Category Archives: Economics

Peak Uncertainty

As we face the peak weeks of the COVID19 virus in the major developed economies, one thing the current COVID19 outbreak should teach us is humility. As humans, we have become far too arrogant about our ability to shape the future. A new book by the economists John Kay and Mervyn King (a former Bank of England governor during the financial crisis) called “ Radical Uncertainty” argues that economists have forgotten the distinction between risk and uncertainty with an over-reliance on using numerical probabilities attached to possible outcomes as a substitute for admitting there are uncertainties we cannot know. How many one in a century events seem to be happening on a regular basis now? Their solution is to build more resilient systems and strategies to confront unpredictable events. Such an approach would have a profound impact on how we organise our societies and economies.

Currently, planning for events with a large impact multiplied by a small probability allows us to effectively continue as we have been after assigning the minimal amount of contingency. Imagine if sectors and industries were run based on been prepared for tail events. That would be a radical change. Very different from our just in time supply chains which minimise capital allocation and maximise return on investment. Our approach to climate change is an obvious case in point and how we have heretofore ignored the environmental externalities of our societies and economies. Given the financial costs this crisis is going to place on future generations, I would suspect that the needs of this cohort of our society will become ever more urgent in the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic.

As many people grapple with the current uncertainties presented by this pandemic, we are currently at peak uncertainty in Europe and the US. We are only now getting a sense of how the outbreak is peaking in Europe given the lock down measures in place. How the virus reactions to the relaxation of current measures, how the outbreak will peak across the US and other continents, the economic impact of the outbreak, or the societal impact amongst many other issues are as yet unknown. We do know however that with time over the coming weeks some of these answers will become clearer. For example, as the graph below from the FT shows, we known the approximate path of the outbreak given the policies being pursued today.

A positive narrative could be that existing medications pass rushed COVID19 trials and prove they can blunt the impact of the virus thereby altering the shape of the curve. We can also speculate that once the first wave is contained, we will develop strategies on a combination of mitigation measures (e.g. reduced isolation methods, antibody and other testing to return sections of the population to work, immunity passports, etc) to slowly transition to the new normal. The logistics of such a phased return to normal will be complex and a nightmare to enforce, particularly if self-isolation measures are in force for lengthy periods and people believe any second wave can be well contained by battle hardened health systems. We can be confident that a vaccine will be developed, hopefully by early 2021, but it will take time to get the vaccine distributed and administered in bulk. Mid 2021 is likely the best we can realistically hope for.

At this stage, my rough guess at a base case scenario on the timing for European and US lockdown is 3 to 5 weeks with another 6 to 10 weeks to transition to a semi-new normal. That’s somewhere between mid-June and early August with Europe leading the way followed by the US. A more pessimistic case could be that discipline amongst the population gets more lax as the weeks drag on and a second wave gathers momentum with a second lockdown required over the summer followed by a more timid and gradual transition afterwards lasting until the end of the year. Obviously, these timings are pure guesses at this time and may, and hopefully will, prove way off base.

The economic impacts are highly uncertain but will become clearer as the weeks pass. For example, with just the first fiscal stimulus package passed in the US, the politicians are already listing their priorities for the second (and likely not to be the last either), Morgan Stanley expect the cyclically adjusted primary fiscal deficit to rise to 14% of GDP and the headline fiscal deficit at 18% of GDP in 2020, as per their graphic below. Given the unknown impact of the crisis on GDP numbers, these percentages could approach 15% to 20% with total debt of 110% to 120%. It’s depressing to note that prior to this crisis the IMF said the U.S. debt-to-GDP was already on an unsustainable path.

Although the euro zone comes into the crisis with less debt, last year it was 86% of GDP, Jefferies said in a ‘worse case’ outcome where nominal GDP falls 15% this year, the bloc’s budget gap would balloon to 17% of GDP from just 0.8% last year. They estimate in this scenario that the euro zone debt-GDP ratio could rise above 100% in 2021. As a percentage of GDP, Morgan Stanley estimated the G4+China cyclically adjusted primary deficit could rise to 8.5% of GDP in 2020, significantly higher than the 6.5% in 2009 immediately after the global financial crisis. Unemployment rates in the short term are projected to be mind boggling horrible at 20%+ in some countries. It seems to me that the austerity policies pursued after the financial crisis will not be as obvious an answer to repayment of this debt, not if we want western societies to survive. Addressing generational and structural income inequalities will have to be part of the solution. Hopefully, an acceleration of nationalism wouldn’t.

