Category Archives: Euro Zone

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.

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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%

EU Intransigence in Brexit Negotiation Echoes Trump: Putting EU First

In today’s US print edition of the Financial Times there was a Comment piece by Jean-Claude Piris, former director-general of the council of the European Union’s Legal Service. It is titled, The Myth and Delusion over Single Market Access. In the piece he argues that Britain does not understand what access to the “free market” means. As Britain seeks a unique relationship, he claims that Britain is ignoring facts and should drop such ideas and focus on what the EU offers. This Comment is political posturing and not in fact true.

His key point is this: “…[T]he single market is based on the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, and choosing among these freedoms is not permitted.” This maybe a rule enshrined in EU law but it is just that. Many other enshrined EU laws, created for its benefit, have been negotiated way – such as France and Germany both violating the budget deficits.

The free market can be whatever it needs to be. It can exist between the free movement of goods and services, and capital. It does not require the free movement of people. That adds a social-cost and social-layer of bureaucracy that is the main reason why Britain left in the first place. It is this argument, that the EU cannot separate the components of this “law”, that will undermine the Brexit negotiations and sits at the heart of the success of the EU.

Before the forerunner of the EU was founded, the EEC, Britain was closely involved in the original concept of the “United States of Europe”. While Churchill may have implied both an economic and political model, he did not imply political union – even though this had been offered in a desperate moment some years before in 1940 to France at the point of collapse under the weight of the German Army.

But just as the original ideas for a barrier-less trade framework was being explored, Britain exited the dialog and so the French and the Germans continued the work. It was still mostly an economic model – but Britain’s withdrawal from those early stages were fatal. The EEC formed up and without Britain to act as a counter weight, France and Germany – for different reasons – pushed forward with ever greater economic and creeping-political alignment.

So it’s disingenuous for EU leaders and others to say what the free market is and is not. All is possible. It is purely a negotiating ploy to try to trump an argument. It is no different than saying, “Put EU First” just as Trump says, “Put America First”. No different.

UK Election Results Capture Political Schism

In under two years since the country stunningly voted to leave the EU, the same electorate shifted yet again and leant away from the idea of a clean break with Europe and threw the whole thing now into chaos. The youngest of voters sided with Labour, who were selling polices in a throw-back to those last seen in the 70s that, if followed, would lead the country to financial ruin. Corbyn’s plan is not even realistic; yet the youngest among us just have no memory of such irresponsibility. Only the old do, and so they voted Conservative.  

Now hostage to a 10-seat minority of the DUP, Theresa May will be saddled with a back-seat driver at negotiations with the EU. Decision making responsibility will not fall to May; she will have to keep ‘calling home’ to get approval.

Worse of all, the result of this election shows how the entire political system is corrupted. We have the worst of both worlds: a disenfranchised and ignorant electorate (e.g. Most of the young) that falls for platitudes and made-up promises. Of course, the left calls such things as false truths or fake news if the right puts such things out.

Britain will now have a much riskier time with Brexit. All we can hope for is a bank run that requires a bail-out or for the IMF to drop Greece ‘in it’ and a run on the Euro. It’s a matter of time. But now we need it sooner rather than 

US Government Sets Up Next Financial Crisis & Brexit Not the Risk at All

Two articles came accross my desk this week – one caused consternation on my part and the other seemed to offer a sanity check.  The former concerned the US economy and specifically how there are signs that consumers, and lenders, are returning to the same behavior that led to the financial crisis at the source or our current economic challenges.  The latter concerned the hype and over blown concern with Brexit and its impact on Britain’s economy.

In the US print editions of the Wall Stree Journal (Wednesday January 11th) there was an article titled, “New Loans, Same Old Dangers“.  This front page article described a government-led initiative (Property Assessed Clean Energy) that provides subsidies loans to encourage homeowners to buy energy saving devices.  The article gives an example of a homeowner who is not able to afford the loan is still encouraged to take it out.  As is common practice this loan is then sliced up with other loans and sold on as a bond – what is called securitization in the financial industry.  This is analogous to the risky mortgage loans offered, and taken up by people who should have known better, and sold on to governments in Iceland as “AAA” opportunities.

The market is very small – the article suggests around $3.4bn of loans have been made so far – but the model is just damning.  FIrst you have big government trying to force its policies on a free market.  With the housing issues that triggered the financial crisis this was Government demanding ever greater home ownership among poor people and those that could not afford it.  Second you have the lowering of standard for the setting up of loans.  This is identical to what happened with dubious sales efforts of mortgage brokers during the 1990’s and early 2000s.  Finally you have the build up of risky loans and owners of the loans not knowing where the real risk is.

