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.

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Video – some thoughts on emerging markets from Hong Kong and Singapore

I recently visited Hong Kong and Singapore to attend some conferences and meet clients in the region. While travelling, I put together a short video to share some of our views on Asian emerging economies and emerging markets in general.

As recently reported in Claudia’s Panoramic outlook here, following both the 2013 sell-off and the recent EMFX volatility experienced earlier this year, investors’ attitudes towards emerging markets have changed. Volatile capital flows, unsustainable growth models, a deterioration in current accounts, excessive credit growth and currency depreciation are key concerns for local and global investors. Some trends have become unsustainable and a rebalancing process has started. Emerging market economies will need to adjust to lower capital flows, with this adjustment taking place on various fronts over several years.

While adjustments take place, new opportunities present themselves. But not all emerging markets are equal. As emerging economies are on diverging paths, especially in Asia – some are deteriorating (eg China) while others are improving (eg Philippines or Sri Lanka) – asset allocation and stock selection will be key. Watch the video to find out our preferences.


anthony_doyle_100

France and Ireland – a look at the economic scorecard before the big game this weekend

The 6 Nations Rugby Championship comes to a conclusion this weekend, with three teams still in the running to win. The key game to watch will be France versus Ireland, as a French win would open the door for France or England to win. Of course, England will still have to beat the Azzuri in Rome. An Irish win would see the “boys in green” send record-breaking captain Brian O’Driscoll home to Dublin with the Championship trophy in his final game of rugby.

In the spirit of competition, here is a look at the economic scorecard for France and Ireland. Will it provide an indication of who will win Saturday’s match?

Round 1 – Real gross domestic product per capita

Slide1

Despite a large deceleration in output from the Irish between the years of 2007-2010, the Irish are still producing around €6,000 more per capita more than the French. IMF forecasts suggest that by 2018, Irish GDP per capita will be around €38,000 while the French equivalent is estimated to be around €30,000. The IMF forecasts suggest that the Irish workforce is expected to remain more efficient and productive than the French in coming years. For the entire Eurozone, the Irish currently rank second behind Luxembourg on this measure. The French are ranked seventh.

On this measure, it is a clear win for Ireland.

Round 2 – The unemployment rate

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Based on recent trends, the unemployment rates in France and Ireland appear to be converging. The Irish unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 15.1% in January 2012 to sit at 11.9% only two years later. Over the same time period, the French unemployment rate has risen from 9.9 to 10.9%. The deterioration in the labour market in France reflects the general stagnation of economic growth. In recent months, the French government has been attempting to tackle the problem of the deteriorating labour market through its active employment policies such as sponsored contracts and training positions for the unemployed.

Despite the improving unemployment rate in Ireland, and worsening unemployment rate in France, round two goes to France on account of the unemployment rate being 1% lower than Ireland. Unless France can generate better growth, it may be the case that in twelve months’ time the Irish unemployment rate is actually lower than the French equivalent. For now, it’s a French win.

Round 3 – Household saving rate

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French households have consistently saved between 15-16% of their gross disposable income over the past ten years, suggesting that there is some scope for French consumers to stimulate their economy should confidence pick-up. The Irish household saving rate has been more volatile, falling and rising as one would expect given the concerns around the economic outlook for the country. More recently, Irish households have been spending more and supporting the economic recovery. This is a tough one to call, as the fall in household savings suggests stronger economic growth in Ireland in the short-term. However, because of the potential for French consumer to spend some of their savings in the future, France wins this round.

Round 4 – Percentage of the population with tertiary education

Slide4

Since 2004 there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of the population that has attained a tertiary level of education in Ireland, with an increase from 24.9 to 35.9%. France, whilst improving, has not been able to generate the same increase and in 2013 the percentage of the population that had obtained a tertiary level of education was 28.7%. Ireland ranks number one while France is at number twelve in the EU on this key measure. There is widespread recognition that tertiary education is a major driver of economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy. Ireland’s well educated workforce has certainly assisted the economy in recovering from the financial crisis. It has become increasingly difficult for industries in the west to compete with the emerging nations in terms of manufacturing products; a flexible, highly-educated and competitive labour force is vital in our globalised world.

Ireland’s workforce looks like a winger, whereas the French workforce could be compared to a prop forward. Ireland wins this round.

