Posts in International Trade and Economics
It's time to play defense

After two weeks on the road seeing investors, I am convinced that portfolio managers are becoming increasingly sceptical about the synchronized global recovery. That’s probably a good shout. I recently surveyed global leading indicators, and didn’t like what I was seeing. The data since have been worse. My in-house diffusion index of global leading indices has been flat since the start of the year. Its message is simple, global manufacturing accelerated sharply for most of last year, but momentum petered out in Q1. It doesn’t yet point to an outright slowdown, though other short-leading indices, such as the PMIs, do. The signal is more uniformly downbeat for the global economy if we look at liquidity indicators. Inflation is rising, with oil prices at a 12-month high, and nominal M1 growth is decelerating. Historically, this has been one of the more reliable omens for slowing growth in the global economy. Of course, investors don’t have to peruse economic data to tell them that something is afoot. Let me see whether I can remember everything. We have had wobbles in emerging markets, the return of political risk and higher bond yields, and even euro-exit chatter, in the Eurozone periphery as well as the morbid fascination that Deutsche Bank is going to blow a hole in the European, and perhaps even in the global economy.

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Two Questions, 1 & 1/2 Answers

Two questions, at least, are on investors’ mind at the moment. Is the synchronised global upturning turning into a synchronised slowdown? Will the dollar rally be sustained, and if so, will it spark further stress in emerging markets and in the global economy? You would be hard-pressed to argue that the global economy is slowing dramatically, at least based on the most recent headline data. My estimates suggest that global GDP growth was unchanged at 2.9% year-over-year in Q1, thanks mainly to a slight 0.3 percentage point rise in U.S. growth to 2.9%. That said, this number includes the 6.8% headline in China, which no one believes, and we still don’t know what happened in Japan. Finally, this number masks the fact that momentum in Europe slowed across the board. Growth in the euro area is still solid, but it slowed sharply in Q1. And the first indications for Q2 do not promise much in the way of a rebound. After growth of nearly 3% last year, all evidence so far points to somewhat slower growth of 2% in 2018. The picture is even grimmer in the U.K. where growth slid to a five-year low of 1.2% in Q1. Looking beyond the GDP numbers, leading indicators are discouraging, but not yet in panic territory.

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It's that yield curve again

For all the talk about a flattening U.S. yield curve, it is ironic that it steepened last week, albeit slightly. The trend, though, is clear enough. The 2s5 and 2s10s have flattened 27 and 32 basis points in the past year, respectively. Another 12 months at this rate and the curve would invert by the middle of next year. This wouldn’t be odd. It’s normal for the curve to flatten as monetary policy is tightened, and it is also normal for the Fed to keep going until the curve inverts. If you believe that an inverted curve is a good recession indicator—which is debatable—this is tantamount to saying that the Fed will keep going until something breaks, consistent with what almost always happens at the tail-end of policy tightening cycles. This probably won’t prevent investors and analysts from continuing to pay close attention to the yield curve. I have sympathy for that, for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear to markets whether the Fed cares about a flattening curve or not. Some members of the FOMC do, some don’t. Secondly, if the shape of the curve is important to the Fed, the recent pace of curve flattening challenges the prediction by economists and markets that the Fed funds rate will be hiked by 25 basis points three-to-four times in 2018 and 2019.

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