America is the new Europe?

America looks like Europe!

When I try to defend the eurozone financial system to Eurosceptics, or even Europhiles, I remind them that the early years of the dollar were just as difficult as the eurozone crises of recent years. For example, the Whiskey rebellion of 1791 led to a contest between Alexander Hamilton’s Treasury and individual states, and his ultimately successful resolution of the crisis paved the foundation of the American financial system.

Amidst the global economic carnage caused by the coronavirus crisis, many (mostly in London and New York) expect the euro system to face another existential crisis. Though European politicians have generally failed to learn the lessons of past euro crises in that many reforms have not been executed, the euro and EU are more robust than many think.

While the euro is not yet as credible as the dollar, the surprise in coming months may be that America begins to look more like Europe.

Think of it this way. Governors of individual states have never enjoyed such prominence, with for example the governor of California referring to it as a ‘nation-state’. A recent FT survey showed that individual governors are more trusted than the President. In this respect the state governors are like the prime ministers of European countries.

In addition, American states are grouping together to form pacts to coordinate the ending of the lockdown (in Europe it is similar). Unlike Europe though, the political leaning of states is also a determining factor in the speed with which they are reopening, as is the President’s political and fiscal treatment of them (e.g. abandoning Obamacare). In time, this will make states more distinct economically and politically, and less united.

The decisive factor may be the impending credit crunch. We are now moving past both the initial financial shock of the coronavirus crisis, and the comfort of the financial morphine as provided by the Fed and Congress is wearing off. Yet, there is now much less that both the Federal Reserve and Treasury can do to forestall the closure of hundreds of thousands of businesses across America.

Against this backdrop investors are pointing to a growing widening of bond spreads for municipal bonds, and the rhetoric surrounding New Jersey and Illinois echoes with the way Italy and Greece are spoken of. Oil sensitive states may soon also come under pressure.

As the finances of individual states deteriorate, so too will be the expectation of support (bond buying by the Fed), and then, the moral hazard arguments that many in Europe deploy to sanction ECB buying of periphery debt, will resonate in the US.

It is also worth noting that like Japan and Europe in recent years, financial markets have just started to price in negative interest rates in the US (for next January), something that could rattle consumers and its banking sector.

Perhaps the worst thing this virus can do to America, beyond the human tragedy, is to increase the disparity of economic circumstances across states. In a country with extreme wealth inequality and an incomprehensible gap between sharply rising unemployment and a loft stock market, ‘intra-state inequality’ may grow. Migration between states and the current system of federal transfers will not be sufficient to balance this out.

Here, Europe is worth a look. One of the great achievements of the European Union has been the way it has funded infrastructure investment in relatively poorer countries. Americans visiting Ireland will be familiar with the ‘funded by the EU signposts’.

The lesson for America is that at a time when transport, telecoms and educational infrastructure needs to be badly upgraded, this should be done in a way that helps to equalize rather than exacerbate the differences between states. It is a task for the next president, whomever that is. However, the notion that ‘America’ needs to be put back together again needs to be debated now.

Have a great week ahead, Mike

The Decameron

Avoiding the Plague

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was one of the first literary masterpieces of the Renaissance. It is set in a villa outside Florence, at the height of the Bubonic Plague. Seven women and three men flee the Plague, ensconce themselves in a villa and spend ten days flirting, philosophising and debating. I have no doubt that Netflix or other entertainment channel will copy the idea and send an ensemble of Hugh Grant, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney, Mara Rooney and friends off to the Hamptons to repeat the experience.

If the Decameron were to be repeated, the guests in the villa might even ponder how the world has been changed by the coronavirus. The Black Death itself radically changed Europe, largely through the demographic effect that a 30% reduction in population had – in England nearly 40% of land changed hands, a shortage of labourers meant a rise in wages and innovation of farming methods and produce.

Rising wages for those who survived the Black Death altered the social mix (Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler is very good here) to the extent that the wealthy begun to dress more extravagantly in order to distinguish their social standing and in this were helped by regulation (i.e. England’s Sumptuory Laws 1363).

The Black Death altered the geopolitical map of Europe (similar, much earlier plagues like the Athens Plague and Antonine Plague had profound geopolitical effects), led to trade and banking revolutions and spurred the rise of cities like Madrid and Genoa, and the demise of others like Winchester.

Back to the villa, where if our guests were discussing the post coronavirus world they might fall upon the following points. First, the coronavirus crisis has simply exacerbated the faultlines in a fracturing world – indebtedness is growing rapidly, the China-US diplomatic relationship deteriorates, and globalization is crashed.

