Coronavirus: “We are all Keynesians now”

An economic depression requires a 10% (or more) decline in real GDP or a prolonged recession that lasts two or more years.

The current contraction, sparked by the global coronavirus outbreak, is likely to be severe but its magnitude and duration are still uncertain. After an initial spike in cases, with devastating consequences in many countries — both in terms of the number of deaths and the massive economic impact — the rate of contagion is expected to drop significantly. But we could witness further flare-ups, as with SARS.

Development of a vaccine is the only viable long-term defense against the coronavirus but health experts warn that this is at least 12 to 18 months away — still extremely fast when compared to normal vaccine development programs.

The economic impact may soften after the initial shutdown but some industries such as travel, airlines, hotels, cruise lines, shopping malls, and cinemas are likely to experience lasting changes in consumer behavior. The direct consequences will be with us for some time. So will the indirect consequences: small business and corporate failures, widespread unemployment, collapsing real estate prices, and solvency issues within the financial system. The Fed is going to be busy putting out fires. While it can fix liquidity issues with its printing press, it can’t fix solvency issues.

There are three key factors that are likely to determine whether countries end up with a depression or a recession:

1. Leadership during the crisis

Many countries were caught by surprise and the rapid spread of the virus from its source in Wuhan, China. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan were best prepared, after dealing with the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. Extensive testing, tracing and an effective quarantine program helped South Korea to bring the spread under control, after initially being one of the worst-hit.

Daily Increase - South Korea

South Korea: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)

The World Health Organization (WHO) did little to help, delaying declaration of a pandemic to appease the CCP. Economic and political self-interest has been the root cause of many failures along the way, including China’s failure to alert global authorities of the outbreak (they had already shut down Wuhan Naval College on January 1st). But this was aided by failure of many leaders to heed warnings from infectious disease experts in late January/early February. When they finally did wake up to the threat, many were totally unprepared, resulting in a massive spike in cases across Europe and North America.

Testing is a major bottleneck, with the FDA fast-tracking approval of new tests, but production volumes are still limited. Abbott recently obtained FDA approval for a new 5-minute test kit that can be used in temporary screening locations, outside of a hospital, but production is currently limited to 50,000 per day. A drop in the ocean. It would take 6 months to produce 9 million kits for New York alone.

Daily Increase - USA

USA: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)

Daily Increase - UK

UK: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)

Daily Increase - Germany

Germany: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)

Daily Increase - Italy

Italy: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)

Widespread testing and tracing, social-distancing, and effective quarantine methods have enabled some countries to flatten the curve. Australia may be succeeding in reducing the number of new cases but inadequate testing and tracing could lead to further flare-ups. One of the biggest dangers is asymptomatic carriers who can infect others. Flattening the curve is the first step, but keeping it flat is essential, and requires widespread testing and tracing.

Daily Increase - Australia

Australia: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)

The curves for North America and Europe remain exponential. They may even spike a lot higher if hospital facilities are overrun. Success in flattening the curve is critical, not just in minimizing the number of deaths but in containing the economic impact.

2. Economic rescue measures during the crisis

Rescue measures amounting to roughly 10% of annual GDP have been introduced in several countries, including the US and Australia, to soften the economic impact of the shutdown. More Keynesian stimulus may be needed if the coronavirus curve is not flattened. Layoffs have spiked and many small businesses will be unable to recover without substantial support.

3. Economic stimulus after the crisis

This is not a time for half-measures and the $2 trillion infrastructure program proposed in the US is also appropriate in the circumstances. Australia is likely to need a similar program (10% of GDP) but it is essential that the money be spent on productive infrastructure assets. Productive assets must generate a market-related return on investment ….or generate an equivalent increase in government tax revenue but this is much more difficult to measure. Investment in unproductive assets would leave the country with a sizable debt and no ready means of repaying it (much like Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts).

Conclusion

Social-distancing and effective quarantine measures are necessary to flatten the curve but widespread testing and tracing is essential to prevent further flare-ups. Development of a vaccine could take two years or more. Until then there is likely to be an on-going economic impact, long after the initial shock. This is likely to be compounded by a solvency crisis in small and large businesses, threatening the stability of the financial system. The best we can hope for, in the circumstances, is to escape with a recession — less than 10% contraction in GDP and less than two year duration — but this will require strong leadership, public cooperation and skillful prioritization of resources.

—–

“We are all Keynesians now.” ~ Richard Nixon (after 1971 collapse of the gold standard)

Business confidence sags

Australian business confidence is sagging, according to the latest Roy Morgan poll, signaling the end of the post-election bounce*.

