Monday, October 5, 2015

5/10/15: Manning Financial Q4 2015: Economic Update

My Economic Update for Manning Financial for 4Q 2015:

5/10/15: Russia Services & Composite PMI: September 2015

Having covered Russian Manufacturing PMIs earlier here. Now, let’s take a look at the Services PMI and Composite PMI next.

In a positive sign of some stabilisation in the economy in September, Services PMI came in at moderate growth reading of 51.3 - the highest reading since July 2015 and up on 49.1 in August.

According to Markit, there was an increase in new orders, although excess capacity persisted in September. Job cuts continued as well, on foot of reductions in backlog of work.

September reading signals fourth instance of growth over the last 6 months, which, in the past did not translate in de-acceleration in the rate of economic contraction, so the latest figure should be considered with caution when interpreting growth in the Services sector as a sign of economic stabilisation. We need several months of continued above 50 readings on both Manufacturing and Services PMIs side to call an economic turnaround.

That said, given we are still awaiting for release of other BRIC data for Service, Russian Services sector performance in September is encouraging. China’s Services PMI came in at 50.5, below Russian PMI last month. The latest data for other BRIC economies shows Russia likely moving from third position in sector growth in August to second in September.

Boosted by Services improvement, Composite PMI for Russia posted a reading over 50 in September, coming in at 50.9 compared to 49.3 in August. This beats China’s 48 reading for September.

Note: I use 100 scale as opposed to market 50 scale.

As chart above shows, Russian Composite PMI has been on an upward trend since February 2015 trough and is now in growth territory over three months for the last 6 months period. Again, this warrants only cautious optimism, however, as we are yet to have consecutive above 100 readings in the index.

The key point is that we need to see both manufacturing and services PMIs reading above 50 to call normalisation in the economy. Last time we had such a reading was in September 2014, right before the full-blown currency crisis erupted to derail fragile stabilisation in the economy. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

4/10/15: IBM: Some Tough Numbers on Higher Education Success

IBM Institute for Business Value Higher Education Survey 2015 with results published in June 2015 has been quite an interesting read. The report “Pursuit of relevance How higher education remains viable in today’s dynamic world” is available here.

Take the following Question: “To what extent do you believe the current higher education system in your country is meeting the needs of the following groups?”

Chart below plots percentages of respondents by group across three core categories of ‘customers’: students, employers and society at large.

One thing that jumps out is that corporate recruiters are relatively more positive than education providers (excluding university staff) when it comes to assessing the education system performance.

Another conclusion that jumps out is that with exception of one sub-group in one category, overall assessment of education systems is pretty grim - no >50% support for the proposition that education system meets the needs of either students, employers or society.

Third conclusion is that, on average, higher education systems serve better the needs of students, followed by society, than industry.

More damning, “Survey results also point to higher education shortfalls in other areas. In terms of economic value, only 51 percent of industry and academic leaders believe higher education is providing value for money, and just 49 percent view it as contributing to economic growth and competitiveness.”

There is also a very interesting gap across respondents categories in terms of what is perceived to be the most important metrics of success of modern education system. Chart below illustrates:

As can be glimpsed from above, educators are literally falling over themselves in pursuit of jobs placements. While corporate recruiters and learning executives are less warm about this objective.

Very interesting findings, some counter-intuitive, some potentially arising from the sample selection biases (after all,  we don't have much to go by in terms of actual corporate leaders, and data reported is limited, as for example the chart above clearly shows). Nonetheless, the questions raised are of great importance.

4/10/15: Data is not the end of it all, it’s just one tool...

Recently, I spoke at a very interesting Predict conference, covering the issues of philosophy and macro-implications of data analytics in our economy and society. I posted slides from my presentations earlier here.

Here is a quick interview recorded by the Silicon Republic covering some of the themes discussed at the conference:

4/10/2015: Budget 2016 and beyond: some priorities...

This is a summary of my speech at the local constituency meeting in Sandymount organised by Renua Ireland (October 1, 2015). Please note: I was invited to speak in a personal capacity as an independent, politically non-affiliated speaker, so all thoughts, arguments, errors and omissions in the below are mine.

Where we are?

1) Recovery in official figures:

  • GDP is up 6.9% y/y in 1H 2015.
  • GNP is up 6.6%
  • Some 60% of GDP growth in 1H 2015 was accounted for by Fixed Capital Formation - much of which is driven by assets sales to and by vulture funds, plus by reclassified R&D spending booked by MNCs into Ireland via our ‘knowledge development box’. 
  • But the aggregate data is dodgy. Our GDP is 19 percent ahead of our GNP and it is 25% over Domestic Demand, over 2000-2007 the latter gap averaged ‘only’ 10 percent.

2) Recovery in somewhat more real figures:

  • Personal expenditure is up 3.27% y/y in 1H 2015. 2Q 2015 was sixth consecutive quarter of positive y/y growth. But it is still down 9.9% on pre-crisis peak. Nonetheless, the numbers coming out on this side of National Accounts are positive.
  • Government expenditure on current goods and services was up 3.54% y/y in 1H 2015. But down 10.6% on pre-crisis peak. There is timing issue involved here, but for now, Government spending is rising faster than personal consumption.
  • Fixed Capital Formation rose 22% y/y in 1H 2015, but is still down 12.3% on peak.

By all measures of domestic economy, we are in an official recovery since 3Q 2013. And the rate of growth is relatively robust

  • Final Domestic Demand is up 7.7% in 1H 2015 on a yearly basis, although overall activity as measured by Domestic Demand is down 7.9% on pre-crisis peak. 
  • But, crucially, over the last 4 quarters, personal expenditure per capita was up only 1.62% on average (y/y per quarter) against total domestic demand rising 4.3%. Which shows the role played by Fixed Capital Formation (including Nama, vulture funds, R&D reclassifications and MNCs activities) in driving up domestic demand. 

