Nouriel Roubini: “We are in a debt trap”

Nouriel Roubini was mocked by the media — who christened him “Dr Doom” — because of his prescient warnings ahead of the 2008 global financial crisis.

He has now published a book identifying 10 mega-threats to the global economy.

First and foremost is the debt trap. Private and public debt has expanded from 100% of GDP in the 1970s, to 200% by 1999, 350% last year — advanced economies even higher at 420%, China at 330%. Inflation forces central banks to raise interest rates. High rates mean many debtors will be unable to repay.

If governments print money to bail out the economy they will cause further inflation — a tax on creditors and savers [negative real rates threaten collapse of the insurance and pension industry].

We face prolonged high inflation.

Central Banks hiking rates is misguided, economic crisis will be so damaging they will be forced to reverse course.

Supply shocks from pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war and China zero-COVID policy.

Fiscal deficits will rise due to increased spending on national security and reducing carbon emissions.

Twenty years of kicking the can down the road [short election cycle incentivizes this], with politicians unwilling to support short-term costs for long-term gain because they are unlikely to be in power to reap the rewards. Older voters are also unlikely to support change as they may not be around to reap the benefits.

Carbon emissions are increasing due to the energy crisis from Russia-Ukraine war. Carbon tax of $200/tonne required, currently $2.

We need to reduce our energy consumption.

Also increase productivity. Technology is the only solution. AI and automation could lift GDP growth, providing sufficient income to fund the changes needed.

But technology is also a threat. It provides more dangerous weapons which risk greater destruction in the next conflict.

Democracy is still the best system. Autocracies are often corrupt and way too much concentration of power [echo chamber] leads to mistakes. They also increase inequality and political instability.

Nouriel seems bullish on gold because of geopolitical tensions. Also “green metals” because of the need to reduce CO2 emissions.

Our 2023 Outlook

This is our last newsletter for the year, where we take the opportunity to map out what we see as the major risks and opportunities facing investors in the year ahead.

US Economy

The Fed has been hiking interest rates since March this year, but real retail sales remain well above their pre-pandemic trend (dotted line below) and show no signs of slowing.

Real Retail Sales

Retail sales are even rising strongly against disposable personal income, with consumers running up credit and digging into savings.

Retail Sales/ Disposable Personal Income

The Fed wants to reduce demand in order to reduce inflationary pressure on consumer prices but consumers continue to spend. Household net worth has soared — from massive expansion of home and stock prices, fueled by cheap debt, and growing savings boosted by government stimulus during the pandemic. The ratio of household net worth to disposable personal income has climbed more than 40% since the global financial crisis — from 5.5 to 7.7.

Household Net Worth/ Disposable Personal Income

At the same time, unemployment (3.7%) has fallen close to record lows, increasing inflationary pressures as employers compete for scarce labor.

Unemployment

Real Growth

Hours worked contracted by an estimated 0.12% in November (-1.44% annualized).

Real GDP & Hours Worked

But annual growth rates for real GDP growth (1.9%) and hours worked (2.1%) remain positive.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Heavy truck sales are also a solid 40,700 units per month (seasonally adjusted). Truck sales normally contract ahead of recessions, marked by light gray bars below, providing a reliable indicator of economic growth. Sales below 35,000 units per month would be bearish.

S&P 500

Inflation & Interest Rates

The underlying reason for the economy’s resilience is the massive expansion in the money supply (M2 excluding time deposits) relative to GDP, after the 2008 global financial crisis, doubling from earlier highs at 0.4 to the current ratio of 0.84. Excessive liquidity helped to suppress interest rates and balloon asset prices, with too much money chasing scarce investment opportunities. In the hunt for yield, investors became blind to risk.

S&P 500

Suppression of interest rates caused the yield on lowest investment grade corporate bonds (Baa) to decline below CPI. A dangerous precedent, last witnessed in the 1970s, negative real rates led to a massive spike in inflation. Former Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, had to hike the Fed funds rate above 19.0%, crashing the economy, in order to tame inflation.

