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Rosa & Roubini Associates

Making sense of this world

Weekly Columns (Archive)

Italy’s Government Puzzle About to Be Solved (One Way or the Other)

by Brunello Rosa


14 May 2018 


After more than two months after March 4th general election, Italy’s government puzzle is likely to be solved in the next 2-3 days, although we still don’t know the exact details. Until a week ago, it seems that Italy was destined to have a politically “neutral” government, led by a technocrat appointed by President Mattarella, to take the country to new elections in July or September 2018, or – at the latest – March/May 2019. This government would have run as a minority government, with or without a confidence vote from parliament (in the latter case, it would have been only in charge of current affairs). Parties in parliament got scared of a possible election at the end of July, when the collapse in turnout would likely imply a random result, and an assured punishment to those parties that were unable to find a compromise for months.  At that point, Five Stars and League took the lead – with the benevolent consent of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – and started negotiations (which are still ongoing) to form a government between the two. In theory, this Five Stars- League coalition government (which we discussed in our comment after the elections) could count on a relatively solid majority in the Chamber, and a quite thin majority in the Senate. 


At this point, there are two main possibilities: 1) Less likely - M5S and Lega do not succeed in finding a compromise, especially on the name of the prime minister, acceptable to Mattarella. This would mean the failure of any attempt to form a political government, and the return of the “neutral” government option on the table, which would be formed this week, with new elections likely to occur relatively soon; 2) More likely - M5S and Lega do succeed in finding a compromise, especially on the name of the prime minister, a “third” figure between Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio – both likely to be part of the government team (possibly as Interior and Foreign minister, respectively).  


So, by the end of this week Italy is likely to have a new government, one way or the other. A few considerations: First, a “neutral” technocratic government is better than the current situation, in which Gentiloni’s administration (however good it might be in people’s opinion) is expression of the past parliament, with no political legitimacy (and in fact only in charge of current affairs) and unable to make politically binding decision. Also, technocratic governments have often represented a good solution in difficult political and economic transition periods. However, we would be inclined to think that, in this case, even a weak political government would be preferable to a technocratic solution, which would be unlikely to find the necessary legitimacy in parliament and the country to make politically strong and binding decisions such as those the country needs to face in coming months (starting with the June EU Council meeting). 


Second, a M5S-Lega government would face a number of obstacles to succeed, including: a) unless Salvini and Di Maio agree that one of them becomes PM (or possibly both, in succession), the “third figure” would be subject to continued and opposed political pressures from both side; b) the “government contract,” instead of being the “intersection” between Lega and M5S’s respective programs, seems to be the “union;” so, for example, both the “citizenship income” and the “flat tax” are there, not to mention various forms of reduction/abolition of the pension reform approved by Monti in 2011. This means that implementing this program would likely imply a severe deviation from Italy’s fiscal consolidation program, likely resulting in a clash with markets and the EU at some point; c) Salvini – as still being formally part of the centre-right coalition – will tend to remain more loyal to that coalition than to that with Di Maio’s Five Stars. 


Given this background, we reiterate what we said in our latest Italy trip report. While in the short run we believe the country has the means to muddle through, without clashing excessively with the EU and the markets, in the medium term (especially once the ECB’s umbrella will be diminished), its structural fragility will likely re-emerge.  

Weekly Columns - Archive

Emerging Markets Face Tough Test of Resilience

by Brunello Rosa
8 May 2018 


By the end of the week (most likely on Tuesday 8th May, with a self-imposed deadline on May 12th), the US will decide whether or not to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. To force the hand of its historical ally, Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu, in a recent press conference, said that Iran has lied regarding its compliance with the agreement, having continued to develop military nuclear capabilities. If Israel decided to launch airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear sites at the time the US decides to re-impose (at least part of the) sanctions on the same country, this could represent a quite substantial risk scenario that could cause a spike in oil prices, which have been rising in the last couple of years (and have now reached 70 USD per barrel, for the first time since 2014) thanks to the production cuts agreed between OPEC (and in particular Saudi Arabia), and Russia. In our recent outlook for oil prices over the 2018-2020 horizon, we discuss in detail this and other (risk and baseline) scenarios.


Geopolitical risks (with perhaps the exception of the Korean situation, which might enter a period of reduced tensions), increasing oil prices, softening growth, rising U.S. Treasury yields and strengthening US dollar constitute a dangerous mix for emerging markets, whose most fragile components have already started to suffer. 


Last week, the Argentinian central bank had to increase rates again (outside scheduled meetings, for the third time since April 27th, for a cumulative amount of 12.5% to 40%) to stem ARS depreciation versus the USD. This was due to the decision of cutting rates in January 2018 (at a time inflation wasn’t giving signs of moderating from the current 25%) as well as of moving the inflation target upward, from the 8-12% range to 15%, once the objective was missed and appeared unlikely to be reached in the foreseeable future. In our recent report, we discussed the dangers associated to central banks moving the goal posts when they felt they could not reach their inflation targets. Turkey was also at the centre of investors’ concerns last week, with the USD/TRY having increased by almost 5% in a week to 4.23, on the back of the S&P’s credit rating downgrade and rising inflation, in the context of upcoming general elections, still-large current account deficit and a high and rising stock of external debt. 


Market participants are now braced to see whether these cases will remain idiosyncratic episodes or will prove contagious for the entire EM space. Some oil-producing EM economies (e.g. Russia) would certainly benefit from the rise in oil prices. We have argued in the past that a number of EM currencies were able to better withstand US rates normalization, thanks to improved macroeconomic fundamentals and also noted how EMs proved quite resilient during the market correction in February. In the next few days and weeks we will see whether or not EMs have in fact sufficient stamina to weather this period of increased investor nervousness.  

Market Prices Re-Aligning to Economic Fundamentals and Policy Differentials

by Brunello Rosa


30 April 2018


Last week’s column discussed how uncertainties on the solidity and durability of the ongoing global expansion were keeping central banks more cautious than otherwise they could be, given the stage of the business cycle. We correctly predicted that the ECB’s Governing Council would discuss the soft patch the EZ economy is experiencing (in this respect – watch this week’s Eurozone Q1 GDP growth, inflation and unemployment data), that the BOJ would keep its policy stance unchanged, that the Riksbank would postpone the timing of its first policy rate increase. We also reiterated our view that the BOE would be more likely to raise rates in August than in May, and the preliminary reading of Q1 2018 GDP (which came in at +0.1%, versus 0.3% expected, and declining from the 0.4% recorded in Q4 2017) makes a rate hike on May 10th quite unlikely at this stage. 


On the other hand, the US economy last week exhibited data that came in above expectations on March retail and home sales, and in particular Q1 2018 GDP which featured a 2.3% q/q annualised growth (compared to a consensus view of 2% - but decelerating from the 2.9% recorded in Q4 201). This data came out ahead of this week’s FOMC meeting, which we expect (in line with consensus) to result in unchanged policy, ahead of a further increase in Fed Funds target range in June. The statement accompanying the decision is likely to signal the upcoming further incremental tightening in early summer.


