Brexit with Trump

Just six months ago, the probability of victory for each of Brexit and Trump were 30% – and the odds on the double were thus 10-1 against. The world going into 2017 looks a very different and more uncertain place than it did a year ago.

However, Trump’s victory provides the UK with an opportunity to gain a substantially better agreement with the EU than it would have done with a Clinton victory, even though Mrs. Clinton may well have leaned on the EU countries to give the UK a sensible deal.

Trump’s victory has many European governments feeling considerably less secure. With his outspoken admiration of Vladimir Putin and his tendency to see foreign relations as a zero-sum game rather than mutual gains through international agreements, Trump’s view of NATO and European security is very different from his predecessors. For those in Eastern Europe, Putin is today a bigger threat to their borders and US military support less likely to be forthcoming.

One of the few cards that the UK holds in the Brexit negotiations is it deep and unwavering commitment to the military defence of its European allies, and despite the harsh words used against the rest of the EU from those seeking to leave the EU, their military support for the EU has not changed and they have consistently voiced this before, during and since the referendum. That support has now become much more meaningful and valuable, especially to those countries in the former Eastern Europe. 

The desire to punish the UK for its audacity to leave the EU is now (post Trump) more likely to be to seek a strong agreement with a staunch ally who is also a nuclear power. On the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, the basic security of your country is a far more powerful force than the continued existence of a financial passporting system or some controls on the uninhibited movement of people between countries.

In addition, once again, through their votes, the UK and the US have shown the similarity of their thought processes (a clear parallel being  the ascensions of Thatcher and then Reagan), which often baffle European minds.  Maintaining a close and friendly relationship with the UK is likely to be helpful to Europeans in understanding and interpreting the actions of the US. Trump has spent time in the UK (though mostly in Scotland), has openly identified his success with Brexit and did

promise to put the UK at the front of the queue for a trade agreement post-Brexit, following Obama’s threat that it would be at the back of the queue. Though of course this would be strictly on Trump’s terms, and have almost no cost to US jobs – it would enable him to show that there are some trade deals he will do if they are right for the US. The EU-US trade deal, already stymied by European doubts before Trump’s  success is now dead in the water.

Trump’s victory will change the world in many ways, but one of the more surprising ones is likely to be that the UK obtains a better exit agreement from the EU than would have occurred without Trump.

In the down phase of the trade deals cycle

The UK’s referendum decision to leave the EU, leaves it seeking new trade deals not only with the rest of the EU but also with the 50 or so nations with whom the EU has trade deals in place. The new minister for International Trade (Liam Fox) has also indicated that he would be keen to see trade deals with the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and China. Without trade deals, countries may impose tariffs on imports of goods and stiff regulations on imports of services.

Not only does the UK have very few experienced trade negotiators, since this has long since outsourced to the EU but the UK’s demand to make trade deals comes at a most inopportune time in the trade deals cycle. Recent events indicate the momentum and desire for agreeing trade deals have reversed.

The trade deals cycle began to turned upwards in 1986 when talks for the Uruguay Round within GATT began – with the free market philosophies of Thatcher and Reagan leading the way for countries to reduce the barriers to international trade that were in place. The talks concluded successfully in 1994 with an agreement that reduced global tariffs on goods substantially, so boosting the volume of trade. Other key free trade agreements have been NAFTA which came into force in 1994, the development of the EU Single Market in the 80s and 90s, where Mrs Thatcher did much to drive progress.

As part of that agreement the World Trade Organisation was set up in 1995 to take over GATT’s responsibilities for matters relating to international trade. In 2001 the WTO initiated the Doha Round, at the same time as China was admitted to membership of the WTO. The accession of China to the WTO saw a further dramatic rise in global trade volumes until 2008.

In hindsight this was peak of the trade deal cycle and agreement between nations to reduce trade barriers. No significant progress has been made since then.

The aim of the Doha Round was to further reduce global trade barriers especially within agriculture and services. It had an original deadline for an agreement by 2005, but was plagued by difficulties – negotiations collapsed in Geneva in 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis has meant that since then national governments have been unwilling to make concessions that might harm their citizens.