Second, more optimistically and in the spirit of the Renaissance, the crisis will I hope bring a number of positive changes. One is the realisation of the correlation between climate damage and economic activity. Another is the sense that our cities are places to be lived in – there will be significant changes to the way cities use space, transport and commercial real estate.

A more profound change will be a trend towards improving human development – in developed and developing countries. The components of human development – from life expectancy, to education and healthcare, to economic development – have come to the fore during the coronavirus crisis in the sense that countries with high levels of human development (Germany, New Zealand, Norway) have appeared to deal relatively better with the crisis than others, and the value of good, accessible healthcare systems has become abundantly clear. I might even stretch the point to say that well educated leaders, who take science seriously, have also done reasonably well.

The concept of human development however does not lend itself to political soundbites and as such is hard for politicians to communicate as a policy goal. Neither do initiatives that promote human development pay off in the short term – so politicians need to be around to gain credit for them (Russia is an interesting example where the HDI (Human Development Indicator produced by the World Bank) has been rising steadily). Hopefully, the coronavirus will change this and permit broader discussions on the need to focus government scorecards on human development centric scorecards. If this happens, we may see public goods like accessible education and healthcare become more valued in countries like the US and UK. In this light, there is an opportunity for politicians and those involved in the policy process to craft the idea of human development in a way that people understand and value, and to put it at the centre of political manifestos.

As a final point, when I think of our ten guests in the villa in the Hamptons, Agatha Christie’s book ‘And then there were none’ passes through my head. The idea of wealthy people secluding themselves in a villa to avoid a highly contagious disease is as unpopular today as it was in the 14th century. Again, as Walter Scheidel has pointed out, the Bubonic Plague was a leveller of inequality in the 14th century though amidst plenty of periods of unrest (La Jacquerie in France in 1358 and the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 in England).

So far, the policy response to the economic fallout from the crisis has arguably boosted wealth inequality (notably in the USA). In the coming weeks the generous provision of liquidity by the Federal Reserve will give way to rising solvency/credits risk, and with it more redundancies unfortunately. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, market volatility will give way to social and political volatility.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Wir sind alles Metallgesellschaft

An unhappy meeting of finance and industry

The behaviour of the price of oil in the last week was, to understate the matter, jerratic. A sharply negative oil price (the first time since 1870 at least) in the May contract served to illustrate how topsy-turvy the economic world has become (I hope some airlines hedged in negative oil!). Together with the relatively recent advent of negative interest rates, negative oil prices will convince many that something is not right in the engine room of the global economy.

I mentioned in last week’s missive that assets like oil that did not fall under the spell of central bank asset purchases gave a truer indication of the economic outlook than those assets that did.  

In this context, the signal sent by the price of oil, even today, should be a cause for concern. Of course, other factors conspired to push oil into negative territory – notably a shortage of storage, the convince of some hedge funds and traders as well as the side effects of financial engineering (exchange traded fund (ETF) structuring).

This upside-down oil shock is not over and the effect of low oil prices will continue to ripple through emerging and high yield debt markets, emerging market currencies and the dollar, as well as banks and the Texan economy.

In the greater scheme of things, it also brought to mind the case of Metallgesellschaft, a giant German industrial conglomerate which in 1993 ran up a USD 1.5bn (a lot of money then) loss on an oil hedging contract. Metallgesellschaft fell foul of the same effect we witnessed last week, contango, where the price of near dated contracts (i.e. May) dropped well below the level of later dated contracts (e.g. July).

The Metallgesellschaft case left a mark on the financial economic history of the early 1990’s and is widely taught in business schools as a case study in the dangers of mixing business and financial engineering.

The collapse of Metallgesellschaft came at an early point in the deployment of derivatives in markets and should have served as a salutary lesson to corporates, regulators and banks. That was not the case.

For instance, the lesson that Deutsche Bank, which had arranged the hedging trades for Metallgesellschaft, apparently drew from the blowout, was to aggressively expand its investment banking operation. Today, the share price of Deutsche bank is down 95% on the level it reached before the global financial crisis (without being too unkind to Deutsche Bank, David Enrich’s ‘Dark Towers’ is worth a look).

What the jumpy oil price and Metallgesellschaft have in common is an instruction on how the real economy and finance have become increasingly intertwined.  

