Tuesday, March 12, 2019

12/3/19: S&P500 Concentration Risk over 10 years

More on increasing concentration risks in the U.S. equity markets: Goldman Sachs estimates that almost 1/4 of total return to S&P500 over the last 10 years came from just 10 stocks:

Of these, Apple alone accounted for almost 1/5th of total return to S&P500. 22% of total return was accounted for by ICT sector.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

10/3/19: Irish Residential Construction Sector 2018: A New 'Recovery' Low

It has been an ugly decade for Ireland's building and construction industry. especially for housing. Following a historically massive bust in 2009-2012, indices of total production in the housing sub-sector fell from the pre-crisis high of 751.7 for value and 820 for volume, attained in 2006, to their lowest cyclical points of 57.9 and 59.5, respectively, in 2012. In other words, from 2006 through 2012, Irish residential building and construction production fell a massive, gargantuan, non-Solar-System-like 92.3% in value terms and 92.74% in volume terms. That was bad.

The recovery has not been any better. Since the lowest point of the cycle in 2012, through 2018, based on the latest figures from CSO, value of production in residential construction sector rose to 186.6, an uplift of 222.3% and volume rose to 176.9 (a rise of 197.3%). Still, compared to pre-crisis peak, current value of production in Ireland's residential building and construction sub-sector is down 75.2%, still, and in volume terms it is down 78.4%.

Of course, comparatives to the peak production year would be subject to criticism that things should be benchmarked by something 'other' than the levels of activity achieved during the bubble. I disagree. Back in the days of the bubble, Ireland experienced rampant house price inflation, as demand was still lagging behind supply. But, let me entertain, as in the above chart, an argument about averages over two periods: the period of the pre-bust activity and the period of the recovery activity.

Ireland today has an acute crisis in the supply of homes. There is no question about that. What 2018 figure shows, however, is far worse. In 2018, value of production in residential construction sector in Ireland grew by only 6.88% y/y - the slowest pace of growth since the recovery started in 2013. By volume, activity grew only 3.75% y/y in 2018 - also the slowest pace for the recovery period. As the crisis in supply of homes get worse, the rates of growth in the 'recovering' sector get shallower. This suggests that Irish residential construction is nowhere near the trajectory needed to achieve the rates of growth required to fill the gap in the housing supply.

In all 12 years of positive growth (between 2000 and 2018), last year marked the worst rate of growth in Value and the second worst year of growth in Volume terms. To put things into perspective: under 2018 growth rates, Irish residential building and construction production won't reach its 2000-2007 average levels until mid-2033 in value terms and mid-2052 in volume terms.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

6/3/19: Expectations Sand Castles and Investors

As raging buybacks of shares and M&As have dropped the free float available in the markets over the recent years, Earnings per Share (EPS) continued to tank. Yet, S&P 500 valuations kept climbing:
Source: Factset 

As noted by the Factset: 1Q 2019 "marked the largest percentage decline in the bottom-up EPS estimate over the first two months of a quarter since Q1 2016 (-8.4%). At the sector level, all 11 sectors recorded a decline in their bottom-up EPS estimate during the first two months of the quarter... Overall, nine sectors recorded a larger decrease in their bottom-up EPS estimate relative to their five-year average, eight sectors recorded a larger decrease in their bottom-up EPS estimate relative to their 10-year average, and seven sectors recorded a larger decrease in their bottom-up EPS estimate relative to their 15-year average."

Bad stuff. Yet, "as the bottom-up EPS estimate for the index declined during the first two months of the quarter, the value of the S&P 500 increased during this same period. From December 31 through February 28, the value of the index increased by 11.1% (to 2784.49 from 2506.85). The first quarter marked the 15th time in the past 20 quarters in which the bottom-up EPS estimate decreased while the value of the index increased during the first two months of the quarter."

The disconnect between investors' valuations and risk pricing, and the reality of tangible estimations for current conditions is getting progressively worse. The markets remain a spring, loaded with the deadweight of expectations sand castles.

Monday, March 4, 2019

4/3/19: BRIC Manufacturing PMI: January-February Trend

In January-February 2019, Global manufacturing PMI sunk to its lowest reading since 2Q 2016 averaging 50.7 over the first two months of the year. With it, the slowdown has also been impacting the BRIC economies, overall BRIC Manufacturing PMIs average 41.2 in 4Q 2018 based on each country share of the global GDP for 2018, below 51.83 average for Global Manufacturing PMI over the same period. In the first two months of 2019, BRIC Manufacturing PMI was around 50.8, statistically indistinguishable from the 50.7 Global PMI average.