In recent years, following the collapse of the Doha Round there have been three attempts at major non-global trade agreements. These are between (i) the US and the EU via the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) talks, launched in 2013, (ii) the US and other American and Pacific nations via the TPP (Transpacific Partnership) and (iii) Canada and the EU via the CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) talks, negotiated between 2009 and 2014.

Of these TTIP talks have got stuck – the original intention to conclude by 2014 has been extended to 2019 but across Europe there is increasing unhappiness at the secrecy of the proposals and the progress of negotiations. The TTP talks produced an agreement but requires ratification from the US – during the campaign Donald Trump has stated his opposition to this and other trade agreements and would not ratify it, and Hillary Clinton, having been a supporter of it when in government has now said that she would not ratify it. The CETA has recently run aground as EU ratification of the Treaty requires each of the 28 member states to ratify it individually and Belgium cannot do so without the agreement of the Walloon parliament, which is currently firmly opposed to doing so, seeing as a further dangerous step towards globalisation.

Trade deals have lost their political support and the momentum of the trade deal cycle is now firmly down. Though the UK and the rest of the EU ought to be able to agree on a post-Brexit trade deal given the economic benefits to both sides, for the UK to conclude many other significant trade deals is likely to be a very long and arduous process.

The UK’s post-Brexit need for free trade deals will prove to be cyclically poorly-timed and a negotiating weakness at a time when countries are growing increasingly suspicious of the benefits of such deals.

 

ECONOMIC AND MARKETS OUTLOOK FOR 2014

Economic outlook

Five years on from interest rates being cut to almost zero in most Western economies, and the introduction of QE programmes in the US, UK and Japan, the global economy finally seems to be moving onto a more secure footing.  Risks remain though, particularly the high levels of government and consumer debt in most Western economies, which remain a constraint on future growth.  In addition, the weakness in inflation indices and continued high levels of unemployment, mean that a renewed global economic downturn, in the immediate future would be very damaging, as there would be very little policy flexibility to offset economic weakness.  Our regional views are as follows:

  • The UK economy has been recovering strongly since last spring when the Help to Buy scheme was announced.  This recovery has been led by housing and mortgage demand, rather than by the business investment that is required for a healthy and sustainable economic recovery.  However, the consumer can drive a continued recovery through 2014 and up to the 2015 election, if savings rates continue to fall.
  • The US economy has entered 2014 growing at a near 3% pace, and this is expected to continue for 2014.  As in the UK, business investment is still a problem, as companies appear far more concerned with growing dividends and buying back shares to boost their share prices than by investing for future growth.
  • The European economy is still struggling. Growth should be positive in 2014 after close to zero in 2013, but recovery will be constrained by continued austerity by most governments, negative inflation rates in many peripheral economies, and by banks still seeking to reduce their loan books ahead of the ECB’s Asset Quality Review later in 2014.
  • The Japanese economy continues to respond to Abenomics.  The increase in the National Sales Tax from 5% to 8%, which will take place in April, will mean a strong first quarter but a weak second quarter.  However, the Bank of Japan has indicated that it is ready to increase its already large QE programme to mitigate any economic weakness.
  • In Asia, Chinese growth is slowing as the  authorities there are seeking a rebalancing of growth away from the wasteful over-investment seen in recent years towards greater consumer spending.  Higher wages have been a key part of this, but this has been funnelled into property speculation rather than consumption.  The central bank is trying to deflate the housing market without deterring the consumer from spending.
  • Other emerging economies are facing problems as the improvements in growth elsewhere are impacting the flows of financial market liquidity, which have been supporting them.  Current account deficits in Brazil, Turkey and South Africa, are now causing falls in their currencies and higher interest rates in response, which will lead to weaker growth in 2014.

2014 should see the world economy move back towards a more normal pace of growth.  For central banks, the dilemma is when to move back to more normal settings for monetary policy.  We believe that official interest rates are unlikely to rise in the West during 2014, as it is likely that central banks will err on the side of risking creating inflation rather than risking creating more unemployment.

