Posts Tagged ‘Brazil’

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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There are almost as many opinions as there are Chinese. Some say the Chinese growth miracle is at an end. Others see a temporary lull. Others still, point to demographics and see problems ahead. Yet others say we are confusing western culture with that of China; that it is unstoppable. Some go even further and say that China – via its system of central control – has been deliberately manipulating a system and it will soon reign supreme over the global economy. Or to put it another way: some say ‘this time it is different’, and although China portrays many of the hallmarks of a bubble, it is just different from the West, while others say the claim that ‘this time it is different’ is always – and without fail – a sign that things are set to come very badly unstuck.

You may have picked up on the irony. After 1989, the consensus seemed to be that capitalism had won; that any system of central control was doomed to fail. Now there seems to be a view held by many that China is unstoppable precisely because it has so much central control that its state can force through reforms and regulations that western governments can only dream of.

This view is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, to argue that China is unstoppable because of its central control appears to be ignoring the lesson of the history of the last half of the 20th century. For another thing, it is debatable how much power the Chinese government really has. China is a massively complex country, and while Beijing may issue directives on how things must be done, the extent to which they are followed across the country is open to debate. In any case, China’s government is terrified of social discontent. For the country’s government there is always the fear of how the people will react if the government mismanages the economy.

This fear of popular discontent can often stop the government from doing precisely the things it should do for longer term prosperity. Take as an example its policy regarding its currency – the yuan. The US government is screaming at China to let the yuan trade freely. Many US politicians blame a cheap yuan on just about all of the US ills. They are surely wrong, but there is no doubt that if the yuan were to rise, US exporters would benefit, but how much is open to debate? But what people often overlook is that there is very strong evidence to suggest that China too needs a more expensive currency.

A consequence of China’s currency policy has been too low interest rates, which has all kinds of undesirable consequences – among them a credit bubble, too much emphasis on investment, and there appears to be evidence that low interest rates have led to Chinese companies paying out lower dividends, which has helped to accentuate imbalances in the economy.

Part of China’s problems can be dated back to 2008, when the West hit the crisis button. China responded with a massive stimulus of its own. It kept growing during the worst days of 2008 and 2009 but at what cost? According to the IMF, in 2008 China’s money supply jumped 30 per cent – and that is ironic. While China was accusing the West of debasing its currencies via QE, and lecturing the US on living within its means, China began to apply the kind of policies that got the West into its mess in the first place.

Then there is credit. In 2008 total outstanding credit in China was 130 per cent of GDP – a level that had pretty much been unchanged for several years. Now the ratio is at 187 per cent – that was a massive hike for just half a decade. The IMF has said that when a country sees credit increase by 3 per cent of GDP or more in a year, there is a good chance that a crisis may follow. Yet In China the rate of credit growth dwarfs what the IMF might refer to as the danger level.

For China corporate sector debt is the real danger. This has risen from just over 20 trillion yuan in 2007 to over 60 trillion in 2012.

This may all sound like western cynicism, but just remember it was the man who until last year was China’s premier – Wen Jiabao – who described China’s economy as, “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.”

It is not all woe, however. Recent anecdotal evidence such as the latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices, and data on freight transport, electricity output and volume of cargo all point to China’s economy seeing a mild pick-up. It is not going to see growth in excess of 10 per cent again for a while – if ever – but the recent data is consistent with growth of around 7.5 per cent, which is much better than many had warned.

The pick-up may be occurring because once again China is implementing short-term policies to push up growth via the very things that it has too much of anyway – namely investment, government spending, credit. But with signs that the US economy is at last on the mend, it may be possible for China to tighten up monetary policy allowing the yuan to rise, without taking too big a hit on exports.

Looking further forward, what China really needs is higher wages. Well this is happening. McKinsey has forecast that by 2022, 75 per cent of China’s urban workers will earn between $9,000 and $34,000 – a level that sits half way between current levels in Italy and Brazil. To put this figure in context, in 2000 just 4 per cent of Chinese urban workers had earnings falling within that band. McKinsey also forecasts that by 2022 urban income will double from current levels. These are precisely the developments China needs.