From an economic and investment point of view, there is plenty to consider in this regard. I am tempted to say that there is one sector that does not rely on finance – technology – but the corornavirus crisis has turned tech from an industrial gargantuan into a stock market monster (Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook account for 22% of the market capitalisation of the S&P 500 index). Next week’s tech earnings results may bring a reality check for stocks, and see volatility pick up.

The two other sectors to consider are banks and private equity. In the light of the Metallgesellschaft discussion what is remarkable so far in the coronavirus economic crisis, is that no bank has keeled over (I may speak too soon).

Indeed, the balance sheet restrictions that have been put in place, and general focus on risk management, appear to have paid off. In many countries, banks are now part of the rescue mechanism, and there is an opportunity for many of them to repair their reputations. In Europe the price of heavy regulation has, made banks very cheap from a valuation point of view so that there may be some upside if a round of consolidation takes hold into 2021.

Unlike banks, private equity has for some reason not come under the intense scrutiny of regulators, even as private equity (and private debt) have replaced the role of banks in parts of the global economy (i.e. shadow banks).

A crunch is coming however. In the USA, private equity companies are heavily invested in medium sized enterprises, and in any cases have taken on large amounts of debt to do so. As the economic toll of the coronavirus deepens, the financial pressure on private equity will translate into economic pressure on companies (leading to cost cuts and layoffs), and social pressure on their workforces. Sadly, this may have a deeper human, economic and political effect than the drama of negative oil prices and deserves to be watched closely by policy makers as the summer approaches.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Roof

The Fed as protector in chief

Courthouses are fascinating places, and often help to shine a light on the deeper, darker layers of society. One example which sticks in my mind is the hosting some years ago by the London High Court of disputes between Russian oligarchs. The proceedings provided insights into the workings of Russian ‘capitalism’ and in particular uncovered the term ‘krysha’, or ‘roof’. Its essence is that individuals are given protection (roof) or cover from interference, in return for money or other obligations.

Whilst I know little about the darker corners of the Russian economy the phrase ‘roof’ struck me as a useful one in the light of recent central bank interventions. Regular readers of this note and those who have read The Levelling will know that I consider that in recent years central banks have encroached too far into financial markets, to the extent that they ‘own’ them, economically and psychologically. Amongst the many risks that this can lead to, is for investors to believe that risks in markets are uneven (i.e. the Fed will cover downside risks) and this may help to explain why it took markets so long to react to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in January.

The latest moves by the Federal Reserve, in particular that to support the high yield bond market, are redolent of ‘roof’, though ‘floor’ might be a better term. In doing so the Fed distorts market prices, offers one sided ‘bets’ to speculators and helps out reckless investors. Apart from curbing market disorder, some of the Fed’s actions will have very limited economic impact at a time when small businesses and many households in the US are struggling.  

For some, this will create the impression that the Fed is beholden to Washington and more Wall Street than it is responsive to the broader American economy. What is more troubling is that the Fed’s activism will allow a stock market centric president (see my January 19 note ‘Peak Stocks, Peak Trump’) to claim a sense of ‘mission accomplished’, whilst ignoring the deeper economic and public health carnage of the crisis.

In markets, what is noticeable is that assets that do not have ‘roof’ appear to be underperforming those that do. Emerging market debt and fx have been weak, as have energy prices and copper, whilst small cap American stocks (Main Street) have underperformed the Nasdaq (Wall Street).

In this climate, the non-protected (non-roof) assets, or rather those that are not under the spell of big central banks, will likely continue to offer the best steer as to where the global economy is going – in that respect these assets (copper, oil and EM currencies) point to ongoing stress in the global economy. If this continues to be the case it will create a two-tier investment world where investors trade baskets of ‘roof’ (Fed sensitive assets) and ‘non-roof’ assets (economy sensitive assets) against each other.

In Europe, the propensity of the ECB to offer ‘roof’ is constrained by the political-economic divide between northern and southern economies. While the ECB has nonetheless been relatively speedy and generous in its actions, there has been something of a market backlash against periphery bonds (Italy in particular, and also Spain and Portugal). To one end, this strikes me as investors indulging in a habitual trade in that they expect every market crisis to become a euro-zone crisis.

One interesting rebuttal to this is that the US is beginning to look more like Europe. Note that US state governors (like EU state prime ministers) are enjoying a level of prominence they have rarely had and are beginning to form inter-state ‘pacts’ in the same way that countries within the EU are forming coalitions (i.e. France/Germany, the Hanseatic League 2.0). Financially, there will be greater market focus on municipal debt, the variability of real estate prices and mortgage debt across the US (a la Europe). So, Eurosceptics might well look to the US for their next trade.