Markets outlook

Entering 2014, the consensus amongst most investors on the prospects for the global economy and for stock markets in 2014 is one of greater optimism than for several years.    However the two factors of improved economic prospects and stronger financial markets, do not necessarily occur simultaneously.  Indeed, stronger economic growth has already led to the Fed tapering its QE programme, and investors bringing forward their expectations of when interest rates will begin to rise.  Typically, the financial markets perform well in expectation of improved growth, but when that growth appears, the liquidity in the financial markets is then needed by the real economy for investment.  This tends to mean rising bond yields and falling P/E ratios, and subdued investment returns.

For the UK markets in particular, the domestic pension funds have experienced a significant improvement in their funding position from the combination of rising equity prices and rising bond yields. Many schemes are being advised by their actuaries to take advantage of this improvement and to “de-risk” their portfolios by reducing equities and buying index-linked bonds.

Within bond markets, we are not particularly hopeful of much in the way of returns in 2014, and hold UK index-linked bonds for their favourable tax treatment, and the option they provide should UK inflation expectations increase.  Emerging market government bonds issued in US dollars now offer attractive yields for the level of credit risk that they bring (such as those witnessed in the recent poor economic developments in Turkey and Argentina).

We favour UK commercial property, where we believe that the market cycled has reversed from falling rents and capital values to one where rents and capital values are rising.  The yields on commercial property are also attractive compared with those available on bonds and equities.

Within equity markets, we favour: (i) Japan, but with the yen exposure hedged, as the Bank of Japan will continue to print money until economic recovery and inflation appear well-set; (ii) UK smaller companies, which for many years have not delivered the extra performance over large and medium-sized companies normally achieved from such investments – the current strength we are witnessing in the UK domestic economy should be reflected in better performance from smaller companies;  and (iii) Asia, where valuations are historically below average in absolute terms and long term growth prospects remain strong.  We have a neutral view on the larger companies in the UK equity market, with valuations on the FTSE100 Index near their long term averages.  The market would benefit from weakness in the pound, as profits in the second half of 2013 have been hurt by the strength of Sterling against the Dollar, Euro and Yen.  We expect the Dollar to be the strongest currency in 2014, but would expect a stronger Pound against the  Euro and Yen.

We are more cautious on the US and European equity markets.  In the US, corporate earnings expectations are already very high, and the valuations on those expectations are also at historically high levels, so strong performance from US equities will be difficult to achieve.  In Europe, in addition to high expectations of earnings growth and above-average valuations, as in the US, the growth outlook also remains subdued, bringing an extra degree of risk to European share prices.

We expect equities to outperform bonds during 2014, as they did in 2013 but expect the year to be both less profitable and more volatile for investors.

 

Syria – Assad situation

Syria is a secular state, but the religious breakdown of the Syrian population is approximately 74% Sunni Muslims, 16% Shia Muslims, 10% Christian (source – CIA World Factbook).  However, the al-Assad family which has ruled Syria since 1971 are Alawites (one of the branches of Shia Islam), and government positions are mainly held by Alawites.  The Arab Spring – the movement across the Middle East which sought to overthrow long-established autocratic leaders – saw an uprising in Syria against the Assad government; this began in March 2011 and the ensuing civil war continues today, with the Assad regime determined to stay in power.  It has become a war between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  Both share many of the same beliefs, but the Sunni Muslims, who represent about two-thirds of Muslims in the Middle East region, believe in the authority of the Koran and the sayings and actions of the prophet Mohammed as the source of truth and wisdom, whilst Shia Muslims believe that Allah has appointed certain people from Mohammed’s descendants and that they possess special spiritual and political authority over their community.

The key allies of the Syrian government are Iran and Russia.  Iran is the largest Shia Muslim state and a neighbour, and is thus determined to ensure that Syria remains controlled by Shia Muslims.  Iran and Syria have been strategic allies since the Iran-Iraq War when Syria sided with Iran, sharing a common hostility to Saddam Hussein, as well as to the US and Israel.  For Russia, Syria is of geo-strategic importance as an ally, since the Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base.  In the UN Security Council, Russia has consistently supported Syria against the imposition of UN sanctions and in providing arms to the government.

Saudi Arabia has been the biggest supporter of the Syrian rebels, providing finance and arms. Saudi is predominantly Sunni Muslim and its official form is Wahhabism, often described by critics as being “puritanical” or “intolerant”.  Both Iran and Saudi have aspirations to be seen as the leaders of Islam, and Saudi interests would be served by the rebels overthrowing the Assad government and installing a Sunni regime, thus gaining a new major ally and depriving Iran of the same.

