Monday, October 16, 2017

15/10/17: Calling Brussels from Austria: Change Is Badly Needed in Europe

Austria just became a *new* flashpoint of European politics that can be best described as a slow steady slide into reappraisal of the decades-long love affair with liberalism.

In summary: the People's Party (OVP) has 31.4 percent of the vote, a gain of more than 7 percentage points from the 2013 election; the Freedom Party had 27.4 percent (a jump on 20.51 percent in 2013), and the Social Democratic Party, which governed in coalition with People's Party until today, had 26.7 percent (virtually unchanged on 26.82 percent in 2013).

The People's Party is best described as Centre-Right with a leaning Right when it comes to issues of immigration. Current Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the People's Party is a charismatic 31-year old populist. He has driven his party further toward the Right position in recent months, as elections neared, and away from his post-2013 governing coalition partners, the Social Democrats. Kurz is, broadly-speaking a pro-EU candidate, with strong preference for more autonomy to member states. He is clearly not a Brussels-style Federalist.

The Freedom Party (FPO) was close to its record vote of 26.9 percent, achieved back in 1999, and now has a good chance of entering the government as a coalition partner to People's Party, for the first time in some 10 years. The FPO was in Government last in 2000-2007 and prior to that in 1983-1987.  It's last stint in Government earned Austria condemnation from the EU. Following the previous coalition, the OVP and the Social Democrats are not exactly best friends, which means that FPO is now in the position of playing a king-maker to the Government. That said, the coalition between OVP and FPO is still an uncertain: FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache has accused Kurz and OVP of stealing his party's ideas during the election.

All in, almost 60 percent of Austrian voters opted to support anti-immigrant, Right-of-Centre positions. However, in recent years, Austrian Right has shifted away from anti-EU positioning, at least in public, and attempted to shed neo-Nazi tint to its support base.

Turnout in this election was impressive 79.3 percent, up on the 74.9 percent turnout last time around.

All in, Austrian election 2017 confirms the points established in our recent paper Corbet, Shaen and Gurdgiev, Constantin, Millennials’ Support for Liberal Democracy Is Failing: A Deep Uncertainty Perspective (August 7, 2017). Available for free at SSRN: Together with Brexit, renewed uncertainty around Italian political shifts, Catalan Referendum, resilience of the Dutch euroscepticism, instability in core political strata in Germany, Polish and Hungarian populism, and so on - the developing trend across the EU is for a political / voter support drifting further to the extremes (Left and Right) of the ideological divide. In countries where this drift is coincident with rising power of populism, the results are starting to look more and more like validation of the far-Right (and with some time, the far-Left) as the leaders of the official opposition to the increasingly hollowed-out status quo parties.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

15/10/17: Concentration Risk & Beyond: Markets & Winners

An excellent summary of several key concepts in investment worth reading: "So Few Market Winners, So Much Dead Weight" by Barry Ritholtz of Bloomberg View.  Based on an earlier NY Times article that itself profiles new research by Hendrik Bessembinder from Arizona State University, Ritholtz notes that:

  • "Only 4 percent of all publicly traded stocks account for all of the net wealth earned by investors in the stock market since 1926, he has found. A mere 30 stocks account for 30 percent of the net wealth generated by stocks in that long period, and 50 stocks account for 40 percent of the net wealth. Let that sink in a moment: Only one in 25 companies are responsible for all stock market gains. The other 24 of 25 stocks -- that’s 96 percent -- are essentially worthless ballast."
Which brings us to the key concepts related to this observation:
  1. Concentration risk: This an obvious one. In today's markets, returns are exceptionally concentrated within just a handful of stocks. Which puts the argument in favour of diversification through a test. Traditionally, we think of diversification as a long-term protection against risks of markets decline. But it can also be seen as coming at a cost of foregone returns. Think of holding 96 stocks that have zero returns against four stocks that yield high returns, and at the same time weighing these holdings in return-neutral fashion, e.g. by their market capitalization.  
  2. Strategic approaches to capturing growth drivers in your portfolio: There are, as Ritholtz notes, two: exclusivity (active winners picking) and exclusivity (passive market indexing). Which also rounds off to diversification. 
  3. Behavioral drivers matter: Behavioral biases can wreck havoc with both selecting and holding 'winners-geared' portfolios (as noted by Rithholtz's discussion of exclusivity approach). But inclusivity  or indexing is also biases -prone, although Ritholtz does not dig deeper into that. In reality, the two approaches are almost symmetric in behavioral biases impacts. Worse, as proliferation of index-based ETFs marches on, the two approaches to investment are becoming practically indistinguishable. In pursuit of alpha, investors are increasingly being caught in chasing more specialist ETFs (index-based funds), just as they were before caught in a pursuit of more concentrated holdings of individual 'winners' shares.
  4. Statistically, markets are neither homoscedastic nor Gaussian: In most cases, there are deeper layers of statistical meaning to returns than simple "Book Profit" or "Stop-loss" heuristics can support. Which is not just a behavioral constraint, but a more fundamental point about visibility of investment returns. As Ritholtz correctly notes, long-term absolute winners do change. But that change is not gradual, even if time horizons for it can be glacial. 
All of these points is something we cover in our Investment Theory class and Applied Investment and Trading course, and some parts we also touch upon in the Risk and Resilience course. Point 4 relates to what we do, briefly, discuss in Business Statistics class. So it is quite nice to have all of these important issues touched upon in a single article.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