As a final point Europe to reiterate the sense of recent comments of the French President, needs to give itself ‘roof’. Endless squabbling about debt mutualization is not the way forward here. The best approach is bottom up harmonization of processes – such as setting up a business, corporate governance and capital markets, not to mention harmonization of ‘emergency’ protocols for crises like the coronavirus crisis.

A more profound solution is to do what Europe has not done in a sincere way since its foundation – a strategy to grow its economies together, that goes beyond wordy plans and empty unenforceable commitments. That is the great challenge for Emmanuel Macron and those (myself included) who want the EU to thrive in a post coronavirus world.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

League of Nations

Soon as competitive as the Champions League?

If the defining characteristic of the coronavirus crisis is its speed, then equally, one of its defining effects has been to expose the vast disparity in in the way countries have been affected by and dealt with the virus.

Though it is very difficult to have a true sense of numbers of infected as well as deceased, there are remarkable differences in fatality rates (per capita) if we say compare close neighbours – Ireland to England, Germany to France or even Norway to Sweden.

Whilst there are also some stark inter-state differences across the USA (Kentucky v Tennessee for instance), countries are still the best lens by which to view the effects of the coronavirus because they capture differences in laws, customs, social cohesion, institutions, political leadership and so on.

On balance, countries with good levels of human development, institutions and where the state is competent, seem to be doing a good job of containing the crisis. They are aided in this by largely obedient and well informed citizens, though the Easter weekend will test how obedient those citizens are.

So far, the crisis (beyond China) has centred largely on what we regard as the developed world (Europe, the USA and many Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore), but it is now picking up in developing countries.  

Amongst the big emerging economies (China apart), Turkey and to a lesser extent Brazil stand out in terms of the onset of new cases. By and large, the emerging world has appeared to be be spared the scale of tragedy that has struck Spain and Italy, partly because testing is done sparsely (India has done 121 tests per million people compared to 13,000 for South Korea), and partly because these countries are less intensely connected to China and other international hubs.

In the near term, there is a growing need to tend to sharply rising poverty in the developing world, and a need to ensure that they are also well served in terms of medical supplies and knowledge.

When the crisis is over, emerging economies will have much to think about in terms of the resilience of their currencies (i.e. Rand), structure of labour markets, the patterns of migration and most importantly, urbanization and the role of public health systems.

This is a time when the rise and fall of nations is being accelerated and offers countries with scope for structural growth (i.e. Bangladesh to Ethiopia) a chance to stop and rethink their paths forward. They might also rethink how they are served by the dominant world powers and by international public goods.

In a context where institutions like the World Bank and World Health Organisation are being drawn into the geo-political rivalry between the USA and China (for example, the US President has threatened to cut funding to the WHO) there is an opportunity for emerging nations to speak out and to claim the best parts of these institutions for the developing world.

One suggestion might be to move the headquarters of the World Bank to Africa, which is the one region of the world that continues to need the expertise of the Bank. Locating the experts and executives of the World Bank in Africa will arguably make them more responsive, and better informed of the economic challenges there.

Equally, the expertise of the World Health Organisation could be harnessed for a post-corona crisis wave of public health education across emerging countries and an embedding of the health lessons of the crisis into urban and economic development planning.

There is also a greater strategic consideration at play. The developing world is still condescended to by the dominant economies and in the style of Thomas Pakenham’s influential book ‘The Scramble for Africa’. For instance, the crippling debt burden associated with the One Belt, One Road project will become more clear in coming months (e.g. Sri Lanka).

Given the way in which the crisis has exposed supply chains, there is potential for emerging countries to take stock of their strategic assets – an ability to produce some pharmaceuticals and healthcare equipment cheaply, and in certain cases, they are critical producers of food.

In a word order where national identities and borders have been reinforced, emerging nations may look to strike a tougher bargain with wealthier ones in terms of their hold over agricultural commodities. If they do so, they can become part of the levelling out of geopolitical power in the post coronavirus world.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Sitting quietly

Blaise Pascal – for how long can he sit quietly?

At this stage in the coronavirus crisis, many of us consider ourselves experts on pandemics and biology. The speed of the coronavirus through our world is paced by the speed at which our concern and curiosity is fuelling a quest for information.

One thread that has become evident to me, is that historically epidemics have not always been greeted with calm and grace. In periods when medical knowledge was not as well developed as it is now, and when democracy and public health education were fledgling, epidemics were often met with violence and disorder.