Roy Morgan Poll results October 2019

Source: Roy Morgan Business Single Source, Dec 2010-Oct 2019. Average monthly sample over the last 12 months=912.

  • A decreasing number of businesses (40.7%, down 5.8ppts) expect the Australian economy to have ‘good times’ economically over the next year while 52.4% (up 4.2ppts) expect ‘bad times’;
  • In addition, just 44.1% (down 7ppts) of businesses expect ‘good times’ for the Australian economy over the next five years and 45.9% (up 2.9ppts) now expect ‘bad times’.

RBA interest rate cuts don’t seem to be working.

A similar picture is emerging in the US, where CEO confidence is near recession levels.

CEO Confidence Levels

CEO confidence affects hiring and investment decisions and is an important leading indicator for GDP and earnings growth.

*Hat tip to Macrobusiness.

S&P 500 and Europe: New deal or a false dawn?

Donald Trump and is making noises about an interim trade deal with the CCP, while Boris Johnson appears to be making progress on a Brexit deal with Ireland premier Leo Varadkar.

Trump’s announcement is little more than a sham, intended to goose financial markets, with nothing yet committed to writing:

“Trump said the deal would take three to five weeks to write and could possibly be wrapped up and signed by the middle of November….”

…what could possibly go wrong?

The economy continues to tick along steadily, with unemployment and initial jobless claims near record lows.

Unemployment & Initial Jobless Claims

But high levels of uncertainty are likely to create a drag on consumer spending and stock earnings.

At the outset of Donal Trump’s presidency, value investor Seth Klarman, who runs the $30 billion Baupost Group hedge fund, predicted the impact that Trump would have on financial markets:

“The erratic tendencies and overconfidence in his own wisdom and judgment that Donald Trump has demonstrated to date are inconsistent with strong leadership and sound decision-making…..

The big picture for investors is this: Trump is high volatility, and investors generally abhor volatility and shun uncertainty…. Not only is Trump shockingly unpredictable, he’s apparently deliberately so; he says it’s part of his plan.”

In his letter, Mr Klarman warned: “If things go wrong, we could find ourselves at the beginning of a lengthy decline in dollar hegemony, a rapid rise in interest rates and inflation, and global angst.”

While not entirely prescient — we have low interest rates and low inflation — Klarman was right about the decline in dollar hegemony and the rise in global angst.

Markets are clearly in risk-off mode.

US Equity ETFs recorded a net outflow of $824m this week, compared to a net inflow of $2,104m into US Fixed Income. Year-to-date flows present a similar picture, with a 3.3% inflow into US Equity compared to 13.9% into US Fixed Income (Source: ETF.com).

ETF Flows YTD

Long tails on the S&P 500 candles indicate buying support. Expect another test of our long-term target at 3000. Volatility remains above 1%, however, indicating elevated risk. Breach of 2800 is unlikely at present but would offer a target of 2400.

S&P 500

According to Factset, the S&P 500 is likely to report a third quarter this year with a year-on-year decline in earnings.

S&P 500 Earnings

The Nasdaq 100 paints a similar picture, with another test of 8000 likely.

Nasdaq 100

It is becoming impossible to justify current heady earnings multiples when reported earnings are declining.

Europe

If Johnson’s “free trade zone” for Northern Ireland can break the Brexit impasse, then there may be room for optimism over the future UK – EU relationship.

Europe seems to be stirring. Trailing a distant third, to North America and Asia in terms of investment performance, there are some early encouraging signs. A higher trough indicates buying pressure and breakout above 400 on DJ Stoxx Euro 600 would signal a primary advance.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie shows similar early signs of a potential recovery. A higher trough on the trend Index indicates buying pressure. Breakout above 7600 would signal a primary advance.

FTSE 100

Let us hope that this is not a false dawn and the UK and EU are able to resolve their differences.

For the present, our outlook for the global economy remains bearish and equity exposure for International Growth is a low 34% of portfolio value.

S&P 500 survives but risk is elevated

Our recession indicator, a 3-month TMO of seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls, ticked up slightly to 0.52%. This reflects a slight improvement in monthly employment data but the indicator remains precariously close to the amber (high risk) warning level of 0.50%. The red warning level of 0.30% would signal extreme risk of recession.

Non-Farm Payrolls Recession Indicator

During the week we discussed the high cost of uncertainty and how this impacts on business investment and consumer spending. Slowing growth in hours worked suggests that real GDP growth is likely to slow towards an annual rate of 1.0%. This would obviously be a drag on stock earnings.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

The S&P 500 retreated from resistance at 3000 but a long tail on this week’s candle indicates buying support. Another test of 3000 is likely. Breach of 2800 is unlikely at present but would signal a reversal with a target of 2400.

