February 12, 2014
In countries where central banks are printing money, such as the US, UK, eurozone, and Japan, deflation is the fear. On the other hand, inflation is high in countries where central banks have followed more traditional policies, like Brazil (official inflation 5.9%), India (11.5%), Indonesia (8.4%), and Turkey (7.4%). One explanation is the carry trade. Because the central banks of the developed world promised low rates for the long term, the liquidity created by those central banks found its way into the economies of the emerging markets (EM) (read: borrow at low interest rates, invest at high ones). Unfortunately, most of those funds did not find their way into capital investment in those markets, but was instead used for consumption, which has played havoc with EM trade balances. When the demand side (usually measured by GDP) outstrips the supply side (potential GDP), inflation occurs. Now that the bubble in EM countries, caused by excess liquidity in the developed world, is starting to burst — investors no longer believe the carry trade will last much longer — what will become of all of that liquidity?
On February 4, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a supposed non-partisan government agency, released a shocking report, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” projecting that over the next 10 years the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, would reduce future employment rolls by more than 2.3 million. Overlooked in that report is the CBO’s projection that “potential” GDP in the US will be much slower over the next 10-year period than it has averaged since 1950; this in an age of innovation where rapid change is considered normal. The CBO says that “changes in people’s economic incentives caused by federal tax and spending policies set in current law are expected to reduce the number of hours workedâ€¦” and “that estimate largely reflects changes in labor hours worked owing to the ACA [Affordable Care Act].”
In the US, if the current gap between real GDP and potential GDP closes (and the so-called “slack” in the economy disappears as the CBO projects it will), then, just like in the EMs, any growth on the demand side of GDP above potential GDP, ends up, by definition, as inflation.
There are a many measures that indicate that the economy is much closer to its potential than is generally assumed. One such measure is the fact that, despite record levels of cash flow (used mainly for stock buybacks or dividends), for the past five years, corporations have not reinvested in their plant and equipment. According to David Rosenberg (Gluskin-Sheff), the average age of the capital stock in the US is almost 22 years, an average not seen since 1958. Given the fact that the cost of capital is near an all-time low, there is something holding back such investment. Rosenberg speculates that it is likely found in overregulation and the uncertainty regarding tax policy. An old and aging capital stock implies a much lower growth rate of potential GDP than in the past when the capital stock was younger.
The second issue is the labor force. While the December and January Establishment Survey disappointed the markets (December’s survey reported 75,000 jobs added; January saw a gain of 113,000), nobody is talking about the Household Survey. This is the survey from which the “official” unemployment rate is calculated. While more volatile that the Establishment Survey, the Household Survey showed gains of 143,000 jobs in December and a whopping 638,000 in January. When combined with other surveys (NFIB) which show that 23% of small businesses have at least one open position that they cannot fill (a six-year high according to Rosenberg), and that there is a sustained uptrend in voluntary quits, it would appear that the Establishment Survey is the outlier and that the labor market is quite tight.
If, indeed, the CBO is correct and potential GDP growth will slow over the next 10 years due to Obamacare, a tight labor market in conjunction with old capital stock will only exacerbate that situation. Since the financial crisis, the unemployment rate has fallen from 10.0% in October ’09 to 6.6% in January ’14, a 3.4 percentage point decline. During that period of time, the annual GDP growth rate has been about 2.4%. After the recession of the ’90s, to get the unemployment rate to fall 3.4 percentage points (from 7.8% to 4.4%), it took an annualized GDP growth rate of 3.7%. The lower GDP growth required to reduce the unemployment rate implies that the gap between actual and potential GDP is either small or nonexistent.
The aging of the capital stock, lack of new investment, and the tightening labor market indicate that resources are in short supply, which means that there is a strong probability that any semblance of robust economic growth will be accompanied by inflation. Adding to such pressure is the liquidity sloshing around the EM world. If it finds its way home, as appears to be happening, unless much of it goes into new capital formation (which is unlikely given the current regulatory and tax regimes), we are likely to see growing inflationary pressures much sooner than is currently priced into the financial markets.
December 30, 2013
The holiday season is the traditional time of year to prognosticate about the upcoming year. But, before I start, I want to make a distinction between short-term and long-term forecasts.
Long-term trends are just that, and they unfold slowly. And, while I have great concerns about the long-term consequences of inflation, the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency, the bloated Fed balance sheet and resulting excess bank reserves, and the freight train of unfunded liabilities which will impact the debt and deficit, because these are long-term issues and simply don’t appear overnight, I do not believe there is anything contradictory about being optimistic about the short-term.