14/10/17: Bitcoin's Rise: Bentleys in Vancouver?

Two charts highlight the recent dynamics of #Bitcoin rise back to the top of the newsflow:

and decomposing the above:

As a fan of blockchain technology (but not a fan of Bitcoin as an asset), here are some notes of worry:

  • The rise has been exponential to-date, while
  • The volatility has been absolutely atrocious (albeit weaker than volatility in Ehterium and Ripple, two other top-3 cryptos); and
  • The periods from peak to next peak are getting more and more compressed
All of which should make you pause and wonder: what fundamentals, if any, can account for the rise of Bitcoin - a question that many tried to answer and few succeeded. As a disclaimer, I have a couple of papers forthcoming on this in the next month or so. And as a taster for the disclaimer, both papers show absolutely no fundamental drivers capable of explaining the rise of Bitcoin from its first day of trading through the end of 1H 2017. The dynamics of Bitcoin are pure memory (Hurst process) and as such contain no bearing with any real asset in the Universe. 

Put differently, Bitcoin is a hedge against things that cannot be hedged in the markets, most notably, the risk of state-administered expropriation / capital controls in... err... China. So if you want an asset that can (at a staggering risk-premium and transaction cost) hedge your Shanghai property yields against Beijing's reluctance to allow you offshore your cash into a Bentley parked in Vancouver, be my guest. If you have no such need, why, sit back and enjoy the wild ride and gyrations of the crypto to USD/BTC 6,000 and beyond... you can do the latter by playing some Russian roulette speculating on BTC, but do avoid becoming a hostage to St. Petersburg Paradox, should a correction pop the frothy top here and there. In other words, should you want to speculate on Bitcoin, by all means - do. But mind the tremendous risks.

Stay tuned for the aforementioned research papers coming soon.

14/10/17: Happy Times in the Rational Markets

Two charts, both courtesy of Holger Zschaepitz @Schuldensuehner:

In simple terms, combined value of bond and stock markets is currently at around USD137 trillion or 179% of global GDP. Put slightly differently, that is 263% of global private sector GDP. There is no rational model on Earth that can explain these valuations. 

Since the start of this year, the two markets gained roughly USD15 trillion in value, just as the global economy is now forecast to gain USD3.93 trillion in GDP over the full year 2017. Based on the latest IMF forecasts, the first 9.5 months of stock markets and bonds markets appreciation are equivalent to to total global GDP growth for 2017, 2018, 2019 and a quarter of 2020. That is: nine and a half months of 'no bubbles anywhere' financial growth add up to thirty nine months of real economic activity.

Happy times, all.

Friday, October 13, 2017

13/10/17: Growing Pensions Pain: CFR Summer 2017

Here is a link to my recent Cayman Financial Review contribution (3Q 2017) covering the continuously expanding global pensions crisis:

13/10/17: Debt Glut and Building Dublin

Just back from Ireland, a fast, work-filled trip, with some amazing meetings and discussions, largely unrelated to what is in the 'official' newsflow. Some blogposts and articles ahead to be shared.