For example, in the early 1830’s cholera spread across Europe but efforts to contain it in countries as diverse as Scotland, Prussia and Russia were greeted with public attacks on doctors, nurses, and quarantine officers. At times, anyone in a white coat was a target. The general fear was that authorities were using the cholera epidemic to poison people so as to reduce the burden on the state or that doctors simply wanted cadavers for anatomy schools. We trust experts more today!

Compared to the nineteenth century, what is remarkable today is the degree to which populations – mostly in Asia and Europe so far – have followed the lockdown guidelines. In general, adherence to the lockdown has been highest in countries where trust in government (and perhaps fear in some cases) is greatest.

The next stage of the crisis, coming over the next two weeks, will severely test this trust. Whilst I am now tired of reading commentators quoting Blaise Pascal’s ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’, millions of people across the world will face severe stress in terms of how they sustain themselves. This much was made clear by last Thursday’s initial jobless claims figure in the USA. At the height of the economic pain of the global financial crisis (March 27, 2009) the jobless number hit 665,000. Last week’s figure was ten times that.

With the number of coronavirus deaths per capita, per day, in the US now higher than during the US Civil War, the pressure on the US economy and its healthcare system will grow. The same will be true of many other countries, and though part-time or partial work schemes in economies like France and Germany may lessen the economic uncertainty, it will still weigh heavily. For instance, the past week has already seen food shortages in Italy, mile long queues for food banks in Pennsylvania. In many cases, loans, compensation and government payouts in the US will not arrive in bank accounts for weeks.  

As this urgent, difficult stage of the coronavirus crisis develops, obligations on governments will grow. In Europe, there is an opportunity for what we might stereotypically call the ‘Northern’ countries to repair the diplomatic damage to the idea of EU solidarity of recent weeks (I am thinking of the Dutch in particular!) and undertake to ensure that food and basic staples can reach parts of the EU where they are needed.

In the USA, the past three years have seen a hollowing out of expertise in government. Consider that in 2017 and 2019 the Pentagon and White House economists respectively developed studies to plan for a coronavirus like pandemic, but the executive did very little to prepare for such an eventuality. In the longer-run, the state of healthcare and the fragility of the US labour market should become major political issues. In the meantime, I expect that both corporate America and the military will play a greater logistical role in meeting the needs of this next phase of the crisis in the US.

As this occurs, the debate on the marginal usefulness of the lockdown (in terms of its contribution to lives saved versus its economic impact) will grow. It has already been marked by what I call the ‘cure is worse than the problem itself’ brigade.

Two more weeks of lockdown in Europe will test the sanity of its citizens (though will I hope also show the value of this strategy) and business people. At very least, political leaders will have to outline some kind of roadmap to normalisation – the continued isolation of vulnerable members of society, wearing of masks, a gradual return to normal working patterns for example. Balancing this will be incredibly hard to do, and control. At this point, market volatility may give way to a pick-up in social and political volatility.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Why did nobody notice it?

Not amused

During a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008 Queen Elizabeth II demanded about the debt bubble, “Why did nobody notice it?”. She might ask the same about the onset of the coronavirus crisis, particularly of her prime minister and her eldest son. The defining characteristic of the coronavirus crisis has been its speed. For example, markets have fallen by the same magnitude as during the dot.com crisis, but this time the fall took 16 days not 16 months.

The speed is explained by the sudden restriction placed on human movement by the crisis, and the fact that in general we are used to dealing with single set piece economic or financial crises (market bubble, classic recession, regional – EM or EU – crisis) and not five overlapping crises at the same time. The speed and drama of the crisis is heightened by the fact that it is breaking things – diplomatic relations, investment funds, political careers and economies.

The policy response has not, as I have outlined in previous mails – been well coordinated between fiscal and monetary policy, nor between nations. That so many policy makers repeat Mario Draghi’s mantra of  ‘do whatever it takes’, betrays the fact that the magic of those words is vested in Draghi himself.

Still monetary and fiscal support has come thick and fast and will help stem market pain. My worry is that given we are at the late stage in a very long expansion, it will be harder for policy to significantly boost trend economic growth. Of the other policy measures – the quest for vaccines and treatments is the most exciting, whilst Russia and Saudi Arabia’s adherence to their oil price war is the most disappointing.

From here, I see three scenarios.