With that caveat, here are my predictions for 2014:
1. Real GDP will grow faster in 2014 (3.5%): The “fiscal drag” that caused headwinds for the economy has now passed with the signing of the first budget in four years in mid-December. Since 2009, governments at all levels have been shedding jobs. But, that has now all changed. The November jobs reports show that employment at all levels of government has turned positive.
No matter your view of the desirability of this for the long-term, in the short-term, those employees receive paychecks and consume goods and services. I predict the real gross domestic product growth rate will be more than 3.5 percent in 2014.
2. Manufacturing and trade are healthy and will get better in 2014: The Institute for Supply Management’s indexes, both manufacturing and non-manufacturing, are as high or higher than they were in the ’05-’06 boom. In November, industrial production finally exceeded its ’07 prior peak level.
Auto sales today are as frothy as they were in the pre-recession boom, and auto sales in the holiday buying period are destined to surprise to the upside. Online sales in the weekend before Christmas overwhelmed both UPS and FedEx, causing many gifts to be delivered on the 26th.
3. Housing, while not near its old bubble peak, has turned the corner: Part of the reason the economy is not overheating is housing. While November’s housing starts surprised to the upside, they still only represent 53 percent of their bubble peak. Nevertheless, because new home construction has been in the doldrums for the past six years, the resurgence evident in the economy has pushed the median price of homes to the point where many homeowners, who were underwater just a couple of years ago, can now show positive home equity on their balance sheets
While interest rates have risen and may be a cause for concern for housing, they are still very low by historic standards, and we have a Fed that, on Dec. 18, recommitted to keeping them down for a period much longer than the market ever anticipated.
4. The unemployment rate will end 2014 somewhere near 6%: Because the popular unemployment index is a lot higher today than it was in the ’05-’06 boom (7 percent vs. 5 percent), the popular media assumes that the labor markets are still loose. But, demographics and incentives to work have changed over the past seven years.
The labor sub-indicators imply much tighter labor conditions than the traditional unemployment index would lead one to believe. Recent data for nonfarm payrolls are equivalent to their monthly numbers in ’05-’06. Weekly new jobless claims are in a steep downtrend. The sub-indexes for layoffs and discharges are lower than they were in ’05-’06. And hard-to-fill-position and job-opening subindexes are in definite uptrends and are approaching ’05-’06 levels. As a result, expect a steady decline in the unemployment rate in 2014.
5. Investment in new plant & equipment will rise in 2014: For the past 5 years, large-cap corporations have hoarded cash and have not reinvested in their businesses. As a result, because equipment and technology is older, labor productivity has stagnated. This is one reason for the strong labor market. In 2014, I predict there will be an upturn in the reinvestment cycle. Beneficiaries will be technology companies and banks.
6. Inflation will be higher in 2014, both “officially” and in reality: While every individual player in the financial markets knows that everyday prices are rising, each espouses the Fed’s deflation theme, perhaps only to play along hoping the Fed will continue printing money.
Are we to believe that the jump of retail sales in October of 0.6 percent followed by 0.7 percent in November were all without price increases as the Bureau of Labor Statistics says? The “official” consumer price index says that airline fares have not increased despite the 18 percent growth of airline revenues in 2013 (bag check fees, etc.)? Should we believe that double-digit revenue growth rates at restaurants are volume-only and we are just eating more? I don’t know what the actual rate of inflation is, but it sure feels like it is higher than 5 percent. In 2014, it will be even higher than that.
7. Equity markets will rise in 2014: The fiscal headwinds are behind us; industrial production and sales are strong; housing is healing, the rise in home prices have generally raised consumer confidence; there appears to be the beginning of an upturn in the capital investment cycle; and, most important, the labor markets are strong. Any equity market corrections should be bought. Meanwhile, longer-duration bonds should be avoided unless there is an accompanying hedge instrument.
8. Gold — it should rise in 2014, but this is a tricky market: Every indicator points to a rise in the price of gold, especially since all of the world’s major central banks are printing money at record rates. But, contrary to logic, the price of gold has fallen in 2013 by nearly 30 percent.
The reason behind this lies with leverage and hypothecation — getting a loan using collateral — in the gold market. Once again, Wall Street has discovered that money could be made by leveraging; and the paper gold market is about 100 times larger than the physical market. When you have that kind of leverage, collusion, price fixing, or just plain panic can quickly move markets.
As inflation is recognized, the price of gold (both physical and paper) should rise. In a healthy economic year, as I predict for 2014, a collapse in the paper gold market is unlikely, and perhaps the price of gold will rise in response to rapidly expanding fiat money. But beware. The only safe gold is what you can hold in your hand.