In or Out – the UK’s European hokey-cokey

For the last 50 years the UK has had a tortuously ambivalent political relationship with the rest of Europe – the referendum will not resolve this. This is for reasons of both geography and history. As an island with nothing but sea to the west but a huge landmass to the east, the UK is both naturally separated, and hence different, from the rest of Europe and at the same time ineluctably tied to and influenced by what happens there. The UK is both a part of Europe and not a part of Europe. This is reinforced by the sharing of a common language with the largest economy in the world, so providing the US with its key gateway to the European continent. Half of the UK’s trade is with Europe, emphasising the importance of the relationship, and of course the other half is not.

Post-war history has highlighted the indecision of the UK with regard to its relationship with Europe. In the early days of inter-government discussions between the nations to discuss political and economic co-operation and integration in the 1950s, the UK was largely absent and played no part, believing such plans were of little interest or relevance to them. By the early 1960s this indifference had turned to concern as it became clear that important economic decisions were being made in Europe that were affecting the UK’s interests. Macmillan changed course and decided the UK needed to join the European project, but was dismayed to find that the UK’s entry was vetoed by de Gaulle’s. So the 60s was a decade of the UK banging on the door of Europe but not being allowed in.

Ted Heath’s premiership in the early 70s was built around heavy diplomatic efforts aimed at negotiating the UK’s entry into the Common Market. This was finally achieved in 1973 at which point domestic politics intervened and Labour came to power with an election mandate to renegotiate the terms of entry which had only just been agreed, and then to hold a referendum. The renegotiation delivered very little and the public voted 2 to 1 to stay in.

For most of her premiership in the 80s, Margaret Thatcher was a convinced pro-European, because she saw it as good for business, and it was she who pushed hard in negotiations with the rest of Europe to deliver the European single market – the UK at this time was consistently arguing for more European integration, with opposition from much of the rest of Europe!

This reversed dramatically in the 90s as Jacques Delors led the European drive towards monetary union and the creation of the euro. In the UK this was seen as a backdoor way of seeking greater political union and sparked the rise of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, which has been the key faultline within the party ever since. Major European initiatives since then such as the Schengen free travel area and the single currency have seen the UK opt out, while letting others move forward together in greater integration.

The Blair and Brown governments in the Noughties were keen to be seen as leading Europe, with both men seeking to extend British influence by positive engagement, but increasingly the UK media railed against Brussels bureaucracy and increasing European regulation.

David Cameron was forced, for reasons of maintaining short-term party unity, to cede a second referendum, and polls, with less than a week until the vote, show a nation badly split over whether to remain in or leave the EU.

Though the shorter term consequences of the vote will be significant, on a longer term view, the UK’s essential ambivalence in its attitude to Europe will persist.

A victory for Remain will be seen as a rather grudging acceptance that the economic benefits of staying in (which have been very real for the UK economy over the last 40 years) are worth the perceived loss of sovereignty and democratic accountability, but there are few in the UK who have made an emotionally charged positive case for Europe. The UK would continue to be in but the tone will be reluctantly in – the historic ambivalence will continue.

A victory for Leave, though at first sight a clear statement that the UK does not wish to be tied to Europe, will not bring to an end the need for close understanding of European rules. The most successful UK , in services, in order to trade successfully with Europe, will be forced to comply with whatever regulations the rest of Europe decides to impose, not just with regard to those specific industries but also more generally with regard to European laws, which the UK will have no part in deciding.

The UK’s destiny with Europe is thus set to remain halfway “In” and halfway “Out” – the UK’s European hokey-cokey. The referendum will be a significant event in the UK-European relationship but will not change that fate.

Nippon Europe?

Angela Merkel’s favourite set of facts about Europe are that it represents 7% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s GDP and 50% of the world’s social spending. It is this that informs Germany’s insistence that the rest of the Eurozone meet their budget deficit targets.  In recent years, through harsh austerity, the peripheral economies have made good progress in reducing their budget deficits.  Progress has been very disappointing at the core of Europe and in particular France and Italy, which together represent almost 37% of the Eurozone economy.  These countries still have much painful restructuring to come, which will continue to depress demand in the Eurozone as a whole: Europe’s economy is likely to continue to stagnate and it increasingly resembles the Japanese economy of 10 – 15 years ago in terms of high levels of public debt, poor demographics and weak policy action.  We believe Europe offers few opportunities for profitable investment in the next few years, and therefore remain VERY LIGHT in Europe in our model portfolios.

The second quarter data for Eurozone growth was disappointing, showing zero growth for the Eurozone as a whole, and of great concern for the health of the core, all of the three largest economies (Germany, France and Italy) reported negative growth:

  • Growth in Germany has been hurt by the switch and slowdown in spending in China, away from investment and infrastructure spending towards consumer spending, and also by the sanctions imposed on Russia – two trends that seem likely to persist for some time;
  • The French Government has been forced to admit that their economy will not grow this year, and they expect only 1% GDP growth in 2015, with the result that France will not be able to meet the EU targets for budget deficit reduction, which have already been extended by two years from the original target dates. Though Francois Hollande accepts the need for French austerity and reform, many of his Socialist Party colleagues are opposed to the necessary measures and are unlikely to vote for them in parliament. The recent dissolution of the cabinet highlights the growing division within the Socialist Party;
  • In Italy the economy has already endured a lost decade. The size of the economy in real terms has not grown since Q1 2000, and in nominal terms has not grown since Q3 2007. The budget deficit remains large, but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has effectively warned his Eurozone partners that he will seek to ignore the EU budget and fiscal rules designed to reduce Italy’s debt/GDP ratio. Italy’s finances would be in far healthier shape but for the interest that has to be paid on Italy’s €2 trillion government debt.