One thing that jumps out is the continued frenzy in building activity in Dublin, predominantly (exclusively) in the commercial space (offices). Not much finished. Lots being built. For now, Irish builders (mostly strange new players backed by vultures and private equity) are still in the stage where buildings shells are being erected. The cheap stage of construction. Very few are entering the fit-out stages - the costly, skills-intensive works stage. And according to several sector specialists I spoke to, not many fit-out crews are in the market, as skilled builders have not been returning to the island, yet, from their exiles to the U.S., Canada, Australia, UAE, and further afield.

Which should make for a very interesting period ahead: with so many construction sites nearing the fit-out stages, building costs will sky rocket, just as supply glut of new offices will start hitting the letting markets. In the mean time, many multinationals - aka the only clients worth signing - have already signed leases and/or bought own buildings on the cheap. Google owns its own real estate (hello BEPS tax reforms that stress tangible activity over imaginary revenue shifting); Twitter has a refurbished home; Facebook is quite committed to a lease (although it too might take a jump into buying); and so on. Tax inversion have slowed down and Trump Administration just re-committed to Obama-era restrictions on these, while Trump tax plan aims to take a massive chunk out of this pie away from Ireland. So demand... demand is nowhere to be seen.

Will this spell a twin squeeze on office blocks currently hanging around in a pre-weather tight conditions?

The market timing for a lot of this real estate investment is looking shaky. Globally and across Europe, corporates are doing relatively well. But, despite this, there is no investment cycle on the horizon. And revenues growth rates have been sustained by a massive glut of legacy credit sloshing in the international monetary system. Courtesy of Daniel Lacalle @dlacalle_IA, here is a Deutsche Bank chart illustrating what the past monetary excesses have produced:
Three lessons are to be extracted from the above:

  1. Lags in corporate investment activity imply that the current level of demand for hard assets worldwide is driven by the 2016 ultra low borrowing rates; 
  2. Forward corporate investment activity is starting to show the pressure of rising rates and reduced (or even negative) assets purchases by the Central Bankers, with negative rates share of the total debt market shrinking from over USD12 trillion at the end of 2016 to USD8 trillion now; and
  3. The glut of debt continues to rise through 2017, albeit at a slightly slower rate than in 2016.
These points suggest that, barring a new miracle of monetary variety, forward debt financed investment and growth is bound to slow. And the cost of debt carry is bound to rise. Which should be bad news for the European and U.S. debt-funded real estate activity. 

And it will be an even tougher pill to swallow for the crop of new (Nama-linked) Irish developers who were quick in raising hundreds of millions in funding in form of cheap (ultra cheap) debt and frothy equity. Many of these lads have nearly zero experience in building, some are backed by 'experts' from Nama's top cohorts of 'specialists' - the cohorts that were dominated by the pre-bust advisers, not developers. 

The bust is still unlikely at this stage, as majority of current sites that are in mid-stage development have a low acquisition cost, thanks to the fire sales by Nama, and still enjoy a couple of years of cheap debt carry costs. 

But inflation in construction costs will sap whatever wind the housing building sub-sector might have had in it (which is not much, as housing construction is still sitting well behind offices activity). Planning permissions for new housing are languishing sub 1,500 per quarter, comparable to 2010 levels. Planning permissions for ex-residential are at late 2007- early 2008 levels, aka stronger.

In other words, the upcoming cost squeeze is likely to do two things to the Irish market:
  • Cost inflation at fit-outs will probably dent future development activity, instead of creating a large-scale bust; and
  • Commercial development sector will continue pressuring house building, driving up rents and residential property prices.

Monday, October 9, 2017

9/10/17: Nature of our reaction to tail events: ‘odds’ framing

Here is an interesting article from Quartz on the Pentagon efforts to fund satellite surveillance of North Korea’s missiles capabilities via Silicon Valley tech companies: However, the most interesting (from my perspective) bit of the article relates neither to North Korea nor to Pentagon, and not even to the Silicon Valley role in the U.S. efforts to stop nuclear proliferation. Instead, it relates to this passage from the article:

The key here is an example of the link between the our human (behavioral) propensity to take action and the dynamic nature of the tail risks or, put more precisely, deeper uncertainty (as I put in my paper on the de-democratization trend, the deeper uncertainty as contrasted by the Knightian uncertainty).

