Resilience amidst headwinds is key for H2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

Chemical output signals trouble for global economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blog’s 11th birthday – and a look forward to 2021

The blog has now been running for 11 years since the first post was written from Thailand at the end of June 2007.  And quite a lot has happened since then:

Sadly, although central banks and commentators have since begun to reference the impact of demographics on the economy, they have not changed their basic belief that the right combination of tax and spending policies can always create growth.

As a result, the world has become a much more complex and confusing place.  None of us can be sure what will happen over the next 12 months, given today’s rising geo-political tensions.

In times of short-term uncertainly, it can be useful to take a longer-term view.  It is therefore perhaps helpful to look back at Chapter 4 of Boom, Gloom, which gave Our 10 predictions for how the world would look from 2021: 

  • “A major shake-out will have occurred in Western consumer markets.
  • Consumers will look for value-for-money and sustainable solutions.
  • Young and old will focus on ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’.
  • Housing will no longer be seen as an investment.
  • Investors will focus on ‘return of capital’ rather than ‘return on capital’.
  • The term ‘middle-class’ when used in emerging economies will be recognised as having no relevance to Western income levels.
  • Trade patterns and markets will have become more regional.
  • Western countries will have increased the retirement age beyond 65 to reduce unsustainable pension liabilities.
  • Taxation will have been increased to tackle the public debt issue.
  • Social unrest will have become a more regular part of the landscape.

“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.”

Most of these forecasts are now well on the way to becoming reality, and the pace of change is accelerating all the time.  It may therefore be helpful to include them in your planning processes for the 2019 – 2021 period, to test how your business (and your personal life) might be impacted if they become real.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT OVER THE PAST 11 YEARS
It is a great privilege to write the blog, and to be able to meet many readers at speaking events and conferences around the world.   Thank you for all your support.

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China’s lending bubble is history

As China’s shadow banking is reined in, the impact on the global economy is already clear, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

China’s shadow banking sector has been a major source of speculative lending to the global economy. But 2018 has seen it entering its end-game, as our first chart shows, collapsing by 64% in renminbi terms in January to April from the same period last year (by $274bn in dollar terms).

The start of the year is usually a peak period for lending, with banks getting new quotas for the year.

The downturn was also noteworthy as it marked the end of China’s lending bubble, which began in 2009 after the financial crisis. Before then, China’s total social financing (TSF), which includes official and shadow lending, had averaged 2 times gross domestic product in the period from 2002 to 2008. But between 2009 and 2013, it jumped to 3.2 times GDP as China’s stimulus programme took off.

It is no accident, for example, that China’s Tier 1 cities boast some of the highest house price-to-earnings ratios in the world or, indeed, that Chinese buyers have dominated key areas of the global property market in recent years.

The picture began to change with the start of President Xi Jinping’s first term in 2013, as our second chart confirms. Shadow banking’s share of TSF has since fallen from nearly 50% to just 15% by April, almost back to the 8% level of 2002. TSF had already slowed to 2.4 times GDP in 2014 to 2017.

The start of Mr Xi’s second term has seen him in effect take charge of the economy through the mechanism of his central leading groups. He has also been able to place his supporters in key positions to help ensure alignment as the policy changes are rolled out.

This year’s lending data are therefore likely to set a precedent for the future, rather than being a one-off blip. Although some of the shadow lending was reabsorbed in the official sector, TSF actually fell 14% ($110bn) in the first four months of the year. Already the economy is noticing the impact. Auto sales, for example, which at the height of the stimulus programme grew more than 50% in 2009 and by a third in 2010, have seen just 3% growth so far this year.

The downturn also confirms the importance of Mr Xi’s decision to make “financial deleveraging” the first of his promised “three tough battles” to secure China’s goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020, as we discussed in February.

It maps on to the IMF’s warning in its latest Global Stability Financial Report that:

In China, regulators have taken a number of steps to reduce risks in the financial system. Despite these efforts, however, vulnerabilities remain elevated. The use of leverage and liquidity transformation in risky investment products remains widespread, with risks residing in opaque corners of the financial system.”

The problems relate to the close linkage between China’s Rmb250tn ($40tn) banking sector and the shadow banks, through its exposure to the Rmb75tn off-balance-sheet investment vehicles. The recent decision to create a new Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission is another sign of the changes under way, as this will eliminate the previous opportunity for arbitrage created by the existence of separate standards in the banking and insurance industries for the same activity, such as leasing.

As the IMF’s chart below highlights, lightly regulated vehicles have played a critical role in China’s credit boom. Banks, for example, have been able to use the shadow sector to repackage high-risk credit investments as low-risk retail savings products, which are then made available in turn to consumers at the touch of their smartphone button. This development has heightened liquidity risks among the small and medium-sized banks, whose reliance on short-term non-deposit funding remains high. The IMF notes, for example, that “more than 80% of outstanding wealth management products are billed as low risk”.

Mr Xi clearly knows he faces a tough battle to rein-in leverage, given the creativity that has been shown by the banks in ramping up their lending over the past decade. The stimulus programme has also created its own supporters in the construction and related industries, as large amounts of cash have been washing around China’s property markets, and finding its way into overseas markets.

But Mr Xi is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao, and it would seem unwise to bet against him succeeding with his deleveraging objective, even if it does create short-term pain for the economy as shadow banking is brought back under control.

As Gabriel Wildau has reported, the official sector is already under pressure from Beijing to boost its capital base. Analysts are suggesting that $170bn of new capital may be required by the mid-sized banks, whilst Moody’s estimates the four megabanks may require more than double this amount by 2025 in terms of “special debt” to meet new Financial Stability Board rules.

Essentially, therefore, China’s lending bubble is now history and the tide of capital flows is reversing. It is therefore no surprise that global interest rates are now on the rise, with the US 10-year rate breaking through 3%. Investors and companies might be well advised to prepare for some big shocks ahead. As Warren Buffett once wisely remarked, it is “only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

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

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