Al-Qaeda is a terrorist Islamic organisation, which sees its targets as both any non-Muslim influence on Muslim countries (hence its attacks on the US and the UK), and any non-Sunni branches of Islam. They are widely believed to be very active in supporting the Syrian rebels with finance, troops and weapons.

Qatar is another Sunni-dominated Muslim country which has given heavy support to the rebels.  Qatar is a tiny country with huge gas reserves and is very keen to build a gas pipeline into Europe via Turkey. To get to Turkey, it must pass through either Saudi Arabia or Syria, and Saudi is currently blocking the proposals.  A more reliable and Qatar-friendly government in Syria would make a huge difference to its ability to supply gas to the European market.

Israel has little direct interest in the Syrian civil war other than to be very aware that should the US engage in military action, then it poses a very convenient and close target for retaliation by Syria.  It would though be more wary of a religious-led government in Syria than the current secular government.

In the initial stages of the Syrian civil war, the three Western permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, the UK and France were generally sympathetic to the Syrian rebels, on the grounds that a minority grouping ran the country against the wishes of the majority grouping, which would not occur in a properly-functioning democracy.   However as time has gone on, the active support of Al-Qaeda to the rebels has limited the Western desire to take sides actively in the civil war, and instead seek to broker opportunities for peace.

About a year ago, President Obama warned Assad that he would regard any use of chemical weapons in the dispute as breaching a “red-line” for him, and would be unacceptable.  Last week the US announced that they were convinced such weapons had been used by Assad.

The US faces a set of very poor choices: (i) if it decides upon military intervention and this leads to the overthrow of the Assad regime, they are likely to find that Syria’s next rulers hate the US with just as much passion as Assad, and indeed Al-Qaeda supporters may well find themselves in power; (ii) if it decides upon military intervention and this does not lead to a change in the regime, then it will look weak and Assad will become a bigger hero in the eyes of many Arabs; or (iii) if it decides against military intervention, then Obama will have allowed Assad to cross one of his “red-lines” without incurring any serious consequences.  This will be noted and seen as weakness by Iran and North Korea where Obama has also set out “red-lines” over their development of nuclear weapons.

From its beginnings as an internal uprising during the Arab Spring to its evolution as a sectarian Muslim civil war, markets have taken little notice of Syria.  It is only now, as it nears turning into a proxy war between superpowers that the gold and oil prices have started to rise, and markets have begun to be wary.  The lack of public support in the US for military intervention is however likely to mean that Obama will not wish to get heavily involved in Syria beyond a round of air strikes at key Syrian targets.

We are not recommending any changes to portfolios in the light of the Syrian crisis – we expect tensions over the next few weeks, but in the end we believe that the US will not seek a deep involvement in Syria, as it has no major national interest in the outcome of the civil war and no clear objectives and strategy that would inform any deeper involvement.  However, should there be a clear escalation of US involvement in the conflict, the risks to the oil price and the world economy would become much larger.

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.

A layman’s guide to Quantitative Easing

Until very recently, Central Banks generally conducted their monetary policy through changing their key reference interest rate, which was generally the rate at which they would lend to the commercial banks on a short term basis supported by acceptable collateral. Thus the economy was regulated by changing the price of money. Theoretically, by increasing the rate of interest in the economy, the desire to borrow and spend would be reduced and the desire to save would be increased, and economic growth and inflation should fall back. Conversely, reducing interest rates should help to boost economic growth. It is generally accepted by monetary economists that the impact of changing interest rates takes between one and two years to have its full effects on the economy.

However in late 2008, the shock to the global economy from the financial crash that most Central Banks cut interest rates to the lowest practical levels (somewhere between zero and 1%, depending on the system), but still felt that they needed to ease policy further to offset the strong recessionary forces that were being experienced.

Thus, they turned from easing through changing the price of money in the economy to easing through changing the quantity of money in the economy (hence the rather ugly term “Quantitative Easing” (“QE”)). The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England began their QE programmes in April 2009, but in fact the Bank of Japan had been engaging in QE policies since 2003, its rates having reached zero in the previous global downturn.

