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.

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.

Fed’s magic money tree hopes to overcome smartphone sales downturn and global recession risk

Last November, I wrote one of my “most-read posts”, titled Global smartphone recession confirms consumer downturn. The only strange thing was that most people read it several weeks later on 3 January, after Apple announced its China sales had fallen due to the economic downturn.

Why did Apple and financial markets only then discover that smartphone sales were in a downturn led by China?  Our November pH Report “Smartphone sales recession highlights economic slowdown‘, had already given detailed insight into the key issues, noting that:

“It also confirms the early warning over weakening end-user demand given by developments in the global chemical industry since the start of the year. Capacity Utilisation was down again in September as end-user demand slowed. And this pattern has continued into early November, as shown by our own Volume Proxy.

The same phenomenon had occurred before the 2008 Crisis, of course, as described in The Crystal Blog.  I wrote regularly here, in the Financial Times and elsewhere about the near-certainty that we were heading for a major financial crisis. Yet very few people took any notice.

And even after the crash, the consensus chose to ignore the demographic explanation for it that John Richardson and I gave in ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’.

Nothing seems to change.  So here we are again, with the chart showing full-year 2018 smartphone sales, and it is clear that the consumer downturn is continuing:

  • 2018 sales at 1.43bn were down 5% versus 2017, with Q4 volume down 6% versus Q4 2017
  • Strikingly, low-cost Huawei’s volume was equal to high-priced Apple’s at 206m
  • Since 2015, its volume has almost doubled whilst Apple’s has fallen 11%

And this time the financial outlook is potentially worse than in 2008.  The tide of global debt built up since 2008 means that the “World faces wave of epic debt defaults” according to the only central banker to forecast the Crisis.

“WALL STREET, WE HAVE A PROBLEM”

So why did Apple shares suddenly crash 10% on 3 January, as the chart shows? Everything that Apple reported was already known.  After all, when I wrote in November, I was using published data from Strategy Analytics which was available to anyone on their website.

The answer, unfortunately, is that markets have lost their key role of price discovery. Central banks have deliberately destroyed it with their stimulus programmes, in the belief that a strong stock market will lead to a strong economy. And this has been going on for a long time, as newly released Federal Reserve minutes confirmed last week:

  • Back in January 2013, then Fed Governor Jay Powell warned that policies “risked driving securities above fundamental values
  • He went on to warn that the result would be “there is every reason to expect a sharp and painful correction
  • Yet 6 years later, and now Fed Chairman, Powell again rushed to support the stock market last week
  • He took the prospect of interest rate rises off the table, despite US unemployment dropping for a record 100 straight months

The result is that few investors now bother to analyse what is happening in the real world.

They believe  they don’t need to, as the Fed will always be there, watching their backs. So “Bad News is Good News”, because it means the Fed and other Western central banks will immediately print more money to support stock markets.

And there is even a new concept, ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ (MMT), to justify what they are doing.

THE MAGIC MONEY TREE PROVIDES ALL THE MONEY WE NEED

There are 3 key points that are relevant to the Modern Monetary Theory:

  • The Federal government can print its own money, and does this all the time
  • The Federal government can always roll over the debt that this money-printing creates
  • The Federal government can’t ever go bankrupt, because of the above 2 points

The scholars only differ on one point.  One set believes that pumping up the stock market is therefore a legitimate role for the central bank. As then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in November 2010:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

The other set believes instead that government can and should spend as much as they like on social and other programmes:

“MMT logically argues as a consequence that there is no such thing as tax and spend when considering the activity of the government in the economy; there can only be spend and tax.

The result is that almost nobody talks about debt any more, and the need to repay it.  Whenever I talk about this, I am told – as in 2006-8 – that “I don’t understand”.  This may be true. But it may instead be true that, as I noted last month:

“Whilst Apple won’t go bankrupt any time soon, weaker companies in its supply chain certainly face this risk – as do other companies dependent on sales in China. And as their sales volumes and profits start to fall, investors similarly risk finding that large numbers of companies with “Triple B” ratings have suddenly been re-rated as “Junk”:

  • Bianco Research suggest that 14% of companies in the S&P 1500 are zombies, with their earnings unable to cover interest expenses
  • The Bank of International Settlements has already warned that Western central banks stimulus lending means that >10% of US/EU firms currently “rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT. They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

I fear the coming global recession will expose the wishful thinking behind the magic of the central banks’ money trees.

