It seems I'm in a constant dialogue about the markets and the economy everywhere I go. Comes with the territory. Everyone wants to have some idea of what the future holds and how they can shape their own personal version of the future within the Big Picture. This weekly letter is a large part of that dialogue, and it's one that I get to share directly with you. Last week we started a conversation looking at what I think is the most positive and dynamic aspect of our collective future: The Human Transformation Revolution. By that term I mean the age of accelerating change in all manner of technologies and services that is unfolding before us. It is truly exhilarating to contemplate. Combine that revolution with the growing demand for a middle-class lifestyle in the emerging world, and you get a powerful engine for growth. In a simpler world we could just focus on those positives and ignore the fumbling of governments and central banks. Alas, the world is too complex for that.
We'll continue our three-part 2014 forecast series this week by looking at the significant economic macrotrends that have to be understood, as always, as the context for any short-term forecast. These are the forces that are going to inexorably shift and shape our portfolios and businesses. Each of the nine macrotrends I'll mention deserves its own book (and I've written books about two of them and numerous letters on most of them), but we'll pause to gaze briefly at each as we scan the horizon.
The Killer D's
The first five of our nine macro-forces can be called the Killer D's: Demographics, Deficit, Debt, Deleveraging, and Deflation. And while I will talk about them separately, I am really talking threads that are part of a tapestry. At times it will be difficult to say where one thread ends and the others begin.
One of the most basic human drives is the desire to live longer. And there is a school of economics that points out that increased human lifespans is one of the most basic and positive outcomes of economic growth. I occasionally get into an intense conversation in which someone decries the costs of the older generation refusing to shuffle off this mortal coil. Typically, this discussion ensues after I have commented that we are all going to live much longer lives than we once expected due to the biotechnological revolution. Their protests sometimes make me smile and suggest that if they are really worried about the situation, they can volunteer to die early. So far I haven't had any takers.
Most people would agree that growth of the economy is good. It is the driver of our financial returns. But older people spend less money and produce far less than younger, more active generations do. Until recently this dynamic has not been a problem, because there were far more young people in the world than there were old. But the balance has been shifting for the last few decades, especially in Japan and Europe.
An aging population is almost by definition deflationary. We can see the results in Japan. An aging, conservative population spends less. An interesting story in the European Wall Street Journal this week discusses the significant amount of cash that aging Japanese horde. In Japan there is almost three times as much cash in circulation, per person, as there is in the US. Though Japan is a country where you can buy a soft drink by swiping your cell phone over a vending machine data pad, the amount of cash in circulation is rising every year, and there are actually proposals to tax cash so as to force it back into circulation.
A skeptic might note that 38% of Japanese transactions are in cash and as such might be difficult to tax. But I'm sure that Japanese businesses report all of their cash income and pay their full share of taxes, unlike their American and European counterparts.
Sidebar: It is sometimes difficult for those of us in the West to understand Japanese culture. This was made glaringly obvious to me recently when I watched the movie 47 Ronin. In the West we may think of Sparta or the Alamo when we think of legends involving heroic sacrifice. The Japanese think of the 47 Ronin. From Wikipedia:
The revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin (???? Shi-j?-shichi-shi, forty-seven samurai) took place in Japan at the start of the 18th century. One noted Japanese scholar described the tale, the most famous example of the samurai code of honor, bushid?, as the country's "national legend."
The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (becoming ronin) after their daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was K?zuke no suke. The ronin avenged their master's honor by killing Kira, after waiting and planning for almost two years. In turn, the ronin were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder. With much embellishment, this true story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that people should preserve in their daily lives. The popularity of the tale grew during the Meiji era of Japanese history, in which Japan underwent rapid modernization, and the legend became subsumed within discourses of national heritage and identity.
The point of my sidebar (aside from talking about cool guys with swords) is that, while Japan may be tottering, the strong social fabric of the country, woven from qualities like loyalty, sacrifice, and diligence, should keep us from being too quick to write Japan off.
"Old Europe" is not far behind Japan when it comes to demographic challenges, and the United States sees its population growing only because of immigration. Russia's population figures do not bode well for a country that wants to view itself as a superpower. Even Iran is no longer producing children at replacement rates. At 1.2 children per woman, Korea's birth rates are even lower than Japan's. Indeed, they are the lowest in the World Bank database.
A basic equation says that growth of GDP is equal to the rate of productivity growth times the rate of population growth. When you break it down, it is really the working-age population that matters. If one part of the equation, the size of the working-age population, is flat or falling, productivity must rise even faster to offset it. Frankly, developed nations are simply not seeing the rise in productivity that is needed.
As a practical matter, when you are evaluating a business as a potential investment, you need to understand whether its success is tied to the growth rate of the economy and the population it serves.
In our book Endgame Jonathan Tepper and I went to great lengths to describe the coming crisis in sovereign debt, especially in Europe – which shortly began to play itself out. In the most simple terms, there can come a point when a sovereign government runs up against its ability to borrow money at reasonable rates. That point is different for every country. When a country reaches the Bang! moment, the market simply starts demanding higher rates, which sooner or later become unsustainable. Right up until the fateful moment, everyone says there is no problem and that the government in question will be able to control the situation.
