Archives for February 2013

Q to reduce bonds

In the 1970s, the British comedian, Spike Milligan devised the Q series.  This was a surreal comedy show, which when any particular sketch had come to an end without a suitable punchline, the actors would then wander around saying “What are we going to do now?”  UK economic policy seems to have reached the “What are we going to do now?” stage.

 

On fiscal policy, the coalition government has been and remains totally committed to reducing the budget deficit by a planned, slow but steady austerity approach.  This initially involves an increase in taxes, followed by spending cuts throughout the life of this parliament and now extended well into the next parliament.  Unfortunately, for the UK economy, this well-planned and thoughtful approach has not delivered the budget deficit reductions that were predicted for two main reasons as follows:

 

  • the eurozone crisis meant that the domestic economy of our nearest and largest trading partner was much weaker than expected as even more severe austerity was introduced there than in the UK.
  • all the economists’ models of how an economy performs at a time of government spending cutbacks woefully underestimated the impact of austerity on the overall economy.  The result has been considerably weaker UK economic performance, and much higher budget deficits than forecast by the government.

 

None of the Chancellor’s choices on fiscal policy are politically appealing.  Should he choose:

 

  • to cut spending faster than planned, to try and meet the deficit targets in future years, then even more public sector workers will be put out of work in the run-up to the next Election.
  • to reverse the spending cuts, then he will be accused of admitting that the austerity policy was wrong all along.
  • to do nothing, then he will be accused of having no ideas to boost the economy.  Increasingly, with a little over two years to go until the election, these accusations are likely to come as much from his own MPs as from the Opposition.

 

With regard to monetary policy, Mervyn King, the current Governor of the Bank of England, has managed to thoroughly confuse everyone. For the last twelve months he has been saying that the policy of Quantitative Easing (in place since April 2009) is becoming progressively less effective and that monetary policy cannot solve all the UK’s economic problems.  This is somewhat at variance with his confidence in the policies when they were initially unveiled.  However, the latest minutes from the Monetary Policy Committee showed him in a minority of 3 (against 6), voting for more QE to stimulate the economy at a time when inflation is expected by the Bank to be above its target throughout the next two and a quarter years.

 

Further, the Chancellor, has asked the incoming governor to lead a debate to assess what the appropriate target of monetary policy should be.  Taken all together, one gets the distinct impression that those in charge of UK economic policy have run out of ideas.

 

The investment implications of this uncertainty and indecision have already begun to be seen.   Gilt yields have been rising, and sterling has been falling, evidence that international investors have been reducing holdings of UK government bonds.  A weaker pound is however positive for the profits (in sterling terms) of many of the UK’s largest companies, and so share prices have been rising.  The rise in government bond yields is likely to be mirrored by rising sterling corporate bond yields, and exposure to this asset class should be reduced.

China – now the world’s most important trading nation

Recent data have shown that in 2012, China overtook the USA to become the world’s most important trading nation. On the basis of aggregating total imports and total exports, China’s total international trade amounted to $3.87 trillion, and that of the US was $3.82 trillion. Given that the Chinese economy is only one third the size of the US economy, China has become the most significant trading nation on the planet in terms of both absolute trade and its importance to their economy.

The turn of the twentieth century was when this title last changed hands, when it moved from the UK to the US, and in the following decades the more populous and faster-growing economy (then the US) meant that it became a more and more powerful force in the world economy, culminating in its currency becoming the world’s primary reserve currency.  This status accords a huge advantage to the holder, in that there is an underlying demand from all other nations to hold the reserve currency in order to maintain the ability to trade.  This has been clearly visible for the US, as the dollar makes up the largest proportion of foreign exchange reserves, and most trade in commodities is conducted in dollars.

The dollar is not going to lose its reserve currency status overnight – the yuan is not yet freely convertible and today barely features in the international financial markets. However China’s stated ambition is that it will become the world’s primary reserve currency and take on that role from the dollar.  Since 2005, however, China has slowly but steadily been internationalising its financial markets by (i) allowing more foreign exchange trading, (ii) the issuance of yuan-denominated bonds and (iii) giving more access to foreigners wanting to invest in China’s stock markets.

Just as London maintained its presence as an important centre for financial markets as the US economy and New York overtook it in the twentieth century, though losing market share, so in the this century will Asia and China become the key centre for financial markets.  Success in the investment world in the next few decades will require substantial exposure to Asian markets and an increasing understanding of the impact of Asian economic policies and decisions on our own economy and markets.  We maintain a heavy commitment to Asian equities in portfolios.

Low growth; more jobs?

Over the ten complete quarters that the current UK government has been in power, economic growth has been minus 3%, but total employment has risen by 1%.  For the last calendar year, the data show the size of the economy as unchanged but total employment up by over 550,000 or about 1.6%.  In contrast to the jobless recoveries seen in many Western countries after the 2001 downturn, the UK is experiencing a job-creating recession that is the cause of great head-scratching amongst economists.

Productivity is defined as total output divided by the amount of labour used to produce that output.  It is increasing productivity that produces the increases in the standard of living within an economy.  Historically, productivity growth in the UK economy has averaged about 1.5% per annum, but over the last ten quarters, the UK’s productivity has been averaging minus 1.5% per annum – indicating that the overall standard of living in the UK is declining.

Two sectors in particular account for much of the fall in productivity.  First, North Sea oil output has been in decline for some time now, and requires more effort and resource to produce that declining output.  Secondly, the banking sector (which delivered dramatic productivity growth before 2008) has seen a dramatic fall in output, with little change in total employment.  Many highly-paid bankers have lost their jobs, but the banks have had to hire just as many people in the compliance, risk and legal areas to deal with the aftermath of the banking crisis.

It is also undeniably true that the UK labour market has become very flexible with many businesses making much more use of variable pay structures through bonus systems, meaning that labour costs can be initially lowered by reducing the variable element of compensation, rather than immediately reducing the size of the workforce.  There are also many examples of businesses where workers have agreed to lower wages and benefits, to maintain their jobs.  Average wage growth in the UK has been below inflation for the last four years, so real wages have been falling steadily.

The statistics of the numbers of people employed also show a steep increase in the numbers of self-employed.  However, many of these are actually working very few hours, and so the official data show them as employed but in fact with very little economic output.

Elsewhere, surveys indicate that there is a degree of labour hoarding going on within companies, who fear that by reducing their workforce, they may lose key skills that they might not be able to replace in an upturn.  This however becomes progressively more difficult to maintain as time passes.  It also acts as a potential overhang to the unemployment rate and restrains business and consumer confidence.

The paradox of a job-creating recession reinforces the views and sentiments that were set out in our 2013 investment outlook: 2013 – Limited Growth and New Monetary Policy Regimes .  The UK economy is likely to continue to struggle in 2013.  However, the combination of (i) a governing coalition in the second half of its life and needing some positive economic news, and (ii) the summer arrival of a newly-imported Governor of the Bank of England, who is generally regarded as being much softer on inflation than Lord King, could well lead to a new direction in economic policy, which would bring long-term inflationary consequences.  We continue to recommend positions in index-linked gilts and gold for most investors, to act as a portfolio insurance policy against these inflationary possibilities.