Global economy

The leading central banks in the developed economies have, of course, been the main actors underpinning the global bull market in risk assets since 2009. For long periods their stance has been unequivocally dovish as they have deliberately tried to strengthen an anaemic global economic recovery by boosting asset prices.

In the past week, we have had major statements of intent from Janet Yellen, the new US Federal Reserve chairwoman; from the European Central Bank; and from the Bank of England. After multiple hours of fuzzy guidance about forward guidance, the clarity of previous years about the global policy stance has become much more murky. Central banks are no longer as obviously friendly to risk assets as they once were – but they have not become outright enemies, and they are unlikely to do so while they are concerned that price and wage inflation will remain too low for a protracted period.

It is now quite difficult to generalise about what central bankers think. However, a few of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slotted into place in the past week. 

Financial markets began 2014 in an ebullient mood. Omens of economic recovery in the developed world buoyed investors across the globe. Troubles in emerging markets, it was thought, would amount only to a handful of little local difficulties.
It did not last.
In developed markets, the past three weeks have seen the steepest falls in equity prices since mid-2013, when fears that the US Federal Reserve would begin phasing out its massive bond-buying programme caused interest rates to surge. This time, however, there has been no rise in short-term interest rates in the US or Europe, and bond yields have fallen slightly. There has been no change then in the market’s reading of the Fed or the European Central Bank’s policy stance.

 

The recent buoyancy in global equities has raised fears that the markets have entered a major bubble, driven by the unprecedented expansion in central bank balance sheets.

To the extent central bank asset purchases have reduced government bond yields, they have certainly brought forward returns from the future into the present, thus reducing expected returns on both equities and bonds. But this is normal in a period of monetary easing, and it does not automatically mean that markets are in a bubble. 

The US official statisticians have today issued revised statistics for GDP dating all the way back to 1929. It may be alarming for investors and policy makers to hear that our understanding of economic “truth” needs to be amended for the last 84 years, but the changes have not in fact made much fundamental difference to the debates which matter for the economy today.

In particular, there has been very little change in the Fed’s likely view of the amount of slack which remains in the economy, though the latest version of growth in the last few quarters, including the publication of data for 2013 Q2 for the first time, may persuade them that economic momentum is a little firmer than previously believed.

The most dramatic-sounding news in today’s release is that the level of nominal GDP has been revised up by 3.4 per cent in 2013 Q4. This follows a number of methodological changes, the most important of which is to treat R&D spending as a positive contributor to investment and GDP, rather than as an input to the production process. But since this change impacts GDP levels for decades in the past, it does not make much difference to our understanding of the economy’s capacity to grow in the immediate future. It simply involves viewing the same objective truth through a different coloured lens. For most practical purposes, this change can be ignored.

There are, however, three areas where the revisions could be significant: 

In the past decade, the world’s central banks – first in the emerging and then in the developed world – have embarked on a Great Expansion in their balance sheets which is unprecedented in modern times. This blog sketches the anatomy of the Great Expansion and attempts to project what will happen as the US Federal Reserve tapers its asset purchases in the next 18 months.

The latest episode in the saga has, of course, involved the Fed’s attempt to distinguish between “tapering” and “tightening”, a distinction which the markets have been reluctant to recognise [1]. The US forward interest rate curve shows the first rate increase occurring very close to the time when the Fed is planning to stop buying assets in mid-2014. Whether it intended to do so or not, the Fed has de facto tightened US monetary policy conditions and will have to work hard to reverse this. 

Global equities have, so far, survived the bout of global deleveraging which followed Ben Bernanke’s remarks about slowing the pace of QE last month, though there have been nasty signs of volatility in Japanese and some emerging markets. Investors have, unsurprisingly, become temporarily obsessed by whether the Fed will taper its asset purchases in September or December. However, in the great scheme of asset valuation, this is nothing more than a passing detail. In the longer term, what matters is real factors, like the forward path for corporate earnings, and the interest rate at which they should be discounted.

The appropriate discount rate is the risk-free (real) bond yield plus the equity risk premium (ERP). The Fed acts on the former, while the market determines the latter. In recent years, the Fed has reduced the bond yield but the market has, simultaneously, required a higher ERP, so the overall discount rate on equities has remained broadly unchanged. As I have argued before, any rise in the bond yield as QE ends may be offset by a fall in the ERP, leaving the valuation of equities protected as bond returns become negative. We have seen a minuscule version of this playing out in recent weeks, for what it is worth.