Then there is education. The OECD measures pupil skills in reading, numeracy and science, in a test known as PISA. The BBC recently quoted Andreas Schleicher, a leading figure behind these PISA tests, saying there are signs that China is closing – if it has not already closed – the education gap with the West. Shanghai has excelled, but said Mr Schleicher: “What surprised me were the results from poor provinces that came out really well. The levels of resilience are just incredible.” He said that he gets the impression China is investing in the future. Unlike the US, there are indications of a high degree of education equally between rich and poor.

China’s next big challenge is how it can manage being a middle income country. Over the last half a century only a handful of countries managed that transition. Many saw rapid growth, but then stopped before income levels had reached anything like western levels. Will China be one of those rare successes?

It does have one major hurdle to climb, however, and that is demographics. According to the UN, the population of China aged between 15 and 59 is set to fall by 7 per cent between 2010 and 2030. The policy of one child per family is about to be relaxed, but even so, many Chinese couples don’t want more than one child. In any case, even if the birth rate shot up overnight, it would take the best part of two decades before this showed up in the work force.

Associated with demographics is the question of the so-called Lewis Turning Point – a point familiar to economists – when a country runs out of workers to migrate into urban areas.

Let’s finish with what the IMF says on this subject: “Within a few years the working age population will reach a historical peak, and will then begin a precipitous decline. The core of the working age population, those aged 20–39 years, has already begun to shrink. With this, the vast supply of low-cost workers—a core engine of China’s growth model—will dissipate, with potentially far-reaching implications domestically and externally. The reserve of unemployed and underemployed workers (which is currently in the range of 150 million)—will fall to about 30 million by 2020 and the LTP [Lewis Turning Point] will be crossed between 2020 and 2025.”

For more see:

IMF: Chronicle of a Decline Foretold: Has China Reached the Lewis Turning Point? 
Trading Economics: China Labour Costs 
Ernst and Young: China’s productivity imperative 
FT: China’s debt in charts
McKinsey: Mapping China’s middle class 

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Is it for real? We keep hearing talk of an export-led recovery for the UK. But is it simply that the UK exports are so low that any rise looks to be quite significant in percentage terms. A new report from Ernst and Young provides just a hint that this time it might be for real.

UK companies need to look abroad. The last few years have seen UK consumers cutting back, and that, suggests Ernst and Young, is why they have been focusing on ways to increase exports.

The story overall? Well, let’s return to that in a moment. Let’s start with the positive.

According to Ernst and Young, the West Midlands “is emerging as an export powerhouse” and “is on track to grow goods exports faster than any other UK region by selling high-end engineering far outside Europe.” Engineering goods exports are forecast to grow at “an annualised rate of 4.8 per cent, worth £6.9 billion in 2017, compared with £5.5 billion in 2012.”

UK automotive exports to China are expected to grow 11.6 per cent – making it the UK’s top automotive trading partner by 2017, while exports of personal vehicles to Thailand are expected to rise from $302 million in 2012, to $617 million by 2017. The UK is expected to capture a 53 per cent share of the entire import market. UK engineering is also seeing exports rise to the Middle East – with growth in turbo jet exports to Qatar alone forecast to grow from $273 million in 2012 to $481 million in 2017. And finally, UK biopharma exports to China are expected to double from $52 million in 2012 to $104 million by 2017, with Chinese biopharma imports set to rise to $2.5 billion by 2017 (from $1.4 billion in 2012).

Break it down bit further, and Ernst and Young forecasts that in 2017, UK engineering exports to China will be worth $2.4 billion, automobile exports $3.8 billion and metals $2.1 billion. For Brazil, it forecasts $0.7 billion for engineering, $0.6 billion for automobiles and $0.6 billion for chemicals. For Hong Kong it forecasts engineering exports of $1.7 billion, $1.4 billion for electronics, and $1.3 billion for previous metals. And for Saudi Arabia it forecasts engineering exports of $0.9 billion, $0.4 for electronics and $0.4 for pharmaceuticals.