Looking at measures like real GDP per capita, the unemployment rate, household savings and the level of education in the workforce for Ireland and France is interesting. It shows that Ireland appears very well positioned to generate positive economic growth over the medium term. The old way of categorising European economies as “core” or “peripheral (or worse – PIIGS)” appears no longer relevant, as “peripheral” nations have taken a lot of vital steps to become more competitive through internal devaluation and lower wages. Improved export performance has been reflected in an improvement in current account balances in recent years. Today, the French economy appears cumbersome; it is hampered with a relatively inflexible and rigid labour market and is struggling to become more competitive in a globalised economy as we previously mentioned here.

Final round – the rugby statistics

Slide5

After a 2-2 economic scorecard, the final round had to focus on the rugby itself. Unfortunately for the French, the Irish rugby team appear superior in 16 out of 20 key rugby statistics including total points, metres gained and lineouts won. The French have home advantage which is a big positive; though this will be mitigated by the emotion felt by the Irish players given it is Brian O’Driscoll’s last match.

This leaves a 3-2 economic and rugby scorecard win to Ireland over France. That said, it would take a brave pundit to discount Les Bleus, who have a habit of rising for the big occasions. If you don’t believe me, just ask any New Zealander.

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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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The Professor Michael Pettis China forecast: 3-4% real growth on average for the next decade. And that would be a good result.

Having seen one of my favourite economists, Professor Michael Pettis, present twice in the past couple of months, I thought I’d try to distil his important messages about the future of the Chinese economy. For those with more time, he also writes a blog which you can find here. The recent presentations aside, I first saw Professor Pettis at a breakout session during the World Bank-IMF meeting in Tokyo in 2012. I was in the crowd in a packed room when Pettis said that Chinese GDP growth would likely fall to an average of 4% for the next decade. Across the audience there were audible titters and even people making the “he’s crazy” thing by swirling their fingers next to their heads. Little more than a year on, and the China slowdown view is nearer to the consensus – although you’d still find it difficult to find an official sub-5% China GDP forecast over any timeframe. Pettis maintains that 3-4% average growth is China’s likely future; the IMF’s World Economic Outlook has revised down its estimate of Chinese potential growth, but only from 8.9% to 8.0%. This morning the 2013 Chinese GDP number was released, at 7.7%, the 4th year in a row now of lower annual growth rates (and even then sceptics suggest that electricity consumption data and freight analysis show that the GDP numbers are overstated in the official statistics).

Professor Pettis’s starting point is that any investment led growth model eventually comes to an end as the quick wins from early infrastructure spending and urbanisation/industrialisation fade away and profitable investment opportunities become harder to find. And this investment has to be financed somehow – and it is the household that pays. For Brazil, the first example of an “economic miracle”, the investment was financed through high income taxes. In the “East Asian” model however (and this was true in Japan’s growth phase post WW2 as well as in China today) the burden on households is less explicit than taxation. The three hidden methods of boosting investment growth at the expense of consumption growth are:

  1. An undervalued exchange rate, boosting exporting manufacturers at the expense of higher imported goods prices for consumers.
  2. Low wage growth vs productivity growth, a subsidy for employers.
  3. And most importantly, financial repression. This confiscates savings from consumers and is another subsidy for, in particular the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Pettis estimates that Chinese interest rates have at times been 8-10% below where they “should” have been.

When the supply of profitable investment starts to run out, debt starts to rise more quickly than the ability to service that debt. This leads to a Japan style debt crisis or stagnation. Some estimate that 30% of new loans issued are simply to rollover debt that would otherwise be in default, and that non-performing loans are seriously underestimated in the official data (under 1% according to the China Banking Regulatory Commision). But what about reform, as promised by the Third Plenum? President Xi Jinping appears to recognise the problems that the economy faces, and accepts the need for rebalancing towards consumption. But he has also publically recognised the vested interests in China. The interests of the political elite are aligned with infrastructure projects and the State Owned Enterprises, and this will make reform exceptionally difficult. Studies of “successful” economic development have suggested that nations that democratise quickly and fully or nations that centralise aggressively do well economically over the long term. Examples of those that do neither are Argentina and Russia. It remains unclear whether China will follow a “successful” path, because of its vested interests. As a result growth of 7-8% per year might continue to be the debt-fuelled norm – but the hangover will be much bigger (disorderly negative growth rather than 3-4% in an orderly rotation away from investment towards consumption).

What would real reform look like, in Professor Pettis’s view?

