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richard_woolnough_100

The lesson the Japanese economy has for the developed world

One of the most commonly reported themes in financial markets today is the fear of disinflation/deflation, and how monetary authorities need to take economic action to avoid becoming the “next Japan”. In February I commented on the fact that the fear of disinflation and deflation is not as logically straight forward as you may think. I think the common assumption that developed economies do not want to end up like Japan is also worth investigating.

Japan is commonly seen as the modern poster child of ineffective monetary and government policy. The policy errors of the Japanese authorities in the 1990s are seen as having resulted in a depressed economy that has stood still over the last 25 years. This view has partly come about as financial markets often simply judge an economy by observing how its equity market performs. Given the crash in the Nikkei from over 40,000 in the early 1990s to around 16,000 today, equity market performance as a measure of Japanese economic health has become engrained in the market’s psyche.

In reality the strength of economies should be measured by their economic output and not equity market performance. In this regard, at first glance the national data bear out that Japan has lagged most countries in terms of nominal and real economic growth.

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The simple measures of nominal and real GDP are often regurgitated as to why we do not want to end up like Japan. But from an economist’s point of view, what matters most is GDP per head. The fact that one country grows more than another is not to be celebrated economically if it is in fact engendered solely by an increase in population.

Below is a chart of real GDP per capita. It shows that Japan has not been an economic failure from a local point of view. Rather, the Japanese economic experience has actually been quite positive in terms of increasing living standards for the average Japanese citizen over the last 25 years.

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However the chart above shows Japan still lagging; no wonder economists still fear a Japanese outcome. Nevertheless I believe that a truer measure of GDP should not only be correlated to the number of people in its national boundaries, but should be seen in the context of the shifting function of the long term demographics of the population. A country with a baby boom will experience strong GDP in the boom, and weaker GDP at the end of a population bulge. Workers retire; consumption and investment fall. In order to take into account the true GDP per head, one has to put this into context, by looking at the size of the working population, not just the size of the actual population. Below we chart GDP per head of working population. This adjustment allows a fairer reflection of GDP per head, with the Japanese situation improving on a relative basis again.

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What lessons can we learn from Japan ? Firstly it is not as bad as it looks given the true potential GDP per head of population. In fact monetary and fiscal policy has worked in Japan. Low inflation and the zero bound of monetary policy is something we and policy makers naturally fear. Maybe we fear it too much based on simple analysis of headline numbers.

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jim_leaviss_100

The Signal and the Noise – why local weather forecasters get it wrong, and what it means for those big market calls

I’ve finally got round to reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. It’s a brilliant analysis of why forecasts are often so poor, from the man who called every state correctly in the 2012 US presidential election. In short, predictions are often poor because they are too precise (asserting an absolute outcome rather than assigning probabilities to outcomes); there’s often a bias to overweight qualitative information, gut feel and anecdote over data (these shouldn’t be ignored but must have a high hurdle to overrule the statistics); and there’s also a bias to ignore out of sample data (he suggests that the rating agencies mis-rated CDOs based on MBS because they assumed no correlation between housing defaults, which was indeed the case in the 25 or so years of US data that was used in the models. Japan’s property crisis statistics would have shown that in a downturn the degree of correlation in defaults becomes extremely high). I’d like to propose a deal though – we Brits agree never to use cricket statistics in any academic paper so long as Americans shut up about baseball. What the hell is hitting .300? How many rounders is that?

I liked these charts. The first shows just how good weather forecasting is nowadays. We can’t get the outcome right every time, but we can now call the probability of a weather event occurring right with the same probability of it happening. For example, when the US National Weather Service says that there is a 70% chance of rain, it rains 70% of the time. It snows 20% of the time when they say there is a 20% chance of snow.

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But when your local TV weatherman gets hold of this same information, he or she distorted that information such that the outcomes were far worse than those of the National Weather Service’s forecasts. The chart below shows that local TV weatherpeople over-predicted weather events consistently. For example, if they say that there is a 100% chance of rain, it rains just 67% of the time, compared with the National Weather Service which if it says there is 100% chance of rain, it always rains.

