Category Archives: UK

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!

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?

Should Britain Now Write Its Constitution?

This week’s read of the economist was not overly happy for me. See previous blog: Worst Week Reading The Economist. But the newspaper still shines when it avoids writing about Trump.

In Baghot: The Machine Splitters; Unsexy as it may seem, Britain needs a big constitutional debate, the paper argues convincingly for a real written constitution.

Britain of course has no written constitution. It has many laws and documents but over the years a series of conditions emerged that resulted in no expect need for it. The article highlights the three conditions:

  • Consensus among the country’s rulers about certain enduring traditions
  • A population willing to defer to the elite’s application and interpretation of those traditions
  • A steady, incremental evolution of those traditions rather than sudden, violent shocks

The country has been lucky in that is has not experienced such shocks for a long time. However Brexit is a big one. The paper argues it is big enough to warrant the debate. I agree.  

The problem is that there is no president to call on to guide how Britain extricates itself from Europe. It certainly got its way into Europe with creeping incrementalism, launching the whole affair itself after World War II. But the effort to join was not painless, and its efforts (twice foiled by de Galle) coincided with the demise of empire and decoupling of commonwealth. Such a long-winded process resulted in tight links without the need for a constitution. Getting out of it, inside 2 years, is a whole different ball game. At least we don’t have de Gaulle snooping around.

France and the EU: Great Parallels Between 2016 and 1967

On May 16 1967 Charles de Gaulle, premier of France who were, at the time the largest and dominant economy of the ‘European 6’ that had formed the Common Marker, or European Economic Community (EEC); forerunner to the EU, prevented Britain from joining. The other five nations including Germany were keen to have Britain join. de Gaulle’s decision was in fact a repeat to his original, “Non!” in 1962/3 when Britain first applied.

What is most galling about this whole historical situation is that it was Britain who first sold the idea of some ‘United States of Europe’ toward the end of World War II. And it was Britain that first set up an organization to develop the initial instruments. It was only the fact that France, recognizing it was also losing its own empire in Africa who decided to try to preserve it, just as Britain was seeking to jettison its own empire troubles peacefully, usurped the idea as its own! France reinvented the idea and took the hapless but thankful Germans along for the ride.

But the analogy today is striking. France was not getting everything its own way back then. During the negotiations with its Western allies it decided to withdraw NATO, partly as a tactic to limit what it saw as Anglo-Saxon control of NATO that was pivoting against the Soviet Union. Yes, France actually withdrew from NATO. She withdrew in 1966 and in fact was keen to build a ‘European Europe’ distinct from an Anglo-Saxon structures. France led other nations to contemplate its own European defense force to operate independent of NATO.

So here we again in 2016 and we see and hear and read of France trying to do the same thing. Only a few weeks ago we heard France float the idea of an independent military force. This remains, as it was in the 60’s, a detrimental idea. NATO acts as the true umbrella for western defense and the US acts as the back-stop to it. Ideological politicians who are against the US and more in favor of self-aggrandizement are now stepping up the arguments, using Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  

Trump has and will not reject NATO; we heard President Obama say yesterday in his press briefing that, during his recent 1-1 with president elect Trump, NATO came up and it was clear Trump is firmly behind it. Of course he is! He simply called out, during his election rhetoric, that NATO needs to pay its fair share of the bill. This was and is always fair. And the fact that the US highlighted this is little different to the period in the 40’s when Britain’s empire was shrinking and its commercial operations contracting and funds were drying up. It too had to make some tough calls.

Brussels, and France, need to step up and be honest with themselves and the rest of us. Europe cannot operate militarily outside of NATO. Europe can’t even yet financially support the very service that keeps them safe! How can they afford their own army?  

Give up the rabble-rousing European defense force idea and get back into bed with the US. Of you don’t, you will have many more troubles than what you envisage with Britain leaving the club. Trump will soon enough stand tall with NATO. Then where will you be? At the foot of table, not near its’ head.

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.