S&P 500

21-Day Volatility remains high and the recent trough above 1.0% warns of elevated risk.

S&P 500 21-Day Volatility

The plunge on 10-Year Treasury Yields, testing support at 1.5%, also warns of a risk-off environment.

10-Year Treasury Yields

On the global stage, low manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI)  warn that Europe is at risk of recession.  DJ Euro Stoxx 600 is retracing to test support at 360/366. Breach would signal a primary down-trend.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie is similarly testing support at 7000.

FTSE 100

Nymex Crude is heading for a test of support at $50/barrel. Trend Index peaks below zero warn of selling pressure. Breach of support would signal a primary down-trend — suggesting a contraction in global demand.

Nymex Light Crude

The outlook for the global economy is bearish and we have reduced our equity exposure for International Growth to 34% of portfolio value.

Sahm Rule: Sweden tips into recession

Sweden: Sahm rule

What is the Sahm Recession Rule?

Recessions are notoriously difficult to measure (even the NBER occasionally gets it wrong) and an official declaration of a recession may be lagged by more than 6 months. Economist Claudia Sahm uses the following rule as a timely indicator of recessions:

Sahm RuleSahm RuleSahm Rule Graph

Tectonic shift threatening the global reserve currency system

As Mark Carney observed at Jackson Hole: the global reserve currency system is broken — it has been since Nixon defaulted on gold backing for the Dollar in 1973 — and there is no fix. We have to find a replacement along the lines of Carney’s suggestion. On Macrovoices, two experts on the EuroDollar system, Jeffrey Snider and Luke Gromen discuss the massive tectonic shift facing the global financial system.

https://www.macrovoices.com/683-macrovoices-184-luke-gromen-jeff-snider

This is a complex topic but it is important that we grasp the implications before a tsunami appears on the horizon.

Interest spreads hold sway over the global economy

An inverted yield curve is a reliable predictor of recessions but it also warns of falling bank profits. When the spread between long-term Treasury yields and short-term rates is  below zero, net interest margins are squeezed.

Yield Differential (10y - 3m)

In a normal market, with a steep yield curve, net interest margins are wide as bank’s funding maturity is a lot shorter than their loan book. In other words, they borrow short and lend long. Few bank deposits have maturities longer than 3 to 6 months, while loans and leases have much longer maturities and command higher interest rates.

When the yield curve inverts, however, the spread between long and short-term rates disappears and interest margins are squeezed. Not only is that bad for banks, it’s bad for the entire economy.

When their interest margins are squeezed, banks become risk averse and lending growth slows. That is understandable. When interest margins are barely covering operating expenses, banks cannot afford credit write-downs and become highly selective in their lending.

Slowing credit growth has a domino-effect on business investment and consumer spending on durables (mainly housing and automobiles). If there is a sharp fall in credit growth, a recession is normally not far behind1.

Bank Loans & Leases

Right now, the Fed is under pressure to cut interest rates to support the US economy. While this would lower short-term rates and and may flatten the yield curve, cutting interest rates off a low base opens a whole new world of pain.

Quartz this week published a revealing commentary on the damage that negative interest rates in developed economies are doing to bank net interest margins :

The problem for commercial banks is that government bond and mortgage interest rates keep going lower, but it isn’t as easy to cut deposit rates — the rate at which banks themselves borrow from customers — at the same pace. After all, it’s tough to convince people to keep deposits in an account that returns less than they put in (even though this already happens, invisibly, through inflation).

Bank Net Interest Margins in Developed Countries

Ultra-low interest rates are likely to squeeze bank margins in a similar way to the inverted yield curve. And with a similar impact on credit growth and the economy.

If I was Trump I would be pleading with the Fed not to cut interest rates.

Footnote:
1. The NBER declared a recession in 1966 when the S&P 500 fell 22% but later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

S&P 500: Flight to safety

10-Year Treasury yields are near record lows after Donald Trump’s announcement of further tariffs on China. The fall reflects the flight to safety, with rising demand for Treasuries as a safe haven.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Crude found support at $50/barrel. Breach would warn of a new down-trend, with a target of $40/barrel. Declining crude prices reflect a pessimistic outlook for the global economy.

10-Year 3-Month Treasury Spread

The S&P 500 found support at 2850. Rising volatility warns of increased market risk. A test of support at 2750 remains likely.

S&P 500

Declining Money Flow on the Nasdaq 100 reflects rising selling pressure. Expect a test of 7000.

Nasdaq 100

The Shanghai Composite Index broke support at 2850. A Trend Index peak at zero warns of strong selling pressure. Expect a test of support at 2500.

