Tall Tales

What’s the story?

When Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2013  (shared with Lars Peter Hansen and the great Eugene Fama), I recall being particularly pleased for him. He is, rightly I suspect, a skeptic of the antics of financial markets, having twice called the top in market bubbles (dot.com and housing crisis). He coined the phrase “irrational exuberance,” which was used to powerful effect by Alan Greenspan.

Then, famously during the dot.com crisis, he was derided by many in the financial community and on CNBC for his pronouncements that markets would collapse. He handled himself with grace and had the last laugh. In addition, he is an economist with a practical interest in markets and asset prices, and many of his housing and stock market metrics are now widely used.

Well before academics shared data publicly, Shiller made his long-term market valuation series available on the internet. This open source approach is perhaps one of the reasons why his long-term data is now widely referred to. The key metric here is what is called the Shiller P/E (price to earnings ratio) or, as he himself puts it, the CAPE, the cyclically adjusted price to earnings ratio. What this essentially does is normalize earnings across the economic cycle.

The CAPE is now at a level only previously reached in 1929 and 1999/2000. We know what happened next in both of those cases. This doesn’t seem to worry investors, largely because the market narrative is built around the notion that ‘a trade deal will be done any day now’ and that the Federal Reserve will continue to dose markets with liquidity.

Interestingly, the idea of the macro ‘narrative’ is the focus of Shiller’s most recent work (he has a book out entitled ‘Narrative Economics’ as well as several papers on the topic). Essentially, he investigates the ways in which we (households, investors, economists) tell stories about the behavior of economic events and market trends. I would argue that ‘The Levelling’ is a narrative on what is happening to the old world order and on how it would evolve.

Shiller’s ‘narrative’ based strand of research is not new. Pop economists have for a long time made sense of the world by coining understandable terms like ‘white van man’, and for an even longer time, stockbrokers have told stories around stocks and markets, and their clients have readily swallowed these stories.

I tend to classify the spectrum of the finance industry as having two ends – storytelling and quant. Story tellers are not good quants, and quants are not good storytellers. What is interesting now is that quant, be it through the provision of new and better datasets, is providing the narrative ammunition for storytellers to tell more elaborate, and possibly convincing, macroeconomic stories.

Storytelling is also a neat way of bunching together the various trends in markets. For instance, there is a notable divergence between what we might call drugged assets (assets that are under the spell of central bank liquidity) such as the Dax, quality corporate bonds, euro-zone debt and the S&P 500 index, and those like emerging market currencies, some commodities and crypto currencies (see last week’s missive) that do not have the outright benefit of central bank asset purchases, and that as a result tell a cleaner picture about the relatively weak global economy.

As we head into December expect many to continue the narrative that central bank liquidity will suppress volatility, and I suspect that in general this narrative will continue to hold into 2020.

One narrative that may pick up pace, is the idea I explored a few weeks ago of ‘Demonstration Contagion’ (link). Under this narrative, the panoply of protests around the world are both distinct and have common perceived causes such as inequality and climate damage. In particular, events in Hong Kong cut across many of these issues, and there is a great deal at stake economically and politically.

The new developments are that President Trump’s (by the way Shiller describes him as a ‘master of narratives’…Shiller is a master of irony) signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the overwhelmingly pro-democracy tenor of last week’s council elections in Hong Kong, provide two threads to tie events in Hong Kong to the trade dispute between the US and China, and to January’s Presidential elections in Taiwan.

As such, protestors in Hong Kong have every incentive to continue to protest, and the Chinese authorities cannot but feel more uncomfortable. As crowds in Hong Kong this weekend hold aloft the image recently tweeted by Donald Trump of his head superimposed on the body of ‘Rocky’, the Demonstration Contagion narrative is only just warming up.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

From Bitcoin to no coin

Falling down

Things are stirring in the cryptocurrency world. There is a burgeoning debate about central bank issued digital currencies, and in the past month bitcoin has fallen by over twenty percent.

In its short life as a trading asset, bitcoin has appeared to move in sync with equities, so this recent move may spark some concern. A more intriguing, related question is whether bitcoin is an indicator of risk appetite or a beneficiary of risk aversion. Indeed, within the less ‘independent’ crypto currency community there is a view abroad that bitcoin and crypto currencies are a ‘safe haven’ in the same way people might for instance, regard gold.

My own sense is that crypto currencies in general and bitcoin specifically are not safe havens. They have failed the purpose they were intended to fulfill in that they are not actively used as a means of exchange. Few retailers accept them, fewer consumers actively use them and transaction costs are still very high.

