, my conclusion after the election result was known seems to have stood the test of time:

“You may, or may not, approve of President-elect Trump’s policies. You may, or may not, think that these policies are destined to fail. But they do confirm that the world is moving into a New Normal, which will inevitably create Winners and Losers.

“The Winners are likely to come from those who accept that President Trump will at least try to introduce the policies proposed by Candidate Trump. And the Losers will almost inevitably include those who continue to believe he represents “business as usual”.

Now, of course, we will start to see these Winners and Losers appear, as there is little the Western central banks can do to counteract the economic cost for the global economy of a US-China trade war.

One sign of this was Uber’s miserable performance on its stock market debut – despite having been priced at the low end of the planned range, it still fell further on its opening, in line with my suggestion last month that Uber’s $91bn IPO marks the top for today’s debt-fuelled stock markets.

But there will be many more serious casualties over the next few months and years:

  • NE Asian countries such as Japan and S Korea are part of global supply chains which send a wide range of components to China, where they are incorporated into finished goods for sale to the USA
  • Germany and the major European countries have relied on sales to China to boost economic growth, as domestic demand has stagnated, and clearly this support is now going to weaken
  • The mining industry and other suppliers of commodities will also be hit – Rio Tinto, for example, depends on China for 45% of its revenue, and on the USA for 15%
  • The petrochemicals industry has been dependent on China for its growth since the 2008 financial crisis, as I noted last summer, US-China tariffs could lead to global Polyethylene price war

Back in 2011-12, John Richardson and I wrote ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’ to give our view of the likely consequences of the major demographic changes underway in the global economy.

Unfortunately, the politicians of the time took the seemingly easy route out of the crisis. They decided that printing money was so much easier than having a dialogue with the electorate about the implications of ageing populations, or the fact that Western fertility rates have been below replacement levels for the past 45 years.  Our warning is now coming true:

“The transition to the New Normal will be a difficult time. The world will be less comfortable and less assured for many millions of Westerners. The wider population will find itself following the model of the ageing boomers, consuming less and saving more. Rather than expecting their assets to grow magically in value every year, they may find themselves struggling to pay-down debt left over from the credit binge.

“Companies will need to refocus their creativity and resources on real needs. This will require a renewed focus on basic research. Industry and public service, rather than finance, will need to become the destination of choice for talented people, if the challenges posed by the megatrends are to be solved. Politicians with real vision will need to explain to voters that they can no longer expect all their wants to be met via endless ‘fixes’ of increased debt.

“We could instead decide to ignore all of this potential unpleasantness.

“But doing nothing is not a solution. It will mean we miss the opportunity to create a new wave of global growth from the megatrends. And we will instead end up with even more uncomfortable outcomes.

Uber’s $91bn IPO marks the top for today’s debt-fuelled stock markets

Uber’s IPO next month is set to effectively “ring the bell” at the top of the post-2008 equity bull market on Wall Street.  True, it is now expecting to be valued at a “bargain” $91bn, rather than the $120bn originally forecast. But as the Financial Times has noted:

“Founded in 2009, it has never made a profit in the past decade. Last year it recorded $3.3bn of losses on revenues of $11bn.”

And Friday’s updated prospectus confirmed that it lost up to $1.1bn in Q1 on revenue of $3.1bn. In more normal times, Uber would have been allowed to go bankrupt long ago,

So why have investors been so keen to continue to throw money at the business?  The answer lies in the chart above, which shows how debt has come to dominate the US economy.  It shows the cumulative growth in US GDP since 1966 (using Bureau of Economic Analysis data), versus the cumulative growth in US public debt (using Federal Reserve of St Louis data):

  • From 1966 – 1979, each dollar of debt was very productive, creating $4.70 of GDP
  • From 1980 – 1999, each dollar was still moderately efficient, creating $1.20 of GDP
  • Since 2000, however, and the start of the Federal Reserve’s subprime and quantitative easing stimulus programmes, each dollar of debt has destroyed value, creating just $0.38c of GDP

After all, if one ignores all the hype, Uber is just a very ordinary business doing very ordinary things.  Most people, after all, could probably run a serially loss-making taxi and food delivery service, as long as someone else agreed to keep funding it.

Yes, like the other “unicorns”, it has a very customer-friendly app to help customers to use its service. But in terms of its business model:

  • When one takes a ride with Uber, the driver often also drives for Lyft and for the local taxi firm, and her car is often also the same car
  • This means that in reality, Uber’s main competitive advantage is its ability to subsidise the ride or the food bought via Uber Eats

DEBT HAS CHANGED FINANCIAL MARKET BEHAVIOUR

This addiction to debt on such a scale, and for such a long period, has changed financial market behaviour.