S&P 500

The current Fed chair, Jerome Powell, is doing his best to imitate Volcker, hiking rates steeply after a late start. Treasury yields have inverted, with the 1-year yield (4.65%) above the 2-year (4.23%), reflecting bond market expectations that the Fed will soon be forced to cut rates.

S&P 500

A negative yield curve, indicated by the 10-year/3-month spread below zero, warns that the US economy will go into recession in 2023. Our most reliable indicator, the yield spread has inverted (red rings below) before every recession declared by the NBER since 1960*.

S&P 500

Bear in mind that the yield curve normally inverts 6 to 18 months ahead of a recession and recovers shortly before the recession starts, when the Fed cuts interest rates.

Home Prices

Mortgage rates jumped steeply as the Fed hiked rates and started to withdraw liquidity from financial markets. The sharp rise signals the end of the 40-year bull market fueled by cheap debt. Rising inflation has put the Fed on notice that the honeymoon is over. Deflationary pressures from globalization can no longer be relied on to offset inflationary pressures from expansionary monetary policy.

S&P 500

Home prices have started to decline but have a long way to fall to their 2006 peak (of 184.6) that preceded the global financial crisis.

S&P 500

Stocks

The S&P 500 is edging lower, with negative 100-day Momentum signaling a bear market, but there is little sign of panic, with frequent rallies testing the descending trendline.

S&P 500

Bond market expectations of an early pivot has kept long-term yields low and supported stock prices. 10-Year Treasury yields at 3.44% are almost 100 basis points below the Fed funds target range of 4.25% to 4.50%. Gradual withdrawals of liquidity (QT)  by the Fed have so far failed to dent bond market optimism.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Fed Funds Rate

Treasuries & the Bond Market

Declining GDP is expected to shrink tax receipts, while interest servicing costs on existing fiscal debt are rising, causing the federal deficit to balloon to between $2.5 and $5.0 trillion according to macro/bond specialist Luke Gromen.

Federal Debt/GDP & Federal Deficit/GDP

With foreign demand for Treasuries shrinking, and the Fed running down its balance sheet, the only remaining market  for Treasuries is commercial banks and the private sector. Strong Treasury issuance is likely to increase upward pressure on yields, to attract investors. The inflow into bonds is likely to be funded by an outflow from stocks, accelerating their decline.

Energy

Brent crude prices fell below $80 per barrel, despite slowing releases from the US strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). Demand remains soft despite China’s relaxation of their zero-COVID policy — which some expected to accelerate their economic recovery.

S&P 500

European natural gas inventories are near full, causing a sharp fall in prices. But prices remain high compared to their long-term average, fueling inflation and an economic contraction.

S&P 500

Europe

European GDP growth is slowing, while inflation has soared, causing negative real GDP growth and a likely recession.

S&P 500

Australia, Base Metals & Iron Ore

Base metals rallied on optimism over China’s reopening from lockdowns. Normally a bullish sign for the global economy, breakout above resistance at 175 was short-lived, warning of a bull trap.

S&P 500

Iron ore posted a similar rally, from $80 to $110 per tonne, but is also likely to retreat.

S&P 500

The ASX benefited from the China rally, with the ASX 200 breaking resistance at 7100 to complete a double-bottom reversal. Now the index is retracing to test its new support level. Breach of 7000 would warn of another test of primary support at 6400.S&P 500

China

Optimism over China’s reopening may be premature. Residential property prices continue to fall.

S&P 500

The reopening also risks a massive COVID exit-wave, against an under-prepared population, when restrictions are relaxed.

“In my memory, I have never seen such a challenge to the Chinese health-care system,” Xi Chen, a Yale University global health researcher, told National Public Radio in America this week. With less than four intensive care beds for every 100,000 people and millions of unvaccinated or partially protected older adults, the risks are real.