And yet for all that, Ernst and Young says that across the UK exports are not growing fast enough. It forecast 0.3 per cent annual growth for UK good exports against 1 per cent for the European average between now and 2017. So for the conclusion: making progress, but could do better.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The pound fell to a three year low against the dollar last week, and predictions of doom emanated from the UK’s more cynical press. ‘Oil will go,’ they cried, ‘the cost of holidaying abroad will shoot up,’ they moaned, ‘oh woe is us,’ they lamented. There are indeed strong disadvantages to having a cheaper currency. But there are advantages too, and there are reasons to think that the pound may fall a lot further yet – at least relative to the dollar.

There is one thing that Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new governor, and Haruhiko Kuroda, the newish governor of the Bank of Japan, have a lot in common. Actually they probably have a lot in common but let’s just focus on this one obvious point today. They both seem to be in the process of enacting policies to weaken their respective currencies. In Japan where the governor has been in his post for a few months longer, the policy is advanced; in the UK it is only really being hinted at.

But recently Mark Carney made it just about as clear as was possible. Even if the Fed starts to tighten monetary policy sooner rather than later, and the dollar rises as a result, putting the pound under pressure, the Bank of England will not necessarily follow suit.

The pound fell sharply on the news. At one point last week there were less than 1.49 dollars to the pound. That was a three year low. But then Fed chairman Ben Bernanke appeared to do something of a backtrack, and the pound rose back up, finishing last week with an exchange rate of 1.51, which actually was nothing out of the ordinary – not over the last year or so, anyway.

It may be worth making a few comments at this point. Firstly, the Fed’s attempt to clarify last week, and reassure us about monetary policy was about as unambiguous as a disco dancing sloth. Frankly, Bernanke didn’t really appear to say anything new, and it is clear that opinion is divided amongst his colleagues at the Fed. The timetable for the Fed tightening its policy – namely reducing QE later this year, removing it altogether next and upping rates in 2015 – seems to be unchanged. But because Ben used some nice reassuring words, the markets seemed to love his comments. Equities lifted, pushing the Dow and S&P 500 to new all-time highs and alleviating pressure on the pound, as they somehow concluded that there was something new in the Fed’s words and that monetary policy will not be tightened as quickly, after all.

Secondly, the pound may have fallen against the dollar, but the UK press missed the wider story. This was not so much a case of a falling pound as a rising dollar. The euro pound exchange rate has done nothing spectacular. However, look deeper, and it appears there are reasons to expect sterling to fall.

For one thing, a comparison of UK unit labour costs with the rest of the world suggests sterling is overvalued. The real effective exchange rate (based on IMF data) is 7 per cent above the level seen in the mid-1990s and 20 per cent above the level in the mid-1970s, or so says Capital Economics.

For another thing, something a little disturbing has happened to the UK’s balance of payments. We are used to seeing a deficit on trade in goods and services, but at least income from investments flowing into the UK tends to be greater than income flowing abroad. But there are signs that this is changing. The UK’s net investment income has been negative in three out of the last four quarters. The story here is complicated. The value of investments held by foreigners, but relating to the UK, is much greater than British investments abroad. But UK investments held abroad tend to be higher risk, and generally provide a much higher return. There are signs that this is changing, however, and that is a worrying development. To be clear, if net investment income continues to be negative this will put pressure on sterling relative to most foreign currencies, not just the dollar.

While is it the case that the real currency story of the last few weeks has been one of the dollar versus the rest of the world, across much of the global economy central banks have responded by upping interest rates themselves. For example, they rose last week in Brazil. China’s central bank is tightening, and rates were recently increased in Indonesia. The story is not clear cut – these things never are, but as rates rise in the US, leading to a stronger dollar, many other countries will probably follow suit. If the UK and Japan loosen monetary policy at such a time, they will be in the minority putting both the yen and sterling under pressure against a basket of international currencies – not just the dollar.