As the chart above clearly indicates, poor BRIC performance was driven by a contraction-territory reading for China (49.1 in January-February 2019 as opposed to stagnation-signalling 50.0 in 4Q 2018), and Russia (50.5 for the first two months of 2019, against 4Q 2018 average of 51.9). In contrast, both Brazil and India outperformed BRIC and Global PMI readings. Brazil's Manufacturing PMI averaged 53.1 in the first two months of 2019 against 52.1 in 4Q 2018, while India's PMI rose to 54.1 in January-February this year against 53.4 in 4Q 2018.

All in, Manufacturing sector leading indicator suggests a major slowdown in the Global growth momentum, and some spillover of this slowdown to Russia and China.  Brazil's robust reading so far marks the fastest pace of expansion since 1Q 2010, on foot of a recovery from a very long and painful recession. India's reading is the highest since 2Q 2012. If confirmed over March and over Services PMI, this implies a major diversion of growth momentum within the BRIC group.

4/3/19: S&P 500 Share Price Support Scams are a Raging Trend

Having posted a record-breaking USD939 billion of shares repurchases in 2018, Corporate America is on track to set a new record-wrecking year of buybacks in 2019. per latest data from JPM (via @zerohedge), January-February 2019 saw USD187 billion worth of shares repurchases in S&P 500 index constituent companies.

This is a notch higher than in 2018 and almost 90 percent above 2017 period.

Friday, March 1, 2019

1/3/19: U.S. PMI is not at a Crisis levels

My take on today's ISM for Manufacturing data here: https://twitter.com/GTCost/status/1101512164584546304, with charts:

1/3/19: Australia is the New Ireland: How Property Hype Inflates Financial Bubbles

Australia - a country with the biggest property bubble of all times and of all countries - is retracing the exact mis-governance steps as its predecessor claimant of the title, Ireland. Just as in Ireland pre-2008 bust, Australian central and regional Government figures are adding to the hype of 'real estate investment', whipping up households' enthusiasm for property spending, just as the market is starting to crate:

While Australian property investors should be heading for the hills, Australian voters should consider actively advocating that the country (regional, etc) Government should adopt a more responsible approach to managing the risks of a massive bubble collapse. One suggestion - suitable not only to Australia, but to all economies around the world - would be to force politicians to be legally liable for what amounts to selling pitches and investment advice they so eagerly dish out.

How about a new way of thinking about accountability in politics? Your politician says 'A' and 'B' happens, you charge your politician for any damages that their call to action on the claim 'A' has produced. At least with such a system of 'incentives' in place, we might see politicians taking some time to reflect on the opportunistic garbage they push into public domain before speaking.

Monday, February 25, 2019

25/2/19: Europe's TBTF Banks are only Bigger-to-Fail...

Since the start of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and through subsequent Euro area crises, the EU frameworks for reforming financial services have invariably been anchored to the need for reducing the extent of systemic risks in European banking. While it is patently clear that Euro area's participation in the GFC has been based on the same meme of 'too big to fail' TBTF banks creating a toxic contagion channel from banks balance sheets to the real economy and the sovereigns, what has been less discussed in the context of the subsequent reforms is the degree of competition within European banking sector. So much so, that the Euro area statistical boffins even stopped reporting banking sector concentration indices for the entire Euro area (although they did continue reporting the same for individual member states).

Chart below plots weighted average Herfindahl Index for the EA12 original Euro area states, with each country nominal GDP being used as a weight.

The picture presents a dire state of the Euro area reforms aimed at derisking the bank channel within the Eurozone's capital markets:

  • In terms of total assets, concentration of market power within the hands of larger TBFT banks has stayed virtually unchanged across the EA12 between 2009 and 2017. Herfindahl Index for total assets was 0.3249 in 2009 and it is was at 0.3239 in 2017. Statistically-speaking, there has been no meaningful changes in assets concentration in TBTF banks across the EA12 since 2003. 
  • In terms of total credit issued within the EA12, Herfindahl Index shows a rather pronounced trend up. In 2010 (the first year for which consistent data is provided), Herfindahl Index for total credit shows 0.0602 reading, which rose to 0.0662 in 2017.
Put simply, TBTF banks are getting ever bigger. With them, the risks of contagion from the banking sector to the real economy and the sovereigns remain unabated, no matter how many 'green papers' on reforms the EU issues, and no matter how many systemic risk agencies Brussels creates.

24/2/19: Eurozone's Corporate Yields are not quite in a crisis territory... yet...