Easter: Under this optimistic case (25% likely) the fruits of isolation in Europe begin to show, the race for treatments and vaccines is promising, while central bank liquidity dampens market distress. As such, workers, companies and governments begin to get a sense as to the parameters around the crisis and some visibility as to when and how it can be managed. A slow return to ‘normal’ then begins in Europe and the US in late April. Stock markets hit new highs in October and Donald Trump stays in the White House.

Summer: ‘Isolation’ is increasingly debated on ethical, economic and political grounds. It proves hard to enforce across America and harder still to prosecute in emerging economies. Under this ‘main’ scenario (55%) the second derivative in infections and macroeconomic indicators only begins to significantly improve in mid-summer. As a result, many businesses close or are near to ‘broken’, despite fiscal support. At the same time, investment in ‘newer’ industries – data (5G, AI, Cloud), healthtech and digital finance is accelerated. Still, high unemployment and low trend growth are significant policy issues into 2021.

Winter: Under this ‘pessimistic’ (20%) scenario, much of the world’s workforce is disrupted by the virus, and second waves become the norm. Social unrest, political disunity and a breakdown in diplomacy between nations (US and China for instance) are some of the resulting side-effects. Monetary and fiscal policies cannot contain the full effects of bankruptcies and unemployment, to the extent that central banking ‘accidents’ crop up. The 1930’s is the nasty template to follow here. Property markets and alternative asset classes like private equity are hard hit.

While broad scenarios are useful for framing problems, they are often overly simplistic. One distinction to draw here is between the short to medium term return to normal in terms of end of isolation and return to work, and the enduring long-term imbalances that result from, and are exacerbated by this crisis.

Ideally, following a two-month period of isolation in the US (taking us to mid-May) a return to normal might be in sight.

However, under the surface of the world economy the following trends will have been deepened by the crisis – the end of globalization and the resulting multipolar world, the biggest debt load since the Napoleonic Wars and central banks who are running out of effective policy measures. In the alphabet soup of U, V,L and W shaped recoveries that forecasters talk about, we might well have a cyclical V, followed by a structural L.

With three of the G7 leaders now in quarantine, world political leadership is under strain. It has two battles to fight – beating the virus, and then resolving the end of globalization in as constructive and imaginative a way possible.

With best wishes

Mike

Recession Rehearsal

Powell troubled by low rates

The last week has seen many different expressions of adaptive behaviour. First, the Democratic Party establishment and organisation have rallied around Joe Biden, and helped to push him to stunning turnaround in the Party’s campaign for President.

Then there has been widespread adaptation to the coronavirus – people have stopped shaking hands, travel only when necessary and it seems, lead incrementally more healthy lives (though a half-marathon I had entered was cancelled). In some cases however, stoicism wins out – the London Tube is as packed as ever.

In markets, investors – a great deal of whom are unsentimental robots – are adapting to extreme volatility. It has been one of the most extraordinary weeks in markets as investors try to position around the uncertainties introduced by the coronavirus. If and when we get it, a mid-twenties reading on the Vix volatility index would suggest that what might be described as ‘normal’ trading is getting underway. 

Then, policy makers have also been adapting, slowly. My sense is that to a large extent the policy reaction to the coronavirus is a rehearsal for how the next recession is met. So far, it has been a shambles. 

Jerome Powell, in making a 50 basis point cut in interest rates revealed that he is beholden to both equity and bond markets, and it seems, to politics. His action underlined the existence of the Fed ‘put’ – that the central bank will ride to the market’s rescue in times of turbulence.

The delivery of the rate cut was poor.  It focused insufficiently on the sense that this move would provide ‘insurance’ and on the ways it might combat the economic panic (e.g. risk of bankruptcies) associated with the coronavirus.

With the idea of a ‘rehearsal’ in mind, Powell’s move contributed to a feeling that when the ‘real’ recession comes, the Fed will have relatively little monetary ammunition and may, like the ECB and Bank of Japan (BoJ), have to resort to extraordinary measures like negative interest rates. 

If that is where the Fed is headed to, then the lesson for them from the likes of the BoJ, ECB and Riksbank in Sweden is not a happy one. The rush towards very low to negative rates in those monetary jurisdictions undercut banking sectors – a key reason why Europe and Japan have had weak recoveries, and also why to date US banks have outcompeted their international rivals. Sharply cutting rates, in tandem with a compressing yield curve, undercuts the balance sheets of banks, and in some cases can deepen a downturn. The Fed needs to study this carefully.

