Over the past 15 years, the global economy has operated under two different growth models. Between 1999 and 2007, the growth model operated through ever larger trade imbalances between emerging market and commodity exporting countries – who ran larger and larger surpluses – and a group of rich countries – first and foremost the U.S. – who ran larger and larger trade deficits. Global imbalances were then seen as a problem by some, but they were really a symptom of the global geographic distribution of aggregate supply and demand, with excess supply in the high-saving emerging market countries and excess demand in some low-saving rich countries (and with energy exporting countries doing quite well as they exported to both). These supply-demand and saving-investment imbalances generated huge international capital flows that were sufficient to bring global demand into line with abundant global supply of goods at something approximating the full employment of global resources. ... That growth model obviously broke down in the global financial crisis years of 2007–2009 as global imbalances shrunk in line with global aggregate demand. From 2009–2014, the global economy has operated under stimulus from “nontraditional” monetary policies that pushed policy rates to zero and ballooned central bank balance sheets through massive “chunks” of quantitative easing. Also, the global policymakers “went Keynesian” for a couple of years during and following the crisis by delivering a large dose of fiscal stimulus. The good news is that, as a result, the global economy avoided depression and deflation. But that’s all they did or could reasonably do. The reality is that now, five years after the global financial crisis, average growth in the global economy is modest and the level of global GDP remains below potential. The global economy has not as of today found a growth model that can generate and distribute global aggregate demand sufficient to absorb bountiful global aggregate supply. Unless and until it does, we will be operating in a multi-speed world with countries converging to historically modest trend rates of potential growth with low inflation. 0% neutral real policy rates for many developed and some developing countries will likely be the investment outcome.
As crisis-induced fear fades, companies take on more leverage ... Companies are increasing their borrowing for three main reasons. The most obvious is that interest rates are low, meaning a key cost, borrowed money, can be obtained cheaply. That can result in higher returns to shareholders. Moreover, rates are likely to rise, which is encouraging companies to lock in low rates while they can. ... A second driver is the resurgence of activist investors which, emboldened by a benign economic environment, are pushing firms to return to shareholders cash that had been retained for a rainy day. There are weekly announcements of one hedge fund or another pushing a company to buy back shares, as much for short-term reasons—a large buyer in the market might temporarily push up the price of a stock—as for longer-term ones. ... And then, inevitably, there is tax. Many large companies are quietly following the well-publicised example of Apple by issuing debt to fund dividends or buy-backs rather than repatriating cash held overseas that would trigger large tax payments. Aside from the quirk of holding cash abroad, debt itself offers tax benefits: interest payments are tax-deductible and push down taxable earnings.
Martin Feldstein interviewed Paul Volcker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 10, 2013, as part of a conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research on “The First 100 Years of the Federal Reserve: The Policy Record, Lessons Learned, and Prospects for the Future.” Volcker was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 1979 through 1987. Before that, he served stints as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1975 to 1979, as Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs in the US Department of the Treasury from 1969 to 1974, as Deputy Undersecretary for Monetary Affairs in the Treasury from 1963 – 65, and as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1952 to 1957. During the interludes from public service, he held various positions at Chase Manhattan Bank. He has led and served on a wide array of commissions, including chairing the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board from its inception in 2009 through 2011.
Market bubbles are called bubbles for good reason. They form, they inflate, they grow to an unstably distorted size, and ultimately they undergo the effects of rapid decompression in search of equilibrium. In a word … they pop. And generally speaking, the bigger the bubble the bigger the bang. … Most of us are pretty good by now, we think, at spotting bubbles. After all, we know what they look like; we recognize their characteristics, don’t we? Maybe. Maybe not. Not all bubbles look or act the same. … Is there a bubble inflating again? … people often shrug their shoulders, scratch their heads, and simply accept that there must be good reasons why stocks have been on a roll. The average investor, after all, is at least one step removed from the markets for intangible assets and therefore has comparatively little experience to help avoid becoming their occasional Venus flytrap dinner. … When it comes to assessing the state of the real economy, on the other hand, most people are more circumspect and not so easily taken in. … this bubble was born of desperation, first by the misguided monetary policy regime and then by investors who are sure to become its unsuspecting victims as they look for return—any return—in all the wrong places. … Railing against Fed policy, of course, doesn’t change it. … we continue to believe it is possible—and necessary—to see both the forest and the trees in order to fulfill our highest obligation: to continue acting in the best interests of our clients. As noted investment manager Francois Sicart said recently: “The attitude of many professional investors toward the current market makes me think of a crowd enjoying a dance party on top of an active volcano. They know it is going to erupt but, instead of planning an exit, they keep dancing while trying to guess the exact date and time of the eruption.”