The technology associated with cryptocurrencies is also complex enough to dissuade most households from using them. For many people the process of setting up a crypto wallet, and mentally translating crypto prices into everyday currencies is too demanding to bother with. This ‘ease of use’ is a cognitive barrier to entry and something that will take time for many to overcome, even Millennials.

In addition, the infrastructure around cryptocurrencies is fragile in at least two respects. Parts of that system, such as exchanges are prone to hacking and ransoming, and can also be shut down at the whim of governments.

From the point of view of cryptocurrencies as assets, very basic data analysis suggests that optically bitcoin has a low correlation with safe havens like gold. This does not mean that bitcoin is a good diversifier or a safe haven. It has been highly volatile over the past two years and is subject to trading and liquidity risks not normally associated with safe havens.

A further clue as to the true nature of cryptocurrencies as investable assets comes from the community of people who hold and trade them. The micro-structure (or plumbing) of markets, as well as the anthropology and sociology of those who populate them (which will have to be the subject of a future missive) is crucial to the way they behave and subsequently to their risk characteristics.

In this light the fact that the biggest holder of bitcoins is apparently the FBI says a lot. A good deal of trading in cryptocurrencies takes place in Asia, other emerging markets like Russia and in hubs like Zug.

Though admittedly not scientific, nor thorough, I suspect that many bitcoin traders also trade equity futures and currencies and use the same equity trading rules (technical) to buy and sell bitcoin (cryptos now have their own rating system, FCAS). If this generalization holds, it suggests that risk budgeting may drive a positive correlation between cryptocurrencies and equities, especially at market highs and lows.

Another observation is that for its size (the top ten cryptocurrencies barely add up to the market cap of Citigroup) the crypto market attracts an inordinately large amount of attention, which may draw money in at high points. To my mind this points to bitcoin having a pro-cyclical bias in terms of its riskiness as a trading asset.

On a structural basis the fall in bitcoin may also signal trouble in the cryptocurrency world, which effectively exists to create means of exchange beyond the normal frameworks of governments and central banks. Note that bitcoin rallied to its year high in the immediate aftermath of Facebook’s announcement of the Libra project in mid June.

The current disarray surrounding Facebook’s Libra project is a sign of the operating and regulatory complexities facing cryptocurrencies. More powerful still is the incentive that central banks and fiscal authorities around the world have for the bitcoin not to succeed. Witness as an example the vigour with which the Chinese – who tightly control money flows – have clamped down on cryptocurrency exchanges.

The next steps in the crypto or digital currency (they are almost the same in that crypto currencies are digital currencies that use cryptography) industry for central banks to issue their own coins, and for the digital payments industry. More thorough regulation, cleaner cross-border payment processes and more reliable identification mechanisms will be part of the workload of central banks and governments.

It all suggests that instead of being a safe haven, bitcoin may become extinct.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

Europe’s next crisis

EU a beacon for the rest of the world

The decision of the German finance minister Olaf Scholz to acquiesce to a discussion on the creation of a euro-zone common deposit insurance scheme is welcome in the light of the half-baked nature of the euro-zone financial system. However, like the proverbial drunk searching for his keys under the streetlamp, it is also a case of tardy backwards looking, policy making.

For example, the facts that the market capitalization of Deutsche Bank trades at only one quarter of its book value and that the business model of Wirecard, Germany’s fintech leader, has been surgically dissected by the FT, suggest that reform of the domestic banking system is a more urgent and yet incomplete task for Germany (Mr Scholz may hope that one day Italian savers will bail out German banks).

While the ongoing focus on remedies to a future banking crisis is a reminder of Europe’s fragilities, the most damaging and alarming crises tend to strike in areas that policy makers have not yet tended to.

In that light, if Europe is going to have another crisis, it is much less likely to be economic in nature, such has been the develeraging of European economies and corporates in recent years, and such has been the focus on building new economic architecture in the euro-zone.

Rather as the new Commission takes office, their focus should be to look forward and grapple with the emerging debate in European values and identity, of which there are at least three strands.

The first of these relates to Europe’s place in the world. As globalization ebbs, and gives away to a multipolar world made up of at least three regions – US, China and Europe who do things increasingly distinctly, the organizing ethic of the EC must be to think of Europe as part of a system of great power rivalries as opposed to a cog in an integrated world. The weakening of the diplomatic ties and communications from Washington to Europe is just one sign of this.  The notion of a more singular EU points towards a deepening of efforts towards common European defence and security capabilities, a trade strategy that is prepared for ‘the worst’, and a greater effort to bolster Europe’s financial strength.

