Seriously Stimulating

What would Keynes think?

In last week’s missive I referred to the ‘coup de whisky’ monetary stimulus enacted by the Federal Reserve in 1927, which kick started the market boom that later ended in a resounding crash.

This week I want to focus on the fiscal side. With the US employment assistance program running out at the end of July, new prime ministers/cabinets in Ireland and France, many governments will be turning their minds to the construction of economic stimulus programs. Indeed in the last week, Italy and the UK for example have made headline grabbing announcements.

While Boris Johnson made much of a five-billion-pound building spree, I think that his government’s promise to give citizenship to three million Hong Kong citizens is the very best stimulus it could enact – if they come, the Hong Kongers will bring entrepreneurship, wealth, erudition and culture.

This cuts to the central dilemma in any post COVID 19 stimulus effort – should, in the context of already eye watering indebtedness, governments try to aggressively restart economies in as sharp a ‘V’ shaped recovery as possible, or should they try to remodel economies to the realities of the post COVID19 world. The fact that the virus has exacerbated and exaggerated many of the emerging faultlines in the world economy suggests that a far sighted rather than electoral cycle driven view is required.

In addition, a short-termist view is complicated by two facts.

First, there is a risk that many economies suffer credit crunches and bankruptcies as we move towards September (anecdotally many businesses, shops, bars and restaurants I know are struggling but that might just be O’Sullivan curse). Without seeming like a monetary masochist, it is often better to allow this credit unwind to occur than to forestall it, and then to help entrepreneurs and business owners restart quickly.

Second, one practical economics lesson is that it is always easier to enact a stimulus program if your neighbours and trading partners are doing the same. For example, in the early 2000’s Germany was able to digest tough labour market reforms because its trading partners across Europe were all growing. In that context, Ireland is in a bind because two of its ‘neighbours’ and trading partners, the US and UK, do not have COVID19 under control. What is worse is that there is very little economic coordination between the large economies of the world, and this will complicate the overall stimulus effort.

The stimulus conversation in most countries will be coloured by references to Keynes, and to the word ‘multiplier’ or rather, the sensitivity of economic activity to different types of policy ‘boosts’. Yet, the accuracy of multipliers is not great, as the debate during the euro-zone crisis showed. With the world economy having had ten years of sluggish expansion and as such at the very late stage in the business cycle, overall ‘multipliers’ are likely to be low. This means that politicians need to think very carefully how they spend capital and what the intended effect is going to be.

There are a few principles to think of.

The first is the idea of a ‘quid pro quo’. As mentioned in a recent post, the phrase entered the lexicon of American politics through George H Bush, and then in the current President’s impeachment case. The notion of a quid pro quo should reign over policy interventions, in potentially, a range of ways that will produce a more sustainable and resilient economic model. Specifically, sectors or industries that are helped out are required to change their business models in return for fiscal and monetary help – these could be agriculture (more climate friendly), transport (better governance and management). 

A second factor to consider is the view that there needs to be a sense of building the economic model of the future under the steam of a stimulus – this approach would see money devoted to reskilling and work experience, and also on green technologies or industries that the state deems to be strategic or ‘of the future’. 

Here there is a need for the EU to stop and think, in two respects. There is too much time spent on how the Recovery and Resilience program will be distributed (loans or grants) and not enough on what it will be spent on. Also, there should be some coordination across national stimulus programs, so that they all point in much the same direction.

With Europe still in mind, one factor that has changed noticeably from the global financial crisis is the absence of an ‘austerity’ narrative. This is partly because austerity is now seen to have failed as a policy, partly because markets do not appear overly concerned at the largesse of government spending across Western economies (with thanks to central banks)

A third idea is that in addition to financial support, new growth oriented industries will also need the help of better ‘soft’ infrastructure to help them survive. What I mean here is that industrial ecosystems are as much enabled by regulation, standards and human capital as they are by capital.  A good example is the need for an overhaul of fintech and payments regulatory frameworks in the wake of the Wirecard scandal. 