Stock markets risk Wile E. Coyote fall despite Powell’s rush to support the S&P 500

How can companies and investors avoid losing money as the global economy goes into a China-led recession?  That’s the key question as we enter 2019.  We have reached a fork in the road:

The central banks’ aim was set out in November 2010 by US Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke:

“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.”

And the current Chairman, Jay Powell, rushed to calm investors on Friday by confirming this policy:

“We will be prepared to adjust policy quickly and flexibly and use all of our tools to support the economy should that be appropriate.”

His words confirm he equates “the economy” with the stock market, as the chart shows:

  • The Fed no longer sees its core mandate on jobs and prices as defining its role
  • Instead it has become focused on making sure the S&P 500 moves steadily upwards
  • Every time the S&P 500t flirts with breaking the lower “tramline”, the Fed rushes to its rescue

Like Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, the Fed has used more and more absurdly complex strategies to try and keep the market going upwards.  But now it is very close to finding itself over the cliff edge.

CORPORATE DEBT IS THE KEY RISK FOR 2019

The Fed should have realised long ago that markets cannot keep climbing forever.  Instead, by printing $4tn of free cash, it has temporarily destroyed their key role of price discovery.  As a result:

  • Investors now have no idea if are paying too much for their purchases
  • Companies don’t know if their new investments will actually make money

We are heading almost inevitably to another  ‘Minsky Moment’ as I described in September 2008,:

“Earnings from the new investments prove too low to pay the interest due on the debt. Confidence in the ‘new paradigm’ disappears and, with it, market liquidity. Investors find themselves unable to sell the under-performing asset, and suddenly realise they have over-paid. In turn, this prompts a rush for the exits. Prices then begin to drop quite sharply, as ‘distress sales’ take place.

This time, however, the risk is in corporate debt, not US subprime lending.  As the charts above show:

  • The ratio of US corporate debt to GDP has reached an eye-watering 46%, higher than ever before
  • Lending standards have collapsed with most investment debt in the lowest “Triple B” grade

Investors’ obviously loved Powell’s confirmation on Friday that he is determined to cover their backs. But they may start to remember over the weekend that the cause of Thursday’s collapse was Apple’s problems in China – about which, the Fed can actually do very little.

And whilst Apple won’t go bankrupt any time soon, weaker companies in its supply chain certainly face this risk – as do other companies dependent on sales in China.  And as their sales volumes and profits start to fall, investors similarly risk finding that large numbers of companies with “Triple B” ratings have suddenly been re-rated as “Junk”:

  • Bianco Research suggest that 14% of companies in the S&P 1500 are zombies, with their earnings unable to cover interest expenses
  • The Bank of International Settlements has already warned that Western central banks stimulus lending means that  >10% of US/EU firms currently “rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT. They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

CHINA’S CORPORATE DEBT IS THE EPICENTRE OF THE RISK

As the chart shows, China’s corporate debt is now the highest in the world.  Yet it hardly existed before 2008, when China’s leadership panicked and began the largest stimulus programme in history.

The “good news” is that China’s new leadership recognise the problem, as I discussed in November 2017,  China’s central bank governor warns of ‘Minsky Moment’ risk.  The “bad news” – for the Fed’s desire to support the stock market, and for companies dependent on Chinese demand – is that they are determined to tackle the risk, having warned:

“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. The structural unbalance is salient; law-breaking and disorders are rampant; latent risks are accumulating; [and the financial system’s] vulnerability is obviously increasing.”

Companies and investors need to take great care in 2019.  China’s downturn means that markets are starting to rediscover their role of price discovery, despite the Fed’s efforts to keep waving its magic wand:

  • Companies with too much debt will go bankrupt, leading to the Minsky Moment
  • The domino effect of price wars and lower volumes will quickly hit other supply chains
  • Time spent today in understanding this risk will prove time very well spent later this year

Once the tramline is broken, the Fed and the S&P 500 will find themselves in Wile E Coyote’s position in the famous Road Runner cartoons – with nowhere to go, but down. 

Chart of the Year – China’s shadow banking collapse means deflation may be round the corner

Last year it was Bitcoin, in 2016 it was the near-doubling in US 10-year interest rates, and in 2015 was the oil price fall.  This year, once again, there is really only one candidate for ‘Chart of the Year’ – it has to be the collapse of China’s shadow banking bubble:

  • It averaged around $20bn/month in 2008, a minor addition to official lending
  • But then it took off as China’s leaders panicked after the 2008 Crisis
  • By 2010, it had shot up to average $80bn/month, and nearly doubled to $140bn in 2013
  • President Xi then took office and the bubble stopped expanding
  • But with Premier Li still running a Populist economic policy, it was at $80bn again in 2017

At that point, Xi took charge of economic policy, and slammed on the brakes. November’s data shows it averaging just $20bn again.