On the back of these data and policy divergence, the USD rose against a basket of currencies (DXY was up by 1.3% on a weekly basis, its second largest weekly gain in 2018), EUR/USD declined by 0.8% to 1.213 on a weekly basis and GBPUSD fell significantly below 1.40. The UST 10-y yield remained unchanged on the week (at 2.96%), after having crossed the 3% level for the first time since 2013. Some technical analysts would suggest this could be the beginning of a bear market in bonds. We believe that as long as Bund and JGB long-term yields remain this low, also the long end of the US Treasury curve will remain anchored.


A stronger dollar would help other DM central banks to reach their inflation target, and so last week’s moves were likely welcomed across the board. This was probably less true for EM economies, which tend to experience capital outflows when the dollar strengthens. However, as we discussed in a recent analysis on EM currencies, EM countries are now more resilient to US policy normalisation, in spite of the notable rise in private-sector debt, even denominated in USD (the exception could be Argentina, where the central bank last week was forced to increase rates intra-meeting by 300bps to 30.25%, to prevent a slide of the ARS versus the USD). All this to say that when market pricing follows economic fundamentals and policy differentials, the life of policymakers is easier. Unfortunately,  this alignment has been the exception rather than the rule recently, with USD weakening is spite of the fiscal stimulus and higher monetary policy rates. The next few weeks will tell whether this re-alignment will continue or not. 

Central Banks Remain Cautious as Clouds Gather on Global Expansion

by Brunello Rosa


23 April 2018 


At the IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings just concluded in Washington DC, the mood was still relatively upbeat, as the synchronised global expansion continues. At the same time, IMF MD Christine Lagarde, on the eve of the meetings said it quite openly: dark clouds are starting to gather on the horizon, especially as a lingering trade war threatens the global economy


In our recent reports, we looked at this and other threats: in our scenario analysis on the US-led airstrikes on Syria, we discussed the geopolitical risks building up in the Middle East. In our report on the ECB and Eurozone, we discussed the macroeconomic risks deriving from the plateauing of growth in the Eurozone, which is becoming evident in some hard data (e.g. industrial production, exports) and leading indicators (e.g. composite PMIs). Our trip report from Japan highlighted the macroeconomic (persistently low inflation), geopolitical (developments in the US-North Korea relationship) and political (Abe’s shaky position) risks prevailing in the country. Finally, our trip report from the UK looked at the consequences on fiscal and monetary policy deriving from Brexit developments. In the upcoming Italy trip report we will discuss the rising political risks that could eventually pose a threat to the European integration process. 


To summarise: the world economy is doing fine, but risks exist, and their materialisation could turn the global expansion into a global slowdown in coming quarters, and eventually into a contraction, in some selected countries and regions. 


So, how are policy authorities reacting to this changed environment? The sentiment prevailing among central bankers could be summarised with one word: prudence. The BOE, on the back of inflation falling more than expected, is now putting into question the rate hike the market was expecting to occur in May. The ECB will eventually finish its net asset purchases, but at the IMF meetings Mario Draghi made it clear that “an ample degree of monetary stimulus remains necessary for underlying inflation pressures to continue to build up.” The BOJ, on the back of the macro, political and geopolitical risks mentioned above, appears to be willing to keep its policy and communication unchanged for at least another year. The Fed is, for the time being, the only central bank of the big four, that seems ready to continue with its policy normalisation program: but three hikes in 2018 seem more reasonable than the four that some market participants expect.
But once again: central banks cannot be the only policy game in town. Other policy areas need to do their part to make the world a better and safer place – fiscal authorities, regulators and governments at large. Diffusing dark clouds on the horizon is a collective exercise, which cannot succeed unless there is broad domestic and international policy coordination. 

Red Lines or Red Flags?

READ OUR SCENARIO ANALYSIS ON SYRIA


by Brunello Rosa

16 April 2018 


On April 14th, the United States, the United Kingdom and France launched airstrikes targeting sites associated with Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities. As we discuss in the scenario analysis that we publish today, in our baseline, this will remain a one-off episode, whose economic impact and repercussions on financial markets are likely to be limited, apart from some short-lived volatility in equity and oil prices, and a possible fall in US Treasury long-term yields. 


If our baseline is correct, this military strike was justified by the need to punish the Syrian regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons in the April 7th attack on the city of Douma, which the government denies. Chemical weapons have been internationally banned since April 1997. Former US President Barack Obama set the use of chemical weapons as a “red line,” and therefore a trigger for intervention in Syria, but subsequently avoided any involvement following the September 2013 Ghouta chemical attack. Therefore, President Trump would be rightly reacting to Syria crossing an internationally sanctioned “red line:” he has taken retaliatory measures after both April 2017 and April 2018 chemical attacks. 


“Tit for Tat” is the game-theoretical strategy of “equivalent retaliation” that seems to be very much in vogue in DC in this period: let’s not forget the lingering trade war between US and China, which the two sides are fighting along the same lines. The problem with that strategy is that it might lead to the stabilisation of the situation with a new (not necessarily better) equilibrium. Or it might, conversely, lead to a further escalation of tensions if the response is not considered proportionate by one of the two contenders, or if other actors enter the scene (in the Syrian crisis, it could be Russia intervening in the conflict). It’s too early to say whether these two (very different types of) wars will further escalate or subside. But there is definitely a more “assertive” stance prevailing in DC at this stage, compared to the past, on a number of dossiers. 


We discussed in previous columns how the changes recently occurred in the team of advisors of the US President and top US officials (moderate pragmatists were replaced by more ideologically driven hawks) could eventually lead to increased tensions on a several fronts. We didn’t need to wait too long to see the effects of those changes. A collateral effect of a state of war in the US is that the President, as commander-in-chief, gains manoeuvring space and alignment of the administration, including the so-called “deep state,” behind him. 


In conclusion, it is perfectly legitimate and justified to react when "red lines" are crossed. The question here is whether the series of events of the last few weeks are starting to represent "red flags" for how the situation can evolve in the months and years to come. 

Trade War Fears Continue Weighing on Investor Sentiment

by Brunello Rosa


9 April 2018


Last Friday, equity markets sold off sharply on the back of the lower-than-expected NFP figures (103K jobs added in March, versus 193K expected) and renewed trade war fears. The below-consensus NFP figure need to be considered on a multi-month basis and could have been expected, to some extent, after the sharp 313K increase recorded last month (more than 100K above consensus). So the March figures don’t need to be considered per se as a sign of a weakening labour market, especially after Fed Chairman Jay Powell said (earlier last week), that subdued wage growth signals that the US labour market “is not excessively tight.” A fortiori, this month’s NFP figures cannot be considered indicative of an imminent slowdown of the US economy, which might, in fact, be in acceleration phase, partly as a result of the fiscal stimulus imparted by the tax cuts and the fiscal spending deliberated by the US administration in the last few months. 


More worrying is the impact that fears of a potentially escalating trade war between US and China is having on investor sentiment and equity price dynamics. After the initial move by the US (which threatened to impose 25% duties on 1333 products, worth around $50bn, related to China’s alleged theft of US intellectual property), and the initially modest retaliatory move by China, threatening to impose tariffs on (well-targeted) imports worth USD 3bn, the US has threatened to impose additional USD 100bn in tariffs on imports from China, when China threatened to impose tariffs on 106 products (including soybeans, cars and chemicals) worth USD 50bn. This tit-for-tat game (which, as history teaches, ends up destroying value for all sides, with no eventual winner) is unnerving market participants, who fear a full-blown trade war that could eventually spark a global recession. 