The popular uprising that has brought Trump to the White House would do well to heed these stories.  After all people will be people and when offered a bad apple that looks and smells sweet, many will take it.  Perhaps we should not fault those that do – or should we expect a stronger moral aptitude?  Either way we need to get big government out of the way.  It should not seek to foist its social or political wants on you and me – we should be free to do what we want, how we want, when we want, as long as it does not harm our fellow citizen.  Innovation and opportunity will drive improvement in the energy sector.  And perhaps tax credits would be a safer way to encourage small changes in behavior that do not create risky loans.  

The other article, a commentary piece in the US print edition of the Financial Times (Thursday Janary 12th) was titled, “The City has nothing to fear from Brexit“.  It was penned by Stanislas Yassukovich who is a former chief executive officer of European Banking Group.  The article is a breath of fresh air since it refutes many of the risks and issues that most other “specialists” report in the press.  For example we have heard a lot about “passporting” – the idea that a financial institution authorized to trade in one country of the EU can freely trade in another country.  It turns out that non-member states can use this capability quite easily – so it’s not even needed as a negotiation.  The article goes further.

Passporting was a means to try to level set the complexities of rules across what was meant to be a single market.  It turns out that even with passporting there remains complex and different rules that still need to accommodated when trading across the member-states.  As such, “core retail financial activities – residential mortgages, deposit and savings products and so on – remain almost entirely national, and highly protected.”   This whole think stinks to me.  

The recent news that PM Thresa May fired her senior most civil servant who worke with the EU was greeted in the press as bad news.  It seems he kept repeating to the PM that it was not going to be possible to complete all negotiations in time before the two year window closed for leaving the EU.  Why is this?  He may have had a practical view on things but he certainly did not have a positive view on what is possible.  I think we need clean out the cupboard and get a fresh new look at everything.  Good for PM May to do so.  If the author of this article is right, there is little we should fear from Brexit.   

The Home Owners/Renters Market is Upside Down

Two articles today suggest that two of the world’s largest economies are swapping roles and focus for home ownership and renting. Germany has been a nation of renters; home ownership has run at relatively low levels compared to the UK or US. The US has operated under the assumption that home ownership is central to the American Dream.

As we all now know, policies adopted by the US government in the 1980s led to a relaxation of requirements for those seeking a mortgage and low income, even zero-income families, obtained mortgages they could never afford. The result, when combined with human greed both by home buyers and the investment community, led to the financial crisis that is the cause of the situation we are in today: near zero interest rates and massive influx of quantitive easing that has filled the coffers of the investor class.

But what is happening now? It seems that the near zero interest rates in Germany are driving record levels of home ownership and low interest rates in the US is driving up demand for rental property with record low-levels of home ownership. The world is turning upside down!

In the US print edition of the Financial Times, the article, “German’s switch to home ownership fuels bubble fears“, reports that house prices are rising as demand for mortgages continues to rise. The good news is that many of these new mortgages are fixed rate plans- which protects home owners as interest rates increase.  Germany has been a relative laggard when it comes to home ownership. See Most Germans don’t buy their homes: Theey rent.  Here’s why.  

In the US print edition of the Wall Street Journal, in an article, “Millennials Fuel House Rental Boom“, we hear of the later boom afflicting the US market. It turns out that US home ownership is at record lows, yet house prices around the country are recovering and in some regions, back to pre-crisis levels. How can this be?   Turns out that firms flush with cash and low cost loans have been buying up property in the cheap and renting them. The article above goes even further and explains how firms are now increasing investing in entirely new property developments specifically for the rental market.  

This all might alarm you. The American Dream, perhaps western democracy, was assumed to be predicated on home ownership. But this is not the case. The German economy has done very well with relatively low home ownership rates. The US might have to learn from the Germans how to run such an economy; likewise the Germans need to take a leaf out of the US’ books to avoid bubble blow-out.  

But in all practical terms we should be alarmed. Germany is an export-based economy. Other counties want (or need) to buy Germany’s products. Exports from the US is vastly less of a proportion of it’s GDP than it is for Germany. So there is little room for the US to behave more like Germany. Additionally Germany cannot set its own interest rates; even now the stresses between the EU center and periphery are growing again. Greece, Spain and Italy continue to need low interest rates to help nurture their local economies to recovery. Germany, never near a recession, is showing signs of too rapid growth (and growing inflation) and may approach overheating before the periphery is even back to positive growth.  

Bottom line: zero interest rates and quantitive easing (and resulting central bank balance sheet ballooning) is changing our economic foundations. This will impact our societies in ways it is hard to predict. Hang on guys, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!

My Top 5 Biggest New Year Risks to the Global Economy

In order or scale, priority and impact, here are my picks for the five most critical trigger-points that may impact, negatively, a return to ‘old normal’. Currently we stand at the edifice of a new normal, the great stagflation, but the anti-establishment and populist changes taking place seem to suggest a knew-jerk reaction by nations fed up with socialist dressed-up-as-market politics that have led the West for 20 years.