  1. Reduced investment into the SOEs, local government and real estate sectors. Increased investment in SMEs.
  2. Liberalisation of interest rates to reflect the real risks of lending.
  3. Reduction in overall Chinese debt to GDP ratio.

You can read FT Alphaville’s Third Plenum cheat sheet here. You would have to say that progress towards what Michael Pettis thinks is necessary looks pretty slow – although it does appear that there has been some upwards movement in Chinese money market rates more recently, with the average 3 month money market rate (SHIBOR) moving up from below 5% in Q3 2013 to over 5.5% now.

anthony_doyle_100

Should the Bank of England hike rates?

Many of us have become accustomed to a world of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE). Taking into account inflation, real short-term interest rates are negative in most of the developed world. Of course, these historically low interest rates were a central bank response –co-ordinated on some occasions – to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Whilst we are still waiting for the official data, it appears increasingly likely that 2013 marked the start of a synchronised recovery in the advanced economies. So is it now time for the Bank of England to consider hiking the base rate? Perhaps good – and not awesome – economic growth is more appropriate to avoid a bust down the line.

Economic theory and real world experience tells us that interest rates that are kept too low for too long will distort investment decisions and lead to excessive risk-taking. They may also result in the formation of asset price bubbles that ultimately collapse. With parts of the UK housing market (including London and the south-east) posting double-digit returns in 2013, the FTSE 100 within arm’s reach of an all-time high last seen during the tech bubble (and up over 60% since 2009), and UK non-financial corporate bond spreads 45 basis points away from 2007 lows; it is clear that ultra-low interest rates have had a great effect on both financial markets and the real economy.

At the risk of being called a party pooper, here are 5 reasons why I think we could see an interest rate hike before year end (the market is pricing in around February/March 2015), and certainly before the third quarter of 2016 (the time when the BoE think the unemployment rate will fall to 7%).

  1. Asset price bubbles are forming
  2. Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%
  3. Inflation risks should not be forgotten
  4. The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral
  5. The risk of Euro area break-up appears to have fallen

Asset prices bubbles are forming

There has been a significant run-up in UK financial assets over the course of the past five years, particularly since QE became a feature of the financial landscape. Investors in equity and bond markets alike have been enjoying the fruits of QE. Those that own financial assets have seen their net wealth increase substantially from the post-crisis lows. Consensus forecasts for 2014 suggests that most market forecasters expect another robust year for risk assets, fuelled by easy money and the search for positive real returns.

Of course, the greatest financial asset that the average UK household own is their own house. In 2011, it was estimated that around 15 million households are owner-occupied (a rate of around 65% of total households). Thus it is unsurprising that newspaper readers are usually hit with a headline about rising house prices on a daily basis. House prices, on a number of measures, have begun to accelerate again with low interest rates and tight housing supply a key contributor to the price increase. Low interest rates have given UK consumers the incentive to accumulate high levels of household debt compared to their incomes.  The average house price is now 5.4 times earnings, the highest level since July 2010 and well above the long-run average of 4.1.

UK house prices are re-accelerating and pushing higher

The Help-To-Buy scheme is contributing to the run-up in this highly leveraged and interest-rate sensitive sector (a topic I covered back in July here). By hiking the base rate this year, the BoE would hopefully achieve a reduction in speculation and debt accumulation in the housing sector. This would not be a popular action to take – it never is – but we should all be wary about the damage a rampant housing market can have on an economy.  BoE Governor Mark Carney – as head of the Financial Policy Committee – has already moved to stop the Funding for Lending Scheme and mentioned that placing restrictions on the terms of mortgage credit may be a tool that can be used to reign in house prices.

Whether macro-prudential policy tools will work or not remains open to debate. Ultimately, central banks are trying to focus in on one element of the economy by raising interest rates or restricting credit. We do have a real-life macroeconomic example currently taking place though. On October 1, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand imposed a limit on how much banks could devote to low-deposit loans and required major banks to hold more capital to back loans. It’s very early days but for the month of November, the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand reported a 1.2% increase in New Zealand house prices and 9.6% over the year. The RBNZ and BoE might find that trying to slow the housing market using macro-prudential measures is a bit like trying to stop a car by opening the doors and hoping that wind-resistance does the rest. You really need to put your foot on the brake.

The longer the boom lasts, the greater the pain when it inevitably ends.

Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%

The unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 to 7.4% over the past nine months and is a key tenet of the BoE’s forward guidance. The fast decline has seen some speculation amongst economists that the BoE may lower the unemployment threshold from 7.0 to 6.5%. Of course, the 7.0% threshold that it has set it is not a trigger to hike interest rates, rather it is a point at which the BoE would consider hiking rates. However, the labour market has improved much quicker than the BoE has been expecting with the unemployment rate now sitting at the lowest rate since March 2009. We are still well above the average unemployment rate seen during the period between 2000 and 2008, but I would argue that this was an abnormal period for the UK economy. It was a NICE period – non-inflationary, constantly expanding – and is unlikely to be repeated. Arguably the UK’s natural rate of unemployment is now a percentage point or two higher than that of the noughties, suggesting less spare capacity in the UK economy than many expect. It may not be long before we start to see wage demands start to pick up, leading to rising inflationary pressures. Higher wage growth in 2014 would bode well for consumption and household net wealth given the increase in house prices and investment portfolios.

The UK unemployment rate is below the long-run average

As it is generally accepted that monetary policy operates with a lag, (the BoE estimate a lag time of around two years), and the unemployment rate itself is a lagging indicator of economic activity. If the BoE waits until the unemployment rate hits 7%, or for confirmation that economic growth is strong, then it may be too late. A slight tap on the breaks by hiking the base rate may be appropriate.

Inflation risks should not be forgotten

Ben wrote an excellent piece on the UK’s inflation outlook last month. To quote:

Current inflation levels may seem benign. However, potential demand-side shocks coupled with a build-up in growth momentum and the difficulty of removing the huge wall of money created by QE will pose material risks to inflation in the medium term. Markets have become short-sightedly focused on the near term picture as commodity prices have weakened and inflation expectations have been tamed by the lack of growth.

In addition, central banks have a nasty habit of keeping monetary policy too loose for too long. It even has a name – “The [insert FOMC Chairperson Name] Put”. The easy-money policies of the FOMC in the 1970s are seen as a key contributor to the runaway inflation seen during the period.  Eventually, the FOMC reversed its own policies, hiking rates to 19% in 1981.

Of course, what central bankers really fear is that ultra-easy monetary policy and the great experiment of QE will lead to an increase in inflation. A return of inflation will only be tamed by hiking rates. Whilst the inflation rate has been moderating in the UK and is close to the Bank of England’s target at 2.1%, it follows almost 5 years of above target inflation. Whist it is not a clear and present danger, the experience of the 1970s suggests that we cannot ignore the threat that inflation poses to the UK economy, especially as rising inflationary expectations are often difficult to contain.

The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral

The Taylor rule provides a rough benchmark of the normal reaction to economic conditions as it relates interest rates to deviations of inflation from target and the output gap. According to the Taylor rule for the UK, a base rate of 0.5% is around 2.0% below where it should be given current rates of growth and inflation.

The BoE base rate remains highly stimulatory

Negative real interest rates have done the job by stabilising the economy, but is it now time to tap the brakes? With the UK economy growing at an annualised rate of more than 3% in the second and third quarters of 2013 (above the long-term average of 2%), the UK may be operating much closer to full employment than many currently estimate. Forward looking survey indicators and economic data suggest the UK economy is growing strongly, with business confidence at a 20 year high and the UK Services PMI for December suggesting a strong broad-based upturn. Of course, the BoE would like the other components of GDP like exports and investment to contribute more to economic growth. A rising currency wouldn’t help this. But sometimes it is difficult to have your cake and eat it too, especially if you are a central banker.

The risk of Euro area breakup appears to have fallen

Now it’s time for the “Draghi Put”. Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech is probably the most important speech ever given by a central banker. The speech has had a fantastic effect on assets from government bonds to European equity markets and everything in between. More importantly, as I wrote here back in July 2013, despite the problems that Europe faces – the concerning outlook, the record levels of unemployment and debt, the proposed tax on savers in Cyprus – no country has left the EMU. The EMU has in fact added new members (Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014). European countries remain open for trade, have continued to enforce EU policies and have not resorted to protectionist policies. EU banking regulation has become stronger, the financial system has stabilised, and new bank capital requirements are in place.

This bodes well for the UK, as stabilisation in the Eurozone suggests stronger export demand, increased confidence, and higher investment in the UK from European firms. Perversely, an interest rate hike might actually improve confidence in the UK economy, signalling that the central bank is confident that economic growth is self-sustaining.