Clearly, a trade war is not in the interest of either contender: the US cannot seriously threaten a major holder of its public and agency debt, without endangering its financial stability, and the value of the US dollar; China cannot seriously threaten a major buyer of its global exports, and the currency in which most of its foreign reserves are denominated. So, game theory would suggest that a solution can be found after the US administration would have symbolically proven that the US will not observe the rise of China as a strategic rival without reacting, and the promise by China to open up its markets over time; and after China would have proven to be the rising hegemonic power, able to call the US as the violator of WTO rules. But it will take time for that equilibrium to be reached. In the meanwhile, markets will remain jittery, and investor sentiment under the cosh. 


In our analysis in February, we discussed how hard it will be for equity markets to return to the January peaks, and recent developments seem to confirm that this will be the case. In such an environment, our updated pro-forma strategic asset allocation continues to favour a moderate risk taking within a defensive positioning, with slightly greater exposure to sovereign bonds and lower to commodities. 

Q1 Proved to Be a Challenging Quarter - Q2 Won’t Be Much Easier

by Brunello Rosa


3 April 2018


Year 2018 witnessed one of the best starts in the last couple of decades, with the stock market rallying on the back of the fiscal reform (aka “tax cuts”) approved by the US administration at the end of last year, which was followed in short order by the approval of additional fiscal spending, partly devoted to infrastructure plans. This fiscal expansion by the largest economy in the world at the time the global economy is already experiencing a synchronised expansion, on the one hand further boosted investor confidence, on the other hand fuelled inflation fears that crystallised at the beginning of February, when US average hourly earnings for January came out at 2.9% y/y. Those fears, and the related fears of a faster tightening by the Fed, conjured to create the correction in the equity market experienced in February. At that point, we were of the view that a full-fledged bear market would be unlikely, but also that stock indices would be unlikely to return to January peaks, as four factors would continue weighing on valuations: (1) inflation scares (as opposed to outturns); (2) rising protectionism; (3) volatility and (4) (geo)political issues. 


At the end of the quarter, most equity markets (especially in DM) closed Q1 in the red, with the S&P500 experiencing the first quarterly loss since 2015, as those factors are all still at play. Inflation fears remain, in our opinion, over-hyped, as the structural factors that keep global inflation in check (technological advancement, globalisation, flatter Phillips curve) are still very much at work, but investors remain concerned that those central banks normalising their policy stance (and chiefly, the Fed), would react to rising inflation by raising rates faster and higher. The imposition of tariffs on steel, aluminium and IP by the US, which is generating some retaliatory action by the affected countries, are weighing on investor sentiment, although the policy uncertainty related to the actual implementation of those protectionist measures is creating volatility in the market, as testified by last week’s equity rally, prompted by reduced fears of an imminent trade war. Finally, geopolitical events remain on the back of investor’s minds, as they have not been able so far to dent their sentiment, but have the potential of causing massive cumulative effects if they materialise. Between trade wars and geopolitical events sits Brexit, which could prove very costly for the UK if the country will end up leaving the EU with no deal, thus falling into WTO rules (or “below”) for international trading, at the time of rising protectionism.


All these issues will remain in place also in Q2, when a new set of challenges will come to the fore, and chiefly: will the Fed continue its policy normalisation at the currently forecast pace of three hikes in 2018, or will increase its pace? Will the ECB signal further tapering of QE in June? Will Italy be able to form a government that will remain compliant with EU fiscal discipline, or will it start adopting a much more confrontational stance with the EU? The good news is that an expanding global economy allows reforms to be made and provides resilience in the face of materialising risks. On the other hand, it’s the accumulation of risks that eventually dents investor confidence and prompt a re-thinking of perspective returns on investment. 


Given this background, our updated strategic asset allocation continues to favour a moderate risk taking (i.e. skew towards equities) within a defensive positioning, with a slight increase in exposure to sovereign bonds and lower exposure to commodities. 

Who Checks On “The Boss” in Washington?

by Brunello Rosa


26 March 2018  


Last week, the Fed implemented the widely expected 25-bps increase in the Fed funds target range: the FOMC delivered a “relatively” hawkish hike, accompanied by an upward revision to the growth, inflation, employment and policy rate outlook. The main reason why the overall message was only “relatively” hawkish (in line with our preview), is that the new Fed Chair, Jeremy Powell, performed a very convincing press conference (his first), in which he abundantly caveated the FOMC forecasts, arguing that the future is so uncertain that effectively anything can happen, to the point that there is no urgency to start indicating already in March that four Fed funds hikes in 2018 are necessary. 


Jay Powell was appointed by President Trump to provide continuity with his predecessor, the dovish Janet Yellen, and make sure that the Fed would not undo all the efforts the US administration is making to further boost economic activity (with the risk of “over-heating”) with a faster monetary policy tightening. And, as a corollary, make sure that the dollar does not strengthen too much in spite of the rate normalisation, but actually remains relatively weak (even in presence of tariffs on steel, aluminum and now intellectual property rights). With a gradual monetary policy tightening, a Fed’s balance sheet reduction effectively on auto-pilot, and by keeping a low profile, Jay Powell is delivering on the job he was given and can be considered with reason a good choice by Trump.


Less reassuring, though, are other changes that have been taking place within the US administration in recent weeks. The departure, for various reasons, of respected figures such as Gary Cohn as Director of the National Economic Council, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor give the impression that the team of experts that was advising the President on key strategic matters (of both economic and geopolitical nature) and to some extent “moderating” some of his more extreme intentions and policy plans is now being dissolved, in favour of more hawkish figures (chiefly the neo-Con John Bolton as new National Security Advisor). One can reasonably wonder when the other two former generals that currently are in key government positions (James Mattis as Defense Secretary and John F. Kelly as Chief of Staff) will also depart, leaving the room to less moderate substitutes. 


As the example of Jay Powell shows, the choice of people in charge determine the credibility, policy direction and the ability to deliver of the institutions. The choice of the US administration to start imposing tariffs on key inputs for the globalised economic system, exposing the US to the risk of retaliations and a potential trade war, suggests that the new course of action in DC (likely shaped by new advisors) is less favourable for the global economy and even financial markets (as shown by the sell-off in equity markets last week, the worst in more than the last two years. In mid-February, we warned this could be the case). It is not a mystery that geostrategic and macrofinancial issues are now intimately interrelated: the geopolitical tensions between US and North Korea (ahead of a foreseen meeting between Trump and Kim) and the trade war with China, still one of the largest holders of US Treasuries, are all parts of the same complex jigsaw. Equally, the relationship with Russia has both economic and geopolitical ramifications.  


As discussed in our previous columns, the rise of authoritarian leaders at the time protectionism and trade wars are re-emerging does not bode well for the global economy and financial markets (even if those risks might crystallise only in the medium term). In this dangerous environment, it is legitimate to question whether or not the US want to remain the global champion of liberal democracy and free markets, as they have been for the last several decades.  

