Category Archives: Wage Growth

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%
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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!

One small picture says it all

Standing about 2-3 inches tell and 1-2 inches across, a small chart in page A6 of this last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, sums up our economic predicament. The article, Japan Firms End Yearslong Price Freezes, reports that a growing number of businesses are reporting that labor shortages and increasing demand are leading to price increases. The chart shows a pleasing, gradual but clear rise in prices in Japan over the last year, now approaching 1%. This is important.

Though 1% inflation sounds measly for Japan it could be a short-term boon. The nation has been bedeviled for over 20 years with meager growth, stagnant wages, and tepid productivity growth. In fact some economist suggest that Japan’s fall from economic grace that preceded the West’s financial crisis of 2007, demonstrated early what would happen in a deflationary economy with massive quantitative easing. QE did not drive Japan’s economy to growth; it does not seem to have done so in the west, though it may have saved it from crashing and now we see how it’s persistence has led to financial and investment dislocation.

The news all around us is quite positive:

  • Most recent quarterly GDP in US was restated up to 3.3%, almost unimaginable a year ago.
  • EU economic growth rates are forecasted to grow above their recent meager levels in recent OECD reports
  • ‘Currency war’ reports appear in the press infrequently, even though global trade remains torn by the idea that the US wants a stronger negotiating position (for what is, essentially, a very small part of the US economy).

But inflation remains stubbornly low almost everywhere. If Japan soon demonstrates ongoing growth in inflation, and global commodity prices push up, the result will be a wave of input price increase around the world. Some months later the US and more clearly the EU will see producer price increase and so consumers may see pass-through increases. This will encourage central banks to continue their march toward normality.

The downside with a return to inflation: Debt servicing becomes more onerous as interest rates increase in response to inflation increases. As such, governments and businesses that stocked up on cheap debt during QE and the near-zero interest rate period will have to squirrel away more cash to pay their interest charges. This will reduce what’s available for investment, thus slowing down growth.

The cycle feeds on itself so it can sometimes stabilize or other events can kick it into maddening swings. We will just have to see what happens. It may depend on how fast inflation growth returns. But for now, that little picture on page A6 looks very nice in a chilly autumn morning.

US Economy Not Out of the Woods – Beware the Hype that Says Otherwise

You would think that, given the press coverage, much of the US economy is making great progress.  Apparently interest rates will continue to rise in response to the Fed’s feeling that the economy is doing well; near-full employment, GDP recovery, stock market growth, bond and dollar strength and all that jazz.  But these data points mask some other troubling items that suggest any recovery will likely be lopsided and even short-term based.  You only have to look under the covers at, say, unemployment, credit, or housing.  

  • Unemployment: despite low levels of reported unemployment many economists are concerned that the participation rate is at very low levels.  In other words, there is a lot of unemployed that is not being reported in the official KPI.  Some economists suggest that real effective unemployment maybe nearer 6 or even 9 percent.  Thus the result of economic growth may not lead to wage price pressure so soon, since the participation rate may improve the so pick up some of the slack.  This is good news overall but not if the Fed believes that they need to head off wage inflation likely to appear due to pressure on a really tight labor market
  • Consumer Credit:  Student and auto loans are running ahead at full steam, and mortgage debt continues apace.  While many firms have cleared their balance sheets of bad debts, consumers – which drive a massive part of the US economy – are amassing debt easier than looking for a hot meal.  On February 27th the US print edtion of the Financial Times carried an article, More US car owners behind on loan payments than at any time since 2009.  What is realy funky here is that if you go into the market now to look for a new or used car, you will be offered a loan for repayment now past the 5 year window.  It used to be that 5 years was the maximum and this was only a few years ago.  Now you can get a loan over 6 years or longer.  So the consumer part of the market is building up a nice bad-debt situation.
  • House prices: Yes, house prices have recovered, so we are told, to near pre-crisis levels.  So that part of the market is secure, right?  Wrong.  Home ownership is a its lowest levels in years.  It turns out that the buyers that are driving up prices are investment firms and conglomerates that are snapping up property then leasing them to. So first time buyers are being squeezed out.  The housing market has not recovered in the way we would want it or need it to for effective sustainment.

So we have a very lopsided economic recovery.  It is not stable and even the strong shoots are some challenging weeds hiding just under the covers.  Even if Trump can delivery on +2% GDP growth, I am not altogether sure that woudl mask the issues that are building up today.

When Connecting the Dots Disagrees with the Data: Something Fishy in the Housing Market.

My original title for this blog was going to be just, “Something Fishy in the Housing Market”. But I changed the title once I realize that this blog was more about how conclusions, based on data change, once triangulation of that data is sustained.
First the good news from the Global Dailty Economic News alert from the World Bank’s Economic Prospects Group October 26, 2016:  Advanced Economies, US:

“New U.S. single-family home sales rose 3.1 percent (m/m, saar) to 593,000 in September, from downwardly revised 8.6 percent decline to 575,000 sales in August, and above the market expectations of a 1 percent decline. On a yearly basis, new home sales jumped 29.8 percent in September, according to the Commerce Department. Demand for new homes remains strong, reflecting employment growth, wage gains, positive demographics and mortgage rates near all-time lows.”

