Archive for the ‘Global Economy’ Category

file9961251406222Oil has fallen again in recent weeks. This week, West Texas Intermediate oil has been hovering at just a dollar or two above the year low. Meanwhile, a report from the National Institute of Economics and Social Research (NIESR) has predicted that 2015 will be the worst year for the global economy since 2008. It shouldn’t be like that. With oil as cheap as it is, the economy should be booming.  So this all begs the question, “why?” Is there some rather worrying underlying reason for the weakness in the global economy?

At the time of writing (6 August 2015, 6.45 am) West Texas Intermediate oil is trading at $45.17. To put that in context, just over a year ago it was trading at $104. Brent crude oil is just shy of $50. One day, black gold will probably go back over $100. Maybe, one day it will even pass the 2008 peak, when it went close to $150, but this day is not likely to be any time soon.   The oil cycle moves slowly. Investment in oil has dropped drastically, new projects have been shelved. It will be several years before these developments show up in rising oil prices, though.

There are winners and losers from cheaper oil. Apologies if this sounds like a lesson from the University of the Bleeding Obvious, but cheaper oil benefits its consumers and hits its producers. So in theory the effect of falling oil prices on the global economy should be neutral. It is just that on the whole, oil consumers have a much lower savings ratio that oil producers. A fall in the oil price distributes income from high savers to high spenders. Given that we are in a time when there is a chronic shortage of demand worldwide, this should be good news.

As an aside, there is another not commonly understood potential side effect of cheaper oil. Ask yourself this question, why are interest rates so low? That is to say, what is the real reason? Forget central bankers, they move with the tide. The main reason why rates are so low is because worldwide there is a shortage of demand and a savings glut.  Back in the noughties this savings glut funded consumer spending in the West, creating a bubble which burst in 2008. Since then it has been funding surging government debt, and maybe sharp rises in debt in emerging markets.  McKinsey has said that global debt has risen by $57 trillion since 2007. The savings glut made this possible. There are many reason for this, and many of these reasons have not gone away. But at least one driver of low interest rates, the rise in savings coming out of oil producers, has gone into reverse.  

Returning to the global economy in 2015, earlier this week NIESR projected that “The world economy will grow by 3 per cent in 2015 – the slowest rate since the crisis – and 3.5 per cent in 2016.” So that is odd. The price of oil has fallen by a half, and the global economy is weak. Something is wrong.

There are two ways looking at this. You can look at individual countries, one at a time, or you can look for some deeper underlying cause.

The US has a bad start to the year because of an exceptionally cold winter in the north east of the country. This had a knock-on effect worldwide. The UK, it appears, got caught up in it all with falling exports to the US dragging down on growth.  

By its standards, the Eurozone had a good first half of this year, this despite Greek woe. But then again, this is the Eurozone, and the key phrase here is “by its standards.”  The only other region in the world that puts in such a continuously poor performance is Japan.

The world’s second largest economy, China, has slowed fast. There is more than one reason. For one thing, China sits on a mounting debt pile, with local government especially badly exposed.  This is beginning to hurt. For another thing, the Chinese government is trying to re-engineer the shape of the Chinese economy, shifting it from investment and savings led, to consumption led. This is a good thing, but the transformation is hurting

Russia’s problem are well documented. It is clear that it has lost out big time to the falling oil price. Brazil has suffered from a wider fall in commodity prices, but like Russia, there were deep structural problems with the economy anyway.

So pick it apart, there is a reason for the slow growth. Even so, I can’t help but feel that the overall performance of the global economy, given how weak oil and other commodity prices are, is very disappointing. You could respond by saying that I have mixed up cause and effect. You could say that oil has fallen in price because global demand is low. But I would respond to that by saying at least part of the reason for the fall in the oil price has been the revolution in fracking and previous surges in oil investment. The rise of renewables are taking a toll, too.  I don’t accept that I have got things the wrong way round.

So what are the possible underlying drivers at work? There are to theories to explain what is happening, there is the Robert Gordon ‘innovation is slowing’ theory, and the Larry Summers Secular Stagnation theory. I will look at these theories in more depth in a few days.