The second issue with the political response to the economic side-effects of the coronavirus crisis so far, is that despite G7 conference call and very general statement of intent, there is little apparent leadership and coordination.

The fracturing of international politics has made sincere collaboration difficult in practice (America might for example have announced a moratorium on sanctions on China). Moreover, the absence of a serious fiscal response in countries like Italy (the support measures announced come to only 0.3% of GDP), and the notable lack of open thinking on how deregulation might serve to boost business, is worrying.

I may be a little too critical here, but the sum of the week’s policy activity highlights depleted economic arsenals. Debt is too high and few countries have a decent fiscal surplus. Those that do, like Germany, don’t have the will to spend it.

It also points to a depleted international policy community – where the goodwill, leadership and force of mind that existed in the 1980’s or 1990’s (I am thinking of the likes of James Baker or Robert Rubin) is no longer visible. In Europe, Christine Lagarde has been strangely quiet.

There is now a need, an opportunity and hopefully time for someone like Kristalina Georgieva, or even departing Bank of England boss Mark Carney, to so a postmortem on the economic policy response to the coronavirus crisis. With world debt to GDP at its highest level since the Second World War, the next recession will be for real.

Globalization crashes

Coronavirus has spread internationally

That a rugby match in Dublin between Italy and Ireland can be cancelled because of a virus that germinated in a market in a Chinese city, may be a chain of events that appeals to amateur chaos theorists.

In my view, the panic caused by the coronavirus illustrates how easily interconnected the world has become, how fluidly people move from one location to another, and how national infrastructure and policy systems are still so very different.

Having written about the coronavirus a few weeks ago (‘Humanity and Adversity’, Feb 2, https://thelevelling.blog/2020/02/02/humanity-and-adversity/) I thought that markets at least would quickly work through the implications. That it has not been the case owes much to another form of sickness – overexuberance in financial marketplace. The catalysts provided by the coronavirus are now treating this (in the short run the sell-off is nearly complete, and we will rally mid next week).

Ironically, in an age of machines, and where social media companies are dominant in many senses, markets are responding to the risk that humans will have less physical interaction with each other and will enjoy less physical forms of consumption (travel, shopping and consumption).

As I write, it appears at least from official numbers that the virus is somewhat contained in China, and globally the number of cases looks to have peaked. Here though, the risk is that the Chinese authorities rush people back to work and, like the Spanish flu in 1918, there is a bigger second (and third) wave of the virus.

The passage of the virus across the world has, even at what might be an early stage, revealed and further provoked a number of changes in our world.

The first relates to trust. There is widespread suspicion inside and beyond China that the authorities there have not been upfront about the true extent of the virus. Some, like US Senator Tom Cotton even believe that the virus is man-made. To that end, while China’s handling of the crisis will on one hand reinforce the sense that it can marshal huge swathes of its population, on the other the trust of outsiders in the Chinese authorities will diminish. The Belt and Road Initiative may be a casualty here. Distrust can also channel itself in other ways. If in the future China has a debt crisis, investors are likely to sell first than wait for a true picture to emerge.

Within China this episode has clearly damaged the Communist Party, though it is very hard to see how this will play out in public life, or even through social media discourse. My sense is that the Chinese authorities will react in at least two ways. One is a fiscal stimulus made up of tax breaks, support for small businesses and an acceleration of infrastructure programs.

The other more interesting one is to take what has been done in the domain of social control and social credit scoring and apply this to healthcare. I can envisage a sharp rise in self-diagnosis, tech based medicine and a related set of incentives for people to allow their health data be monitored by the state. If it happens, many in the West would consider it insidious, though given the fear created by the virus, many Chinese might acquiesce.

The second effect of the coronavirus crisis is that it is yet another event that makes visible the arteries of globalization and leaves them atrophied. That there has been little to no coordination between nations speaks to a sense of a fractured world, and the performance of the WHO reinforces the view that like the WTO, its time has come.

There will be a sharp short-term hit to world trade from the coronavirus (hotels, airlines are the obvious ‘victim’ industries though I think that ‘elite’ forms of travel and healthcare will continue to thrive), but in the longer-term it will also reinforce the sense in governments and some companies that security of production is increasingly important.

To that end, the rise of national champions and the relocation of production to ‘home’ countries (pharmaceuticals is an example) will continue. In many different ways, the coronavirus, like the 2019 trade war, will force a rethinking of globalization by corporates.