If you or I have a debt issue, the solution is very simple: balance our family budget. But it is manifestly more difficult, politically and otherwise, for a major developed country to balance its budget than it is for your average household to do so. There are no easy answers. Cutting spending is a short-term drag on the economy and is unpopular with those who lose their government funding. Raising taxes is both a short-term and a long-term drag on the economy.
The best way to get out of debt is to simply hold spending nominally flat and eventually grow your way out of the deficit, as the United States did in the 1990s. Who knew that 15 years later we would be nostalgic for Clinton and Gingrich? But governments almost never take that course, and eventually there is a crisis. As we will see in a moment, Japan elected to deal with its deficit and debt issues by monetizing the debt. Meanwhile, in Europe, the ECB had to step in to save Italy and Spain; Greece, Ireland, and Portugal were forced into serious austerities; and Cyprus was just plain kicked over the side of the boat.
There is currently a lull in the level of concern about government debt, but given that most developed countries have not yet gotten their houses in order, this is a temporary condition. Debt will rear its ugly head again in the not-too-distant future. This year? Next year? 2016? Always we pray the prayer of St. Augustine: "Lord, make me chaste, but not today."
Deleveraging and Deflation – They Are Just No Fun
At some point, when you have accumulated too much debt, you just have to deal with it. My associate Worth Wray forwarded the following chart to me today. There is no better explanation as to why the current recovery is the weakest in recent history. Deleveraging is a b*tch. It is absolutely no fun. Looking at this chart, I find it rather remarkable and somewhat encouraging that the US has done as well as it has the past few years.
As I've outlined at length in other letters and in Code Red, central banks can print far more money than any of us can imagine during periods of deleveraging and deflation. For the record, I said the same thing back in 2010 when certain hysterical types were predicting hyperinflation and the end of the dollar due to the quantitative easing of the Federal Reserve. I remain actively opposed to the current level of quantitative easing, not because I'm worried about hyperinflation but for other reasons I have discussed in past letters. As long as the velocity of money keeps falling, central banks will be able to print more money than we would have thought possible in the '70s or '80s. And seemingly they can get away with it – in the short term. Of course, payback is a b*tch. When the velocity of money begins to rise again for whatever unknown reason, central banks had better have their ducks in a row!
Deflationary conditions make debt worse. If you borrow money at a fixed rate, a little inflation – or even a lot of inflation – helps a great deal. To think that even conservative Republican leaders don't get that is naïve. Certainly it is understood in Japan, which is why the success of Abenomics is dependent upon producing inflation. More on that below.
For governments, there is more than one way to deleverage. You can default on your payments, like Greece. We're going to see a lot more of that in the next five years – count on it. Or you can get your central bank to monetize the debt, as Japan is doing. Or get the central bank to convert your debt into 40-year bonds, as Ireland did. (Brilliant move, by the way, for tiny Ireland – you have to stand back and applaud the audacity. I wonder how much good Irish whiskey it took to get the ECB to agree to that deal?)
Inflation is falling almost everywhere today, even as central banks are as accommodative as they have ever been. Deflation is the default condition in a deleveraging world. It can even create an economic singularity.
Singularity was originally just a mathematical term for a point at which an equation has no solution. Then, in astrophysics, it was proven that a large-enough collapsing star would become a black hole so dense that its own gravity would cause a singularity in the fabric of space-time, a point where many standard physics equations suddenly have no solution.
Beyond the "event horizon" of the black hole, the physics models no longer work. In terms of general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary in space-time beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. In a black hole it is "the point of no return," i.e., the point at which the gravitational force becomes so large that nothing can escape.
Deflation and collapsing debt can create their own sort of black hole, an economic singularity. At that point, the economic models that we have grown comfortable with no longer work. As we approach a potential event horizon in a deflationary/deleveraging world, it can be a meaningless (and extremely frustrating) exercise to try to picture a future that is a simple extension of past economic reality. Any short-term forecast (less than one or two years) has to bear that fact in mind.
We need to understand that there has been a complete bureaucratic and academic capture of central banks. They are all run by neo-Keynesians. (Yes, I know there are some central bankers who disavow the prevailing paradigm, but they don't have the votes.) The default response of any present-day central banker faced with a crisis will be massive liquidity injections. We can argue with the tide, but we need to recognize that it is coming in.
When there is a recession and interest rates are at or close to the zero bound, there will be massive quantitative easing and other, even more creative injections of liquidity into the system. That is a reality we have learned to count on and to factor into our projections of future economic possibilities. But as to what set of econometric equations we should employ in coming up with accurate, dependable projections, no one, least of all central bankers, has a clue. We are in unknown territory, on an economic Star Trek, with Captain Bernanke about to turn the helm over to Captain Yellen, going where no reserve-currency-printing central bank has gone before. This is not Argentina or Zimbabwe we are talking about. The Federal Reserve is setting its course based on economic theories created by people whose models are demonstrably terrible.
Will we have an outright recession in the US this year? I currently think that is unlikely unless there is some kind of external shock. But short-term interest rates will stay artificially low due to financial repression by the Fed, and there will be an increased risk of further monetary creativity from a Yellen-led Fed going forward. Stay tuned.
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