Category Archives: UK

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.

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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.

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 

The EU – Creaking at 60

The title of this blog is the title of the Economist Special Report last week. The title refers, of course, to the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the founding of the EU at its source, being celebrated by EU members, less the U.K., last week. Oddly the U.K. is still a member but since she wants out, political correctness prevents Albion from upstaging proceedings.

The Economist special report is really good. It is well balanced and actually concludes that Europe needs a multi-speed system to respect all the differing political and economic challenges across the EU. What is irksome though is that while a two-speed or multi-speed approach has been proposed before, why is it now that the Economist has finally woken up to reporting it and making it the basis of its views regarding the success of the EU?

It is as if the Economist has woken up just in time to see the final deck chair arrangement on the titanic. Correctly the special report calls out the weakness and fallacy of the EU’s monetary policies for all members and now current monetary union is flawed. We all knew this a while ago. If this had been addressed perhaps the U.K. vote for Brexit might never have happened!

But ignoring my cryptic criticism, the article is very up to date and very down to earth. It’s just a shame that it took Brexit and the near break up of the EU, and continuing mess in Greece and Italy to come to the conclusion we needed four years ago.

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!