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It was November 2012 when Jens Weidmann, President of the Bundesbank, likened quantitative easing, or QE, to a Faustian pact with the devil.  But it was even earlier, back in 2010, when Brazil’s finance minister talked about currency wars.

It was during that era that QE was seen as leading a kind of race to the bottom, as countries fell over themselves to try and achieve a cheaper currency.  It didn’t work out like that, of course. It is no more possible for every country to have a cheaper currency then it is for every Premiership football team to win on the same day.

The critics of QE were legion. They said QE was behind currency wars, and that the inevitable result would be hyperinflation. And they saw the words of Jens Weidmann as a kind of official endorsement of that view.

It was in this environment that the buy gold bandwagon got moving. BUY GOLD, they said. It was the only safe refuge in a world gone mad under QE.

They overlooked that across the world there was a chronic shortage of demand, a savings glut and that the west was suffering from a balance sheet recession.

There are lots of things wrong with QE, the main critique might be that it is a blunt weapon. But it was never likely to lead to hyperinflation, not in a world starved of demand.

But what it did do was lead to a cheaper dollar. And when the dollar fell, so gold rose.

Back in 1999, when UK chancellor Gordon Brown sold the UK government’s gold supply, the yellow metal was trading at less than $300 an ounce. In the summer of 2009 it was trading at just shy of $900. Those two years stood either end of the great gold market, when it rose in value by around 300 per cent.

Gold continued to rise in the aftermath of the crisis of 2008. In September 2009 it was trading at $1,000 and in August 2011 it finally passed $1,900. That was when the gold hype was at its peak.

But in 2015, currency wars has turned to currency normality and inflation stands at close to zero across the developed world. QE didn’t create hyperinflation, it was not even enough to fight the threat of deflation.

In 2015 the US economy began to improve, the Fed made noises about increasing interest rates, the dollar rose, the euro fell, and gold went out of fashion.

As of this moment (21 July 2015) it is trading at $1,108 an ounce.

Why didn’t gold rise above $2,000, or even $3,000 as was once predicted? The reason is simple. QE was the not the devil’s tool it was made out to be, the global economy suffered from lack of demand.  The risk of hyperinflation was built upon a myth.

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A new book entitled iDisrupted: Disruptive technology, changing the human race forever looks at how technology will change the economy, business and even the human race. One of the technologies it cites that will have a huge impact on the world is Virtual Reality. Despite it first appearing in the 1980s, we are now on the cusp of seeing Virtual Reality’s existence and use in our daily lives in a way that will change us forever.

Hype has been building about Virtual Reality since its conception, but with high prices, small screens, cumbersome technology, and initial disappointment in the technology, many individuals have had their doubts about its impact. However, a new book written by John Straw and Michael Baxter, iDisrupted claims that, thanks to recent evolution in this technology, we will soon be holding face-to-face meetings in Virtual Reality as well as viewing holiday destinations, carrying out online shopping, and watching movies, and of course playing video games.

Combine the improvements in video, sound and computer graphics  with other advances, such as Leap Motion, which enables users to control their computers by the wave of their hand, with technologies that can fool our brains into perceiving smell, touch and taste, and the original dream of Virtual Reality is set to become reality.

Co-author Baxter, aka The Money Spy, says: “In our view, there are three stages in the story of new technology and how it is received by the market. There is the hype phase, the sceptical phase (as we react to what appear to have been unrealistic promises of the previous phase), and then the transformational phase, as previous innovations converge, create wealth, and – in the case of the period we are set to enter – lead to an acceleration in innovation. We are poised to enter the greatest transformational phase ever.”

John Straw added: “With the massive changes in technology that are about to occur, iDisrupted is a book that seeks to open a debate on what is surely the most important topic of the age, but which is barely discussed. Technology threatens society, but could be hugely beneficial. It is time we laid down plans to ensure it affects us in a positive way.”

Now available to purchase via Amazon, iDisrupted is a book about disruptive technology, how it will affect business, jobs, the economy, and even what it is to be human.

For more information about iDisrupted visit www.idisrupted.com

The world had de-coupled, we were told. Time was, that when the US consumer sneezed, the rest of the world got a cold.