The Rise of Authoritarian Leaders: A Downside Risk to the Global Economy

by Brunello Rosa

19 March 2018

 

On Saturday, the Chinese parliament re-elected Xi Jinping as President of China, while a week before the constitution was amended to allow Xi to remain in power indefinitely. Xi’s choice of Wang Qishang (a key ally of Xi who was in charge of the anti-corruption campaign) as vice-president also signals the intention of the president to continue consolidating and concentrating the power in his hands. China exhibits a number of socio-economic fragilities, but the system as a whole has the economic and financial resources to withstand a systemic crisis. With the latest consolidation of power, the president has ensured that China could even face an additional systemic crisis and be able to preserve the integrity of the political system. 


On Sunday, Vladimir Putin was re-elected Russian President for his fourth mandate, which will last six more years, until 2024. At the end of this term (assuming he does not change the constitution to remove the clause that prevents a third consecutive mandate), he would have been in power (as President or Prime Minister) for 25 years. After Putin’s accession to power, Russia has rapidly moved from a presidential democracy, albeit imperfect, to an increasingly autocratic regime. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 shows how cynically Russia could move on the international stage. 


In April 2017, a referendum in Turkey has transformed the Republic into a Presidential system, in which President Erdogan is the deus ex machina. Also Erdogan has been in power, initially as Prime Minister and then as President, since 2003. Since Erdogan’s accession to power, also Turkey has moved from being an imperfect secular democracy to an increasingly Islamic-inspired autocracy, as testified by the repression that followed the failed coup in July 2016. 


Russia and Turkey are two examples of the increasing tendency of political systems to evolve from relatively democratic organisations into autocratic regimes, and other could be made (e.g. the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte). China shows how power can be further consolidated and concentrated even in already authoritarian regimes. Statistics show (see map above) how this phenomenon is increasingly happening throughout the world.


The recent crisis of the Russian spy killed in the UK, which has led to the summoning of a UN security council meeting, show how dangerous can be the rise of authoritarian regimes: they represent a problem not just from a (geo)political perspective, but also from an economic perspective, if this leads, for example, to the imposition of economic sanctions. In fact, sanctions tend to have negative repercussions not just on the target country, but also on all those countries linked to the targeted one via trade and financial flows. 


Therefore, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a period of increasing protectionism (which is also a typical move adopted by autocratic leaders) represents not just a danger for the already fragile and shifting world geopolitical order, but also a downside risk – over the medium term – to the sustainability of the ongoing synchronised global expansion, and related equity valuations. Market participants tend to underestimate the importance of such political shifts, as they occur slowly and their effects tend to be felt overtime, or because they are perceived only as tail risks, even when they carry a potentially large downside. Nonetheless, historical experience show that the cumulative impact of such political shifts tend to be large, when they materialise.

US Tariffs: The Return of Protectionism and Trade Wars?

READ OUR WORKING PAPER ON TARIFFS and TRADE WARS


by Brunello Rosa


12 March 2018  


The announcement of U.S. President Trump to introduce tariffs on import of steel (25%) and aluminum (10%) follows by only a few weeks Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s statement (subsequently softened) that a weak dollar would be good for the U.S. and marks a new element of discontinuity with the economic international order that the U.S. themselves have contributed to build in the last few decades, based on multilateralism and a free trade/free market doctrine. 


Once again, the clearest (analytical) response from Europe came from ECB President Draghi, during the press conference following ECB’s Governing Council in March, when he said that this latest move by the U.S. administration was dangerous from a number of perspectives: (1) it seems reintroducing the concept that decisions on international trade can be taken unilaterally rather than multilaterally; (2) it opens up the risk of retaliation by the affected countries (3) it could have a long-lasting impact on confidence able to derail the global recovery; (4) it introduces elements of geopolitical uncertainty, because, if this is how the U.S. treats its “allies,” how is it going to treat its “enemies?”; (5) it might represent another another leg of the “lingering” currency wars discussed in our previous column. In fact, protectionism could result into the strengthening of the dollar if the Fed normalises its monetary policy faster than previously to counter increasing inflation due to tariffs; but tariffs could also result into a weaker dollar if they signal a "policy view” on desired dollar weakness, if they cause retaliation and if they change the investors' perception about how safe and attractive US assets are. 


There are various reasons why Trump might be launching such a dangerous initiative. On the one hand, he continues speaking to his own electorate, by saying that tariffs will help protect jobs and factories in the U.S. (even if the actual effect is likely to be the opposite), ahead of mid-term elections later this year. It is also possible that President Trump is using these tariffs as a negotiating tactics on other tables: for example, the decision to carve out Canada (the largest exporter of steel to the US) and Mexico from the tariffs is a signal sent to the two countries with which the U.S. is re-negotiating NAFTA: if they “behave” in those negotiations, they will be exempt from the tariffs that the U.S. is now imposing on other economies. If they don’t “behave,” they will also be included in the list of affected countries. 


The main concern about these developments is the potential for retaliatory actions, in particular from the EU, the bloc of countries mostly affected by this decision. Unfortunately, history teaches us that when the world goes down the route of increased protectionism and currency wars at the time the political scene is dominated by autocratic leaders, the endpoint is not a favourable one: at the very least, we could see a reduction in global trade, which could pose a sudden halt to the ongoing synchronised global expansion and eventually a reduced global output potential (as globalisation might have increased inequality within countries, but has also dramatically reduced differences in economic performance between countries). 


But things can go even more wrong, if we add a geopolitical dimension. Protectionism tends to create spheres of influence, and with them geopolitical fault-lines and tectonic plates that eventually collide, if not appropriately governed. At the time in which the UK is leaving the EU, Italy observes the rise of populist parties, and the 2019 European elections are likely to stage again the success of anti-system movements, we seriously run the risk of witnessing a further shift of the global macro and geopolitical situation towards the danger zone.  

Europe Between Germany’s Renewed Stability and Italy’s Political Shift

by Brunello Rosa


5 March 2018  


As we wrote last week, the 4th of March proved a crucial day in European politics. Germany found some temporary stability with the result of the referendum among SPD party members, who approved with a relatively large majority of 66% the Grand Coalition between the SPD and CDU/CSU. This opens the door to Angela Merkel’s fourth term in power, which might not last the entire four years of parliament (6 months of which have already passed in negotiating the new coalition contract), but should last at least two years, perhaps before Merkel’s accession to a top European job in 2019. 


On the other hand, following its general election, Italy observes a massive political shift, whose extent will become clearer in coming days. As it takes time to translates votes into seats, thanks to the complications of the new electoral system, some facts are starting to emerge: 

1) The Five Stars Movement (M5S) emerges as the first party in Italy, with around 30% of votes; 

2) The centre-right emerges as the first coalition, with around 35-37% of votes; 

3) Within the centre-right coalition, the League (with around 18%) has more votes (and perhaps seats) than Forza Italia;

4) The PD collapses to around 20% of votes, if not below, and its coalition is unlikely to reach 25%.


We have discussed at length in our in-depth analysis what would be the options emerging from such a scenario. 

At this stage (but again, scenarios might change in coming days, when the distribution of seats will be clearer and the positions of parties more definite), we could envisage three main options: 

a) A centre-right government led by Salvini, with seats missing to reach a majority found in parliament among other parties;

b) A M5S-led government, with the potential support of Lega;

c) Less likely, a sort of “coalition of losers” between PD and Forza Italia, plus centrist parties.


