Category Archives: Economics

The Assault on Capitalism is Complete

A few data points, brought together in an Financial Times article this last weekend (see At a record high, the US market is still shrinking), suggests our political and economic leaders are looking in the wrong direction for the real challenges undermining our economy. Let me summarize them for you:

  • The US stock market is at an all-time high
  • The US stock market is experiencing its longest bull run
  • The tally of listed companies in the US stock market has halved since 1996, from 8,090 to 4,336 last year
  • M&A, funded more by cheap money (via Quantitate Easing) rather than underplaying competitive weakness, has been rampant
  • Industry concentration is widely up leading to mega-firms more able to snap up smaller firms sooner in their life cycle
  • IPOs are happening at half their average rate compared to 1980 and 1990
  • The number of start-ups overall continues to be running at near historic lows

In essence, creative destruction, that natural process whereby death is the catalyst or preparatory step leading to new birth, has been put in hold and worse, twisted into an abomination. What is the cause? How did we get to a place where natural, independent, entrepreneurial spirit has near extinguished? A range of disconnected public policies and actions have conflated to nudge us to this place.

  • Increased regulation, followed up by yet more regulation, ever driven by powerful lobbies and ever more splintered interest groups
  • Reduced public funding of primary R&D
  • Poor alignment of vocational and educational services
  • Social policies that promoted the false idea that everyone should go to university (everyone should have the opportunity) and the resulting demise of things like professional apprenticeships

More insidiously is that money, more specifically the capital markets, are now so distorted that the behavior that acted as the foundations of creative destruction are not holding it back. With the volume of cheap money that flooded the market in recent years, so much money has been chasing ever more riskier bets. The M&A mentioned above was one result. Another is the funding models for how capital investment is prioritized. This has led to a huge growth in private equity and so many more private companies. Thus the cycle of creative destruction has been undermined from several fronts over a long period of time.

The current situation is that the economy is being managed by fewer and fewer public giants and larger and larger private investment and sovereign investment funds. What is left to the retail market, once thought of as a natural part of the cycle, is being shrunk and may soon count for little. The economic cycle firms used to follow, that operated naturally and yielded up profits and growth, is now a managed system by politicians and a small number of the very rich.

What do we do? The FT article suggests yet more regulation to try to rebalance some of the results. No one of note is willing to suggest we roll back the policies and actions that caused the problems in the first place. Shame.

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Economic Bullies Are Fattening Up: Where are the Monitors?

When at middle school, some few years ago now, monitors would troll the break-rooms, corridors and playgrounds. If a bully or bully-like behavior was observed, a faithful monitor (sometimes of a more diminutive size) would wade in to neutralize the issue. In industry, economic bullies are getting larger and more powerful and the monitors are missing in action.

What we knew was happening in America is now clearly happening in the UK. In this week’s Economist there is an article titled, “More money, more problems” in the business section. The article reports on new research that suggests industry concentration is well established and getting more pronounced; large, dominant firms are getting larger and more dominant. As a result, a greater proportion of economic profits are being hovered up by the bullies and the rest of each industry is sucking on less and less.

If the market was operating efficiently and freely, the opportunity for start-ups to innovate and create the ‘next big thing’ would help foster creative destruction. But public policy has played a key part in (over?) regulating how business start and operate; and lobbying is running rampant such that, more clearly in America, firms with deeper chests can invest in lobbyists to ensure their masters’ interests are protected; putting more pressure in the smaller guys. The monitors have become the employees of the bullies.

There are implications a-many, some reported in the Economist article, touching innovation and its diffusion (or lack thereof), wage rates, productivity and employment. Larger firms tend to achieve higher degrees of economy of scale; this is a large playground where automation can help drive productivity thus helping the bullies get stronger. Other data from the OECD and other sources suggest that diffusion of knowledge and ideas, needed to help firms share in productivity-inducing work, is slowing down between innovators and followers; in other words between those who already have, and those that already don’t. This reinforces industry concentration or the barriers around the OECD’s ‘frontier firms’.