Deeper uncertainty involves a dynamic view of the uncertain environment in which potential tail events evolve before becoming a quantifiable and forecastable risks. This environment is different from the classical Knightian uncertainty in so far as evolution of these events is not predictable and can be set against perceptions or expectations that these events can be prevented, while at the same time providing no historical or empirical basis for assessment of actual underlying probabilities of such events.

In this setting, as opposed to Knightian set up with partially predictable and forecastable uncertainty, behavioral biases (e.g. confirmation bias, overconfidence, herding, framing, base rate neglect, etc) apply. These biases alter our perception of evolutionary dynamics of uncertain events and thus create a referencing point of ‘odds’ of an event taking place. The ‘odds’ view evolves over time as new information arrives, but the ‘odds’ do not become probabilistically defined until very late in the game.

Deeper uncertainty, therefore, is not forecastable and our empirical observations of its evolution are ex ante biased to downplay one, or two, or all dimensions of its dynamics:
- Impact - the potential magnitude of uncertainty when it materializes into risk;
- Proximity - the distance between now and the potential materialization of risk;
- Speed - the speed with which both impact and proximity evolve; and
- Similarity - the extent to which our behavioral biases distort our assessment of the dynamics.

Knightian uncertainty is a simple, one-shot, non-dynamic tail risk. As such, it is similar both in terms of perceived degree of uncertainty (‘odds’) and the actual underlying uncertainty.

Now, materially, the outrun of these dimensions of deeper uncertainty is that in a centralized decision-making setting, e.g. in Pentagon or in a broader setting of the Government agencies, we only take action ex post transition from uncertainty into risk. The bureaucracy’s reliance on ‘expert opinions’ to assess the uncertain environment only acts to reinforce some of the biases listed above. Experts generally do not deal with uncertainty, but are, instead, conditioned to deal with risks. There is zero weight given by experts to uncertainty, until such a moment when the uncertain events become visible on the horizon, or when ‘the odds of an event change’, just as the story told by Andrew Hunter in the Quartz article linked above says. Or in other words, once risk assessment of uncertainty becomes feasible.

The problem with this is that by that time, reacting to the risk can be infeasible or even irrelevant, because the speed and proximity of the shock has been growing along with its impact during the deeper uncertainty stage. And, more fundamentally, because the nature of underlying uncertainty has changed as well.

Take North Korea: current state of uncertainty in North Korea’s evolving path toward fully-developed nuclear and thermonuclear capabilities is about the extent to which North Korea is going to be willing to use its nukes. Yet, the risk assessment framework - including across a range of expert viewpoints - is about the evolution of the nuclear capabilities themselves. The train of uncertainty has left the station. But the ticket holders to policy formation are still standing on the platform, debating how North Korea can be stopped from expanding nuclear arsenal. Yes, the risks of a fully-armed North Korea are now fully visible. They are no longer in the realm of uncertainty as the ‘odds’ of nuclear arsenal have become fully exposed. But dealing with these risks is no longer material to the future, which is shaped by a new level of visible ‘odds’ concerning how far North Korea will be willing to go with its arsenal use in geopolitical positioning. Worse, beyond this, there is a deeper uncertainty that is not yet in the domain of visible ‘odds’ - the uncertainty as to the future of the Korean Peninsula and the broader region that involves much more significant players: China and Russia vs Japan and the U.S.

The lesson here is that a centralized system of analysis and decision-making, e.g. the Deep State, to which we have devolved the power to create ‘true’ models of geopolitical realities is failing. Not because it is populated with non-experts or is under-resourced, but because it is Knightian in nature - dominated by experts and centralized. A decentralized system of risk management is more likely to provide a broader coverage of deeper uncertainty not because its can ‘see deeper’, but because competing for targets or objectives, it can ‘see wider’, or cover more risk and uncertainty sources before the ‘odds’ become significant enough to allow for actual risk modelling.