On the other hand, the prospects for the UK economy have been improving of late, and it would be odd if sterling tumbled just as UK plc began to show signs of pulling out of its downturn.

But supposing it happens and the pound falls much further, what then?

At a time when there are signs of improving exports, especially to the US and outside Europe; at a time when some anecdotal and some hard evidence (see car exports) points to a mini renaissance in the UK manufacturing industry and its exports, a cheaper pound will give exporters even more of a lift. On the other hand, a falling pound may lead to rising inflation, and in this respect the UK has previous. Think of 1967 and the pound being devalued and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson saying it will “not affect the pound in your pocket.” In fact sterling’s devaluation did – UK inflation shot up soon afterwards.

And that brings us to the UK’s big dilemma.

Yes we need exports to help lead recovery, but we also need increases in average wages to start outstripping inflation again. A cheaper pound may help us achieve the former, but most certainly not the latter.

What the UK really needs is productivity to rise, and that needs more investment; more investment in business, in entrepreneurs, infrastructure and education – and, it may seem like a cliché, investment in education in creating more engineers, because that is where the real labour market shortage is likely to be.

There is a danger, however, and to read about that, see  What will happen to households as rates rise? 

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Among the more positive news coming out of the US of late, there was one piece of darkness. While US consumers grew more confident, more jobs were created, and house prices rose, the darkness drew all eyes. The darkness was otherwise known as Purchasing Managers’ Indices, or PMIs, with the PMI for US manufacturing in May pointing to contraction, for example. Things looked quite different today, and altogether lighter, however.

The latest PMI for US manufacturing, this time for June, stood at 50.9 from 49. Any score over 50 is meant to be consistent with growth, so that was a relief.

There was more good news. The sub-index tracking new orders rose to 51.9, and the new export orders index rose to 54.4 from 51 in May. So far so good. Alas the PMI for employment stood at 48.7 – suggesting job losses. So while the news was bright, some darkness remained.

In Europe, the news was brighter, but only in the sense that navy blue is brighter than black, except that is for Spain. For once the news on this country looked promising; a kind of dark grey.

The PMI for Spanish manufacturing rose to 50 in June, a new 26 month high. Okay, 50 suggests growth is flat, but flat is better than contracting, and that is approaching the best piece of economic news for a very long time for Spain.

The PMIs for French, Italian, and Greek manufacturing also saw big improvements – 16, 23 and 24 months highs respectively. But then in each case the index was below 50, so that was darkish news.

To the surprise of many, the PMI for Germany fell sharply – down to 48.6, which was a two month low, and at odds with other more encouraging data that has seen the light of day recently.

Looking further afield, in China the PMI was down, but given that a major credit crunch is underway in China, the fall was not as sharp as many had feared. PMIs were also either below 50 or very close to 50 in Brazil, India, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Australia is more interesting. The manufacturing PMI has been below 50 since 2001, but in June it rose to its highest level since February 2011. Although at 49.6, it still points to contraction. In Australia talk of recession is beginning to dominate. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looks as if he is trying to present himself as the man to lead Australia through and out of recession. With household debt high, house prices apparently overvalued, and with the slowdown in China sure to hit Australian commodity exports, the economy appears to be at its most precarious balanced for some time.

© Investment & Business News 2013

Yesterday was a day for selling. But it is noticeable that while gold fell to a 34 month low, and US government bonds to a 22 month low, on the whole equities merely fell to a one month low.

At the time of writing gold is trading at $1,295. To put that price in context, back in September last year it was going for $1,778. The last time it was so cheap was September 2010.

Some say they are puzzled by the falls, but gold really is one of those riddles wrapped in an enigma – a golden enigma, in fact.

Gold rose in the aftermath of the finance crisis, and then again in the aftermath of the aftermath, because many feared a major meltdown as countries raced to devalue, and it was being said that QE created the danger of hyperinflation.

Talk of QE creating hyperinflation always was nonsense. As this column has said before, what matters is the broad money supply, and at a time when banks didn’t want to lend, while households were trying to repair their balance sheets, there was little chance of the broad money supply rising significantly, whatever central banks did.

