Something else must be driving the fall in Chinese equities. ... What could that be? Have China’s banks overextended themselves more recently? Central planning or not, as we all learned in 2008, a surge in shadow banking can lead to terrible things. ... I am no expert on China, but it is very tempting to conclude that the Chinese gambling spirit has simply migrated from Macau to Shanghai. ... Relative to 1999, when the euro was first introduced as an accounting currency, Greek workers had at one point (around 2009-10) enjoyed almost twice the wage growth compared to the average German worker. Although much of the advantage has since been given up, Greek workers have still out performed their German colleagues since the introduction of the euro – at least as far as wage growth is concerned ... Ukraine, the Middle East and Puerto Rico are all in the dumps – but for three very different reasons. ... the deflation talk is likely to blossom up again, and several countries on either side of the Atlantic could be flirting with recession later this year or early next. Consequently, yields on long bonds could fall further, and stock markets may be in troubled waters for a while. I don’t expect this to be anywhere nearly as bad as 2008, though. It is a normal cyclical downturn, which may not even be strong enough to be classified as a recession. But a slowdown it is. ... I think the U.S. economy will substantially outperform most other OECD economies over the medium as well as the long term – even if there is a modest cyclical slowdown just around the corner.
My point is different. Low interest rates for an extended period of time don’t damage economic growth directly, but they cause damage in a multiple of other ways – a point almost universally missed by the critics. That is what this month’s Absolute Return Letter is all about. ... central bank action has had the effect of de-linking equities from the global growth cycle, as equity investors have chosen to blatantly ignore the fall in global trade in favour of more risk-taking at the back of accommodating central banks. Risk-on, risk-off has miraculously turned into risk-on, risk-on. “Don’t fight the Fed”, as they say, and equity investors have obviously chosen not to. ... First and foremost, returns are going to remain subdued because GDP growth will stay low for a long time to come. Demographic factors, productivity factors and mountains of debt in the majority of countries all point in the same direction, and that is towards below average economic growth. ... The most structural of those factors – demographics – will remain a negative for the U.S. economy for another 10-15 years, whilst economic growth in the euro zone and Japan will be negatively affected by demographics until at least 2050. This does not imply that there cannot be extraordinarily good years every now and then, but the average growth rate will almost certainly be low, causing interest rates to stay relatively low for a lot longer than most expect and corporate earnings to disappoint as well.
It has always baffled me how the financial industry in general, and financial newspapers in particular, appear to be hell-bent on forecasting this or that in early January. I actually find it outright laughable when someone projects the FTSE100 to be at 7,000 by Christmas time, or for the U.S. 10-year T-bond to hit 2.5% by midsummer. How on earth do they know? The generally poor predictive record proves they don’t, I suppose. On the other hand, that is perhaps what the majority of investors want. If you belong to that majority, there is no need to read any further. You will be wasting your time. ... If you see any forecasts from me (and you do), you will note that (i) they are very long term in nature, and (ii) they are based on structural trends, not tactical (cyclical) trends. Why is that? Partly because I think short-term forecasting is a sucker’s game, and partly because I know for certain that the structural trends that we have identified will happen. It is only a question of when, but more about that later. ... You can hardly open a newspaper these days without some commentator looking to buy fame by attempting to predict the next crisis but, as I just pointed out, the last one isn’t over yet. Therefore a far more relevant question is: What is likely to be the next leg of the GFC? ... I think three topics are particularly likely to steal the limelight in 2016:
- All sanctions against Russia to be lifted and trade relationships to be normalised.
- The EM crisis widens as commodity prices continue to fall.
- The credit market is spoiling the party again.
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.
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
My point is a simple one: Innovations are rarely life-changing events nowadays. Almost as important, at least from a macro-economic point of view, they are not likely to have nearly the same impact on productivity as the car had on the productivity of my parents, or the washing machine had on my grandmother’s ability to free up precious time. Productivity enhancements simply get more and more marginal, even if we think that all these new gadgets are wonderful. ... I am aware that there are people out there who would disagree with that statement; they don’t think the marginal impact of innovations is diminishing at all, but the macro-economic data suggests otherwise. ... at the most fundamental level, the change in economic output is equal to the sum of the change in the number of hours worked and the change in the output per hour. ... The workforce will fall nearly 1% per year in Japan and Korea between now and 2050; it will fall almost 0.5% per year in the Eurozone but only marginally in the UK, whereas it will rise almost 0.5% per year in the U.S. Significant regional differences in economic growth are therefore to be expected, but economic growth will be weak everywhere, at least when compared to what we got used to between the early 1980s and the Global Financial Crisis (‘GFC’). Those who argue that GDP growth will be disappointingly low for many years to come are on very solid ground. ... Some dynamics behave in the New Normal no different from the way they used to, but many don’t. In the following, I will review some of the outliers, and I will explain why (and how) that is an opportunity for investors, as long as the investment strategy is adjusted accordingly. Only the most naïve would expect an investment strategy that worked well in the great bull market to deliver similar, spectacular results in the years to come.
