Tag Archives: China

Sugar Highs

Having just recently returned from a trip to the Southern US, I was really struck by the poor food quality and, in particular, the amount of sugary drinks and foods that were being consumed by adults and children alike. As somebody who must watch their sugar intake, I took a trip around a supermarket in a relatively affluent area and I was dumbfounded by the amount of food advertised as low fat or healthy which were just stuffed with sugar. The labelling of many products did nothing to highlight the high sugar levels.

Dr Margaret Chan, the then Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a speech in October that “in just a few decades, the world has moved from a nutrition profile in which the prevalence of underweight was more than double that of obesity, to the current situation in which more people worldwide are obese than underweight”. The role of adiposity (a fancy word for fatty body tissue) as an independent risk factor is strongest for diabetes, defined by WHO as fasting blood glucose equal to or higher than 7 mmol/L, or on medication for raised blood glucose, or with a history of diagnosis of diabetes. The global prevalence of diabetes in the adult population has increased dramatically in recent decades, nearly doubling from 4.7% in 1980 to 8.5% in 2014. The increase in the US is frightening, as the graphs below show.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The increase in obesity and diabetes has not been confined to developed countries (where the prevalence is highest amongst urban dwellers and lower-income groups) with increases been seen globally, including sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries such as India and Mexico. China, with the world’s second largest economy, now vies with the US as the nation with the largest number of overweight citizens. In 2013, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report by Chinese researchers where the authors estimated a prevalence in the adult Chinese population of nearly 12% living with diabetes, and in its most shocking finding, the study estimated that nearly half of the entire adult Chinese population has pre-diabetes, amounting to nearly half a billion people.

Now that’s just mad.

Restrict the Renters?

It is no surprise that the populist revolt against globalisation in many developed countries is causing concern amongst the so called elite. The philosophy of the Economist magazine is based upon its founder’s opposition to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1843. It is therefore predictable that they would mount a strong argument for the benefits of free trade in their latest addition, citing multiple research sources. The Economist concludes that “a three pronged agenda of demand management, active labour-market policies and boosting competition would go a long way to tackling the problems that are unfairly laid at the door of globalisation”.

One of the studies referenced in the Economist articles which catch my eye is that by Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the US. The graph below from Furman’s report shows the growth in return on invested capital (excluding goodwill)  of US publically quoted firms and the stunning divergence of those in the top 75th and 90th percentiles.

click to enlargereturn-on-invested-capital-us-nonfinancial-public-firms

These top firms, primarily in the technology sector, have increased their return on invested capital (ROIC) from 3 times the median in the 1990s to 8 times today, dramatically demonstrating their ability to generate economic rent in the digitized world we now live in.

Furman’s report includes the following paragraph:

“Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behaviour becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behaviour, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity. Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers.”

IT firms have the highest operating margins of any sector in the S&P500, as can be seen below.

click to enlargesp-500-operating-profit-margins-by-sector

And the increasing size of these technology firms have contributed materially to the increase in the overall operating margin of the S&P500, as can also be seen below. These expanding margins are a big factor in the rise of the equity market since 2009.

click to enlargesp-500-historical-operating-profit-margins

It is somewhat ironic that one of the actions which may be needed to show the benefits of free trade and globalisation to citizens in the developed world is coherent policies to restrict the power of economic rent generating technology giants so prevalent in our world today…

Summer Blues

After the holidays, it’s time to pack the bucket and spades away and get back into the routine. It has been a volatile August.  A bear call in a post in early May is looking pertinent (as is the post on a suggested tie-up between Paddy Power and Betfair!) given the 7% drop in the S&P500 since then, although it is more likely dumb luck.

The market concern is centred on the prospects for China’s economy. Growth is widely believed to be a lot lower than the official 7% with exports down, concerns about zombie loans and the political ramifications of managing a lower growth economy. The Economist, in an article this week, highlighted the potential impact of a slow-down in China and other emerging markets on global growth, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeGlobal GDP Growth Breakdown 1980 to 2015

Amongst the usual holiday reading, I brought two books on economics for the beach. The first was the FT’s Martin Wolf’s “The shifts and the shocks” from late in 2014 and the second is the recently published “Postcapitalism” by Paul Mason. Although often a laboured read, I did manage to finish the former whilst I only got to start the latter (which is a much easier read).