The BoE must walk the tightrope between raising rates slightly now to avoid higher inflation and financial instability or risk having to do a lot more monetary policy “heavy-lifting” down the line. A base rate at 0.5% is way below a neutral level and the BoE has a long way to go before getting anywhere near this level. It could act this year and gradually start raising interest rates to lessen the continued build-up of financial imbalances. The difficult action in the short-run to raise the base rate will help to support “healthy” economic growth in the long-run.

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The UK’s inflation outlook – the opportunity in inflation-linked assets

With inflation numbers in the UK moving back towards target and deflationary concerns prevalent in Europe, it is worth asking ourselves whether stubbornly high prices in the UK are a thing of the past. Whilst the possibilities of sterling’s strength continuing into 2014 and of political involvement in the on-going cost of living debate could both put meaningful downside pressure on UK inflation in the short term, I continue to see a greater risk of higher inflation in the longer run.

5 years of sticky cost-push inflation

The UK has been somewhat unique amongst developed economies, in that it has experienced a period of remarkably ‘sticky’ inflation despite being embroiled in the deepest recession in living memory. Against an economic backdrop that one might expect to be more often associated with deflation, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) has remained stubbornly above the Bank of England’s 2% target.

Slide1

One of the factors behind this apparent inconsistency has been the steady increase in the costs of several key items of household expenditure, together with the recent spike in energy prices which I believe is a trend that is set to continue for many years.

Rising food prices have been another source of inflationary pressure. Although price rises have eased in recent months following this summer’s better crops, I think they will inevitably remain on an upward trend as the global population continues to expand and as global food demands change.

Sterling weakness has also contributed to higher consumer prices. Although sterling has performed strongly in recent months, it should be remembered that the currency has actually lost around 20% against both the euro and the US dollar since 2007. This has meant that the prices of many imported goods, to which the UK consumer remains heavily addicted, have risen quite significantly.

Time for demand-pull inflation?

Despite being persistently above target, weak consumer demand has at least helped to keep UK inflation relatively contained in recent years. However, given the surprising strength of the UK’s recovery, I believe we could be about to face a demand shock, to add to the existing pressures coming from higher energy and food costs.

The UK’s economic revival has been more robust than many had anticipated earlier in the year. Third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) grew at the fastest rate for three years, while October’s purchasing managers’ indices (PMIs) signalled record rates of growth and job creation. Importantly, the all-sector PMI indicated solid growth not just in services – an area where the UK tends to perform well – but also in manufacturing and construction. At the same time, the recent surge in UK house prices is likely to have a further positive impact on consumer confidence, turning this into what I believe will be a sustainable recovery.

Slide2

Central bank policy…

Central banks around the world have printed cash to the tune of US$10 trillion since 2007 in a bid to stimulate their ailing economies. This is an unprecedented monetary experiment of which no-one truly understands the long-term consequences. There has been little inflationary impact so far because the money has essentially been hoarded by the banks instead of being lent out to businesses. However, I believe there could be a significant inflationary impact when banks do begin to increase their lending activities. At this point, the transmission mechanism will be on the road to repair, and a rising money velocity will be added to the increased money supply we have borne witness to over the last 5 years. Unless the supply of money is reduced at this point, nominal output will inevitably rise.

Furthermore, I am of the view that new Bank of England governor Mark Carney is more focused than his predecessor was on getting banks to lend. His enthusiasm for schemes such as Funding for Lending (FFL), which provides cheap government loans for banks to lend to businesses, is specifically designed and targeted to fix the transmission mechanism, by encouraging banks to lend and businesses to borrow. The same is true of ‘forward guidance’, whereby the Bank commits to keep interest rates low until certain economic conditions are met.

Perhaps most importantly, I continue to believe the Bank is now primarily motivated by securing growth in the real economy and that policymakers might be prepared to tolerate a period of higher inflation: this is the key tenet to our writings on Central Bank Regime Change in the UK.

…and the difficulty of removing stimulus.

With real GDP growth of close to 3% and with inflation above 2% at the moment in the UK, a simple Taylor Rule is going to tell you that rates at 0.5% are too accommodative. But it appears that policymakers are, as we suggest above, happy to risk some temporary overheating to guarantee or sustain this recovery. We believe that this is a factor we are going to have to watch in the coming years, as the market comes to realise that it is much harder to remove easy money policies and tighten interest rates than it was to implement them and cut them.