  1. China’s economy stagnates or crashes. Debt levels are above EM levels and are now among the largest, approaching the incredulous Japanese levels. This dynamic is not sustainable for a nation whose currency is not a reserve currency. However the economy is the world second largest even without the development and emergence of whole swathes of other sectors such as healthcare and leisure, which may offset contracting first world growth over the next year or two. So the risk is there and there is no clear leaning one way or the other, yet. But debt is growing faster than these new sectors; exchange reserves at $3bn are limited (though huge), and currency value management is not market-bases. So greater risk is with the downside. China’s growth flags, currency sinks, counterbalancing US growth and confidence, creating a massive imbalance in the global economy. Europe watches on as global GDP sinks under its own debt weight. KPI’s to avoid/watch out for: China GDP falls to or below 4.5%; China’s debt load surpasses 300% of GDP.
  2. Trump quits after 18 months due to intractable political limitations that prevent policy changes he seeks related to healthcare, regulatory complexity, tax reform and trade. Trump’s political rhetoric is being replaced with solid business-based policy. However not all such policies have ever been tested at a national level and scale. Some efforts will fall foul to physical, social and political limitations. This may prove frustrating for Trump. As growth will return short term, such medium term frustration will lead Trump to claim, “My policies worked, see? But now the system has reached its limit and there is nothing I can do until the country agrees with me to shut down the whole government system! Since they are not ready, yet, I am ‘outa here’ until they are!” Markets crash, interest rates balloon, inflation rages all within a year. World economy sinks into the abyss. KPI’s to avoid/watch out for: US GDP 1H 2017 reaches 4.5% but Congressional conflict leads to policy deadlock ; vacancy in position at Whitehouse. 
  3. Emerging Marker currency crisis as massed capital investment is siphoned away towards a resurgent US economy and dominant dollar, as well as a stable and even growing China economy. This situation is already underway. The risk is that what is currently a reasonably ordered trend becomes a financial route. This is possible since the financial markets are starved of yield due to the collective policies of central banks to keep interest rates very low for too long and for the build up in their massive balance sheets. If the trend becomes a torrent, EM’s will have to yank up interest rates far beyond what their local economics can support and economic disaster will follow. This will ferment more political instability and drive increased destabilizing ebonies to ruin. Though the US may be growing well, compared to its peers, it’s the imbalance they tips the ship over. KPI’s to avoid/watch out for: dollar index, the weighted value against basket of currencies, surpasses 115. It is currently at 103.33, which is a 14 year high; EM interest rate differential balloons.
  4. Hard Brexit forced through by intransigent Europeans who think the EU experiment is more about political union than economic liberalism. A new trade deal, legal framework and social contract can be negotiated within a two year window. But only if politicians and civil servants want it too. Continental politicians however, under the strain from populist pressures, will equate intransigence over Brexit negotiations with an improved politicos standing with their electorates. Fool for them as this will actually create the opposite response for such behavior will simply worsen the economic climate. The lack of any sign of return to old normal will lead to political paralysis and the clock will time-out. Hard Brexit will be forced upon a supplicant Britian. Europe and UK economies will tank; currency wars will wage; global trade will collapse further. This will not sunk the global economy short term but will act as a dead weight slowing its resurgence down. KPI’s to avoid/watch out for: no agreement at end of two year period lost triggering of Article 50. 
  5. Latin or Indian debt or economic crisis. Much like with other EM’s, growing sectors of significant size around the world may blow up- India being the best example. India’s growth is different to China. It is more integrated socially and politically with the west, but it’s corruption levels are far greater than what one can see or observe in China. It is possible that local economic difficulties, hard to observe today, may trigger a collapse in confidence that leads to a destabilizing debt or currency crisis. Brazil’s economy is certainly in the dock currently; Argentina is struggling. India’s economy looks like paradise right now but the growth across the country is extremely uneven- you only have to look at public sector infrastructure investment. So should two such countries suffer local difficulties, the combination may result in significant risk to the global financial system. KPI’s to avoid/watch out for: two simultaneous financial/debt crisis afflicting EM or India.

These are my top 5 risks the global economy faces in 2017. I hope I am wide of the mark, in a positive way. I left Japan off the top 5 list yet their economy remains anathema to growth. The Japanese market invented the whole new normal cycle with a anaemic growth, massive debt, low inflation, and demographic contraction. And Japan has an amazing debt load that refuses to spook investors. Things may yet have a Japanese tinge before the year end. Does Japan, along with the US, lead the global economy back to the old normal!
What potential risks do you see?