Swiming With Rocks in Your Pockets

drowningSince 2008 governments the world over have tried to fight the biggest banking collapse since the great depression with modest success. Eight years on and you would be loath to say that the world has turned a corner, ushering in a return of unrestrained economic growth.

Why this is the case is a question not just unanswered by the average layman, but by experts as well. Huge amounts of money have been printed, financial institutions have been patched and repaired, interest rates are at all time lows, what more can be done to fix the underlying problems?

It turns out that nobody is really sure, but as we begin 2016 global markets are reeling on the news that the Chinese economy has even greater problems than previously thought. Only a few days into the week and most markets are down in excess of 2-3%, giving rise to concerns that a Chinese led global recession could be on it’s way.

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The S&P/TSX over the past week.

The difference between now and 2008 is that much of the resources used to try and stem the problems from nearly a decade ago have already been deployed, and there is little left in the tank for another round. Central bakers have been trying to get enough inflation into the system to raise interest rates up from “emergency” levels to something more “normal” but outside of the US this seems to have largely failed.

One of the saving graces after 2008 was that the Emerging Markets were seemingly unaffected. In fact, since 2008 the developing world has become more than 50% of global GDP but in that time the rot that often accompanies success has also set in. EM debt is now considerable, putting many countries that had once extremely healthy balance sheets heavily into the red. Borrowing by these nations has increasingly moved away from constructive economic development and more into topping up civil servants and passing on treats to voters.

World GDP

For some, myself included, it has been encouraging that the Chinese have not proven to be the economic übermensch that some had feared. The rise of the state directed economy with boundless growth had many people concerned that China might represent an economic nadir for the planet. To see it every bit as bloated, foolish and corrupt may not be good for markets, but at least takes the bloom off the rose about Chinese economic supremacy.

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Still, this all of this leads to a couple of frightening conclusions. One is that we have yet to come across any rapid comprehensive solution to a global financial crisis like 2008 that can undo the damage and return us to an expected economic prosperity. The second is that we may have been going down the wrong path to resolve the economic problems we face.

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If debt was the driving force behind 2008, you couldn’t argue we’ve done much to alleviate the problem. At best we have merely shifted who holds it. In the United States, the US government took on billions of dollars of debt to stabilize the system. In Europe, despite attempts to reduce balance sheets across the continent, every country has taken on more debt as a result, regardless of whether they are having a strong market recovery, or a weak one. In Canada, arguably one of the worst offenders, private debt and public debt have ballooned at a frightening pace with little to show for it. Rate cuts and government spending are no match it seems for a plummeting oil price and a lack lustre manufacturing sector.

Interest Rates Globally

Having faced the problem of restrictive debt, putting much of the world’s financial markets in grave danger, our response has been to simply acquire more. Greece owes more, Canada owes more, and now the Emerging markets owe more. It was as though while trying to right the economic ship we forgot that we should keep bailing out the water.

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These charts come from an excellent report by McKinsey & Company called Debt and (not much) Deleveraging. You can download it HERE.

 

None of this is to say that every decision since 2008 has been wrong. Following Keynesian policy saved countless jobs and businesses. But at some point we should have also expected to tighten our belts and dispose of some of the debt weighing us down. Instead central banks attempted to stimulate inflation by juicing the consumer economy with incredibly low interest rates. But as we have seen there is only so much that can be done. A combination of persistent deflation, an aging population and extensive debt have largely upended the best efforts to restart the economy on all cylinders.

Economist cover

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Debt makes us financially fragile. It is an obligation and burden on our future selves. But if we found ourselves drowning in debt eight years ago, it is curious we thought the solution would be to add rocks to our pockets and expect to make the swimming easier.

 

Throwing Cold Water On Investor Optimism (Not That We Needed Too)

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From The Geneva Report

Yesterday the 16th Geneva Report was released bearing bad news for everybody that was hoping for good news. The report, which highlighted that debt across the planet had continued to increase  and speed up despite the market crash of 2008, is sobering and seemed to cast in stone that which we already knew; that the global recovery is slow going and still looks very anemic.

The report is detailed and well over a hundred pages and only came out yesterday, so don’t be surprised if all the news reports you read about it really only cover the first two chapters and the executive summary. What is interesting about the report is how little of it we didn’t know. Much of what the report covers (and in great detail at that) is that the Eurozone is still weak, that the Federal Reserve has lots of debt on its balance sheets, but that it has helped turn the US

A look at the Fed's Balance Sheet from the Geneva Report
A look at the Fed’s Balance Sheet from the Geneva Report

economy around, that governments have been borrowing more while companies and individuals borrow less, and that economic growth in the Emerging Markets has been accompanied by considerable borrowing. All of this we knew.

What stands out to me in this report are two things that I believe should matter to Canadian investors. First is the trouble with low interest rates. Governments are being forced to keep interest rates low, and they are doing that because raising rates usually means less economic growth. But as growth rates have been weak, nobody wants to raise rates. This leads to a Catch-22 where governments are having to take direct measures to curb borrowing because rates are low, because they can’t raise rates to curb borrowing.

This has already happened in Canada, where the Bank of Canada’s low lending rate has helped keep housing prices high, mortgage rates down and debt levels soaring. To combat this the government has attempted to change the minimal borrowing requirements for homes, but it hasn’t done much to curb the growing concern that there is a housing bubble.

The second is the idea of “Economic Miracles” which tend to be wildly overblown and inevitably lead to the same economic mess of overly enthusiastic investors dumping increasingly dangerous amounts of money into economies that don’t deserve it just to watch the whole thing come crashing down. Economic miracles include everything from Tulip Bulbs and South Sea Bubbles to the “Spanish Miracle” and “Asian Tigers”, all of which ended badly.

The rise of the BRIC nations and the recent focus on the Frontier Markets should invite some of the same scrutiny, as overly-eager investors begin trying to fuel growth in Emerging Markets through lending and direct investment, even in the face of some concerning realities. It’s telling that the Financial Times reported both the Geneva Report on the same day that the London Stock Exchange was looking to pursue more African company listings, even as corruption and corporate governance come into serious question.

All of this should not dissuade investors from the markets, but it should be seen as a reminder about the benefits of diversification and it’s importance in a portfolio. It is often tempting to let bad news ruin an investment plan, but as is so often the case emotional investing is bad investing.

I’ve added an investment piece from CI Investments which has been floating around for years. It pairs the level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average  with whatever bad news was dominating the market that year. It’s a good way to look at how doom and gloom rarely had much to do with how the market ultimately performed. Have a look by kicking the link! I don’t want to Invest Flyer

 

***I’ve just seen that the Globe and Mail has reported on the Geneva Report with the tweet “Are we on the verge of another financial crisis” which is not really what the report outlines.