There are two main drivers of asset class returns – growth and inflation. - Ray Dalio
Some jerk (meant in the friendliest possible way) asked me a while ago: “Why do economists provide estimates of inflation to the nearest tenth of a percent?”. I thought for a second, but before I got a chance to answer him, he said: “To prove they have a sense of humour.”
In fairness to this ‘awful’ friend of mine, 99.9% of all economists got it completely wrong in the years following the financial crisis. Nearly everyone thought QE could only end in runaway inflation, but what happened? With only a limited number of exceptions, all over the world, inflation continued to go lower and lower. Until the second half of 2016 the number of inflation die-hards continued to shrink, but then it all changed. The inflation bulls began to come out of their retreats again after years of hiding in shame (exhibit 1).
As you can see from the lower right corner of exhibit 1, the number of inflation bears has dropped quite dramatically in recent months. As we entered 2016, approx. 40% thought there would hardly be any inflation when looking five years out. That number has since declined to less than 10%.
As you can also see, whilst the number of inflation bulls have increased over 2016, they still only account for 20%. However, a much larger percentage (now about 70%) subscribe to the sweet spot outlook – a rather benign inflation environment of 2% +/-. This range is typically viewed as constructive for economic growth and for equity prices, both of which tend to do best, when inflation trades in the range of 1.5-2.5%.
It is therefore not too difficult to see why equities continue to perform quite well despite some very dark clouds gathering in the horizon. If you wonder what those clouds are, I suggest you go back to the January Absolute Return Letter.
This raises the critical question: Should I, having been a long-term bear on inflation, change tact? Could the inflation bulls finally be right? There is no straightforward answer to that question, as different parts of the world are subject to very different dynamics, but I will certainly give it a try.
Are central banks worried about inflation?
Central bankers are known for their glass-is-half-empty approach to things, so one should be careful not to over-interpret statements from that corner, but inflation seems to be back on the agenda at the moment. You will probably immediately push back and say they should worry about inflation; that is why they are there in the first place. Correct, but inflation has taken up an inordinate amount of space in recent minutes from various central bank meetings (exhibit 2).
This has had the effect of pushing market implied inflation ahead of actual inflation – something that happens around the world at regular intervals (exhibit 3). When it does, it is an indication that expected inflation is on the rise.
So, yes, I believe central bankers are more worried about inflation than they have been for a while – at least in the US and UK – and I believe the concerns to a large degree are a consequence of the low output gap in both of those countries (exhibit 4). Continued economic growth combined with low corporate investments for an extended period of time have had the effect of absorbing a significant part of excess capacity, leaving both economies exposed to bottleneck problems.
The UK story is a little different from the US inflation story
I should point out that I am not the only one being worried about rising UK inflation – at least in the near term. In a recent report from the Bank of England, a view was expressed that inflation is expected to reach nearly 3% by the first quarter of 2018 (exhibit 5), and the reason is fairly straightforward.
A jubilant British populace, who are convinced – or have allowed themselves to be convinced by a notoriously dodgy newspaper industry – that Brexit will lead to fabulous new opportunities, have continued to spend as if there is no tomorrow.
Given the high import share of the typical UK consumer basket, and given the relatively weak pound following the Brexit referendum, consumer prices can only go one way in the near term.
In my opinion, what these people plainly ignore is that the hurdles (of which there will be many) will only show up once the Brexit negotiations start in earnest. I still believe many Brits are in La-La land when they say Brexit was a storm in a teacup.
My view is fairly straightforward. The EU will not grant the UK too good a deal, because it will encourage other nations to follow in the footsteps of the UK. Consequently, the forthcoming negotiations will be a constant uphill battle, and could take a long time to complete.
As it becomes increasingly clear that it is indeed an uphill battle, Sterling will come under renewed downward pressure. A weak currency always causes rising inflation domestically, and a country as import dependent as the UK is particularly exposed to that. Relatively sticky inflation could therefore be more than a short term phenomenon.
I have spoken to many Brexiters since the referendum. Most of them have tried to convince me that leaving the EU was the right decision, and almost all of them have used the following argument:
“Who cares about the EU? There is a much bigger world out there.”
I suggest they give at least some consideration to the word “distance”. Importing everyday goods all the way from Australia makes little sense when the same goods can be found just across the English Channel, and the argument works both ways. Why on earth should the Australians begin to import goods from the UK that they can ship from Hong Kong at a fraction of the cost?
Furthermore, shipping goods around the world will almost certainly drive consumer price inflation up. Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all when the same people who begged for Brexit start to moan about rising inflation in the UK.
Despite the inflationary consequences of Brexit being UK specific, there are also some similarities between the story unfolding in the UK and the one in the US. Core inflation in both countries is significantly higher than it is in the Eurozone – just above 2% in the US and just below 2% in the UK whereas, in the Eurozone, it is only 0.9%. Furthermore, services are very much the engine that drives core inflation in both the UK and the US (exhibit 6).
