– By Andrew Clifford, 14 Oct 2019
Markets already priced for recession on trade and political uncertainty
The notable feature of the September quarter was the global collapse in long-term interest rates following cuts in official interest rates by the US Federal Reserve (Fed), European Central Bank (ECB), Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and other central banks. At one point, the yield on the US 10-year Treasury fell to 1.5%, which was the lowest level since the European sovereign crisis of 2012 and the China slowdown of 2016 (see Fig. 1). This level compares with a yield of 2.1% reached in 2008 during the global financial crisis (GFC). More significantly, German 10-year Bund yields fell to -0.7%, a rate that results in an investor receiving $93 in 10 years’ time for
$100 invested today. In prior periods of economic and financial stress, Bunds had previously fallen to -0.1% in 2016, 1.2% in 2012, and 3% in 2008.
Clearly, the global economy has lost momentum over the last 18 months, most notably with a collapse in manufacturing activity. Purchasing manager surveys for the manufacturing sector have fallen below 50 in the major economies (see Fig. 2), indicating that activity has declined. As we have noted in past reports, the slowdown in manufacturing initially resulted from China’s reform of its financial system in 2017 that resulted in an unexpected tightness in the availability of credit in that economy. As China is the largest market for most manufactured goods, this has had a significant impact beyond its borders. Subsequently, the US trade war with China has created additional uncertainty for the manufacturing sector, reinforcing this slowing tendency.
Unquestionably, global manufacturing is already in a recession, and in this regard, cuts in interest rates by central banks and falling bond yields make sense. However, other indicators suggest that the major economies are relatively resilient, at least for the moment. Most notably, employment remains strong in the US, Europe and Japan. Employment is generally regarded as a lagging indicator of economic activity. However, the fact that the developed economies are still creating jobs (even in the US, which is more than 10 years into its post-GFC recovery) is indicative that we are far from the extraordinarily problematic environment of the GFC, European sovereign crisis, or Chinese slowdown of 2016. It is in this context that the collapse in long-term interest rates is somewhat confounding. That is, that we are at record low long-term interest rates even though we are far from the crises of recent years.
In attempting to resolve this conundrum, it is worth noting that central banks have played an important role in setting long-term rates in recent years through their quantitative easing (QE) policies where they are active buyers of bonds. In September, the ECB confirmed its intention to continue with its QE policy, and the Bank of Japan’s QE program is ongoing.
Thus, the collapse in bond rates in Europe and Japan partly reflects the actions of their central banks. While yields in other bond markets, such as the US or Australia, should reflect local conditions, there is a high degree of correlation between the global bond markets. As such, long-term interest rates in these markets have been heavily influenced by the policies of other central banks. Certainly, there is a sense that the short-term interest rate decisions of some central banks are being driven by concerns around unwanted currency appreciation resulting from interest rate differentials between countries.
The other explanation for the plunge in long-term interest rates is simply that the market is anticipating a significant global recession. It is not hard to arrive at such an outcome. The US approach to trade policy, not just with China but also the rest of the world, is increasingly erratic. It is possible (for an optimist) to interpret their most recent action of delaying the implementation of some of the tariffs until after the Christmas shopping period as an acknowledgement that the latest round of tariffs will impact US consumers and potentially signals a limit to the pain they are prepared to inflict on themselves. Then again, this could also be read as part of the ‘on again – off again’ approach of the last 18 months. Our base case is that a resolution between the US and China in the near term is unlikely.
The trade situation isn’t the only uncertainty facing the world. There are the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and the growing tensions in the Middle East with the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Either of these situations could readily escalate into a major event, impacting the global economy and markets. There is also the ongoing Brexit circus, which is undoubtedly weighing on consumer and business confidence in the UK. The US 2020 election campaign could be the next issue that dampens confidence. On the one hand, the leading Democrat nominees for president have policy agendas that are unlikely to engender business or market confidence. On the other hand, a second term for President Trump could be even more drama filled than the first, as he won’t need to filter his actions by a desire to be re-elected.
