Archive for March, 2017

Alternative Ending

Counterfactual writing has been popular for many years. What if the Nazis had won the war in Europe? What if there had been no Reformation? Extending the genre to finance one might ask, what if the bond market had closed to Italy in 2011? (More of a niche market there, perhaps, but an interesting question nonetheless . . . )

Investment decision making by contrast concerns the future, of course, whose range of outcomes is practically limitless. Where the FTSE 100 index will close the year is a matter of opinion. A successful investor could be defined as someone who gets those sorts of things right more often than she gets them wrong. The only certainty she has, however, is that the future could hold almost anything.

And so to inflation, the UK, and what happens next.

The data out last week showing another uptick in the rate of price increases in Britain will have come as no surprise to readers of this blog. CPI is catching up with PPI output prices which have continued to catch up with PPI input prices, which have continued to come in at around 20% higher than the same time twelve months previously. Notably, “RPIX” – the rate of retail price inflation excluding the impact of mortgage interest payments and the rate once targeted by the Bank of England – came in at +3.5% year-on-year (to February). A full point above the old target, that would once have provoked a letter from the Governor to the Chancellor. CPI has only just got up to +2.3%, however, so under the new regime there is officially nothing to worry about.

Yet.

Bearing in mind the enormous range of possibilities encompassed by the future we ought to be surprised at the strength of the consensus about what happens next. The Bank, the City, the leading independent forecasters: all are agreed that rising inflation will eat into wage packets, dampen growth, soften the labour market a little then fall away again. This time we all know how the story will end.

Taking this as read, then, let us try to be counterfactual, if only for entertainment’s sake.

On February data, real wage growth either flatlined (using CPI) or fell by 1% (using headline RPI). Let us follow the consensus in assuming that inflation grows by another point or so into the end of this year. That would push real wage growth down to between -1% and -2%.

Now: what if the effect of this was not only, or primarily, to impact growth? What if the expectation that wage growth will muddle along at a steady +2% is wrong? What if earnings actually start to rise to compensate for higher prices?

Like any good counterfactual tale our story needs to have its roots in genuine history to come across as believable to its readers.

In this case we might look at the distance travelled by the UK economy since the unemployment rate peaked in November 2011 at 8.5%. At that time average earnings growth was coming in at +1.7-1.8%, just a little lower than its present rate, though at the time this was a noteworthy trough and a level not seen since 1967. Wage growth subsequently fell further, hitting lows of +0.7-0.8% during the 2013-14 period. During those two years, however, employment growth had taken off in earnest with joblessness falling from 7.8% to 5.7%. Average earnings growth subsequently rose too, hitting +2.8% by mid-2015.

That British pay packets began to grow as spare workers became that bit harder to get hold of might well have been a complete coincidence. Indeed if we are to believe that earnings growth will not continue to accelerate today, as unemployment is down even further at 4.7%, equalling its post-1975 low, then that must be taken as read. The consensus, after all, is convinced of it.

Let us persist with our radical, counterfactual account, however. Suppose that labour market strength might genuinely correlate with wage growth. Where might that take us?

Prior to the Great Recession the average rate of earnings growth in the UK was +4%. Using a five-year lag from earlier peaks in unemployment wage growth reached +4.9% (February 1998) and +9.3% (May 1989). The economic, market and demographic environments were very different in their own ways at each of those different times, so the absolute numbers are not perhaps that illustrative. What they have in common is that they occurred during uptrends in wage growth established in the wake of falling unemployment.

For our fictional account of the British economy, then, let us assume that 2017 were to end with average earnings growing at 3-4%. With CPI and RPI inflation settling in the same range this would not represent boom times for wage packets in real terms. But it would not mean a growth-threatening contraction either. Expectations for increased labour market slack would surely go out of the window. Inflation projections would rise. Interest rate expectations would change. We might be entering 2018 worried not so much about contraction as about an overheating economy and a monetary policy that looked to have long since fallen behind the curve.

This is hardly a gripping, mass-market narrative. But it is the kind of thing that investors might want to weigh up in their thinking from time to time.

At least it would be if it were not the most absurd counterfactual, of course. Luckily the consensus is universally settled. We all know what is going to happen. In Britain’s immediate future, there is no alternative ending.

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31/03/2017 at 3:55 pm

Nothing To See?

Tomorrow’s election in the Netherlands may not be very exciting after all. Until recently it looked as though the nationalist PVV would emerge the clear winner, to the extent that keeping its leader from the Prime Ministership would be very difficult. (PVV wishes the Netherlands to leave the European Union among its other policies.) But then the party’s leader, Geert Wilders, was convicted for inciting discrimination before Christmas, and as the campaign got underway the incumbent PM, Mark Rutte, deployed much hard rhetoric and advertising on PVV’s key issue, immigration. The current polling is finely balanced. Mr Rutte has repeatedly ruled out coalition with Mr Wilders. Dutch politics may remain an earthquake-free zone; we will soon know either way.