Ditto for Unemployment figures:

  • Official unemployment rate (QNHS-based) has fallen from 16.3% in Q3 2011 to 10.3% in 2Q 2015. Which is a robust decline and undoubtedly good news. Other good news is that much of new jobs creation was in stronger quality category of full time employment. 
  • Still, current rate of unemployment is close to 1Q 2009 and is almost double 5.9% rate recorded in 2Q 2008, more than double 4.9% rate in 2Q 2007.

However, these figures mask several sub-trends that are worrying.

  • Per CSO own report: % of unemployed persons plus  others who want a job, plus part-time underemployed persons, plus those who want a job, who are not available and not seeking for reasons other than being in education or training stands at 18.3%.
  • Factoring in those in State Training Programmes (e.g. JobBridge) raises actual unemployment rate to 21.9%, comparable to 2Q 2009.
  • Adding in net emigration as reported through 1Q 2015 raises broadest measure of potential unemployment to 29.5 percent - a figure that puts our relative labour market performance back to 1Q 2011 levels. In other words, it took us twice longer to go from cyclical unemployment high back to 1Q 2011 levels than to go from 1Q 2011 to cyclical unemployment high. Road to recovery is, for now, twice longer than the road travelled through the collapse.
  • Worse: labour force participation rate has been averaging 59.8% in 1H 2015 down from 59.9% in 1H 2014. Both are still well below pre-crisis (2000-2007) average of 61.2%.

Top line: 

  • Our GDP - at the aggregate - is now above the pre-crisis peak levels. 
  • But our GDP per capita is still 0.8% below pre-crisis levels and our domestic demand per capita is 13.3% down on pre-crisis peak. Our personal consumption per capita is down 8% on pre-crisis peak. 
  • Much has been achieved, the Government deserves quite a bit of credit for facilitating these achievements, if only in a 'safe pair of hands' way, yet more remains to be delivered, still and this requires more than just a 'safe pair of hands'.

What are the risks to a sustained recovery and how do we deal with these?  We should focus not short-term risks, but on bigger themes:

  1. Global secular stagnation and demographic challenges
  2. Global interest rates (cost of debt) normalisation
  3. Our legacy debt problems and related issues of longer-term savings and investments
  4. Domestic imbalances on production side: MNCs v domestic economic activity
  5. Domestic imbalances on wealth distribution side (inequality, poverty, persistent and concentrated underinvestment in human capital, homelessness, debt distress, and cultural/systemic/institutional barriers to deployment of human capital).

  • All of these factors are cross-linked. The realisation of which at the top of Irish political elite is lacking.
  • All require a joined-up thinking to deal with.  A practice of which at the top of Irish political elite is lacking too.
  • Addressing them requires a new longer-term agenda or strategy for growth and development of the Irish economy. Which we have no institutional framework for preparing, let alone enacting.

In this environment, lacking big ideas, Budget 2016 or indeed any budgetary framework won’t be enough, no matter how good the intentions and execution can be. Neither will be piece-meal approach to development of public investment, as exemplified by what we know from the bits and pieces of the Capital Investment programme for 2016-2021 announced this week.

So what needs to be done to begin addressing these bottlenecks in leadership?

Let’s start from the big picture - policy formation and implementation mechanism. We need deep reforms of how we do business when it comes to policy formation.

Key principles here should be:

  1. Cross-party engagement
  2. Bringing in divergent voices from the outside (given lack of political culture to do so, this should be mandated for all public boards, agencies and policy formation bodies).
  3. Bringing in robust measures to stress-test all and any proposals.
  4. Doing away with token talking shops of policy formation: all the Diaspora Meet-ups, all National Forums and Working Groups that are dominated by vested interests, the Fiscal Council (which has neither teeth, nor independence in its composition), etc etc.
  5. Replacing the above fora with a functional National Task Force composed of both independent and vested interests-linked people with requisite expertise divided by key sectors of the economy: Domestic Economy, Internationally Trading Economy, Public Sector & Government, Households and Quality of Life. Each sectoral group should be tasked with generating & collating ideas for development of the broader sectors on the basis of counterbalancing measures applied to one sub-sector against other sub-sectors. Each group uses seconded public service assistance to cost/price proposals. All group proposals are to be published, publicly vetted and reviewed subsequently by the umbrella body based on the same principles of transparency, professionalism, factual analysis and contrarian view stress-testing. 

At the deployment level, we need to reform public sector systems and local authorities. This should at the very least involve:

  1. Dramatically reducing the number of local authorities, to eliminate extreme levels of non-coordination and empire-building in individual decisions;
  2. Empowering local authorities to create meaningful institutions for developing economic and social policies at a local level by providing them with full control over taxation in property sector and giving them a right to impose local prices for water delivery as well as supply water (Irish Water should be changed to a state-wide entity in charge / ownership of water infrastructure, while actual water provision should be decentralised to local authorities who can supply water into the distribution network on a competitive basis. Such system already works in electricity and gas distribution and can provide better services to consumers at lower cost, while giving local authorities more independent revenues to undertake provision of their own supports and services).
  3. Bringing in functional mechanisms to promote and reward managed risk-taking and informed decision-making in the public sector, as well as to support those who reach above the mean in terms of effort and output. Merit, not tenure, should guide public sector careers progressions. Whilst this objective is not easy to achieve, I am certain that a combination of best practices and good policy thinking can result in a significant (though probably imperfect) improvement on status quo.
  4. Bringing in functional measures to create a climate and culture of accountability. Not for mistakes made (and properly managed) in attempting leadership, but for lack of initiative, failure to carry out required work, any harm done by negligence and inaction.
  5. We need to reform the system of ministerial advisors and oversight over departments, state boards and bodies. Again, here, the key is to bring in professionalism and remove cronyism, instill culture of debate, independence and entrepreneurialism (measured and managed taking of risks).