Financial repression refers to a set of governmental policies that keep real interest rates low or negative and regulate or manipulate a captive audience into investing in government debt. This results in cheap funding and will be a prime tool used by governments in highly indebted developed market economies to improve their balance sheets over the coming decades. … We should all be familiar with the effects of financial repression by now. If not, compare the declining amount of interest income coming out of your savings account to the rising costs you pay for groceries, gasoline, or (shield your eyes) college tuition. It has been nearly five years since we heard a loud “THUD” as the nominal yield of the short term U.S. Treasury note hit zero percent. The resulting negative real interest rates have become a pervasive feature of our economic landscape, and we expect them to persist for a very long time.
It’s 2 a.m. at the La Factoria bar in Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, a hipster joint with a sagging couch, tile floors, and Christmas lights that wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. While Get Lucky plays, tipsy couples slink out the doors onto the colonial city’s cobblestone streets and into this warm April night. At the bar, a 28-year-old hedge fund trader—the type of person who posts his SAT results on his LinkedIn page—is ranting about the tax code. He’s obsessed with it, complaining that the U.S. is the only major country taxing citizens on their worldwide income, no matter where they reside. That’s why he moved here. ... Struggling to emerge from an almost decadelong economic slump, the Puerto Rican government signed a law 18 months ago that creates a tax haven for U.S. citizens. If they live on the island for at least 183 days a year, they pay minimal or no taxes, and unlike with a move to Singapore or Bermuda, Americans don’t have to turn in their passports. (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in federal elections.) About 200 traders, private equity moguls, and entrepreneurs have already moved or committed to moving, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and billionaire John Paulson is spearheading a drive to entice others to join them. ... Most of the new arrivals downplay Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems, which include runaway pension obligations and an underground economy that leads to low tax collection rates. They’re also convinced their 20-year contracts with the government guaranteeing the tax benefits are sacrosanct. They will survive the inevitable Internal Revenue Service audits, they say, as long as they follow the residency rules.
“We’ve lost credibility in the market,” said Sergio Marxuach, director for policy development at the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan research institute in San Juan, the capital. “We used all that money to finance current expenditures, to refinance debt that had little or no impact on the real economy.” ... Colon de Armas said Puerto Rico’s leaders haven’t done enough to make local industry competitive in the global economy and are instead counting on tax incentives or other assistance from Washington to protect businesses. The global slowdown and Detroit’s bankruptcy are less important, he said. ... “We were in recession when the world was having good economic times,” he said. “It’s true that the world has had bad economic times recently, but we are uniquely depressed.” ... Besides the economy, rising crime is also persuading people to leave. The homicide rate is about 27 for every 100,000 people, compared with the U.S. average of 4.7, according to 2012 data from the FBI.
According to the city, the Taxi King controls 860 cabs (Freidman says he actually operates more than 1,100). That’s more than anyone else in town. Factor in the hundreds of vehicles he has in Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, and he’s almost certainly the most powerful taxi mogul in the country. Freidman makes money by leasing the cabs to drivers on a daily or weekly basis. ... To own a cab in New York, you need a medallion—a metal shield displayed on the vehicle’s hood—and there are a fixed number issued by the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC). Until very recently, medallions were a good thing to have a lot of. In 1947, you could buy one for $2,500. In 2013, after a half-century of steady appreciation, including a near-exponential period in the 2000s, they were going for $1.32 million. ... desperate medallion sellers are trying to fob off their little tin ornaments for as little as $650,000. ... This has had a profound effect on Freidman, whose net worth appears to be in free fall. ... The day the cap was defeated, 22 of Freidman’s companies, owning 46 medallions, filed for bankruptcy. ... “Honestly, I would love the piece not to be about ‘We had breakfast at Cipriani, then we walked over to his Park Avenue apartment, then we got into his Ferrari.’ ” ... If Uber is chiefly responsible for driving down the price of taxi medallions, Freidman played a big role in driving it up in the first place. Allow him to explain his strategy: “I’d go to an auction, I’d run up the price of a medallion, then I’d run to my bankers and say, ‘Look how high the medallions priced! Let me borrow against my portfolio.’ And they let me do that.” ... According to the Citibank bankruptcy filing, Freidman’s companies owe roughly $750,000 on each Citibank medallion.
