$50bn hole appears in New York financial markets – Fed is “looking into it”

Most people would quickly notice if $50 went missing from their purse or wallet. They would certainly notice if $50k suddenly disappeared from their bank account. But a fortnight ago, it took the New York Federal Reserve more than a day to notice that $50bn was missing from the money markets it was supposed to regulate.

Worse was to come. By the end of last week, the NY Fed was being forced to offer up to $100bn/day of overnight money.  And it was also clear that the authorities still have no idea of what is going wrong.

This is perhaps not surprising when one remembers, as I charted here between 2007-8, that the Fed failed to notice the subprime crisis until Lehman went bankrupt in September 2008.

For the past 2 weeks, extraordinary things have been happening in a critical part of the world’s financial markets. And unfortunately, the NY Fed didn’t notice until after it had begun, as the Financial Times later reported:

  • First, on Monday 16th, the repo market suddenly began to trade higher – reaching a high of 7%
  • Then as the market opened at 7am on Tuesday, “Rates rocketed upward again, to 6% within a few minutes and then to a high of 10%. That was four times the rate the repo market was trading the week before. Typically, repo prices move around by a few basis points each day — a few hundredths of a percentage point.

Finally, someone at the Fed woke up – or perhaps, somebody woke them up – and they announced $75bn of support to try and stop rates moving even higher. Even that had its problems, as “technical difficulties” meant the lending was delayed.

As Reuters then reported next day, this cash wasn’t enough. The shortage “forced the Fed to make an emergency injection of more than $125bn …. its first major market intervention since the financial crisis more than a decade ago.”

Of course, as with the early signs of the subprime crisis, the Fed then went into “don’t frighten the children mode“.  We were told it was all due to corporations needing cash to pay their quarterly tax bills, and banks needing to pay for the Treasury bonds they had bought recently.

Really! Don’t companies pay their tax bills every quarter? And don’t banks normally pay for their bonds?  Was this why some large banks found themselves forced to pay 10% for overnight money, when they would normally have paid around 2%?  And in any case, isn’t repo a $2.2tn market – and so should be easily able to cope with both events?

Equally, if it was just a one-off problem, why did the NY Fed President next have to announce daily support of “at least $75bn through 10 October” as well as other measures? And why did the Fed have to scale this up to $100bn/day last Wednesday, after banks needed $92bn of overnight money?

Was it that corporations were suddenly paying much more tax than expected, or banks buying up the entire Treasury market? The explanation is laughable, and shows the degree of panic in regulatory circles, that their explanation isn’t even remotely plausible.

We can expect many such stories to be put around over the next few days and weeks. As readers will remember, we were told in March 2008 that Bear Stearns’ collapse was only a minor issue. As I noted here at the time, S&P even told us that it meant “the end of the subprime write downs was now in sight“.

I didn’t believe these supposedly calming voices then, and I don’t believe them now. Common sense tells us that something is seriously wrong with the financial system, if large borrowers have to pay 10% for overnight money in a $2.2tn market.

And what is even more worrying is that, just as with subprime, the regulators clearly don’t have a clue about the nature of the problem(s).

My own view, as I warned in the Financial Times last month, is that “China’s (August 5) devaluation could prove to be the trigger for an international debt crisis”.  Current developments in the repo market may be a sign that this is more likely than many people realise.  I hope I am wrong.

 

London house prices edge closer to a tumble

After the excitement of Wimbledon tennis and a cricket World Cup final, Londoners were back to their favourite conversation topic last week – house prices. But now the news has become bittersweet as the price decline starts to accelerate.

As the London Evening Standard headline confirms:

The London property slump has dramatically accelerated with prices falling at their fastest rate in a decade, official figures reveal… The latest “punishing” downward lurch means that more than £21k ($26k) was wiped from the value of the average London house over the period, according to the Land Registry… The number of sales is still in decline with just 5947 recorded in March, down from 7350 a year previously.”