At this point, while interest rate markets appear to be anticipating a significant slowdown, it is by no means a guaranteed outcome. Firstly, short-term interest rates are falling and while we, along with many others, question the likely effectiveness of such measures in encouraging growth, it is probably an improvement on 12 months ago when rates were rising. The one economy where rates may yet make a significant difference is China, where short-term interest rates have fallen from around 5% at the beginning of 2018 to below 3% today.
There is of course a very real economic limitation on how long the policy of low to zero rates can persist. Banks play a critical role in the economy of taking deposits and recycling them as loans. While banks may resort to offering their customers zero rates on their deposits when interest rates are very low, the cost of gathering these deposits in terms of operating their branch networks is not insignificant. If banks are unable to lend at a margin above the total cost of raising these funds, then the banking system will break down. This is why the system cannot support rates significantly below zero.
Whether the current cuts in interest rates have any impact on engendering a recovery or not, it is very clear monetary policy is approaching its limitations. As such, it is not surprising to hear central banks around the world arguing that it is time for governments to pursue expansionary fiscal policies.
As such, it is likely in our view that governments around the world will be more inclined to boost spending and cut taxes. The US has already started down this path with significant tax cuts implemented in 2018. Over the last year, China has cut taxes and increased government spending, though the impact on the economy to date has been muted. Recently, France, the Netherlands and India have each announced significant tax cuts. In Germany, the debate has started on whether the government should enact fiscal stimulus. We expect this move towards larger government deficits to become part of the economic landscape over the next few years. Whether this generates a pick-up in activity will depend on the speed at which governments act and the effectiveness of their programs. It is interesting that to date the actions have primarily focused on cutting taxes, but there is a risk that consumers and businesses will save some of the windfall rather than spend it, thus reducing the benefit hoped for by their government.
With the collapse in interest rates over the course of this year, there has developed an extraordinary belief that interest rates will stay low for a long time to come. On one level, this is not a surprise to us, as we covered this topic at our investor and adviser roadshows in 2016. What is interesting though is the high degree of certainty that this view is held, particularly when we believe that now is the time to start questioning whether this will continue to be the case. Simply, if there are co-ordinated fiscal expansions across the globe in the next few years, we may potentially see competition for funding drive up the cost of money. If this occurred during a period of relative full employment and high capacity utilisation in many industries, it may also result in higher inflation due to competition for resources.
Currently, such a scenario is almost inconceivable, and certainly, we are not suggesting a significant change in the interest rate landscape in the next year. However, given the yield on the US 10-year Treasury was over 3% just nine months ago, it’s not implausible that such levels could be readily regained within the next two to three years.
The implications of this strong global consensus on interest rates is critical for not only the overall performance of equity markets, but trends within the markets. Low interest rates have driven investors to seek returns elsewhere, including the stock market. Yet this is occurring at a time when there are many reasons to discourage investment in the market. Besides the political environment that we find ourselves in, there is the ongoing disruption of traditional business models by e-commerce and other technologies, that make investing in many of the traditional blue chip stocks a difficult proposition. The intuitive response of investors has been to avoid businesses that have any exposure to the economic cycle, trade war, or any other uncertainty. As such, investors have preferred to own defensive businesses including consumer staples, infrastructure, utilities and property, as well as fast-growing companies in areas such as e-commerce, payments, and biotechnology. As a result, as we have noted in past reports, the valuations of these companies have been pushed to very high levels.
If interest rates were to deviate from current expectations that they will remain low indefinitely, it is likely that this would result in significant falls in the prices of these popular and fashionable investments. Of course, with weak PMI readings and central banks in the midst of rate cuts it is early days to be making such a call. Nevertheless, when consensus views and positioning are clearly in one direction, investors should be cautious and consider alternative views. We expect that calls for fiscal stimulus by governments will continue to build and ultimately cast doubt on the “lower for longer view” on interest rates.
 Source: FactSet, China 3-Month Shanghai Interbank Offered Rate (SHIBOR), as at 30 September 2019.
 https://www.platinum.com.au/Insights-Tools/The-Journal/Platinum- Roadshow-2016
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