The impact on the global economy has already been immense, and will likely be even greater in 2019 due to cumulative effects.  As we noted in this month’s pH Report:

“Xi no longer wants China to be the manufacturing Capital of the world. Instead his China Dream is based on the country becoming a more service-led economy based on the mobile internet.  He clearly has his sights on the longer-term and therefore needs to take the pain of restructuring today.

“Financial deleveraging has been a key policy, with shadow bank lending seeing a $609bn reduction YTD November, and Total Social Financing down by $257bn. The size of these reductions has reverberated around Emerging Markets and more recently the West:

  • The housing sector has nose-dived, with China Daily reporting that more than 60% of transactions in Tier 1 and 2 cities saw price drops in the normally peak buying month of October, with Beijing prices for existing homes down 20% in 2018
  • It also reported last week under the heading ’Property firms face funding crunch’ that “housing developers are under great capital pressure at the moment”
  • China’s auto sales, the key to global market growth since 2009, fell 14% in November and are on course for their first annual fall since 1990
  •  The deleveraging not only reduced import demand for commodities, but also Chinese citizens’ ability to move money offshore into previous property hotspots
  • Real estate agents in prime London, New York and other areas have seen a collapse in offshore buying from Hong Kong and China, with one telling the South China Morning Post that “basically all Chinese investors have disappeared “

GLOBAL STOCK MARKETS ARE NOW FEELING THE PAIN

As I warned here in June (Financial markets party as global trade wars begin), the global stock market bubble is also now deflating – as the chart shows of the US S&P 500.  It has been powered by central bank’s stimulus policies, as they came to believe their role was no longer just to manage inflation.

Instead, they have followed the path set out by then Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, in November 2010, believing 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.”

Now, however, we are coming close to the to the point when it becomes obvious that the Fed cannot possibly control the economic fortunes of 325m Americans. Common sense tells us that demographics, not monetary policy, drive demand. Unfortunately, vast amounts of time and money have been wasted by central banks in this  failed experiment.

The path back to fiscal sanity will be very hard, due to the debt that has been built up by the stimulus policies.  The impartial Congressional Budget Office expects US government debt to rise to $1tn.

Japan – the world’s 3rd largest economy – is the Case Study for the problems likely ahead:

  • Consumer spending is 55% of Japan’s GDP.  It falls by around a third at age 70+ versus peak spend at 55, as older people already own most of what they need, and are living on a pension
  • Its gross government debt is now 2.5x the size of its economy, and with its ageing population (median age will be 48 in 2020), there is no possibility that this debt can ever be repaid
  • As the Nikkei Asian Review reported in July, the Bank of Japan’s stimulus programme means it is now a Top 10 shareholder in 40% of Nikkei companies: it is currently spending ¥4.2tn/year ($37bn) buying more shares
  • Warning signs are already appearing, with the Nikkei 225 down 12% since its October peak. If global stock markets do now head into a bear market, the Bank’s losses will mount very quickly

CHINA MOVE INTO DEFLATION WILL MAKE DEBT IMPOSSIBLE TO REPAY

Since publishing ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: how the Ageing Boomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again“, in 2011 with John Richardson, I have argued that the stimulus policies cannot work, as they are effectively trying to print babies.  2019 seems likely to put this view to the test:

  • China’s removal of stimulus is being matched by other central banks, who have finally reached the limits of what is possible
  • As the chart shows, the end of stimulus has caused China’s Producer Price Inflation to collapse from 7.8% in February 2017
  • Analysts Haitong Securities forecast that it will “drop to zero in December and fall further into negative territory in 2019

China’s stimulus programme was the key driver for the global economy after 2008.  Its decision to withdraw stimulus – confirmed by the collapse now underway in housing and auto sales – is already putting pressure on global asset and financial markets:

  • China’s lending bubble helped destroy market’s role of price discovery based on supply/demand
  • Now the bubble has ended, price discovery – and hence deflation – may now be about to return
  • Yet combating deflation was supposed to be the prime purpose of Western central bank stimulus

This is why the collapse in China’s shadow lending is my Chart of the Year.

