Section II: 2013 Asset Market Overview — US Markets Finish Strong, Asian and EU Weaknesses Persisted
In 2014, higher economic growth rates with inequality effects via persistent constrained spending power of the US consumer will exact a noticeable fiscal drag in the US, while positive developments from 2013 in US equity markets are mostly priced into valuations and a correction should be on investor’s radar screens; uneven growth will be the trend in the EU; China addresses banking and credit market instabilities; the developing world sees demand for its resources continue to grow. Uncertainty around regulatory and tax policy will impact markets less than opacity about public sector investment levels.
Absent exogenous geopolitical shocks, US investors should expect continuity in build up of momentum from 2013 into 2014 but with more volatility, sideways directionality, and perhaps a correction. This momentum will be further dispersed via diminished purchasing power for US consumers whose wages are not reflecting the wealth effects seen in asset price surges or low interest rates available to the luxury class and blue-chip corporations, and so will not be able to fully participate in robust economic activity. Minimum wage gains will not impact the economy meaningfully until 2015. At the outset of 2014, the expiration of long-term unemployment insurance in US is predicted to shave .3% off the US economy according work by Mark Zandi, Robert Schiller, and others. Home price increase rates are slowing. This can be seen as an example of the velocity of money, or M2V, from the invaluable St. Louis Federal Reserve’s datassets and tools. M2V Stocks indicate persistent decreases in economic transactions in the US Economy.
2013:Q3: 1.571 Ratio; Last 5 Observations; Quarterly, Seasonally Adjusted, Updated: 2013-12-20 2:01 PM CSTNote: The velocity of money is the frequency at which one unit of currency is used to purchase domestically- produced goods and services within a given time period. In other words, it is the number of times one dollar is spent to buy goods and services per unit of time. If the velocity of money is increasing, then more transactions are occurring between individuals in an economy. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
The broader energy market will continue to be characterized by abundant LNG, tight oil, the arrival of renewables as key components of the US energy mix meaning self-sufficiency for North America and making it a more attractive place to invest. Upward pressure on the USD will be counterbalanced by low interest rate biases for at least the first two quarters. Yet, here again is a bright spot, as we point out in our solar section and broadly speaking for the sustainable category, falling prices for renewable energy and green consumer goods which provide very significant, if mostly overlooked benefit, to an ever larger percentage of the US population.
Companies that focus on smart cost cutting with renewable energy, investing in product and market research, hiring new people, and advocating for smart regulation aimed at targeted reductions of dependency on fossil fuels will be poised to benefit their investors into 2015. All the while acting in the best interest of their respective nations and as good corporate citizens.
Asset Market Outlook 2014
Asset markets have positive price momentum at the threshold of 2014. That momentum helps identify assets that are performing well now. Conditions and measures indicate that the underlying trends for these specific subsets of these assets will continue into 2014. Our analysis also comports with the findings of the Pew Foundation: acute income inequlaity negatively impacts economic growth. Like the hangover from sugar rushes, ambient toxicity is the result of short term economic choices that ultimately sacrifice the long term resiliency of economies’ basic foundation, our shared ecology.
In Europe equities posted mixed performance, with gains in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands offset by weakness in the UK, Italy, and Russia. Asian equities were also mixed, where strong gains in Japan, China and Hong Kong were countered by weakness in Australia, India and the Philippines.
US yields rose across most maturities on the improving US economic outlook. Curtailment of US Federal Reserve stimulus efforts now seems imminent by 2016 even with the Fed’s plan to measure tapering bond purchases with continued downwards tweaks on interest rates.
European yields were little changed following recent ECB policy action of lowering rates. The US dollar posted mixed performance, gaining against the Japanese Yen while falling against the British Pound Sterling. The Dollar was little changed against the Euro though this could change if interest rates in Europe fall on expected enduring faiblesse. Though we believe the contrarian case that France will surprise on the upside in terms of economic strength.
The Dollar’s strong gains against Emerging Market currencies including the Indian Rupee, Australian Dollar and Brazilian Real may be partially responsible declines in metals and commodities. Moderating expectations for inflation will ensure fixity for this trend of modest declines into 2014 across silver, aluminum, gold and platinum. Recent sharp gains in LNG will moderate somewhat in 2014, but we do not foresee the beginning of a bust cycle in the US until at least 2015. These is due to continued expectations of tight oil combined with economic growth and lower costs for feedstock. We expect more pressure to be exerted on developing nations to extract resources with little regard for the well being of their natural capital, i.e. fresh and and clean water supplies, as they race to build out electricity infrastructure and earn export income with international trade.
We expect pronounced volatility for oil as political developments to ease sanctions in Iran impact its price which in turn will drive increases in US natural gas exports. Agricultural commodity gains were led by soybeans, rice and coffee, which were offset by declines in sugar, hogs and corn.
Hedge funds gained in late 2013, with a November 2013 gain in Global Hedge Fund Index (HFRX) posting a gain of +0.55% for month, while the HFRX Absolute Return Index rose +0.45%.
In 2013 much was made of so-called policy uncertainty, yet the fiscal cliff met with a collective shrug from the world’s markets, despite public hand-wringing on the part of US creditors nations such as China.
Whither Policy Uncertainty?
