Prognosis: Where Are We Heading?

Posted on August 17, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


In the last few weeks some of my friends and colleagues have been very busy debating the global economic situation and trying to figure out where we are heading. GO Figure! Eh…. I so wish I could help them and had answers to all their questions.  But then on a second thought no harm in trying…. right?

Let us look at the last few months to get a good handle of where we are, shall we? To begin with I must say if we look at the events unfolding in the last couple of months there was no dull moment and it has been an action-packed rollercoaster ride which has kept us busy and entertained but this depends on how you look at it.

Shall we do a quick RECAP and look at some of the HIGHLIGHTS of the past few months?

Starting with China we saw Agricultural Bank of China raise a record US$ 22 billion in IPO. It was the world largest IPO, the previous record was held by ICBC- China after raising US $ 21.9 billion in IPO. Although some suggested that the reception for Agricultural Bank of China ( Ag Bank ) was lackluster and the IPO was apparently overvalued but most of the analysts surveyed by Reuters expect the stock to go up to RMB 2.81 relatively quickly.  Up to 40% of the Shanghai offering was sold to about 27 strategic investors including of China Life Insurance, China State Construction among others on a 12-18 months lock-in period. And from the Hong Kong listing a total of around US $ 5.5 billion worth of stocks were sold to Qatar and Kuwait’s Investment Authorities.  It is interesting to note that the bank which was considered by many as technically bankrupt with more than 24% in non-performing loans around 3-4 years ago managed to raise a colossal amount of money and also reported a 40% jump in net profit in the first half of 2010. I wonder how Ag bank’s turnaround reflects on the investors’ confidence especially those reluctant to hold bank stocks and may be other banks could take a leaf from Agricultural Bank of China’s book? .Let’s see.

In the short to medium term the market expects China based banks to raise more money as their balance sheet comes under pressure due to excessive lending to the property market.  The China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) has instructed the Chinese banks to test the impact of a 50% fall in the house prices in major cities across China. This is in addition to an early nation-wide stress test that showed the local banks in China could sustain a fall of up to 30% in housing prices without a sharp increase in non-performing loan ratios.

It is highly plausible that the Chinese Government will continue with its controls to restrain the property market fearful of the social pressure that could arise from a BOOM-BUST in property sector as recently seen in the US and in Japan in the 80’s.  And this is already feeding into the overall demand from things like construction raw materials including of steel, cement etc to household products among others.

Most of the recently published figures show a softening in demand. The annual factory output in July slipped to 13.4 from 13.7 in June although above the consensus but still a decline. The Consumer price inflation fell to 2.9% in June from 3.1% in May. These figures along with the weaker retail sales indicate clearly a slowdown in the economic activities across which was reflected in the second quarter (Q2) GDP numbers. According to the National Bureau of Statistic (NBS )  the growth fell to 10.3% in Q2 from 11.9% in Q1 of 2010. The Q2 GDP print was below the market expectation of 10.5%.

Although there are different view as to where the Chinese economy is heading I believe the GDP and other data are in line with expectations and there is no alarm yet. The slowdown as expected looks moderate and I believe there will be no policy relaxation from Beijing in the immediate future especially based on these set of numbers. So going forward we may see the investments come down and the recent numbers out do point in that direction. Let’s look at them. According to the Central Bank the total loans for the month of July stood at RMB 533 billion, below the forecasted RMB 600 billion, the year-on-year credit growth has also slowdown sharply to 18.4% in July, well down from 33.8% of last year, also the annual growth in the broad M2 measure of money supply considered the lubricant of economic growth slowed to 17.6 percent in July from 18.5 percent in June.

What all this means is we may see further softening in demands in China which will reflect badly on imports including of commodities and machineries etc  going forward.  To add to that we are already seeing a significant buildup in inventories and this is not what you want to hear if you were a German machine manufacturer, a miner or a commodity driven company/economy. Some in the financial markets may worry that the policy makers in China are applying the brakes too hard to slowdown the economy which could take out a big chunk of the existing global demand especially because China has been a major driving force. And this may reflect badly on the overall global growth prospect and recovery.

There is no doubt that the slowdown in economic activities is in line with  Beijing’s  expectation and this is clearly a government engineered slowdown as the market feared an overheating of the economy earlier this year and some analysts even suggested that it may be too late for Beijing to a get grip over the runaway economy. This is why I keep telling my friends and colleagues never underestimate the policy makers in Beijing.