Let’s go on to specifics of policy objectives.

Ireland is a demographically young country trading in global markets in higher value-added goods and services. This means we are a country based on human capital. And this also means we face global competition for human capital.

What is human capital? A sum total of skills, formal and informal education, aptitude to work, attitudes to risk, ability to manage risks and uncertainty, creativity, capacity to innovate and to adapt to innovation. It also includes health, emotional and psychological well-being, cultural capital, and so on.

So what do we need to do to shift our economic model firmly in the direction of relying on human capital?

The core principles of human capital-intensive economy are:

  • The need to attract human capital from outside
  • The need to retain human capital that is already present in the economy
  • The need to create new human capital within the economy, and
  • The need to enable human capital to add value in the economy.

I have a catchy name for this system: CARE.

Primarily, in the short term, we have to rebalance our tax system. This is something that can be started with the budget, but will require more effort than just altering tax rates.

We need to shift burden of taxation away from taxing individual returns on human capital - in other words, we need to cut tax burden on income from skilled labour and entrepreneurship, but also from other forms of human capital. Incidentally, because human capital is a very broad concept, human capital-intensive value added is being created across the entire economy: public and private, lower income and higher income and so on activities. Human capital economy is not about rich v poor, and it is not about unemployed v employed. Every person in any occupation should be encouraged to invest in their own human capital in whatever form suits them, and every person in every occupation should benefit from reaping the returns on such investments.

To do so, we have to shift some of the current taxation burden away from income tax arising from investing own effort and talents into work, and onto something else.

Best target for such a shifting of burden is to shift it onto those assets that have the least productive use (in terms of value added) in the economy and that, simultaneously, cannot be moved offshore. Such assets are land and fixed capital - buildings and distribution networks.

It is worth noting that in sectors where land plays significant role in overall production, such as agriculture, human capital matters too, and land occupies still lower importance in production chain than we tend to think. Agriculture producing commoditized goods (e.g. generic grains or milk) still accrues value added via types of production, quality of supply, etc. Which are non-land outputs. Beyond that, agriculture also involves increasingly higher value added production – e.g. specialist grains, processing of milk, production of organic and/or artisan and/or specialist types of dairy products, etc. A land tax does not mean a tax on agriculture, but a tax on those activities in all sectors, including agriculture, that use land less efficiently.

Budget 2016 can start on this path by eliminating two or three upper marginal rates under the USC. Or better yet, eliminating USC altogether. And introducing a land or site value tax.

We also need to eliminate all penalties on taxation of self-employed and, unless we bring in symmetric access to benefits, we need to stop charging self-employed for services they have no access to.

We also need to create a system of taxation that recognises that self-employed face high volatility of income year-on-year. A system of 3 year average minimum taxation can be developed to address this, providing self-employed with a limited, but meaningful temporary credit for taxes paid in the case their income dips below, say, 75% threshold for previous 3 year average. These credits can be recouped in subsequent years when their income exceeds, say 110 percent threshold. Numbers here are illustrative and can be estimated more precisely, but it is the principle that matters. As economy becomes more and more linked to the ‘Gig Economy’ principles of work, the volatility of incomes and asynchronicity of tax liabilities will wreck more and more havoc in the households’ ability to fund basic purchases and investments, savings and debt repayments.

But, real reforms will require simultaneously bringing in some sort of income transfer system that guarantees high quality of life for those in needs of social transfers, while not relying on excessively penalising those who invest in their own skills and labour. So longer term reforms should involve introduction  of basic income. This will, accidentally, retain progressivity of taxation under flat rate income tax. And it will assure that those who are well-off can not benefit from social transfers.

Parallel with this, we need to close all targeted incentive schemes within our tax codes. The state should get out of business of picking and choosing future ‘winners’ or ‘champions’ of Irish economy and get into business of administering payment for & provision of core public services.

We also need to stimulate enterprise formation and entrepreneurship. These are two different but adjoining concepts.

  • So we need to reform tax codes to allow entrepreneurs who exit their recent ventures to reinvest in new ventures. In other words, we need to recognise the reality of modern entrepreneurship: it takes more than one or two years to find and develop a suitable target for new investment, so tax exemption for reinvested proceeds of business sale should be stretched out to cover 3 years. A reduced rate of CGT for reinvestment over 3 years window can help here.
  • We need to empower entrepreneurs to incentivise their employees and key partners/advisers. Which means we should switch taxation of equity shares granted to employees and key contributors to new business from immediate tax liability on shares issuance to taxation at the point of shares disposal. When income arises, tax should arise. Until no income accrues, no tax should be levied.
  • We need to steer more funding toward risk capital or equity, away from preferentially-treated debt. Which means we should have symmetric tax applying to both capital gains on equity and gains realised from holding debt instruments (bonds), including Government bonds. There is no financial or ethical justification for exempting Government bonds from taxation net.
  • VAT threshold in Ireland is imposing too high of a burden on sole traders and self-employed. We should move this threshold to the levels found in the UK. Instead of EUR37,500, VAT should be levied from around EUR90,000. 

We also need to significantly reform our corporation tax policies. 

The headline rate is fine. But the loopholes are glaring and are damaging to our competitiveness through several channels:

  1. Tax loopholes are costing us in international markets by creating a perception that Ireland is a corporate tax haven
  2. Tax loopholes are funding the creation of a labour market that is severely skewed in favour of MNCs, inducing higher costs on SMEs and indigenous enterprise
  3. Tax loopholes are steering economic activity into non-productive areas where we have little chances to capture international comparative advantage (STEM areas of R&D, whilst our human capital base is better suited to develop sales, marketing, copyright and soft-innovation expertise).

One key loophole that has been introduced recently is the so-called ‘Knowledge Development Box’ that suits primarily (and almost exclusively) a narrow segment of MNCs, while providing no benefit for domestic enterprises. Another key loophole is treatment of foreign revenues domiciled into Ireland.