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Why? “Presentation takes precedence over accuracy”. In other words local TV news and weather people believe themselves to be entertainers as much as bearers of information. A firm prediction of a biblical rainstorm is more exciting that a range of probable outcomes, and a forecast for a scorching beach day more fun than assigning a 75% chance of sunny intervals. In other studies it was shown that political analysts on panel shows performed extremely badly, systematically predicting outcomes way out of line with statistical polling. The very act of being on TV reduces one’s forecasting ability. I think there is a likelihood that this is also true of economic and market forecasting, which is why market TV channels are full of people either calling for the Dow to soar another 200%, or for the global economy to collapse into a permanent ebola fuelled zombie apocalypse. There’s a danger that when we get phoned by journalists for comment we feel the need to be significantly away from the consensus, on payrolls, on the year end 10 year Treasury yield, on the chances of the Eurozone breaking up – and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this too in the past. What’s more I’m sure that those who forecast extreme events end up being boxed into a corner where they feel they have to implement those views within portfolios, and end up with portfolios which point only in the direction of tail events and can’t perform in normal economic circumstances. I think this is a must read book for economists and fund managers to help us understand how good forecasts are made, and that the “loudest” forecasts get disproportionate airtime – and are often wrong. Silver has bowled a wicket maiden with this one.

anthony_doyle_100

“Global greying” could mean getting used to ultra-low bond yields

The developed world is going through an unprecedented demographic change – “global greying”. This change is having a massive impact on asset prices and resources as populations around the world get older and live longer. It is also having an impact on the effectiveness of monetary policy. We would typically expect older populations to be less sensitive to interest rate changes as they are largely creditors. Younger populations will generally accumulate debt as they set themselves up in life and are therefore more interest rate sensitive. The impact of demographics implies that to generate the same impact on growth and inflation, interest rate changes will need to become larger in older societies relative to younger societies.

Turning to the impact of demographics on inflation, labour force growth may provide some insight into the potential path of future inflation or at least give us some guide as to the long-term structural impact of an aging population on inflation dynamics. The theory is that a large, young generation is less productive than a smaller, older generation. As the large, young generation enters into the economy after leaving school/university the fall in productivity causes costs to rise and therefore inflation increases. Additionally, the younger generation is consumption and debt hungry as they start a family and buy homes. Eventually, the investment in the younger generation comes good and there is a large increase in productivity due to technological change and innovation. As consumers become savers, inflationary pressures in the economy start to subside.

The long-term interplay between US labour force growth and inflation is shown below. Inflation lags labour force growth by around two years as it takes some time for the economy to begin to benefit from productivity gains. As US labour force growth rises and falls over time, inflation generally follows a similar trend.

The long-term relationship between US labour force growth and inflation

The second chart looks at the same economic indicators, this time looking at 10 year growth in the labour force against inflation. Interestingly, this chart seems to show that the baby boomers entered into the workforce around the same time as the global economy experienced a supply-side oil price shock. The influx of new workers into the US economy is likely to have contributed to the great inflation of the 1970s. For the next thirty years or so, inflation fell as the economy enjoyed the technological advantages and productivity gains generated by the baby boomers. Looking forward, it appears that long-term deteriorating labour force growth may contribute to deflationary pressures within the US economy.

10 year US labour force growth and inflation

I am not saying that demographics are the only reason that inflation has fallen in recent years. The massive accumulation of private and public sector debt, globalisation and technological change are also secular trends worth monitoring. Rather I believe “global greying” and the impact of demographics on inflation and the real economy is an additional secular trend worth monitoring. Can central banks do anything in the face of this great generational shift should deflation become a reality? Interest rates are at record lows, quantitative easing has been implemented and we are yet to see the large impact on inflation that many economists expected.

Lower interest rates and the yield-dampening forces that exist in the global economy is a topic I previously covered here. In terms of bond markets, deflationary pressures are a “yield-dampener” and another reason why bond yields could remain low for some time and fall further from current levels over the longer-term.