Shanghai Composite Index

India’s Nifty is testing support at 11,000. Breach would offer a target of 10,000.

Nifty Index

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600, reflecting large cap stocks in the European Union, is testing primary support at 368. Strong bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of a double-top reversal, with a target of 330.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie is similarly testing support at 7150. Breach would offer a target of 6600.

FTSE 100

I have warned clients to cut exposure to the market. It’s a good time to be cautious.

“There is a time for all things, but I didn’t know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time.”

~ Jesse Livermore

S&P 500: Treasuries reflect flight to safety

10-Year Treasury yields plunged below 2.0% on Donald Trump’s announcement of further tariffs (10% on $300bn) on China. The fall reflects rising demand for Treasuries as a safe haven in these turbulent times.

10-Year Treasury Yield

The spread between 10-Year and 3-Month Treasuries recovered above zero. This is a bearish sign: recession normally follows the recovery and not the initial inversion.

10-Year 3-Month Treasury Spread

The S&P 500 retreated below 3000 on Trump’s announcement, strengthening the bearish divergence signal on Twiggs Money Flow which warns of a correction. A test of support at 2750 is likely.

S&P 500

The Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) is expected to test primary support at 145. Small cap stocks have lagged the S&P 500 this year, highlighting risk aversion.

Russell 2000 Small Caps Index

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600, reflecting large cap stocks in the European Union, is similarly headed for a test of primary support at 365. Strong bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of a reversal.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

Falling commodity prices reflect market concerns for the global economy. A Nymex Light Crude breach of $51/barrel would signal a primary down-trend. Declining peaks on the Trend Index warn of selling pressure.

Nymex Light Crude

The DJ-UBS Commodity Index is similarly headed for a test of support at 75. Breach would signal a primary down-trend. A peak near zero on the Trend Index warns of strong selling pressure.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

Dr Copper, often used as a barometer of the global economy, has breached primary support at 5800, signaling a decline. Again, a Trend Index peak below zero warns of strong selling pressure.

Copper

Employment stats for July have improved slightly, with Average Hourly Wages growth easing to 3.3% (Total Private).

Average Hourly Wage

And annual payroll growth ticked up to 1.5%

Employment Growth & FFR

But weekly hours worked are declining, warning that real GDP will decline further, after printing 2.3% for the second quarter.

Real GDP & Weekly Hours Worked

I have warned my clients to cut exposure to the market. It’s a good time to be cautious.

“Price is what you pay; value is what you get.”

~ Benjamin Graham

The Long Game: Why the West is losing

Autocracies like China, Russia and Iran are challenging the dominance of Western democracies. Much has changed in the last two decades, fueling this emerging threat to the free world.

China & Global Trade

China joined the WTO in 2001 and disrupted global trade. Subsidy of state-owned or state-sponsored industries tilted the playing field. Manipulation of exchange rates, amassing $4 trillion of foreign reserves, helped to depress the yuan, creating a further advantage for Chinese manufacturers.

Manufacturing employment in the US shrank by more than 5.5 million jobs between 2000 and 2010.

Manufacturing Jobs USA

Europe experienced similar losses.

Manufacturing Jobs UK, France & EU

Output recovered, but through a combination of automation and offshoring labor-intensive activities, manufacturing jobs were never restored. Losses of 4 million US manufacturing jobs (23.5% of total) and an equal 4 million (10%) in the European Union appear permanent.

Manufacturing US & EU

The Global Financial Crisis

The global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008 and the recession caused soaring unemployment and further alienated blue collar workers.

Unemployment US & EU

The $700 billion bailout of the banking system (Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008), with no prosecutions of key actors, undermined trust in Federal government.

The Rise and Decline of Nations

Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), argues that interest groups — such as cotton-farmers, steel-producers, labor unions, and banks  — tend to unite into pressure groups to influence government policy in their favor. The resulting protectionist policies hurt economic growth but their costs go unnoticed, attracting little resistance, as they are diffused throughout the economy. The benefits, on the other hand, are concentrated in the hands of a few, incentivizing further action. As these pressure groups increase in strength and number, the costs accumulate, and nations burdened by them fall into economic decline.

Olson formulated his theory after studying the rapid rise in industrial power in Germany and Japan after World War II. He concluded that their economies had benefited from the almost complete destruction of interest groups and protectionist policies as a result of the war and were able to pursue optimal strategies to rebuild their economies. The result was that their economies, unfettered by pressure groups and special interests, far outstripped those of the victors, burdened by the same inefficient, protectionist policies as before the war.

