Sunday, June 17, 2012

Don't lose sight of the medium term

Rather than focus on Greece this weekend, I thought that I would write about the medium term path for equities and the global economy. I came upon this BIS paper entitled Characterising the financial cycle: don't lose sight of the medium term! The BIS researchers break economic cycles into two components, a shorter business cycle and a longer financial cycle. Here is the abstract:
We characterise empirically the financial cycle using two approaches: analysis of turning points and frequency-based filters. We identify the financial cycle with the medium-term component in the joint fluctuations of credit and property prices; equity prices do not fit this picture well. We show that financial cycle peaks are very closely associated with financial crises and that the length and amplitude of the financial cycle have increased markedly since the mid-1980s. We argue that this reflects, in particular, financial liberalisation and changes in monetary policy frameworks. So defined, the financial cycle is much longer than the traditional business cycle. Business cycle recessions are much deeper when they coincide with the contraction phase of the financial cycle. We also draw attention to the "unfinished recession" phenomenon: policy responses that fail to take into account the length of the financial cycle may help contain recessions in the short run but at the expense of larger recessions down the road.
The financial cycle is turning down. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater explained the financial cycle using the Monopoly® game as an analogy in this note

If you understand the game of Monopoly®, you can pretty well understand credit and economic cycles. Early in the game of Monopoly®, people have a lot of cash and few hotels, and it pays to convert cash into hotels. Those who have more hotels make more money. Seeing this, people tend to convert as much cash as possible into property in order to profit from making other players give them cash. So as the game progresses, more hotels are acquired, which creates more need for cash (to pay the bills of landing on someone else’s property with lots of hotels on it) at the same time as many folks have run down their cash to buy hotels. When they are caught needing cash, they are forced to sell their hotels at discounted prices. So early in the game, “property is king” and later in the game, “cash is king.” Those who are best at playing the game understand how to hold the right mix of property and cash, as this right mix changes.
Now imagine Monopoly® with financial leverage and you understand what is happening with the financial cycle:
Now, let’s imagine how this Monopoly® game would work if we changed the role of the bank so that it could make loans and take deposits. Players would then be able to borrow money to buy hotels and, rather than holding their cash idly, they would deposit it at the bank to earn interest, which would provide the bank with more money to lend. Let’s also imagine that players in this game could buy and sell properties from each other giving each other credit (i.e., promises to give money and at a later date). If Monopoly® were played this way, it would provide an almost perfect model for the way our economy operates. There would be more spending on hotels (that would be financed with promises to deliver money at a later date). The amount owed would quickly grow to multiples of the amount of money in existence, hotel prices would be higher, and the cash shortage for the debtors who hold hotels would become greater down the road. So, the cycles would become more pronounced. The bank and those who saved by depositing their money in it would also get into trouble when the inability to come up with needed cash.
What happened with Lehman in 2008 and in Greece, Spain and the other eurozone peripheral countries today are symptoms of the downturn in the financial cycle.

The business cycle turns down
There is no doubt that the financial cycle has been turning down since 2008. What about the business cycle? It's turning down as well. Regular readers know that I use commodity prices as the "canaries in the coalmine" of global growth and inflationary expectations. Consider this chart of the negative divergence between US equities and commodities prices.

The market is also telling a similar story of an economic slowdown. Here is the relative performance of the Morgan Stanley Cyclicals Index against the market. It's in a relative downtrend, indicating cyclical weakness.

Globally, air cargo traffic represents an important real-time indicator of the strength of the global economy (h/t Macronomics). This chart from Nomura shows the correlation of air cargo growth with global industrial production growth. Air cargo growth is headed south as well.

I have written about the Axis of Growth, namely the US, Europe and China and at least two of the three are slowing. Hale Stewart at The Bonddad Blog went around the world and explained why the global economy is slowing:

[T]here are no areas of the world economy that are demonstrating a pure growth environment; everybody is dealing with a fairly serious negative environment. Let's break the world down into geographic blocks:

1.) China is located at the center of Asian economic activity. Recently, they lowered their lending rate largely as result of weakening internal numbers. While these numbers still appear strong to a western observer (growth just over 8%), remember that China is trying to help over a billion people become middle class. To accomplish that goal, the economy needs to have a strong growth rate. Also consider that the news out of India has become darker over the last few months as well. A recent set of articles in the Economist highlighted the issues: a political system that is more or less unable to lead, thereby preventing the action on structural roadblocks to growth. The fact that two of the Asian tigers are slowing is rippling into other regions of the world, which leads to point number 2.

2.) The countries that supply the raw materials to these regions are now slowing. Australia recently lowered its interest rate by 25 BP in response to the slowing in Asia. A contributing factor to Brazil's slowdown is the decrease in exports to China. Other Asian economies that have a trade relationship with China are all experiencing a degree of slowdown, but not recession. Some of these countries (such as Brazil) were also experiencing strong price increases. The price increases are are starting to slow, but they are still above comfort levels.

3.) Russia has dropped off the news map of late. However, it emerged from the recession in far worse shape; it's annual growth rate for the duration of the recovery has been between 3.8% and 5%, which is a full 3% below its growth rate preceding the recession. This slower rate of growth makes Russia a far less impressive member of the BRIC list.

4.) The entire European continent is caught up in the debt story -- underneath which we're seeing some terrible economic numbers emerge. PMIs are now in recession territory, unemployment is increasing and interest rates for less than credit-worthy borrowers are rising. And, the overall credit situation is casting a pall over the continent, freezing expansion plans.

5.) The US economy has experienced 2-3 months of declining numbers. While we're not in recession territory yet, we are clearly in a slowdown with growth probably hovering around the 0% mark.
In addition, I have documented warning signs of rising tail risk in China (see Focus on China, Not Europe, Ominous signs from China and The ultimate contrarian sell signal for China?)In last week's analysis, John Hussman said that the US is in recession now and blamed it on the financial cycle:
By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession. Not next year; not later this year; but now. We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth. To a large extent, this downturn is a "boomerang" from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.

Regardless of the outcome of the Greek election, my inner investor tells me that the fundamentals of the economic outlook is negative. When the financial cycle and the business cycle both turning down in unison, that's bad news.
As for how much of the negative news has been discounted by the markets, I don't know. What can change the trajectory of the outlook in the next few months is intervention, either by the central banks (which was rumored late last week), an announcement of more QE by the FOMC, or the news of some deal cooked up by the European governments, IMF, etc.
My inner trader tells me that fundamentals don't matter and the markets will react to short term headline news.
Cam Hui is a portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd. ("Qwest"). This article is prepared by Mr. Hui as an outside business activity. As such, Qwest does not review or approve materials presented herein. The opinions and any recommendations expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or recommendations of Qwest.
None of the information or opinions expressed in this blog constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security or other instrument. Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice and any recommendations that may be contained herein have not been based upon a consideration of the investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific recipient. Any purchase or sale activity in any securities or other instrument should be based upon your own analysis and conclusions. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Either Qwest or Mr. Hui may hold or control long or short positions in the securities or instruments mentioned.


Strawberry Blonde said...

Excellent article...thank you!

Moe said...

Cam, I have been reading your blog for more than 6 months now, followed you over from Alphaville. Great analysis as always. Keep up the good work! Love reading your analysis.

Market Strategist said...

Thanks. I had learned a lot from you.

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