‘Reversion to the mean’ is always the most reliable of investment guides, and the chart shows prices could have some way to fall before they reach this level – and, of course, prices often over-correct after the type of sharp rise that has been seen over the past 20 years:

  • Most people have to buy houses on a mortgage, where the ratio of price to income is the key factor
  • As the chart shows, prices and ratios have seen 2 distinct periods since 1971 (when records began)
  • Prices (inflation adjusted) have had an upward trend since 2000, with today’s 11% fall the worst
  • 1971-1999 saw more violent swings – eg between 1983-1993 they doubled and then halved
  • The average ratio since 2000 has been 9.3, which would bring prices down by a further 23%
  • The average ratio between 1971-1999 was 4.8, which would bring prices down by a further 60%

WHY DID PRICES RISE?
London prices have been boosted by 4 main factors since 1971:

Demographics.  Most fundamentally, the BabyBoomers (born between 1946-1970) began to move into their house-buying years. This dramatically increased demand (as I discussed last week), whilst supply was slow to respond due to planning restrictions etc.

In addition, women began to go back to work after having children, creating the phenomenon of 2-income families for the first time in history. The younger Boomers saw the benefit of this as affordability rose; those who followed them paid the price in terms of higher prices.

Buy to let. London became the capital of ‘Buy-to-let’. UK tenancy law changed in 1988 and by the mid-1990s, parents realised it would be cheaper and better to buy apartments for their student children, rather than paying high rents for shoddy lodgings. Others followed in the belief that property was “safer” than stock markets”.

Falling interest rates (they were 15% during the 1992 ERM crisis) made the mortgage payment very affordable – particularly with tax relief as well. But since 2017, tax relief has been reducing, and disappears next year. And today’s ageing UK population, where nearly 1 in 5 people are now aged 65+, means the Boomers no longer have spare cash to spend on buying property.

The global city.  After the financial crisis, London property appeared an oasis of calm as the Bank of England supported house prices by cutting interest rates to near-zero, dramatically boosting affordability. Everyone knew by then that “house prices only increased”, as memories of the 1970-1980s were forgotten, and so capital gains seemed assured.

This made London, along with other “global cities” such as New York, very attractive to Russians, Arabs, Asians and anyone else who was worried that their government might try to grab their money. Europeans also bought as the eurozone crisis developed. And then the success of the 2012 London Olympics made it the city where everyone wanted to live, especially as its financial sector was booming due to central bank stimulus programmes.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The question now is whether these drivers will continue.  Brexit, of course, has already cast a shadow over the idea of the UK as an island of stability in a troubled world. And whilst the collapse of the currency since the referendum makes property more affordable for foreign buyers, it means that those who bought at the peak are nursing even larger losses.

And, of course, the fall in the actual volume of sales is another worrying sign. Volume usually leads price, up or down. And housing markets aren’t like stock markets, where you can usually trade very quickly if you want to sell. Instead you have to wait for a buyer to appear – and even then, the UK’s property laws make it possible for them to pull out until the very last moment.

All in all, it would therefore be surprising if prices didn’t continue falling, back to the average house price/earnings ratio of the past 20 years.  A temporary over-correction, where they went even lower, would also be normal after such a long period without a major fall.

Whether they go lower than this, and return to the 1971-99 ratio, probably depends on what happens with Brexit.  If those who believe it will open up a new ‘golden age’ for the UK economy are right, then  prices might well stabilise and could even rise again, after the initial disruption. But if it proves an economic disaster, then a return to the troubled period of the 1970s would be no surprise at all.

 

G7 births hit new record low, below Depression level in 1933

If a country doesn’t have any babies, then in time it won’t have an economy. But that’s not how the central banks see it.

For the past 20 years, through subprime and now their stimulus policies, they have believed they could effectively “print babies”.  Even today, they are still lining up to take global interest rates even further into negative territory.