Then in 2008, the US consumer was sent to bed, with a thermometer in his/her mouth, and the rest of the world was in agony.

Then something odd happened. After a few months, in which everyone suffered, the emerging world did okay. China did more than okay, it boomed.  The BRICs, or if you want to include South Africa in that illustrious group, the BRICS, took the baton of growth from the US.

Sure there was talk of currency wars, sure the UK limped along like a cripple on broken crutches, but the global economy did well. It had de-coupled we were told.

Or did it? There are time lags in these things.

Now things seem to have gone into reverse. Sure China is still growing, but it is struggling to change from export to consumer led growth. India is picking up, Brazil looks dire, Russia looks worse, and if you want to make the small ‘s’ at the end of BRICS into a big “S” South Africa  is struggling.

There are signs Japan may be recovering, more of that in another article, the Eurozone is well and truly stuck in a very low gear, or even reverse, but the UK and US are the new stars.

The UK economy slowed a bit in Q3, with quarterly growth down to 0.7 per cent, from 0.9 per cent the quarter before. But then the UK’s main trading partner is the Eurozone. At least investment is rising at a very brisk pace, and that gives good reason for cheer.

But there is even more reason to cheer the US.

The year got off to an awful start, with a cold winter and unfortunate timing of the inventory cycle hitting  the economy hard. Was the Q1 contraction a one-off?   Or was it a sign of something more serious?

Well the data on the US economy has been unremittingly good, ever since.  Take for example the latest US consumer Confidence Index from the Conference Board. It hit a new seven year high in October. If you like your numbers, then you may be interested to know the index hit 94.5. The last time it was so high was in October 2007.

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Yet, the global economy still struggles. If it has de-coupled, then right now this is negative thing.

But there is one other issue here.

As the US recovers, the Fed makes noises about upping rates. This is spooking markets, and hitting emerging economies hard.

It is not that the US economy is no longer the lynchpin of the global economy. It still is. It is just that the actions of the Fed seem to count for more than the well-being of the US consumer.

But can the US consumer yet save the day? Only time will tell, but it is surely the case that if US Consumer Confidence continues to grow, then the rest of the world will grow with it – eventually.

p.s. I have been away for a while to complete my new book, called ‘iDisrupted‘ which is available to purchase via Amazon. If you are interested in my thoughts about how the incredible changes in technology are likely to change our world forever then you are invited to buy the book and let me know whether you agree or disagree with my predictions. Further details about the book can be found on www.idisrupted.com

Michael Baxter, The Money Spy

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For an economy to grow it needs the money supply to expand. That’s the point that those who favour a return to the gold standard overlook. In a static economy with no innovation and which will look the same in a hundred years’ time, a gold standard would do nicely. But in an economy that has this thing called innovation, a gold standard spells permanent depression. This all begs the question: if we need the money supply to grow, whose responsibility should it be to decide how this should happen and by how much? Adair Turner, former chairman of the FSA, has a plan and it involves debt forgiveness and governments funding their spending via the printing press. (more…)

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When was the last time you had a pay rise? Many people might answer that question by saying “about five years ago.” Envy the Chinese, or Poles, or Mexicans, or Indians. According to PwC, they are likely to see their wages shoot up. This is set to be a very important development, with implications for investors and businesses seeking new opportunities. But maybe workers in the west don’t need to be too envious, the pay gap will still be pretty enormous. It’s a very important trend all the same.

Between now (2013) and 2030, real wages in the US and the UK are expected to rise by about a third. Let’s hope that’s right – relative to what we have seen over the last half decade that would be a result. But over that same time frame, average wages in India could more than quadruple in real dollar terms and more than triple in the Philippines and China.

Let this chart do the talking:

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So what are the implications? First of all see the expected rise in wages across these countries in the context of re-shoring. See: Is manufacturing coming home? It will clearly provide the impetus for companies re-shoring their manufacturing closer to where most of their customers are.

What we may see, as wages rise in China, is not only more manufacturing in home territories, but nearby too. Opportunity, as they say, knocks for Poland and Mexico.

