A worrying set of signals
Regular readers will know that we keep a battery of indicators to gauge, among other things, economic activity, inflationary pressure, risk appetite and asset valuations.
Most of the time this dashboard offers mixed messages, which is not hugely helpful to the investment process. Yet from time to time, the data pack points unambiguously in a single direction and experience tells us that such confluences are worth watching.
We are today at such a point, and the worry is that each indicator is flashing red.
· Growth: The three main indices of global growth have fallen into negative territory: (i) the Q-indicator (a diffusion index of leading indicators), (ii) our diffusion index of OECD leading indicators, and (iii) our index of economically-sensitive market prices. Also the US recession indicator is sitting right on a key threshold.
· Inflation: Our main P-indicator is at a maximum negative with the diffusion index of US CPI components seemingly in the process of rolling-over; this puts it in negative territory for the first time this year.
· Risk appetite: The Gavekal velocity indicator is negative which is not surprising given weak market sentiment in recent weeks. What worries us more is the widening of interest rate spreads—at the long-end of the curve, the spread between US corporate bonds rated Baa and treasuries is at its widest since 2009; at the short-end, the TED spread is back at levels seen at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2012, while the Libor-OIS spread is at a post-2008 high. Moreover, all momentum indicators for the main equity markets are at maximum negative, which has not been seen since the 2013 “taper tantrum”.
These weak readings are especially concerning, as in recent years, it has been the second half of the year when both the market and growth has picked up. We see three main explanations for these ill tidings:
1) Bottoming out: If our indicators are all near a maximum negative, surely the bottom must be in view? The contrarian in us wants to believe that a sentiment shift is around the corner. After all, most risk-assets are oversold and markets would be cheered by confirmation that the US economy remains on track, China is not hitting the wall and the renminbi devaluation was a one-off move. If this occurs, then a strong counter- trend rally Christmas.
2) Traditional indicators becoming irrelevant: Perhaps we should no longer pay much attention to fundamental indicators. After all, most are geared towards an industrial economy rather than the modern service sector, which has become the main growth driver. In the US, industrial production represents less than 10% of output, while in China, the investment slowdown is structural in nature. The funny thing is that employment numbers everywhere seem to be coming in better than expected. In this view of things, either major economies are experiencing a huge drop in labor productivity, or our indicators need a major refresh.
3) Central banks out of ammunition: The most worrying explanation for the simultaneous decline in our indicators is that air is gushing out of the monetary balloon. After more than six years of near zero interest rates, asset prices have seen huge rises, but investment in productive assets remains scarce. Instead, leverage has run up across the globe. According to the Bank for International Settlements’ recently released quarterly review, developed economies have seen total debt (state and private) rise to 265% of GDP, compared to 229% in 2007. In emerging economies, that
for ratio is 167% of GDP, compared to 117% in 2007 (over the period China’s debt has risen from 153 to 235% of GDP). The problem with such big debt piles is that it is hard to raise interest rates without derailing growth. Perhaps it is not surprising that in recent weeks the Federal Reserve has backed away from hiking rates, the European Central Bank has recommitted itself to easing and central banks in both Norway and Taiwan made surprise rate cuts. But if rates cannot be raised after six-years of rising asset prices and normalizing growth, when is a good time?
And if central banks are prevented from reloading their ammunition, what will they deploy the next time the world economy hits the skids?
Hence we have two benign interpretations and one depressing one. Being optimists at heart, we want to believe that a combination of the first two options will play out. If so, then investors should be positioned for a counter-trend rally, at least in the shortterm. Yet we are unsettled by the market’s muted response to the Fed’s dovish message. That would indicate that investors are leaning towards the third option. Hence, we prefer to stay protected and for now are not making a bold grab for falling knifes. At the very least, we seek more confirmation on the direction of travel.