Shut them down.

The issue of reforming taxation system also goes to the heart of the ongoing debate about wealth inequality.

Except, contrary to what many (especially in the media) think, this debate is a bit more complex than our papers’ and TV programmes allow.

Economists Bill Gale, Peter R. Orszag and Melissa Kearney at the Brookings Institution recently showed that even a big increase in the marginal tax rate for top earners would have shockingly little effect on after-tax inequality in the U.S.

This covered such scenarios as raising the top individual income tax rate to 50 percent from its current level of 39.6 percent. Take the Gini coefficient is an index that ranges from 0, if everyone has the same earnings, to 1, if a single person has all the earnings and everyone else has none. When the authors calculated the Gini coefficient for after-tax income before and after the simulated tax change, they found that under the current tax schedule, the after-tax Gini coefficient is 0.574; raising the top marginal tax rate to 50 percent would reduce that only to 0.571. This difference is smaller than the effect of enlarging the share of the population with a college degree. Income inequality doesn’t change materially even if the revenue raised from a high-income tax increase is redistributed to households in the bottom income quintile, or if high earners are assumed to respond to the higher tax rate by reducing their work effort and taxable income.

For Ireland, the same measure would probably be even less productive in reducing income inequality. Why?  Because of our residency basis of taxation as opposed to the American citizenship-based system. And because our top earners (excluding public sector employed ones) are more mobile internationally than their U.S. counterparts.

Instead, in my view, reducing wealth inequality requires increasing wealth (not spending) of households that are currently below the top 20 percent of earners. This can only be done by simultaneously:

  • Increasing their after-tax incomes (to create savings surplus) by having lower tax burden at the upper margin of earnings, and
  • Increasing their investments in productive capital (not property) - e.g. business equity and entrepreneurship via incentives and behavioural nudging (for example, auto enrolment into pensions etc).

Now, let’s talk about capital investment side. 

I have some signifcant reservations about the new proposed capital investment 2016-2021 framework. Here they are.

1) ‘Something for everyone’ spatial development plan is an investment model followed by Irish banks in pre-2008 period: hosing cash wide in hope of striking a random pot of gold. Instead, what is needed is an in-depth, costed and scrutinised assessment of potential returns on investment. Project by project. And a tie-in of investment plans to a broader regional development scheme.

2) To give you an example: is our public capital priority to provide yet another link to Dublin airport? Or should it be to provide direct, quality train access to Ireland’s third largest city - Limerick?.. I don’t know. But I see nothing in the new framework analysing this. Should new priority development involve improving infrastructure links in parts of Ireland - e.g. Kerry to Limerick-Galway-Shannon links - or to sustaining & expanding public subsidies for transport provision? The point of investment is not to ‘give something to everyone’ but to prioritise areas where ROI is highest (social, economic, financial).

3) Prioritising investment must be based on factual analysis & scrutiny - both of which are lacking in the proposed framework. Examples of the contrary approach are Poolbeg Incinerator & Irish Water. Again, I see no change in the new plan on past modus operandi.

4) Any investment plan, based on prior experiences, should explicitly commit to capping a maximum percentage of total allocated expenditure going to auxiliary activities, such as consultancy fees, planning etc. Given the horrific track record of our public sector in securing value for money in capital investment structuring, eliminating waste should be a priority.

5) Why are new PPP rules going to be announced in 2017 when investment plan covers 2016-2021? Much of the projects will be allocated in 2016-2017, with expenditures happening later, but committed to under the old rules. If current PPP frameworks is not fit for purpose, how can we commit multi-annual programme to run under it. If current PPP framework does fit its purpose, why is it necessary to revise it in 2017?

6) Current cap spend is ~E3.5-3.7bn/pa. New plan E4.5bn/pa. So over 6 years the entire net new funding is just about enough to cover Dublin Airport link.

Truth is, Ireland needs to stop talking about State investments and State-run investment funds as a panacea for our economic problems. We need more productive, better managed private investment, more productive, better managed, better funded and more empowered public services, and more productive and better managed domestic private sectors.

There is much more that can and needs to be done within the context of structural reforms in Ireland, and within the context of the Budget 2016. My presentation today was neither designed to address all important aspects of both, nor has achieved a comprehensive coverage of all issues we face. This is not to say that the omitted considerations (for example relating to improving access for those in need to basic public services, improving the quality of all public services and so on) are less important than considerations I discussed above. No speech or presentation can aim to be comprehensive or perfectly complete.

The key point, therefore, of what I was focusing on today, is the need for dramatic, deep reforms of our policy formation and deployment systems and the need for new policies aimed to put Ireland onto the track toward human capital-intensive growth. So far, sadly, both of these objectives are missing from the Government and the main parties’ analysis.

4/10/15: Wither Capital: Why Euro Area Lacks New Investment Opportunities

Here is an unedited version of my 3Q 2015 contribution to the Manning Financial newsletter covering the topic of  capital investment in the Euro area.

Wither Capital: Why Euro Area Lacks New Investment Opportunities

Despite the positive signs of an improving economy, the euro area is hardly out of the woods, yet, when it comes to the post-crisis adjustments. The key point is that the cure prescribed for the ailing common currency area economies by Dr Mario Draghi might less than effective in curing the disease.

The key risk to the euro area today does not stem from the lack of funding for investment that ECB QE and other unorthodox policies target by attempting to flood the markets with cheap liquidity. Instead, they stem from the lack of sustainable demand for new investment.

Here are three facts.

One: between 1991 and 2001, Euro area member states were moderate net investors, with annual capital spending exceeding savings by 0.6 percent of GDP on average, close to the World average of 0.8 percent of global GDP. This meant that savings generated within the Euro area were finding opportunities for investment at home, and to attract some net investment from the rest of the world.

