Category Archives: Japan

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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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.

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?

Near or below zero interest rates do not encourage investment

Central Banks around the world have got it wrong.  During near-normal economic cycles, lowering interest rates altered (through signaling) how businesses funded planned investments.  But those investments are driven by business strategy, not market economics.  Firms are not sitting there saying, “Well, with near zero interest rates- what innovations shall we come up with today?”  Just ask business leaders!

Lowering interest rates just signals a different potential pattern of sourcing of funds, if investments are ready to be funded.  But in this high-regulatory and low-inflation economy, with cheap money funding easy stock buy-backs and a stock market rally, there is no need to innovate as much or make the big or medium size bets that such capital investments need.  Firms are achieving their EPS goals without them.  Just look at the data.
The central bank’s have got it wrong.  Just look at the data.  Capital investment is flat when, according to central bank thinking, it should be ballooning.  Has any central banker actually spoken to any number of business leaders?  Or if so, are they confusing political sycophants for real leaders?

The only way to encourage investment in capital programs for innovation is to return the market dynamics to near-normal settings.  That means that counter intuitively central banks now need to raise rates and curtail quantitative easing.  And quickly.

Why can’t central banks see the obvious?

The problem now is that central banks are looking for even more fuel for the fire.  The Bank of Japan is now reportedly looking at even more extreme measures of the same medicine.  The bond market is about to go the same way as the stock market as in massively distorted.  If we are not careful we will enter the twilight zone and no one will be able to control a thing.

Biting the Hand that Fed Us

Mr. Kevin Warsh, a former member of the Federal Reserve board, now a distinguished visiting fellow in economics at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, pens a damning Commentary of the Federal Reserve in today’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal.   

In “The Federal Reserve Needs New Thinking“, he slams the Fed for “….[T]he economics guild push[ing] ill-considered dogmas into the mainstream of monetary policy. The Fed’s mantra of data-dependence causes erratic policy lurches in response to noisy data. It’s medium term policy objectives are at odds with its compulsion to keep asset prices elevated. It’s inflation objectives are are far more precise than the residual measurement error. It’s output-gap economic models are troublingly unreliable.”

If that were not enough he adds: “And it expresses grave concern about income inequality while refusing to acknowledge that its policies unfairly increased asset inequality.”

Wow- this is a damning perspective from a ex-member of the Fed. I have to say that I tend to agree with his perspective. However the Comment falls short of the title: there is little new policy offering or suggestion to warrant any ‘new thinking.’ The challenge is to query what could or should the Fed and other central banks do differently.
One odd idea I toyed with a few months ago (see The ghost of Keynes haunts our global leaders and economic conditions today) is to globally reset interest rates as if a new normal had been established. What I mean to say is that central banks around the world should all raise their interest rates at the same time by an agreed amount in order to:

  • Preserve current interest rate differential between central bank authorities
  • Establish a more natural rate in order to reestablish normal market and investment operations

If we had nearer-normal interest rates the following would happen:

  • Private capital investment decisions might once again take on a normal demand curve and pattern, thus contributing and steering toward increased productivity
  • The cost of money will rise and so private firms will stop issuing bonds or taking out cheap loans only to increase share buy-backs, thus decreasing the inequality in invest class assets
  • M&A levels would fall to more normal competitive levels
  • Consumers will start to save again
  • Pension funds will have their unfunded portion of their liability reduced

All in all that would be a good day at the office. But it only works if the Fed and central banks in UK, Canada, Europe, Japan, and China agree and collaborate closely.  Additionally the IMF probably needs to leed this effort.

The other problem is the large overhang of debt that central banks now have on their balance sheets. These acquisitions represent government (and some private) debt. These enlarged balance sheets also distort the market. The problem is that central banks have no idea how to jettison these debts without completely upsetting the market again.  

So I guess the only option might be to collaborate with other central banks and agree some kind of normalized write-off. If all central banks agreed to write-off 75% of the government debt they hold, it would free up government spending (since they can start up again, hopefully on the right things this time like education and infrastructure) and the market prices will be balanced. This is of course a silly idea. But how else can we make progress with this challenge?

Yes, new thinking is needed. And a lot more collaboration. The solution will not be found in one central bank. We are too connected. We need a new Bretton Woods 2.0 agreement.

Interest Rates are a spent force – and Uncreative Destruction

The US weekend print edition of the Financial Times carried an interesting Comment by Eric Lonergan, macro fund manager at M&G investments. His piece, “Interest rates are a spent economic force,” suggests that since the consumer and industry have not responded to low and now negative interest rates as expected by central banks, the relationship assumed by bankers and economists between spending and interest rates is kaput. I disagree.

I agree that consumers and private industry have not responded as they have in the past (and increased spending as they should) with low interest rates. But what Mr. Lonergan is missing in his article is the role the environment plays in this relationship. It is not that the relationship between interest rates and spending is broken, it is more likely that there are other factors that were not present in the past that suppress the relationship we thought was pure.