Until this century, QE had only ever been seen as a theoretical tool in the Central Banker’s arsenal. It was a lesson that some (most notably Ben Bernanke) learned from the Great Depression, where once interest rates reached a low point, the Central Banks felt that there was nothing else they could do. There is thus no history or experience to examine to determine if it works or how it works. The current policy is therefore a live economic experiment.

The manner in which Central Banks have indicated they expect QE to work is as follows. The Central Bank goes into the financial markets and buys securities, typically government bonds, although the Federal Reserve has also bought mortgage-backed securities, and the Bank of Japan has also bought equities and REITs. To finance this they create the money (digitally) and use it to pay the seller of the security (typically a bank). The bank’s assets now consist of more cash and less securities. Typically the income return on the cash will be lower than the income return on the securities they have just sold, and so they have a decision to make. They could choose (i) to maintain the lower income stream, because they might have a great need for liquidity, (ii) to go back into the securities markets and buy some other securities to maintain their income, or (iii) increase their lending to companies or households. Choosing (i) has no impact on the real economy and choosing (iii) clearly has a major impact because it is helping directly to boost demand and spending in the economy.

In practice, what has happened is that banks have chosen (ii), and have sought to maintain their income stream by investing in higher-risk securities. Thus yields have fallen first on government bonds, then on investment-grade corporate bonds and finally on high-yield bonds. This then gives companies the opportunity to borrow at lower rates of interest in the financial markets, which could be used to fund investment. QE, to date, has been a policy that has clearly supported financial markets – it is difficult to see a direct effect on bank lending and economic growth, but it is likely (and claimed by the Central Banks) that economic growth would have been much weaker without QE.

There are some problems with continued applications of QE. Firstly, it is generally believed by economists that QE policies have less impact as they are repeated. Since it is such an unusual policy, the first time it is deployed it has a shock effect, but later iterations do not as the financial system adapts its behaviour to the policy. Secondly, the liquidity of the underlying financial markets may be damaged. For example, the Bank of England now owns more than one-third of all gilts outstanding, and has no current plans to sell them, so the level of liquidity in the gilt market has been reduced by the policy.

The great fear that many commentators have about QE is that by creating more and more money in the financial system without greater economic output, the end result must inevitably be higher prices. In fact higher expected inflation is one of the objectives of the policy, since if people expect higher prices in the future it is rational to buy things now before they rise in price, and so boost demand in the economy today. The response of the Central Bankers would be to say that QE is a reversible policy, and the bonds that they have purchased, can very easily be sold back into the financial markets, so reducing the excess liquidity in the system, and the inflationary threat.

To date, a more realistic concern has been that there is no evidence anywhere in the world where QE has worked. It clearly has not brought Japan out of its long term stagnation, and so far neither the US or UK economies can be said to have recovered strongly. The reason for this is that the extra liquidity generated has remained within the financial system and not found its way into the real economy, and so boosted real demand. If the underlying causes of weak economic growth are that the banking system has overlent relative to its capital, that consumers feel their debt levels are too high, and both feel that they need to retrench (or in the jargon, deleverage their balance sheets), then the current policy of QE will not actually affect the desire to borrow or to lend.

A more radical policy option would be to print money and ensure that it was only used in ways that directly benefitted the consumer’s balance sheet. Thus £450 billion (only a little more than the total QE to date) could be used to give every adult in the country £10,000 to be used either to repay debt, or towards a deposit for the purchase of a first home or into a pension pot. By improving the savings to debt ratio of each adult in the country, the time at which they will once again feel happy to spend more will be brought forward.

Coming soon – a real electoral debate about the US fiscal deficit and a weak 2013

Recent general election campaigns in fiscally-challenged countries such as the UK, Spain and France have been noticeable for their politicians’ reluctance to spell out specific measures that they would introduce to bring down the enormous fiscal deficits in these countries. The electoral success of the right-of-centre parties in the UK and Spain was however immediately followed by significant programmes of cutbacks to government spending as well as some tax increases.