To a very significant degree that is down to rising medical care costs (exhibit 7). As the populace ages, this can only get worse – at least in the US, where almost all healthcare is provided privately and paid for by insurance companies.
Unfortunately, I have no access to the information provided in exhibits 6 and 7 for the UK but, given that care for the elderly is provided mostly privately in the UK as well, I suspect the picture in the two countries is not dramatically different.
The story in the Eurozone is quite different
Years of poor economic growth in the Eurozone has left a much bigger output gap there. The gap obviously varies from country to country, but nowhere is it as low as it is in the US.
Secondly, a much older population in the Eurozone (exhibit 8) will result in more dramatic changes near term. A much faster growing number of elderly will change consumption patterns more quickly, and economic growth will almost entirely disappear in the years to come.
The (so-called) experts actually don’t agree how we should expect ageing to affect inflation. I have written about this before and don’t intend to repeat myself; suffice to say that most think ageing is deflationary whereas a minority (directed by research from the Bank for International Settlements (‘BIS’)) believe it is modestly inflationary. For the future of Europe, I actually hope ageing is inflationary. With a mountain of debt in front of us, the last thing we need is deflation.
The increase in consumer price inflation across the EU in recent months is entirely down to the energy component, though. A year ago, oil traded in the range of $30-35 per barrel, whereas it is now in the mid-$50s. The non-core component of CPI is therefore up quite significantly.
If one instead looks at the core component of Eurozone CPI, it is pretty obvious that the recent sharp rise in CPI is all down to a rise in energy prices. The core component is rock-solid at a notch below 1% (exhibit 9).
Why it is all wishful thinking
The world is dealing with three major challenges at present:
An ageing population
Excessive amounts of debt everywhere
Declining spending powers amongst the middle classes
I believe all those dynamics are deflationary, even if BIS have done their best to convince me that ageing is actually modestly inflationary. I am struggling to ignore the lessons from Japan, where ageing has had deflationary impact for years.
As the Eurozone continues to suffer from bad demographics, exceedingly high levels of debt, and a large number of middle-class people who suffer from shrinking living standards, I can only conclude that the longer term structural inflation trend in Eurozone is disinflationary, if not outright deflationary.
That said, neither the UK nor the US are in a dramatically better situation. Both countries will be negatively affected by the same three structural trends, even if the absolute impact is likely to be less severe.
As a consequence, I can only reach one conclusion and that is that, in the longer term, inflation will continue to fall, and so will interest rates. What we are witnessing now is a short-term spike in inflation driven by cyclical and other short-term factors. And you should continue to see occasional spikes in inflation, even if the longer term structural trend line continues to point down.
A very different story in China
The Chinese economy is much less developed than the economies I have talked about so far and, as a result, is subject to very different dynamics. Building out the infrastructure is a very substantial part of the growth story out there, and infrastructure building requires commodities. Consequently, commodity prices have a much bigger impact on overall inflation than we are used to in the OECD. In fact, there is almost a 1:1 relationship between commodity prices and producer price inflation in China (exhibit 10).
Given the slowing pace of GDP growth in many parts of the world, and given the fact that I don’t see that changing anytime soon, I expect a structural oversupply of many commodities in the years to come. Strong GDP growth in China won’t entirely make it up for weak growth elsewhere.
As we also know, China’s population is not exactly a bunch of spring chickens, and excessive amounts of debt is an even bigger problem out there than it is here. In other words, two of the three structural trends I mentioned earlier also point towards lower inflation in China over time. If commodity prices also were to ‘underperform’, China may actually be able to continue its growth programme at very modest inflation levels.
My views should be crystal clear by now. Although there is a meaningful risk of rising consumer price inflation in the short term, I see little to worry about longer term. In that context, I ought to mention a few issues.
In the US, the composition of the FOMC changes regularly, and the upcoming changes are likely to make it even less hawkish than it has been more recently. Bullard, George, Mester and Rosengren will all move from voting to non-voting status in 2017, and Evans, Harker, Kaplan and Kashkari will replace them as voting members of the FOMC.
On balance, the four new voting members are more dovish than the four who are moving to non-voting status. Furthermore, at least two new board members will be appointed by President Trump, and that could tilt the Fed, and the FOMC, in an even more dovish direction.
Exactly the same could happen in the UK but for very different reasons. Having a very expansionary ECB in its backyard, and with no signs of that changing anytime soon, the BoE is probably also inclined to be less hawkish then they would otherwise be.
There is therefore the risk (and not an insignificant one) that both the Fed and the BoE sit on their hands for too long. The price we would all have to pay for that would probably be significantly higher policy rates, if only for a period of time, and a significant slowdown in economic growth – quite possibly even a recession – which would be caused (as is often the case) by aggressive monetary policy.