Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Economics 11/11/2009: Lagging indicators and leading signals

McKinsey have published their review of the global economic conditions survey for November. Good read as always (here). Few snapshots of main results first:

"For the first time in a year, a majority of respondents—51 percent—say economic conditions
in their countries are better now than they were in September 2008.... [but] only 19 percent say an upturn has begun. This figure rises to a remarkable 33 percent, however, among respondents in Asia’s developed countries."

Cool, but... 49% state that economy either did not improve or worsened relative to September 2008. 64% expect their economy to be better than in September 2008 by the end of Q1 2010 (up from 61% reading in September 2009). So almost 50% believe that their economy is no better now than at the beginning of this recession (full 4 quarters ago) and some 36% believe that it won't come out of the recession even after 6 quarters of straight contraction.

"A larger share of executives also expects the good news to continue, with 47 percent expecting GDP growth to return to pre–September 2008 levels in 2010 or 2011, compared with 40 percent
six weeks ago." Key point here is that this is an improvement in the indicator, not the actual growth signal (which would require a reading above 50%).

"Although the global news is good, there are marked regional differences; executives in the developed countries of Asia are generally the most optimistic, and those in Europe are the least." This tell us what we all knew - European companies are suffering still through the remnants of old pains, banks are yet to suffer most of their pains, and households - well, households in Europe are in a perpetual pain given sticky unemployment and slow consumption growth and household investment. Thus: "Everywhere except Europe, more executives describe the economy over the next several months as “battered but resilient” than say it is frozen, stalled, or regenerated." (see pic below)So much for the European Century story.

But what are the causes of this pessimism in Europe / optimism in Asia scenario? One can speculate:

For example, despite all the crises, all public spending and monetary easing, business leaders worldwide still see Government regulation as one of top three problems (chart below).
What this tells me is that structural issues that have precipitated the current recession have not been addressed. Can one be out of crisis when the causes of crisis in the first place remain intact?

Another interesting issue - future profitability.
I am not sure how you feel about this, but it makes me very uncomfortable for several reasons:
  1. Again, Europe acts as a global drag (just as it was before this crisis), and this is before the hefty tax increases necessary for underwriting recent profligate spending are factored in;
  2. US - think of this as the indicator of future equity values and you can see just how massively is overbought the US equity market;
  3. Overall, all countries which used large state reserves of liquidity to finance current crisis measures (India, China, Asia-Pacific) are on the tearing path for profitability relative to Europe and North America.
Now take the outlook for 12 months ahead:
Let's look at this closer:
  1. Low customer demand for our products or services: the main driver for all types of firms - with profits at risk (66%), static (46%) and expected to rise (41%). Just think what this means for countries that like Ireland are staring at higher taxes into foreseeable future and destroyed households' net worth;
  2. Loss of business to low cost competitors: do I need to say anything here in terms of threats to Ireland Inc? Well, let me put 5 cents in - think of wages path in this economy. While private sector did some cutting (and hardly enough to reach long run equilibrium wages) public sector did none and is unlikely to do much (the latest plan for 6.85% cuts is (a) insufficient, and (b) won't happen in real terms). So overall level of wages in Ireland is really stuck somewhere around 2006 levels.
  3. Competition from new entrants is the worry for leaders in profitability, but it will also impact the developed world economies. Why? Because to counter such entry you need new investment and to have new investment you need capital. Currently, capital is mopped up by Governments financing their deficits through Central Banks' issuance of new cash. Later it will be cleaned out by higher taxes. Not a good prospect going forward.
  4. Low levels of innovation - again go back to capital in (3) and the same investment cycle restart bottlenecks. Ditto for Inability to get funding - Number 7 on the list.
We can go on, but you can see where all this is leading us -
  • our current fiscal and monetary policies will be haunting us down the line into the so-called recovery,
  • while more frugal Governments in China, India (you get the irony here?), Asia and so on, having stayed pre-crisis off the path of unsustainable increases in public spending at rates much faster than growth in their real economies, were able to absorb the crisis with lesser burden of debts.
This is where optimism is now resting globally. We are, therefore, back to the paradigm of "Smaller Governments, Happier Economies"... and healthier households, one might add?

1 comment:

patrick1978 said...

Hi Constantin,
McKinsey report is good but your analysis is the icing on the cake.
I see the Dow Jones shrugged off America's unemployment rate of 10.2%.
I guess once AIG, CITIGROUP and Bank of America get "free money" from American taxpayers to wipe out their debts., investors start buying.
A bit like in Ireland with Brian Lenihans NAMA, AIB technically bankrupt yet you had every tom,dick and harry buying AIB shares at 27 cent.