Looking further ahead, PwC says places such as Turkey, Poland, China, and Mexico will therefore become more valuable as consumer markets, while low cost production could shift to other locations such as the Philippines. India could also gain from this shift, but only if it improves its infrastructure and female education levels and cuts red tape.

From a corporate/investment point of view, who will be the winners and losers? PwC reckons western companies who may emerge as winners will include retailers with strong franchise models, global brand owners, business and financial services, creative industries, healthcare and education providers, and niche high value added manufacturers.

As for losers: well, watch mass market manufacturers, financial services companies exposed in their domestic markets, and for companies that over-commit to emerging markets without the right local partners and business strategies.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Re-shoring. If the last decade or so has been characterised by off-shoring, then maybe we are set to enter a new era in which manufacturing returns to home markets, or, failing that, to countries much closer to home. Re-shoring: if it proves to be real, it may provide real, underlying strength to economic recovery. If it proves to be real, then real hope can be added to economic commentary; hope that this time recovery can last. And now we have evidence that it may indeed be happening, right now.

Sometimes predictions can become descriptions. You can forecast what the weather is going to be like. It is much easier and more credible, although perhaps less interesting, to describe what the weather is like. But Boston Consulting has moved from forecaster to describer in one very crucial area. A couple of years ago it made headlines for forecasting a new trend in manufacturing, as companies opt to make their products nearer to their home markets. Now it reckons it has evidence that this is actually happening.

Being one of the world’s largest consultancies, Boston Consulting’s surveys tend to be pretty meaningful. It asked executives at US companies with sales greater than $1 billion about their manufacturing plans. A year ago, 37 per cent said they “are planning to bring back production to the US from China or are actively considering it.” In its latest survey, the results of which were published this week, that ratio rose to 54 per cent.

So why, oh why? 43 per cent of respondents cited labour costs; 35 per cent proximity to customers; and 34 per cent product gave quality as their reason for considering re-shoring.

Michael Zinser, from the consultancy, said: “Companies are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of all the factors that must be considered when deciding where to manufacture…When you look at the total cost of production for many goods, the US appears increasingly attractive.”

The Boston Consulting survey probably provides the most compelling evidence to date that re-shoring is occurring, but it is far from being the only evidence.

Back in July a survey from YouGov on behalf of Business Birmingham revealed that one in three companies that currently use overseas suppliers are planning to source more products in the UK. John Lewis recently said that it plans to increase the volume of made in the UK products by 15 per cent between now and 2015.

This development is good news in more ways than one; it may even be very good news in quite a profound way, but more of that in a moment.

But what about China? This is surely not such an encouraging development for the economy behind the Great Wall. Well maybe it isn’t, but maybe it actually is. What China needs is for wages to rise, and for it to see more growth on the back of rising demand. Its economy is simply out of balance. No one is predicting the end of Chinese manufacturing, merely that it may lose some of its dominance. If this loss occurs because wages in China have risen, creating more demand, this is good news for China, its suppliers and the companies that sell to its consumers. Okay, changes are never smooth. There will be short-term headaches caused by re-shoring, but the overall impact will be positive rather than negative.

But there is another perhaps more important implication.

Over the last few decades we have seen growing inequality, and company profits taking up a higher proportion of GDP, while wages take up a lower proportion. Some think this is good thing, and accuse those who criticise of being guilty of the politics of envy. They miss the point. You may or may not think inequality is morally justified, but it is clear that from an economic point of view it is inefficient. For an economy to grow it needs demand to rise, and in the long run this can only occur if the fruits of growth trickle down into wage packets. It is perhaps no coincidence that the golden age of economic growth occurred in the 25 years after the end of World War II, an era which saw much more equality than we see today.

It is possible that re-shoring is symptomatic of changes in the balance of power across the markets. For years we have seen what the IMF calls the globalisation of labour: the reward to capital rose, the reward to labour fell. The underlying cause of this may have been the one-off effect of millions of Chinese workers joining the globalised economy. As this one-off effect begins to ebb, we may see the globalisation of labour work in reverse.

See also: Wages set to rise – in emerging markets

© Investment & Business News 2013