So it seems good news. The economy is functioning well, yes? 

Now the bad news Bloomberg July 28, 2016: Homeownership Rate in the U.S. Drops to Lowest Since 1965.  

The U.S. homeownership rate fell to the lowest in more than 50 years as rising prices put buying out of reach for many renters.

The share of Americans who own their homes was 62.9 percent in the second quarter, the lowest since 1965, according to a Census Bureau report Thursday. It was the second straight quarterly decrease, down from 63.5 percent in the previous three months.

Now the analysis that emerges when you overlay the two data points.

Per the World Bank, it seems that demand for housing is up. But per Bloomberg, the new housing is not actually housing that is sold. It so happens that many new (and old) houses are being acquired – that’s true. But who is buying them? It turns out, according to Bloomberg, that large swathes of the housing sector are being snapped up by cash rich organizations that are then renting the property. 

Actual home ownership is down – which is caused by a number of factors. One is that many cannot afford the first-time costs, either through lack of a job, low wages, or a bad credit score. And as more and more housing is purchased and turned into rental property, the pricing for those houses increasing, making the challenge harder.

So the increased demand for new housing is not a sign of increased wages and strong employment, as the World Bank suggests. It’s very likely the investor class, flush with cash from quantitive easing and cheap loans (due to historic low interest rates), are snapping up property and then renting them.

The two articles, taken separately, lead to one conclusion. But when you link the two, a new analysis comes forth. What will happen next? I can foresee several items.

We should now expect socially progressive typesto suggest that the market is working against the middle-class, and that government should force mortgage firms to lower standards and let those with weaker credit scores and low paying jobs to obtain loans for these new houses. The problem is with QE and near-zero interest rates. It is ruining numerous markets and distorting all manner of normal investor practices, such as capital investment for future productivity and now the housing market. 

There is a possible silver lining to all this rental action going on. A third factor is dragging the US economic growth down. It is the reduction in the American worker’s willingness to move to where the jobs are:

“Census Bureau data show that the annual rate at which people relocated to a different state — which is often an indicator of job changes — fell to between 1.4% and 1.7% of the overall population since the Great Recession. That contrasts to interstate migration rates at or close to 3% from 1947 through the middle of the last decade, with only a few exceptions.”  LA Times, June, 2016

If more and more people set up shop in a rental property, it might lead to an increased ability to move. It is possible this may happen and this should help the labor market and the economy – that is assuming there are jobs worth moving for.

But there is also a cloud related to the drop in home ownership. It will likely lead to more instability in the nuclear family, the so called bedrock of modern society. The nuclear family has been under attack since the 60’s as wave after wave of progressives have taken up power and decided they know what’s best for us, even more than we do ourselves. The declines in home ownership will likely undermine the nuclear family again. But we cannot afford, we must not, adjust policy to accommodate the need to encourage the proportion to middle class. We should focus on opportunity and growth instead and let the invisible hand do its work.

A US Recession Would Require Fed to Raise, not Reduce, Interest Rates

I read with alarm this morning, as I tucked into my poached eggs and sausage at the China World Hotel, Beijing, a CNBC article where a previous Fed economist (Marvin Goodfriend) was quoted as saying the Fed would have to target negative 2 per cent interest rates if the US entered a recession.  See “Why the Fed might need to cut rates to minus 2 percent: Former Fed economist.” 

At this point there are few signs the US will hit a recession any time soon though the US economy is certainly in what might be considered the down-slope from the last growth ‘peak’. Private firms operating margins are being cut which is about the only non-maladjusted metric (as in no government intervention) we can relay on as a sign.  

But Mr Goodfriend’s point is logical: in some of the past recessions the Fed has had to push interest rates 2 per cent below long term rates. As it currently stands the 10 year interest rate is at around 1.5 per cent. So logically we should expect a record breaking negative 2 percent interest rate. But this is not going to work.