With official data highly unreliable, it is hard to track exactly what impact China’s U-turn is having. Authorities on Friday reported the first Covid-19 deaths since most restrictions were lifted in early December, but there have been reports that funeral homes in Beijing are struggling to handle the number of bodies being brought in.

“The risk factors are there: eight million people are essentially not vaccinated,” said Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Unless this variant has evolved in a way that makes it harmless, China can’t avoid what happened in Taiwan or in Hong Kong,” he added, referring to significant “exit waves” in both places.

The scale of the surge is unlikely to be apparent for months, but modelling suggests it could be grim. A report from the University of Hong Kong released on Thursday warned that a best case scenario is 700,000 fatalities – forecasts from a UK-based analytics firm put deaths at between 1.3 and 2.1 million.

“We’re still at a very early stage in this particular exit wave,” said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. (The Telegraph)

China relied on infrastructure spending to get them out of past economic contractions but debt levels are now too high for stimulus on a similar scale to 2008. Expansion of credit to local government and real estate developers is likely to cause further stagnation, with the rise of zombie banking and real estate sectors — as Japan experienced for more than three decades — suffocating future growth.

S&P 500

Conclusion

Resilient consumer spending, high household net worth, and a tight labor market all make the Fed’s job difficult. If the current trend continues, the Fed will be forced to hike interest rates higher than the bond market expects, in order to curb demand and tame inflation.

Expected contraction of European and Chinese economies, combined with rate hikes in the US, are likely to cause a global recession.

There are two possible exits. First, if central banks stick to their guns and hold interest rates higher for longer, a major and extended economic contraction is almost inevitable. While inflation may be tamed, the global economy is likely to take years to recover.

The second option is for central banks to raise inflation targets and suppress long-term interest rates in order to create a soft landing. High inflation and negative real interest rates may prolong the period of low growth but negative real rates would rescue the G7 from precarious debt levels that have ensnared them over the past decade. A similar strategy was successfully employed after WWII to extricate governments from high debt levels relative to GDP.

As to which option will be chosen is a matter of political will. The easier second option is therefore more likely, as politicians tend to follow the line of least resistance.

We have refrained from weighing in on the likely outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Ukraine presently has the upper hand but the conflict is a wild card that could cause a spike in energy prices if it escalates or a positive boost to the European economy in the unlikely event that peace breaks out.

Our strategy is to remain overweight in gold, critical materials, defensive stocks and cash, while underweight bonds and high-multiple technology stocks. In the longer term, we will seek to invest cash in real assets when the opportunity presents itself.

Acknowledgements

  • Hat tip to Macrobusiness for the Pantheon Macroeconomics (China Residential) and Goldman Sachs (China Local Government Funding & Excavator Hours) charts.

Notes

* The yield curve inverted ahead of a 25% fall in the Dow in 1966. The NBER declared a recession but later changed their minds and airbrushed it out of their records.

Deconstructing Evergrande’s effect on China

Elliot Clarke at Westpac says that China will be able to withstand the shock of Evergrande’s collapse and that power outages are a bigger threat.

We still think that the property sector contagion is part of a broader issue that China will struggle to overcome, as Michael Pettis succinctly explained:

China’s debt problem

Tweeted by Prof. Michael Pettis:

In the past — e.g. the SOE reforms of the 1990s, the banking crisis of the 2000s, SARS in 2003, the collapse of China’s trade surplus in 2009, COVID, etc. — whenever China faced a problem that threatened the pace of its economic growth, Beijing always responded by accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment by enough to maintain targeted GDP growth rates. It didn’t adjust, in other words, but rather goosed growth by exacerbating the underlying imbalances.

That is why it had always been “successful” in seeing off a crisis. But when the main problem threatening further growth becomes soaring debt and the sheer amount of non-productive investment in property and infrastructure, it is obvious, or should be, that accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment can no longer be a sustainable solution. All this can do is worsen the underlying imbalances and raise further the future cost of adjustment.