Take the story told by Andrew Hunter, which relates to the Pentagon procurement of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) as a replacement for a faulty Humvee, exposed as inadequate by the events in Iraq and Afghanistan. The monopoly contracting nature of Pentagon procurement meant that until Pentagon was publicly shown as being incapable of providing sufficient protection of the U.S. troops, no one in the market was monitoring the uncertainties surrounding the Humvee performance and adequacy in the light of rapidly evolving threats. If Pentagon’s procurement was more distributed, less centralized, alternative vehicles could have been designed and produced - and also shown to be superior to Humvee - under other supply contracts, much earlier, and in fact before the experts-procured Humvees cost thousands of American lives.

There is a basic, fundamental failure in our centralized public decision making bodies - the failure that combines inability to think beyond the confines of quantifiable risks and inability to actively embrace the world of VUCA, the world that requires active engagement of contrarians in not only risk assessment, but in decision making. That this failure is being exposed in the case of North Korea, geopolitics and Pentagon procurement is only the tip of the iceberg. The real bulk of challenges relating to this modus operandi of our decision-making bodies rests in much more prevalent and better distributed threats, e.g. cybersecurity and terrorism.

9/10/17: BRIC Composite PMI 3Q: Failing Global Growth Momentum

Two posts above cover Manufacturing PMIs and Services PMIs for 3Q 2017 for BRIC economies. The following updates Composite PMIs performance.

Global Composite PMI came in at 53.7 in 3Q 2017, matching exactly 1Q and 2Q 2017 readings and basically in line with 53.6 reading in 4Q 2016. In other words, Global Composite activity PMI index has been showing relatively robust growth across the two key sectors for the last 4 quarters running. 

In contrast to Global indicator, BRIC economies posted relatively underwhelming performance with exception of Russia.
  • Brazil Composite PMI index stood at 50.0 (zero growth) in 3Q 2017, which is a marginal gain on 49.8 in 2Q 2017. This marks the first time since 1Q 2014 that Brazil Composite indicator reached above the outright contraction levels, but it is a disappointing reading nonetheless. For one, one quarter does not signal stabilisation in Latin America’s largest economy. Worse, Brazil’s economy has been performing poorly since as far back as 2H 2011. It will take Brazil’s Composite index to hit above 52 mark for 2-3 consecutive quarters to start showing pre-2011 levels of activity again.
  • Russia Composite PMI, on the other hand, remains the bright spark in the BRIC’s dark growth universe. Although falling to 4 quarters low of 54.1 in 3Q 2017, the index remains in strong growth territory. 3Q 2017 marked 6th consecutive quarter of robust post-recession recovery, consistent with 2.5-3 percent growth in GDP, quite ahead of the consensus forecasts from the start of 2017. The last quarter also marks the sixth consecutive quarter of Russian Composite PMIs running above Global Composite PMIs. This means that for the last 18 months, Russia has been the only positive contributor to Global growth from amongst the ranks of the BRIC economies.
  • China Composite PMI firmed up in 3Q 2017, rising to 51.9 from 51.3 in 2Q 2017. 3Q 2017 reading was, however, the second weakest in the last four quarters and suggests relative weakness in the growth environment. 
  • India composite PMI fell below 50.0 mark in 3Q 2017, reaching 48.7 - a level signifying statistically significant contraction in the economy for the first time since 4Q 2013. The robust recovery in 2Q 2017 put India Composite PMI at 52.2, but this now appears to be a blip on the radar which shows anaemic growth in 4Q 2016 and 1Q 2017.

As chart above clearly shows, the growth dynamics as indicated by the Composite PMIs have been weak in the BRIC economies over the last 4 consecutive quarters. This is highly disappointing, considering that 4Q 2016 held a promise of more robust expansion. Russian growth conditions have now outperformed Global growth dynamics in every quarter since 2Q 2016, although the latest reading for PMIs suggests that this momentum has weekend in 3Q 2017. In fact, Russian data is quite surprising overall, showing growth conditions largely in line with pre-2009 levels since 4Q 2016. This is yet to be matched by the GDP figures, suggesting that something might be amiss in the PMI data. 

Finally, the chart above shows sectoral dynamics for BRIC group of economies in terms of PMI indices. Both Services and Manufacturing PMIs for BRIC grouping are now running close to or below statistical significance levels for positive growth. More importantly, on-trend, current performance remains within the bounds of growth consistent with H2 2013-present trend: shallow, close to statistically insignificant expansion, that is distinct from robust growth in pre-2008-2009 period and the short period of post 2009 recovery.

