Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Year of Betting Conservatively

NEW YORK – The upswing in global equity markets that started in July is now running out of steam, which comes as no surprise: with no significant improvement in growth prospects in either the advanced or major emerging economies, the rally always seemed to lack legs. If anything, the correction might have come sooner, given disappointing macroeconomic data in recent months.

Starting with the advanced countries, the eurozone recession has spread from the periphery to the core, with France entering recession and Germany facing a double whammy of slowing growth in one major export market (China/Asia) and outright contraction in others (southern Europe). Economic growth in the United States has remained anemic, at 1.5-2% for most of the year, and Japan is lapsing into a new recession. The United Kingdom, like the eurozone, has already endured a double-dip recession, and now even strong commodity exporters – Canada, the Nordic countries, and Australia – are slowing in the face of headwinds from the US, Europe, and China.

Meanwhile, emerging-market economies – including all of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and other major players like Argentina, Turkey, and South Africa – also slowed in 2012. China’s slowdown may be stabilized for a few quarters, given the government’s latest fiscal, monetary, and credit injection; but this stimulus will only perpetuate the country’s unsustainable growth model, one based on too much fixed investment and savings and too little private consumption.

In 2013, downside risks to global growth will be exacerbated by the spread of fiscal austerity to most advanced economies. Until now, the recessionary fiscal drag has been concentrated in the eurozone periphery and the UK. But now it is permeating the eurozone’s core. And in the US, even if President Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress agree on a budget plan that avoids the looming “fiscal cliff,” spending cuts and tax increases will invariably lead to some drag on growth in 2013 – at least 1% of GDP. In Japan, the fiscal stimulus from post-earthquake reconstruction will be phased out, while a new consumption tax will be phased in by 2014.

The International Monetary Fund is thus absolutely right in arguing that excessively front-loaded and synchronized fiscal austerity in most advanced economies will dim global growth prospects in 2013. So, what explains the recent rally in US and global asset markets?

The answer is simple: Central banks have turned on their liquidity hoses again, providing a boost to risky assets. The US Federal Reserve has embraced aggressive, open-ended quantitative easing (QE). The European Central Bank’s announcement of its “outright market transactions” program has reduced the risk of a sovereign-debt crisis in the eurozone periphery and a breakup of the monetary union. The Bank of England has moved from QE to CE (credit easing), and the Bank of Japan has repeatedly increased the size of its QE operations.

Monetary authorities in many other advanced and emerging-market economies have cut their policy rates as well. And, with slow growth, subdued inflation, near-zero short-term interest rates, and more QE, longer-term interest rates in most advanced economies remain low (with the exception of the eurozone periphery, where sovereign risk remains relatively high). It is small wonder, then, that investors desperately searching for yield have rushed into equities, commodities, credit instruments, and emerging-market currencies.

But now a global market correction seems underway, owing, first and foremost, to the poor growth outlook. At the same time, the eurozone crisis remains unresolved, despite the ECB’s bold actions and talk of a banking, fiscal, economic, and political union. Specifically, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy are still at risk, while bailout fatigue pervades the eurozone core.

Moreover, political and policy uncertainties – on the fiscal, debt, taxation, and regulatory fronts – abound. In the US, the fiscal worries are threefold: the risk of a “cliff” in 2013, as tax increases and massive spending cuts kick in automatically if no political agreement is reached; renewed partisan combat over the debt ceiling; and a new fight over medium-term fiscal austerity. In many other countries or regions – for example, China, Korea, Japan, Israel, Germany, Italy, and Catalonia – upcoming elections or political transitions have similarly increased policy uncertainty.

Yet another reason for the correction is that valuations in stock markets are stretched: price/earnings ratios are now high, while growth in earnings per share is slackening, and will be subject to further negative surprises as growth and inflation remain low. With uncertainty, volatility, and tail risks on the rise again, the correction could accelerate quickly.

Indeed, there are now greater geopolitical uncertainties as well: the risk of an Iran-Israel military confrontation remains high as negotiations and sanctions may not deter Iran from developing nuclear-weapons capacity; a new war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is likely; the Arab Spring is turning into a grim winter of economic, social, and political instability; and territorial disputes in Asia between China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are inflaming nationalist forces.

As consumers, firms, and investors become more cautious and risk-averse, the equity-market rally of the second half of 2012 has crested. And, given the seriousness of the downside risks to growth in advanced and emerging economies alike, the correction could be a bellwether of worse to come for the global economy and financial markets in 2013.

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    1. CommentedKapil Khetan

      Other than an un-useful litany of political woes, the only actual point made by Prof Roubini is that 'PE levels are high'. Really - using what lookback period? did that cover periods when rates were 1.6% for the 10Y point? what percentile are we at now for him to be concerned? is PE a sufficient metric - or should one complement with PB and PS as well? a little more fact and a little less opinion please

    2. CommentedTomoichiro Nakamaru

      I fully agree to your rather pessimistic view on the outlook for the world in general and Japan in particular.

      I myself have been pessimistic about the world economy and fed up with the status quo of Japan, which is characterized by deflation and stagnation of the economy.

      Let me suggest to you, however, that one should not underestimate Japan too much.