Two: over the period of 2002-2014,  annual investment in euro area was, on average, lower than savings by some 1 percentage point of GDP. And, based on the IMF forecasts, this gap is expected to increase to 3.5 percent over 2015-2020 horizon, even as economy officially recovers. This implies that the future euro area recovery will be driven not by investment, but by something else. Per IMF forecasts, this new driver for growth will be external demand for goods and services from the euro area, plus a bounce from the abysmal years of the crisis. In other words, new growth will not be anything to brag about at the G7 and G20 meetings.

Three: as investment demand dropped across the euro area since 2002, global savings excess over investment actually rose, rising from a net deficit of 0.8 percent of GDP prior to 2002, to a net surplus of 0.2 percent over 2002-2014 period and to a forecast surplus of 0.3 percent of GDP for 2015-2020 period. This suggests that returns on private investment are likely to stay low, globally, pushing down net inflows of capital into the euro area. Chart 1 below illustrates.

Investment Funding Lacking?

Taken together, the above facts suggest that the euro area does not lack funding for investment, but lacks opportunities for productive capital allocation. Consistent with this, QE-generated funding, is flowing not to higher risk entrepreneurial ventures and capital investment, but into negative returns-generating government bonds. And, in the recent past, liquidity was also rushing into secondary markets for corporate debt, to be used to finance shares buy-backs instead of new technology, R&D or product innovation, or old fashioned building up of productive capital.

As the result we are witnessing a paradoxical situation. Companies’ reported earnings are coming increasingly under scrutiny, with rising investor suspicions that sell-side analysts are employing 'smoke and mirrors' tactics to 'tilt' corporate results to the satisfaction of the boards. Corporate earnings per share metrics are being sustained on an upward trajectory by shares repurchases. All along, bonds markets are running short of liquidity even as ECB is pumping more than EUR60 billion per month into them.

Recent analysis of S&P500 stocks in the U.S. has revealed that the difference between adjusted earnings and unadjusted bottom-line earnings or net income has increased dramatically in recent years. Some 20 percent of all companies surveyed posted adjusted earnings more than 50 percent higher than net income. According to the report complied by the Associated Press and S&P Capital IQ, some companies reporting profit on adjusted earnings basis are actually loss making. European markets data is yet to be analysed, but given the trends, it won't be surprising if euro area leading corporates receive a similar 'tilt'.

Of Debt, Leverage & Loose Monetary Policies

All of this reflects cheap debt and leverage finance available courtesy of central banks activism.

Loose monetary policy, however, can provide only a temporary support to the financial assets. It cannot address the deeply structural failures across the real economies.

The key problem is not the short term malfunctioning of the monetary transmission mechanism between ECB record-low interest rates and real investment, but the exhaustion of the structural drivers for growth. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, European economies accumulated debt liabilities to fund growth in domestic demand (public and private investment and consumption). Now, even at extremely low interest rates, the system no longer is able to sustain continued growth in debt. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria - the net saving economies - are getting grey at an accelerating speed, reducing investors' willingness to allocate their surplus savings to productive, but risky, investments. Their companies, faced with slow growth prospect at home, are investing in new capacity outside the euro area - in Asia Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe, MENA and Africa.

The euro area has been leveraged so much, there is no realistic prospect of demand expansion here over the next decade.

As the result of this, surplus production generated in the saving countries has been flowing out to exports creating a contagion from domestic excess supply to external surpluses on trade accounts. Historically, reinvestment of surpluses converted them into investment abroad. The result was decline in interest rates worldwide. The Global Financial Crisis only partially corrected for this, erasing excess domestic demand and temporarily alleviating asset markets mis-pricing. But it did not correct for debt levels held in the real economy. In fact, current debt levels in the advanced economies are at the levels some 30 percent higher than they were during the pre-crisis period.

Neither did the surplus production and trade imbalances do much for a structural increases in productivity or competitiveness.

Since the start of the crisis, productivity growth declined in the euro area more than in any other developed region or major advanced economy.

At the same time, euro area's favourite metric – the unit labour costs-based index of harmonised competitiveness indicators – on average signaled lower competitiveness during the 2009-2014 period compared to the pre-euro era in eight out of the twelve core euro area states. Another two member states showed statistically zero improvement in competitiveness compared to pre-euro period.

The Key Lessons

The key lesson from the euro area's failed post-crisis adjustment is that debt overhang in the real economy compounds the problem of zero exchange rate flexibility within the common currency area. Flexible exchange rates allow countries to compensate for losses in productivity, competitiveness and for long term external imbalances. Flexible exchange rates also help to deleverage private economies whenever household and corporate debt is issued in domestic currency. In the case of the euro area states, this safety valve is not available.

Creation of the euro has amplified, not reduced, internal imbalances between its member states, while dumping surplus savings into global investment markets and contributing to the declines in the global return to capital and inflating numerous asset bubbles. Surplus supply euro economies, have in effect fuelled housing and financial assets bubbles in the ‘peripheral’ economies of the euro area.

The problem has not gone away since the burst of the bubble. Instead, it has been made bigger by the ECB policies that attempt to address the immediate symptoms of the disease at the expense of dealing with longer term imbalances.

Continuing with the status quo policies for dealing with these imbalances implies sustaining long term internal devaluation of the euro area. Table below shows the gap to 2002-2003 period in terms of overall labour competitiveness currently present in the economies, with negative values showing road yet to be travelled in terms of internal devaluations.

Large scale internal devaluations are still required in all new euro area member states, ex-Cyprus, as well as in Ireland, Italy, Belgium, Finland and Luxembourg. Sizeable devaluations are needed in Austria, France, Netherlands and Slovenia. Of all euro area member states, only Cyprus and Portugal are currently operating at levels of competitiveness relatively compatible with or better than 2002-2003 period average.

