Category Archives: Economics

To 2021 and beyond…

My father was not a man of many words, but when he spoke, he generally made a lot of sense. Somebody could not be called anything more derogatory by my father than to be called a clown, a term he generally used often when watching politicians on the TV. He would have had absolutely no time for the current US president, a clown of the highest order in my father’s meaning of the word. Notwithstanding the loss of life from the Capitol Hill rioting, the pantomime that played out on the 6th of January was pure theatre and showed the vacuous inevitable end destination of Trump’s narcissism (and hopefully of Trumpism). Rednecks roaming around capitol building with confederate flags and wearing silly costumes feels like a fitting end. I thought it would be months, if not years, before the doubtless shenanigans that Trump has been up to over the past 4 years (and before that, of course) would be made public in all its glory and before a large proportion of the otherwise sensible 74 million Americans who voted for him would finally see him for the “very flawed human being”, in his ex-Chief of Staff John Kelly’s wonderfully diplomatic words, that he is. My father had another word for him. There are too many issues to be dealt with that are more important than the man child who will, after this week, be a (hopefully!) much-diminished and irrelevant force.

Most people are happy to see the back of 2020 and there is little that I can add to that sentiment. Like others, I have avoided any year end round ups as it all seems too raw. My family and I have been blessed to not been adversely impacted health-wise by Covid-19 during the year. The horrible global death toll from the virus reached the grim milestone of 2 million with some pessimistic projections of the final toll at double that figure, even if mass vaccinations result in the utopian herd immunity (optimistic projections for the developed world to reach such a state by this time next year with the rest of the world taking another 12 months). It seems likely that the public health situation will get worse before it gets better.

Reaching the milestone age of 21 symbolizes the entry into adulthood, an age of maturity, and not just in relation to the legal procurement of alcohol in some countries! Maturity and long-term thinking in addressing the challenges of the coming year, including likely bottlenecks in vaccine rollouts and the rebuilding of multilateral cooperation, should replace the narrow nationalist thinking of the Trump and Brexit eras. God willing, the biblical symbolism of 21 representing the “great wickedness of rebellion and sin” will not be backdrop for the post-Covid era!

In a widely optimistic thought along the lines of rebellion and sin but without the wickedness, the post-Covid era could be characterised by a radical shift in societal norms, akin to the 60’s, where youth culture demands that the challenges of our day, specifically climate change and income equality, are addressed urgently. Combining technology with a passion for action and upsetting lifestyle norms could instigate real change. A new countercultural movement, with its own hedonistic soundtrack, would also be nice after all the introspection of lockdowns! 2020 has taught us that rapid social change can take place and we can adapt to uncertainty if we are pushed.

So back to the realities of 2021! I read recently that those of us lucky enough to be able to continue working relatively unperturbed from home during Covid having been working on average an hour a day extra and that is consistent with my experience (and thus my lack of posts on this blog!). Overcoming the challenges of the current Covid operating environment, such as avoiding the development of splintered or siloed cultures, whilst maintaining a collective corporate spirit will likely be a much-discussed topic in 2021. As the social capital of pre-Covid working networks is eroded by time and Covid fatigue, moving to a new hybrid work/office model in our new distributed working environment, whilst minimising people and talent risk, will create both challenges and opportunities for leaders and managers of differing skillsets.

One of my biggest concerns for 2021 is the financial markets. The macabre sight of stock markets hitting highs as the pandemic worsened is surely one of paradoxes of 2020. The S&P500 is currently trading at a forward PE ratio of over 22 as the graphic below shows.

In November, the oft debated (see this post as an example) cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio for the S&P 500 hit 33, just above the level it was at in September 1929, the month before the crash that preceded the Great Depression! CAPE has only been higher twice in history than it is now, in the late 1920’s and the early 2000’s. Apple (AAPL) is currently valued at a forward PE of over 30 (based upon its 2022 earnings estimates), trading well above the sub $100 level I pitched as fair value earlier this year (in this post). Tesla is often cited as the poster child for crazy valuations. I like to look at the newly public Airbnb (ABNB) for my example, a firm that depends upon cross border travel for its core business, which has lost $1 billion on revenue of $3.6 billion over the last 12 months (revenue down from $4.8 billion in 2019) and is now valued at $100 billion or a multiple of over 27 times sales! The market seems to be solely focussed on the upward leg and ignoring the downward leg of the so-called K shaped (bifurcated) recovery, even though small business in the US generate 44% of US economic activity. The forward PE on the Russell 2000 is above 30. In classic bubble style, speculative assets like bitcoin reached all-time highs. The latest sign is that much shorted stocks are being targeted in short squeeze trades.