On the monetary side, the Fed’s balance sheet is now estimated to be an unprecedented $6 trillion, an increase of $1.6 trillion since the start of the Fed’s unprecedented bailout on the 13th of March. Bank of America estimates it could reach $9 trillion or 40% of GDP, as per the graphs below.

As to corporates and the stock market, dividends will undoubtably be under pressure as corporate delevering takes hold and without the crack cocaine of the bull market, share buybacks as the graph below shows, I fear there will be more pressure on valuations. The Q1 results season and forward guidance (or lack thereof), although it may have some surprises from certain firms in the communication, technology and consumer staples space, will likely only compound the negativity and uncertainty.

Using unscientific guesses on my part, I have estimated base and pessimistic operating EPS figures for the S&P500 as below. Based upon a forward PE (on a GAAP EPS) of 15 (approx. 12.75 on operating EPS basis), which is the level reached after the dot com bubble and the financial crisis, the resulting level for the S&P500 is 2,000 and 1,600 in the base and pessimistic scenarios respectively. That’s a further 20% and 35% drop from today’s levels respectively.

The coming weeks will likely be horrible in terms of human suffering and death across the developed world (one cannot even comprehend the potential suffering in the developing world if this insidious virus takes hold there). There is always hope and uncertainty will reduce over time. Major decisions will need to be made in the months and years ahead on the future of our societies. Learning from this pandemic to build more resilient societies and economies will be a task that lasts many years, possibility even generations. Major changes are coming after this health crisis subsides, hopefully they will be for the better.

Stay safe.

Where to now?

There can be little doubt that March 2020 will go down in history. I fear that April 2020 will bring more pain and suffering across this little planet of ours. I have, like I am sure you have also, looked on in horror as events unfolded over the past weeks and felt emotions I never thought possible as I fear for family, friends and communities. We have to hope that medical science will come to assist us with treatments to take some of edge off this insidious pandemic until we can mass produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID19.

Until recent days, I have not had the stomach to sit down and try to read up on how this nightmare may end. The data, both medical and economical, that will come out in April will likely shock but will hopefully at least help us to figure a route out of this. Right now, I doubt we will ever go back to the world we lived in just a short few weeks ago. The price that will have to be paid for this human tragedy once the virus is conquered will, I fear, include destroyed businesses, unemployment, financial hardship for many and a debt crisis (both corporate & sovereign). If things get really bad, I would fear for social cohesion in the months and years ahead in many communities and countries. So, in trying to start to figure out where we go to now, the exhibits below are those I have taken from some recent reports (as credited) that I thought worth sharing.

Notwithstanding these fears, I do think it’s important to have hope and there are many things happening during this crisis that point to hope. Families getting stronger through adversity and a focus on what is important for us all are just two positives. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring….

Stay Safe.

Deloitte US GDP Forecasts

Crises Chronicles

Ray Dalio is on a mission to share insights gained over 40 years at the helm of the vastly successful Brightwater Associates. After the financial crisis, Dalio published an excellent article on the workings of the economy. In 2017, he expanded on his previously published philosophy in a book called Principles (as per this summary). More recently he published a free downloadable book called A Template for Understanding Big Debt Crises, available here.

I have a copy of Principles but I must admit I have yet to finish reading it (on my to do list!). I have read the first section of the latest Big Debt Crises book and would highly recommend it. The second section of the book has detailed case studies (the US 2007-11, the US 1928-37, and Germany 1918-24) and the third section is a compendium of 48 other case studies.

Two graphs below from the Big Debt Crises book are worth reproducing, reflecting key factors behind our economy today.

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Dalio is an astute student of history. He recently commented that “the biggest mistake that most people make is to judge what will be good by what has been good lately”.

Amen to that.

Bumpy Road

After referring to last year’s report in the previous post, the latest IMF Global Financial Stability Report called “A Bumpy Road Ahead” was released yesterday. Nothing earth-shattering from the report when compared to previous and current commentary. The following statements are typical:

“Many markets still have stretched valuations and may experience bouts of volatility in the period ahead, in the context of continued monetary policy normalization in some advanced countries. Investors and policymakers should be cognizant of the risks associated with rising interest rates after years of very easy financial conditions and take active steps to reduce these risks.”

and

“Valuations of risky assets are still stretched, with some late-stage credit cycle dynamics emerging, reminiscent of the pre-crisis period. This makes markets exposed to a sharp tightening in financial conditions, which could lead to a sudden unwinding of risk premiums and a repricing of risky assets. Moreover, liquidity mismatches and the use of financial leverage to boost returns could amplify the impact of asset price moves on the financial system.”