 

Ana_Gil_100

Are wages at the tipping point in the US labour market?

Five years into the US recovery, the labour market is quickly returning to full health. Hiring activity is picking up, employers have added a robust 1.3 million jobs over the past 6 months and the unemployment rate is rapidly approaching a level that could prompt the Fed to start thinking about raising interest rates.  All labour market indicators seem to have improved except for the one that workers should care most about: wages.

Indeed wage inflation has been the key missing piece of the recovery puzzle, and the lack of it appears somehow contradictory in the context of a rapidly improving economy. A valid reason could be that wages are widely known to be a pro-cyclical lagging indicator. An alternative, as Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen recently pointed out, is that wages didn’t quite adjust enough during the deep recession and will only rise once employers catch up for the “overpayments”.

As the US economic recovery marches on and corporates continue strengthening, the labour market could soon see wage growth begin to accelerate. Economic history has always been a great place to search for clues to future economic performance with the added benefit of hindsight. A look into 30 years’ worth of US labour market data reveals an interesting relationship between headline unemployment and wages, measured by hourly earnings of all employees on private nonfarm payrolls. As is shown in the chart below, wages seem to have historically accelerated whenever the US unemployment rate has touched, or come close to, a 6% level. History may not repeat itself, but it could well rhyme.

Wages seem to have historically accelerated as the unemployment rate has approached a 6% level

With unemployment sinking to 6.1% and nominal wages heading upwards, the US economy could be approaching full employment faster than the Fed may think. What unemployment rate is consistent with full employment is a subject very much open to debate. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) estimates the current non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment(NAIRU i.e. the level unemployment can fall to without causing capacity problems and demand pull inflation) to be at around 5.4% with concerns around labour underutilisation, but rising wages would suggest it is higher.

A further sign of emerging wage pressure can be found in the forward-looking National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) compensation plans index, which is best known for anticipating wage increases to small businesses over the next 12 months. This index seems particularly relevant given SMEs (i.e. those with fewer than 500 employees) are the true backbone of the American economy– responsible for creating two out of three net new jobs. The chart below shows the NFIB index has been gaining momentum over the past year and is now at levels last seen prior to the recession.

Uptrend in companies planning to raise compensation

The most recent Job Openings and Labour Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report conducted by the Labour Department shows job vacancies have risen back to pre-crisis levels as a high percentage of employers are having trouble finding skilled workers. To attract the needed candidates, employers are having to raise compensation. Interestingly, comparing the NFIB index with lagged earnings data reveals a strong correlation over time. With the number of firms expecting to raise compensation on a strong upward trend, wages are likely to follow through.

As the labour market continues to tighten, it will not be surprising to see further wage growth build up. Most wage measures (including the widely followed Employment Cost Index and Unit labour costs) are on a clear uptrend today which is likely to continue unless economic growth slows or we were to see a sudden leap in productivity. Back in 1994, when the Fed had just started a series of aggressive rate hikes, US wage growth was only 2.4% YoY. Today, wage growth is 2.5%. Yet, Fed speakers have argued some slack remains in the labour market, hence the need to maintain a very patient policy stance – but could the prospect of rising wages in an economy rapidly approaching full employment be the tipping point that prompts the Fed to change rhetoric?

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mike_riddell_100

The Great British Austerity Myth

On the right is UK Chancellor George Osborne, the austerity axeman.  On the left was opposition leader Ed Miliband, the fiscal freedom fighter.  But it now appears that Miliband and co are so alarmed that Cameron and Osborne are better trusted by the electorate to run the now booming UK economy that they are quietly embracing Tory austerity. The Liberal Democrats have accused the Tories of pursuing austerity for austerity’s sake, but are still targeting eliminating the budget deficit in the next three to four years.  That essentially leaves the Scottish National Party, which is urging Scots to vote for independence so that Scotland can ”escape Westminster’s austerity agenda”.