The other side of the story is that the economy is still holding up and even with the current slowdown in activities the consensus view is that China could still grow at 9% or there about in the FY 2010. This is by no mean the end of the world as some may fear. I believe it is worth noting that going forward the government may start to ease its credit policy especially if there are signs that the economy is slowing down too rapidly for Beijing’s liking and so by the end of the year they may speed up targeted investments in areas such as low-income housing, rural development and clean energy. Also we shouldn’t forget that one of the advantages of the existing political system in China is that it allows the policy makers to acts faster and swiftly unlike their peers in other parts of the world.

Staying with Asia the fact is many policy makers across Asia are starting to worry more about inflation and hot money flow than a double-dip. Most economies in Asia including of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, India, China, Indonesia and Australia among others have all seen a very significant capital inflows in 2009 and the first half of 2010 mostly from investors attracted by their growth potential. And now there is a genuine concern that the amount of hot money committed to Asia and Emerging market as whole could create an Asset bubble going forward. In fact European and American equities markets are looking cheaper then developing markets and you wonder if some emerging markets may have already produced most of their gains.  That said the growth story of the emerging markets is still intact and investors looking for growth will remain extremely attracted to the EM.

So far this year Southeast Asian Markets has had a very strong run and as of the end of July, Indonesia was the best-performing market in the world in 2010, the Jakarta Composite Index up 26.2 percent; Thailand’s Main Index was up 19.7 percent; Malaysia’s 14.5 percent and The Philippines’ 13.0 percent. However, Singapore Straits Timex Index was only up by 6.3% in the first half of 2010 despite a second quarter (Q2) GDP print of 19.3% year-on-year. The city-state economy is benefiting from government investment in the bioscience, electronics and construction sectors among others and is expected to grow at around 15% or more in the FY 2010.

Moving on let us look at what’s cooking in Europe shall we?

The recent numbers out from the Euro Zone clearly point to a two faced growth in the Euro area. While Germany the largest economy in the Europe expanded at the fastest pace in over two decades reporting a 2.2% growth in second quarter (Q2) and was responsible for almost two thirds of the Euro bloc’s second- quarter growth but unfortunately its southern European counterparts are still struggling to recover from the CRISIS.

Germany’s business confidence data- Ifo index continues to be on the ascending trajectory showing the strongest increase since the reunification in 1990’s. The unemployment rate in June declined to 7.5 % from 7.7 % in May the jobless numbers was down by 88,000. This was mainly due to the government support for maintaining employees on the job with shorter hours instead of laying them off. The economy seems to be getting in shape and the export driven business model of Germany is in full swing. All the signs show that the Germans export benefitted heavily from the demands coming from Asia especially China but going forward it is highly plausible that the growth may lose momentum because of the strengthening Euro and softening in demands from countries like China. Also in the second half of 2010 the austerity measures will kick in hampering the growth further.

The austerity measures are already crippling growth in countries like Latvia, Greece and Ireland.  Take for example LATVIA –one of the first EU nations to implement austerity measures two years ago. The huge budget cuts have made the matter worst. Also Greece has been hit harder than previously forecasted after implementing the severe austerity measures and it is highly likely that the growth will remain negative for this year hurting the economy even further. According to a recent research published by the retail confederation ESEE about a fifth of small shops in Athens have shut down because of the downturn. The unemployment is expected to go higher from its current 12% level hitting the private consumption further. The ongoing recession is deepening consumers’ insecurities about jobs and debt, making them cut their spending and to try to wind down borrowings. It is highly plausible that the impact will become more pronounced in the second half of 2010.  We will have to wait and see. It is going to be a real test for the voters and politicians.

There is a genuine fear in the market that with the austerity measures kicking in around the second half (H2) of the 2010 some of the European nations including of Spain may slip back into recession after reporting a GDP growth of 0.2% in the second quarter (Q2 ) creating a growth gap and making it harder for the European Central Bank (ECB ) to correctly gauge the timing of its policy tightening steps. As things stand I think it is safe to assume that it’s too early for ECB to start thinking about tighter policies and one should not get carried away with Germany’s second quarter ( Q2 ) growth numbers. The reality is Euro Zone countries are still struggling to keep their head above the water and in most countries across the EU the wage pressure are downwards and the core inflation stand at just 1%. Also besides Germany other major European economies like Italy are struggling with the mountain of debt and raising money for them in the market is not getting any easier as reflected by recent jump in the spreads.  Based on Bloomberg data for the first time since June 28 the premium that investors demand to hold 10-year Greek bonds against a German government bond of same maturity rose to 800 basis points (bps) and the Spanish government bond yields climbed six basis points to 4.24 %.  Most investors are also shunning Spanish banks because of their record borrowing of 130.2 billion euros from the European Central Bank in July of 2010.