At near zero interest rates many ofthe economic and behavioral assumptions related to how the market works are distorted and are not working. If negative or near interest rates were a solution to growth and recovery, why hasn’t the US, UK, Europe or Japan bounced out of the current stagnation? With near zero or negative interest rates there are numerous distortions that suggest more of the same medicine would be, to say the least, daft and ineffective:

  • Private industry does not open up their strategy play-books due to changes in interest rates. Business strategy precedes interest rates. A change in interest rates simply signals to the CFO or Treasurer that there might be alternative funding models for those strategies that need funding. In other words, if there are no strategies for growth, lowering interest rates does not seem to create them. Thus capital investment seems impervious to interest rates at such low levels.
  • Cheap loans fund bad business habits. Where private firms have exploited near zero interest rates is to take out loans to fund both stock buy-backs and fund what I might call non-productive M&A. Stock buy-backs improve earnings per share (EPS) and thus reward executives according to their bonus scheme. But there is no change in the productivity of those firms led by those executives. As such the EPS metric is creating a drug that executives are finding hard to resist but it will rot their, and our, teeth. Second, so much M&A (which is running at record levels), is not actually tied to business strategy developed over time to drive improved performance. So much M&A is short-term or even knee-jerk planning from firms as opportunities to take out a competitor, muddy the market, or upset someone else’s strategy. Thus the companies being acquired are not necessarily sick or struggling. The cheap cash is being used ineffectively and not in accordance with creative destruction.

If you throw on top of this quantitive easing (QE) you can see that the vast majority of the free and cheap money goes to the well-off and investor class and this goes to explain the worsening inequality we see in the US.  And top this lot off with anti-business political policies designed to:

  • Slow growth of start-ups
  • Favor the hegemony of very large, atrophied private business
  • Force direct reallocation of funds to the less well-off versus policy to encourage expansion of employment of the same resources at a more productive and therefore higher paying level

One can see that the current medicine was only good insofar as it stalled the collapse of the financial system some 5 or more years ago. The medicine has gone off; it is now as much a poison to the economy.

Should the US fall into recession the Fed should urgently raise interest rates 2 percent. This will cause the following to happen:

  • Private industry will look at the data and start to behave more logically. Funding choices will start to resemble normal conditions. To grow a business normal business strategy will return to the fore. Capital investment over cheap M&A should start to look more desirous.
  • Stock buy-backs will slow thus forcing a more useful employment of the relatively cheap money. The stock market rally will peak and the economy will start to right itself. Not immediately but over a business cycle money will again flow to firms that grow through innovation and productivity, not intervention and policy.
  • Other sovereign nations will have to respond with similar interest rate increases since the dollar will appreciate rapidly and so the Fed could lead the gradual return to normality around the world.

The challenge will be with government for it will and does today, get in the way. Polices, outlined above, are actually preventing growth. If we don’t remove them, the success of the Fed path, to raise rates to head-off a recession, will be at risk. But this risk is smaller than what will happen if the Fed cuts rates as Mr. Goodfriend suggests.

Alarm Bells Ringing: Productivity Dives and Credit Card Debt Soars in US; Private Investment in China Falls

Today’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal was not a happy bunny. Articles on the front page (Productivity Fall Imperils Growth), inside front cover (Plastic Is Back In Style), and back cover (China’s Private Sector Withers as Growth Slows), pretty much portrayed a state of global gloom.

First, productivity. Readers of this blog will know my thoughts about productivity. Advanced economies are struggling to demonstrate productivity improvements and so our collective long-term growth prospects are falling. We can’t just adding more hours to get back to reasonable economic growth and pay off our debts- we need to become more productive.

Increasing red tape, political gridlock or uncertainty, uncompetitive tax rates, quantitive easing, low interest rates, and a regulatory framework that dissuades both business risks (in banking) and start-ups and capital investment (private sector investment) are crimping opportunities for productivity improvements.  Capitalism is being strangled.  I might even go as far to say that the technology or the IT industry is also struggling to demonstrate the value it can bring to business. Whatever the case, productivity is critical to our long-term success and few governments or leaders are even talking about it.

Second, credit card debt. From an economic cycle perspective the US economy is past the high-point of the recovery and most likely moving down toward the next down-cycle. Though you would not know this from the economic data. However, consumer debt is suggesting a bit of a problem is bubbling away.

After the financial crisis US consumer debt (and private sector debt, for that matter) took a bit of hiatus. We all took time off to unload some of our liabilities. However the report suggests that all the debt cycles are now trending up: mortgage debt ‘recovered’ first, then student loans, automobiles, and finally now we see credit card debt on the increase. What is interesting though is that this growth is mainly associated with those of us with a subprime or low credit score. In other words, that part of the consumer population that is most at risk of non-payment are stoking up on credit. The percent of the population with high credit scores has remained the same over the last ten years.  

Finally, China. The news is not good. The article clearly only refers to a few individual company interviews but does report on some economic data, for what it is worth. Private sector capital investment in things like factories and vehicles grew 2.8% in 1H 2016, compared to 30% in the last 10 years. June was the first time it actually fell since China started tracking the data in 2004.

Public sector spending has been very high recently, partly as an attempt to replace the loss of private investment and also to support of the needed investment to convert the Chinese economy from a supply-based manufacturing oriented economy to a demand-based consumer model. This will take years; all the while public sector debt is pilling up. The article also highlights a government official who suggests that falling productivity is part of the problem.

So with just one coffee out of the way, I was already not feeling good about the world. Off to go cook breakfast for the boys. I hope they have a better time back at school today!