The problem with all this austerity posturing is that it’s built on a completely phoney premise. As confirmed by data released today, there hasn’t been any UK austerity, at least not for a couple of years.  Indeed, that probably goes a long way to explaining why the IMF predicts that the UK will have the fastest growing economy in the developed world this year.

The chart below puts the UK’s budget balance into international context.  The US has seen immense fiscal consolidation, which was a major drag on growth in 2011-2013 but which will substantially fall hereafter, and is one of a number of reasons why we’re US economy bulls.  Eurozone fiscal consolidation was enforced by markets to an extent, although the Eurozone as a whole -  as per the US – is currently running a budget deficit akin to levels seen in 2004-05.  And Germany, a country under zero pressure from markets, expects to balance its budget this year. The UK economy grew almost three times faster than Germany’s in the year to Q2, and yet its deficit remains huge by historical standards.

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The primary reason for the UK’s unfrugal fiscal policy is an inability to cut back on government spending.  It’s not just overspending, however. Tax revenues in the first four months of this tax year are 1.9% below where they were in July 2013, and that’s in nominal terms, let alone real terms.  The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will be able to provide more detail on this when they release their summary later today. It’s likely that part of this is due to the front loading of receipts last year, thus making like for like comparisons tricky, and the OBR will probably forecast a pick up in receipts towards the end of this year.

The chart below illustrates how government spending in the UK has increased every single year.

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An addiction to spending combined with weak tax revenue growth means that the Public Sector Net Borrowing figures are going nowhere fast. In the four months to July, Public Sector Net Borrowing (ex financial interventions) was actually higher than in 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14.  Again, the OBR will have more to say about this later, but there’s no denying that the UK’s government finances make grim reading.

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Now all that said, I’m not suggesting that the UK government should necessarily adopt tighter fiscal policy.  While current fiscal policies aren’t sustainable in the long term, loose fiscal policy has recently been successful in generating strong economic growth, and more importantly it appears to have helped encourage the private sector to finally start investing.  Furthermore, you would traditionally expect countries that run sustained loose fiscal policy to have relatively steep yield curves, but the opposite is true in the UK at the moment, with some longer forward yields close to record lows.  In other words, the markets don’t care – yet – and a good argument can be made for the government to fund some much-needed and ultimately productive UK infrastructure investment. All I’m saying is that the UK electorate deserves a lot more honesty in the debate.

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French government should push for further tax and labour market reforms

France has a unique social model. It originates from the end of the Second World War, when the National Council of the Resistance (NCR) hastily put together a plan to rebuild the country after five years of Nazi occupation. Despite not having any official political affiliations, the NCR was in fact influenced by left wing individuals and the “National Front”, a communist party. The NCR’s “action plan” helped shape France in the aftermath of the war and is one of the reasons today that trade unions have such a prominent position in society and why the French are so fond of their “established social rights”.

Since then, reforming France has always been a difficult task. Given that it was announced last week that the country has experienced a second consecutive quarter of no growth, it seems obvious that some sort of change is urgently required. France has grown by only 0.1% in the past year. Despite extremely low interest rates and fiscal tightening, the government’s budget remains in structural deficit and the debt to GDP ratio has increased from 77% to 93%. More worryingly, despite French President Hollande’s very vocal claim that he would “invert the unemployment curve” by the end of 2013, the number of job seekers continues to rise at an alarming rate, hampering consumer confidence and business spending.

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So what can the Hollande government do in a country that is difficult to reform and where scope for public spending is limited?

First of all he should aim to simplify France’s highly complex tax regime, which over the years has become almost illegible. This toing-and-froing over taxes continues to hurt the French economy by creating uncertainty and hampering business investment. In the last 2 years alone, French legislators have created 84 new taxes, for a total of €60 billion Euros.