We witnessed a clear demonstration of this with the infamous non-taper event in September: as the data improved, Bernanke had to consider reducing the rate of monthly bond purchases. However, the combination of improved data and a potential reduction in the rate of purchases saw yields rise; ultimately higher rates saw policymakers state their concerns about what these were doing to the housing market recovery, and so we got the ‘non-taper’. I believe that there are important lessons to be learned from this example, and that policymakers are going to continue to lag the economic recovery to a significant extent.

Inflation protection remains cheap

Despite these risks, index-linked gilts continue to price in only modest levels of UK inflation. UK breakeven rates indicate that the market expects the Retail Prices Index (RPI) – the measure referenced by linkers – to average just 2.7% over the next five years. However, RPI has averaged around 3.7% over the past three years and tends to be somewhat higher than the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). At these levels, I continue to think index-linked gilts appear relatively cheap to conventionals.

Furthermore, this wedge between RPI and CPI could well increase in the coming months due to the inclusion of various housing costs, such as mortgage interest payments, within the calculation of RPI. The Bank of England estimates the long-run wedge to be around 1.3 percentage points, while the Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimates between 1.3 to 1.5 percentage points . If we subtract either of these estimates from the 5-year breakeven rate (2.7%), then index-linked gilts appear to be pricing in very low levels of CPI.

Current inflation levels may seem benign. However, potential demand-side shocks coupled with a build-up in growth momentum and the difficulty of removing the huge wall of money created by QE will pose material risks to inflation in the medium term. Markets have become short-sightedly focused on the near term picture as commodity prices have weakened and inflation expectations have been tamed by the lack of growth. This has created an attractive opportunity for investors willing to take a slightly longer-term view.

A reminder to our readers that the Q4 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for the UK, European and Asian economies is due out later this week . The report will be available on the bond vigilantes blog and @inflationsurvey on twitter.

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Research trip video: Australia – the land of houses and holes

A couple of weeks ago I headed back to my hometown of Sydney, Australia. In between the barbies, the beach and a few beers, I managed to get around and film this short research video.

Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world and those that live there enjoy a very high standard of living. Growth is dominated by its service sector which makes up around 70% of GDP, whilst the total mining sector represents around 20% of GDP. With one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, a strong currency and the possibility of a China slowdown clearly on the horizon, will Australia’s economic performance over the next twenty years be as strong as the last?


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It’s Halloween so time for some spooky, if not downright scary charts

Some people will watch a scary movie on October 31st. Others like to go to costume parties and dress up. For us, there is no better way to scare ourselves silly than by reading a few IMF reports. So in the spirit of the holiday, here are five scary charts. Boo!

1. An oldie but a goodie – high public debt-to-GDP ratios

G7 Debt-to-GDP ratios remain at a scary level

Economic theory has told us for a long time that debt held by the public is what we should be looking at when trying to work out the potential impacts that high debt levels could have on an economy. This is because the borrowing associated with government debt competes for capital with investment needs in the private sector (for factories, equipment, housing, etc) and can affect interest rates. A good ol’ classic case of “crowding out” in the IS-LM model.

More recently, the market has taken its focus off looking at debt-to-GDP ratios. A 2010 research paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff was found to have computational errors, resulting in some serious question marks being raised about their finding that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 90 per cent or more is associated with significantly lower growth rates. Following this debacle, we now know that there is probably no magic threshold for the debt ratio above which countries pay a marked penalty in terms of slower economic growth.  For all it’s importance, the 60% debt-to-GDP ratio target written into the Maastricht Treaty adopted by the European Union was pretty much based on zero economic evidence.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an eye on the measure though. High government debt means a high debt servicing cost. In general, a lower debt-to-GDP ratio is preferred because of the additional flexibility it provides policymakers facing economic or financial crises.  What has now changed is that it has been acknowledged by policy makers that lowering the debt ratio comes at a cost to economic growth, requiring larger spending cuts, higher revenues, or both. Should the financial system face another wobble, for whatever reason, we would have to question the capacity of governments to step in and support their banks like they did back in 2008.

2. Deteriorating health and ageing in the developed economies

Projected increase in public health spending, 2013–30

The world’s population is growing older, leading us into uncharted demographic waters. There will be higher absolute numbers of elderly people, a larger share of the elderly, longer healthy life expectancies, and relatively fewer numbers of working-age people. We are aging due to three underlying factors: increased longevity, declining fertility and the baby boomers getting older.