What would Putin do?

The Communist Party of China has an unwritten contract with the 1.4 billion people living under its rule: they will tolerate living under an autocratic regime provided that the CCP delivers economic prosperity. So far the CCP has delivered in spades. A never-ending economic boom, fueled by exponential debt growth as investment in productive infrastructure grows ever more challenging.

But they are now familiar with the law of diminishing marginal returns: governments can’t just keep spending on infrastructure without falling into a debt trap. All the low-hanging fruit have been picked and new infrastructure projects offer lower and lower returns as spending programs continue.

That was probably the primary motivation for the CCP’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI): to source more productive infrastructure investments in international markets. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought the BRI to a shuddering halt and the CCP is unlikely to maintain its exemplary growth record — no matter how much they fudge the numbers.

Xi Jinping is faced with an impossible task: how to placate 1.4 billion people when inflation sends food prices soaring and ballooning debt precipitates a sharp rise in unemployment and falling wages. The CCP has been preparing for this very eventuality for some time. Investing billions in surveillance and social credit systems, brutal crackdowns on religious organizations and minorities, suppression of democratic forces in Hong Kong, the latest take-down of tech giants — Jack Ma’s Ant Group and Tencent Holdings — which could form a focal point for democratic opposition, and beefing up internal policing. These are not the whims of an autocratic regime but a desperate attempt at self-preservation. China’s internal security budget is even bigger than its military budget (WION).

Xi Jinping

Behind that inscrutable facade, Xi Jinping is a worried man. Even with all the technology and forces of suppression at his disposal, confronting an angry population of 1.4 billion people is a daunting task. In his darkest hours he must have asked himself the question: WHAT WOULD PUTIN DO?

Even if you don’t believe the RT hype of the bare-chested deer hunter, judo expert and chess grandmaster — a combination of Chuck Norris and Garry Kasparov — you have to give Vladimir Putin credit for surviving 20 years as the head of a murderous regime where only the strong and completely ruthless stay alive.

Vladimir Putin

What would Putin do? The answer must have hit Xi Jinping like a 500 watt light bulb: INVADE CRIMEA. Vladimir Putin enjoyed record popularity at home (if you can believe Russian opinion polls) after invading Crimea. Despite the economic hardships that the Russian people had to endure from Western sanctions. The only force more powerful than hunger is a wave of patriotic nationalism.

Now being the canny fellow that he is, Xi figured that Crimea was too far away to be much use. Luckily for him, there is a handy substitute. An island of 23.5 million inhabitants, living under a democratically-elected government, only 180 kilometers away, across the Taiwan Strait.

Conclusion

We expect the CCP to fuel a wave of nationalist fervor to distract the 1.4 billion people living under their harsh rule from the economic hardships they are about to endure. Conflict over Taiwan is an obvious choice.

At present the PLA is conducting daily incursions into Taiwanese airspace, to map ROC air defense systems and wear down defenders with “response fatigue”.

ROC Reports Incursion by 28 PLA Aircraft

The CCP would not want to interfere with the Beijing Winter Olympics but may use it as a distraction — straight out of Putin’s playbook.

Melik Kaylan at Forbes:

I can say one thing about Vladimir Putin without fear of contradiction: he cares about timing. When he’s up to no good, he loves a sleight-of-hand distraction in global headlines. In 2008 [invasion of Georgia], the Beijing summer Olympics served as cover. More recently, the Sochi Winter Olympics ended just three days before Russia marched into Crimea.

Notes

  1. The 2022 Winter Olympics — also known as Beijing 2022 — is scheduled to take place from 4 to 20 February 2022.

Markets that are likely to outperform in 2021

There is no reliable benchmark for assessing performance of different markets (stocks, bonds, precious metals, commodities, etc.) since central banks have flooded financial markets with more than $8 trillion in freshly printed currency since the start of 2020. The chart below from Ed Yardeni shows total assets of the five major central banks (Fed, ECB, BOC, BOE and BOJ) expanded to $27.9T at the end of November 2020, from below $20T at the start of the year.