Thus, PMI data still indicates that BRIC economies currently no longer act as the key drivers of global growth.

9/10/17: BRIC Services PMI 3Q 2017: Another Quarter of Weaker Growth

Having covered 3Q 2017 figures for BRIC Manufacturing PMIs in the previous post, let’s update the same for Services sector.

BRIC Services PMI has fallen sharply in 3Q 2017 to 50.8 from 52.1 in 2Q 2017. This is the lowest reading since 2Q 2016 (when it also posted 50.8). The drivers of this poor dynamic are:
  • Brazil Services PMI remained below 50.0 mark for the 12th consecutive quarter, rising marginally to 49.5 in 3Q 2017 from 49.0 in 2Q 2017. Current reading matches 1Q 2015 for the highest levels since 1Q 2014. Statistically, Brazil Services PMI has been at zero or lower growth since 1Q 2014.
  • Russia Services PMI fell to 54.0 in 3Q 2017 from 56.0 in 2Q 2017 and 56.8 in 1Q 2017, indicating some cooling off in otherwise rapid expansion dynamics. The recovery in Russian Services sectors is now 6 quarters long and overall very robust.
  • China Services PMI decline marginally from 52.0 in 2Q 2017 to 51.6 in 3Q 2017. This is consistent with trend established from the local peak performance in 4Q 2016. Overall, Chinese Services are showing signs of persistent weakness, with growth indicator falling below statistically significant reading once again in 3Q 2017.
  • India Services sector has been a major disappointment amongst the BRIC economies, with Services PMI falling from 51.8 in 2Q 2017 to a recessionary 48.0 in 3Q 2017. The Services PMIs for the country have been rather volatile in recent quarters, as the economy has lost any sense of trend since around 4Q 2016.

Table below and the chart illustrate the changes in Services PMIs in 3Q 2017 relative to 2Q 2017 and the trends:

With Global Services PMI remaining virtually unchanged (at 53.9) in 3Q 2017 compared to 2Q 2017 (51.8), with marginal gains on 1Q 2017 (53.6) and 4Q 2016 (53.5), the BRIC Services sectors are showing no signs of leading global growth to the upside since 3Q 2016. For the sixth consecutive quarter, Russia leads BRIC Services PMIs, while Brazil and India compete for being the slowest growth economies in the services sectors within the group.

As with Manufacturing, BRIC Services sectors show no signs of returning to their pre-2009 position of being the engines for global growth.

Stay tuned for Composite PMIs analysis for BRIC economies.

9/10/17: BRIC Manufacturing PMIs 3Q 2017: Lagging Global Growth

With Markit Economics finally releasing China data for Services and Composite PMIs, it is time to update 3Q figures for Manufacturing and Services sectors PMI indicators for BRIC economies.

Summary table:

As shown above, Manufacturing PMIs across the BRIC economies trended lower over 3Q 2017 in Brazil and India, when compared to 2Q 2017, while trending higher in Russia and China.

  • Brazil posted second lowest performance for the sector in the BRIC group, barely managing to stay above the nominal 50.0 mark that defines the boundary between growth and contraction in the sector activity. Statistically, 50.6 reading posted in 3Q 2017 was not statistically different from 50.0 zero growth. And it represents a weakening in the sector recovery compared to 50.9 reading in 2Q 2017. Brazil's Manufacturing sector has now been statistically at zero or negative growth for 18 quarters in a row.
  • Meanwhile, Russian Manufacturing PMI rose from 51.2 in 2Q 2017 to 52.1 in 3Q 2017, marking fifth consecutive quarter of expansion in the sector (nominally) and fourth consecutive quarter of above 50.0 (statistically). With this, Russia is now back at the top of Manufacturing sector growth league amongst the BRIC economies. However, 3Q 2017 reading was weaker than 4Q 2016 and 1Q 2017, suggesting that the post-recession recovery is not gaining speed.
  • China Manufacturing PMI rose in 3Q 2017 to 51.2 from zero growth of 50.1 in 2Q 2017. The dynamics are weaker than in Russia, but similar in pattern, with 3Q growth being anaemic. In general, since moving above 50.0 mark in 3Q 2016, China Manufacturing PMIs never once rose above 51.3 marker, indicating very weak growth conditions in the sector.
  • India's Manufacturing PMI tanked again in 3Q 2017 falling to 50.1 (statistically - zero growth) from 51.7 in 2Q 2017. Most recent peak in Manufacturing activity in India was back in 3Q 2016 and 4Q 2016 at 52.2 and 52.1 and these highs have not been regained since then. India's economy continues to suffer from extremely poor macroeconomic policies adopted by the country in recent years, including botched tax reforms and horrendous experimentation with 'cashless society' ideas. 