It is now clear that the US Presidential election will be between Obama and Romney (who would have believed five years ago that a US election would be between an African-American and a Mormon). With Obama having presided over trillion dollar deficits throughout his term in office, how best to manage these deficits and the ensuing government debt will be the key battleground of the election campaign. The two candidates will argue from the two opposing economic and political traditions. Obama, the Keynesian, a believer in public spending acting as a stimulus to the economy to offset private sector deleveraging against Romney, the orthodox conservative, a believer in small government and balanced budgets. Obama wants to tax the richest 1% more and maintain government benefits to the poorest in society whilst Romney wishes to cut taxes, particularly for the wealth-creators, and cut all areas of government spending except for defence (in practice this means welfare  and health spending). It is only in America that Obama’s tax plans for the top 1% would be called “class warfare” and many would agree with that assessment.

Both men are highly intelligent, clear thinkers, who can produce very articulate presentations of their respective cases and let the American people then make an informed decision as to in which direction they want their country to go for the next four years. It could be democracy’s finest hour (or three months) although the history of recent elections tends to suggest that other rather more superficial issues will also get much attention.

The end of this year though is critical for US public finances, as both sides have put off all the difficult decisions regarding the budget until after the November election. If nothing changes between now and next January 1st then 2013 will see the expiry of the Bush tax cuts, which heavily benefit those whose income is high and generated from corporate dividends, and the Obama payroll tax cuts which benefit those in work. In addition, spending cuts affecting both defence and welfare in roughly equal measure are due to come into effect. If all these measures are allowed to come into being at one time the aggregate effect is likely to be to drive the US economy straight into recession. However no one expects all these measures actually to occur though – if Obama wins he will seek to reduce the welfare cuts and extend the payroll tax cuts and if Romney wins her will seek to reduce the defence cuts and extend the Bush tax cuts.

Financial markets do not appear to have these measures in focus just yet, or be paying attention to the fact that whoever wins there will be significant fiscal consolidation in 2013. They should be because Europe’s recent history demonstrates clearly that this consolidation, also known as austerity, necessarily involves reducing people’s disposable incomes, either because taxes are rising or because government spending is falling, and that this has to have an initial, deflationary effect on private sector demand. 2013 is very likely to be a pretty bad year for the US (and thus probably also for the world) economy. Markets tend to look 6 to 9 months ahead, so the next few weeks should see them begin to discount this weakness – this should be good for government bonds but less good for equities.

Is Quantitative Easing reaching its sell-by date?

Nearly 3 years ago the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, having taken interest rates to  just about zero but still believing that they needed to make policy even easier, announced a new policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) as their preferred route to help their economies recover. Recovery did followed, although in keeping with previous post banking crisis environments, this recovery has been weak and inconsistent. This unconventional policy was pursued because the conventional interest rate tool had reached its physical limits and with fiscal debt and deficits so high, so too had fiscal stimulus as a policy. The unconventional policy, QE, was the only thing left.

There are good grounds now for believing that the QE approach adopted to date is also approaching sensible limits. In the UK, the Bank of England will shortly own over a third of all UK government bonds outstanding – amazing as it might appear with a  trillion pound national debt which has doubled in just 4 years, there is potentially a shortage of government bonds. This is due to new, post-crisis rules on capital adequacy for both banks and insurance companies which drive these institutions towards holding many more government bonds. With many gilts also held as the underpinning of pensioner annuity payments, a continued steady reduction in the budget deficit could mean that there are simply not enough gilts available to be bought if the Bank judged that much more QE was necessary

In the US the enormous market in mortgage bonds issued by what are effectively government entities makes this less of a problem than in the UK, but it was very noticeable that the second round of QE in the US in 2010/11 resulted in a surge in commodity prices, including gold, which pushed up inflation in the US, reduced disposable income and contributed to a weakening economy, as opposed to the economic stimulus that was intended.

So if further Quantitative Easing of monetary may now be either not implementable or counterproductive, then what can the Central Banks do if they decide that their economies require further stimulus. Both the Bank of Japan and Bernanke have previously suggested that a further tool that could be deployed is for the Central Bank to buy equities in the secondary market and so push up equity prices. Terrific for shares and all those executives with share options, but it is not clear that this then leads onto companies raising new equity finance in order to invest which is the rationale for such a policy.