Employment opportunities and where we collectively go to work changes; and who is able to pay a higher wage becomes self evident. So all in all the controlled environment we live in is a far cry from the free market that was operating 20 or more years ago.

It seems the pundits feel that we need more competition. Can we legislate for more competition or can we undo the constraints that put us where we are today? I think that what is needed is:

  • Less regulation overall and particularly on small and medium business, spanning financials, hiring practices, IP development, and so on
  • Increase investment in primary R&D
  • Increase vocational collaboration with education and industry
  • If you want more regulation, point it at the lobbyists: reduce their spend and power
  • Tinker with the tax code to help motivate investment in smaller firms and Tomory for it, tax larger firms more.

But these items are not even popular topics in politics today. It’s much more likely we will talk about fake news and Russians and Facebook, than economics, growth and hard work. Oh well.

Politics and Spin Over Observation

The March 30th US print edition of the Wall Street Journal carried an Opinion piece titled, “Britain’s Monetary ‘Stimulus’ Has Fed the Pension Crisis“. The article highlights the plight of many firms whose pension funds are under water and how persistently low interest rates have crippled the chances to grow the returns on a number of investment vehicles. This is due to the widening gap between the value of assets and liabilities. The article happens to highlight this plight in conjunction with true fight in Britain over a venerable old British firm, GKN, who has impressively damaging pension liability any suitor needs to accommodate.

The real point of the article however is not really about GKN. It is that the Bank of England recently published a paper that argued its loose monetary policy and massive quantitative easing were in fact good for us. The argument of the report is that things would have been much worse, therefor whatever we have must be better. This is a strange argument. Much research has been published that correlated near-zero interest rates and QE with debt and credit price distortions, record-levels of M&A, record-levels of stock buy-backs, Stu only low capital investment levels, low productivity, and to top it all off, increased inequality. To be fair, if you didn’t watch the news and all those around you, the Bank of England report might be credible. If we had had a real crash, the pain might have been worse for a while, but the economy would have recovered as fast as other recessions due to the lack of credit and debit distortions.

The article closes on a useful warning and observations. Old firms with such large pension obligations and short-falls are suffering from a double-whammy. Such firms have to divert funds to stem the pension fund blessing that might otherwise have helped source the needed growth in the future to pay for those persons. Even if central banks had not kept rates so low for so long and stuff they investor-classes pockets with cheap money, such firms might still be in trouble-or anyway.

The Debt Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost

A story it today’s Us print edition of the financial times highlights a building ‘bubble’ of disquieting proportions. The article, ‘Britain’s Pizza Chain Boom Faces Debt Reckoning’, highlights how a large number of restaurant chains have been snapped up over recent years using debt. This might be by a private equity firm or a leveraged buy-out. In either and other cases, many acquisitions were executed using cheap debt which was facilitated by central bank policies such as near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing (QE), both of which massively distorted the price of corporate bonds and debt. Add to this public policy and pressure on banks to increase loans to help drive growth, you can see signs of a perfect storm.

The UK example is specific, but the problem is wide and applicable to most developed economies. The US has just come off a long-run marathon of high and record levels of corporate acquisitions, again much funded by cheap debt. There must be many organizations hanging by a thread, just waiting for interest rates to nudge up resulting in unsustainable debt burdens and interest payments. Unless growth drives the top-line of these businesses at a faster rate, the chances are many such firms will go to the wall.

This situation was created as an unintended consequence of near-zero interest rates for such a long time and massively price-distorting quantitative easing. Though most governments have ceased buying sovereign and corporate debt, the damage is done. Massive, trillion dollar, balance sheets at central banks need to be unwound in such a way as again, not upset the market. The act of creating the balance sheet did upset the market. In reducing their balance sheets, central banks will do it again.