Second, the government must reduce the burden of social security contributions on the business sector. Today, France spends 17% of its GDP in social contribution taxes, the highest amount out of all of the 28 EU countries. While many people in the country believe that this is the price to pay to finance France’s generous welfare system, its financing relies too heavily on businesses.  In the rest of Europe the burden of social security payments is shared on average equally between employers and employees. In France, almost 70% of these payments are paid by employers. This has a direct effect on the cost of labour and diminishes companies’ abilities to compete in an increasingly globalised world. The French government has started to address this issue by granting a €20 billion tax credit (CICE) to all French businesses, but much more needs to be accomplished. Indeed, in order to put France on equal footing with its neighbour Germany, employer social security contributions would need to be reduced by a further €80 billion per year.

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Finally, the government should also tackle the excessive bureaucracy in the labour market. For example, many small firms today refuse to grow beyond the threshold of 50 employees because exceeding this number triggers a raft of regulatory and legal obligations. It would make sense to push this threshold to 250 employees, and bring France in line with the European norm. The French Labour Code is 3500 pages long and weighs 1.5 kilo, while the Swiss Code, where unemployment is 3% rate, is 130 pages and weighs 150 grams (anecdotally comparing unemployment rates with the number of pages of labour codes for different countries could be the subject of a future blog).  This excessive bureaucracy is partially the reason why France’s competitiveness has been declining in recent years. In its latest Global Competitiveness report, the World Economic Forum ranked France 23rd overall, but 21st in 2013 and 18th in 2012. More alarmingly, the country is ranked 116th for “labour market efficiency” (out of a total of 148 countries), 135th for “cooperation in Labour-employer relations” and 144th in “hiring and firing practices”. When asked what the most problematic factor for doing business in the country, the number 1 answer provided by respondents was “restrictive labour regulations”.

As France teeters on the brink of recession, Hollande is today in a very difficult position. A complete overhaul of the French social model would create much civil unrest and probably push the country into recession. On the other hand, doing nothing is likely to have the same effect as France would continue to lose competitiveness on a global scale. In a recent study published by “Le Monde”, 60% of respondents said they were “satisfied” with the French social model, but 64% also declared that the model should be at least partially reformed. The French government should use this as a sign that it can make some adjustments to the French tax system and labour markets, without jeopardising its chance of being re-elected in two years. With its popularity at an all-time low and unemployment at an all-time high, there is no more time to waste.

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anthony_doyle_100

What could possibly derail the global economy?

Things are looking pretty good for the global economy right now. The U.S. Federal Reserve is slowly reducing quantitative easing, China is continuing to grow at a relatively rapid pace, the Bank of England is talking about rate hikes, and the central banks of Japan and Europe continue to stimulate their respective economies with unconventional and super-easy monetary policy. The International Monetary Fund expects growth in the developed economies to pick-up from a 0.5% low in 2012 to almost 2.5% by 2015, while emerging market economies are expected to grow by 5.5%.

Of course, it is notoriously difficult to forecast economic growth given the complexity of the underlying economy. There are simply too many moving parts to predict accurately. This is why central banking is sometimes described as similar to “driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror

With this in mind, it is prudent to prepare for a range of possible outcomes when it comes to economic growth. Given the consensus seems pretty optimistic at the moment, we thought it might be interesting to focus on some of the possible downside risks to global economic growth and highlight three catalysts that could cause a recession in the next couple of years. To be clear, there are an infinite range of unforeseen events that could possibly occur, but the below three seem plausibly the most likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

Risk 1: Asset price correction

Every investor is a winner

There is no question that ultra-easy monetary policy has stimulated asset prices to some degree. A combination of low interest rates and quantitative easing programmes has resulted in fantastic returns for investors in various markets ranging from bonds, to equities, to housing. Investors have been encouraged by central banks to put their cash and savings to work in order to generate a positive real return and have invested in a range of assets, resulting in higher prices. The question is whether prices have risen by too much.

This process is likely to continue until there is some event that means returns on assets will be lower in the future. Another possibility is that a central bank may be forced to restrict the supply of credit because of fears that the economy, or even a market, is overheating. An example of this is the news that the Bank of England is considering macro-prudential measures in response to the large price increases in the UK property market.