Nobody now needs to do the hard graft of evaluating industry dynamics, business models and management capability.  Instead, they just need to focus on buying into a “hot sector” with a “story stock”, and then sit back to enjoy the ride. The chart above from Prof Jay Ritter confirms the paradigm shift that has taken place:

  • It highlights how 80% of all IPOs last year were loss-making, compared to around 20% before 2000
  • The only parallel is with the late 1990s, when dot.com companies persuaded credulous investors that website visits were a leading indicator for profit

Like other so-called “unicorns with $1bn+ valuations, today’s debt-fuelled markets have allowed Uber to raise money for years in the private markets. So why has Uber now chosen to IPO, and to accept a valuation at least 25% below its original target?.

CORPORATE DEBT IS INCREASINGLY FUNDING STOCK BUYBACKS TO SUPPORT SHARE PRICES

The above 2 charts from the Wall Street Journal start to suggest the background to its decision:

  • They show the ratio of US corporate debt to GDP has now reached an all-time high at 48%.  The quality of this debt has also reduced, with the majority now just BBB-rated and with record levels of leverage
  • BBB ratings are just above junk, and most major investment managers are not allowed to hold junk-rated bonds in their portfolio. So they would have to sell, quickly, if this debt was downgraded

The problem is that much of the corporate debt raised in recent years has gone to fund share buybacks rather than investment for the future. President Trump’s tax cuts meant buybacks hit a record $806bn last year, versus the previous record of $589bn in 2007.  According to Federal Reserve data, investors sold a net $1.1bn of shares over the past 5 years – yet stock markets powered ahead as buybacks totalled $2.95bn.  As Goldman Sachs notes:

“Repurchases have consistently been the largest source of US equity demand. Since 2010, corporate demand for shares has far exceeded demand from all other investor categories combined.”

THE FED’S RECENT PANIC OVER INTEREST RATES HIGHLIGHTS THE STOCK MARKET RISK

Against this background, it is not hard to see why the US Federal Reserve panicked in January as 10-year interest rates rose beyond 3%.  For years, the Fed has believed, as its then Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in November 2010 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.”

Rising interest rates are likely to puncture the debt bubble that their stimulus policy has created – by reducing corporate earnings and increasing borrowing costs for buybacks.

Uber’s IPO suggests that the “smart money” behind Uber’s IPO – and that of the other “unicorns” now rushing to market – has decided to cash out whilst it still can, despite the valuation being cut. They must have worried that in more normal markets, they would never be able to float a serially loss-making company at a hoped-for $91bn valuation.

If they really believed Uber was finally about to turn the corner and become profitable at last, why would they accept a valuation some 25% below their original target of less than  a month ago?  The rest of us might want to worry about what they know, that we don’t.

Don’t get carried away by Beijing’s stimulus

Residential construction work in Qingdao, China. Government stimulus is unlikely to deliver the economic boost of previous years © Bloomberg

China’s falling producer price index suggests it could soon be exporting deflation, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
On the surface, this year’s jump in China’s total social financing (TSF) seems to support the bullish argument. TSF was Rmb5.3tn ($800bn) in January-February, a 26 per cent rise on 2018’s level.By comparison, it rose 61 per cent in 2009 as the government panicked over the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, and 23 per cent in 2016, when the government wanted to consolidate public support ahead of 2017’s five-yearly Party Congress session, which reappointed the top leadership for their second five-year term.

The markets were certainly right to view both these increases positively, as we discussed here two years ago. But we also added a cautionary note, suggesting that 2017’s Congress might well be followed by a “new clampdown”, as Xi’s leadership style was likely to “move away from consensus-building towards autocracy”. This analysis seems to have proved prescient, and it makes us cautious about assuming that Xi has decided to reverse course in 2019.

Consumer markets are also indicating a cautious response. Passenger car sales, for example, were down 18 per cent in January-February compared with the same period last year, after having fallen in 2018 for the first time since 1990. Smartphone sales were also down 14 per cent over the same period. In the important housing market, state-owned China Daily reported that sales by industry leader Evergrande fell by 43 per cent.

There is little evidence on the ground to suggest that Xi has decided to return to stimulus to revive economic growth. Last month’s government Work Report to the National People’s Congress said it would “refrain from using a deluge of stimulus policies”.

