A murder mystery — who will kill the global economy?


Andrew Busch (Twitter.com)

By Jonathan Chevreau

One of the more entertaining financial presentations at this week’s BMO investing conference in Chicago was a keynote talk by author and broadcaster Andrew Busch on who killed the global economy. (I qualify this with the phrase financial presentations because Rick Mercer’s talk was also highly entertaining but could hardly qualify as being financial).

By contrast, Busch had worked at BMO Capital Markets for 22 years earlier in his career and grew up in Chicago. His financial research is available free here.

Billing his talk as a “Murder Mystery,” he ran movie clips from various Film Noirs to illustrate his points.

Among his suspects; the ECB’s Mario Draghi, Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe, China president Xi Jinping and the Federal Reserve’s Janet Yellen. Busch played the role of “Private Economic Investigator.”

Resemblance to Greece?

Suspect 1

Starting with Yellen, he submitted clue number 1 as the unemployment rate. With 3 million Americans underemployed, this fact shows up in sluggish wage increases so “we’re not seeing an acceleration in wealth gains so are not seeing inflation.” What jumps out from the latest job numbers is where they are located; 14 million Americans are employed in local government, another 2.7 million in the federal government and 5 million more in the states. “Now we know why it’s important to look at government spending,” Busch said, “We have to pay tax to have them employed.” Sequing to Greece he asked rhetorically “Are we more like them than we realize?”

Clue # 2 pointing to Yellen is GDP, which slowed down from 5% in the third quarter to 2.3%. “This quarter will be bad and earnings won’t be good.” So far, markets are ignoring pre-warnings as the S&P500 stalls around 2100 but the earnings hit will be “substantive,” Busch said. However, “Most are ignoring it for good reason: we will snap back in the second quarter with GDP growth close to 3% as warm weather comes and things return to normal but we will hear lots about potentially negative GDP in the first quarter.”

The slump in energy prices has curbed inflation, which is “short-term bad but medium-term good because of more money in consumer’s pockets.” Cheap oil helps middle-income earners heat their homes and fill their cars’ gas tanks. That should translate into a pickup in consumer spending and accounts for the recent strength of consumer discretionary stocks.

The Fed’s motive is to normalize interest rates and its first opportunity to raise them will be in June. But the Fed itself is still not sure when inflation and average hourly earnings will go up.  “We don’t know what the Fed will do because they don’t know.” The process has begun with hikes in the minimum wage at major retailers like Walmart, Target and even McDonalds. “At some point the Fed will act and I believe it will be in June.”

Dead Man Walking

Mario Draghi-euro
Suspect 2

Busch then moved to Suspect #2 (Mario Draghi) by rolling another film clip. Clue #1 in Europe is that employment rates are just starting to tick down. Clue #2 is the GDP growth rate, which is above zero. “We’re starting to see some acceleration. That’s great but I’m not sure it will last.”

Clue #3 is a major problem: the “sinking feeling” on Europe’s inflation numbers. To avoid Japan’s fate of 15 years of deflation, Europe has mimicked the Fed’s Quantitative Easing program by launching its own QE program in March, lowering rates to zero. It’s bought 60 billion worth of Euros and added 1.1 trillion Euros to the balance sheet, moving beyond 3 trillion. The difference is that when it started its program, the Fed only had US$800 billion on its balance sheet, with QE eventually taking it to US$4.4 trillion. “I expect the ECB will mimic that and do it in three or four tranches.”

Suspects 3 & 4: Japan & China

Busch moved on to Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, showing a photograph of the two shaking hands and clearly uncomfortable with each other. Clue 1 is their unemployment rates but these can be safely ignored because the numbers are clearly unknowable. China’s unemployment rate has “magically” stayed at almost exactly 4% since 2012. Japan has horrendous productivity numbers and are “like zombies in the Walking Dead: they should be firing people.”

Clue #2 is GDP. China can force its banks to lend, which it did in 2009, when its high-velocity money stimulated economic growth in areas like infrastructure and housing. This resulted in inflation heating up and commodity inflation but the country is attempting to shift to more US-like consumer spending.

In the US, consumer spending accounts for 70% of GDP, while it’s only 40 to 45% in China. “They want it higher,” Busch said, so it relies less on infrastructure spending. In both countries, politicians “tell central banks what to do.”  Abe shot the three arrows of huge fiscal stimulus, massive QE and economic reform in a bid to generate 2% inflation within two years. But last month inflation in Japan was “zero, so they missed the target. It’s vastly different from QE in the ECB and US. … It’s not surprising to see their (Japan’s) stock market reach 15-year highs this week as they reaffirm the QE path, and it won’t end any time soon.”

China wants to keep its currency weak relative to the US dollar and has cut rates twice. The results have been dramatic: Chinese stocks have been on fire since September.

And the murderer is:

In his finale, Busch concluded “the dame did it.” (Yellin). While he expects the Fed will start to raise rates in June, “Nothing is going to happen.” Busch said what happens next may be similar to the 1930s, when the Fed moved rates up several times aggressively. At first, nothing happened but they kept doing it until “eventually they killed the recovery. That’s analogous to what will happen here.”

Here, Busch ran a movie clip from Sunset Boulevard. “The first time the Fed shoots the guy nothing will happen. He’ll keep walking. But the third time they shoot you, you end up face down in the pool.”

So far, they’ve not yet killed the global recovery but central banks everywhere “want all of us in this room to go as far out on the risk curve as possible.” The Fed “won’t screw up this year or the first half of 2016,” Busch predicted, “My guess is that by the second half of 2016 or first half of 2017, as Europe and China stabilize they will feel good enough to act more aggressively.”