Eurozone asset markets are priced rather sanguinely in any case. Back in 2011 it was the bond market, and specifically the Italian bond market, which threatened to ignite a wholesale global banking collapse with an internationally unaffordable sovereign default. Back then, the credit default swaps which can be bought to hedge against Italian credit risk cost almost 6% over LIBOR, as against 6bp in mid-2007. Today the rate is 192bp: higher than the pre-credit crunch levels, but then Italy has been downgraded from AA to borderline junk since then. Even the end of the country’s government last December at the hands of a referendum seen as a valve for anti-Establishment sentiment did relatively little to move the price.

Elsewhere in the euro area the story is similar. The exception, which is worth dealing with separately, is Greece. Here the debt burden, which has of course already been restructured once, has reached over 180% of GDP. The IMF – one of the “troika” of creditors dictating Greek fiscal policy – has said that it has again become unsustainable. Fraught negotiations with the Greek government have continued. But none of this is news. Furthermore the Bank of Greece’s November estimate for the country’s budget was of a “primary surplus” (budget balance before debt interest) of +4% of GDP, indicating both a sustainable underlying spending pattern and compliance with creditor demands. There are those who expect the contradiction between monetary union and fiscal autonomy to upend the single currency at some point, but then at the zone-wide level debt to GDP peaked back in 2014 and again, this is hardly news.

Another recent source of concern over Europe was the banking system – or, to be more accurate, the solvency (or otherwise) of various European banks. Deutsche Bank caused consternation for a time, but then the German government has been cutting its debt burden since 2010 and if anyone can afford a major bailout, it is surely them. In any case, no bailout was necessary; DB shares have risen by more than 70% from their lows. Where restructuring has been needed, at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, it has not been anything like sufficiently material to threaten the whole Continent. And where banks are daily dependent on emergency central bank facilities (Athens), this is, once again, not news. Their shares have been available for a handful of cents for years.

There is only one moving part that has shown real signs of weakness: the euro itself. This has fallen by 23% over the last three years. Its low against the dollar of $1.0388 back in December was the weakest level it had reached since the opening sessions of 2003. However, even this is not a credible sign of structural malaise. The currency has been much lower still in the past, hitting an all-time record of $0.8272 in late 2000. And while the ECB has been loosening policy in a range of ways, the Fed has embarked on a tightening cycle. Like the Italian credit spread the euro’s weakness can be interpreted as nothing more than a rational response to changed circumstances.

In other words, there appears to be nothing to see here. Political risk remains, yet seems not to be priced in.

This blog argued at the time that the support of the stronger eurozone economies for the weaker ones in 2010 answered a key existential question for the single currency. In theory, (a) there is no debt mutualisation in Euroland and (b) its members enjoy complete fiscal autonomy. In practice, when the going got tough, there was a very EU-esque “pooling of sovereignty” over debt via the European Financial Stability Facility / European Stability Mechanism. And bailout nations have had to comply with the rules of their emergency lending regimes.

There is another factor to consider, however, and that is Brexit. Attention in the UK tends quite understandably to focus on the consequences for ourselves, but there will also be consequences for the rest of the EU.

A harsh deal, or no deal, with Britain, and some businesses and industries will suffer. It was interesting that a senior executive at global food giant Mars Incorporated spoke about this a few days ago. Agriculture has managed to remain immune to the GATT / WTO decades of compromise on tariff reduction and quota control. Look at the WTO tariff tables and food, drink and tobacco are about the last redoubts of punitive import duties. From the BBC last Friday:

Fiona Dawson . . . said the absence of a deal with EU member states would see tariffs of up to 30% for the industry.

Speaking at the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, she warned this would “threaten [the] supply chain and the jobs that come with it.”

“The absence of hard borders (in Europe) with all their attendant tariff, customs and non-tariff barriers allows for this integrated supply chain, which helps to keep costs down,” she said. “The return of those barriers would create higher costs which would threaten that supply chain and the jobs that come with it.” Ms Dawson said those costs could not be absorbed by confectionery companies, meaning consumers would have to pay more for their products . . .

Companies in the automotive and the financial sector have been the focus since the vote, according to Ms Dawson. But with food and drink the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, accounting for 16% of turnover, she said she wanted a new focus, and called for EU leaders to look at the bigger picture when negotiating. “There can be no economic advantage either side restricting trade with a large market situated on its doorstep,” she said.

“In simple terms, if the UK and the EU fail to agree on a new preferential deal, it will be to the detriment of all. Other member states should remember this is not about ‘punishing’ Britain for her decision to withdraw, but rather about finding the best solution for European and UK workers and consumers.

The emphasis at the end there is my own. And it is not just manufacturers who could, in theory, be walloped in this sector. Pity the poor farmers, logistics firms, supermarkets, restaurauteurs who would be crippled by the reimposition of border controls. (The EU’s “Border Inspection Post” system is, to put it mildly, neither rapid nor straightforward. Our own government has helpfully printed the details here.)

A no-deal Brexit, then, would entail potentially disastrous consequences for certain sectors.