Instead, it seems likely that this year’s record level of lending was used to bail out local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) and other casualties of China’s post-2008 debt bubble. The second chart illustrates the potential problem, with TSF suddenly taking off into the stratosphere after 2008, when stimulus began, while GDP growth hardly changed its trajectory.

The stimulus programme thus dramatically inflated the amount of debt needed to create a unit of GDP. And given the doubts over the reliability of China’s GDP data, it may well be that the real debt-to-GDP ratio is even higher. These data therefore support the argument that debt servicing is now becoming a major issue for China after a decade of stimulus policies.


One example comes from the FT’s analyses of the debt problems affecting China Rail and China’s vast network of city subways. The FT reported that China has 25,000km of high-speed rail tracks, two-thirds of the world’s total, and that China Rail’s debt burden had reached Rmb5tn — of which around 80 per cent related to high-speed rail construction. Its interest payments have also exceeded its operating profits since at least 2015.

Unsurprisingly, given China’s relative poverty (average disposable income was just $4,266 in 2018), income from ticket sales has been too low even to cover interest payments since 2015. And yet the company is planning to expand capacity to 30,000km of track by 2030, with budgets increased by 10 per cent in 2018 as a result of the decision to boost infrastructure.

The same problem can be seen in city subway construction, where China accounted for 30 per cent of global city rail at the end of last year by track length, but only 25 per cent of ridership, which suggests that some lines may be massively underused and economically unviable.

The issue is not whether this level of investment is justifiable over the longer term in creating the infrastructure required to support growth. Nor is it whether the debt incurred can be repaid over time. Instead, the real question is whether the need to support economic expansion has led to a financially-risky acceleration of the infrastructure programme and whether, in turn, Beijing is now being forced to cover potential losses in order to avoid a series of credit-damaging defaults.


So where does this alternative narrative lead us? It suggests that far from supporting consumer spending, the TSF increase is flagging a growing risk in Asian debt markets — where western investors have rushed to invest in recent years, attracted by the relatively high interest rates compared with those enforced by central banks in their home markets. In 2017, for example, Chinese borrowers raised $211bn in dollar-denominated issuance, at a time when corporate debt levels had already reached 190 per cent of GDP.

This risk is emphasised if we revisit our suggestion here at the end of last year, that data for chemicals output — the best leading indicator for the global economy — was suggesting “that we may now be headed into recession”. More recent data give us no reason to change this conclusion, and therefore highlight the risk that some Chinese debts may prove more equal than others in terms of the degree of state support that they can command. Missed interest and capital repayments are now becoming common among the weaker borrowers.

The performance of China’s producer price index provides additional support for our analysis. As the third chart shows, this is now flirting with a negative reading, suggesting that a decade of over-investment means that China now has a major problem of surplus capacity. This problem will, of course, be exacerbated if demand continues to slow in key areas. In turn, this suggests that the implications of our analysis go beyond Asian markets.

China still remains, after all, the manufacturing capital of the world, and its falling PPI implies that 2019 could see it exporting deflation. This would be exactly the opposite conclusion to that assumed by today’s rallying equity markets, although it would chime with the increasingly downbeat messages coming from global bond markets. Investors may therefore want to revisit their recent euphoria over the level of lending in China, and their new confidence that the so-called “Powell put” can really protect them from today’s global market risks.

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

Stormy weather ahead for chemicals

Four serious challenges are on the horizon for the global petrochemical industry as I describe in my latest analysis for ICIS Chemical Business and in a podcast interview with Will Beacham of ICIS.

The first is the growing risk of recession, with key markets such as autos, electronics and housing all showing signs of major weakness. Central banks are already talking up the potential for further stimulus, less than a year after they had tried to claim victory for their post-Crisis policies.

Second is oil market volatility, where prices raced up in the first half of last year, only to then collapse from $85/bbl to $50/bbl by Christmas, before rallying again this year. The issue is that major structural change is now underway, with US and Russian production increasing at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

Third, there is the unsettling impact of geo-politics and trade wars. The US-China trade war has set alarm bells ringing around the world, whilst the Brexit arguments between the UK and European Union are another sign that the age of globalisation is behind us, with potentially major implications for today’s supply chains.

And then there is the industry’s own, very specific challenge, shown in the chart. Based on innovative trade data analysis by Trade Data Monitor, it highlights the dramatic impact of the new US shale gas-based cracker investments on global trade in petrochemicals.

