THE ROAD AHEAD
The world economy today is identical to a patient on artificial life support system without any activity being done to cure the patient of the disease it is suffering from i.e. no medication to cure the illness which caused it to reach such a poor state of health. As long as the machine is running, the patient’s observations will show its heart beating and the pulse moving giving the illusion that the patient is in good health. The moment the artificial life support system is stopped, the body stops functioning. The key question is how long can the cost of running the artificial life system be afforded and the longer the patient is on life support system the lower the chances of it to recover once it is removed from it.
The world economy is being kept alive by the constant infusion of massive doses liquidity by the central banks at abnormally low costs alongwith stimulus packages aimed at revival of certain selective industries like housing, auto etc. The effects of these are being seen in the form of huge fiscal deficits in most of the countries or drawdown on reserves in some countries like China. The effects of these actions on Governments, Banks, Businesses and Consumers are discussed below and an attempt is made to outline the future path of the world economy.
The Governments around the world this year have given unprecedented stimulus packages to try to stabilize their economies and capital markets from the effects of bursting of the Biggest Credit Bubble worldwide in 2008. Their main aim appears to be postponing the effects of the same without initiating any cure for the root cause of the problem i.e. excessive debt and leverage which led the whole world to the brink of failure of the financial markets. They are experimenting with the idea that a problem of excessive debt in comparison to the earning potential of a household / business / government can be solved by taking up more debt and leverage.
Now that the stock and commodities markets have had a major run up due to the factors mentioned in the earlier part of this article, all the plans to reign in the dubious trading practices of large financial institutions and curbing their excessive risk taking practices are put on the backburner. Even if some rules are being passed they have loopholes big enough for trucks to pass through thanks to the lobbying efforts by the same financial institutions for whom the laws are being passed. I guess lots of taxpayers money and trading profits can buy a lot of politicians.
The Governments have started interfering in many areas of the economy and following a pick and choose policy as to which industry should get incentives to run and which should not. This has resulted in a massive increase in the size of governments ie government employees. The government has become the main source of job creation whereas the private sector is engaged in the process of reduction of jobs / salary cuts in order to maintain their profitability in the midst of stagnant / falling sales volumes.
The costs of maintaining and running the governments have gone up substantially worldwide due to their increase in size and the tax revenue collections have fallen sharply due to the recession or deflation in the asset prices. This has resulted in a loop whereby the government has to increase its borrowing or money printing in order to sustain itself or in other words living beyond its means to a great extent something that the consumers were doing for last so many years. The government has picked up the baton of living the life of financial irresponsibility from the consumers which had landed them in such a mess in the first place.
Another major problem which the governments are not able to tackle is that the funds flows have become global whereas the rules and objectives governing them are different in different countries. Each country tries to compete with other countries to try to get the funds to flow into their country and sets the rules to govern them accordingly. This too leads to fast creation of asset bubbles and their subsequent bursts.
The countries who are able to raise fresh debts or roll over their previous debts are continuing to do so at great speed because their expenses are much more than revenues. The debt level to GDP ratio of almost all the countries have gone up substantially in last one year. The ones that are not able to do so are either being helped in the form of bailouts or are on the verge of bankruptcies or fast approaching the point of no return.
The world governments are basically running a Ponzi Scheme whereby they take up new debt and pay back the old debt with it, something that Madoff did but on a much larger scale. As long as they are able to raise new debt or get investors to invest in their sovereign bonds things will keep on rolling, the moment the ability to raise new debt goes below the amount of old debt and the interest on the same, a domino effect of defaults gets unleashed.
Problems of countries like Dubai, Greece, Iceland, Ireland and some other countries in the Baltic states are now very much discussed in the media. There are other countries in queue who living way beyond their means like Ukraine, Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, U.K., Japan to name a few. The problem is that if one country defaults on its debt it triggers off a chain of defaults across the world sending ripple waves all around the financial markets and currencies because of the linkages in global finances. The problems so far have been contained but its only a question of time when a default occurs which would be unavoidable and all hell will break loose.
BANKS AND FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS
The Banks and Financial Institutions are taking on ever increasing risks and trading with renewed confidence that if they succeed they will be showered with huge bonus and rewards but if they manage to mess things up beyond repair the government and tax payer will bail them out and they will still get their bonuses. So its Heads I win, Tails you loose, a total win win situation for them.
The head winds they are facing in trading is that if the economy does not recover as fast as they have been able to revive the stock and commodity markets the pension / mutual funds who are responsible for investing the public savings may not buy into the stocks / commodities and they might end up holding their high priced investments with no one to sell to. They are using all the means in their control like media, news channels to spin the economic data being released (even the bad and ugly ones) to project that the world economy is on the path to a sustained recovery and it’s a great time to invest to lure in buyers.
The conventional business of lending is no longer attractive to the banks as they see the consumers and businesses already up to their eyeballs in debt and they would not be able to pay their debts on reduced incomes / salaries. With the increasing unemployment in the private sector, the banks are facing ever increasing risk of defaults on their credit card, housing, auto loans. They are using their trading profits to build up reserves for future losses and hence are not interested in lending to the consumers / businesses.
The next big tidal wave of defaults that the banks are facing are the loans which they have given out against commercial real estate and sovereign defaults from countries who are not able to role over their debts. The prime activities of banks and financial institutions currently is trading and investing their surplus in government bonds where they can borrow short term at almost zero interest rates and invest long term thereby making money on the difference in yields. They are mainly concerned with return of capital than return on capital.
Another risk the banks face is that due to the signs of economic recovery, signs of increasing inflation due to the loose monetary policies and with an objective to defuse the asset bubbles the Central Banks start pulling back the stimulus packages and quantitative easing steps they have taken. They can even hint at beginning of increase in interest rates to normal levels.
This would cause a sharp decrease in markets and asset prices which are right now nursing the belief that the low interest rates and stimulus packages will continue in the foreseeable future. The probability of this happening is relatively low as the Central Banks are aggressive in cutting rates but normally slow in increasing them or when they are forced to do so by market forces like increasing inflation.
The businesses have enjoyed a brief period of a couple of quarters of stagnant / slightly improving sales and sharp increase in profitability due to the stimulus packages, aggressive cost cutting measures and lower material costs. Despite their improved profitability most of the businesses are saddled with loans which they cannot pay off with their current level of earnings. As banks are not interested in further lending to them, they face a big problem in rolling forward their loans. The situation has improved somewhat in last six months but is nowhere near the normal functioning levels.
They are doing the next best thing possible. The improvement in stock markets in the last nine months have encouraged them to raise funds either by selling off portions of their businesses or selling their shares at current high valuations to the investors. They are using these funds to pay off their debts. This is a positive step in the improvement of balance sheets though the debt levels are still quite high and the manufacturing / services capacities created during the boom are still operating at a much lower level. Businesses too are in the process of financial jugglery and de leveraging. Rarely do you find businesses raising funds for future expansions.
The businesses face the following risks
- The companies have already cut their costs to the bone and they are almost at a level where further cutting of costs would have a direct negative impact on their productivity. So further improving profitability on cost cutting is ruled out.
- The risk of falling consumer demand once the effect of stimulus subsides as the stimulus cannot be unlimited and is restricted by the funds the governments can raise.
- Once the demand created because of stimulus fades, the private sector or consumers are in no position to take up the slack because of increasing unemployment / salary cuts and consumers in the process of paying back their earlier debts.
- The incentives like tax credits for buying autos or houses, just brings the future demand forward. Anyone who planned to buy a house or auto in the next one year has purchased it now because of the government incentives. The demand for these products fall sharply once the incentives expire.
- The increase in commodity prices in the last few months has resulted in increase of costs for the manufacturers and they are not able to pass the increased costs to the customers due to the risk of lowering the demand for their products and increasing competition. This would lead to a squeeze in their profits.
- The extra ordinary bailout and stimulus packages have unleashed a flood of new money in the system which can, apart from creating asset bubbles, result in sudden increase in inflation causing the central bankers to increase their interest rates thus denting the profits of businesses.
- Once the governments have exhausted their limits of raising funds from borrowings abroad (international investors will want a higher yield on the bonds of a country as its fiscal deficits position worsens) they are going to turn inwards to raise money to sustain their existence and meet their own growing expenses. This would result in governments to raise taxes (direct or indirect) on businesses or consumers.
- Historically, increasing unemployment has led governments to pursue protectionism measures to protect their own industries and citizens from hardship. They do this by either imposing duties and taxes on goods and services imported from other countries or placing restrictions on movement of goods or manpower from cheaper countries than their own. This is primarily done to avoid mass revolts from its citizens who find difficulty in earning enough to meet their basic daily existence needs. This path after globalization would be harmful for the countries like who have flourished by replacing high end labor costs and finished goods with their own cheaper ones. The result of protectionism ends usually in retaliatory actions and trade wars between countries and ends up harming everyone.
- Apart from the above mentioned risks, businesses are exposed to the risks of increased cost of operations due to the regulations and restraints imposed by governments around the world to reduce pollution and reduce the effects of global warming. These can be in the form of imposing some taxes or buying carbon credits to keep the businesses operational.
The consumers having seen one of the best life styles in the last few years, thanks to the increased availability of loans, credit, increased earnings and galloping asset prices, have now got to adjust to the prospects of having too much of debt in an environment of reduced potential earnings and deflating asset prices. Their attitude of taking on ever increasing debt and living beyond ones means has been forced to be replaced by the attitude of repaying their debts as much as they can and objectively evaluate the things that they don’t need and spend money on only the things they can afford after paying their debt installments. This has led to a continuous contraction of consumer debt and a substantial fall in demand for luxury goods. The sharpness of the same indicates that there is a permanent shift in the attitude of consumers towards debt which is unlikely to reverse anytime soon.
KEY PROJECTIONS FOR 2010 AND BEYOND
Keeping in mind the above assumptions and circumstances following are the key projections that are likely to come across the path of Global Economy.
- The size of Governments and the cost of maintaining them are going to increase substantially worldwide.
- The experiment of trying to solve the problem of debt by taking on more debt is going to fail.
- The Governments are going to engage in protectionism policies to protect their own economies.
- The Cost of Borrowings of Governments are going to go up as their respective fiscal situation worsens.
- The Governments will use every trick to squeeze out maximum tax revenue from businesses able to make profit or employees earning high incomes.
- The Governments worldwide will be forced to curb the risky trading practices of the banks and financial institutions after the next credit crunch and market crash. Strict rules too will be laid down for derivative trading to curb speculation.
- The banks will revert back to making money by lending to businesses and consumers under strict rules. They will be stopped from using public savings to trade in exotic and risky financial products.
- There is going to be a sovereign default of debt of a country, the rescue of which will not be managed. This will trigger a chain of defaults across the global markets and the credit markets will freeze up again as happened in the period Oct 08 – March 09. This time it will take much longer to thaw as the ability of Governments to rescue will be limited.
- There will be a rush to buy US Dollars as safe haven. The problems of US are well documented and observed. There will be major financial problems emerging from economies like U.K., Japan, Eurozone countries, Middle East etc. which will come out suddenly and dwarf the ones in the U.S.
- There will be a sharp fall in stocks, commodities and property markets as soon as the world realizes that the economic recovery or bounce is not sustainable. The fall is likely to be more severe than what was seen last year.
- We are going to have years of stock and commodity markets going down with occasional rallies in them whenever there is a restocking GDP bounce.
- A no. of banks worldwide will collapse due to the losses on loans on credit cards, autos, residential and commercial property etc. Also the banks will have to forego loan principles as the assets they hold as collaterals continue to fall in value.
- The consumers and businesses will keep on de-leveraging till their loans can be serviced with their lower earnings. This is going to hit business profitability hard.
- Making a living is going to be one of the biggest challenges to a vast majority of world population. Living within ones means will be back in fashion as compared to carefree expenditure ways of previous years.
- There will be mass protests against governments on small issues which will act as a trigger for venting out frustration of the common citizen towards their daily struggles. The governments will find great difficulty in controlling their countries in times of social unrest.
- The developing countries face a bigger probability of facing social unrest because the developed countries have in place a social security system whereby they take care of the basic needs of the poor and unemployed citizens. Any such social security system is absent in the developing countries like India and China.
- The US dollar will continue to be the world’s reserve currency.
- Debt will be considered the worst four letter word.
- We have entered a phase of worldwide deflation last year whereby the credit outstanding will shrink faster than speed at which the Central Bankers can print money. Moreover the consumers will not be willing to take on more debt for consumption even if it is available for free as their attitudes towards debt has altered for the foreseeable future.
- There is no known cure for deflation in the financial community otherwise Japan wouldn’t be moving in and out of deflation 20 years after their credit bubble burst.
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