This, however, does not necessarily mean that equities are fairly valued. A common concern among investors is that the profit share in the US economy is currently abnormally high, which is one reason why US equities have performed so well since 2009. It is frequently argued that the profit share must eventually “mean revert”, and when that happens the market will have to revise downwards its estimates of the sustainable path for corporate earnings. Equities will tumble, not because of a hostile Fed, but because the fundamental earning capacity of corporate America will be found wanting.

This, however, seems to underplay the persistence and global breadth of the rise in the profit share, and the accompanying decline in the wage share, in the last three decades. It is far from clear why this trend should “mean revert” in the foreseeable future. 

Since 2007, the world economy has lain in the shadow of huge financial crises. Crisis engulfed the US, the UK and other western high-income economies in 2007 and 2008. From 2010, it engulfed the eurozone. Japan never fully recovered from its crisis of the 1990s. Meanwhile, emerging countries have continued to grow robustly, though concerns have grown about these countries too, not least over the ability of China to manage a transition to slower and more consumption-led growth.

So how do Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management and Huw Pill, chief European economist of Goldman Sachs see the economic future? What might it mean for the luxury industry?

 

Fiscal austerity, a concept which German Chancellor Merkel says meant nothing to her before the crisis, may have passed its heyday in the eurozone. This week, the European Commission has published its country-specific recommendations, containing fiscal plans for member states that are subject to excessive deficit procedures. These plans, which will form the basis for political discussion at the next Summit on 27-28 June, allow for greater flexibility in reaching budget targets for several countries, including France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Furthermore, there have been rumblings in the German press suggesting that Berlin is beginning to recognise that fiscal consolidation without economic growth could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. If true, this could mark the beginning of a new approach in the eurozone, helping the weakest region in the global economy to recover from a recession that has already dragged on far too long. So how real is the prospect of change? 

Martin Wolf’s column on Wednesday and his subsequent blogpost have once again focused attention on the importance of trade flows in the eurozone. Martin’s argument is that the German strategy of fiscal austerity and internal reform to fix the imbalances needs to change. I would like to ask a different question, which is what happens in the likely event that it does not change?

Investors, ever more optimistic that the worst of the euro crisis is over, are asking whether the German strategy might actually work. Largely unnoticed by some, eurozone trade imbalances have in fact improved dramatically in recent years. But this has happened mainly for the wrong reasons, ie recession in the south rather than any large narrowing in the competitiveness gap. The eurozone is engaged in a race between the gradual pace of internal devaluation and the mercurial nature of democratic politics. It is still not obvious how this race will end.

When the euro was launched in 1999, its supporters believed that the balance of payments crises which had plagued its weaker members for decades would become a relic of the past. The crisis revealed this view to be entirely complacent. The current account imbalances which were generated by the peripheral economies during the boom of the 2000s soon became impossible to finance after the crash. It was only the growth of so-called “Target2″ imbalances on the ECB’s balance sheet which provided the official financing which held the system together. No Target2, no euro.

However, some of the contingent credits which the Bundesbank has acquired against the rest of the ECB in the course of this process might become worthless under certain break-up scenarios, and this has become a political hot potato inside Germany. The solution, many in Germany believe, is to foster an improvement in the balance of payments positions of the troubled economies so that no further rise in the Target2 imbalances will be needed. 

It is often claimed by economists that the central banks have run out ammunition to boost economic activity, but they certainly have not lost the ability to have an impact asset prices. Since the latest round of quantitative easing was signalled back in June (see this blog), global equity prices have risen by 14.5 per cent, and commodity prices are up by 15.4 per cent, despite the fact that economic activity data have shown no improvement whatever over this period.

Clearly, these impressive moves in asset prices have been triggered by a sharp decline in the disaster premia that were priced into markets only three months ago. Mario Draghi and Ben Bernanke have, in a sense, purchased global put options on risk assets, and have offered them without charge to the investing community.

By doing the market’s hedging for it, the central bankers have certainly had an impact. Confidence, while not fully restored, is much improved, which is exactly what was intended. But there is no sign yet from hard data that the downward slide in global GDP growth has been reversed. Until that happens, the market rally will remain on insecure foundations.