It is also worth noting that while Germany is forging ahead the others in the EU believe that it is doing so at their expense. By cutting the budget deficit and keeping the wages down Germany is in fact making it harder for other EU states to regain competitiveness. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out for the Euro Zone going forward.

The hope is that the European leaders will learn from their past mistakes and going forward they will look beyond their national interest and work together towards perfecting the Union. The Union was not designed or conceived to handle a CRISIS it clearly exposed the flaws and also the limits of EU integration and coordination.

Staying with the EU let us also look at the performance of the UK economy, a prominent EU member and a major trading partner, in the last few months.

According to the office of National Statistics the UK economy grew at 1.1% in the second quarter ( Q2 ) of 2010. The Q2 GDP print was well above the market forecast of 0.6% but as per my expectations. I wrote a piece in April of 2010 titled Market Psychology and Investors Sentiment (mood of the market) – The Driving Force Behind the markets “. I have copied an extract from the post which explains the reason behind my assumption.

“ And in terms of growth, going forward we could see a market beating quarterly GDP numbers and the reasons for that is simple we simple don’t know how much spare capacity is left in the economy and the inventories are so LOW that even with the existing and basic demand you will see a pickup in growth and this could PUSH the market up”

So does that mean the UK economy is now getting back in SHAPE?

Well let’s look at the bigger picture to get a better IDEA. A recent survey done by the building society Nationwide puts British consumer morale at the lowest since May 2009.  According to Nationwide the rising food and fuel costs may also have played a part in the drop in consumer confidence indicator from 63 in June to 56 in July. The survey also showed a sharp fall in households’ sentiment about the economy, job market and income over the next six months. Consumers are growing increasingly concerned about their disposable income and the planed VAT rise from January of 2011 probably won’t help that concern going forward.

Also according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors the house prices fell for the first time in a year in July because of the buyers’ reluctance to commit as the sellers rushed to sell their properties. There is a risk that we may see this softer trend continue in the second half (H2) of 2010 as many prospective buyers are still struggling to raise mortgage finance. I believe it is worth noting that the high profits for banks in the first half of 2010 were also facilitated by lower impairment of existing mortgages and expectations that house prices would be stable. Going forward a slowing housing market along with the planned 25% government spending cuts, VAT rise, and a high unemployment  among others will add to the uncertainty facing the Bank of England as it tries to guess the growth prospects for the UK economy.

The new coalition government in Britain has decided to strip down to its bones as it prepares to cut the expenditures by more than 83 billion pounds over the next five years and drastically shrink its responsibilities. You can’t help but wonder if the economy can survive a starvation diet. Imagine an extra extra extra  large ( XXXL ) size human being decides to SLIM down dramatically and goes on a CRASH WEIGHT loss program. The commonsense tells us that he will SLIM down alright but in the process also runs the risk of crashing his/her heart. A gradual weight reduction is always the best advice which also leads to a long term weight control and a healthy system.

There is no doubt that Britain risks losing it growth momentum due to the planned spending cuts, VAT rise etc. And it is evident from the Bank of England recent downgrading of UK’s growth forecast for the FY 2010 the bank also raised its inflation expectation for the next year in its recent published quarterly growth and inflation forecast.

Staying with the spending cuts here is an extract of what I wrote in one of my post titled Stimulus: The Exit Strategy and the road aheadin January of 2010. I think it is still relevant.

Although one understands that there is need to fix balance sheets (fiscal consolidation) and address the inflationary concerns by having a clearly formulated, defined and coordinated exit strategy in place. But that said Timing will be KEY here as exiting too soon or too late has its own risk. And also it is extremely important that the process should only begin when there is enough hard evidence to see that economy will keep growing on its own after the removal of the stimulus or in other words it is evident that the recovery is solid, financial markets are back to normalcy and credit risk spreads are at an acceptable level and there is a significant risk to inflation over the medium term

In the same post there is another interesting point that I thought I’ll share again.