Beware the Ides of March, or the Ides of any month in 2015 for that matter. When the year is done, there will be minus signs in front of returns for many asset classes. The good times are over. ... Timing the end of an asset bull market is nearly always an impossible task, and that is one reason why most market observers don’t do it. The other reason is that most investors are optimists by historical experience or simply human nature, and it never serves their business interests to forecast a decline in the price of the product that they sell. Nevertheless, there comes a time when common sense must recognize that the king has no clothes, or at least that he is down to his Fruit of the Loom briefs, when it comes to future expectations for asset returns. Now is that time and hopefully the next 12 monthly “Ides” will provide some air cover for me in terms of an inflection point. ... Even with the recognition of the Minsky Moment in 2008 and his commonsensical reflection that “stability ultimately leads to instability,” investors have continued to assume that monetary (and at times fiscal) policy could contain the long-term business cycle and produce continuing prosperity for investors in a multitude of asset classes both domestically and externally in emerging markets. ... If real growth in most developed and highly levered economies cannot be normalized with monetary policy at the zero bound, then investors will ultimately seek alternative havens. Not immediately, but at the margin, credit and assets are exchanged for figurative and sometimes literal money in a mattress. As it does, the system delevers, as cash at the core or real assets at the exterior become the more desirable holding. The secular fertilization of credit creation and the wonders of the debt supercycle may cease to work as intended at the zero bound.
Major advanced economies have made mixed progress in repairing the private sector’s balance sheets. This column explores private sector deleveraging trends and calls for a set of policies that will return debt to safer levels. Monetary policies should support private sector deleveraging and policymakers should not ignore the positive impact of debt restructuring and write-offs on non-performing loans. ... Projections of debt ratios based on World Economic Outlook data of inflation and growth suggest that nominal growth might not be sufficient to eliminate high debt loads everywhere. Blanchard (2015) warns that there are no magic long-run debt-to-GDP numbers to target but a number of countries that saw sharp increases in debt levels would still remain above their pre-crisis averages (Figure 1). For example, gross non-financial corporate debt in France, Japan, Portugal, and Spain would remain above or near 70% of GDP by 2020 under current World Economic Outlook projections of growth and inflation, higher than their pre-crisis averages and higher than those of other major advanced economies.
Economists are always right, even when they are not, aren’t they? Fat chance. The reality is very different. Writing these letters is akin to being constantly exposed, and – at times - looking rather silly. But I still enjoy it, so allow me to stick my neck out again and go against the consensus, because that is, at the end of the day, how you make money in this industry. ... The broad consensus is that DM countries are finally returning to some sort of normality (often called the New Normal), following years of Zombie-like conditions. There is, admittedly, a growing recognition that GDP growth is likely to disappoint for quite a while to come, but I believe that ‘quite a while’ should be measured in decades and not, as most seem to believe, in years ... In the following, I will argue that GDP growth will disappoint for a very long time to come, and that will obviously have an effect on corporate earnings growth as well. As I see things, most investors are still way too optimistic on GDP growth and corporate earnings growth for the next many years. ... There are in reality not one but at least four reasons why returns on financial assets will1 disappoint in the years to come, and they are (in no particular order):