In addition, there is a surprising lack of volatility in investment markets at the moment, indicating that the markets aren’t particularly concerned about the current economic outlook. Using the Chicago Board Options Exchange OEX Volatility Index, also known as the old VIX (a barometer of U.S. equity market volatility) as an example shows that markets may have become too complacent. Two days ago, the index fell to 8.86 which is the lowest value for this index since calculations started in 1986. Previous low values occurred in late 1993 (a few months before the famous bond market sell-off of 1994) and mid-2007 (we all remember what happened in 2008). The lack of volatility has been something that several central banks have pointed out, including the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. The problem is, it is the central banks that have contributed most to the current benign environment with their forward guidance experiment, which has made investors relaxed about future monetary policy action.

If these events were to occur, we could see a re-pricing of assets. Banks suffer as loans have been given based on collateral that has been valued at overinflated prices. A large impact in currency markets is likely, as investors become risk averse and start to redeem assets. These events could spill over to the real economy and could therefore result in a recession.

Risk 2: Resource price shock

Energy prices could hamper economic growth

It appears that the global economy may be entering a renewed phase of increased volatility in real food and fuel prices. This reflects a number of factors, including climate change, increasing biofuel production, geopolitical events, and changing food demand patterns in countries like China and India. There may also be some impact from leveraged trading in commodities. There are plenty of reasons to believe that global food price shocks are likely to become more rather than less common in the future.

As we saw in 2008, these shocks can be destabilising, both economically and politically. In fact, you could argue that the Great Financial Crisis was caused by the spike in commodity prices in 2007-08, and the impact on the global economy was so severe because high levels of leverage made the global economy exceptionally vulnerable to external shocks. Indeed, each of the last five major downturns in global economic activity has been immediately preceded by a major spike in oil prices (as the FT has previously pointed out here). Commodity price spikes impact both developed and developing countries alike, with low-income earners suffering more as they spend a greater proportion of their income on food and fuel. There is also a large impact on inflation as prices rise.

A resource price shock raises a number of questions. How should monetary and fiscal policy respond? Will central banks focus on core inflation measures and ignore higher fuel and food prices? Will consumers tighten their belts, thereby causing economic growth to fall? Will workers demand higher wages to compensate for rising inflation?

Risk 3: Protectionism

After decades of increased trade liberalisation, since the financial crisis the majority of trade measures have been restrictive. The World Trade Organisation recently reported that G-20 members put in place 122 new trade restrictions from mid-November 2013 to mid-May 2014. 1,185 trade restrictions have been implemented since October 2008 which covers around 4.1% of world merchandise imports.  Some macro prudential measures could even be considered a form of protectionism (for example, Brazil’s financial transactions tax (IOF) which was designed to limit capital inflows and weaken the Brazilian currency).

If this trend is not reversed, trade protectionism – and currency wars – could begin to hamper economic growth. Small, open economies like Hong Kong and Singapore would be greatly impacted. Developing nations would also be affected due to their reliance on exports as a driver of economic growth.

Many economists blame trade protectionism for deepening, spreading and lengthening the great Depression of the 1930s. Should the global economy stagnate, political leaders may face growing pressure to implement protectionist measures in order to protect industries and jobs. Policymakers will need to be careful to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Economic forecasting is a tricky business. It is important that investors are aware of these risks that may or may not eventuate, and plan accordingly. The outlook may not be as rosy as the consensus thinks it is.

Claudia_Calich_100

Playing Russian roulette

The Russia and Ukraine geopolitical tensions have driven their asset prices since February. As the below research courtesy of BofA Merrill Lynch shows, investors’ base case scenario is that a major escalation of the conflict, in the form of a direct Russian invasion of parts of Eastern Ukraine, is unlikely. The possibility of an invasion seems analogous to Russian roulette, a low probability but high impact game.