The second strand is that as the EU defines itself more clearly relative to the US, China and to a lesser extent Russia, individual member states will increasingly feel obliged or forced to take sides. Eastern European and Balkan countries, some of who enjoy investment flows from China and political support from Moscow will be the centre of attention here. Though there are few formal means of ‘bringing them onside’ there may soon be calls to curb EU aid to member states who are too closely aligned with China and Russia, or to change voting procedures to ensure that the likes of Hungary cannot sway or bloc EU wide votes.

Then, identity and the idea of European values crisis crosses country politics and has been brought to prominence with the clunky job description of ‘protecting our European way of life’ for Margaritis Schinas.

The recent rise of Vox in Spain is another example of the emergence of far-right wing political parties across Europe, and it is a possibility that we see a ‘Heimat’ coalition of such groups across the EU. Here, the EC can do several things, such as better defining what European values are in a practical sense that tallies with the everyday lives of Europeans and using social media to capture the values that resonate Europeans. Specifically, immigration is a policy area where the EC needs to have a much clearer and better organized approach, especially so in the case of refugees.

One additional factor worth highlighting, is that the generalized picture of the many protests around the world, from India, to Honduras to Lebanon, is that people want an end to inequality, corruption damage to the environment, and arguably, better democracy. The EU can take some comfort from the fact that, as a bloc, it is a leader in the field of liberal democracy, climate change and equality.

The final task for the new Commission is to dispel the sense that as Jean Monnet is reputed to have said, ‘Europe needs a crisis to move forward’. Brexit has shown how forcefully the EU can act when united and organized. Political chaos in Westminster and Washington makes Brussels look like a bastion of good sense.

Europe’s financial crisis has many lessons – the necessity to tackle emerging risks early and if anything to over rather than underreact, the need to coordinate well across countries, Commissioners and specialist areas, and the need to better communicate with Europeans as to what is being down in their name. The new Commission should internalize these lessons and move to pre-empt the ‘next’ crisis.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Demonstration contagion

Is this the beginning or end ?

In last week’s missive (link), I discussed the role of rising food prices as a trigger for public protest and I suspect, as a cause of future geopolitical strife. It is not a very happy topic but one that deserves some further analysis given that in recent weeks there has been a remarkable outbreak of protests across a range of countries – from riots in Honduras, to ongoing tension in Hong Kong to climate related demonstrations in India.

Were I one of the many apocalyptic writers who seize upon every misfortune as confirmation of their worldview I would tell you that this is the start of ‘The Levelling’, and that the ‘end’ will follow shortly.

Though I will spare my readers such a gloomy outlook, there is nonetheless a ‘Levelling’ like narrative that unites the motivation for the many international protests in the sense that most of them are provoked by factors that are associated with globalization (though in reality not usually caused by it).

For example, climate change has spurred Extinction Rebellion movements in Europe and environmental protesters in India. Factors that are associated with a lack of what I call ‘country strength’, such as corruption and weak institutions have been amongst the triggers for protests in Lebanon and Iraq, whilst the cost of living and rising fuel costs have brought people out onto the streets in Chile, Egypt, Ecuador and France. Inequality is also a driver, especially so in Chile, Mexico and Turkey.

Together these protests (by the way the number of Google searches on the world ‘protest’ is at a five year high) point to a world where there is limited patience for policy negligence and it negative socio-economic effects. I’ve had a look across the IMF and World Bank databases to find countries that are exposed to corruption, indebtedness, inequality and climate change. Many ‘candidates’ if I can put it like that are in Africa. One country worth watching – where inequality and indebtedness are high (as high as Jamaica), and where climate change is having a growing impact, is the US.  It still has strong institutions but consider what might happen in the context of a deep recession (with no fiscal buffer).

While there is no sense that the various protest movements are in anyway coordinated, they may still be contagious within and across countries.

Within countries, social media makes protests easier to organize at short notice, easier to spread (dis)information and easier to bring to the attention of the wider public. It was no surprise that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, protestors faced massive social media and cyber counterattacks from the Egyptian and Syrian authorities.

Protests are contagious across countries to the extent that social media can heighten sensitivity to issues and spread the ‘methodology’ of either violent or peaceful protest. For example, one image that crops up in protests around the world is the clenched fist of the Serbian peaceful protest group Otpor. There is also increasing contagion in financial markets in the sense that in emerging markets at least investors are reacting negatively to signs of political strife.

