Don’t Be Fooled by Misleading Economic Signals
Mixed Economic Signals are making things harder than it is.
In most countries around the world in 2022, inflation was the primary economic signal and financial issue. This is particularly true for mature economies that significantly impacted the global economy and markets.
The consequences included lower living standards, rising inequality, higher borrowing costs, stock and bond market losses, and the occasional financial calamity (fortunately just small and contained until now).
In this new year, the actual and feared recession has joined inflation in the driver’s seat of the global economy and is set to supplant it.
It’s an evolution that exposes the global economy and investment portfolios to a broader range of potential outcomes, which a rising number of bond investors appear to understand better than their equities peers.
The IMF is likely to shortly revise its economic growth estimates again, believing that “recession will hit a third of the world this year”. What strikes me most about the world’s deteriorating economic prognosis is not only that the world’s three major economies — China, the EU, and the US — are slowing at the same time, but that they are doing so for distinct reasons.
The tortuous withdrawal from a misguided zero-Covid policy in China is hurting demand and producing more supply problems. Such impediments to local and global economic well-being will persist as long as China fails to improve vaccine coverage and effectiveness.
The strength and longevity of the future recovery will also necessitate a more aggressive revamping of a growth paradigm that can no longer rely on increased globalization.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proceeds, the EU continues to face energy supply interruptions. Many countries have made significant progress in improving inventory management and reorienting energy supplies. However, they are not enough to alleviate urgent growth limits, let alone address long-standing structural obstacles.
US Federal Reserve and Rates
The United States has the least concerning outlook. Its growth difficulties are the result of the Federal Reserve racing to limit inflation after badly mischaracterizing price increases as transient and then being too cautious in changing monetary policy.
The Fed’s shift to aggressive front-loading of interest rate hikes came too late to prevent inflationary pressures from spreading to the service sector and wages.
As a result, inflation is likely to remain stubbornly low at approximately 4%, be less sensitive to interest rate policies, and expose the economy to a higher risk of mishaps caused by additional policy errors hurting growth.
The uncertainties facing these three economic regions suggest that analysts should be more careful in promising us that recessionary pressures will be “brief and weak”. They should keep an open mind if only to avoid making the same mistake of dismissing inflation as temporary.
This is especially relevant because these various recession risk drivers make financial risks more dangerous and policy transitions more difficult, including Japan’s anticipated withdrawal from its interest rate control measures.
The range of possible outcomes is extraordinarily broad.
On the one hand, improved policy responses, such as improving supply responsiveness and protecting the most vulnerable portions of the population, can counteract the global economic downturn and, in the case of the United States, avert a recession.
Additional policy failures and market dislocations, on the other hand, might create self-reinforcing vicious cycles of high inflation and increasing interest rates, weakened credit and pressured earnings, and market functioning stress.
According to market pricing, more bond investors grasp this better, notably by refusing to follow the Fed’s interest rate guidance this year. They predict that recessionary factors will drive rate decreases later this year, rather than a continuous path of increasing rates through 2023. If correct, government bonds would provide the rewards and portfolio risk mitigation potential that was sorely lacking in 2022.
However, some parts of the stock market are still pricing in a soft landing. More than only investors are interested in understanding these many situations. Without improved alignment within markets and with economic signals, the desired economic and financial results will be less likely. The possibility of more unfavorable outcomes in reduced economic and human resilience will also challenge them.
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Globalization is a Critical Issue in Davos
Days long forgot.
A decade ago, political power brokers and corporate titans convened in the Swiss Alps under an optimistic banner, globalization. It was a time for “resilient dynamism,” declared the World Economic Forum‘s 2013 summit organizers. They argued that the globe has entered a “post-crisis” period following the travails of the global financial crisis. It was incumbent on the Davos elites to bring in additional reforms in the service of economic “sustainability” and “competitiveness,” recurrent WEF watchwords that tap into the liberal ethos that has long underpinned its proceedings, where doing good need not conflict with profit margins.