With the US 10 year breaking 2.9% today and concerns about a flattening yield curve, the IMF puts global debt at $164 trillion or 225% of GDP (obviously a different basis from the IIF’s estimate of global debt at $237 trillion or 318% of GDP) and warns about the US projected debt increase due to its “pro-cyclical policy actions”.

In a chapter the IMF calls “The Riskiness of Credit Allocations” it presents an interesting graph, as below, using its financial conditions index which uses multiple inputs constructed using a methodology that’s wonderfully econometrically complex, as is the IMF way.

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The IMF warn that “a variety of indicators point to vulnerabilities from financial leverage, a deterioration in underwriting standards, and ever more pronounced reaching for yield behaviour by investors in corporate and sovereign debt markets around the world”.

Nero fiddles

This week it’s Syria and Russia, last week it was China. Serious in their own right as these issues are, Donald Trump’s erratic approach to off the cuff policy development is exhausting markets. In the last 60 trading days, the S&P500 has had 9 days over 1% and 12 days below -1%. For above 0.5% and more than -0.5%, the number of days is 21 and 15 respectively! According to an off the record White House insider, “a decision or statement is made by the president, and then the principals come in and tell him we can’t do it” and “when that fails, we reverse engineer a policy process to match whatever the president said”.  We live in some messed up world!

As per this post, the mounting QE withdrawals by Central Banks is having its impact on increased volatility. Credit Suisse’s CEO, Tidjane Thiam, this week said, “the tensions are showing and it’s very hard to imagine where you can get out of a scenario of prolonged extraordinary measures without some kind of, I always use the word ‘trauma’”.

Fortune had an insightful article on the US debt issue last month where they concluded that something has to give. According to an Institute of International Finance report, global debt reached a record $237 trillion in 2017, more than 317% of global GDP with the developed world higher around 380%. According to the Monthly Treasury Statement just released, the US fiscal deficit is on track for the fiscal years (Q4 to Q3 of calendar year) 2018 and 2019 to be $833 billion and $984 billion compared to $666 billion in 2017.

This week also marks the publication of the Congressional Budget Office’s fiscal projections for the US after considering the impact of the Trump tax cuts. The graphs below from the report illustrate the impact they estimate, with the fiscal deficits higher by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. It’s important to note that these estimates assume a relatively benign economic environment over the next 10 years. No recession, for example, over the next 10 years, as assumed by the CBO, would mean a period of nearly 20 years without one! That’s not likely!

The first graph below shows some of the macro-economic assumptions in the CBO report, the second showing the aging profile in the US which determines participation rates in the economy and limits its potential, with the following graphs showing the fiscal estimates.

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The respected author Satyajit Das highlighted in this article how swelling levels of debt will amplify the effect of any rate rises, with higher rates having the following impacts:

  • Increase credit risk. LIBOR has already risen, as per this post, and large sways of corporate debt is driven by LIBOR. This post shows some of debt levels in S&P500 firms, as per the IMF Global Financial Stability report from last April and the graph below tells its own tale.
  • Generate large mark-to-market losses on existing debt holdings. A 1% increase is estimated to impact US government debt by $2 trillion globally.
  • Drive investors away from risky assets such as equity, decimating the now quaint so-called TINA trade (“there is no alternative”).
  • Divert cash to servicing debt, further dampening economic activity and business investment.
  • Restrict the ability of governments to deploy fiscal stimulus.

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Back in the land of Nero, or Trump in our story, his new talking head in chief, Larry Kudlow, recently said the White House would propose a “rescission bill” to strip out $120 billion from nondefense discretionary spending. Getting that one past either the Senate or the House ahead of the November midterm elections is fanciful and just not probable after the elections. So that’s what the Nero of our time is planning in response to our hypothetical Rome burning exasperated by his reckless fiscal policies (and hopefully there wouldn’t be any unjustified actual burning as a result of his ill thought out foreign policies over the coming days and weeks).