The Road to Global Prosperity

globalprosperitybookMuch has been written about globalization, often with a negative slant. It’s refreshing to have a more upbeat take on the topic. As the title of Michael Mandelbaum’s latest book underlines, the most likely though not inevitable outcome of Globalization is global prosperity, meaning economic growth for most of the nations involved.

Mandelbaum is one of America’s leading authorities on international affairs and many of his 13 earlier books also tackled global macroeconomics.  The Road to Global Prosperity is divided into four parts, with intriguing sectional titles like The Roof, The Gates, the River and the BRICs. The latter is the familiar acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China, the four leaders of Emerging (or arguably Emerged) Markets.

Roof, Gates, River

The Roof is a reference to “Protection” and the role the United States has played in providing a measure of security to the global economy. The Gates refers to global trade, free markets and protectionism or efforts to eliminate it in order to grow the global pie for all nations. The River is money and national currencies.

Mandelbaum reviews the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown, the troubles facing Europe and the Euro, and the reduced growth of even the four BRIC nations in the aftermath of 2008; and yet he remains optimistic about the future prospects for the  global economy. Despite the obvious challenges in the Middle East, China, Russia and other global hot spots, he nevertheless says “there are powerful reasons to believe that globalization will continue to make the world richer.”

Globalization is irreversible and positive

Michael Mandelbaum

Michael Mandelbaum

Warts and all, globalization is “both irreversible and a positive force for the United States and the world.” Technology and the Internet are bringing nations together (though he doesn’t use the term global village) and national leaders are increasingly aware that maintaining political power will depend on giving the electorate prosperity. As a result, he expects war to be muted and countries will try to cooperate more, with their economies growing as the connections to other nations and trading partners increase.

In short, it’s an optimistic view and one that is a welcome alternative to the depressing tidbits of daily news spewing out of all corners of the globe and into the 24/7 news cycle. Not that there aren’t tremendous vexing challenges ahead. The short concluding chapter is titled Fault Lines, and Mandelbaum makes no bones about the fact the global economy ultimately depends on the fortunes of his own country: “The public good of security will be provided to the world by the United States or it will not be provided at all.”

In particular, in order to keep productive economic activity going in the Middle East and East Asia, the U.S. will have to keep in check North Korea and Iran. If it fails, “the world will be a less stable, less prosperous place.”

He closes by reminding us that Globalization “will surely continue on its upward path; but for the billions of people on board, the ride will just as surely be a bumpy one.”


Multi-tasking with Financial Podcasts

As any investor is well aware, keeping up with global politics, macro-economics, regional currency fluctuations plus the vagaries of sectors and individual stocks is almost a full-time job. The wealth of digital sources available on the web and through iPads, smart phones and the like is both a blessing and a curse.

Of course, if you’re strictly a purist “index” investor, you can largely ignore the noise as it relates to making individual portfolio adjustments, apart from occasional rebalancing of asset classes. However, based on the feedback MoneySense got from Preet Banerjee’s article on Core and Explore investing, I suspect more investors — even occasional indexers — are much more active in making tactical portfolio adjustments.

Bottom line is most of us need to make some effort to keep up with economic and financial developments around the world. But I’ve found the very ubiquity of information and technology can be harnessed to our advantage, no matter how busy we are. In my own case, I have a commute of almost an hour in each direction, much of it on the subway.

I’ve found that various financial audio (and video) podcasts downloaded to an iPhone (and most other devices) is a useful way to absorb information while commuting or exercising, or even waiting in the many lineups life can subject us to over time. Here’s a rundown of some daily and/or weekly podcasts I find useful:

BBC World Service Global News: This is a handy global affairs roundup of 20 to 30 minutes that is available every 12 hours.

BBC World Business Report: a less frequent podcast of different durations more focused on economics, business and investing.

BBC Documentary Archive: long (25 to 40 minutes) audio documentaries that are indepth on a single topic (a recent one was on Hillary Clinton)

Bloomberg on the Economy:  Usually single-source summaries of between 5 and 20 minutes with various economic and investment experts around the world. Alternative is Bloomberg — All Podcasts.

FT Money Show: Weekly 20-minute podcast from the Financial Times

The Economist All Audio: 7 to 15 minutes most days often on single world political events and occasional financial topics. Those who subscribe to the iPad edition of the Economist can also download audio of the entire weekly magazine: good for absorbing world events on long walks or treadmill sessions!

60 Minutes Podcast: Weekly 45-minute full-audio podcast of the famous TV show.

Jim Cramer’s Mad Money; 45-minutes daily in the week: full video of Cramer’s manic but often insightful take on (primarily) the U.S. stock market. This guy is the “anti-indexer” but does sometimes recommend ETFs outside the US market. He’s been preaching diversification and lately has been positive on both gold (the GLD ETF) and Canada broadly.

Motley Fool Money: Weekly audio show just under 40 minutes: excellent wrap-up of the week’s major events in the U.S. stock market, usually with 3 or 4 guests. Good to listen to while exercising on weekends: most recently I listened to it while grocery shopping!

The Disciplined Investor: Weekly hour-long podcast by Andrew Horowitz, usually with special guests.

NPR Planet Money: 20 minutes or so every few days on quirky topics like “why buying a car is so awful”

The Suze Orman Show: Weekly 45-minute full video of Twitter’s most-followed personal finance guru.

The Dave Ramsey Show; 40 minutes but not having listened to this one yet, can’t comment further.

Mostly Money, Mostly Canadian: 20 to 40 minute occasional podcast by Preet Banerjee and the title aptly sums it up. Various guests, including an appearance by myself.

Financial Post: Various audio podcasts from staff writers from Canada’s daily financial newspaper.