Euro area high yield corporate credit rates are under pressure to continue moving:

But they are far from being dramatic, even though banking sector margins have now surpassed ex-crises averages:

The problem, however, is what awaits on the horizon. So far, the ECB is planning on hiking rates in the second half of 2019. If it does, with one 25 bps hikes to the end of 2019, we are looking at high yield rates jumping close to a 7 percent mark:

That is a bit more testing than the current above-the-average yields.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

24/2/19: Europe of Divergence: Euro and the Crisis Aftermath

A promise of economic convergence was one of the core reasons behind the creation of the Euro. At no time in the Euro area history has this promise been more important than in the years following the series of the 2008-2013 crises, primarily because the crisis has significantly adversely impacted not only the 'new member states' (who may or may not have been on the 'convergence path' prior to the crisis onset), but also the 'old member states' (who were supposed to have been on the convergence path prior to the crisis). The latter group of states is the so-called Euro periphery: Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

So have the Euro delivered convergence for these states since the end of the Euro area crises, starting with 2014? The answer is firmly 'No'.
 The chart above clearly shows that since the onset of the 'recovery', Euro area 8 states (EA12 ex-periphery) averaged a growth rate of just under 2.075 percent per annum. The 'peripheral' states growth rate averaged just 1.623 percent per annum. In simple terms, recovery in the Euro area between 2014 and 2018 has been associated with continued divergence in the EA4 states.

This is hardly surprising, as shown in the chart above. Even during the so-called 'boom' period, peripheral states average growth rates were statistically indistinguishable from those of the EA8. Which implies no meaningful evidence of convergence during the 'good times'. The picture dramatically changed starting with 2009, starting the period of severe divergence between the EA8 and EA4.

In simple terms, the idea that the common currency has been delivering on its core promise of facilitating economic convergence between the rich Euro area states and the less prosperous ones holds no water.

24/2/19: Buybacks vs Capex

U.S. corporates spending or 'investing' over the last 10 years:

  • CapEx ($6.4T), including often non-productive M&As
  • Buybacks ($4.9T) and 
  • Dividends ($3.4T) 

via @mbarna6

Just another reminder why productivity growth is not being aided by cheap credit.

Friday, February 22, 2019

22/2/19: Deutsche Bank's New Old Losses: When a Candy Bites Back

Our good old friends at @DeutscheBankAG have been at it again... this time (h/t to @macromon) raking in $1.6 billion of freshly announced losses from pre-Global Financial Crisis trades in municipal bonds. Story at WSJ: https://www.wsj.com/articles/deutsche-bank-lost-1-6-billion-on-a-bond-bet-11550691086 (gated)

In summary: "This transaction was unwound in 2016 as part of the closure of our Non-Core Operations", according to the spokeswoman email to the WSJ. DB ca $7.8 billion portfolio of 500 municipal bonds back in 2007. The bonds were insured by specialised mono-line insurers to protect against default. In March of 2008, the bank followed up the trade by buying additional default protection from Berkshire Hathaway for $140 million. Insure-and-forget, right?By the end of 2011, the bank had a little over $115 million of reserves set aside to cover potential losses on the trade. That figure rose to over $1 billion at the start of 2016. By May 2016, the bank calculated an additional loss of $728-$768 million on a potential sale of the portfolio net of the loss protection from Berkshire.

Per WSJ, this loss - previously unreported - amounts to ca x4 times DB's 2018 profits.

The champs!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

20/2/19: Crack and Opioids of Corporate Finance

More addictive than crack or opioids, corporate debt is the sand-castle town's equivalent of water: it holds the 'marvels of castles' together, util it no longer does...

Source: https://twitter.com/lisaabramowicz1/status/1098200828010287104/photo/1

Firstly, as @Lisaabramowicz correctly summarises: "American companies look cash-rich on paper, but average leverage ratios don't tell the story. 5% of S&P 500 companies hold more than half the overall cash; the other 95% of corporations have cash-to-debt levels that are the lowest in data going back to 2004". Which is the happy outrun of the Fed and rest of the CBs' exercises in Quantitive Hosing of the economies with cheap credit over the recent years. So much 'excessive' it hurts: a 1 percentage point climb in corporate debt yields, over the medium term (3-5 years) will shave off almost USD40 billion in annual EBITDA, although tax shields on that debt are likely to siphon off some of this pain to the Federal deficits.

Secondly, this pile up of corporate debt has come with little 'balancesheet rebuilding' or 'resilience to shocks' capacity. Much of the debt uptake in recent years has been squandered by corporates on dividend finance and stock repurchases, superficially boosting the book value and the market value of the companies involved, without improving their future cash flows. And, to add to that pain, without improving future growth prospects.