Other megatrends may also be rethought. India and many parts of Africa are the only parts of the world where urbanization rates are still relatively low, though where the rate of urbanization is now picking up. The coronavirus crisis is a very clear reminder of ‘smart’ urbanization is terms of the health, data gathering and communication implications, and in this way the lessons for Wuhan are yet to be learnt. For example, it is only emerging that 40% of the coronavirus cases in Wuhan were transmitted in hospitals – and the same may be true of both Italy and Iran. 

As this adjustment process happens, there will likely be one constant, which is the vogue of central banks to meet any threat to growth and attendant dip in markets with more liquidity. Liquidity provision and rate cuts will not solve the process of adjustment away from globalization, and in the long run they may channel this process down the wrong path because cheap money increases the risk that investment decisions are badly made.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Humanity and Adversity

Change to come for the CCP?

Adversity for some often breeds humanity in others. It was not the case last week when US Commerce Secretary suggested that the coronavirus sweeping China would help bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, and in doing so would further reset the trade relationship between the US and China.

The virus is the first major domestic crisis that the Chinese authorities have faced since perhaps, the mini economic crisis brought on by the side-effects of the global financial crisis. As such it is a policy test, and a watershed moment in the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the people it governs. In this respect, China may join other large countries or regions where the social contract between the people and those who govern them is being severely stressed.

In the UK, the social contract has been left in tatters by Brexit, in the US the idea of the ‘American Dream’ is undercut by falling human development rates and stark inequality, while in Europe there is general confusion on the part of the grass-roots as to what ‘European values’ are in a tangible sense. So far, Asian countries have done better here, Japan is an example.

China’s social contract, which uncharitably could be referred to as a Leviathan one, is simply put, an exchange of liberty for prosperity. It has held over the past thirty years, largely due to the prosperity and startling physical infrastructure development that the CCP have engineered and very tight political control. To date, most policy challenges have been met with success, to the extent that a long article in the New York Times in 2019 referred to China as the ‘land that failed to fail’.

Given the tragic human cost and the consternation that the coronavirus is causing, there are reasons to think of this as a watershed of sorts for policy in China.

One is that the spread of the virus may highlight the limits of high economic growth in China. The intensive movement of people within the country, urbanization and a hyper connected transport network are economic assets, but also pose risks. In his book ‘How Nature Works’ the Danish physicist Per Bak likens socio-economic systems to piles of sand.

The sand piles can continue to build until, upon the addition of a marginal amount of sand, they collapse. Similarly, cities and nations grow until that growth produces side-effects (the health scares in the rapidly urbanizing London of the mid 19th century that gave us the engineering genius of Joseph Bazalgette, are another example).

There will be many side-effects of the virus crisis. One may be an economic stimulus program that is focused on upgrading healthcare infrastructure and health related education in China.

Another aspect is diet. One of the first thematic investment notes I put together (some ten years ago) was on the topic of ‘Feeding Asia’, or rather how diet in countries like China would come to resemble that in the West and as a result how demand for dairy products, fruit, meat would go parabolic (it did for a while).

This particular crisis may see another step change in diet in China, toward – and I am speculating – synthetic meats, a stronger tendency towards organic foods, greater demand for seafood related foodstuffs and for vitamins/food supplements generally.

Two other related areas are worth thinking about. The first is how this crisis reflects on China’s ‘Leviathan’ approach to government. Has technologically enabled central control of society allowed the authorities to prevent the spread of the virus? Or will this episode begin to sow doubts in the minds of Chinese in the government’s ability to safeguard them. Relatedly, China’s social media networks have both spread alarming scare stories, whilst at the same time served to coordinate people and facilitate remote family get-togethers over the holiday period.

Concomitantly, the crisis will serve the interests of those factions within the Communist Party who on one hand argue for greater central control of Chinese society, versus those on the other who argue that the next phase in China’s development is, like the USA in the 1930’s, to deepen its social welfare system. As such, it will deepen the numerus rivalries and factions within the Party.

Finally, more broadly, a few weeks ago (‘Peak Markets, Peak Trump’, 12 January) I wrote about markets ability to coldly appraise the financial impact of events. They are doing so again now with the coronavirus crisis, though it seems to me that markets are primarily pricing the cost of firm’s reactions to the crisis (i.e. cancelled flights, disrupted supply chains).

Economically sensitive assets – government bonds, copper, oil are all much weaker, and in particular emerging market currencies look vulnerable. I suspect that volatility will continue to spill over to stocks, at least till we are in mid February. ‘Peak Markets’ ay have been the right headline after all, I still wonder about ‘Peak Trump’.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike