Altitude sickness

Do ‘higher rates for longer’ matter?  Is China doing anything different? Has the UK election become a one-horse race?

So far, both the markets and Central Banks have acted as if rate rises matter far more than they do, in real life. High interest rates are simply a pot stirring device, they don’t take any money out, they just shift it from borrowers to savers at a higher speed. The net effect is that they don’t matter to the totality of an economy as such, although the government takes a slice (as ever), and the exchange rate may shift.

It can also change investment decisions, affect confidence, restrain borrowers. But these are generally quite gradual influences. And the pile up in savers’ cash offsets them. It is a change of content, not of quantum. Meanwhile, in order not to move the ‘confidence’ needle, governments get spooked and start giving more handouts in compensation.

Investment decisions focus as much on corporate tax rates, costs and technology as on interest rates. While the evidence of resulting restraint by borrowers, where the dominant one is actually the government, appears a bit thin and is longer duration. Even the UK mortgage market has perked up.

Where rate rises may matter more, is if the winners (savers) don’t spend, and the losers (borrowers) default, creating value destruction, rather than simply price movements. Not much of that is evident yet, as loan underwriting has (generally) been good, and neither the level of rates, nor their duration, has eaten far into the big credit buffers still in place.

Defaults on bank loans, set against the greatly increased rate differential’s impact on earnings, have been minor. Bank provisions for purely economic reasons are not rising fast.

Overall, given the dominance of the ‘vote buyers’ in most markets, I am not that worried by consumption, and judging by London theatre prices, the high end is not showing much restraint either. While all those second order effects don’t matter much this year.

It is no surprise to us that the world has now drifted back to ‘not many rate cuts’ nor is it clearly a disaster, for all the sudden market noise. The political imperative for a rate cut to throw before the electorate (justified or not) still leaves June in play.

It is fairly clear where the froth is, where any nosebleeds are due; also that this market response is all sentiment, unrelated to actual economic forces.

A SECOND LOOK AT CHINA

What of China? For a while in the un-investable box, and I think still largely so for the mainland indices. Reasons? political risk, both internally and externally, growing sanctions, unequal treatment of overseas investors, disappearances etc – same as ever. So why look again? Well in part if globally the UK looks cheap, China looks even cheaper, right at the bottom of the pile.

The mists seem to be clearing on their economic strategy : manufacturing is still at the heart of it, which implies so is exporting and hence some engagement with the wider world. Not just high-volume low-cost production, although recent trade statistics do show falling value on rising volume. But a clearly and often stated desire to move up the value chain, seems to be coming off.

China’s factories have a lot going for them, they are still building coal power plants (306, yes three hundred plus, currently in the works) and nuclear, (150 plants planned over the next decade) at high speed, plus plenty of renewables, providing abundant cheap energy.

From this site

 

Labour laws are to them just an amusing Western concern. Also noticeable is that Chinese universities still study real science, based on academic merit – they are the world leaders in many areas – just ask your university professor buddies.

Plus, they have no interest in electoral cycles.

If China wants to stay at the core of global manufacturing, it can. A flat rate 10% tariff seems to barely touch the existing and growing price advantage. There is also a point at which consumers will baulk at the price of domestic protected production, even in the US.

So, if China is simply the old ill tempered, paranoid, Communist dictatorship, flooding the world with cheap goods, stealing intellectual property and manipulating currency, then the problem is at least familiar.

In that case, it is not throwing its lot in with Russia and going back to Stone Age military adventures as yet.

So, when fund managers hang on to well researched individual stocks, knowing all that background, I am inclined to at least listen. Trade needs cash, wants cash, uses cash, needs investment and therefore some global engagement.

INTO THE ABYSS

We have long predicted the loss of the Tory Red Wall seats, one term rookies as we called them. Under 200 Tory seats left in six months, seems well-nigh inevitable as well. So yes, it is a one-horse race. And is Starmer really going to say anything substantial (and in truth there are quite a lot of plans and approaches on the table already)? I doubt it, he has no need to.

It is just the older and far tougher problem of working out how to pay for it all, without raising taxes so high no one wants to work, invest in the country or indeed live here. Given the record of the last century or so, expecting things to change now, is delightfully naïve. They won’t.

It needs radical reform of regulation, entitlements and cost bases. No more salami slicing, no more buying off vested interests. There is some of that from Wes Streeting, but a lot more would be needed, the new ministers must do more with less, not less with more.

Looking at how the UK and US markets have performed this year, tells you a lot about those expecting such a grown-up approach. A backstop approach is to plan for the change.

Where many people choose to live and work, will be decided within this year.

 

 


Jerome K Wiley?

We do think Powell is running off a cliff, just not the one the market assumes. As we endured the wettest February since (at least) 1836, when William Lamb was prime minister, and the wettest Tory government since records began, is there any chance of dryer times?

But first the tiresome tango of rate rises, the market swept to and fro, nation by nation, until the firm stamp of a well-heeled bond whips the whole mass back round again.

Bailey of the BoE, and Powell of the Fed

So, this week it is to be Bailey first out the gate, FTSE up, bond yields down, next week who knows? That rates will fall this year is the only certainty and the big US markets have built a near vertical climb out of that snippet. But you will note, not in rate sensitive stocks, the Russell (small cap) is still pretty flat, weighed down by the regional banks that dominate it.

And Powell, he’s guessing or as he calls it is “data dependent”, but for all that he is pretty happy projecting those guesses forward. So, he has moved from three rate cuts this year, to a new position of ?  Well - three rate cuts this year. Not much data dependency there.

Before long he will run out of “this year”, because the inflation numbers are not behaving, nor critically is the oil price.  Like Bailey in the UK, he is desperate to cut and under heavy political pressure to do so, both have said 2% inflation is not now needed, just moves in the right direction.

I feel the only thing that can get us there is a sudden (and indeed overdue) drop in the energy price, which we do expect in the summer, but who knows? It has held up rather well so far.

So, at the moment, Powell is perhaps  running on thin air. Protectionism and vote buying fiscal measures mean he can’t get there without some other help.

Markets are supercharged – is it sustainable though?

And if rate cuts are what has supercharged markets in the US, I don’t see that as sustainable right through the year. It might instead be the possibility of a more market friendly, fiscally prudent, Trump, which would be more logical, in some ways; but that still feels implausible.

Nor do I see, as yet, many other markets joining in. Partly, why own anything else but the NASDAQ? Some markets have moved (Germany, Japan) but you could also argue that was after being oversold for too long. While the Swiss have cut rates, it is in part (as ever) to restrain their currency, I am less sure others will want to move ahead of the US.

They may be forced to, but there again their scope before European and UK elections looks limited. And some parts of the market, like UK smaller companies and many REITs (and some renewables) are not signalling anything but yet more damage and destruction, from suspect refinancing at high rates and over optimism on revenue.

Air Cushions

It was notable too how keen Powell is to slow the tightening imposed by reducing the Federal Reserve bond holdings, which has to date been done at a fairly brisk pace. He now talks of stabilising holdings, (in other words resuming bond buying, stopping the runoff of expired holdings) at what seems a high level, for fear of taking too much liquidity out of the system.

Periods of quantitative easing and quantitative tightening of the US federal reserve

From this explanatory article on the process by the Richmond Fed.

For a while rates and reserve sales were working as one against inflation, but not for much longer it seems. Which should be good for bitcoin and other liquidity consuming monsters, if nothing else.

Who is Next in the UK?

The interesting Tory battle is between the Official wing, now entrenched in power, and showing no sign of intelligent life, beyond wanting to “make a good fist of it” in the inevitable electoral defeat. Then there is the Rebel wing, keen to cause trouble, break things, get popular support, or be nasty, if it gets them attention. Although the Official wing regards this as disloyal, it follows an old pattern. It is not just about this particular bunch: see this paper.

Faced with a like quandary under Blair, the Tory party swung left, towards the centre and power, just as Gordon Brown started the decade long Labour march to irrelevance. The Official assumption is that will work again, although the alternative scenario is that Starmer settles down in the centre for the long haul, and the Rebel wing, kept securely away from power, withers for lack of a structure.

But all ruling parties were, by definition, rebels once.

Back in 1836, William Lamb was an unsuccessful politician, wrapped around by Peel, sent to the House of Lords, then brought back as a centrist Prime Minister, and being generally useless, was turfed out again, after naming an Australian city, en route. One must hope for no repeats from history.

William Lamb, Lord Melbourne – from this site

It does not feel time for compromise candidates, nor will a ‘safe pair of hands’ do. Rishi is in a fight.

Meanwhile the fields here feel like salt marshes, dark water lurking in deep cracks, the lips of which slide into clay and suck at the soles of your feet. We certainly could do with some heat.

I do expect this run in markets to go on, but the upside in the big US indices looks more limited and broader participation elsewhere will await those rate cuts. Both their size and speed have a capacity to disappoint, especially when they are so hotly anticipated.

The politics, a long time coming, may become more influential. It could get choppy.

We will take an Easter break, after what feels like a long spring.

And return with the sun (we hope) on 14th April.

 


a hand shuffling cards, with a background of a graph showing stock market movements

Sleight of Hand

This week, we speculate as to what the FCA is really after in their Practitioner Survey.  How closely do their actions follow their words, with the new Consumer Duty laws? And we also look at Hunt’s budget and the likely forthcoming non-impact on stock markets.

FED UP FEEDBACK

Periodically member firms get quizzed on how we see the FCA; this time they promised a shorter form. Well, if that’s shorter, I’d hate to see the long one. Take a look here. Thirty-nine questions, but so many cover multiple topics, it feels more like a hundred.

It is typical of such surveys designed by marketing advisors: a few soft questions, how are you today type guff, a few “have you stopped beating your wife” ones, just to check you are actually awake, then a lot of navel gazing on SICGO. They really despise it.

This is purportedly about promoting competition. Which actually makes the regulator’s job harder – encouraging more firms and lowering the barriers to entry for new firms.  The FCA does not like that idea much; so, note, it is a SECONDARY International Competitiveness and Growth OBJECTIVE, get the Secondary stress, minor, icing on the cake stuff. Objective, so just an aspiration, not real. Their minutes (above) even admit that.

Then we have more ‘are you happy questions’, then some tiresome back scratching ones, just how great are we at seminars? answering the phone? sending you flowers? You get the picture.

Then a few global ones, how good are we at promoting world peace and intergalactic harmony? By this stage you are probably wondering what this is, I am. And the idea creeps in that it is nothing to do with the poor regulated mugs, anyhow. So probably not much to do with the consumer either.

Meanwhile I see a landscape of poor consumer outcomes, vast sales driven peddlers of half-truths, a fair bit of market abuse, absurd barriers to entry, the insiders and regulators getting fat, the savers, investors and users of capital paying for it all.

NEW LAW OLD RULES

They also published “A new Consumer Duty Feedback to CP21/36 and final rules” more terribly exciting stuff, a mere 70 pages of it. They make much of the “Risk of Retrospection”, saying “we were clear that the Duty would not have retrospective effect and would not apply to past actions by firms”.

OK, this is a key political input; the industry has had enough of new rules, looking back. So, I take it that we won’t see big attacks on UK listed finance firms this time?

Not so, you guessed it, the entire financial sector is suddenly seeing bigger provisions, because, it seems, of the new rules. It looks very much like the damaging hits on SJP Close, Lloyds, are exactly this, retrospective application of laws, an action so vociferously foresworn by the regulator.

And this helps competition how? Well not at all. But do remember it is a secondary aim and applies only to “competition in the interests of consumers” so not real competition, but one where the mechanism (competition) and the outcome (interests of consumers) get muddled up.

So, for instance destroying UK financial services firms is fine if done “in the interests of consumer” and what could be more in their ‘interests’ than getting money back on a contract they willingly (and legally) signed ten years ago?

And that’s why choice and consumer outcomes are being lost in box ticking and adverts of fluffy kittens, sunsets on beaches and the like. Just look at the UK ISA advertisements, do they tell you anything? Beyond heavy hints at nirvana with no work.

HUNT’S LAST HURRAH

The budget? Well, it is so dull, you feel it is simply what the HMRC nerds wanted. More complexity, a few free hits (non doms), more CGT breaks for landlords, for the rentiers not the creators, less employee NI, but no change to employer NI, that actual tax on jobs remains as harsh as ever.

We are well into Q1 now, so I guess the intriguing thing is more this firm Treasury conviction, adopted by the OBR, that inflation will fall towards 2% in Q2. Given their prior errors, that is very bullish, and does not support base rates at 5.25%, frankly not even at 3.25%.

It is all circular, despite commentators’ child-like obsession with margins for error. If inflation stays high, tax raised stays higher, covering higher public sector spend. So low inflation is (oddly) a cautious model prediction.

The market does not believe it. Nor do we. Not quite chapeau consumption time, but I don’t see 2% this year. I am not sure where this recession is, but not in any of the streets I walk down.

If interest rates are really about to fall off a cliff, the FTSE looks oddly stuck, miles behind the US indices, and sterling also looks curiously strong. If saving rates are about to be pummelled, the yield stocks that fill the FTSE will suddenly look very cheap. Which suggests the markets are not buying it, not yet.

A 500-point rally might even be plausible, if the OBR is right, but it is not, and talk of headroom is nonsense. This remains an expansionist fiscal mind set, but of quite limited duration, hence the market caution.

Elsewhere we are in ‘riding-the-tiger’ time: if you are onboard, how and when do you get off it?


DREAMERS

What would Trump’s high tariff isolationist world look like? What would the mirror image be in Xi’s China? Not now, not next week, but rolling into the next decade.

And whatever portfolio theory says, and whatever the optimistic investor believes, 80% of my own portfolio is flotsam, drifting up and down on Pacific tides. Stocks I both like and which have compounded over decades are remarkably few. Oh, and a brief word on African housing.

GOING IT ALONE

But first, to give it the grand name, autarchy, or self-sufficiency. A bit of a joke - the Soviet Union tried it, Iran tries it, China famously only revived after ditching it.

But it is back in fashion, and not just in strange places. The EU industrial and agricultural policy is starting to look like a version; beyond their four walls they need carbon and chemicals, but within them they don’t, nor will they allow imports of them (or products including them). Quite fantastic.

Trump is on his 60% tariffs line. Xi clearly wants to cut off foreign capital, as it arrives infected with democracy and transparency, and the associated foreign reporting or verification.

So, could they? Yes, the US could - it is big enough, can do most things, and largely trades internally. While at least in Trump’s imagination the commercial borders are sealed, and so enforceable.

What goes wrong? Well at some, quite distant, point people stop expecting to trade with the US. So, at its most extreme, if China can’t sell to the US, it won’t buy from them either. But that is decades away, most Chinese production can probably take a 300% tariff, and still sell at a profit.

The flip side of the tariff is the huge salary for a barista, or a trucker. The latter is not so far away. Prices of domestic US production must rise, to allow the blue-collar Mid-West to rejuvenate. US consumers of course (including that barista) will pay vastly more for US goods, or will get hit with the import tariff; this of course is a tax on them.

Source: Statista

What about Xi? Well again it is possible - that’s how China ran for much of his life, with a lot of new infrastructure, industrialization, since installed. He can do it all again. There, unlike in the US, the issue is capital. As a big net exporter, an area that will itself be under pressure, money will be harder to find; it already is.

 

THE NIGHTMARE

Countries that go through this closing cycle typically also do default (as the Soviets did, as US (and UK) railways did,). Folly, but it can be done.

The US has been going down this route since Obama, Trump talked a lot about it, but Biden too sees the resulting wage inflation as a good thing. So, it is the next US President’s policy either way.

Obama was keen on hitting capital markets (FATCA was and remains both a non-tariff barrier (I am being polite here) and a tariff on external capital) and I suspect a Biden administration must do the same, to balance the books.

While Xi never really left protectionism, WTO and GATT were mainly honoured in the breach.

And Europe? There is quite a strong strategic need to expand to the East, although as that goes through (and we are talking the mid 2030’s here) Ukrainian farmers, like Polish farmers today, will buckle under the rules; it barely matters about the Donbas, the EU will shut those heavy industries down too.

So, I think autarchy can work for all three, it will support a large uncompetitive labour force, and consumer choice will vanish. In many cases there will be lower quality and high prices. All three will attack (or in some cases keep attacking) capital flows.

And in the end, the entrepots will survive, those not in any such block, like the UAE or Singapore today, Amsterdam in the 17th Century, Yemen under the Romans and Victorian Britain.

The winners will be flexible, a tad amoral, assertive, in fluid alliances, but reliant on gold not steel to survive. And they will suck in entrepreneurial talent too. At a strategic level, that feels the place to be looking. Although buying uncompetitive heavy industries before their brief period of tariff induced profitability, has a short-term allure.

 

DOGS OR GREYHOUNDS ?

The ludicrous halving of CGT allowances, based on some fantasy “yield” number from the equally ludicrous HMRC, via the OBR, means once again the tiresome process of harvesting losses is upon us. No longer can they sit unloved at the back, snoozing; out they must come.

And what a tale of dross they reveal, and scattered amongst them so many once “good ideas” and busted yield stocks. Well, it sticks in the throat, but perhaps sticking it in a US wonder stock for six months is better?

Of course, if I knew when I acquired them that the FTSE was moribund for two decades, I would never have bothered. Seems it is time to simplify.

 

COLLATERAL

And lastly African housing. It was one of Gordon Brown’s (and the PRA’s) great achievements to get UK banks out of overseas assets, far too volatile, currency? foreigners?- Who needs them? Bring it all home and inflate the UK housing market with safe, cheap, mortgages.

So, Citizens went, Barclays were hounded out of South Africa, and so on – although their post-sale performance has really not been great either. Africa now just does not have proper mortgage financing for the vast bulk of the population. This is at a level I had failed to fully comprehend.

You think that despite everything, Africa must have got better. But no housing, so less health, less stability, no financial security. Safe recycling of profits in the continent is still hard. Aid can’t create institutional reform, but that’s the need.