All these options, as mentioned above, represent a massive political shift from the current political equilibrium, whose pillar was represented by the pro-European policies of the PD. Italy will now likely have a government whose attitude towards Europe, in terms of fiscal stance and other sensitive themes such as migration, much more confrontational than before. The market might not initially like this new approach, even if – in case it proved stable – might get used to it. In our analysis, we highlighted this risk that has now materialised: a massive shift towards Euro-sceptical forces.


So, the future of the European integration process is now much less certain: as long as Germany was mired in its own political mess, all other countries had some time for a bit of “respite.” But once a new, fully legitimised, government will be in place, it is likely that Germany will join France in its effort to reform Europe, perhaps with a slightly less austere fiscal stance. What will be Italy’s position in this process is yet to be determined. The government is now much more likely to be led by Euro-sceptical forces, so Italy’s position might be much less pro-European than before, putting any further integration at risk.  

March 4th, 2018: The Day of Reckoning for European Politics

by Brunello Rosa


26 February 2018  


At the end of this week, we’ll know something more about the future of the European integration process, as the results of the referendum among the SPD party members on the proposed Grosse Koalition (GroKo) with the CDU/CSU and of the Italian general elections will be known.


The conventional narrative says that the SPD will eventually give green light to the GroKo, and that Italy will manage to find a parliamentary majority for a new government to emerge, even if this means that political forces that fought on opposite sides during the electoral campaign (in particular Forza Italia and PD), will have to find a compromise and form what would look like the Italian version of the German GroKo. The result of these expected outcomes is that the European integration process will re-start, with some progress made between the EU Council meetings in March and June. We don’t disagree that this could in fact be the eventual outcome, although we have already warned that any further integration step will be minimal at best, at this stage. We have also identified an upside scenario in which this process is accelerated by Merkel’s accession to a top EU job (head of the Commission or head of the EU Council) in 2019, while Macron continues to pushed on its pro-European platform at a national level.


At the same time, we have also highlighted the risks surrounding this conventional narrative. Regarding Germany, as we wrote in the inaugural column for this Viewsletter (on 4 December 2018), the risk is that of finding a short-term solution while creating a long-term problem, meaning a further collapse of the SPD (as junior party in the GroKo) and a further fragmentation of the German political system, with continued growth of Die Linke, the AfD and FDP, making Germany virtually ungovernable three-four years from now. The polls have recently shown that the voting intentions in favour of the SPD have already collapsed, to 15-16%, i.e. below that of the AfD, which in the meanwhile have increased. It is true that the SPD, having won the places for both the Finance and the Foreign Ministers will have greater chance to influence the policies of the GroKo, in particular its fiscal stance. But while the SPD in the Finance Ministry can at the margin make Germany’s fiscal stance less rigid and more investment prone, it’s unlikely to be able to make the final push for the EU/EZ to become the full-fledged transfer union it needs to become in order to survive in the long run.


Regarding Italy, we have written that there is still too much complacency in the market, given the level of uncertainty on the eventual outcome. Even the EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has expressed similar concerns last week, before moderately backtracking when accused of interfering in domestic political matters. But the uncertainty of the outcome is a fact. An untested electoral law, a record-high level of expected abstention and undecided voters, the fragmentation of the political system means that nobody can say with any level of credibility what the eventual distribution of seats will be, and therefore what parliamentary majority will eventually emerge to support a government. It is well possible that a protracted period of political uncertainty following the election will keep markets nervous about Italy, penalising its sovereign debt and bank equity prices.


March 4th will be an important day for Europe: If events unfold broadly as expected, the European integration process could re-start and progress in its usual bumpy way, muddling through economic and political difficulties. If instead events unfold differently, the process will likely suffer a sudden and protracted stop, which will take time to reverse.

Volatility Abates But Inflation Fears Will Continue to Weigh on Markets

by Brunello Rosa


19 February 2018  


Last week staged a rebound in equity markets after the sell-off of the previous days: on a weekly basis, the S&P500 rose by 4.2%, and VIX declined by 30% to 19.5. So, for the time being, the market has moved along the lines we highlighted at the beginning of the sell-off (see our weekly column of 5 February 2018), when we thought this would not represent the beginning of a bear market, and we suggested investors should get used to an environment of higher volatility in equity and bonds and higher sovereign yields due to the increase in the inflation risk premium included in the term premium embedded in long-term rates. 


At the same time, the market remains particularly susceptible to inflation surprises (which can easily translate in “inflation scares”), as the sell-off in equities showed last week at the time of the publication of US inflation data, when January CPI came in unchanged from December at 2.1% y/y, against expectations of a drop to 1.9%. In particular, the fiscal and investment plans of the US administration, at this stage of the business cycle, risk being mostly inflationary, forcing the Fed to tighten more and faster. So, we expect inflation and higher yields and volatility to continue weighing on the US (and other) equity prices going forward, making it harder for equity indices to rise much beyond previous highs. 


Of course, central banks are vigilant on the inflation phenomenon, with the Federal Reserves under Jay Powell, with a slightly more hawkish FOMC composition, likely to increase the Fed funds target range in March. But not all central banks are joining the Fed, Bank of Canada and Bank of England in their policy tightening cycles. The ECB and the BoJ have re-affirmed that they intend to continue providing monetary stimulus until inflation shows signs of sustainable upward trend towards the 2% target. The Swedish Riksbank has recently revised downward its inflation forecasts, likely implying a postponement of the expected time of the lift-off. 


Low for longer yields in Europe and Japan will continue to constitute an anchor for US Treasury yields, with the 10y yield unlikely to rise much beyond 3%. The main upside risk is represented by an increase in real yields due to a rise in the US budget deficit and debt for the next few years (with the GOP abandoning their traditional stance of fiscal prudence). More in general, a continued accommodative monetary stance should help the global economy to remain in the ongoing synchronized expansion, unless some unexpected shock, including of geopolitical nature, brings this to a sudden end.     

Emerging Markets Remain Resilient in Global Market Shake-Up

by Brunello Rosa


12 February 2018

 

As the market tries to settle after a week of elevated volatility, re-rating of risk appetite and re-pricing of securities across the board, we would like to highlight the remarkable resilience of emerging markets in this turbulent context. If we look at MSCI indexes, emerging equity markets had outperformed DMs in the January 2018 rally (+7.5% versus 5.8%) and slightly underperformed DMs in the sell-off (-10.2% vs -8.8%, mirroring the re-widening of credit spreads), but their performance since the beginning of the year has been in line with the global index (-3.5%).


At the time of the 2013 taper tantrum, the sell-off at the long end of the US yield curve (when the 10y US Treasury yield reached 3%) sent shockwaves through the system that impacted mostly EMs, in particular the so-called Fragile Five economies (Turkey, Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia) which were most exposed because of their large current account deficits and external debt. On the other hand, in our recent analysis on EM currencies, we had already noted how emerging economies (including the Fragile Five) had repaired some of their domestic and external balance sheets, thus proving more resilient to the Fed’s interest rate normalisation and potential dollar appreciation.