The global economy and the US$ – an alternative view

Every New Year starts with optimism about the global economy.  But as Stanley Fischer, then vice chair of the US Federal Reserve, noted back in August 2014:

 “Year after year we have had to explain from mid-year on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back.”

Will 2018 be any different?  Once again, the IMF and other forecasters have been lining up to tell us the long-awaited “synchronised global recovery” is now underway.  But at the same, they say they are puzzled that the US$ is so weak.  As the Financial Times headline asked:

“Has the US dollar stopped making sense?”

If the global economy was really getting stronger, then the US$ would normally be rising, not falling.  So could it be that the economy is not, actually, seeing the promised recovery?

OIL/COMMODITY PRICE INVENTORY BUILD HAS FOOLED THE EXPERTS, AGAIN
It isn’t hard to discover why the experts have been fooled.  Since June, we have been seeing the usual rise in “apparent demand” that always accompanies major commodity price rises.  Oil, after all, has already risen by 60%.

Contrary to economic theory, companies down the value chains always build inventory in advance of potential price rises.  Typically, this adds about 10% to real demand, equal to an extra month in the year.  Then, when the rally ends, companies destock again and “apparent demand” weakens again.

The two charts above confirm that the rally had nothing to do with a rise in “real demand”:

Their buying has powered the rise in oil prices, based on the free cash being handed out by the central banks, particularly in Europe and Japan, as part of their stimulus programmes.

They weren’t only buying oil, of course.  Most major commodities have also rallied.  Oil was particularly dramatic, however, as the funds had held record short positions till June.  Once they began to bet on a rally instead, prices had nowhere to go but up.  1.4bn barrels represents as astonishing 15 days of global oil demand, after all.

What has this to do with the US$, you might ask?  The answer is simply that hedge funds, as the name implies, like to go long in one market whilst going short on another.  And one of their favourite trades is going long (or short) on oil and commodities, whilst doing the opposite on the US$:

  • Since June, they have been happily going long on commodities
  • And as Reuters reports, they have also been opening major short positions on the dollar

The chart highlights the result, showing how the US$’s fall began just as oil/commodity prices began to rise.

COMPANIES HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO BUILD INVENTORY WHEN COMMODITY PRICES RISE
This pattern has been going on for a long time.  But I have met very few economists or central bankers who recognise it.  They instead argue that markets are always efficient, as one professor told me recently:

“Economists would tend to be skeptical about concepts such as “apparent demand”. Unless this a secret concept (and it doesn’t seem like it is), other investors should also use it, and then the oil price should already reflect it. Thus, there wouldn’t be gains to be made (unless you’re quicker than everyone else or have inside information)…”

But if you were a purchasing manager in the real world, you wouldn’t be sceptical at all.  You would see prices rising for your key raw materials, and you would ask your CFO for some extra cash to build more inventory.  You would know that a rising oil, or iron, or other commodity price will soon push up the prices for your products.

And your CFO would agree, as would the CFOs of all the companies that you supply down the value chain.

So for the last 6 months, everyone who buys oil or other commodity-related products has been busy building as much inventory as they could afford.  In turn, of course, this has made it appear that demand has suddenly begun to recover.  At last, it seems, the “synchronised global recovery” has arrived.

Except, of course, that it hasn’t.  The hedge funds didn’t buy 15 days-worth of oil to use it.  They bought it to speculate, with the OPEC-Russia deal providing the essential “story” to support their buying binge.

THE RISE IN COMMODITY PRICES, AND “APPARENT DEMAND”, IS LIKELY COMING TO AN END
What happens next is, of course, the critical issue.  As we suggested in this month’s pH Report:

“This phenomenon of customers buying forward in advance of oil-price rises goes back to the first Arab Oil Crisis in 1973 – 1974. And yet every time it happens, the industry persuades itself “this time is different”, and that consumers are indeed simply buying to fill real demand. With Brent prices having nearly reached our $75/bbl target, we fear reality will dawn once again when prices stop rising.”

Forecasting, as the humorist Mark Twain noted, “is difficult, particularly about the future”.  But hedge funds aren’t known for being long-term players.  And with refinery maintenance season coming up in March, when oil demand takes a seasonal dip, it would be no surprise if they start to sell off some of their 1.4bn barrels.

No doubt many will also go short again, whilst going long the US$, as they did up to June.

In turn, “apparent demand” will then go into a decline as companies destock all down the value chain, and the US$ will rally again.  By Q3, current optimism over the “synchronised global recovery” will have disappeared.  And Stanley Fischer’s insight will have been proved right, once again.

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