But common sense tells us their policy cannot work:

  • New data shows 2018 births in the G7 richest Western countries were just 7.8m
  • This was the lowest level seen since records began in 1921
  • It was even lower than at the height of the Depression in 1933 when births dropped to 7.99m/year
  • By comparison during the 1946-70 BabyBoom, they averaged 10.1m/year and peaked at 10.6m

The chart above confirms the unique nature of the Western BabyBoom.  Births jumped by 15% versus the previous 25 years, and since then they have fallen by an average 17%. Every single country is now having fewer births than at the peak of the Boom:

  • US births were 3.79m last year, versus a peak of 4.29m in 1959
  • Japan had 0.92m versus 2.7m in 1949; Germany had 0.79m versus 1.36m in 1963

The BabyBoom mattered because the Boomers were part of the richest society the world has ever seen.  In 1950, the G7 were half of the global economy, and they were still 45% in 2000. The “extra babies” born during the Boom, effectively created a new G7 economy the size of Canada.

But since 1970, the West has not been replacing its population, as fertility rates have been below 2.1/babies per woman.  This matters, as the second chart shows for the USA, the world’s largest economy.

Consumer spending is 70% of GDP, and it peaks in the 25-54 Wealth Creator generation – when people are building their careers and often settle down and have children.  Spend then drops by over 40% by the age of 75.

This didn’t matter very much for the economy in the past, when most people died around pension age:

  • In 1950, for example, there were just 130m Westerners in the Perennials 55+ age group.  By comparison, there were 320m Wealth Creators and 360m under 25
  • But today, there are 390m Perennials compared to 515m Wealth Creators and just 350m under-25s

This means it is impossible to recreate the growth of the Boomer-led SuperCycle.

Does this matter? Not really.

Most of us would prefer to have the extra 15-20 years of life that we have gained since 1950.  But because policymakers have pretended they could print babies via their stimulus programmes, they were able to avoid difficult discussions with the electorate about the impact of the life expectancy bonus.

Now, this failure is catching up with them.  Perennials are, after all, effectively a replacement economy. They already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they move into retirement. So we need to adjust to this major change:

  • In 1950, it was normal for people to be born and educated, before working to 65 and then dying around pension age
  • Today, we need to add a new stage to this paradigm – where we retrain around the age of 55, probably into less physically demanding roles where we can utilise the experience we have gained
  • This would have tremendous benefits for individuals in terms of their physical and mental health and, of course, it would reduce the burden on today’s relatively fewer Wealth Creators
  • It is completely unfair, after all, for the Boomers to demand their children should have a lower standard of living, and instead support their parents in the Perennials cohort

There is, of course, one other fantasy peddled by the central banks as part of their argument that monetary policy can always create growth.

This is that the emerging economies have all now become middle class by Western standards, and so global growth is still going to power ahead. But as the third chart shows, this simply isn’t true:

  • It shows the world’s 10 largest economies (the circle size) ranked by fertility rate and median age
  • Only India still has a demographic dividend, with its fertility rate just above replacement levels
  • But India’s GDP/capita is only $2036: Brazil’s is just $8968 and China’s $9608
  • By comparison, the US is at $62606, Germany is at $48264 and France/UK are at $42600

Companies and voters have been completely fooled by these claims of a “rising middle class” in the emerging economies.  In reality, most people have to live on far less than the  official US “poverty level” of $20780 for a 3-person household.

In China, average disposable income in the major cities was just $5932 last year, and only $2209 in the poorer rural half of the country. Its great success has actually been to move 800m people out of extreme poverty (income below $1.90/day) since 1990.

Demographics don’t lie, and they clearly challenge the rose-tinted view of the central banks that further interest rate cuts will somehow return us to SuperCycle days.

Their real legacy has been to create record levels of debt, which can probably never be repaid.

Perennials set to defeat Fed’s attempt to maintain the stock market rally as deflation looms

Never let reality get in the way of a good theory. That’s been the policy of western central banks since the end of the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle in 2000, when the oldest Boomer moved out of the Wealth Creator 25-54 age group and into the Perennial 55+ cohort.