Central Banks: Total Assets

With no convenient benchmark, the best way to measure performance is using relative strength between two prices/indices.

Measured in Gold (rather than Dollars) the S&P 500 iShares ETF (IVV) has underperformed since mid-2019. Respect of the red descending trendline would confirm further weakness ahead (or outperformance for Gold).

S&P 500 iShares ETF/Gold

But if we take a broad basket of commodities, stocks are still outperforming. Reversal of the current up-trend would signal that he global economy is recovering, with rising demand for commodities as manufacturing output increases. Breach of the latest, sharply rising trendline would warn of a correction to the long-term rising trendline and, most likely, even further.

S&P 500 iShares ETF/DJ-UBS Commodity Index

Commodities

There are pockets of rising prices in commodities but the broader indices remain weak.

Copper shows signs of a recovery. Breakout above -0.5 would signal outperformance relative to Gold.

Copper/Gold

Brent crude shows a similar rally. Breakout above the declining red trendline would suggest outperformance ahead.

Brent Crude/Gold

But the broad basket of commodities measured by the DJ-UBS Commodity Index is still in a down-trend.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index/Gold

Precious Metals

Silver broke out of its downward trend channel relative to Gold. Completion of the recent pullback (at zero) confirms the breakout and signals future outperformance.

Silver/Gold

Stock Markets

Comparing major stock indices, the S&P 500 has outperformed the DJ Stoxx Euro 600 since 2010. Lately the up-trend has accelerated and breach of the latest rising trendline would warn of reversion to at least the long-term trendline. More likely even further.

S&P 500 iShares ETF/Euro Stoxx 600

The S&P 500 shows a similar accelerating up-trend relative to the ASX 200. Breach of the latest trendline would similarly signal reversion to the LT trendline and most likely further.

S&P 500 iShares ETF/ASX 200

Reversion is already under way with India’s Nifty 50 (NSX), now outperforming the S&P 500.

S&P 500 iShares ETF/Nifty 50

S&P 500 performance relative to the Shanghai Composite plateaued at around +0.4. Breakout would signal further gains but respect of resistance is as likely.

S&P 500 iShares ETF/Shanghai Composite

Growth/Value

Looking within the Russell 1000 large caps index, Growth stocks (IWF) have clearly outperformed Value (IWD) since 2006. Breach of the latest, incredibly steep trendline, however, warns of reversion to the mean. We are likely to see Value outperform Growth in 2021.

Russell 1000 Value/Growth

Bonds

The S&P 500 has made strong gains against Treasury bonds since March (iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF [TLT]) but is expected to run into resistance between 1.3 and 1.4. Rising inflation fears, however, may lower bond prices, spurring further outperformance by stocks.

S&P 500 iShares ETF/Long_term Bond ETF (TLT)

Currencies

The US Dollar is weakening against a basket of major currencies. Euro breakout above resistance at $1.25 would signal a long-term up-trend.

Euro/Dollar

China’s Yuan has already broken resistance at 14.6 US cents, signaling a long-term up-trend.

Yuan/Dollar

India’s Rupee remains sluggish.

Indian Rupee/Dollar

But the Australian Dollar is surging. The recent correction that respected support at 70 US cents suggests an advance to at least 80 cents.

Australian Dollar/Dollar

Gold, surprisingly, retraced over the last few months despite the weakening US Dollar. But respect of support at $1800/ounce would signal another primary advance.