Now the US economy is showing signs of real recovery, and the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has suggested QE will be easing up soon and interest rates are likely to rise in 2015, everything looks different.

When real interest rates are negative, the fact that gold offers no yield is a trivial concern. But now that rates seem set to rise, that lack of yield seems to matter a great deal.

As for bonds, the yield on US 10 year treasuries has risen from 1.38 per cent last July to 2.39 per cent at the time of writing.

Markets are moving away from so-called safe harbour assets. During the era of QE, many feared currency wars, as loose monetary policy pushed down on the dollar, and other countries tried to devalue so as not to lose their competitive edge. Now the era of loosening is approaching an end; currency wars have moved to currency peace, and the new fear is that some currencies are in danger of becoming too weak.

As for equities, they too have fallen sharply, but just remember that the falls are not as drastic as recent rises. The FTSE 100 started 2013 on 5,898, rose to 6,840 last month, going close to the all-time high set in 1999, before falling to 6,159 last night.

Look at how equities have fallen since the end of May, and the sell-off looks drastic. Look at equities this year, and the market still looks attractive.

Above all, just remember that it is good news on the US economy that lies behind markets selling.

As rates rise, there will be losers, and for a while the markets may even punish those with strong fundamentals, but a resurgent US consumer is a good thing, and once the dust has settled we will see plenty of winners. But watch the Eurozone, emerging Europe, and maybe Brazil, for the real woe.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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As we slowly move towards a post QE world, or at least post US QE world, things start to look very different. Countries that seemed unstoppable a few years ago look vulnerable. Perhaps the three countries to suffer the biggest knocks in recent days have been Brazil, Turkey and South Africa – all have seen their currencies fall sharply. In two of these countries we have also seen street protests.

Yesterday it was Brazil’s turn to be seen in an unpleasant limelight, as Brazilians took to the street to protest over a multitude of woes – among them the cost of hosting the forthcoming World Cup and the Olympics. Meanwhile credit ratings agency S&P has downgraded Brazil’s sovereign debt outlook – it is still rated as BBB, but now it is under a negative outlook.

Look beneath the surface and the threats to Brazil look worrying indeed.
For one thing, Brazil’s current account has fallen from a small surplus in 2007 to a deficit worth around 2.3 per cent of GDP in 2012. What Brazil needs is more investment, higher domestic savings to partly fund the investment, and a cheaper currency to give exporters an advantage. Alas it also needs much lower inflation. The IMF has forecast Brazilian inflation at 6.1 per cent this year. Interest rates are currently at 8 per cent. To fight off inflation, Brazil needs a strong currency. Do you see the dilemma?

The savings ratio in Brazil is the lowest amongst both the BRICS and in Latin America. Part of the problem is a very generous state pension scheme. This needs to be reduced, but street protestors may not be too happy with that idea.

At face value, government debt in Brazil does not seem so bad. In fact net debt is 35 per cent of GDP. Wouldn’t the US and the UK love it if their equivalent measure was so low? It is just that net debt is made up of gross debt minus assets, and many of the assets that count towards Brazil’s net debt are highly illiquid and risky. Capital Economics reckons a better measure of net debt would be around 50 per cent of GDP.

Brazil is posting a primary budget surplus, meaning government receipts are greater than expenses before interest on debt – but, thank to high interest rates, Brazilian public debt is rising.

And there is a much deeper woe. Commodity prices have been falling of late, and many, including the World Bank for example, are now forecasting a new phase in what’s called the commodity super cycle, as the massive levels of investment into commodities during the up phase of the super cycle leads to greater supply.

The last few years have been characterised by high commodity prices, poor economic performance in the developed world, and cheap money. As we enter a post QE world, it appears we may also enter a phase of lower commodity prices. For Brazil this may be a perfect storm.

This does not mean that the Brazilian growth story is over, but remember markets tend to overreact and Brazil may be one of the big victims of post QE over-reaction.

© Investment & Business News 2013