The problem with this path is that internal devaluations basically boil down to high unemployment and declines in real wages. In the likes of Ireland, for example, getting us back to 2002-2003 levels of competitiveness would require real wages declining by a further 16.7 percent, while in the case of Greece, maintaining current gains in competitiveness means keeping sky high unemployment unchecked. Political costs of this might be too high for the euro area to stay the course. And ECB policies can’t help much on this front.

An alternative to the status quo of internal devaluations would be equally unpleasant and even less feasible. This would involve perpetual (or at the very least - extremely long term) transfers from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to the euro area weaker states. It is an unimaginable solution in part because of the scale of such transfers, and in part because the euro area core itself is running out of steam. Germany is now operating in an environment of shrinking labour force and rising army of retirees. The Netherlands and Austria are, potentially, at a risk of rapid growth reversals, as exhibited by Finland that effectively fell into a medium-term stagnation in recent years. Going by the structural indicators, even turning the entire euro area into a bigger version of Germany won’t deliver salvation, as the currency area combines divergent demographics: Berlin’s model of economic development is simply not suitable for countries like Ireland, Spain and France, and unaffordable for Italy.

The third path, open to Europe is to unwind the euro area and switch back to flexible currencies, at least in a number of weaker member states.

Speculations on the future aside, one thing is clear: euro area is not repairing the imbalances that built up over the 1998-2007 period. Even after the economic crisis that resulted in huge dislocations in employment, wages, investment and fiscal adjustments, productivity is not growing and demand is stuck on a flat trajectory.

Support from the ECB via historically unprecedented monetary measures and billions pumped into some economies via supranational lending institutions, such as EFSF, ESM and IMF are not enough to correct for this reality: euro area is new Japan, and as such, it simply lacks real opportunities for a new large scale boom in investment.

4/10/15: CFR: Global Debt Bubble

My recent column for the Cayman Financial Review on the Global Debt Bubble:

4/10/15: Secular Stagnation and the Promise of the Recovery

An unedited version of my recent requested guest contribution for News Max on the issue of secular stagnation (July-August 2015).

Secular Stagnation and the Promise of the Recovery

Recent evidence on economic growth dynamics presents a striking paradox. As traditional business cycles go, recovery period following a prolonged recession should follow certain historical regularities. Shortly after exiting a recession, growth in productivity, output, investment and demand accelerates and exceeds pre-crisis growth.

These stylized facts are absent from the data for the major advanced economies to-date, prompting three distinct responses from the economic growth analysts. On the one hand, there are proponents of two theories of secular stagnation – an idea that structurally, long-term growth in the advanced economies has come to a grinding halt either due to the demand side collapse, or due to the supply side exhausting drivers for growth. On the other hand, the recovery bulls continue to argue that the turnaround reflective of a traditional recovery is likely to materialize sometime soon.

In my opinion, neither one of the three views of the current economic cycle is correct or sufficient in explaining the lack of robust global recovery from the crises of 2007-2009 and 2011-2014. Instead, the complete view of today’s economy should integrate the ongoing secular stagnation thesis spanning both the supply and the demand sides of the global economy.

The end game for investors is that no traditional indexing or asset class approach to constructing investor portfolios will offer a harbor from the post-QE re-pricing of economic fundamentals. Instead, longer-term strategy for addressing these risks calls for investors targeting smaller clusters of opportunities in sectors that can be viewed as buffers against the secular stagnation trends. Along the same lines of reasoning, forward-looking economic policymaking should also focus on enhancing such clustered opportunities.

Investment-Savings Mismatch

The demand-based view of secular stagnation suggests that the global growth slowdown is linked to a structural decline in consumption and investment, reflected in a decades-long glut of aggregate savings over investment.

This theory, tracing back to the 1930s suggestion by Alvin Hansen, made its first return to the forefront of macroeconomic thinking back in the 1990s, in the context of Japan. By the early 1990s, Japan was suffering from a demographics-linked excess of savings relative to investment, and the associated massive contraction in labor productivity. During the 1980-1989 period, Japan's real GDP per worker averaged 3.2 percent per annum. Over the following two decades, the average was 0.81 percent. Meanwhile, Japan's investment as a percentage of GDP gradually fell from approximately 29-30 percent in the 1980s to just over 20 percent in 2010-2015.

The Great Recession replicated Japanese experience across the majority of advanced economies. Between 1980 and 2014, the gap between savings and investment as percentage of GDP has widened in North America and the Euro area. At the same time, labor productivity fell precipitously across all major advanced economies, despite a massive increase in unemployment.

Some opponents of the demand side secular stagnation thesis, most notably former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, argue that low interest rates create incentives for investment and reduced saving by lowering the cost of the former and increasing the opportunity cost of the latter.

However, this argument bears no connection to what is happening on the ground. Current zero rates policies appear to reinforce the savings-investment mismatch, not weaken it, rendering monetary policy impotent, if not outright damaging.

How can this be the case?

Today's pre-retirement generations are facing insufficient pensions coverage. For them, lower yields on retirement investments, tied to lower policy rates, are incentivizing more aggressive savings, further suppressing returns on investment. Meanwhile, middle age workers face severe pressures to deleverage their debts accumulated before the crisis, while supporting ageing parents and, simultaneously, increasing numbers of stay-at-home young adults.

To address the demand-side of secular stagnation in the short run, requires lifting the natural rate of return on investment, without increasing retail interest rates. This will be both tricky for policymakers and painful for a large number of investors, currently crowded into an over-bought debt markets.

The only way real natural rate of return to investment can rise in the environment of continued low policy and retail rates is by widening the margin between equity and debt returns for non-financial assets and reducing tax subsidies awarded to physical and financial capital accumulation. In other words, policymakers must rebalance taxation systems to support real enterprise formation, entrepreneurship and equity investment, while reducing incentives to invest in debt and financial assets.

Good examples of such policy tools deployment can be found in the areas of gas and oil infrastructure LLPs and property REITs used to fund long-term physical capital investments via tax optimized returns structures. Transforming these schemes to broader markets and to cover non-financial, technological and human capital investments, however, will be tricky.