Spot Gold/Dollar

Conclusion

Silver is expected to outperform Gold.
Gold is expected to outperform stocks.
Value stocks are expected to outperform Growth.
India’s Nifty 50 is expected to outperform other major indices. This is likely to be followed by the Stoxx Euro 600 and ASX 200 but only if they break their latest, sharply rising trendlines. That leaves the S&P 500 and Shanghai Composite filling the minor placings.
Copper and Crude show signs of a recovery but the broad basket of currencies is expected to underperform stocks and precious metals.
The Greenback is expected to weaken against most major currencies, while rising inflation is likely to leave bond investors holding the wooden spoon.

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)

The Fed has no vaccine for COVID-19

The World Health Organization has not yet declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a global pandemic but investors are not waiting.

Spooked by the rapid explosion of cases outside of China — South Korea now has 2,931 confirmed cases and Italy 889; — and dire warnings from health professionals, investors are fleeing to safety.

The CDC on February 21st announced:

“We are not seeing community spread here in the United States, yet. But it is very possible, even likely, that it may eventually happen.

…..This new virus represents a tremendous public health threat. We don’t yet have a vaccine ….nor do we have a medicine to treat it specifically.

…..We are now taking, and will continue to take, unprecedented aggressive actions to reduce the impact of this virus.”

China claims to have the disease under control, reporting a sharp decline in new cases. But they have zero credibility after the massive suppression of information, frequent revision of statistics, and rapid disappearance of anyone who contradicts the official CCP line.

This report from Trivium China shows how CCP temporizing allowed the virus to spread:

China’s National Health Commission website published minutes from a meeting the NHC held with its provincial branches on January 14:

  • “The epidemic prevention and control situation has undergone important changes, and the spread of the epidemic may increase significantly, especially with the arrival of the Spring Festival……
  • [We must] implement the most stringent measures, control the epidemic locally, and do our best to avoid the spread of the epidemic in Wuhan.”
  • But the NHC didn’t give any public warning about the virus before January 20.

Severity of the disease should also not be underestimated. Of 43,940 active cases, 18% are listed as serious or critical, while 7% of 39,439 closed cases have died. The growing number of relapses, after the patient initially recovered, is also concerning.

China is going to find it difficult to restore business as usual with the constant threat of another outbreak. Activity remains well below normal levels.

China coal consumption

Official PMI figures point to a “brutal contraction” for China. February Manufacturing PMI plunged to 35.7, while Services were even lower at 29.6.

China PMI

It is difficult to estimate the economic impact of COVID-19 on the global economy. Profs. Warwick McKibbin and David Levine take a stab:

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 may become a footnote in history – a disaster narrowly averted. It could also become a global pandemic similar to some of the worst pandemics of the twentieth century. For example, assume the COVID-19 is as easy to spread and as dangerous as the 1957 Asian flu. Based on the epidemiological estimates of mortality and morbidity rates from that experience, our best estimate from a 2006 study on pandemics was that such a virus might kill more than 14 million people and shrink global GDP by more than $500 billion. These estimates are far higher than the costs were in 1957 because our world is increasingly connected and urban. Preliminary results currently being updated in 2020 suggest even higher numbers for worse case COVID-19…..[Brookings]

This is not a problem that the Fed can handle.

No doubt they will cut interest rates. Short-term Treasury yields (gray) are already falling in anticipation of another rate cut (green).

Effective Fed Funds Rate (EFFR), Interest on Excess Reserves (IOER), and 3-Month Treasury Yield

When consumers are scared, rate cuts will not restore normal consumption patterns. This is both a demand and a supply shock. A virus outbreak would cause consumers to drastically curtail demand: use of public transport, holiday travel, business travel, hotel occupancy, visits to restaurants, shopping malls, sporting events and other public venues. Fast food consumption and discretionary shopping would be especially hard hit.

But supply is also likely to contract due to interruptions to supply chains and shipping logistics, slowing manufacturing output.

Donald Trump may call this a “hoax” but I don’t see him taking any hospital tours, to review preparations. If the virus does spread as anticipated, he is unlikely to win re-election.