After ten years, there appears to be less optimism. Instead of a “post-crisis” time, it’s more usual to speak of a “permacrisis,” of a world teeming with calamity — war, climate catastrophe, energy price mayhem, inflation, epidemics of hunger and illness, political instability, and growing economic injustice. This year’s WEF theme, an impassioned plea for “cooperation in a fractured globe,” seemed to be more obsessed with the ruptures that have already occurred. Last week, WEF President Borge Brende told reporters that the meeting “will take place against the most complicated geopolitical and geoeconomic backdrop in decades.”
Issues that are still hounding the WEF.
Concerns about a probable global recession are high on the agenda. There’s also the perplexing issue of climate change, as well as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and its ramifications, such as the snarling of the global grain trade, which contributed to the development of famine conditions in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Underneath it all is a deeper Davos anxiety: few institutions are more inextricably linked to neoliberalism and the globalization movement than the conference. Where does globalization go in an age of rising nationalism and great power competition, when the United States itself is launching trade wars?
The Economist’s recent cover story, which attempts to describe the Davos zeitgeist each year, criticized the “new logic that threatens globalization.” It criticized the Biden administration’s “abandonment of free-market standards in favor of an aggressive industrial policy,” citing subsidy-laden programs to support the country’s green transition as well as new efforts to make the country a semiconductor manufacturing hotspot.
All of this, according to the historically liberal Economist, has “kicked off a perilous spiral into protectionism worldwide,” fraying the global order that the US spent decades constructing and securing in the aftermath of World War II. It may potentially jeopardize “liberal democracy and market capitalism’s causes.”
The Davos hosts want to maintain the status quo.
Tuesday’s launch panel, comprising economic historians Adam Tooze and Niall Ferguson, will debate “de-globalization or re-globalization.” The latter approach mirrors current developments, with governments and multinational corporations redirecting supply chains away from conflict zones and unfriendly states. It is visible with the exit of a large number of Western corporations from Russia and China.
“I would say we are in a re-globalizing moment,” Malaysian Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz told me at his country’s pavilion along Davos’ snow-lined central promenade. He believes that while companies and enterprises may benefit in the near term from shifting away from China and into Southeast Asian markets, the larger picture is more concerning.
“People are getting more compartmentalized,” he remarked. “In the long run, we are concerned about rising trade expenses.”
According to the forum, this year’s attendance includes more than 50 heads of state or government, 56 finance ministers, 19 governors of central banks, 30 trade ministries, and 35 foreign ministers, making it the largest gathering of political and business leaders ever.
The majority of the world’s leading economic leaders, though, are conspicuously absent. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be the only Group of Seven leaders to attend, with his European peers presumably keen to avoid the optics of rubbing shoulders with the global elite while their own populations deal with cost-of-living difficulties. The key officials from the Biden administration are US climate envoy John F. Kerry and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who, given the current state of affairs, may find herself in some heated discussions over the week.
Following a pause caused by the pandemic, China has dispatched its own high-level delegation, led by Vice Premier Liu He, who is scheduled to deliver one of the event’s major keynote addresses on Tuesday. It is a revival of Beijing’s engagement with the forum, albeit not at the level seen in 2017 when Chinese President Xi Jinping keynoted events with a speech championing globalization that portrayed China as an upholder of the liberal system. It was interpreted at the time as a declaration of intent by a leader eager to take the mantle of global leadership, as well as a thinly veiled jibe at the recently appointed ultranationalist Trump government bent on populist disruption.
That occasion at Davos was perhaps a watershed moment for Xi on the global scene.
His dictatorial hand has tightened at home in the years afterward, while many nations worldwide regard China under his leadership as a threat, if not necessarily a foe. Whatever the World Economic Forum’s pleas for discussion and collaboration, there is a growing consensus in the West that Xi’s ambitions for Taiwan must be checked. There is now an emerging consensus that China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization two decades ago — possibly the single most momentous event in the history of globalization — was a mistake.