20/2/19: Broader Measures of Irish Unemployment 4Q 2018

The latest Labour Force Survey for 4Q 2018 for Ireland, published by CSO, shows some decent employment increases over 2018, and a welcomed, but shallow, rise in the labour force participation rates. Alongside with a decrease (over FY 2018) in the headline unemployment rate, these are welcome changes, consistent with overall economic growth picture for the state.

One, much less-reported in the media, set of metrics for labour markets performance is the set of broader unemployment measures provided by the CSO. These are known as Potential Labour Supply stats (PLS1-PLS4). The measures also show improvements over 2018, just in line with overall employment growth. However, these measures clearly indicate that after 11 years running, the 2008-2014 crises remain still evident in the labour force statistics for Ireland.

Here is a chart of all four PLS measures, compared to their pre-2008 averages:

Note: Increase in PLS2-PLS4 series at 3Q 2017 is down to change in assessment methodology under the LFS replacing QNHS, with data pre-3Q 2017 adjusted to reflect that change by the CSO.

As a reminder, the above data series are defined as:

  • PLS1 adds discouraged workers. These are individuals who are out of work but who have become disillusioned with job search. 
  • PLS2 includes all individuals in Potential Additional Labour Force (PALF). The PALF is made up of two groups: persons seeking work but not immediately available and persons available to work but not seeking, of which discouraged workers make up the largest number. 
  • PLS3 includes all those in the previous two categories (PLS1 and PLS2) along with persons outside the labour force but not in education or training. 
  • PLS4 is the broadest measure of unemployment or potential labour supply and is calculated by adding part-time underemployed workers to PLS3. Part-time underemployed workers are individuals currently working part time who are willing and available to work additional hours. The broadest measure of unemployment (PLS4) stood at 13.7 per cent in 4Q 2016. At 4Q 2017 it was 18.7 per cent and by 4Q 2018 it was down to 17.5 per cent.

Monday, February 18, 2019

18/2/19: U.S. Treasuries: Not Finding Much Love in Foreign Lands

In recent months, I have been warning about the cliff of new bonds issuance that is coming for the U.S. Treasuries in 2019, pressured by the declining interest in U.S. debt from the rest of the world. December 2018 figures are a further signal reinforcing the importance of this warning (see U.S. yields comparatives here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2019/02/15219-still-drowning-in-love-for-debt.html).

In December 2018, foreign buyers cut back their purchases of the U.S. Treasuries by the net USD77.35 billion, following a net increase in purchases in November of USD13.2 billion. December net outflow was the largest since January 1978. On a positive note, Chinese holdings of U.S. Treasuries increased in December, after declining for six straight months. China held USD1.123 trillion in U.S. Treasuries in December, up from USD1.121 trillion in November.

Here is the historical chart, including 4Q 2018 estimate:

Not quite an armageddon, but statistically, foreign holdings of the U.S. Treasuries remained basically flat from 1Q 2014. Which would be fine, if (1) U.S. new net issuance was to remain at zero or close to it (which is not the case with accelerating deficits: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2019/02/15219-nothing-to-worry-about-for-those.html), (2) U.S. Fed was not 'normalizing' its asset holdings (which is not the case, as the Fed continues to reduce its balance sheet - see next chart).

Note: January 2019 saw a decline in the benchmark U.S. Treasuries (10 year) yield, compared to 2018 annual yield:

Saturday, February 16, 2019

16/2/19: Deep Crises: past, present, future?

Venezuela's economic (and political, social, public, etc) woes have been documented with exhaustion, although no one so far has produced a half-meaningful outline of solutions that are feasible and effective at the same time.

Take for example, the @IIF pitch in: "Venezuela’s economic collapse is almost unprecedented in recent history. Zimbabwe in the last 20 years and the collapse of the Soviet Union are the only comparable episodes." This accompanied the following chart:

What is, however, remarkable in this exposition, is not Venezuela's demise, which is impressive, but the experience of Russia and the contrasting experience of Ukraine in post-Soviet collapse era.

Here is the data from the World Bank on post-USSR collapse recoveries, through 2017. It is the similar to the one used by IIF, but a bit more current and details. And it compares the Western 'darling' of Georgia experience with that of the Ukraine and Russia:

You don't need to have a PhD in economics to comprehend the chart above in political terms: like it or not, the Western 'policies prescriptions' have not been a great source of optimism for Georgia,  Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s.  It hasn't been a great source of optimism for Georgia in the 2000s, and it hasn't been of much use for Ukraine since 2014.