The stage is now set for a major argument within the Eurozone between Germany and the Northern economies (mainly Finland, the Netherlands and Austria) who are currently demanding that France and Italy reduce their deficits and the countries themselves, which appear very reluctant to take the necessary measures. This is likely to lead to a long period of drift amongst the leaders of the Eurozone, and create uncertainty about the future direction of European economic policy.

Meanwhile, clear evidence of progress in the periphery can be seen in the record of both Ireland and Spain’s private sectors, which have been at the forefront of efforts to make their industries more competitive with Germany since 2008.  From 1998 to 2008, Irish and Spanish Unit Labour Costs (“ULCs”), which represent the average cost of labour per unit of output, rose steadily while German ULCs were unchanged, and so the former became increasingly uncompetitive. Since 2008, German ULCs have risen but Irish and Spanish ULCs have fallen back, bringing their economies back to the competitiveness relative to Germany last seen in in 2005.

In France and Italy, in contrast to Ireland and Spain, ULCs have continued to rise since 2008 – there has been no improvement in competitiveness relative to Germany. The core of the Eurozone economy is steadily becoming less able to compete in global markets, which has negative implications for the potential for these economies to grow.  Both France and Italy need the austerity in both public and private sectors that the peripheral economies have been undergoing in the last few years.

Europe’s economic problems – (i) excessive public sector debt, (ii) poor demographics and (iii) a banking system suspected to be hiding considerable bad debts, leaving banks unwilling to lend – are eerily similar to those of Japan over the last two decades, an economy which has seen zero nominal GDP growth over that period, and is now embarking on one of the most extraordinary policies of money-printing ever seen in a developed economy. There is also a fourth problem, which is the existence of the Euro with its flawed construction that seeks to deliver a monetary union without a political union.  For many countries, remaining in the Euro requires strong deflationary policies, while coming out of the Euro would be seen as a hugely negative political loss of face.

The peripheral economies have taken their medicine, with frightening results in terms of youth unemployment and living standards in recent years. The same, however, cannot be said of France and Italy, and when the dose is taken, given the size of their economies it will lead to far greater repercussions on the European economy, than was seen with the peripheral economies.  With a strong currency, high unemployment and weak wage growth, the medium term outlook for the Eurozone economy is bleak, and returns to investors will be challenging to find.  The ECB is the one institution that could break the logjam, but to do so would require a QE programme on such an enormous scale that Germany could never accept it.  If the ECB does resort to a policy of QE, it will likely be too small to be effective, and will merely lead to disappointed financial markets.   We therefore remain VERY LIGHT in Europe in our model portfolios.

 

 

 

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.

 

The single currency – making Germany more European or Europe more German?

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall when Kohl wanted to press ahead with the reunification of Germany, the price of Mitterand’s acceptance of this was to demand that Germany share the power of its currency with the rest of Europe (or more particularly France) in a monetary union. Germany agreed provided that the guardian of the currency, the ECB, was made in the image of the Bundesbank, with its rigorous implementation of policies to control inflation. Both were happy because Mitterand believed he was making Germany more European, Kohl believed he was making Europe more German and the Bundesbank believed that it had the right to criticise and have a special influence over the policies of the ECB.

Until last year, the ECB did indeed operate in much the same way as the Bundesbank would have done, tending to be quick to raise interest rates and rather slow to cut them. After a Dutchman and a Frenchman, it was to have been a German, Axel Weber, who was expected to take over the ECB Presidency. However, he resigned following the introduction of the ECB policy of limited buying of the bonds of troubled peripheral governments, which in retrospect was a fairly minor breach of Bundesbank monetary orthodoxy. The man selected to take over the Presidency was Mario Draghi, an Italian and a former investment banker.

By the time Draghi took over as President in November, Europe was in deep crisis, and the ability of the politicians to respond with bailout money funded by the other governments was almost nil. If the Euro were to survive it would require extraordinary monetary policy measures. Draghi understood this and introduced two Long Term Repurchase Operations, lending unlimited money to any Eurozone bank at 1% for 3 years. Much of this was used by the Spanish and Italian banks to buy their own government bonds trading at much higher yields. For the Bundesbank this was pretty close to the direct funding of government deficits, which is illegal – they were unhappy but did not oppose it.