Reading Wolf’s book as the China led volatility was unfolding only led to an enhanced feeling of negativity from the themes of the book, namely the lessons as yet unlearned from the crisis. Wolf competently covers much of the causes of the crisis and its aftermath – a global savings glut and associated global imbalances, an expansionary monetary policy that ignored asset prices and credit, an unstable liberalized financial system supervised by naïve regulation. The following graph from the IMF reminds of the global imbalances that proved so toxic when combined with a rampant financial sector.

click to enlargeGlobal Current Account Imbalances 1980 to 2013

Wolf questions the “belief that government borrowing is the illness for which private borrowing is the cure has survived all that has happened”. Some of the solutions that Wolf proposes include much higher capital requirements for banks than is currently being implemented under Basel III, deleveraging initiatives such as tax incentives towards equity and away from debt, corporate tax changes to encourage corporate investment, changes in debt contracts to convert to equity on macro-economic metrics, policies to address income inequality and to promote research and education.

A more radical reform of the financial system, along the lines of the Chicago Plan for 100% reserve banking whereby the ability to create money is taken away from profit seeking banks and given solely to central banks, is a step that Wolf favours but believes is unrealistic given the realpolitik of the developed world system. On the globalised financial system, Wolf believes that the “obvious truth that unless regulation and the supply of fiscal backstops is to be much more global, finance should be far less so” and suggests a greater segmentation of the world’s financial system.

There are many themes in Wolf’s book that got me thinking and I am hoping that Mason’s book will do the same, albeit from a totally different perspective. I think the market volatility has more time to play out and hopefully my summer reading, although yet to be completed, will assist in understanding what may come next.

Delirious Deleveraging

Michael Lewis, in his 2011 book “Boomerang” on the consequences of the financial crisis, said that “leverage buys you a glimpse of a prosperity you haven’t earned”. Well, if that is true, we are all in trouble based upon the findings from the fascinating Geneva report “Deleveraging? What Deleveraging?” from Luigi Buttiglione, Philip Lane, Lucrezia Reichlin and Vincent Reinhart, published yesterday.

The report paints a stark picture, as the following statements illustrate:

“Contrary to widely held beliefs, the world has not yet begun to delever and the global debt-to-GDP is still growing, breaking new highs. At the same time, in a poisonous combination, world growth and inflation are also lower than previously expected, also – though not only – as a legacy of the past crisis. Deleveraging and slower nominal growth are in many cases interacting in a vicious loop, with the latter making the deleveraging process harder and the former exacerbating the economic slowdown. Moreover, the global capacity to take on debt has been reduced through the combination of slower expansion in real output and lower inflation.”

The report has a number of attention grabbing graphs on debt levels as a % of GDP like the one below on the US and others on Europe, China and global debt levels, as below.

click to enlargeUS Debt as % of GDP

click to enlargeDebt as % of GDP

The report is particularly pessimistic about China’s medium term prospects after its rapid 72% rise in debt levels since the crisis. On the US and the UK, for the countries who “managed the trade-off between deleveraging policies and output costs better so far, by avoiding a credit crunch while achieving a meaningful reduction of debt exposure of the private sector and the financial system” the legacy of “a substantial re-leveraging of the public sector, including the central banks” leaves a considerable challenge for the future.

IOSCO Report on Corporate Bonds

Staff from IOSCO issued a report in April on the global corporate bond market. Although there was nothing earth shattering in the report, there was some interesting insights. The report highlighted 4 themes as below:

  1. Corporate bond markets have become bigger, more important for the real economy, and increasingly global in nature.
  2. Corporate bond markets have begun to fill an emerging gap in bank lending and long-term financing and are showing potential for servicing SME financing needs.
  3. A search for yield is driving investment in corporate bond markets. A changing interest rate environment will create winners and losers.
  4. Secondary markets are also transforming to adapt to a new economic and regulatory environment. Understanding the nature and reasons for this transformation is key in identifying future potential systemic risk issues and opportunities for market development.

The report also highlights the uncertainty that remains on secondary markets in the event of a interest rate shock and the $11 trillion worth of corporate debt (out of $50 trillion) due to mature in the next seven years.

Some interesting graphs in the report include the one below on the different characteristics of issuances pre- and post- 2007.

click to enlargeIOSCO Pre2007 and Post2007 Corporate Bond Issuance April 2014

Other interesting graphs highlight how corporate bonds are taking up the stagnation in bank credit in the US and the EU, and also highlight the boom in bank credit in China, as below.

click to enlargeIOSCO Bank Credit and Corporate Bond Markets April 2014

And finally the graphs below show the increase in non-financial corporate bond issuance and the modest growth in high yield issuance.

click to enlargeIOSCO Corporate Bond Markets April 2014