In part, the reason is that the Western prescriptions for policy development and reforms were not exactly followed by these countries in the past, and in part, these prescriptions were not suitable to these economies and their societies. But, also in part, the reason as to why Western reforms did not work their magic in the three former-USSR states is that they were never accompanied by the genuine buy-in from the West. There was no 'great trade' opening, no 'structural FDI rush', no 'Marshall Plan supports'.  What little tangible support was extended to these countries (and other post-Soviet states) from the West was largely siphoned off into the pockets of the Western contractors and domestic oligarchs.

Russian recovery 'miracle' that is traceable above was down to the removal of the Western contractors from the proverbial feeding trough, and consolidation of domestic oligarchs and corrupt elites. One can't call these changes 'liberal' or 'reforms', but they were successful while they lasted (through 2014).

What is also telling is that the rates of recovery - at peak rates - in Georgia (during the hey-days of Western-style reforms) were not quite comparable with the same rate of Russian economic recovery. And that is before one considers the peak recovery in Ukraine since 2014.

Incidentally, returning to the IIF chart above, neither Peru (it took the country 8 years to recover from its 1989 crisis) nor Bolivia (same duration for its crisis of 1982) compare to the cases of the post-USSR collapse crises in magnitude and recovery duration. Zimbabwe does, and it recovered from its 1998-started economic collapse in 18 years, by the end of 2017). Last time I checked, Zimbabwe also did not follow the Western 'prescriptions' in its policies path, and still beats Georgia and Ukraine in terms of its experience (both former USSR states are now in year 28 of post-1989 economic crisis).

16/2/19: Trump-o-rama taking a dip?

Summarizing the U.S. economic 'themes' of the last 21 years:

or put differently: 13 years of 'ugly', 8 years of 'euphoric'.

Source for the great chart (ex-my annotations): https://www.topdowncharts.com/.

Friday, February 15, 2019

15/2/19: Still Drowning in Love [for Debt]...

Debt... Sovereign debt... and Valentines...

A decade post-GFC, we are still shedding love to our overly-indebted sovereigns... so nothing can ever go wrong, again...

15/2/19: Nothing to Worry About for those Fiscally Conservative Republicans

H/T to @soberlook:

U.S. Federal deficit was up $192 billion y/y in December 2018. Nothing to worry about, as fiscal prudence has been the hallmark of the Republican party policies since... well... since some time back...  That, plus think of what fiscal surplus will be once Mexico pays for the Wall, and Europeans pay for the Nato.

Soldier on, Donald.

15/2/19: Euro area is sliding toward recession

Based on the latest data through January 2019, Eurozone’s economic problems are getting worse. In 4Q 2018, Euro area posted real GDP growth of just 0,.2% q/q - matching the print for 3Q 2018. Meanwhile, inflation has fallen from 1.7% in December 2018 to 1.6% in January 2018. And Eurocoin - a leading growth indicator for euro area GDP expansion slipped from 0.42 in December 2018 to 0.31 in January 2019. This marked the third consecutive month of decline in Eurocoin, and the steepest fall in 8 months. Worse, July 23016 was the last time Eurocoin was at this level.

Within the last 12 months, Eurozone growth has officially fallen from 0,.7% q/q in 4Q 2017 to 0.2% in 4Q 2018, HICP effectively stayed the same, with inflation at 1.6% in January 2018 agains 1.5% in January 2018. And forward growth indicator has collapsed from 0.95 in January 2018 to 0.31 in January 2019.

Euro area is heading backward when it comes to economic activity, fast.

Germany just narrowly escaped an official recession, with 4Q growth at zero, and 3Q growth at -0.2%

Italy is in official recession, with 3Q 2018 GDP growth of -0.1% followed by 4Q 2018 growth of -0.2%.

Industrial goods production is now down two consecutive months in the Euro area as a whole, with latest print for December 2018 sitting at - 4.2% decline, following a -3.0% y/y fall in November 2018.

Worse, capital goods industrial production - a signal of forward capacity investment, is now down even more sharply: from -4.4% in November 2018 to -5.5% in December 2018.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

7/2/19: S&P on Irish Banks Outlook

S&P on Irish banks outlook for 2019, with my comments included: https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/trending/wU14cpHw2NfouDi3MnHVQw2.

7/2/19: Global Trade Indicators: Tanking

There is no reason to panic about global growth. None. None at all...

Source: topdowncharts.com with my annotations

Nothing to see here. Because, obviously, structurally and statistically lower growth in trade turning negative on foot of Baltic Dry Index literally collapsing over the last two weeks, while China data and stock markets signals remain negative, is just a glitch...