And the sad part about all this, as it will play out? Smart investors with lots of money and a high risk-tolerance will hedge against such business failures and reap huge rewards. The rich investor-class will get richer, and the poor will just lose their jobs or otherwise miss out. Politicians will have a field day, calling out the failure of capitalism. Of course, it’s not a failure of capitalism since central banks and their policies are not part of any capitalist model: central bank operations are closer to a socialist model where the few take decisions to ‘help’ the many, as if they know better and how to help us.

Oh well, such is life. Just buckle down and wait the storm. The debt chickens will soon be home to roost. Maybe not by this Easter but expect them home by next year.

It Pays to Save

The UK was initially criticized for its austerity measures, employed at the height of the economic crisis that has slowly subsided now around the world. But some year’s later the UK was then lauded for being prescient. At the time, its economic growth was the fastest of any advanced economy. Things of course moved on – Brexit followed and even though the cloud did not fall in, the countries economic condition has slipped from front of the class to back. But that misses the point of this blog. The UK adopted austerity since that was the right thing to do – to reign in spending and support the natural economic rebalancing of price and supply. Other countries, when faced with economic challenges such as a slow-down or recession reach for the public sector check book.

This approach is known as Keynesian demand-management. The idea is simple, if not well understood as a simple idea from the practices namesake. When there is a shortfall in demand in the economy, the public sector increases spending to help fill the gap. Public spending, like any spending, creates knock-on effects whereby a dollar spent creates more than a dollar in ongoing spending. This simple idea became common thinking and the pain of the 1970s and 1980s were required for governments to learn that this approach has issues. First, Keynes had suggested that such spending should be temporary – since private sector spending was more efficient. However, even though Keynes noted this, it was left off the memo and his name became associated with “spend”, not “spend for a short while only”. As a result, governments spending increases were rarely ever temporary.

Secondly, and as we have seen in spades since the recent period of near-zero interest rates and QE, public sector spending crowds out private sector spending. The entire bond market has been distorted due to massive government intervention and spending. The whole pricing process has been disrupted. This is the same with the economy. As demand-management kicks in it forces normal public sector behavior to change. And so the economy is knocked off kilter even further.

So it was interesting to read some new material from the IMF that demonstrates that austerity is not the bad-boy all the politicians make out. The interesting article is called, Climbing out of Debt, and was published in the March edition of the IMF’s Finance and Development magazine. The actual data shows that countries that exploited tax-based austerity, versus reduced spending austerity, suffered deeper recessions. This is a kind of “devil you know” point in that first one has to prefer austerity over increased spending. Then, once austerity is accepted, one has to make a choice between increasing taxes (keeping public spending as-is) or reduced public spending. That is the key. Well worth reading to defend against the nay-sayers.

What Will Go Wrong in 2018?

James Mackintosh of the Wall Street Journal posts in today’s US print edition on “The 3 Things That Can Go Awry in 2018“. The article details three dynamics that, if played out as he suggests, could cause the global economy to trip in 2018. His summaries are good and compelling and, given our amazingly positive outlook today as 2017 comes to a close with all major nations growing at roughly the same time (an odd occurrence in its own right), they come at a good time to consider conservative actions against possible shifts next year.

The three are:

  1. Monetary Tightening. The story here looks at Fed and central bank interest rate hikes. We all know that interest rate raises have started, at least in the UK and US, even though the EU remains firmly stuck taking that drug. Japan is taking it slow, even as its economy shows much signs of improved life – Japan will have to continue pushing rates up in 2018, just as the EU will have to follow the US’s lead. The problem with this item is that there are us a lot of debt out there – corporate debt, public debt and yes, some consumer debt. It is not the same kind of debt that was part of the run-up to the crash that put us where we are today, but for some firms and some governments its big risky debt. As an example, and tangentially related, another article in the WSJ reports on a few firms that are high in debt that will be financial impacted by Trump’s tax reform – see Tax Plan Downside for Dell, Others in Debt. A lot firms have issues debt in the last few years in response to QE and near zero interest rates. As rates increase, debt load and repayments will increase. If inflation were to join the party, it could be a messy time for a number of firms and governments.
  2. China. This story has been used before since China has been the source of two recent periods where the US stock market (in fact the global stock market) fell by about 10%. As such, China’s management of its economy – shifting from a producer-based to consumer-based economy – is a major challenge. Debt remains a problem, and capital controls and currency exchange rates just add more menu items for Chinese leadership to wrestle with. Should China sneeze, so the saying goes, we would all fall could of a cold or something worse. Worse, there is no coordination between east and west – so we are somewhat at the behest of the Fed and People’s Bank of China – and we all hope they do the right thing. Of course, they will both do the right thing for their own constituents – or try to. Hence the lack of cooperation.
  3. A Correlation Correction. This for me is the more interesting and most likely issue to blow up in 2018, and it is the least talked about in the press since it is not as well understood. Mr. Mackintosh states, “one reason investors hold bonds is to cushion losses in a stock-market downturn.” This approach has worked for quite a while, as prices have diverged short-term all the while converging over the long-term. The risk is that should inflation appear in 2018 the relationship between stocks and bonds may revert to how it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, with rising bond yields being bad for share prices. The problem for me is that I think inflation will rise in 2018 to just levels that this will be the catalyst for change in the markers. If you read the tea leaves, there is ample evidence of a change underway. Many commodity prices are doing very well. Copper prices are, as an example, reportedly at recent high’s due to increased production. If you look at producer prices in the US, they are inching up now over 3%. Even though wage pressures remain subdued, the pressure is building. Though participating rates for males in the US aged 25-54 are at near all-time lows, yes the employment rates seems low and may go lower, but there remains some slack to take up the growth we will see. But that pressure is there. I think that by the second half of the year, certainly by Q3, US inflation forecasts will show that 3.5-4% are on the horizon. This won’t cause a panic, but it will lead the change and correction that will come. On top of this the author suggests that the Fed may just “give in” to the needs to cap the bloated asset prices we see all around us, to nip the bubble before it becomes unsustainable. Trump’s tax deal will push this peak out a year or two, but the dynamics are in play.

Reading between the lines you can see that all three of the authors ideas overlap and intersect. Inflation is mentioned directly in 2 of the 3; growth is everywhere; public policy too. As such he has hedged his bets and tried to call out the category of challenge. I will try to break the triggers into more simplistic sections.

As such, I give the following percentage probability for each driving a correction by the end of 2018:

  1. Monetary Tightening, most likely US led, due to over heating: 15%
  2. China growth, debt to currency issues: 28%
  3. EU or euro-zone debt or banking crisis: 15%
  4. Inflation-driven policy changes: 22%
  5. Japan public debt or growth challenges: 10%
  6. Emerging Market currency or debt issues: 5% (this one won’t trigger in isolation but might follow from one of the others, namely 1, causing a currency drain)
  7. Significant War triggering financial panic: 5%

Trouble for The Eurozone with Trump’s Tax Deal

There was an excellent Opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal that calls out the less thought through implications of Trump’s domestic tax deal on international business. The piece, US Tax Reform Has Europe Worried, by Joseph C Sternberg, explores the writings of a German research group that details some thinking suggests some organizations will think twice about new investments in Europe – specifically Germany – with the new US corporate tax rates being leveled. The research piece is from ZEW and is here: Germany loses out in US Tax Reform. This is another dimension not modeled by US economists when they try to determine the impact of the tax reform on US growth.

The more important point however in Mr. Sternberg’s piece comes toward the end of his excellent article. The author suggests that US tax reform highlights a different opinion for taxation from an ideological perspective. This point needs to be talked about more since we have lost our Mojo for ideology in favor of a left-right populist dichotomy. The US reform is being used to alter tax incentives to drive growth, investment and job creation. Most of Europe, with is more socialist (and Democratic-leaning) policies, uses tax incentives mostly as a redistributive process for sharing an assumed pie. There is much less effort in driving growth or influencing investment to grow jobs. This is the dialog we had in the 1980s and it leads to the dialog about big government versus small government.

It is about time ideology got a fair crack again!