This NYT article, aptly named “Why Markets Boomed in a Year of Human Misery” offers one of the clearest explanations for the market euphoria, namely that the “Fed played a big part in engineering the stabilization of the markets in March and April, but the rally since then probably reflects these broader dynamics around savings”. The broader dynamics referred to are the NPIA statistics from March to November. The article highlights that fiscal action taken to support US households through Covid support has resulted in salaries and wages only being marginally down on the prior year, despite widespread lockdowns, whilst spending has fallen. This combination pushed the US savings rate through the roof, over $1.5 trillion higher that the March to November period in 2019.

The arguments about a bubble have been rehashed of late and here are some examples:

  • In November, Robert Shiller (of CAPE fame) co-authored an article which stated “many have been puzzled that the world’s stock markets haven’t collapsed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn it has wrought. But with interest rates low and likely to stay there, equities will continue to look attractive, particularly when compared to bonds.
  • The great Martin Wolf of the FT asked (in this article) “Will these structural, decades-long trends towards ultra-low real interest rates reverse? The answer has to be that real interest rates are more likely to rise than fall still further. If so, long-term bonds will be a terrible investment. But it also depends on why real interest rates rise. If they were to do so as a product of higher investment and faster growth, strong corporate earnings might offset the impact of the higher real interest rates on stock prices. If, however, savings rates were to fall, perhaps because of ageing, there would be no such offset, and stock prices might become significantly overvalued.
  • The ever-pessimistic John Hussman responded in this market commentary that “when people say that extreme stock market valuations are “justified” by interest rates, what they’re actually saying is that it’s “reasonable” for investors to price the stock market for long-term returns of nearly zero, because bonds are also priced for long-term returns of nearly zero. I know that’s not what you hear, but it’s precisely what’s being said.
  • And the equally sunny veteran market player Jeremy Grantham opened his latest investor letter  (the wonderfully titled “Waiting for the last dance”) thus: “The long, long bull market since 2009 has finally matured into a fully-fledged epic bubble. Featuring extreme overvaluation, explosive price increases, frenzied issuance, and hysterically speculative investor behavior, I believe this event will be recorded as one of the great bubbles of financial history, right along with the South Sea bubble, 1929, and 2000.”

Grantham points out that the necessary monetary and fiscal reaction to the pandemic has created heighten moral hazard – “The longer the moral hazard runs, and you have this implied guarantee, the more the market feels it can take more risk. So it takes more risk and builds yet more debt. We’ve counted too much on the permanence and the stability of low rates and low inflation. At the end of this great cycle of stability, all the market has to do is cough. If bond yields mean-revert even partially, they will be caught high and dry.” 

I particularly liked Graham’s summary of the past 20 odd years of monetary policy –All bubbles end with near universal acceptance that the current one will not end yet…because. Because in 1929 the economy had clicked into “a permanently high plateau”; because Greenspan’s Fed in 2000 was predicting an enduring improvement in productivity and was pledging its loyalty (or moral hazard) to the stock market; because Bernanke believed in 2006 that “U.S. house prices merely reflect a strong U.S. economy” as he perpetuated the moral hazard: if you win you’re on your own, but if you lose you can count on our support. Yellen, and now Powell, maintained this approach. All three of Powell’s predecessors claimed that the asset prices they helped inflate in turn aided the economy through the wealth effect.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in an asset price bubble currently, notwithstanding the fact that it is likely to continue for some time yet. Although not quite at the level of  Joe Kennedy hearing the shoeshine boy talk about his equity positions, I have been struck by the attitude of late of my more junior workmates when they optimistically talk about their equity and bitcoin investment gains. It’s more akin to a level of the mobsters’ spouses trading internet stock ideas in the Sopranos! The TINA trade on steroids or the TINA USP as in “there is no alternative, Uncle Sam’s paying!”.