While it is right that governments will want to support labour markets – and most European policy responses have done a good job here – they should stop and think before splurging cash on stimulus programs – the road to recovery will be a long one.

Have a great week ahead,


Iron Dukes, Emperors and the power of money

The Emperor points the way forward for globalization

Geopolitics has much less of an effect than on broad markets than many people think. Perhaps only large wars and battles between strategic adversaries cause significant shifts in asset prices. Indeed, in the era of globalization, much has been made of the fact that no two democracies have gone to war. Yet, globalization is fading, and, in many countries, ‘managed’ democracy is preferred to the purer version. Geopolitics might be on the way back as a market force.

For the moment, quantitative easing (QE) will continue to dampen most geopolitical risks, though the ongoing geopolitical tussling between Iran and the US might test this and has already boosted commodity prices.

In addition, and we wrote on this last week, the coming G20 meeting will shine light on the diplomatic schism between the US and China. I expect very little to come from the summit in terms of the trade dispute, and that the G20 meeting will simply mark another milestone in the evolution of a multipolar world in that other countries will look on as the two largest geopolitical players become further estranged.

One geopolitical contest that had a significant market and economic impact was the Battle of Waterloo, the 204th anniversary of which occurred last week (June 18th). It was an epic contest between two of the most important leaders in European history, and adorned with anecdotes and quotes (my favourite is from Wellington, when during a pounding from French guns his officers asked for orders he replied ‘there are no orders, except to stand firm to the last man’).

More seriously, from the point of view of finance there are maybe three points worth mentioning. The first is information. Henry Percy, aide de camp to Wellington had, after the Battle, to row halfway across the Channel with the news of the Duke’s victory, as an absence of wind had halted his sloop. On arriving in England he found that many (in the City) already knew of the victory owing, allegedly, to a network of agents assembled by Nathaniel Rothschild who is said to have made a fortune on the event and thereby spawned the phrase ‘buy on the sound of cannons’. Today, social media has become an integral part of geopolitics, through ‘total war’ based approaches to conflict.

The second theme is debt. Wars generally strain finances. Some might recall that Larry Lindsey, an economic adviser to George W Bushes’ administration left his job after producing what at the time was considered to be a high estimate of the costs of the second Iraqi War (it turned out to be a conservative estimate).

Beyond that, I recommend that readers delve into David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 years,” where he, for example, speaks of primordial debt. One theme that runs through his book is that periods of significant debt accumulation are historically associated with insurrection. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars saw an explosion in country debt.

It is sobering then that, along with the period around the Napoleonic Wars, the major peaks in world indebtedness (debt to GDP) have been the post-Second World War period, the run-up to the global financial crisis and now. US corporates, China and select developed countries like France and Italy are some of the leading culprits here.

One trend that is striking is the way in which debt cycles evolve. The sectors with the most leverage a decade ago – housing and banks – are, with some exceptions like Canada, Hong Kong and Australia, those with much lower leverage now. Equally, countries and companies that experienced debt crises two decades ago – I am thinking of the late 1990s EM debt crisis and the 2001-2002 corporate crisis in the USA – are now guilty of running high debt levels. Perhaps there is a generational aspect to this where lessons from economic history are quickly forgotten.

The third aspect of the Napoleonic Wars that is interesting is the way they conditioned the world economy – high debt pushed Britain to steady its finances and permitted its navy to secure trade routes across the globe.

In that light the geopolitical contest between China and the US will increasingly shape macro and market themes such as the strength of the dollar and the configuration of supply chains and the ways in which debt mountains are pared back. One might also argue that in a world that is more geopolitically and financially stressed (indebtedness), country risk may become a much more important factor in markets. The dinner between the Chinese and American Presidents at next week G20 meeting may just be the beginning of a new phase.

Have a great week ahead,