Our recent travel notes from Turkey (one of the most fragile economies from an external perspective, with a still-large current account deficit) highlighted how the country’s cyclical economic resilience (flirting with over-heating, at times) was able to compensate the historical structural economic deficiencies, even within a complicated domestic political and international geopolitical environment. Our analysis on China in January discussed how the managed economic transition from an investment-driven to a consumption-led economy was likely to result in a gradual, if bumpy, slowdown, rather than a crash, thanks to a political system that had just renewed its confidence in the single-party system, and its supreme leader, President Xi, and how this would allow the Asian giant to whether not just a passing storm, but even a systemic crisis. In Brazil, in the middle of the market sell-off, the central bank even found room to cut its policy rate by 25bps to 6.75% (a historic low), taking advantage of falling inflation, in sharp contrast with the defensive hikes that some EMs had been forced to undertake in the past, to defend their currencies from a rapid depreciation (and a potential subsequent spike in inflation).


More in general, during this sell-off episode emerging markets have found resilience in a number of concurring factors, including: first, synchronised global growth will continue to exert a positive influence on EMs, most of which still depend on export to grow; second, the stabilisation of commodity prices in 2016-17 has also helped stabilise the EM business cycle; third, the build-up of foreign reserves and the shrinking of current account deficits have made most EMs less sensitive to sudden market reversals; fourth, the fact that the dollar index only appreciated 2.2% during the sell-off meant that EMs did not suffer massive currency outflows. 


Going forward, assuming the US inflation scare does not intensify, investors cite still positive yield differential between DM (in particular US) rates and EM rates and the relative cheapness of EM versus DM equity on a P/E basis to justify continued search for opportunity in the EM fixed income and equity spaces. A worsening of the sell-off would most likely induce a re-thinking of this position, even if the impact on EM would likely be smaller than in 2013, considering better economic fundamentals. 


Clearly other structural risks exist that suggest cautiousness in EM exposure, such as a political cycle with elections in Mexico, Brazil, Russia and soon South Africa, the build-up of a large amount of corporate debt (often dollar-denominated), the potential fallout of protectionist measures from the US administration (e.g. stand-off of Nafta negotiations) and geopolitical risks in various parts of the world. 


Higher Yields and Lower Equity Prices: Be Aware, Not Scared

by Brunello Rosa


5 February 2018

 

Last week staged the contemporaneous rise in long-term yields in US and other markets and a correction in equity markets, with the S&P500 losing 3.9% w-o-w, the worst weekly performance in two years. This market reaction was triggered by central bank communication and data releases. On Wednesday, the FOMC statement highlighted that “inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to move up this year” and stabilise around the FOMC’s 2% objective over the medium term, opening the doors to a further 25-bps rate increase in March, in line with our preview. On Friday, the January 2018 employment report showed a solid 200k increase in non-farm payrolls, beating expectations for a 180k rise, versus an upwardly revised figure in December of 160k, with the unemployment rate remaining at the record low of 4.1%. More importantly, labour market data showed signs of vitality in labour compensation, with wages growing 2.9% y/y, increasing concerns about rising inflation. 


Better economic data and central bank communication, suggesting reduced policy support and further liquidity withdrawal, triggered a bond sell-off (and potentially a revision of investor’s interest rates expectations). During the week, 10y UST yields rose from 2.66% to 2.84%—a four-year high. In the EU, the German 10y bund yield rose from 0.63% to 0.76%. This rise in yields has been driven by an increase in the nominal (rather than the real) component of long-term rates, and in particular by the normalisation of the inflation risk premium, rather than an increase in inflation expectations. In spite of higher US Treasury yields and expectation of potentially higher policy rates, the USD kept depreciating, with EUR/USD rising above 1.25 for the first time since December 2014, to close the week at EUR/USD 1.248, a 0.9% w-o-w depreciation of the USD vs the EUR. 


The event of the past week confirmed what we suggested in our Viewsletter of 15 January 2018 (“A Bumper Start of the Year Still Requires Some Cautiousness”) and are in line with our 2018 Global Economic Outlook (“Smooth Sailing for Now, With Headwind Risks Rising”) and 2018 Strategic Asset Allocation (“Moderate Risk-Taking Within A Defensive Positioning”). With equities having staged the best start of the year for the last 20 years (with S&P500 having returned 5% year-to-date), it would be premature to consider this episode as the beginning of a protracted correction, in particular considering that the rise in yields is underpinned by improving economic fundamentals. At the same time, investors should be wary of short-term market reversals, and therefore of increased volatility, in this environment. 


As we discussed in our Outlook, one of the greatest macroeconomic risks for 2018, underpinning what we labelled as a “malign upside scenario”, is an unexpected rise in inflation, which forces global central banks, and primarily the Fed, to increase rates faster than initially anticipated (or signal a faster pace of policy normalisation), thus worsening the initial market reversal deriving by rising yields. At the same time, investors should hold their nerves, as global inflation remains largely under control, as we discussed in our Viewsletter of 8 January(“Neither Permanent, Nor Temporary, But “Persistently” Low Inflation”). In many large areas of the global economy (including Europe and Japan), there’s still plenty of work to do to bring inflation on a sustainable path in line with central bank targets, and the powerful forces of globalisation and technological innovation, with their impact on income distribution and inequality, are still at play. 


As a result, investors should not be scared of moderate rises in wage growth and inflation, and therefore in yields, in line with an improved economic outlook. Still-low German and Japanese long-term yields will continue to constitute an anchor also for US Treasury rates.

Lingering Currency Wars

by Brunello Rosa


29 January 2018


As discussed in our recent review of ECB policy meeting of January 25th and preview of the FOMC meeting on January 31st, during the past week we have observed an abrupt resurgence of what somebody could emphatically call “currency war.” The renewed dispute around the desirable level of a country’s currency versus the others was kicked off by the comments from the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who said that a weak dollar was good for the U.S. trade. After ECB President Draghi expressed disappointment for a comment that - in his opinion - violated the terms of reference on currency management agreed at international level, in the evening of January 25th, President Trump reassured market participants by saying that he was in favour of a strong dollar, soon followed again by Mnuchin who, on Friday 26th, said that a stronger dollar would be in the best interest of the US. It is not a surprise if - in all this - EUR/USD proved extremely volatile: the currency pair begun the week at 1.22, jumped to 1.25 during Draghi’s press conference on Thursday 25th, and closed on Friday at just above 1.24.


What are the ingredients of what we could call, more pragmatically, “lingering,” or “low-intensity” currency war?  In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis (in London), G20 countries renewed their pledge not to indulge in competitive devaluations, but soon after engaged in a “currency war” by proxy, in terms of competitive increases of the central banks’ balance sheets, another way of re-flating the economy, debasing the currency and ultimately induce a currency depreciation against all other currencies. All major DM central banks engaged in such a borderline acceptable practice, behind the fig leaf that ultra-expansionary monetary policies were motivated by domestic reasons, with the effect on the currency only being an unwanted (but welcome!) “collateral damage”. 


In this phase, central banks’ behaviour is relevant from a different perspective: considering the diverging monetary path by the Fed (engaged in rates normalisation and balance sheet reduction) and the ECB (still adopting a negative policy rate and balance sheet expansion) one would expect EUR/USD to depreciate, rather than appreciate. However, the policy path expected by the market given the stage in the economic cycle, compared to what the central bank actually does, could make the difference. The Fed continues delivering “dovish hikes,” while the ECB is engaged in a slow exit from its extraordinary accommodation. 


Besides this and other cyclical factors (e.g. inflows into equity markets) there are two structural factors behind the lingering currency war: one is the trade policy, the other the tax policy. On trade, the Eurozone continues to exhibit a current account surplus (a result of the German-mandated fiscal austerity imposed to the continent) that structurally strengthen the currency, while the US has still a current account deficit which favours a weaker currency, in spite of the threatened “protectionist” measures that would make the USD, at the margin and ceteris paribus, stronger. On fiscal policy, the recent US tax cuts is likely to create a fiscal and current account deficit that would, over the medium term, favour the weakening of the USD in spite of all declarations by US officials. The German-led Eurozone will find it hard to respond to this round of US fiscal easing in spite of the re-emerging grand coalition. 


We will likely observe other episodes of this new lingering currency war in coming months. Being a fiscal and political union, the US is much better equipped than the Eurozone (a sub-optimal currency area) to fight this war. Other jurisdictions, such as the UK (busy with Brexit) and Japan (still battling with low inflation) will try to respond with their more limited weapons to this new challenge

"War & Peace" - What Europe is Still About

 

by Brunello Rosa


22 January 2018


In its monumental novel “War & Peace,” the Russian author Lev Tolstoy narrates the French invasion of Russia by the Napoleonic army and provided a powerful fresco of what Europe was about in the 19th century: divided by profound fault-lines, always on the verge of a new devastating conflict, pressured by the ambitions of the Russian empire, the grandeur of the French Monarchy or Republic, the influence of Great Britain (at that time, half in and half out of Europe, like today), the attempt of Germany (back then still not existing as a united country) of projecting its political influence beyond being an economic powerhouse. 


Fast forward 130 years, after several intra-European conflicts between the continental super-powers, two devastating World Wars, both commenced in Europe (WWI with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo), the European Union was created to put under the same roof the countries that had fought each other for centuries, slaughtering millions of people in the process. The European Union has made possible 70 years of peace in Europe (recognized by the Peace Nobel Prize of 2012), interrupted by the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and the American-led war against Serbia in 1998, when Kosovo was trying to become independent in the late 1990s. 


Twenty years later, we are approaching the moment of a potential breakthrough, with the accession of the Western Balkans in the European Union, beginning with Serbia and Montenegro. In early February, the European Commission is expected to publish a strategic paper, recommending that Serbia and Montenegro could become EU members by 2025, if a number of disputes are resolved in the meanwhile. In particular, Serbia needs to recognise the independence of Kosovo, as a pre-condition for EU accession. That would mean taming the narrative of Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian ethnical and religious beliefs.  


Just three weeks before this historical moment, the killing of Oliver Ivanovic, the leader of the Serb minority party in Kosovo, risk jeopardizing the entire process, as the Serb delegation walked away from the talks with the Kosovan delegation in Brussels. This politically-motivated murder could send Serbia back into the arms of the historical ally, Russia, and away from its European future, and could be the trigger of another wave of ethnical and political instability in the region. On the other hand, if the Serbian pro-European leadership keeps its course, it might accelerate the process of EU accession.


The EU was created to reduce the fault-lines that characterise Europe and resolve tensions and conflicts of interests among countries in a peaceful, rather than bellicose way. In our recent publication we discuss how the various countries are positioning themselves in the race to the top positions of European institutions, becoming available from March 2018 until the end of December 2019, with the European parliamentary elections in 2019. The men and women that will take those top positions will determine the future of the European integration process, and whether that can survive for longer or will eventually collapse. For the process of integration to re-start, the Franco-German engine also needs to be re-started, with France now seemingly in the driving seat. The window to reform Europe is narrow, perhaps closing between June and September 2018, with Italian elections in between potentially delaying important decisions. 


In a recent paper, a group of European economists has proposed a new solution to address one of the most contentious issues about the future of Europe, i.e. how to make sure that risk sharing does not become risk shifting, and therefore market discipline is maintained. In a recent event held at France Stratégie a number of representatives of continental institutions gathered to discuss the next wave of structural reforms, to make the European project viable also in the future and acceptable to the wider population, in order to prevent or sterilise the ongoing populist backlash. This is Europe as it needs to be – a common place where to discuss and resolve potential conflicts as well as clashes of interests and cultural approaches in a peaceful way. Because the alternative is a return of the scenarios so dramatically depicted by Lev Tolstoy in his epic book.   

A Bumper Start of the Year Still Requires Some Cautiousness

By Brunello Rosa


15 January 2018  


The year has started with a continuation, if not an acceleration, of the trends and dynamics observed in 2017, especially in the second half. Global growth remains in a cyclical upswing, with some of the leading indicators (such as PMIs) suggesting a continued and reinforcing expansion. Inflation has not yet raised its ugly head, and – as long as it remains in check – will not derail the upturn. As a result, monetary policy can remain accommodative at global level, even if and when central banks start withdrawing some of the extraordinary accommodation provided in the last few years. For example, in our latest paper, we discuss the central bank of Canada’s likely next move, and its possible tightening cycle in 2018. 


Fiscal policy is adding fuel to a maturing business cycle, especially in the U.S. where the tax cuts have further boosted sentiment and animal spirits (even if the eventual impact on growth will likely be more modest than initially anticipated). Some of the uncertainties that were restraining market sentiment, such as that around the formation of the German government, are now starting to be resolved, even if it will still take a number of months for the new “grand coalition” to emerge. In Europe, Italian elections are still a risk factor, but unlikely to cause an immediate resurgence of the re-denomination risk, and Catalonia-related issues don’t seem to bother investors excessively.


Given this background, risk is “on” context and equities have had the best start of the year since 2003, with the U.S. leading the race. The modest rise in short and long-term yields observed in the last few weeks, with the 2y U.S. Treasury yield having reached the psychological barrier of 2% and the 5y and 10y yields having broken 25-year trend lines, seems more in line with this generalised optimism, than an indication of a new “tantrum,” even when big players call for the end of the secular bond bull market begun in the 1970-‘80s.


Is this all “hanky dory” then? As discussed in our Global Economic Outlook, 2018 would likely see a continuation of the smooth sailing observed in 2017, with a potential for upward surprises in coming weeks, while cautioning that the risk of headwinds was rising (the way we put it is that “we are in the 5th inning of the credit re-leveraging cycle, not in the 8th as we were in 2006-07”). In our scenario analysis, we identify the risks to confidence, economic activity and market prices deriving from an abrupt tightening of global financial conditions (for example led by the closing of the output gaps in several developed and even developing economies), escalating trade restrictions and rising geopolitical tensions. In its latest Global Economic Prospects the World Bank, while acknowledging the ongoing growth momentum, identifies similar short-term risks to the economic outlook.   

Neither Permanent, Nor Temporary, But “Persistently” Low Inflation

by Brunello Rosa


8 January 2018


In a column of a few months ago, Nouriel Roubini discussed the potential factors behind what he called “the mystery of the missing inflation”, i.e. the fact that inflation was undershooting central banks’ objective in most areas of the advanced world, including those in which the output gap is closed, or very narrow, such as the US. In particular, he referred to the various persistent supply- side phenomena that can lead to a prolonged period of low inflation, including technological advancement, globalisation, new forms of labour organisation (and associated weakness of the unions and flatness of the so-called Phillips curve, which supposedly links unemployment and inflation rates). 