If you look for the breakout into developed status, it starts there.

 

 

 

 


The Glass Bead Game

We look today at a domestic version of a complex, rulebound meaningless pursuit that too many of our brightest and best waste their lives pursuing, and whose twists and spirals ultimately signify nothing.  I mean the UK Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), of which I took a tour this week. Almost nothing there is as it seems.

Meanwhile markets reprise 2023, with tech or bust once more. Although tech and bust is the market fear, as fiscal stimulus and services inflation hold rates too high for some to survive.

 

UK OBR

The OBR was an explicitly political creation of the coalition government in 2010, with a remit to somehow restrain the ever-increasing debt governments take on, to bribe electors. They were also keeping half an eye on the much older ‘debt ceiling’ style US legislation. It failed; so now the OBR just thrives on telling the government how much more it can spend or not collect, with spurious accuracy; purportedly managing public money.

It doesn’t forecast anything as a forecast is an expected outturn. All it does is crank the handle on the old, discredited Treasury model, creating projections. A projection is 1) a ‘what if’ assuming all other things are equal and 2) only as good as its underlying model.

One clear flaw is the requirement to take government spending plans as viable when they are usually not. They also have no idea where public sector productivity is heading. It has no remit to look at how productivity might be helped and no capacity to look back at how wrong its old ‘forecasts’ were. That is the job of the National Audit Office, it seems.

It also won’t talk to the Bank of England, as that organization has executive powers (to raise or lower rates) and the OBR apparently must just be a commentator: more glass bead rules.

So, it fiddles with the model and its six hundred inputs and countless equations to give precise answers to pointless questions, because each answer sits in its own vacuum.

There’s a heavy focus too on tax revenue, but with quite a thin staff, this results in excessive reliance on HMRC, who can be hopelessly wrong (and typically over optimistic on tax yields). But again, if the tax bods claim some complex, job destroying, arcane nonsense will raise income, in it goes. The side effects of such decisions must also be ignored.

It has no remit to assess how taxes impact productivity, which partly explains many of Hunt’s blatantly anti-growth measures. As a result, the economy is locked into low productivity, getting steadily worse.

From the ONS flash report here

 

For all that the financial press will be full of the OBR cogitations on the forthcoming budget (March 6th). One little bit of power they do have involves a requirement for the Chancellor to give ten days’ notice of the budget contents (hence no doubt the usual leakage levels) and for two months before that, they sift through proposals and indicate how each, in isolation, would work. The economy is an interconnected entity, they know, yet there is no attempt to give us an overall view.

 

THE LOST RALLY

I have few rational reasons why anyone would lend the UK Government at under 4% for ten years, were it not for some foolish faith in the OBR projections, without reading the small print.

Which brings us to markets: back in November the UK ten-year gilt yielded 4.5%, by about Christmas falling to 3.5%, and now it is back over 4% and headed higher.

Chart from this website

Quite a spin in ten weeks for a ten-year duration instrument. This is why that Christmas rally in value stocks was ignited, and indeed started to push out into Real Estate, various Alternatives and certain smaller stocks.

Although it didn’t move those stocks most sensitive to the credit markets, who will need to rollover/refinance current debt. This affects for example, the renewables, private equity, and office property. The problem there is of both rates and availability. With the scale of asset mark downs, whether interest is 6% or 8% is not the issue; there is no funding appetite even at 20%.

The year-end rally moved a wide group of stocks, from extremely cheap to still very cheap. We then realized that it was not yet safe to go back in, so buyers evaporated, and prices faded. With state debt at 4%, against persistent inflation, fixed income is also oddly unenticing. So, the market default has been to pile back into the biggest, most liquid, US tech stocks and similar easy-in/easy-out momentum trades, like bitcoin.

There is little sign of deflation in services, no evidence of it in housing, where supply issues dominate, and little in financial services; indeed, all the supply side mess of COVID and excess regulation, is simply getting worse. Public sector pay inflation is also high and going higher (don’t tell the OBR).

This does not dent the 2024 story of cutting rates and hence higher stock markets, but it may require some patience, and that delay may itself create more pain.

 

The Glass Bead Game and the ‘lost marbles’ qualification for office

Our games of self deception are not to be confused with lost marbles of course; it turns out that the onset of senility is now a bar to being prosecuted for storing secret state papers and also, somehow, a recommendation for re-election for four more years, to the most powerful post in the world.

If that ends up giving us Trump again, by default, presumably he will at least have a defense in future years, against those same crimes? He does not have the “Biden defense” available at present, perhaps thankfully.

As the OBR shows, very clever institutions can come up with very silly solutions.