Fund Balance does not see impending consequences for policy uncertainty in bond prices and in the stock market. Nor are entrepreneurs demonstrating a reluctance to invest due to lack of clarity regarding future tax and regulatory events. If such uncertainty was so grievous, liquidations by entrepreneurs of their current stock positions for a song should be the norm, and they instead shift assets to the Cayman Islands and the like. Thus, under hypotheses invoked by austerians and bond vigilantes, one would expect the stock market to be low when uncertainty regarding government policy is high while the opposite was true in 2103. Furthermore, this internal logic would entail expectations of interest rates on government bonds trending high as well since one way uncertainties about future policies get resolved is via inflation.
The events of the last three years has refuted these hypotheses and their logic. Rather, most business decision makers indicate that considerable business uncertainly stems from the amount of chaos inherent to the US budgeting process in 2014 and 2105. After all, Walmart acknowledges that SNAP reductions hurt its bottom line, telecommunications firms earn revenue from the surveillance state, and the military is the world’s largest procurer of oil, the production of which itself is heavily subsidized by US Taxpayers. As Economist Bradford DeLong points out:
The markers that would indicate that enterprise was being hobbled by uncertainty about government policy per se—those markers just are not there. This seems to me to be a side issue—another argument that is based on political wishes rather than on economic evidence.
A Note on the Role of China in Relation to the US Economy.
The Peoples Republic of China faces the self-imposed generational challenge of moving over three million people a year from subsistence farming in the countryside to industrial and service employment in the cities. Apart from the questions of how to integrate sustainability into this process, consistent with sustainable investment goals, how might this impact their appetite for US debt? The only way to do this is to purchase U.S. government bonds so that the Bond sellers will have renminbi which are used to buy exports from China.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not a pure free-market transaction. China’s State Council is not acting for profit-maximizing economic reasons although its actions are completely plausible and realistic. As one observer noted, “China’s State Council wants, more than anything else, to maintain full employment in Shanghai. Otherwise their heads are likely to end up on pikes.”
In short, no acceleration of the State Council’s planned shift to reliance on domestic demand from exports in maintaining near full employment in Shanghai is at hand. China is not going to suddenly or even meaningfully reduce U.S. government bond purchase in 2014. The risk is far too high for the Chinese economy and to the futures of its leaders within the Council than it would be to the US economy. For the PRC seems keen to embrace the monetary policy management principals (measured by their actions, not words) of the its trading partners in the EU and US. As the New York Times, in coverage of China’s shadow banking system and internal tensions between vested interests and the Council’s desire to deleverage with higher interest rates, wrote:
That approach involved the central bank’s turning to posts on China’s Twitter-like social messaging service, Sina Weibo, to chasten banks to “make rational adjustments to the structure of their assets and liabilities, and improve their liquidity management using a scientific and long-term approach….
While policy makers say they are worried about upsetting the delicate mechanisms of the current banking system, public criticism continues to grow, even within China’s elite. That suggests further market-oriented experiments could be coming soon.
“Banking in China has become like a highway toll system,” Yao Jingyuan, the former chief economist at the state statistics agency, said late last week during a speech at Nanjing University, according to numerous Chinese news reports. “Banks charge every time money goes through them.”
“With this kind of operational model,” Mr. Yao added, “banks will continue making money even if all the bank presidents go home to sleep and you replaced them by putting a small dog in their seats.”
A Note on Technology and Labor Markets In The US
Fund Balance holds that increased inequality in the US economy, 70% of which is comprised of consumer spending will continue to be a drag on sustainable growth in 2104. Moreover, can the US economy remain vital and growing in the face of inequality and its doppelganger, automation? Oxford researchers found that 45 percent of America’s occupations will be automated within the next 20 years implying that nearly half of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to computerization.
While many hiring managers argue that there is a fundamental skills mismatch between employers and job applicants in the US, the story is more complex, with inequality and regional differences being key plot lines. For example, Economist Paul Krugman pointed to unemployment by occupation
looking at changes in unemployment rates from the 2007 business cycle peak to the unemployment peak in 2009-10, and then the subsequent decline; it looks like this:
It’s the same as the geographical story: the occupations that took the biggest hit have had the strongest recoveries.
Still, rapid advances in technology do represent a serious potential threat to many jobs historically performed by people. Google’s Eric Schmidt eerily talks of humans needed to prepare to compete with machines for jobs as the firm has been on an acquisition spree for robotics firms.
A recent report from the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology attempts to quantify the extent of that threat. It concludes that 45 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.
The authors expect this replacement in two phases. First, computers begin to replace in vulnerable fields like transportation/logistics, production labor, and administrative support. Jobs in services, sales, and construction sectors may also vanish in this first phases. Then, the replacement rate will decelerate due to bottlenecks in harder-to-automate fields such engineering. This “technological plateau” will precede a second wave of computerization, driven by deep learning. Systems derived from these innovations will compete for jobs in management, science, engineering, and the arts. They conclude that the rate of computerization depends on several other factors including regulation of new technology and access to cheap labor.
Utilizing standard statistical modeling techniques the researchers analyzed more than 700 jobs on an online career network including the skills and education required for each. They noted:
Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerization—i.e., tasks that required creative and social intelligence….For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.
Established estimates are that one in four private-sector jobs in the US now pays less than $10 per hour, well below a standardized living wage for the US. Compared to better-paying positions, these jobs rarely feature regular schedules, health care coverage, paid vacation time or sick leave — the essentials of middle-class work. In other words, employment increasingly is not a guarantee of life above the poverty line in the US. Indeed, according to census data, more than one in 10 Americans who work full-time are still poor.