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

5/2/19: The Myth of the Euro: Economic Convergence

The last eight years of Euro's 20 years in existence have been a disaster for the thesis of economic convergence - the idea that the common currency is a necessary condition for delivering economic growth to the 'peripheral' euro area economies in the need of 'convergence' with the more advanced economies levels of economic development.

The chart below plots annual rates of GDP growth for the original Eurozone 12 economies, broken into two groups: the more advanced EA8 economies and the so-called Club Med or the 'peripheral' economies.

It is clear from the chart that in  growth terms, using annual rates or the averages over each decade, the Euro creation did not sustain significant enough convergence of the 'peripheral' economies of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain with the EA8 more advanced economies of the original euro 12 states. Worse, since the Global Financial Crisis onset, we are witnessing a massive divergence in economic activity.

To highlight the compounding effects of these annual growth rates dynamics, consider an index of real GDP levels set at 100 for 1990 levels for both the EA8 and the 'peripheral' states:

Not only the divergence is dramatic, but the euro area 'peripheral' economies have not fully recovered from the 2008-2013 crisis, with their total real GDP sitting still 3.2 percentage points below the pre-crisis peak (attained in 2007), marking 2018 as the eleventh year of the crisis for these economies.  With Italy now in a technical recession - posting two consecutive quarters of negative growth in 3Q and 4Q 2018 based on preliminary data, and that recession accelerating (from -0.1% contraction in 3Q to -0.2% drop in 4Q) we are unlikely to see any fabled 'Euro-induced convergence' between the lower income states of the so-called Euro 'periphery' and the Euro area 8 states.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

17/1/19: Why limits to AI are VUCA-rich and human-centric

Why ethics, and proper understanding of VUCA environments (environments characterized by volatility/risk, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) will matter more in the future than they matter even today? Because AI will require human control, and that control won't happen along programming skills axis, but will trace ethical and VUCA environments considerations.

Here's a neat intro: https://qz.com/1211313/artificial-intelligences-paper-clip-maximizer-metaphor-can-explain-humanitys-imminent-doom/. The examples are neat, but now consider one of them, touched in passim in the article: translation and interpretation. Near-perfect (native-level) language capabilities for AI are not only 'visible on the horizon', but are approaching us with a break-neck speed. Hardware - bio-tech link that can be embedded into our hearing and speech systems - is 'visible on the horizon'. With that, routine translation-requiring exchanges, such as basic meetings and discussions that do not involve complex, ambiguous and highly costly terms, are likely to be automated or outsourced to the AI. But there will remain the 'black swan' interactions - exchanges that involve huge costs of getting the meaning of the exchange exactly right, and also trace VUCA-type environment of the exchange (ambiguity and complexity are natural domains of semiotics). Here, human oversight over AI and even human displacement of AI will be required. And this oversight will not be based on technical / terminological skills of translators or interpreters, but on their ability to manage ambiguity and complexity. That, and ethics...

Another example is even closer to our times: AI-managed trading in financial assets.  In normal markets, when there is a clear, stable and historically anchored trend for asset prices, AI can't be beat in terms of efficiency of trades placements and execution. By removing / controlling for our human behavioral biases, AI can effectively avoid big risk spillovers across traders and investors sharing the same information in the markets (although, AI can also amplify some costly biases, such as herding). However, this advantage becomes turns a loss, when markets are trading in a VUCA environment. When ambiguity about investors sentiment and/or direction, or complexity of counterparties underlying a transaction, or uncertainty about price trends enters the decision-making equation, algorithmic trading platforms have three sets of problems they must confront simultaneously:

  1. How do we detect the need for, structure, price and execute a potential shift in investment strategy (for example, from optimizing yield to maximizing portfolio resilience)? 
  2. How do we use AI to identify the points for switching from consensus strategy to contrarian strategy, especially if algos are subject to herding risks?
  3. How do we migrate across unstable information sets (as information fades in and out of relevance or stability of core statistics is undermined)?

For a professional trader/investor, these are 'natural' spaces for decision making. They are also VUCA-rich environments. And they are environments in which errors carry significant costs. They can also be coincident with ethical considerations, especially for mandated investment undertakings, such as ESG funds. Like in the case of translation/interpretation, nuance can be more important than the core algorithm, and this is especially true when ambiguity and complexity rule.

17/1/19: Gonzo: Deplatforming the Mensheviks

My contribution to Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert’s new documentary series ‘Gonzo’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyTWT7jpCyg starting at about 14:50.