      To become like Japanese has been a fashionable global trend after a bubble burst. Needless to say, the Euro area has been struggling for about 4 years to avert euro crisis, and I suspect the area will be trapped in a vicious cycle in which lost decades like Japan will be likely to be repeated there as well. Who knows whether the politically divided US will continue to be immune to such Japanization disease after a burst of supper housing bubble in the US.

      Almost all economies are in so-called liquidity trap, and most politicians are obsessed with the excessive fiscal austerity measures. In this context, Japan has been clearly the front runner of the race.

      Nevertheless. I now see a different and rather optimistic picture for Japan in the future. As the latest Q3GDP showed, the economy is very depressed, and the external environment is rather severe and hostile as the recent Senkaku island dispute demonstrates. Paradoxically speaking, Japan has no choice other than to take expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, and strengthen the alliance between the US and Japan.

      Abe, who is expected to become the new leader next month, is a pro-growth advocate. His top priorities are three holds; stopping deflation, requesting 2 to 3% inflation target to BOJ, and promoting cost effective public works.

      Now, one could argue that such policy package will be shot-lived, and Japan will repeat stop and go policies, which has been tried and failed in vain. I will not rule out such possibility, and that is a reason why I wish to urge new government in Japan to adopt a 5% nominal GDP targeting policy together with the BOJ. Inflation targeting policy may not be enough, as the experience of the Fed shows.

      In any case, it seems to me that Japan at least will have a great opportunity in the near future to re-emerge as a leader of G-zero world. Please be reminded that Japan is the largest creditor in the world. What has been lacking so far over the lost two decades, is a good idea, as Mr. Keynes suggested in concluding the General Theory.

      I am looking forward to being shocked by a positive surprise in the near future. Underestimating the largest creditor in the world may turn out to be unwise and costly.

    3. CommentedVenu Madhav

      It appears that the winds of recession from the top of the market are saying " Heads I win! Tails You Lose!!" as any QE will not help and any austerity also seems to languish if not excoriate. It also appears the coming days will compel various economies to pitch for protectionism.

    4. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      When there is an output gap that plagues the global economy, central bank stimulus to increase output has partially helped to increase investment goods and prices (some of the commodities behaved like investment goods), while the consumption goods are still far from satisfactory, what we have missed to see is that none of this augured well to increase productive output as most other subsidies fail to achieve; the trading account of most large companies have shown a sharp slowing down. While this cannot be counteracted by further credit creation or direct intervention to buy assets (like the Chinese Reserve Bureau is doing in buying inventories, for example in metal, housing, etc) as these are not sustainable solutions either to the question of output, nor to productivity.

      While this is true, there is no lack of liquidity if one sees the balance sheet of large corporations, but which cannot be transformed into productive use.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    5. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      I think Roubini is a tad too pessimistic here. The French economy did not shrink, but grew slightly in Q3. The US economy is doing slightly better than he gives it credit for.

      The US economy is not going to do the fiscal cliff and will probably not even do austerity in 2013 since both sides in the fight have important "tradeables" to make a deal that is expansionary overall. Europe is stepping back from more austerity. The French have said, "Oui, nous avons une probleme structurelle." (I visit France every year and I am reasonably certain that a certain amount of lucrative financial activity is not fully reported to the Finance Ministry in Paris--Mon Dieur!)

      Today, the violence in Gaza is peaking and the US stock market went up 200 points. I think the Gaza incident is telling a lot of people that it is important to tamp down the violence. And all this talk about Israel attacking Iran at the end of the day is going to be just talk unless Israel wants to become the New Pariah State Number One.

      There's going to be a lot of growth in the next couple of years in the world economy; just where and who benefits is still up in the air, as it always is and always will be.

      I think the smart money will remain skittish about debt and wary about future inflation. And if there is future inflation, then debt looks shaky while shares in productive assets with pricing power look golden.

      I wish I knew the slope of the line tracking future interest rates, but alas, the gods have not chosen to confide in me. So I guess that the slope will be upward, increasing slowly as capacity comes out of the global system, and then some sort of power function. As they sang in the 1960s, cocaine swirling all around my brain; they tell me it will kill me but they won't say when!"

    6. Commentedarnim holzer

      While I agree with Professor Roubini's dire economic and political synopsis, I think the assertion that equity valuations are stretched is overstated and a bit late to the party. The scenario that has been created by brutal economic restructuring and poor policy actually could set up the world for a period of solid growth if policymakers take reasonable if not heroic steps. Equity prices and valuations have remained muted (when evaluated on longer term history, the 10-14 P/Es of major global equity indeces seem fair) over the past several years despite the historic Central Bank support because of the concerns over stagnation, global developed market fiscal profligacy, Chinese restructuring, and geopolitical stress. I would counter that these factors, have been present and discounted for quite some time, particularly when one alalyzes not just public equity performance but the lack of capital investment over the past 3-5 years. There is no crystal ball but a look into corporate balance sheets would seem to support equity and high quality bonds as a better place to invest than government bonds. When the global fiscal cliffs are negotiated more functionally the likely upside in confidence will support some recovery in private investment as well. This relationship is asymmetric enough that pessimism will prove to have been a bad bet. No one disagrees that the globe is in a bad place. But can we really make money from here thinking it will get much worse?