From the investor perspective, the demand-side stagnation thesis implies that  longer-term investment opportunities will be found in allocations targeting entrepreneurs and companies with organic growth that are debt-light, technologically intensive (with a caveat explained below) and human capital-rich. There are no real examples of such companies currently in the major stock markets’ indices. Instead, the future growth plays are found in the high risk space of start ups and early stage development ventures in the sectors that bring technology directly to end-user engagement: biotech, nanotechnology, remote health, food sciences, wearables, bio-human interfaces and artificial intelligence.

Tech Sector: Value-Added  Miss

The caveat relating to technology investments briefly mentioned above is non-trivial.

Today, we have two distinct trends in technological innovation: technological research that leads to increased substitution of labor with technology and innovations that promise greater complementarity between labor and human capital and the machines.

The first type of innovation is what the financial markets are currently long. And it is also directly linked to the supply-side secular stagnation thesis formulated by Robert Gordon in the late 2000s. The thesis challenges the consensus view that the current technological revolution will continue to fuel a perpetual growth cycle.

Per Gordon, "The frontier established by the U.S. for output per capita, and the U. K. before it, … reached its fastest growth rate in the middle of the 20th century, and has slowed down since.  It is in the process of slowing down further." The reason for this is the exhaustion of economic returns to technological innovation.  Financial returns are yet to follow, but inevitably, with time, they will.

Gordon, and his followers, argue that a sequence of three industrial or technological revolutions explains the historically unprecedented pace of growth recorded since the mid-18th century. "The first with its main inventions between 1750 and 1830 created steam engines, cotton spinning, and railroads. The second was the most important, with its three central inventions of electricity, the internal combustion engine, and running water with indoor plumbing, in the relatively short interval of 1870 to 1900.” However, after 1970 “productivity growth slowed markedly, most plausibly because the main ideas of [the second revolution] had by and large been implemented by then.” Thus, the computer and internet age – the ongoing third revolution – has reached its climax in the late 1990s and the productivity gains from the new computer technologies has been declining since around 2000.

Gordon’s argument is not about the levels of activity generated by the new technologies, but about the declining rate of growth in value added arising form them. This argument is supported by some of the top thinkers in the tech sector, notably the U.S. tech entrepreneur and investor, Peter Thiel.

The older generation of players in the tech sector attempted to challenge Gordon’s ideas, with little success to-date.

A recent study from IBM, titled "Insatiable Innovation: From sporadic to systemic", attempted to show that technological innovation is alive and well, pointing to evolving ‘smart’ tech, globalization of consumer markets, and universal customization of production as signs of potential growth capacity remaining in tech-focused sectors.

However, surprisingly, the study ends up confirming Gordon’s assertion. Tech industry today, by focusing on substituting technology for people in production, is struggling to deliver substantial enough push for growth acceleration. The promise of new technologies that can move companies toward more human capital-intensive modes of production remains the stuff of the future. Meanwhile, marginal returns on investment in today’s technology may be non-negligible from the point of view of individual enterprises, but they cannot deliver rapid rates of growth in economic value added over time and worldwide.

Disruptive Change Required

In my view, the reason for this failure rests with the nature of the modern economy, still anchored to physical capital investment, where technology is designed to replace labor. As I noted in a number of research papers and in my TED presentation a couple of years ago, long-term global growth cycles are sustained by pioneering innovation that moves economic production away from previously exhausted factors (e.g. agricultural land, physical trade routes, steam, internal combustion, electricity, and, most recently capital-enhancing tech) toward new factors.

Thus, the next global growth cycle can only arise from switching away from traditional forms of capital accumulation in favor of structurally new source of growth. The only factor remaining to be deployed in the economy is that of human capital.

Like it or not, to deliver the growth momentum necessary for sustaining the quality of life and improvements in social and economic environment expected by the ageing and currently productive generations will require some radical rethinking of the status quo economic development models.

The thrust of these changes will need to focus on attempting to reverse the decline in returns to human capital investment (education, training, creativity, ability to take and manage risks, entrepreneurship, etc) and on generating higher economic value added growth from technological innovation.

The former implies dramatic restructuring of modern systems of taxation and public services to increase incentives and supports for human capital investments and their deployment in the economy.  The latter requires an equally disruptive reform of the traditional institutions of entrepreneurship and enterprise formation and development.

From investor perspective, this means seeking opportunities to take equity positions in companies with more horizontal, less technocratic distributions of management and ownership. Cooperative, mutual, employees-owned larger ventures and firms offer some attractive longer term valuations in this context. Entrepreneurs who are not afraid to allocate wider ranges of managerial and strategic responsibilities to a broader group of their key employees are also interesting investment targets.

Within sectors, companies that offer more flexible platforms for research and development, product innovation, customer engagement and are design and knowledge-rich will likely outperform their more conservative and rigid counterparts over the long run.

The new world of structurally slower growth does not imply lack of opportunities for investors seeking long run returns. It simply requires a new approach to investment allocation across asset classes and individual investment targets. When both, supply and demand sides of the economic growth equation face headwinds, safe harbours of opportunities lie outside the immediate path of disruption, in the areas of tangible real equity closely linked to the potential drivers of future growth.

Friday, October 2, 2015

2/10/15: BRIC Manufacturing PMI: 7th month of Sectoral Recession in September

Manufacturing PMIs for BRIC countries for September generally remained on the downward trend established some 7 months ago.