The troubling thought for the outlook is that the economic stresses underlying these protests will not go away anytime soon – inequality takes time to tackle, most governments are fiscally constrained, and many have high debt levels (i.e. Lebanon). To make matters worse, climate change points towards a more radically stressed environment.

However, the positive reading from all of this, at a time when it should be said that the quality of democracy and the rule of law internationally are deteriorating (according to the latest Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World’ report and the Rule of Law indicators in the World Justice Project dataset) is that people want less corruption, more equal societies and better balanced growth.

In that context, what is to be done? There are specific actions that can help, such as the relocation of the World Bank to Africa to act as an anchor against corruption and to spread best practice in institution building.

More broadly, I see a lot of space opening up for new political parties and movements, some that are interlinked across countries and others that are connected by their political methodology (i.e. use of social media). Then, eventually I see the such protests leading to efforts to remake social and political contracts along the lines of the Levellers’ Agreement of the People’, at least in democratic countries, so that policy issues such as climate change, inequality and corruption are more formally recognized and curbed at a policy level.

It will be a bumpy road politically, but the flourishing of protests around the world shows that something profound is occurring.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Ne vous mêlez pas du pain

Food set to become a controversial geopolitical issue

‘Ne vous mêlez pas du pain’ – do not meddle with bread, is the sound advice that Anne Robert Turgot, the 18th century French economic thinker and administrator gave to Louis XVI. It was good advice, which the King did not heed.

Turgot knew better, he was Controller General of Finances in France between 1774-1776, a period marked by the ‘Flour Wars’ when bad harvests pushed up the price of grain, and consequently, bread. The riots were a precursor to the Revolution, at a time when nearly half of disposable income was spent on basic foods like bread (and salt).

The link between food prices and unrest has held since then (and has a pedigree going back to and beyond the Roman Empire). In 2007 as dollar and commodity price volatility marked the beginning of the global financial crisis, a spike in soft (agricultural) commodities led to unrest in countries as diverse as Haiti, Mozambique and Bangladesh.

Then four years later, a spike in grain and other food prices catalyzed the Arab Spring, markedly so in Egypt which is highly vulnerable from the point food security. Some countries in the region, notably Kuwait, ducked such unrest by introducing grants and subsidising food consumption for over a year.  

The case of the Arab Spring underlines two other factors, both also found in the likes of Venezuela today. First, rising food prices are usually the ‘last straw’ for citizens in countries that are badly run, corrupt, suffer poor institutions and that are often also oppressive. Second, in many of these countries, as in pre-Revolutionary France, staple food stuffs like bread make up between one third to one half of discretionary spending.

This was the case in India in recent years, where spikes, or more appropriately bubbles in onion prices led to political agitation. For example, in mid 2013 there was fivefold spike in the price on onions, partly due to shortages, partly due to hoarding. Similar, dramatic spikes have occurred to garlic prices in China.

Since that period (2012-2013) world food prices have thankfully been stable, according to the UN FAO global food price index. One area of recent turbulence which is worth watching is pork prices in China. Swine fever has led to a sharp rise in the price of pork, which because foodstuffs account for some 30% of China’s inflation basket, has driven CPI (consumer price inflation) to 3%, close to its highs of the last eight years.

While China is not at all as fragile as Egypt, the spike in pork prices if it persists, will have a number of short and longer term macro impacts, one of which is that China may not have the demand for the 20 billion dollars or so of soya beans it has promised to purchase from the USA.

Chinese consumers will feel more constrained, and the rise in prices will, in the context of weaker property prices, contribute to a sense of ‘squeeze’ (recall the phrase ‘squeezed middle’ (class) in England). Relatedly, higher headline inflation makes it more difficult for the People’s Bank of China to cushion weakness in the economy with rate cuts.

The spike in pork prices is also a reminder of how food is at the centre of geopolitics. China, though vast, has a relatively constrained arable land mass, and will in the future have to import more food as well as try to buy land or crop facilities in other countries. Other food ‘vulnerable’ countries are India, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. Global warming and diminishing water supplies in many of these countries may mean that food security becomes an even more acute risk factor.

In contrast, the US has vast expanses of farmland, a good chunk of which could be used for food stuffs if it were not for ethanol subsidies. In the future, it may use food in an altogether more strategic way.

In the shorter term, the investment impact of higher pork prices is to make Chinese consumers nervier, to constrain policy makers there.  That means that demand for hard commodities like oil and copper will be muted, Chinese interest rates volatile and overseas food producers more attractive.

Further out, trade wars may give way to food wars.

Have a great week ahead,
Mike