Federal government, choked by lobbyists and special interests, failed to prioritize issues facing blue collar workers: global trade, off-shoring jobs and fallout from the GFC. Formation of the Tea Party movement in 2009 created a rallying point for libertarians and conservatives — supporting small government and traditional Judeo-Christian values1 — but it also opened the door for populists like Donald Trump.

Polarization

Exponential growth of social media, combined with disinformation and fake news, has polarized communities.

In 2017, 93 percent of Americans surveyed said they receive news online, with news organization websites (36%) and social media (35%) the most common sources. Trust and confidence in mass media has declined from 53 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2016, according to Gallup Polls.

Politics are increasingly dominated by outrage and division, with populist candidates gaining handsomely.

Many Western governments are now formed of fragile coalitions. Greece, Italy, Germany, even the UK.  Others in Eastern Europe — Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey — are heading towards autocracy.

The Long Game

China has been quietly playing the long game. Massive investment in infrastructure, subsidy of key industries, controlled access to its markets, upgrading technology through forced partnerships with Western companies in exchange for access to Chinese markets, and industrial espionage have all been used to gain an advantage over competitors.

The CCP exploits divisions within and between Western governments while expanding their influence in universities, think tanks and the media. The stated aim of the CCP’s United Front Work Department is to influence Chinese diasporas in the West to accept CCP rule, endorse its legitimacy, and assist in achieving Party aims. This includes some 50 million who emigrated after 1979 or are PRC students studying abroad. Stepped up surveillance of PRC students, funding of Confucius Institutes on campuses and growing student activism has raised concerns in Australia over academic freedom and promotion of pro-Beijing views3.

Western governments seem unable to present a coordinated response. Absence of a cohesive, long-term strategy and weakened alliances make them an easy target.

Pressure Groups

Governments are also subjected to pressure from within. The latest example is pressure exerted, by US companies, on the White House to lift the ban on sales of US technology to Huawei. From the New York Times a few days ago:

Beijing has also pressured American companies. This month, the Chinese government said it would create an “unreliable entities list” to punish companies and individuals it perceived as damaging Chinese interests. The following week, China’s chief economic planning agency summoned foreign executives, including representatives from Microsoft, Dell and Apple. It warned them that cutting off sales to Chinese companies could lead to punishment and hinted that the companies should lobby the United States government to stop the bans. The stakes are high for some of the American companies, like Apple, which relies on China for many sales and for much of its production.

Short-term Outlook

The problem with most Western democracies is that they are stuck in a short-term election cycle, with special interest groups, lobbyists for hire, and populist policies targeted at winning votes in the next election. Frequent changes of government lead to a lack of continuity, ensuring that long-term vision and planning, needed to build a winning global strategy, are woefully neglected.

Autocrats like China, Russia and Iran are able to play the long game because they enjoy continuity of leadership. They do not have to concern themselves with elections and the media cycle. They own the media. And elections, if held, are a mere formality, with pre-selected candidates and pre-ordained results.

Western democracies will have to adapt if they want to remain competetive in the 21st century.

Focus on the Long-term

Switzerland is one of the few Western democracies that is capable of a long-term focus. Their unique, consensus-driven system ensures stability and continuity of government, with buy-in from all major political parties. The largest parties are all represented on the 7-member governing Federal Council, elected by Federal Assembly (a bicameral parliament) for four-year terms on a proportional basis. There has been only one change in party representation on the Federal Council since 19592.

Cohesiveness and stability provide a huge advantage when it comes to long-term planning.

Conclusion

Regulating global trade, limiting the threat of social media, ensuring quality journalism, protecting academic freedom, guarding against influence operations by foreign powers, limiting the power of lobbyists and special interest groups — all of these require a long-term strategy. And buy-in from all sides of the political spectrum.

We need to adapt our current form of democracy, which has served us well for the last century, but is faltering under the challenges of the modern era, or risk losing it all together. Without bipartisan support for, and commitment to, long-term policies, there is little hope for building a winning strategy.

The choice is ours: a highly-regulated, autocratic system where rule of law is the first casualty; a stable form of democracy that ensures long-term continuity and planning; or continuation of the present melee, driven by emotion rather than forethought, populist leaders, frequent changes in government — and subservience to our new autocratic masters.

Footnotes:

  1. Wikipedia: Tea Party movement
  2. Current Federal Council representation is 2 Free Democratic Party (liberals), 2 Social Democratic Party (social democrats), 1 Christian Democratic People’s Party [CVP] (Christian conservatives) and 2 Swiss People’s Party [SVP] (national conservatives), reflecting 76.2% of the popular vote in 2015 Federal elections. The SVP gained one seat from the CVP in 2003.
  3. The Diplomat: China’s United Front work – Propaganda as Policy