The idea is to capture the full effect of the new ethylene production across the key derivatives – polyethylene, PVC, styrene, EDC, vinyl acetate, ethyl benzene, ethylene glycol – based on their ethylene content. Even with next year’s planned new US ethylene terminal, the derivatives will still be the cheapest and easiest way to export the new ethylene molecules.

The cracker start-ups were inevitably delayed by the hurricanes in 2017. But if one compares 2018 with 2016 (to avoid the distortions these caused), there was still a net increase of 1.7 million tonnes in US ethylene-equivalent trade flows.

This was more than 40% of the total production increase over the period, as reported by the American Chemistry Council. And 2019 will see further major increases in volume with 4.25 million tonnes of new ethylene capacity due to start-up, alongside full-year output from last year’s start-ups.

The problem is two-fold. As discussed here in 2014 (ICB, US boom is a dangerous game, 24-30 March), it was never likely that central bank stimulus policies could actually return demand growth to the levels seen in the Boomer-led SuperCycle from 1983-2000:

“Shale gas thus provides a high-profile example of how today’s unprecedented demographic changes are creating major changes in business models. Low-cost supply is no longer a guarantee of future profitability.”

This was not a popular message at the time, when oil was still riding high at over $100/bbl and the economic impact of globally ageing populations and collapsing fertility rates were still not widely understood. But it has borne the test of time, and sums up the challenge now facing the industry.

Please click to download the full analysis and my podcast interview with Will Beacham.

Ageing Perennials set to negate central bank stimulus as recession approaches

The world’s best leading indicator for the global economy is still firmly signalling recession.  That’s the key conclusion from the chart above, showing latest data on global chemical industry Capacity Utilisation (CU%) from the American Chemistry Council.

The logic behind the indicator is compelling:

  • Chemicals are one of the world’s largest industries, and also one of the most diverse
  • Every country in the world uses relatively large volumes of chemicals
  • And their applications cover virtually all sectors of the economy
  • They include plastics, energy and agriculture as well as detergents and textiles

If you want to know the outlook for the global economy, the chemical industry will provide the answers.

It also has an excellent correlation with IMF data, and benefits from the fact it has no “political bias”. It simply tells us what is happening in real-time in the world’s 3rd largest industry.

And now it is telling us that the CU% is continuing to fall. It was down at 83.1% in January, well below the long-term average of 86.5%.  In fact, it has fallen sharply from that level since December 2017.

Ironically, it was exactly a year ago that the world’s major central banks were congratulating themselves on the success of their policies. “Yes”, they said, “it had taken longer than expected, but we can finally declare victory for our post-2008 stimulus policies”.

Unfortunately, however, this confidence was misplaced as the second chart suggests.

It shows there was a brief rebound in 2010 after the 2008 Crisis as the first round of stimulus took place. But then growth fell back again.

Instead of learning the lesson, the banks decided to do more of the same.  But repeating the same action in the hope of a different result is not terribly sensible.  And so it has proved.

Next month will see the IMF’s new estimate for 2018’s GDP growth (black line). Chemical industry CU% data (the red line) suggests it will have to be revised downwards, once again.

Already, it seems, the central banks are preparing their next round of stimulus. They have finally recognised the slowdown underway in the key areas of the economy such as autos, housing and electronics:

  • China has already panicked, with January seeing record levels of loans
  • Similarly the US Federal Reserve has promised it will go slowly with any further interest rate rises, or might even reduce them
  • The Bank of Japan’s former deputy governor has warned of recession as global demand weakens
  • Most recently, the European Central Bank has completely reversed course, after suggesting as recently as December that strong growth meant further stimulus was unnecessary

As the 3rd chart shows, the key aim for the western central banks is simply to support stock markets such as the S&P 500. They are determined to keep them moving steadily upwards, in the belief this will stimulate growth. But this, of course, is wishful thinking.  As the Financial Times reported last week, the combined result of stimulus and President Trump’s tax cuts has been that:

“US companies handed their shareholders a record-shattering $1.25tn through dividends and buybacks last year, lifting the post-crisis bonanza to nearly $8tn.”

And as the independent Pew Research Center reported last year:

“Today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.”

YOU CAN’T PRINT BABIES – AND IT IS PEOPLE THAT CREATE DEMAND

The final chart highlights the “problem” for the central banks.  Their financial models, and all their thinking, are based on the experience of the post-1945 BabyBoomer SuperCycle.

The vast numbers of babies born between 1946-70 first created massive inflation in the 1960s-70s, as demand outstripped supply. But then they created more or less constant growth as the Boomers moved into the workforce. They turbo-charged demand as Western women stopped having enough children to replace the population after 1970, and instead went back into the workforce – creating the two-income family for the first time in history.