In 2013, WEF organizers praised Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s participation as a national leader who grasped “global obligations.” Of course, Medvedev and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as the entourage of Russian billionaires and business leaders who used to throw some of the most expensive parties on the fringes of the forum, are now all persona non grata in Davos. The conflict in Ukraine will cast a shadow over the talks, with a large delegation from Kyiv, including Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska, in attendance.
Looking into the future.
A large portion of the discussion has little to do with politicians’ or pundits’ doom-mongering. There will be hundreds of lectures and events highlighting various examples of private-sector innovation and collaboration on topics ranging from food security to youth education to forestry (WEF has pledged to restore and plant a trillion trees around the world). WEF organizers describe the forum’s attendees as enabling “systems positive change” and guiding the globe toward a better, more sustainable future in rosy technocratic language.
“There’s skepticism around Davos; they can say it’s a talk shop,” Penjani Mkambula, who works at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition on fortifying grains with minerals and vitamins in the developing world, told me. “However, there are numerous advantages that emerge. A lot of alliances are formed, a lot of work is done, and the effects are sometimes visible years later.”
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Population in China Declines for the First Time in Decades, Alarms Starting to Ring
China’s population decreased for the first time in six decades last year, a historic reversal that is believed to signal the start of a long era of fall in its citizen numbers with far-reaching ramifications for the country’s economy and the rest of the world.
The dip, the worst since 1961, the final year of China’s Great Famine, adds credence to forecasts that India would overtake China as the world’s most populous country this year.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population would have decreased by approximately 850,000 to 1.41175 billion by the end of 2022.
Long-term, UN scientists predict that China’s population would fall by 109 million by 2050, more than double the decline predicted in 2019.
Domestic demographers are worried that China may become old before it becomes rich, stalling the economy as revenues fall and government debt rises due to rising health and welfare bills.
“China’s demographic and economic prospects are far worse than anticipated. China’s social, economic, defense, and diplomatic policies will all need to be adjusted” Yi Fuxian, a demographer, stated.
He went on to say that the country’s declining labor force and manufacturing slump would worsen high pricing and rising inflation in the United States and Europe.
Birthrate keeps on falling
Last year, China’s birth rate was 6.77 births per 1,000 people, down from 7.52 births in 2021 and the lowest rate on record.
The death rate was 7.37 fatalities per 1,000 people, the highest since 1974 during the Cultural Revolution, compared to 7.18 deaths in 2021.
Much of the demographic collapse is the result of China’s one-child policy, which was implemented between 1980 and 2015, as well as sky-high education expenditures, which have discouraged many Chinese from having more than one child if any at all, and had long-term effects on the population.
Following the release of the results on Tuesday, the data became the top trending subject on Chinese social media. One hashtag, “#Is it really necessary to have children?” received hundreds of millions of views.
“The primary reason why women do not want to have children is due to society’s and men’s unwillingness to take on the task of parenting children. Women who give birth have a significant drop in their quality of life and spiritual life ” Joyful Ned, a netizen, shared his thoughts.
Impact of regulations
According to population experts, China’s strict zero-COVID regulations, which have been in effect for three years, have harmed the country’s demographic outlook.
Since 2021, local governments have implemented policies to encourage families to have more children, such as tax breaks, extended maternity leave, and housing subsidies. President Xi Jinping also stated in October that the government would implement additional helpful policies.
However, thus far, measures have done little to halt the long-term trend.
Searches for baby strollers on China’s Baidu search engine fell 17% in 2022 and are down 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles have declined by more than a third since 2018. Searches for aged care facilities, on the other hand, increased eightfold last year.
In India, Google Trends reveals a 15% year-on-year growth in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs increased nearly fivefold.