Here is an extract “ ……………….one has to also admit that the policy makers have managed to avoid a Great Depression type event by not adopting an extremely tight fiscal and monetary policy but a single policy mistake here could jeopardize the whole recovery process “.

I think it is important to point out that both the points are still relevant and we can only hope that the policy makers get it right and have a good foresight.

Moving on it is no secret that the global economy is still very reliant on the US and going forward an underperforming US economy will reflect badly on the overall growth prospect.  So let us check out how the US economy has been doing in the past few months.

The market was anxiously awaiting the Financial Regulation (FinReg) Bill  so the biggest news coming out of the U.S. for some was the passing of the FinReg bill in July of 2010 that is supposedly going to prevent future CRISIS. Whether it does or not well for that we will have to wait and see. The FinReg bill deals with a number of issues. Some of the important one’s are Systemic Risk – Under the proposed plan the Financial Stability Oversight Council chaired by the secretary of the treasury will identify firms that threaten stability of the system and subject them to tighter oversight by the Federal Reserve; Ending Bailouts -Firms would have a mandatory “funeral plans” or a living Will that describes how they could be shut down quickly; Supervising Banks – the Comptroller of the Currency will take over from the U.S. Office of Thrift Supervision and the FDIC’s deposit insurance coverage will be  raised to $250,000 per individual from the current $100,000 level ; Hedge Funds – All Private equity and hedge funds with assets of $150 million or more will need to register with the SEC and will be subject to more inspection. However, venture capital funds would be exempted; Insurance – A new federal agency/office will monitor the industry; Volcker Rule And Bank Standards – credit exposure from derivative transactions will have to be added to banks’ lending limits, Non-bank financial firms under the Fed supervision will now face limits on proprietary trading and as well fund investing etc; And Investors protection among others.

Now coming back to the performance of the US economy in the past few months, the recent data from the US has been mixed and also weak. So let us look at some of them.

 We saw the U.S. consumer-price index increase by 0.3%, the most in a year and above the market expectation. The Commerce Department data showed retail sales excluding autos, gasoline and building materials unexpectedly fell by 0.1 % in July. According to Reuters/University of Michigan survey of consumers the preliminary index of consumer sentiment jumped to 69.6 following a reading of 67.8 in July, the lowest since November. Also the U.S. second quarter (Q2) GDP growth slowed to 2.4%.

Based on the recent data coming out the US it is safe to assume that the recovery is softening.  Taking this into account the Federal Reserve has taken fresh steps to lower borrowing costs. In a recent statement the Fed announced that “ to help support the economic recovery in a context of price stability, the committee will keep constant the Federal Reserve’s holdings of securities at their current level by reinvesting principal payments from agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in longer-term Treasury securities”.  This is a significant policy shift as not long ago the central bank was eagerly debating the EXIT strategy from the huge stimulus delivered during the crisis. The Fed is also downbeat about the growth outlook going forward. A recent San Francisco Fed study suggests that there is a strong chance that the US economy will slip back into recession in the next two years. And to add to that according to the latest IMF’s annual review of the U.S. economy the fund observed that the U.S. fiscal gap associated with current federal fiscal policy is huge for probable discount rates.” And it claims that “closing the fiscal gap will require a stable annual fiscal adjustment equal to about 14% of U.S. current GDP. That basically translate into a constant doubling of personal-income, corporate and federal taxes as well as the payroll if the U.S. was to try to close the current fiscal gap from the revenues. So in short the country is living way beyond its means. Some would term this as a technical bankruptcy. Shocking isn’t it? But this depends on how you look at it. Remember the phrase when the U.S. sneezes the world catches cold well this still holds true so fear not. Also you go bankrupt only if others are not willing to lend you the money. It is in the interest of the world to keep the U.S. economy afloat and going forward it is highly unlikely that the foreign buyers of U.S. treasuries including of China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and others will abandon the US.  Although the US economy has performed a bit below the market expectations it will be unwise to write it off and underestimate its ability to come back.  But going forward there may be a significant rise in the poverty level across the U.S. and we are also going to see tax rises among other things.  It is worth noting that the Fed’s still have ammunitions at their disposal but we will have to wait and see how effective they are going to be.

There is no doubt that going forward the policy makers in the U.S. will have to find ways to make sure that credit worthy small and medium size businesses have access to capital. Banks, companies and individual consumers are all economically inter-reliant. So if the financial institutions refuse to provide credit to good businesses because of the fear that other lenders will cut down as well. This will create a shortage of credit hence extending the CRISIS and delaying recovery even more.