This is not priced in. Does this mean that Britain will leave with many of the customs union’s features still in place? That we will, as Ms Dawson clearly desires, not be “punished”?

That is a possibility but it could spell the end of the EU, which appears not to be priced in either . . .

Just imagine. An economically benign Brexit would mean Britain securing a free trade deal that goes way beyond current WTO rules in the key areas of agriculture and fish, while maintaining border control-free access in these and related markets. At the same time we would be regaining complete control of our immigration, lawmaking and judicial processes – and saving part, if not all, of our contributions to the Brussels budget.

A core of true believers – Luxembourg, for instance – might want to stay in the bloc and accelerate the move towards political federation. But surely, plenty of other “member states” would want to follow such an example.

This year’s electoral cycles across the Channel may not threaten the euro, then. But Brexit seemingly has to threaten either some sector-specific but nonetheless material economic damage, or the continued existence, to some extent, of the EU. If a eurozone country wanted to leave the EU, it could in theory continue to use the single currency. But might financial market pricing, by that point, not have begun to look rather different . . ?

So much of the focus has been on Article 50 and the possibility that Brexit might be somehow derailed that thinking has yet to turn to this apparently logical conclusion. The question for investors is: what are the euro assets which are so compellingly attractive that one should wait until it does so?

14/03/2017 at 6:43 pm

Fire!

It is almost four months since Donald Trump won the US presidency but the shockwaves from his victory still reverberate. Coverage of supposed scandals, protests and presidential Tweets have continued to abound. Those who were delighted by November’s result, so polling suggests, remain so; those who reverted to hysteria continue their frenzy. Amid all the drama it is perhaps an odd expression to pick, but: Amercian politics has found an equilibrium.

Assumptions about the US economy have also become entrenched. It has long been obvious that a Trump presidency would be inflationary and the bond market reacted to the result accordingly: on the day of the election the ten-year Treasury yielded 1.85%, but by the end of November had hit 2.4%. It has stayed firmly in a range of 2.3%-2.6% ever since. The dollar likewise strengthened sharply after the election and has comfortably held its range against other major currencies. Eurodollar rates moved from pricing in two Fed hikes by the end of this year to pricing in three, and have held that view right up to the present.

While American politics has become energized, however – by the ambition of the new incumbent and the vitriol of his critics – financial opinion has become complacent. While markets and observers have in many cases settled on a static view, the ground since the election has shifted. Look away from fixed income and the currency, and towards risk markets and the data and this is easily clarified.

The US stock market found a secure range after the election, but only for a time. Last month it smashed it. From meandering around the 2,250 level throughout December-January the S&P 500 broke 2,300 in early February and 2,400 less than a month later. The index has now risen by more than 6% since the beginning of the year, comfortably beating other major bourses around the world.

It is not just the stock market that is optimistic, and setting new records. Consumer confidence hit a new high this week, eclipsing the levels reached prior to the credit crunch and threatening to visit territory last occupied during the go-go boom of the later 1990s. This is of a picture with earlier data on retail sales, showing the fastest annual rate of growth (+5.6% in January) since the early stages of the recovery in 2010-11, and buoyant numbers on existing home sales, which have reached a pitch last seen before the credit crunch in 2007. (Bear in mind that mortgage costs have actually been increasing at the same time, pushed up by higher long-term interest rates.)

Industrial indicators have strengthened too. Purchasing manager activity surveys out this week for both manufacturing and service sectors continued their sharp rise. The rotary rig count released last Friday showed that US oil production has continued to recover even though the price of crude has been no better than stable since December. Again, this is consistent with earlier data such as the NFIB survey of smaller firms and the “Philly Fed” report on the national outlook for business, both of which have been rocketing up, in the latter case to a 33-year high.

If one tries very hard to find them there are more equivocal releases. Monthly variability on jobs data, for instance, has been weak in some instances; then again, the broader context is one of effectively full employment, and short-term moves from 4.6% to 4.7% in the headline jobless rate are neither here nor there.

More seriously, while vague expectations of higher inflation have been priced in since November, underlying price indicators have started to move. Import price inflation, which had been negative since mid-2014, flattened out to +0.2% in election month and has since hit +3.7% (year to January). The price components of PMI surveys have also risen. Public statements from various Fed presidents and board governors has been preparing markets for a hike this month which leaves ample scope for those three rises this year, and more.

Put all the pieces together and it seems more and more obvious that there is no longer any broad backdrop of bad economic news, whatever one’s views of American politics. The credit crunch hit housing and the banking sector – all recovered. The oil price collapse hit the shale business – recovering nicely. A strong dollar dampened activity – that effect has fallen away.

On the other hand, sentiment and output indicators are on the up. The economy is at full employment. The core rate of CPI inflation has already been running above 2% for more than a year and in January posted its fastest monthly increase since 2006.

The US economy is catching fire. This will make a novel change from the sclerotic pace of recovery we have seen there to date. The question is: are markets properly discounting the eventual need to put the fire out?

03/03/2017 at 5:24 pm


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