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I just returned from a trip to Moscow. You would not know there is the possibility of a war going on next door by walking around the city, if you didn’t turn to the news. Its picture perfect spring blue skies were in stark contrast to the dark clouds looming over the economy.

The transmission mechanism of the political impact into the economy is fairly predictable:

  1. Political-related risk premia and volatility remaining elevated, translating into weakening pressure on the ruble;
  2. Pressure for higher rates as the ruble weakens (the CBR has already hiked rates by 200 bps, including the unexpected 50bps hike last week, but more will be needed if demand for hard currency remains at the Q1 2014 level and pressure on the currency increases further);
  3. Downside pressure on growth as investment declines and through the impact of sanctions or expectation of additional sanctions (through higher cost of capital);
  4. Downward pressures on international reserves as the capital account deteriorates and CBR smoothens the currency move;
  5. Decline of the oil reserve fund should it be used for counter-cyclical fiscal purposes or refinancing of maturing debt (the $90 billion fund could theoretically cover one year of amortizations, but in that case, capital flight and dollarization would escalate further as the risk perception deteriorates).

All these elements are credit negative and it is not a surprise that S&P downgraded Russia’s rating to BBB-, while keeping it on a negative outlook. What is less predictable, however, is the magnitude of the deterioration of each of these elements, which will be determined by political events and the extent of economic sanctions.

My impression was that the locals’ perception of the geopolitical risks was not materially different from the foreigners’ perception shown above – i.e. that a major escalation in the confrontation remains a tail risk. The truth is, there is a high degree of subjectivity in these numbers and an over-reaction from either side (Russia, Ukraine, the West) can escalate this fluid situation fairly quickly. The locals are taking precautionary measures, including channelling savings into hard currency (either onshore or offshore), some pre-emptive stocking of non-perishable consumer goods, considering alternative solutions should financial sanctions escalate – including creating an alternative payment system and evaluating redirecting trade into other currencies, to the extent it can. Locals believe that capital flight peaked in Q1, assuming that the geopolitical situation stabilizes. Additional escalations could occur around 1st and 9th of May (Victory Day), as well as around the Ukrainian elections on 25th of May.

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The table below assigns various CDS spread levels for each of the scenarios, with the probabilities given per the earlier survey. The weighted probability average is still wider than current levels, though we have corrected by a fair amount last week. I used CDS only as it is the best proxy hedge for the quasi-sovereign and corporate risk. Also, the ruble would be heavily controlled by the CBR should risk premia increase further, and may not work as an optimal hedge for a while, while liquidity on local bonds and swaps would suffer should the sanctions directly target key Russian banks.

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The risk-reward trade-off appears skewed to the downside in the near term.

richard_woolnough_100

The UK electoral cycle is alive and kicking

Yesterday’s UK Budget had one major surprise, the relaxation of rules regarding drawing down your pension. This means that from April 2015 you can draw down your pension pot in one go, to do with it as you wish. This policy move chimes with the coalition’s beliefs that one should take responsibility over one’s own finances. However, like all political decisions there may well be an ulterior motive behind the timing of this decision.

We talked previously about why a dovish central banker appointment at the Bank of England was politically expedient two years ahead of the May 2015 election. The current government had its last opportunity yesterday to add a last feel-good give away Budget to enhance the economy and its own electoral prospects. At first glance, what has it achieved with its surprise change in pension policy?

It has potentially released a huge wave of spending commencing April 2015. This will obviously make people feel wealthy as the cash literally becomes theirs as opposed to being locked away for a rainy day. The economic effect looks as though it would be too late to boost the economy ahead of the 2015 general election. However it is highly likely that the forthcoming pension pot release will be taken into account. Holidays would be booked ahead of the windfall, cars could be purchased, redecorating done, and Christmas presents bought as the promise of money tomorrow means you can run down saving and consume today. This pension release scheme will spur growth in the UK ahead of the election.