The problem for all monetary policy approaches post a banking crisis is that there are two economies, a financial economy which requires reliquefication, recapitalisation and write-offs of bad assets and a real economy which cannot gain finance from the financial economy and produce growth until the financial economy is cleansed and functioning again. In economic jargon, the monetary transmission mechanism from financial sector to real economy is broken and so QE although in theory a logical policy, in practice only gets adopted when things are so bad that it will not work.

The aggressive Quantitative Easing solution, which Central Banks have not yet adopted is “helicopter money”. This is where the government prints new money and drops it out of helicopters (or via tax cuts and higher welfare payments) into the real economy. This is very likely to work in boosting the economy in the short term (people have more money in their pockets and so go out and spend some of it), but it will not be long before there is an inflation problem. This is clearly an economic policy beset with risk and the reason that Central Banks prefer to work through the financial system, even though it does not function well – in Zimbabwe this policy led ultimately to the printing of Z$100 trillion notes.

Quantitative Easing is near its sell-by date – something different will be tried next, and whatever that policy is, it will mean more government interference in the economy and more (long term) inflation. Stay long of gold!

Elections and political transitions in 2012 – January 2012

This year brings elections or organised transitions in political leadership in Russia, the US, China and France. Such periods can lead to unpredictability in economic policy ahead of these transitions as current leaders seek to avoid bad news in order either to win the election or to go out on a high. Similarly the period immediately after an election or leadership transition is usually one where the leader has most political capital and will generally seek to execute his or her most vital or most cherished policies. These may not necessarily be those policies which are most appropriate in an economic sense but are the most appropriate in a political sense. With so many transitions in such important nations this year, the scope for good politics to triumph over good economics is very large.

The US election is now underway with the Republican primaries firing the starting gun. The two parties are ideologically further apart than at any time in living memory (the phrase “class warfare” is being used a lot), and the Democrat President is unable to get the Republican Congress to agree to anything he wants to do. This year policy is in limbo, US politicians are unlikely to agree on doing anything  with regard to economic policy – this is understood and to some extent accepted by the markets, but action must be taken in 2013 to start reducing the fiscal deficit and the candidates are unlikely to reveal to the electorate just how bad things will need to be in terms of spending cuts or tax increases. In addition, upcoming elections require all candidates to stand up very strongly for American interests in any international dispute – in trade matters this can easily spill over into protectionist policies to “safeguard American jobs”.

In China, a new generation of leaders will come to power just before the US election – at the top level there will be no shocks but there is much manoeuvring still going on for the next level down, who will form the leadership team in five years time. Chinese officials will struggle to allow or tolerate “bad” economic news, and any further weakness of the type seen in recent months may well generate another dramatic stimulus response of the sort seen in early 2009. In foreign and trade policy also, it will be important for the Chinese to be seen to be stoutly defending their interests to safeguard Chinese jobs.

France is the most interesting story with its May Presidential elections. First it means that Sarkozy cannot allow anyone to leave the euro before the elections, because all his efforts over the last two years to “save the euro” would have visibly failed – therefore more summits and buying of time with new initiatives is very likely. However were he to remain President (unlikely from the current opinion polls), he would never have to face the French voters again – he could afford to try to be a European statesman and actually may be prepared to adopt a more German solution to the euro crisis, even at the expense of traditional French interests. By contrast markets might get a nasty shock were his main challenger Francois Hollande to win the Presidency. He is a fairly unreconstructed socialist, and would have few political soulmates in Europe, and has already declared that the current policies of austerity and institutional change to force countries into more restrictive fiscal policies are unacceptable to him. It is difficult to see Angela Merkel willing to give much of the ground that Hollande would require in order for France and Germany to continue to lead the efforts to save the euro. Either way the French election looks likely to be absolutely pivotal in determining which way the euro crisis gets resolved.

Amidst all this, the UK looks to be a rather stable place. The coalition looks set to soldier on – the Liberals cannot afford to leave since the ensuing election would see them almost wiped out, whilst Cameron benefits from pursuing the economic policies that he believes is necessary but seeing the blame laid on the Liberals. The economic policy of steady austerity has been set for the next few years and no change will be considered until much closer to the planned 2015 election. For Cameron, current economic policy is both economically and politically appropriate and he stands in a place that many of his fellow world leaders would wish to be.