17/1/19: 2019 Outlook

My post on economic outlook for 2019 is now available from the Focus Economics: https://www.focus-economics.com/blog/constantin-gurdgiev-thoughts-on-the-global-economy-for-2019

17/1/19: U.S. Imports Demand and Final Household Consumption

A great post from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco blog (https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2019/january/how-much-do-we-spend-on-imports/) showing estimates for total imports content of the U.S. household consumption, with a break down of imports content across domestic value additive activities and foreign activities.

Key results: “Our estimates show that nearly half the amount spent on goods and services made abroad stays in the United States, paying for the local component of the retail price of these goods. At the same time, imports of intermediate inputs make up about 5% of the cost of production of U.S. goods and services. Overall, about 11% of U.S. consumer spending can be traced to imported goods. This ratio has remained nearly unchanged in the past 15 years”.

Note: Top bars in both panels are computed directly from PCE and headline trade data. Bottom bars in both panels reflect authors’ adjustments to account for imported content of U.S. goods and U.S. content of imported goods.

The above shows that imports play far lesser role in the U.S. households' consumption than popular media and public opinion tend to believe. This, in part, explains why Trump tariffs war with China has had a very limited adverse impact on domestic demand in the U.S.

17/1/19: Eurocoin December 2018 Reading Indicates a Structural Problem in the Euro Area Economy

December 2018 reading for Eurocoin, a lead growth indicator for euro area posted a second consecutive monthly decline, falling from 0.47 in November to 0.42 in December. December reading now puts Eurocoin at its lowest levels since October 2016.

Charts below show dynamics of Eurocoin, set against actual and forecast growth rates in the euro area GDP and  inflation:

Per last chart above, the pick up in inflation, measured by the ECB’s target rate of HICP, from 1.4% at the end of 3Q 2017 to 1.7% in 3Q 2018 has been associated with decreasing growth momentum (Eurocoin falling from 0.67 q/q to 0.48, and growth falling from the recorded 0.7% q/q in 3Q 2017 to 0.2% q/q in 3Q 2018).

With this significant downward pressure on growth happening even before any material monetary tightening by the ECB, Which suggests that euro area growth problem is structural, rather than policy-induced. While QE did boost growth from the crisis period-lows, it failed to provide a sustainable momentum for significantly expanding potential growth. Thus, even a gradual slowdown in monetary easing has been associated with a combination of subdued, but accelerating inflation and falling growth.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

12/1/19: Global Liquidity Conditions

Things are getting ugly in the global liquidity environment.

1) The U.S. Treasuries demand from foreign buyers is drifting down - a trend that has been on-going since mid-2016. As of mid-4Q 2018, the combined foreign institutional holdings of U.S. Treasuries was at its lowest levels since the start of 2015.

2) The U.S. Dollar strength is now at its highest levels since early 2002.

Meanwhile, liquidity is falling:

3) Global liquidity supply is turning down, having trended relatively flat since the start of 2015

This is not a good set of signs, especially as this data is not reflecting, yet, the ECB tightening.

11/1/19: Herding: the steady state of the uncertain markets

Markets are herds. Care to believe in behavioral economics or not, safety is in liquidity and in benchmarking. Both mean that once large investors start rotating out of one asset class and into another, the herd follows, because what everyone is buying is liquid, and when everyone is buying, they are setting benchmark expected returns. If you, as a manager, perform in line with the market, you are safe at the times of uncertainty and ambiguity. In other words, it is better to bet on losing or underperforming alongside the crowd of others, than to bet on a more volatile expected returns, even though these might offer a higher upside.

How does this work? Here:

Everyone loves Corporate debt, until everyone runs out of it and into Government debt. Everyone hates Government debt, until everyone hates corporate debt. It's ugly. But it is real. Herding is what drives markets, even though everyone is keen on paying analysts top dollar not to herd.

Friday, January 11, 2019

11/1/19: A Behavioral Experiment: Irish License Plates and Household Demand for Cars

While a relatively well known and understood fact in Ireland, this is an interesting snapshot of data for our students in Behavioral Finance and Economics course at MIIS.

In 2013, Ireland introduced a new set of car license plates that created a de facto natural experiment in behavioural economics. Prior to 2013, Irish license plates contained, as the first two digits, the year of car production (see lower two images). Since 2013, prompted by the ‘fear of the number ’13’’, the license plates contain three first digits designating the year and the half-year of the make.

Prior to 2013 change in licenses, Irish car buyers were heavily concentrated in the first two months of each year - a ‘vanity effect’ of license plates that provided additional utility to the earlier months’ car purchasers from having a vehicle with current year identifier for a longer period of time. Post-2013 changes, therefore can be expected to yield two effects:
1) The ‘vanity effect’ should be split between the first two months of 1H of the year, and the first two months of 2H of the year; and
2) Overall, ‘vanity effect’ across two segments of the year should be higher than the same for th period pre-2013 change.