The particular neat trick of this policy change is that it is a giveaway Budget measure at no cost. This is because it is not the government giving away money, but it is simply giving people access to their own money. Fiscal stimulus at no cost, combined with low rates and a strong government sponsored housing market means the UK will continue to have a relatively strong economy.

anthony_doyle_100

Europe’s debt/GDP levels are worse today than during the Euro crisis. So why are bond yields falling?

Two and a half years ago, there was a real fear in the marketplace that the euro would not survive. It appeared unlikely that Greece would be able to remain in the Eurozone and that some of the larger distressed economies like Italy and Spain may follow them out. High levels of government debt, unemployment and a banking system creaking under all this pressure did not bode well for the future. The mere possibility of a Eurozone nation leaving triggered massive volatility in asset markets from government bonds to equities, as investors grappled with the consequences of such an event occurring.

Of course, the bearish forecast for Europe did not eventuate. Perceptions had shifted significantly from the darkest days of the euro crisis. Politicians and central bankers have shown significant determination in keeping the euro intact, despite often only acting at the darkest hour. In markets, confidence returned after ECB President Mario Draghi’s now famous “whatever it takes” comment and it had a real effect on government bond yields with spreads over German bunds collapsing across the Eurozone.

Unfortunately for European government bond investors, the Eurozone could re-emerge as a source of risk. The reason is, since 2011 European government and economic fundamentals have generally gotten worse and not better.

2014-02 blog

When we look at the above table – which measure fundamental indicators like total investment, the unemployment rate and gross levels of government debt to GDP from 2011 and compares it to now – we can see a lot more red (which indicates a deterioration) than green (which indicates an improvement). Yet what is striking is that apart from Germany and the Netherlands who have seen their 10 year government bond yields increase slightly, all other European nations have seen their yields fall. This is not what we would expect to see given that various metrics like GDP, the unemployment rate, output gap and government debt to GDP are actually worse now than they were at the height of the Eurozone crisis.

I can see three main reasons why yields have fallen across the Eurozone despite a worsening in the economic statistics. The first is that confidence has returned and the credit risk premium demanded by bond investors has fallen. Investors in European bonds now believe that default risk has fallen from the dark days of 2011, despite a general worsening in conditions which would imply higher – and not lower – default risk. When Draghi said the ECB would do “whatever it takes”, the market believed him.

Secondly, the inflation risk premium that investors demand has collapsed as Eurozone inflation has collapsed. Low inflation in the Eurozone is largely the result of painful internal devaluation, high unemployment and government austerity. Countries like Ireland, Portugal and Greece are feeling this the most, having experienced deflation over the last couple of years. As we can see in the table, austerity has meant that budget deficits have improved across the Eurozone, but this has also resulted in deflationary forces becoming more pronounced. Lower European inflation means higher real yields, and this has contributed to nominal yields falling or remaining low in Eurozone government bonds. However, the danger for the periphery is that lower inflation implies lower nominal growth rates, and this means even greater pressure on the Eurozone periphery’s huge debt burdens. Markets should react to lower nominal growth rates by questioning these counties’ solvency, pushing bond yields higher.

Thirdly, the other main reason that peripheral yields have converged is that there are genuine signs of rebalancing, as indicated by improving current account balances and falling unit labour costs. The majority of Eurozone nations are now running a current account surplus, including Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Despite being locked into the single exchange rate which is arguably way too high for these countries, global competitiveness has improved and exports have increased.

There are good reasons the euro will survive. However, it is important to question whether the market is charging a high enough credit risk premium given the challenges that continue to face the Eurozone. Increasingly, bond investors need to assess the risks of deflation in Europe as well. Arguably a lot of good news is priced in to government bond markets at the moment, and we remain hesitant to lend to those European countries displaying weaker financial metrics at this point in the cycle. With the IMF recently finding “no evidence of any particular debt threshold above which medium-term growth prospects are dramatically compromised”, it suggests that there are many more important things to bond investors than the public debt/GDP ratio (like credit growth, labour markets and inflation). Public debt/GDP ratios are what investors have been fixated on since the financial crisis, but they are a lazy and incomplete way of assessing the risks in government bond markets.

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