Overall, BRIC Manufacturing Index (computed using my methodology on the basis of Markit data) has risen to 51.0 in 3Q 2017 on foot of improved performance in Russia and China, up from 50.6 in 2Q 2017 and virtually matching 51.1 reading in 1Q 2017. At 51.0, the index barely exceed statistical significance bound of 50.9. This runs against the Global Manufacturing PMI of 52.9 in 3Q 2017, 52.6 in 2Q 2017 and 52.9 in 1Q 2017. In simple terms, the last quarter was yet another (18th consecutive) of BRIC Manufacturing PMI falling below Global Manufacturing PMI, highlighting a simple fact that world's largest emerging and middle-income economies are no longer serving as an engine for global growth.

Stay tuned for Services PMIs analysis.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

6/10/17: Life-Cycle Wages and Trends: September US Wage Inflation in Perspective

Last month, I wrote an editorial for @MarketWatch on the declining fortunes of the American wage earners. And this week, the BLS released new data on wage growth in the U.S. economy. The new numbers are 'shiny'.

Per headlines reported in the media, the BLS reported that the annual increase in Average Weekly Earnings was an impressive 2.9%, which is:
  • Well above the 2.5% rate of growth expected in prior estimates, 
  • Well above the 2.5% reported last month, and
  • The highest since the financial crisis
This is a great print. Except, it really is not all that exciting, when one reaches below the surface.

Take the following summary of recent growth rates (H/T @BySamRo): 

September 2017 wage increases are still below 2008-2009 averages for all wage earners, except for low-wage industries. The gains 'break out' drivers are in high-wage industries, where growth has risen 20% compared to much of the 2016-present trend. Overall, growth rate is well below 2008-2009 average of 3.4%.

To see how much more poor the current 'spectacular' print is compared to the past trends, look at longer time series:

Low-wage industries wages inflation is running close to pre-crisis average, since roughly the start of 2017. Good news. High and meddle-wage industries wages inflation is running below the pre-crisis average still. We have had roughly 8 years in the current trends, meaning that a large cohort of current workers have entered the workforce with little past gains in wages under their belt. This means a very brutal and simple arithmetic: many workers in today's economy have never experienced the gains of pre-crisis magnitudes. Wage increases are cumulative or compound in nature. Wage increases slowdown is also cumulative or compound in nature. Hence, workers who entered the workforce from around 2004 onwards have had shallower cumulative gains in wages than workers that preceded them. Guess what else do the former workers have that differentiates them from the latter? Why, yes: 1) higher student debt; 2) higher rent costs; 3) greater risk- and age-adjusted health insurance costs, and so on. In other words, for the later cohorts of workers currently in the workforce, lower wages increases came at a time of rampant increases in non-discretionary spending costs hikes.

To say that today's BLS wage inflation print is great news is to ignore these simple facts of economics: to restore wages to pre-crisis trends - the trends that would allow for the return of the Millennial generation to pre-crisis expectations (or to the cross-generational income and wealth growth patterns of previous decades), we need wages growth rates at 5-percent-plus not in one or two or three months, but in years ahead.  The 2.9% one month blip in data is not the great news. It might be a good news piece, but it is hardly impressive or convincing.

And that figure of 5%-plus hides yet another iceberg, big enough to sink the Titanic: given that the Millennials are carrying huge debts and are delaying household formation in record numbers, 5%-plus wage inflation will also hit them hard through higher interest rates and higher cost of debt carry.

This puts your average news headline relating to 2.9% annual increase in wages September figure into a correct, life-cycle perspective.

Friday, October 6, 2017

6/10/17: Italian Banks Tested EU Banking Reform. It Failed.

My article on the patent failures in the EU Banking Crisis resolution reforms exposed by the 2017 events surrounding Italian banking sector is out via @ManningFinancial