Inevitably this led to a slowdown in growth, as the Perennials already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they enter retirement.  40% of Americans aged 65+ would have incomes below the poverty line, if Social Security didn’t exist.

The well-meaning folk at the US Federal Reserve chose to ignore this development, and instead launched their subprime experiment   But demographics are destiny, and their first attempt to effectively “print babies” ended in 2008’s near-disaster for the global economy.

Their problem, as John Maynard Keynes noted in his conclusion to his 1936 General Theory, was that:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

And in the case of today’s central bankers, they are enslaved to the theories of 2 defunct economists:

  • One is Franco Modigliani, who won the 1955 Nobel Prize with his “life-cycle hypothesis”, which suggested individuals plan out their  lifetime income and spending in advance, so as to even out their consumption over their entire lifetime
  • The other is Milton Friedman, who won the 1975 Prize for his argument that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”, ignoring the importance of supply and demand balances

Modigliani and Friedman were working before anyone realised a BabyBoom had taken place.  When John Richardson and I were researching our book ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’ in 2010, the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary gave the earliest use of the word as being in 1979.

So they might have some excuse for not being aware of the demand pressures caused by the fact that the number of US babies rose by 52% in 1946-64, compared to the previous 18 years.   But today’s central bankers have no such excuse.  Common sense, or a quick glance at the charts above would immediately confirm:

  • Increasing life expectancy and falling fertility rates mean that an entirely new generation, the Perennials 55+, is alive today for the first time in history
  • And the data shows very clearly that their spending falls off away once they turn 55, and is down 43% by the time they reach the age of 75

Similarly, common sense suggests that inflation is not a monetary phenomenon, but a function of supply and demand balances. The post-War BabyBoom  was inevitably going to create a lot of demand and hence inflation, particularly as factories had first to be converted back from military production.

Similarly, when all these babies moved into the workforce, it was almost inevitable that:

  • We would see more or less constant demand, as the Boomers reached their Wealth Creator years
  • This demand would be turbo-charged as women went back into the workforce after starting a family, creating the two-income family for the first time in history

Fertility rates fell below replacement levels of 2.1 babies/woman as long ago as 1970. Inevitably, therefore, the number of Wealth Creators has plateaued – just as increasing life expectancy means that the number of Perennials is growing rapidly.

Since 2008, the Fed has completely failed to recognise this critical development for supply/demand balances.

Instead it has “doubled down” on the subprime policy, via record levels of stimulus.  If you ask them why, they will tell you their core economic model – the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model – doesn’t need to include demographic detail, as it is based on  Modigliani and Friedman’s theories.

We are therefore now almost certainly approaching a new crisis. As the chart on the left from Charlie Bilello confirms :

  • The total of government bonds with negative interest rates has now reached $13tn
  • The stock market is ignoring this evidence of slowing demand, and is still powering ahead

One or the other is soon going to be proved wrong.

THE END-GAME FOR THE STIMULUS POLICIES WILL LIKELY BE MAJOR DEFLATION
The central banks have spent the past 10 years following Friedman’s theory, believing they could create inflation via stimulus policies.  Instead, their low interest rates encouraged companies to boost supply, at a time when the rise of the Perennials meant demand growth was already slowing.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, interest rates are going negative, as the Fed’s policies have effectively proved deflationary.  Very worryingly, around 14% of US companies are already unable to service their debt, because their earnings are not enough to pay their interest bills.

Had the Fed focused on demographics, it would have been obvious that the best way to create demand was to increase the spending power of the Perennials, who typically rely on savings for extra income.  But instead of allowing markets to set higher interest rates, the Fed chose to lower them, making deflation almost inevitable.

History suggests their next round of stimulus policy, if/when the S&P 500 weakens again, will be to introduce Friedman’s idea of “helicopter money” – and electronically transfer perhaps $500 to every American’s bank account.  This will be the ultimate test for Friedman’s theory, as if it doesn’t magically create inflation, the Fed will have nothing more to do.