1. Regulatory changes.
2. The end of the debt super-cycle.
3. Wealth-to-GDP to normalise.
4. A deteriorating demographic outlook.
In an industry where no one knows anything, here, finally, was someone who seemed to know something: Ryan Kavanaugh, a spikily red-haired man-child with an impish grin and a uniform of jeans and Converse sneakers who had an uncanny ability to fill a room and an irresistible outlook on how to make money making movies. Not yet 30 when he founded Relativity Media in 2004, he very quickly became not only a power player in Hollywood but the man who might just save it. With a dwindling number of studios putting out ever fewer movies, other than ones featuring name-brand superheroes, Kavanaugh became first a studio financier and then a fresh-faced buyer of textured, mid-budget films. To bankers, Kavanaugh appeared to have cracked the code, having come up with a way to forecast a famously unpredictable business by replacing the vagaries of intuition with the certainties of math. ... Even Hollywood wasn’t used to a pitch this good. Kavanaugh alternately dazzled and baffled — talking fast, scrawling numbers and arrows and lines on whiteboards, projecting spreadsheets. ... Borrowing a tool from Wall Street, he touted his “Monte Carlo model,” a computer program that runs thousands of simulations, as a device that could predict a film’s success far more reliably than even a sophisticated studio executive. Better, Kavanaugh convinced several studios that he could raise more money for them if they gave him access to their guarded “ultimates” numbers showing the historical or projected performance of a film across all platforms (DVD, video-on-demand, etc.) over a number of years.
One thing we are exceptionally good at in the West is to blame China for pretty much anything that goes haywire. If you believe various commentators, it is all China’s fault that global equity markets have caught a serious cold more recently and, before that, China was blamed for the extraordinary weakness in industrial commodity prices. They have weakened - or so the argument goes - because China’s growth is not quite what it used to be, and commodity producing countries are over-producing as a result. ... Whilst entirely correct that China’s GDP growth rate has indeed slowed substantially, perhaps someone should consider whether China is as much the consequence as the cause; whether China is in fact a victim rather than a villain? Let me explain. ... I see no reason why the present combination of low oil prices and attractive foreign exchange rates shouldn’t invigorate economic growth across emerging markets ... EM equities could quite plausibly end up being the bargain of the year, although I am concerned about corporate leverage in many EM countries. One would therefore have to step carefully ... Finally a general observation: This is not a repeat of 2008, as many have suggested. An EM crisis is not likely to do nearly as much damage to the financial system in our part of the world, as the GFC did. Why? Because the banking system in DM countries have only limited exposure to corporates in EM countries.
- Also: Foreign Policy - China’s Coming Ideological Wars < 5min
- Also: Quartz - The most egregious examples from the Chinese government’s long, sordid history of data-doctoring 5-15min
- Also: Financial Times - M&A: China’s world of debt < 5min
- Also: Wall Street Journal - Chinese Developers Build in America, but Look for Buyers at Home < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - China’s great game: Road to a new empire < 5min
As you may recall from previous years, the January letter is always about the mine field laid out in front of us. What could cause 2017 to be a year to remember? What could possibly go horribly wrong? At this point in time, I see many potential problems. I have some concerns about the US. I see dark clouds gathering over Europe, and I see very slippery conditions in many emerging markets (‘EM’). In other words, lots of markets around the world appear to be accident prone but for very different reasons ... The secret to being a good investor is to focus on risk management and to be well prepared for bad news. ... Stagnating economic growth and low – or even negative – real wage growth has created a deep level of dissatisfaction that the electorate chose to use politically ... EM non-financial corporates have continued to accumulate debt as if there is no tomorrow ... USD 890 billion of EM bonds and syndicated loans (an all-time high) are coming due in 2017 with almost 30% of that denominated in US dollars ... I usually focus on the negative aspects when investing; hence my writing also has a negative bias. That is not the same as saying that I am always bearish, and I am most definitely not particularly bearish going into 2017.
The regulator closed almost 100 banks in 2016, and in a cleanup with few precedents, Nabiullina has shut almost 300 over the past three years. This may be only the beginning. There are about 600 banks left across the world’s largest country, but Fitch Ratings analyst Alexander Danilov, adjusting for population, calculates that as an emerging market Russia would be fine with about 1 in 10 of those. ... she runs what in Russia is called a “megaregulator.” When it comes to the economics behind Putin’s overarching goal of restoring Russia’s place in the world, there’s no one more influential. ... As central bank governor, she’s in charge of a banking system whose weak links are an economic burden, driving up the cost of financing so badly needed in the face of stagnant growth. She’s also the chief guardian of Russia’s foreign currency reserves. Those holdings are more than just a tool of monetary policy; according to several senior officials, Putin views them as a vital safeguard of the country’s sovereignty. ... The full picture only becomes clear when they’re shut down and regulators have to track the assets. In those cases, only about 40 percent of what the banks claimed was on their books actually existed