The New Normal is when plain logic no longer applies; when common sense takes the back seat. I have for a long time been defending the Federal Reserve Bank, and have not at all agreed with all those hawks who thought the Fed was sitting on its hands. Until recently, I felt very comfortable taking that view, but I am no longer so sure. Common sense suggests to me that the Fed ought to tighten a great deal more than they have already done, but does common sense apply? That is what this month’s Absolute Return Letter is about. ... something is not quite right, but what is it? Before I answer that question, let me share one more observation with you. Because the Fed is so inactive, there are signs of moral hazard growing in magnitude. Complacency appears to be sneaking in through the back door yet again. We humans never learn, do we? ... As GDP growth slows, more debt needs to be established in order to service existing debt, which will cause GDP growth to slow even further. I therefore think that, unless it suddenly becomes fashionable to default, debt will continue to rise and GDP growth will continue to slow in the years to come. ... I have changed my view in one important aspect. As debt levels continue to rise (short of any massive debt restructuring), governments will bend over backwards to keep interest rates at very low levels, as the only realistic alternative to low interest rates is default. ... Historically, when central banks have sat on their hands for too long, the end result has almost always been a bout of unpleasantly high inflation, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the changing demographics.
All we know at this point in time is that Brexit will (probably) happen at some point over the next 2-3 years, but we still have no idea what the actual implications will be. ... In that context I note that it has taken Canada ten years to negotiate their free trade agreement with the EU, and that was prioritised by the EU negotiators. The EU have already declared that the UK will not be prioritised. On top of that, the UK will now have to negotiate trade agreements with pretty much every country around the world that it does business with – a monumental task, and the legal resources to do that job do not exist, according to a government official. ... As events unfolded, it would probably be fair to say that the vote wasn’t really about what it was supposed to be about; that got lost along the way. No, it turned into a referendum for or against immigration and a protest vote against Brussels and London. The amount of bitterness in large parts of the country – and in particular in the North – is such that many saw the referendum as an opportunity to give Brussels and London (or at least the elite in those cities) a slap in the face. ... Now, a couple of weeks after the referendum, we are admittedly in a bit of a dilemma – almost akin to a prisoner’s dilemma. The more financial markets puke over the next few months, the more likely lawmakers on both sides are to forget past disagreements and insults, and work on a solution that would keep the UK in the EU. On the other hand, if financial markets get a whiff of something about to happen - a possible compromise solution – financial markets will perform better, and thus make it less likely to happen.
All we know at this point in time is that Brexit will (probably) happen at some point over the next 2-3 years, but we still have no idea what the actual implications will be. It all depends on the forthcoming negotiations between the UK and the EU (and the rest of the world), and David Cameron and Boris Johnson probably both did the wise thing and chickened out, because that isn’t going to be much fun. ... In that context I note that it has taken Canada ten years to negotiate their free trade agreement with the EU, and that was prioritised by the EU negotiators. The EU have already declared that the UK will not be prioritised. On top of that, the UK will now have to negotiate trade agreements with pretty much every country around the world that it does business with – a monumental task, and the legal resources to do that job do not exist, according to a government official. ... As events unfolded, it would probably be fair to say that the vote wasn’t really about what it was supposed to be about; that got lost along the way. No, it turned into a referendum for or against immigration and a protest vote against Brussels and London. The amount of bitterness in large parts of the country – and in particular in the North – is such that many saw the referendum as an opportunity to give Brussels and London (or at least the elite in those cities) a slap in the face.
Following 17 months of mostly negative equity returns in Europe, very recently, I have noticed an inclination amongst European investors to increase the risk profile in their portfolios. They may not exactly be going for broke (yet), but the willingness to take more risk is clearly on the rise. The rising appetite for risk could be driven by one of two factors. Investors could either be turning more optimistic, or it could be the result of less benign factors, such as a need to generate higher returns, whether they really believe in such an outcome or not. ... In short, I suspect investors are chasing returns that (I think) are unrealistic, and it is not the first time that happens. When investors are under extreme pressure, as I think many are now, they sometimes behave quite irrationally. They do things they would have sworn only a short while earlier they would never do. ... Is there anything else investors could do to raise the overall return level and, in particular, to generate more income without necessarily taking more risk?
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.
Investment rules shouldn’t be static. Investors should adapt their rules per the environment they are in. From experience, I can confirm that those who don’t adapt usually get into trouble sooner or later. My first and most important rule when investing is therefore a rule that defines the rules I should adhere to. ... What exactly do I mean by that? How can I possibly have a rule about rules? Allow me to explain. As I see things, there are rules and then there are rules. The most important ones always apply; those are my first frontier rules. There are not many of them, but they are all critically important. ... The second layer of rules – the second frontier – are strictly speaking not rules but principles. I treat them as rules, though, because I follow them almost whatever happens.
This is not a joke, but neither should you worry if you are long oil, as the price will most likely hit (at least) $100 long before it heads south, and that is due to a rising deficit between oil production and new oil discoveries ... I should have said fossil fuels, not oil, in the headline above, but there wasn’t enough room for all those extra characters! In other words, what I meant to say is that fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) prices will most likely approach $0 over the very long term. ... Just to complicate matters even further, strictly speaking, not even that is correct. What will happen to fossil fuel prices in the future is anybody’s guess, but what almost certainly will happen at some point is that demand for fossil fuels will approach zero. ... The problem in a nutshell is the geological depletion of existing fields and the growth of higher cost, geologically less attractive, fields. ... Tying up so much capital in one industry has become a significant drain on productivity in other parts of the economy. ... This will eventually have a major, and overwhelmingly negative, impact on GDP growth, all other things being equal.