Maybe, this final burst of stimulus will work.  But probably most Perennials, and many Wealth Creators, will instead save the money – alarmed by the Fed’s sense of desperation.  In turn, this will turbocharge the deflationary cycle – forcing interest rates even lower and risking major economic turmoil.

Asian downturn worsens, bringing global recession nearer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OIL MARKETS CONFIRM THE RECESSION RISK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I warned then:

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

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

 

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

High-flying “story stocks” hit air pockets as credit finally tightens

“Nobody could ever have seen this coming” is the normal comment after sudden share price falls.  And its been earning its money over the past week as “suddenly” share prices of some of the major “story stocks” on the US market have hit air pockets, as the chart shows:

  • Facebook was the biggest “surprise”, falling 20% on Thursday to lose $120bn in value
  • Twitter was another “surprise”, falling 21% on Friday to lose $7bn 
  • Netflix has also lost 15% over the past 16 days, losing $27bn
  • Tesla has lost 20% over the past 6 weeks, losing $13bn

These are quite major falls for stocks which were supposed to be unstoppable in terms of their market advances.

Of course, their supporters could say it was just a healthy correction and a “buying opportunity”.  And they might add that so far, other “story stocks” such as Alphabet, Apple and Amazon are still doing well.  But others might say a paradigm shift is underway, and these sudden shocks are just the early warning that the central banks’ Quantitative Easing bubble is finally starting to burst.

They might have a point, looking at the second set of charts:

  • Twitter stopped being a major growth story as long ago as 2015, since when its user growth has been relatively slow, even going negative in some quarters
  • Facebook stopped showing major growth in active users 18 months ago – and in 2018, it has been flat in N America and losing subscribers in Europe, whilst Asia and the Rest of the World are also heading downwards
  • Tesla, of course, has been a serial disappointment.  Its founder, Elon Musk, was brutally honest when founding the company in 2003, saying it had a 10% chance of success.  Since then, it has mostly failed to meet its production targets.  It was supposed to be making 5000 Tesla 3 cars a week by the end of last year, but according to Bloomberg’s Model 3 tracker, it is currently producing only 2825/week.  Around 0.5 million buyers have paid their $1k deposits and are still waiting for their car – and Tesla needs their cash if its not to run out of money
  • Netflix is another “story stock” now seeing a downturn in subscriber growth.  Yet at its peak it had a market value of $181bn, with net income for this quarter forecast by the company at just $307m.  Like Tesla, it was valued at a higher value than comparable businesses such as Disney, which have had solid earnings streams for decades.

The common factor with all 4 stocks is that they have a great “narrative” or “story”.  Elon Musk has held investors spellbound whilst he told them of unparalleled riches to come from his innovation.  This seemed to be the same with Facebook until the furore arose over the data user scandal with  Cambridge Analytica.  Twitter and Netflix have also had a great “story”, which overcame the need to show real earnings even after years of investment.

THE LIQUIDITY BUBBLES ARE STARTING TO BURST AS CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS SLOWS
In other words, reality seems to be starting to intrude on the “story”, just as it did at the end of the dot-com bubble in 2000, and the US subprime bubble in 2008.  The key, then as now, is the end of the stimulus policies that created the bubbles, as the 3rd set of charts shows:

  • Slowly but surely, the US Federal Reserve is finally raising interest rates back to more normal levels
  • And more importantly, China’s shadow bank lending is declining – H1 was down by $468bn versus 2017

Even the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have signalled they might finally be about to cut back on the combined $5.75tn of lending, often at negative rates, that they pumped into the markets between 2015 – March 2018.

The issue is simple. All bubbles need more and more air to be pumped into them to keep growing. Once the air stops being added, they start to burst. And for the moment, at least, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Tesla are all acting as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning that the great $33tn Quantitative Easing bubble may be starting to burst.

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