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China’s Quick Reopening Pace Brings a Mixed Bag of Emotions Globally
The quick reopening of China’s economy from COVID lockdowns brightens the outlook for global investors eager to leave behind one of the worst years on record, but it may also exacerbate the inflationary pressures policymakers think are subsiding.
The impact of the world’s second-largest economy reopening on financial markets, which suffered double-digit losses last year as inflation and interest rates rose, is critical.
Emerging markets, commodity currencies, oil, travel, and European luxury companies are among the top buying bets on recovery optimism.
It will undoubtedly be a rocky voyage. COVID instances, deaths, and the economic impact on China from epidemic infections have yet to be seen, but commodities prices are already rising, raising the likelihood of inflation.
For the time being, investors are focused on the positives, anticipating additional stimulus measures from Beijing with the health crisis and economic impact on China peaking in the first quarter.
“The reopening story is looking fairly positive, and… China is pouring a lot of credit and fiscal stimulus into the economy,” said Edward Al Hussainy, senior interest rate and currency strategist at Columbia Threadneedle, which oversees $546 billion in assets.
“That boost is permeating global asset values.”
The reopening of China also alleviates the sting of recessionary threats. Goldman Sachs forecasts the eurozone economy to grow by 0.6% this year, up from a previous projection of a decline.
According to Chris Iggo, chief investment officer for core investments at AXA Investment Managers, “Chinese demand will offset the story in the West…” as consumer demand and company spending have decreased, while interest rates have risen.
Emerging markets, which are expected to profit from tourism and trade with China, were at the top of the buy list.
The Thai baht was a favorite of Hussainy and other investors. It has risen to its highest level since March and is up about 5% since the beginning of December.
Prior to the pandemic, Chinese tourists accounted for a quarter of all annual visitors to Thailand.
Amundi, Europe’s largest investor, believes the reopening may signal a “turning moment” for emerging market shares, a trade also supported by BlackRock’s investment institute.
According to Goldman Sachs, company earnings in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand should increase.
Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, is another investment favorite. Its peso has risen 7% since early December, as copper prices have risen near $9,000 for the first time since June.
According to BlueBay Asset Management fund manager Zhenbo Hou, the commodity-driven Australian dollar could appreciate further.
Prior to the pandemic, China was the world’s largest outbound travel market.
Chinese customers “will rush to Beijing International Capital Airport and flee the country as quickly as they can because they want to travel,” according to Alison Shimada, head of overall developing markets at Allspring Global Investments.
Travel may also boost European luxury stocks, as Chinese demand has dropped since the outbreak began, according to UBS, accounting for approximately 17% of industry sales vs 33% in 2019. This should increase valuations.
LVMH shares (LVMH) reached a new high this week.
The reopening of China was expected to weaken the safe-haven currency while benefiting the euro. China is the European Union’s most important trading partner, accounting for around 16% of total goods trade.
According to Barclays analysts, China’s slowing was responsible for more than half of the euro’s loss against the dollar last year.
According to them, the reopening boosts the outperformance of European stocks and calls into question the consensus underweight strategy. UBS is also bullish on European materials, industrials, and consumer discretionary stocks.
CAUTION ON INFLATION
However, the boost from China’s reopening raises fears about inflation.
China is the world’s largest importer of oil and other commodities; oil prices have jumped 10% since mid-December to almost $84 per barrel.
“One thing we need to keep an eye on is if China’s resurgence adds to global inflationary pressures,” AXA’s Iggo added.
The aim is that the global economic slowdown will offset China’s increased commodity consumption, reducing the inflationary impact.
According to Goldman Sachs, a return to regular travel and transportation behavior in China might increase oil demand by 1.5-2 million barrels per day. Still, slower global growth implies oil prices won’t reach $140 highs until 2022.
“At this point in time, the rate hike is really starting to have the anticipated impact on inflation, which I think should play out over the course of the year, even with China reopening,” said Jason Pride, Glenmede’s chief investment officer of private wealth.
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