Worryingly though some of the behaviors have been talked about for some time and worse they are quite logical. As such one wonders about the assumptions our economists made all along. For example, lowering interest rates should encourage private industry to increase capital investment. This long-established assumption pre-supposes that firms have capital investments lined up ready to go. This is where the current economic conditions are quite different to what has gone before.

It seems CEO’s do not, as a rule, go looking for new capital acquisitions when interest rates are lowered; or even at rock bottom levels. If you think about it the reality is that CEOs and their boards develop business strategies. These are more likely based 0n the state of the business, their competitors and the clients they serve. Interest rates primarily impact the aspect of the strategy focused on sourcing of funds to pay for that strategy’ funding is not a business strategy per se. Firms have as  many effective shovel-ready capital investments than public sector agencies had with their crisis funds.

So why are not a plethora of capital investment strategies today just waiting to be funded?  It is believed that there are a range of reasons and a number of them reinforce each other.

  • Regulation: many forms, banks are a good example as they are in the business of risk management, are subject to huge increases in red tape; more and unpredictable levels are coming as some rules have been passed without the details drafted: e.g. Dodd-Frank
  • Political instability: The very real complexity that derives from unstable, extreme or radical political leadership is rife. The US, UK, Western and southern Eastern Europe, and the Middle East are all subject to huge disruptions
  • Quantitive easing: another policy gone array has pumped millions of dollars into, it turns out, into the investor class. As such inequality has worsened and a stock market bubble has formed. Flush with cash, and this is where low interest rates help, CEOs and boards are approving share buy-backs galore. This ‘improves’ earnings per share (EPS) without doing anything material to the business. This negates the need for a more risky long term investment approach to meeting EPS growth targets.  M&A is running at all time highs too – and much of this activity has little to do with natural competitive forces and more to do with cheep money.  This the effort post M&A ends up being much less productive (i.e. uncreativedestruction). 

Firms are thus leveraging logically what has been offered them. Now central banks have egg on their face while business leaders have a wry smile.

The Unintended Consequences of Low Interest Rates

Since capital investments are depressed and have been for some, the long term impact is that productivity will be hampered for years to come. The flat or even declining productivity is a sign. Is quite common in developed economies. The problem is that this is not a quick fix and the harm is being baked into our systems and practices.

Our economy is walking along as in a stupor and we can’t see forward clearly enough. We have to eliminate the over burdening red tape; we need political stability and a simple, private sector friendly and small government minded leadership. We need central banks to sell off their balance sheet assets, reduce QE, and raise interest rates in order for firms to return to making rational investment decisions.

If they do not, the hole will only get bigger and the rope needed to get out of it even longer.

The Truth About Negative Interest Rates is Ugly

Dan McCrum’s Insight column in today’s US print edition of the Financial Times is fascinating. You’ll find it on the back page of the Companies and Markets section. It is titled, “Negative rates reverse assumptions about financial decisions“.

Mr. McCrum explains away a basic financial truth about the time value of money. He explains that a given financial truth, the time value of money, results in the idea that money is more valuable today then tomorrow. It seems that we would spend our money tonight on a beer our favorite burger rather than hold on to that money for the same purchase in the future. The reason for this change in value over time is that many things may change between now and that future, such that shorter term gratification takes priority over long term riskier rewards.

To explain how we cope with that difference, we offer interest rates to those that loan money. The change in interest rate explains and accounts for an increase, or decrease, in the reward for carrying that risk over the duration of the loan. This is all basic stuff. It works. But with negative interest rates this basic truth is upside down.

With negative interest rates the value of money goes into reverse. Now the value of that beer and burger is higher in the future.  Your $50 today becomes $52 in the future so your ability to acquire more stuff increases. Switzerland, a central bank to adopt negative rates, is experiencing deflation. The ECB and the euro zone are flirting with negative rates and deflation. Denmark has negative interest rates that now pay you interest on your mortgage.  If you add in persistent deflation, we might even assume a need for increased negative rates to cope!

If this were not enough for you, check out Japan’s Subzero Rates Cast Chill Over Markets on the front page of today’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article explains how Bank of Japan, the central bank, is flirting with increased negative rates to drive growth, even though the recent shift into negative territory shows now sign of driving growth and in fact is creating unintended consequences. The article reports “Every day is like being Alice in Wonderland. Interest-rate levels are having little effect on credit demand, the market function is declining. You can’t expect everything to go according to plan,” said Tomohisa Fujiki, head of interest-rate strategy at BNP Paribas Securities Japan.

The whole negative interest rate idea creates a fascinating line of thinking. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to new insights. One of my favorite insights of a similar nature concerns the idea that more information improves the quality of a decision: it does not.  

In More Than You Know (one of my favorite books), by Michael Maubouson, then chief investment strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management (2006), there is reference to an experiment with horse racing and tipsters. The experiment showed that as additional information was serviced to tipsters, their accuracy in predicting winners increased. However at some point the accuracy declined and the more data shared with tipsters, the worse their predictions.  

So we should not always assume more data is more useful. Equally we should not assume that what goes by economic orthodoxy remains constant. We are experimenting with large scale negative interest rates and we really don’t know what will happen. Maybe it’s time for something different.