There is little doubt that extraordinary action, both monetary and fiscal, was needed to counteract the impact of the pandemic. In the words of Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, “now is not the time for the economics of Chicken Licken”. It is the sheer scale and reliance on government intervention into markets that surely is unhealthy in the medium to longer term. Central banks now act as market makers, distorting market dynamics such that continued newly created money chases an ever-shrinking pool of investable assets. William White, formerly of the BIS, recently commented that monetary policy has been asymmetric whereby Central banks have put a floor under markets in crises but failed to put a cap on prices in bubbles.

Fiscal stimulus has exploded the world’s government debt stocks. Fitch estimate that global government debt increased by about $10 trillion in 2020 to $78 trillion, equivalent to 94% of world GDP. The previous $10 trillion tranche took seven years to build, from 2012 to 2019. The most immediate impact has been on emerging market debt with sovereign downgrades prevalent. Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist at the IMF, warned that “this is going to be a rocky road”. High debt levels can only be contained in the future by austerity or inflation, neither of which are pleasant and both of which would further compound high levels of inequality across the world. Covid has laid bare the destructive impact of inequality and anything that will increase inequality will inevitably impact social stability (eh, more populism anyone?). We have, of course been here before, living through it over the past 13 years, but this time the volume is up to 11.

Two other issues that will keep us occupied in 2021 are climate change and cyber risks. 2020 has recently been declared one of the hottest on record. Despite the estimated 7% fall in CO2 emissions in 2020 due to Covid lockdowns, we are still, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted this week, “headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”. David Attenborough’s new TV programme “A Perfect Planet” illustrates the impact that the current temperature rises just above 1 degree are having right now on the delicate balance of nature. The COP26 summit in November this year must be an event where real leadership is shown if this fragile planet of ours has any hope for the long term. The other issue which will likely get more attention in 2021 is the successful cyber intrusions using Solarwinds that the Russians pulled off in 2020. An anonymous senior US official recently stated that “the current way we are doing cybersecurity is broken and for anyone to say otherwise is mistaken”.

So, 2021 promises to be another significant year, one of more change but, at least it will be without the clown (hopefully). I, for one, will eagerly wait for any signs of that new countercultural movement to take hold, whilst listening out for that hedonistic soundtrack!

A happy and healthy new year to all.

Correlation contagion

I fear that the daily announcements on bankruptcies, specifically in the retail sector, is just the beginning of the journey into our new reality. Despite relatively positive noises from US banks about short term loan provisions and rebounding consumer spending, the real level of defaults, particularly in the SME sector, will not become clear until the sugar high of direct government stimulus is withdrawn. In the UK, for example, the furlough scheme is paying 80% of the wages of approximately 9 million workers and is currently costing the same in government spending monthly as the NHS. This UK subsidy is due to be withdrawn in October. In the US, the $600 weekly boost to unemployment payments is due to expire at the end of July.

The S&P forecasts for the default rate on US junk debt, as below, illustrates a current projection. There are many uncertainties on the course of the pandemic and the economic impacts over the coming months and quarters that will dictate which scenario is in our future.

It is therefore not surprising that the oft highlighted concerns about the leveraged loan market have been getting a lot of recent attention, as the following articles in the New Yorker and the Atlantic dramatically attest to – here and here. I would recommend both articles to all readers.

I must admit to initially feeling that the dangers have been exaggerated in these articles in the name of journalist license. After all, the risks associated with the leveraged loan market have been known for some time, as this post from last year illustrates, and therefore we should be assured that regulators and market participants are on top of the situation from a risk management perspective. Right? I thought I would dig a little further into the wonderful world of collateralized loan obligations, commonly referred to as CLOs, to find out.

First up is a report from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in September on the differences between collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and CLOs. I was heartened to learn that “there are significant differences between the CLO market today and the CDO market prior to the great financial crisis”. The report highlighted the areas of difference as well as the areas of similarity as follows:

CLOs are less complex, avoiding the use of credit default swaps (CDS) and resecuritisations; they are little used as collateral in repo transactions; and they are less commonly funded by short-term borrowing than was the case for CDOs. In addition, there is better information about the direct exposures of banks. That said, there are also similarities between the CLO market today and the CDO market then, including some that could give rise to financial distress. These include the deteriorating credit quality of CLOs’ underlying assets; the opacity of indirect exposures; the high concentration of banks’ direct holdings; and the uncertain resilience of senior tranches, which depend crucially on the correlation of losses among underlying loans.

The phase “uncertain resilience of senior tranches” and the reference to correlation sent a cold shiver down my spine. According to BIS, the senior AAA tranches are higher up the structure (e.g. 65% versus 75%-80% in the bad old days), as this primer from Guggenheim illustrates:

As in the good old CDO days, the role of the rating agencies is critical to the CLO ecosystem. This May report from the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) shows that EU regulators are focused on the practices the rating agencies are following in relation to their CLO ratings. I was struck by the paragraph below in the executive summary (not exactly the reassurance I was hoping for).

The future developments regarding the Covid 19 outbreak will be an important test for CLO methodologies, notably by testing: i) the approaches and the assumptions for the modelling of default correlation among the pool of underlying loans; and ii) the sensitivity of CLO credit ratings to how default and recovery rates are calibrated. Moreover, the surge of covenant-lite loans prevents lenders and investors from early warning indicators on the deterioration of the creditworthiness of the leveraged loans.

As regular readers will know, correlations used extensively in financial modelling is a source of much blog angst on my part (examples of previous posts include here, here and here). As I may have previously explained, I worked for over a decade in a quant driven firm back in the 1990’s that totally underestimated correlations in a tail event on assumed diverse risk portfolios. The firm I worked for did not survive long after the events of 9/11 and the increased correlation across risk classes that resulted. It was therefore with much bewilderment that I watched the blow-up in complex financial structures because of the financial crisis and the gross misunderstanding of tail correlations that were absent from historical data sets used to calibrate quant models. It is with some trepidation therefore when I see default correlation been discussed yet again in relation to the current COVID19 recession. To paraphrase Buffett, bad loans do not become better by simply repackaging them. Ditto for highly leveraged loans with the volume turned up to 11. As many commentators have highlighted in recent years and the Fed noted recently (see this post), the leverage in terms of debt to EBITDA ratios in leveraged loans has crept up to pre-financial crisis levels before the COVID19 global outbreak.

Next up, I found this blog from MSCI in early April insightful. By applying market implied default rates and volatilities from late March to MSCI’s CLO model of a sample 2019 CLO deal with 300 loans diversified across 10 industry sectors, they arrived at some disturbing results. Using 1-year default rates for individual risks of approximately 20% to 25% across most sectors (which does not seem outrageous to me when talking about leverage loans, they are after all highly leveraged!!), they estimated the probability of joint defaults using sample 2019 CLO deal at 1 and 3-year horizons as below.

The MSCI analysis also showed the implied cross-sector default-rate correlations and a comparison with the correlations seen in the financial crisis, as below.

Even to me, some of these correlations (particularly those marked in red) look too elevated and the initial market reaction to COVID19 of shoot first and ask questions later may explain why. The MSCI article concludes with an emphasis on default correlation as below.

During periods of low default correlation, even with relatively high loan default rates, the tail probability of large total default is typically slim. If the current historically high default-rate correlations persist — combined with high loan default rates and default-rate volatility — our model indicates that a large portion of the examined pool may default and thereby threaten higher-credit tranches considered safe before the crisis

I decided to end my CLO journey by looking at what one rating agency was saying. S&P states that the factors which determine their CLO ratings are the weighted average rating of a portfolio, the diversity of the portfolio (in terms of obligors, industries, and countries), and the weighted average life of the portfolio. Well, we know we are dealing with highly leveraged loans, the junkiest if you like, with an average pre-COVID rating of B (although it is likely lower in today’s post-COVID environment) so I have focused on the portfolio diversity factor as the most important risk mitigant. Typically, CLOs have 100 to 300 loans which should give a degree of comfort although in a global recession, the number of loans matters less given the common risky credit profile of each. In my view, the more important differentiator in this recession is its character in terms of the split between sector winners and losers, as the extraordinary rally in the equity market of the technology giants dramatically illustrates.

S&P estimated that as at year end 2019, the average CLO contained approximately 200 loans and had an average industry diversity metric of 25. Its important to stress the word “average” as it can hid all sorts of misdemeanors. Focusing on the latter metric, I investigated further the industry sector classifications used by S&P. These classifications are different and more specific from the usual broad industry sectorial classifications used in equity markets given the nature of the leveraged loan market. There are 66 industry sectors in all used by S&P although 25 of the sectors make up 80% of the loans by size. Too many spurious variables are the myth that often lies at the quant portfolio diversification altar. To reflect the character of this recession, I judgmentally grouped the industry sectors into three exposure buckets – high, medium and low. By sector number the split was roughly equal to a third for each bucket. However, by loan amount the split was 36%, 46% and 18% for the high, medium and low sectors respectively. Over 80% in the high and medium buckets! That simplistic view of the exposure would make me very dubious about the real amount of diversification in these portfolios given the character of this recession. As a result, I would question the potential risk to the higher credit quality tranches of CLOs if their sole defense is diversification.

Maybe the New Yorker and Atlantic articles are not so sensationalist after all.

FED speak

In this time of uncertainty, we can only search for insights as we await actual Q2 figures and see how businesses fare as lock-downs are slowly relaxed. Many businesses, particularly SMEs, may hobble on for a while as demand slowly picks up and governmental support becomes due for withdrawal. Some, like hairdressers, will re-establish their businesses due to the nature of their service or product and with the support of a loyal customer base. Some may even thrive as their businesses adapt to the new normal.  Many may not. Services dependent upon crowds such as the leisure and hospitality sectors look particularly exposed. The digital transformation of many businesses will take a leap forward and the creative destruction of capitalism will take its course. Many of the old ways of doing businesses will be consigned to history in one fell swoop.

The FED this week issued their financial stability report with the following view on the current level of vulnerabilities:

1) Asset valuations. Asset prices remain vulnerable to significant price declines should the pandemic take an unexpected course, the economic fallout prove more adverse or financial system strains re-emerge.

2) Borrowing by businesses and households. Debt owed by businesses had been historically high relative to gross domestic product (GDP) through the beginning of 2020, with the most rapid increases concentrated among the riskiest firms amid weak credit standards. The general decline in revenues associated with the severe reduction in economic activity has weakened the ability of businesses to repay these (and other) obligations. While household debt was at a moderate level relative to income before the shock, a deterioration in the ability of some households to repay obligations may result in material losses to lenders.

3) Leverage in the financial sector. Before the pandemic, the largest U.S. banks were strongly capitalized, and leverage at broker-dealers was low; by contrast, measures of leverage at life insurance companies and hedge funds were at the higher ends of their ranges over the past decade. To date, banks have been able to meet surging demand for draws on credit lines while also building loan loss reserves to absorb higher expected defaults. Broker dealers struggled to provide intermediation services during the acute period of financial stress. At least some hedge funds appear to have been severely affected by the large asset price declines and increased volatility in February and March, reportedly contributing to market dislocations. All told, the prospect for losses at financial institutions to create pressures over the medium term appears elevated.

4) Funding risk. In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak and associated financial market tur­moil, funding markets proved less fragile than during the 2007–09 financial crisis. None­theless, significant strains emerged, and emergency Federal Reserve actions were required to stabilize short-term funding markets.

The point about household debt is an important one and points to the likelihood that this will be a recession with characteristics more akin to those before the 2008 financial crisis, as per the graph below.

The oft highlighted concerns about leveraged loans in recent times has again been highlighted by the Fed as a worry in this crisis, as below, with default rates likely to turn sharply upwards.

However, it was the commentary in the report from the Fed’s market outreach that I thought captured succinctly the current market fears for the future:

Many contacts expressed concern that a U.S. recession brought about by the pandemic could expose highly leveraged sectors of the economy. Contacts noted that corporate default rates were likely to increase sharply, with acute stress in the energy sector. Even before the outbreak spread to the United States, concerns related to nonfinancial corporate debt were cited frequently, with a focus on the growth in leveraged loans, private credit, and triple-B-rated bonds. More recently, surveyed respondents noted that a period of renewed outflows from credit-oriented mutual funds could lead to limits on redemptions and that stressed global insurers could become large sellers of U.S. corporate bonds.

A number of contacts also raised concerns over household balance sheets, especially in low-income segments, highlighting increases in credit card, student loan, and auto loan delinquencies as well as concerns over spillovers from nonpayments of rent and mortgages. Against the backdrop of corporate, consumer, and real estate stress, several respondents noted that bank asset quality could come under severe pressure. Smaller banks with high concentrations of lower-rated consumers, small and medium-sized businesses, and commercial real estate were viewed as especially vulnerable.

Several policy-related risks were also identified, including the risk that funding designated to support small businesses would be either insufficient to address the scale of the need or not timely enough to avert a wave of layoffs and bankruptcies. Finally, a few contacts noted the prospect that state and local governments would face large budgetary gaps, with spillovers to the municipal bond market and local economies. In the euro area, some respondents noted that the absence of more expansive fiscal resource sharing or debt mutualization could underpin a return of redenomination risk in some of the monetary union’s most indebted sovereigns.

A few respondents noted that novel investment strategies and market structures could prove vulnerable in a sustained market downturn. Specifically mentioned were the growth of short-volatility strategies, the expansion of leveraged ETFs, and the reliance in some markets on sources of liquidity that could withdraw in a shock.

Finally, geopolitical tensions were cited frequently as a medium- to long-term risk. A few contacts noted that the COVID-19 outbreak could amplify tensions and accelerate a shift away from multilateralism. Respondents also highlighted the risk of heightened trade tensions and the possibility that the virus and its fallout could accelerate global leadership changes and amplify political uncertainty.

A string of worst evers

As the COVID19 deaths peak, in the first wave at least, across much of the developed world the narrative this week has moved to exit strategies. The medical situation remains highly uncertain, as the article in the Atlantic illustrated. A core unknown, due to the lack of extensive antibody testing, is the percentage of populations which have been infected and the degree of antibodies in those infected. What initially seemed to me to be a reasonable exit framework announced by the US has been fraught with execution uncertainty over the quantity and quality of the testing required, exasperated by the divisive ramblings of the man-child king (of the Orangeness variety).

The economic news has been dismal with a string of worst ever’s – including in retail sales, confidence indices, unemployment, energy and manufacturing. The number of turned over L shaped graphs is mind-blowing. And that’s only in the US! The exhibit below stuck me as telling, particularly for an economy fuelled by consumer demand.

In the words of the great Charlie Munger: “This thing is different. Everybody talks as if they know what’s going to happen, and nobody knows what’s going to happen.” The equally wise Martin Wolf of the FT, who penned an article this week called “The world economy is now collapsing” posted a video of his thoughts here. His article was based upon the release of the latest IMF economic forecasts, as below.

The IMF “baseline” assumes a broad economic reopening in the H2 2020. The IMF also details 3 alternative scenarios:

  • Lockdowns last 50% longer than in the baseline.
  • A second wave of the virus in 2021.
  • In the third, a combination of 1) and 2).

The resulting impacts on real GDP and debt levels for the advanced and emerging/developing countries respectively are shown below.

A few other interesting projections released this week include this one from Morgan Stanley.

And this one from UBS.

And this one from JP Morgan.

In terms of S&P500 EPS numbers, this week will provide some more clarity with nearly 100 firms reporting. Goldman’ estimates for 2020 compared to my previous guestimates (2020 operating EPS of $103 versus $130 and $115 in base and pessimistic) were interesting this week given the negative figure for Q2 before returning to over $50 for Q4. The “don’t fight the fed” and TINA merchants amongst the current bulls have yet to confront the reality of this recession for 2021 earnings where the fantasy of an EPS above $170 for 2021 will become ever apparent with time in my opinion. Even an optimistic forward multiple of 14 on a 2021 operating EPS of $150 implies a 25% fall in the S&P500. And I think that’s la la land given the numbers that are now emerging! We’ll see what this week brings…..

Stay safe.

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.