As chart above illustrates, both of these factors are confirmed in the data. Irish buyers are now (post-2013) more concentrated in the January, February, July and August months than prior to 2013. In 2009-2012, average share of annual sales that fell onto these four months stood at 44.8 percent. This rose to 55.75 percent for the period starting in 2014. This difference is statistically significant at 5% percent level.

The share of annual sales that fell onto January-February remained statistically unchanged, nominally rising from 31.77 percent for 2009-2012 average to 32.56 percent since 2014. This difference is not statistically significant at even 10%. However, share of sales falling into July-August period rose from 13.04 percent in 2009-2012 to 23.19 percent since the start of 2014 This increase is statistically significantly greater than zero at 1 percent level.

Similar, qualitatively and statistically, results can be gained from looking at 2002-2008 average. Moving out to pre-2002 average, the only difference is that increases in concentration of sales in January-February period become statistically significant.

In simple terms, what is interesting about the Irish data is the fact that license plate format - in particular identification of year of the car make - strongly induces a ‘vanity effect’ in purchaser behaviour, and that this effect is sensitive to the granularity of the signal contained in the license plate format. What would be interesting at this point is to look at seasonal variation of pricing data, including that for used vehicles, controlling for hedonic characteristics of cars being sold and accounting for variable promotions and discounts applied by brokers.

11/1/19: Euromoney on U.S. and Global Credit Risk: 2018 in review

My comment on key trends in the U.S. credit risk changes in 2018 and a glimpse into 2019 'crystal ball' for Euromoney and ECRhttps://www.euromoney.com/article/b1cmrkm17q1cm9/ecr-survey-results-2018-us-decouples-from-improving-g10-trend-angola-egypt-lead-africa-recovery.

11/1/19: Capital Gains Tax: Human Capital vs Other Forms of Capital

This is exactly the source of policy-induced wealth inequality in the modern advanced economies: the disparity between labor income tax and capital gains tax that (1) incentivises accumulation of capital gains generating assets; (2) increases wealth inequality arising from non-meritocratic transfers (spousal and inheritance); and (3) reduces gains from meritocratic investment in human capital.

Now, factor this into tax-adjusted returns on various forms of capital: Intangible Capital returns are taxed at a corporate tax level at below the Physical Capital returns tax rates, which fall lower than the Capital Gains tax rate. Meanwhile, returns to the [intangible] Human Capital are taxed at the rates of higher margin Income tax rates. Go figure why wealth inequality is rising (as entrepreneurship is shrinking).

10/1/19: QE or QT? Look at the markets for signals

With U.S. Fed entering the stage where the markets expectations for a pause in monetary tightening is running against the Fed statements on the matter, and the ambiguity of the Fed's forward guidance runs against the contradictory claims from the individual Fed policymakers, the real signals as to the Fed's actual decisions factors can be found in the historical data.

Here is the history of the monetary easing by the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of England and the BOJ since the start of the Global Financial Crisis in two charts:

Chart 1: looking at the timeline of various QE programs against the Fed's balancesheet and the St. Louis Fed Financial Stress Index:

There is a strong correlation between adverse changes in the financial stress index and the subsequent launches of new QE programs, globally.

Chart 2: looking at the timeline for QE programs and the evolution of S&P 500 index:

Once again, financial markets conditions strongly determine monetary authorities' responses.

Which brings us to the latest episode of increases in the financial stress, since the end of 3Q 2018 and the questions as to whether the Fed is nearing the point of inflection on its Quantitative Tightening  (QT) policy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

9/1/19: Student Debt Bubble Adjusted for Wages and Employment Costs Growth

Student loans debt has been steadily rising in recent years, at rates far in excess of the rates of growth in overall credit to the U.S. households. However, the data shows conclusively, that the degree of leverage risk implied by growing student debt is now out of control. Here are two charts, referencing the levels of student debt to earnings and employment costs since 1Q 2005:
Source: Bloomberg

Source: my own calculations based on data from Fred database

In very simple terms, adjusting for labor compensation to college graduates, student debt growth rates since 1Q 2005 have exceeded the growth rates in returns to college degrees. The rate of this excess, cumulated from 2005-2006 period is around 2.5 times. In other words, student debt has grown 2.5 times more than the growth rate in college degree-holder's labour compensation.

9/1/2019: Assets with Negative Returns: 1901-present [Updated]

Updating the chart for major assets performance 1901-present, based on data from http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2018/12/191218-assets-with-negative-returns.html:

This is epic.