The flow of goods and capital across borders and between nations has featured in human storytelling and economic relations since the beginning of time. The biblical protagonists traveled and traded with each other, and often fought over the dominion of resources. The protagonists in modern historical tales of trade and war since the turn of the millennium continue the habit in similar ways. You would be hard-pressed to find a better historical account of that than in Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O’Rourke’s Power and Plenty. The book is as much about the wars that divided empires and nations as it is about the exchange of goods and capital that bound them together, though it is reasonable to say that these two perspectives are joined at the hip. Economics plays a specific role in the study of global trade and empire-building. The exchange of goods, capital, and services across borders gives rise to transactions as the ownership of resources shifts. Over time, these processes lead to the accumulation of wealth and debt on the part of nations and economic actors—assets and liabilities, in the jargon of modern finance. It is the economist’s job to trace, identify, and record the nature and value of these transactions.Read More
The Q1 earnings numbers have kicked up a lot of dust across sectors and individual companies, which is good news for stock-pickers eager to prove their worth. For markets as a whole, though, I see little change in the underlying narrative relative to what I have been talking about recently. Equity investors remain focused on what policymakers are saying rather than what they’re doing, sticking with the idea that central banks, and perhaps even politicians at large, have their backs. Bond markets are nodding in agreement. Solid labour market data in the U.S., and a robust Q1 GDP print, have not dented market-implied expectations that the next move by the Fed will be a cut. And in the Eurozone, markets have priced out an adjustment in the deposit rate through 2021. Blackrock’s Rick Rieder summed it up neatly last week by referring to the asymmetric outlook for policy. I am paraphrasing, but the idea goes something like this: “If central banks raise rates, they will do so slowly and hesitantly. If they have to cut, due to tightening financial conditions and a slowing economy, they will do so fast and aggressively.” I would even wrap in fiscal policy here, though this admittedly tends to operate more slowly, and over a longer timeframe than monetary policy.Read More
In a nutshell, this is what my models are telling at the moment: the three-month stock-to-bond ratios in the U.S. and Europe have soared, indicating that equities should lose momentum in Q2 at the expense of a further decline in bond yields. That said, the three-month ratios currently are boosted by base effects from the plunge in equities at the end of last year. They’ll roll over almost no matter what happens next. Moreover, the six-month return ratios are still favourable for further outperformance of stocks relative to fixed income. Looking beyond relative returns, my equity valuation models indicate that the upside in U.S. and EM equities is now limited through Q2 and Q3, but they are teasing with the probability of outperformance in Europe. Finally, my fixed income models are emitting grave warnings for the long bond bulls, a message only counterbalanced by the fact that speculators remain net short across both 2y and 10y futures. This mixed message from my home-cooked asset allocation models is complemented by a mixed message from the economy. The majority of global growth indicators still warn of weaker momentum, but markets trade at the margin of these data, and the green shoots have been clear enough recently. Chinese money supply and PMIs showed tentative signs of a pick-up at the end of Q1, a boost reinforced by data last week revealing that total social financing jumped 10.7% y/y in March.Read More
Let’s spare a few moments of symphathy for the equity bears. The Q4 rout was supposed to have been an appetizer for a more sustained bear market, and by most accounts, the major narratives are still on their side. Excess liquidity indicators—chiefly real M1—and other leading macro-indicators look dire, and the hard data have predictably rolled over. They gave up the ghost in Europe a long time ago, and are now softening in the U.S. Even better for the bears, earnings growth is now slipping and sliding, a logical consequence of the sharp drop in the rate of growth in almost all main hard macroeconomic indicators and surveys.
Despite such a perfect set-up from the macro data, the equity market has rallied strongly at the start of the year, and is showing few signs of rolling over mid-way through February. There is still hope for the bears. If you are just looking at the headline data, it is relatively easy to dismiss the rebound at the start of the year as a reflexive rebound from the horror show in the latter part of 2018, a bear market rally to suck in the naive bulls before the next deluge. The idea of a bear market rally is still alive, but equity bears also now have to contend with a revival of their greatest foe to date; the global central bank put.Read More