This signals a profound economic and social change, with big implications for businesses and investors. Will we see an asset meltdown as the elderly sell off their assets? How will publicly funded pension systems deal with rising beneficiaries and falling contributors? How will policy makers react to a chart like the one above, which shows ever-increasing expenditure on public health as a percentage of GDP? The need for policy adaptations to an aging population will become more important in the face of retirement of the baby boomers, slowing labour force growth, and the rising costs of pension and health care systems, especially in Europe, North America, and Japan.

As a result of this key demographic change we can now reasonably expect to retire later in life, work harder as the size and quality of the workforce deteriorates, and pay higher taxes to fund those expensive medical technologies. Scary, huh?

3. Economic inequality and its impact on society

Shares of net wealth held by bottom 50% and top 10%

Income inequality is of great interest to economists due to the impact that it could potentially have on economic growth. Robert Shiller, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, said that income inequality is the most important problem that we are facing now. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett thinks that rising income inequality is a drag on US economic growth. He said in an interview with CNN Money that “the rich have come back strong from the 2008 panic, and the middle class hasn’t. That affects demand, that affects the economy. The people at the bottom end should be doing better.” Stan Druckenmiller, who spent more than a decade as chief strategist for George Soros, has described QE as causing “the biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever. Who owns assets?  The rich.”

What is really scary about this chart is the social and political ramifications that some economists have hypothesised. One theory suggests that high inequality could lead to a lower level of democracy, high rent-seeking policies, and a higher probability of revolution. An economy could fall into a vicious cycle because the breakdown of social cohesion brought about by income inequality could threaten democratic institutions.

4. A new economic world order

A new economic world order

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of China as an economic superpower, the next decade may well be characterised by the emergence of India. China and India will both expect their global influence to expand in the coming years and decades, but strong growth will not be without some headaches. Political leaders must deal with the environmental consequences, an aspirational middle class and rising social inequality. We have all felt the impact of the ascension of the developing economies through their thirst for commodities; the next phase may well see these two nations become the most influential in the world.

Markets don’t particularly like uncertainty. How they react to this new world order is anyone’s guess. This chart isn’t particularly frightening. What it does is challenge the economic status quo that many of us have become accustomed to.

5. Feeding the world

Feeding the world – per capita consumption set to increase

The global population is set to grow considerably in coming years, though there will likely be considerable differences across countries. It has been estimated that the world’s population could increase by 2 billion people to exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Of course, global agricultural production will have to increase in order to meet this demand.  If our farmers don’t manage to produce more, then we could easily find ourselves in an inflationary environment as our grocery shopping bills increase. Not only that, we have to become much smarter about using the planet’s limited resources.

Increasing farmers output won’t be easy, or without cost. Recent experience suggests that an increase in production efforts can lead to significant negative environmental effects, like pollution and soil erosion.

Increased productivity and innovation alone will not tackle the demand that will come from our growing, global population. Investment and infrastructure is vital. Farmers are likely to adopt technologies only if there are sound incentives to do so. This calls for well-functioning and efficient capital markets, a stable financial environment and sound risk management tools.

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The European monetary zone getting back on course ?

In my last blog I focused on the transition mechanism of financial policy in the UK, with government actions targeting the housing market, thus having the effect of loosening monetary policy. This encouraged us to look once again at the situation in Europe. Is the ECB any nearer making the monetary transmission system actually work?

Back in May 2011 we wrote about how the monetary system in the eurozone was not working effectively because different nations faced different interest rates in the private and public sector. One central bank rate was not being transmitted across the whole eurozone.

By using official money market rates as depicted by Euribor and adding bank CDS spreads as a proxy for the real cost of borrowing, we illustrated the difficulty the ECB was having in transmitting a single policy through a fractured financial system. We have brought the chart up to date below, and as you can see, the situation is no longer as extreme.

Estimate of marginal funding cost for peripheral banks

Thankfully, some semblance of order is being returned. The drag on growth from the massive fiscal adjustment that most of Europe has been through over the past few years could be petering out. Hopefully, less restrictive policy will point to future economic growth across the region. Although some progress has been made and funding costs have come down, access to credit remains restricted for many in the real world (see for example Ana’s blog from August). But if the ECB and the authorities can continue to heal the banking system then a virtuous circle of confidence could return to the eurozone, once again making loose monetary policy set by the ECB flow into the real world in the periphery.

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