The crisis has worsened during this year and Spain has become close to joining the ranks of those on the bailout list. Doing so would use up most the capacity of the bailout funds (which were designed to be so big that they would never need to be used). Over the summer, Draghi has come out with a new bond-buying plan for which he has garnered substantial support. Under the plan, if the politicians agree to a sovereign bail-out with conditions, and use some of the bail-out funds set up for the purpose, then the ECB will buy bonds of those countries to maintain their deficit financing costs at a reasonable level, in potentially unlimited amounts.

Rather neatly, everyone, except the Bundesbank is happy with this. The German politicians can claim that any bail-out requires German approval and will be subject to strict conditions, thus making Europeans more German, whilst the rest of Europe sees the ECB being publicly prepared to print large quantities of money to support the weaker European economies even though this creates the risk of inflation in Germany, making Germany more European! The Bundesbank reject it because the ECB is now no longer operating in the Bundesbank’s image.

The history of the crisis in Europe is that at each step Germany talks tough and finally gives in and pays up to keep the Euro alive. It has reached the end of contributing to bail-out funds with taxpayer funds and future bail-outs need the money to be printed by the ECB. Draghi’s plan allows this to happen, once the politicians agree to a bail-out. Despite their talk, German politicians always do seem to agree to them, and so, ineluctably, the Germans are giving up on the sound money orthodoxy, which has served them so well over the last 50 years. It is the Germans who are becoming more European rather than the Europeans becoming more German.

The implication for markets is that the pattern of markets is set to continue on a loop: creating crises in the bond markets of weaker countries, followed by those counties requesting assistance from Germany and Germany demanding more austerity from them before acquiescing, leading to a rally in markets before the cycle starts again. Draghi’s plan is a good solution for today but doesn’t solve the fundamental problems. However, if German politicians continue to become more European, the clearest market implication is to sell German government bonds, because Germany will either take on the debts of the rest of Europe in some way or the money printed by the ECB will create inflation in Germany.

Pro-growth policies at a time of fiscal austerity

In both the UK and Europe, commentators have become increasingly vocal about the need to combine the necessary fiscal austerity with policies designed to boost economic growth. They are correct to stress that the easiest method to reduce budget deficits is for private sector growth to boost tax receipts – the problem is how to combine demand growth in the private sector with the necessary control of demand in the public sector and the options are very restricted. Every pound or euro of public spending that is reduced as part of an austerity package is a pound or euro less of somebody’s income – this is why the savage austerity imposed on Greece, Ireland and Portugal (equivalent to 3% or more of GDP in a single year for several years) has led to recession as huge swathes of final demand were removed from the economy and business and consumer confidence collapsed. The UK is aiming to reduce its budget deficit only by about 1% pa, similar in fact to the pace of deficit reduction it achieved in the early 80s, and so far has avoided the severe recession seen in other European countries that had to make much sharper retrenchments of their government spending.

Monetary policy is the obvious starting point for pro-growth policies when fiscal policy has to be tightened. However interest rates have effectively already been cut as far as is meaningful, and the UK’s Quantitative Easing and the ECB’s trillion euro LTROs have meant a great deal of money has already been created in both the UK and Europe. The danger with these policies is that it is similar to filling a balloon with water – the balloon expands as water is added with no impact on its surroundings, until no more water can be contained and then the balloon bursts and drenches everything around it – there is very little impact on the economy from printing the extra money until it reaches a critical point and the money pours into the real economy creating inflation.

The IMF’s standard pro-growth policy used in conjunction with fiscal austerity for countries in need of support has always been a (large) devaluation. This provides a kick-start to the private sector which boosts export demand for its products at a time when the domestic market is struggling. Sadly for those countries inside the Eurozone, they voluntarily gave up the possibility of using this policy when they joined the single currency.

Politicians on the right of the political spectrum argue that lower tax rates increase the incentives to make money, and that this leads to growth and thus higher total tax revenues – and they point to point to the 1980s as evidence of this. It is true that there is an (unknown) optimum tax rate that yields the most tax; in the 80s marginal tax rates were very high (and probably above the optimum rate) and their reduction did spark more growth and higher revenues. However today’s marginal tax rates are much lower than then (and likely to be near or possibly already below the optimum rate), and it is not clear that it would have a very significant effect on growth today.

Increasing the efficiency of the economy by reducing bureaucracy and regulation is another policy often claimed to improve growth prospects. Certainly these impose costs and constrain the ability of business people to do more business. Reducing these requirements will boost growth in the long term but not necessarily in the short term. And in today’s society some degree of regulation is considered desirable (eg in healthcare and financial services) in order to protect consumers, so there is a need to distinguish between “good” and “bad” regulation and bureaucracy.

Infrastructure spending is generally viewed as a pro-growth policy since it creates jobs in the short term and boosts economic efficiency in the longer term. The problem for fiscally constrained economies is that the returns to this investment are very long term and so make the short term budget deficit even worse. There is however one option for the UK that would help to boost growth in the short term and that would be for the government to build directly or else to subsidise building a large number of new homes. The UK suffers from a shortage of housing, resulting in high rents and high house prices. Houses can be built and sold on for a profit reasonably quickly, leaving a small positive effect on public finances, providing jobs for thousands of construction workers and by boosting supply will tend to reduce the high rents and house prices which consume so much of the UK’s income.