  • I have covered Russian Manufacturing PMI earlier here with index reading signalling slower rate of decline in the sector activity in September, rising to 49.1 from 47.9 in August. This is the highest reading in the series since February 2015, but marks 10th consecutive month of sub-50 readings.
  • China Manufacturing PMI was covered in detail here showing a strong signal of continued deterioration in the economy.
  • Meanwhile, Brazil posted a rise in Manufacturing PMI from horrific 45.8 in August to ugly 47.0 in September. This was the eighth consecutive month of sub-50 readings in Brazil Manufacturing sector, with extremely weak performance setting in back in Q 2014 and continuing basically without interruption since then. Per Markit, “although rates of contraction in new orders and production eased, the downturn remains sharp. Companies continued to shed jobs and reduce inventory levels.” Quarter performance was poor, but I will cover this in a separate post. Brazil is now the worst performing BRIC economy in Manufacturing sector activity for 8 months running.
  • India continued to break the BRIC trend, posting another above 50 PMI reading for Manufacturing Sector. India Manufacturing PMI in September was running at 51.2, down from 52.3 in August and marking the slowest pace of growth in seven months, “mirroring a slower increase in new orders. Staffing levels were, consequently, reduced and purchasing activity rose at the weakest pace since December 2013. …New business from abroad expanded at the slowest pace in the current 24-month sequence of growth and one that was marginal overall.”

Table below summarises key readings:

Chart below illustrates key trends:

Overall, Manufacturing activity remains on a downward trajectory in 3 our of 4 BRIC economies, with negative trends accelerating in the case of China (second worst performer for the third month in a row), remaining steady in the case of Brazil (worst performer over last 8 months), slightly moderating in terms of contraction in Russia (third worst performer over the last three months). Meanwhile, growth in India is declining toward anaemic levels of activity. 

2/10/15: The plight of Irish self-employed and our backward economic policies

This is a copy of the Business Retail Union of Ireland public letter sent to the Minister for Social Protection regarding equal treatment of the self-employed in Ireland:

Source: @brui_ie

The key questions raised in this letter are other questions of great importance to this country for a number of reasons are:

  1. Per latest CSO data there were 327,500 self-employed persons in Ireland in 2Q 2015, constituting 16.9 percent of total employment in the country. The number of self-employed persons is roughly comparable to the current counts of people on Live Register (332,000). Which means these are hardly ‘negligible’ or ‘small’ numbers. What is being done to make sure these people have access to basic, normal, civilised levels of representation in the economic and social system that is, allegedly, modern Ireland?
  2. Self-employed people in Ireland face upfront tax penalty for their activities in terms of higher rates of taxation and higher cost of tax compliance. Why? Where is the balance between proportionality of taxation and representation?
  3. Self-employed people in Ireland have no access to basic social protection benefits that PAYE workers can avail of. Why? Where is the balance between social services access based on need vs access based on privilege of arbitrary categories of employment?
  4. Self-employed people in Ireland have no access to basic training and jobs activation schemes that PAYE workers can avail of. Why? Again, per (3) above, where is that balance?
  5. Self-employed people in Ireland are discriminated against in access to state pensions. Same questions as in (4).
  6. Self-employed people in Ireland have to deal with huge degree of income volatility with our tax system inducing more uncertainty in their after-tax income than PAYE workers. Why is that the financial markets operate on a basic principle of risk premium, whilst markets for human capital operate on the basis of risk penalty?
  7. Self-employed people in Ireland have no basic supports in terms of annual holidays, sick leave, family leave, etc and are often placed at severe disadvantage compared to some PAYE and public sector workers in terms of jobs-related benefits. Which, of course, is understandable, but reinforces the point made in (6) above.

Many of the above differences cannot (and probably should not) be removed by state policies (e.g. (7)). Others can. None have been removed and no one - in our leadership establishment - appears to, frankly put, give a damn.

However, the reality of modern workforce is that:

  • Self-employment is going to rise dramatically in the future as our economy moves further and further along the lines of developing skills, professional occupations employment and a ‘gig’-economy. In simple terms, global economy is becoming more and more self-employment intensive and Ireland can’t avoid the same fate, no matter how ignorant our policymakers remain;
  • The recent decline (on pre-crisis trend) in self-employment is driven by the sheer mass of economic activity destruction in Ireland since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, highlighting the extreme nature of jobs and income security volatility faced by the self-employed;
  • Self-employment is set to expand in the future as we become more entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial.

If anything, current penalty to the self-employed should not only be erased, but reversed, due to higher risk nature of their work, they deserve a risk premium, not a risk penalty in the markets.

It is high time we gave a thought as to how on earth can we continue developing an entrepreneurial modern, human capital-based economy whilst penalising starting entrepreneurs and people taking risk deploying their skills through self-employment. Bragging about ‘entrepreneurial Ireland’ and ‘knowledge economy’ at international venues can’t get us anywhere, if we fail to first reform ourselves. The mentality of civil service ‘jobs-for-life’ entitlement culture that dominates our policy formation has to change. Good starting point - addressing the above issues for the self-employed.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

1/10/15: Emerging Markets Debt v Equity

Debt, not equity, is the real China Fault Line, even if tremors are rocking its stock markets:

What we have in the above is a record of debt/equity in corporate valuations across the EMs and China. While debt pile relative to equity valuations has grown in the EMs ex-China (though it still sits below parity), in China, growth in debt has been exponential. Inly in 2007 did Chinese debt/equity ratio come close to parity (albeit from above 1) and ever since, debt growth outpaced expansion in equity valuations.

Bad enough. Except when one considers an even more dangerous side to this markets: debt growth likely led equity valuations. Which implies, if confirmed, that Chinese markets investors have simply ignored debt valuations in their balancesheet pricing of Chinese companies. In other words, straight out of Krugmanite book (for countries), 'debt doesn't matter'.

Good luck with that...

1/10/15: Of global equities and Gold

Bloomberg's @M_McDonough just posted a fresh chart for major global stocks indices rebased to the start of 2015:

The scary bit is that this is in own-currency terms and that the rot is well beyond the EMs and China.

I cover some of these issues in a guest contribution to GoldCore's quarterly review for 3Q - read in full here.