But after 2000, this growth began to weaken as the oldest Boomers moved out of the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group, when consumption peaks along with earnings.  And today’s “problem” is really that, wonderfully, we now have a entirely new generation of Perennials aged 55+.

They will soon be over one-fifth of the global population, double the percentage in 1950.  In the developed western economies, they are already a third of the population, due to the collapse of fertility rates.  This is great news for us as individuals. But it is bad news for economic growth as Perennials already own most of what they need, and their earnings reduce as they retire.

The S&P 500 and other asset markets are already rising due to central bank promises of more support.

But one thing is certain. Third time around, the main result of more stimulus will again be to increase today’s already high levels of debt and inequality.  It cannot return us to SuperCycle levels of growth.

Déjà vu all over again for oil markets as recession risks rise

Back in 2015, veteran Saudi Oil Minister Ali  Naimi was very clear about Saudi’s need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.

As Naimi recognised, high oil prices created a short-term win for Saudi’s budget between 2011-4.  But they also allowed US frackers to enter the market – posing a major threat to Saudi’s control – whilst also reducing overall demand.  And his “boss”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) agreed with him, saying:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil. We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

Today, however, Saudi oil policy has reversed course, with MbS now trying to push prices towards the $80/bbl level assumed in this year’s Budget.

Saudi’s dilemma is that its growing population, and its need to diversify the economy away from oil, requires increases in public spending. As a result, it has conflicting objectives:

  • Its long-term need is to defend its market share, to guarantee its ability to monetise its vast oil reserves
  • But its short-term need is to support prices by cutting production, in order to fund its spending priorities

The result, as the chart above confirms, is that prices are now at levels which have almost always led to recession in the past.  It compares the total cost of oil* as a percentage of global GDP with IMF data for the economy, with the shaded areas showing US recessions. The tipping point is when the total cost reaches 3% of global GDP. And this is where we are today.

The reason is that high oil prices reduce discretionary spending.  Consumers have to drive to work and keep their homes warm (and cool in the summer).  So if oil prices are high, they have to cut back in other areas, slowing the economy.

CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS MADE OIL PRICES “AFFORDABLE” IN 2011-2014

There has only been one occasion in the past 50 years when this level failed to trigger a recession. That was in 2011-14, when all the major central bank stimulus programmes were in full flow, as the left-hand chart shows.

They were creating tens of $tns of free cash to support consumer spending.  But at the same time, of course, they were creating record levels of consumer debt, as the right-hand chart shows from the latest New York Federal Reserve’s Household Debt Report.  It shows US household debt is now at a record $13.54tn. And it confirms that consumers have reached the end of the road in terms of borrowing:

“The number of credit inquiries within the past six months – an indicator of consumer credit demand – declined to the lowest level seen in the history of the data.

SAUDI ARABIA IS NO LONGER THE SWING SUPPLIER IN OIL MARKETS

Oil prices are therefore now on a roller-coaster ride:

  • Saudi tried to push them up last year, but this meant demand growth slowed and Russian/US output rose
  • The rally ran out of steam in September and Brent collapsed from $85/bbl to $50/bbl in December

Now Saudi is trying again. It agreed with OPEC and Russia in December to cut production by 1.2mbd – with reductions to be shared between OPEC (0.8 million bpd) and its Russia-led allies (0.4 million bpd).  But as always, its “allies” have let it down.  So Saudi has been forced to make up the difference. Its production has fallen from over 11mbd to a forecast 9.8mbd in March.

Critically however, as the WSJ chart shows, it has lost its role as the world’s swing supplier:

Of course, geo-politics around Iran or Venezuela or N Korea could always intervene to support prices. But for the moment, the main support for rising prices is coming from the hedge funds.  As Reuters reports, their ratio of long to short positions in Brent has more than doubled since mid-December in line with rising stock markets.

But the hedge funds did very badly in Q4 last year when prices collapsed. And so it seems unlikely they will be too bold with their buying, whilst the pain of lost bonuses is so recent.

Companies and investors therefore need to be very cautious.  Saudi’s current success in boosting oil prices is very fragile, as markets are relying on more central bank stimulus to offset the recession risk. If market sentiment turns negative, today’s roller-coaster could become a very bumpy ride.

Given that Saudi has decided to ignore al-Naimi’s warning, the 2014-15 experience shows there is a real possibility of oil prices returning to $30/bbl later this year.

 

*Total cost is number of barrels used multiplied by their cost