So how will all this reflect on the growth prospects in a wider context?

There is no doubt that the emerging markets have been leading the way and in general investors have so far been more optimistic about the emerging markets than the US or Europe. Also it is interesting to note that the performance of the Asian indexes has been reflected in the US and other developed markets. And the demand side of the story has been mostly driven by Asia especially China. Although all the recent data suggests that the economic activities in major Asian economies like China is moderately slowing down that said China, India, Indonesia and others have a lot of growing to do. And going forward a big chunk of the global demand is going to come from the developing world especially China and India. According to the Washington based Inter American Development Bank (IADB) the total economic output from China and India combined together is expected to be around 10 times bigger than Europe’s total GDP by 2040. While China is already a leading trading partner of most developing countries as well as developed nations across the world, India is now adding to the demand side. Going forward India – a commodity hungry country, may very well become a key demand side client for commodity driven economies like Latin America.

Also the economic growth outlook for Africa is improving and going forward the region does have the potential to become a significant growth provider. And it is in the interest of the world to foster growth in the region. The policy makers especially in the developed world should look at Africa as a prospective vibrant market that will create demand and work towards creating a long term partnership with the region. Some European companies especially Portuguese are already tapping into Africa and generating more than 50% of their revenues from the region thus compensating for the loss of revenue from their domestic market.

This is why I keep saying to my friends and colleagues that the fear of double-dip might be good for the markets in the long run as it will keep the policy makers awake and alert fearing a policy mistake here could jeopardize the whole recovery process and the global community will blame them for it. That’s the fun of living in a globalised world where your problem may become mine sooner or later. Also I am starting to think that this CRSIS is an opportunity to rebalance the world and comparing this crisis to the past recessions and deploying the old rules of thumb is probably unwise as today we have a number of other factors including of a very vibrant emerging market that could influence the outcome.

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9 Responses to “Prognosis: Where Are We Heading?”

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I only comments when people ask me. You mention the word Growth 30 times in the article. You are probably too busy, but i can suggest you to read about the laws of sustainability. You will see that growth is not sustainable, not in an economy based on growing the number of people and non-renewable energy.

I would add the energy prices. Oil was 15 USD a barrel 15 years ago. it’s 5 times higher now. that have an impact on the economy.

We have consumed around half of the known reserves of oil on the planet, that means that supply and price will fluctuate, not good for an economy. Read about peak oil, peak gas, peak fish, peak everything.

Many thanks for your valuable comments.

Let me take this opportunity to respond to them if I may.
You raised an important point regarding the laws of sustainability. It is very important to differentiate between sustainable growth and a runaway growth.

You mentioned Oil. Well crude was once a useless commodity that became valuable overnight. The world is not constant but changing where a useless commodity can become relevant overnight. Take for example Bolivia’s Lithium reserves – Lithium used for the production of batteries was once considered useless but it is extremely valuable these days and with the explosive growth in hybrid and electric cars the demand is outstripping the supply on a daily basis. So all of a sudden Bolivia is becoming very important in the whole scheme of things. Now I can point to history. Evolution has been a key to sustainability and survival of all the species on this planet.
Going forward we will find alternatives to crude and innovation is helping us achieve that already. Solar technology is going through phenomenal evolution to an extent where solar power plants are now getting cheaper to build then nuclear power plants. Another example is wind sector just look at the technological evolution in the sector in the last 20-years. Many people didn’t take it seriously but now almost all utility companies around the world have a wind power generating asset.

Necessity is the MOTHER OF INVENTION…remember that Phrase…it still holds TRUE.

Once again Many thanks for your comments. I really appreciate it.

You should look at Quantitative easing too, i.e. printing money. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantitative_easing
All currencies in the world or not backed by gold since 1971, and central banks can print as much money as they want. and they have started.

No matter which way you look at it, it’s all smoke and mirrors. The global banking and economic fraud of the last 70 or more years will ultimately collapse like the deck of cards it is. What will be interesting to see is if anyone survives the aftermath.

Thanks John. The market is inefficient but the inefficiency also provides an opportunity for wealth creation. Otherwise you will see no enterprenuerial culture. But when greed is the only driving factor than you tend to loose the foresight. The market is run by human ideas some good and some bad. I have no doubt in my mind that the markets will come back at some point and there will be parties again on the streets, but the question is, will this happen again? I am sure it will. After all, we are human beings!

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