A week later, Fed Chair Janet Yellen also used the same term (“mystery”) to acknowledge that inflation have been undershooting the Fed’s 2% target for quite some time, while attributing this phenomenon to a series of temporary supply factors, such as reduced mobile phone bills and medical insurance premia, the long-lasting effects of lower oil prices, etc. Given their temporary nature, the Fed could look through those factors, and continue its monetary policy normalisation cycle, as in fact it did with the additional 25-bps rate increase delivered in December 2017. But before that, Yellen herself started to express some doubt on the temporary nature of this inflation under-shoot, when in a discussion at NYU, she declared: “We expect [inflation] to move back up over the next year or two, but I will say I’m very uncertain about this.” It is too early to say that the Fed will make a U-turn on this issue, but at least the debate in openly on the table.


In our recent 2018 Global Economic Outlook, we made a further step in our analysis of this phenomenon, when we argued that we don’t think that inflation is low either for a series of temporary factors, or due to the presence of permanent phenomena, such as the “death of the Phillips curve.” Rather, we think that inflation is low for a series of “persistent” supply- side (and some demand-side) phenomena, that conjure to keep inflation low for a long period of time, but unlikely forever. We believe that the global and technological factors that have kept inflation low so far are somewhat persistent and that these global factors matter for traded goods inflation but less so for non-traded goods inflation. 


Thus, in the debate between those at the Fed who believe that the supply-side shocks were mostly temporary and those who believe that they are mostly permanent, we argue that reality is in between, the shocks are neither permanent or temporary but “persistent” over time. As a result, in spite of stronger growth, inflation may rise only gradually rather than surprise to the upside in 2018, and the Fed may thus hike less than signalled by the “dot plot” but more than market participants currently expect.

Italy: A Year of Living Dangerously


by Brunello Rosa


2 January 2018

 

At the end last year, Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella dissolved parliament (a few months ahead of the natural end, in mid-March), to allow general elections to be held on March 4th, 2018. The Italian general election is the most relevant political event of the first quarter of 2018, if we assume that Russian presidential election will end up with the victory of President Putin (with effectively no rivals). 


This election will likely mark the beginning of a period of renewed political instability for the country, after a few years of relative calm, in spite of the four Prime ministers since 2011 (Monti, Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni, none of which formally mandated by an electoral result). In fact, since the fall of Berlusconi in November 2011, various forms of “grand coalition” between the PD and Forza Italia and its derivatives (in particular, the New Centre-Right founded by Berlusconi’s former dolphin, Angelino Alfano) have warranted a majority in parliament to pass tough legislation on various fronts: pension, labour market, public administration reform, two new electoral laws, and even a constitutional reform that was eventually rejected by the referendum of December 2016. 


But the new electoral law is less likely to produce a majority, unless a coalition reaches around 40% of the votes (which, depending on vote distribution) might result in a 50% majority of seats in parliament. At the moment, only the centre-right coalition led by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia seems able to reach that result. But even if that happened, the divergence in programs between Forza Italia, Northern League (now only called League) and Brothers of Italy (a radical right-wing party) wouldn’t warrant any stability in government. 


If no coalition manages to obtain a majority in parliament, then it will be Mattarella’s job to try to form a government and find a majority in the Chambers. His predecessor Napolitano succeeded in that, not without raising some eyebrow of constitutional experts. A “President’s government” (or a variant of it) would start by ensuring full continuity in Italy’s journey towards fiscal consolidation, by appointing a technocrat as Finance Minister, able to reassure the market. In this case, the incumbent Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan might remain in charge for a bit longer, to ensure continuity. But the market will remain skeptical of a government without a solid political mandate. A new round of elections might be necessary after only a few months. 


In all this, BTPs will continue to enjoy the backstop of ECB’s QE, but at a reduced pace, at the time banks are also offloading some of their BTP holdings (to comply with European and BIS requirements) and NPLs will continue to weigh on banks’ balance sheets. This cocktail of events seems spicy enough to justify market participants’ attention towards Italian elections in early March.

R&R 2018 Outlook: Smooth Sailing for Now, With Headwind Risks Rising

By Brunello Rosa

27 December 2017


Global Economic Outlook 


We are in the last few days of 2017, and so it is natural to have a look at the year about to begin and how we see it. As we have recently discussed in our 2018 Global Economic Outlook, we believe that the growth momentum that has characterised 2017 (as a moderate, global expansion), will likely continue in 2018. In fact, the global economy and financial markets currently appear in a sort of Goldilocks period of growth and inflation being not too cold and not too hot. Since the summer of 2016, the global economy has been in an expansion stage, positive growth that is accelerating in most key countries and regions. In most developed markets and emerging economies, there is an expansion as opposed to the slowdown – positive but slowing growth - that was observed in the two risk-off episodes of Q3 2015 and Q1 2016. 


One might wonder whether such a prolonged period of expansion would eventually end, being already quite mature. But economic expansions don’t die out of old age or natural death, as recessions are caused either by domestic or external shocks. In our global economic outlook, we consider a number of headwind risks: China hard landing, geopolitical risks, US/Trump, surge in long-term yields, a shock widening credit spreads, Eurozone risks resurfacing, not enough capex in energy-consuming economies. In our view, none of them is likely enough to trigger a sharp risk-off episode, although even a milder combination of some of them may trigger volatility and market correction of risky assets from elevated levels. In our outlook, we also discuss two alternative scenarios (upside and downside) compared to the baseline of a continued moderated expansion.


Implications for financial markets and asset allocation 


When the economy is in global expansion, inflation remains well-behaved, central banks are either normalising slowly or providing continued accommodation, fiscal policy is neutral at worst, regulation is set to become looser, naturally risk is “on” and risky asset prices are on their way up. At the same time, valuations are stretched, credit spreads low and private and public debt piling up. So, the risk of a “Minsky moment” is increasing significantly and may materialize in 2019-2020 if the current asset and credit cycle turns into a full-blown bubble. Also, we consider a big macro shock a necessary condition for a significant market correction (a 10% US and global equities correction), and this is a likely risk scenario, rather than our baseline for 2018. 


In our 2018 Strategic Asset Allocation paper, we discuss the implications for asset allocation of such an environment, which remains challenging, as expected returns are likely to remain lower than during the pre-crisis period. In our view, in the context described above, a moderate risk-taking within a defensive positioning is justified. Achieving the goal of wealth preservation would require adopting conservative investment strategies, with a greater exposure to alternatives to provide some incremental return.

Catalonia: an Open European Question


By Brunello Rosa

(Original Version 18 December, Updated 

on 22 December 2017)  


On Thursday 21 December, 4.3 million Catalans went to the polls (for a record 81.9% turnout), and elect their regional Parliament, which was dissolved after Madrid took over the rule of the region, following the application of article 155 of the Constitution on 28 October. 


As we discussed in our recent paper, the Spanish government chose a day in the middle of the week to hold the election in order to increase the participation of the “silent” majority of the Catalans, which was supposedly against independence; at the same time hoping for a reduced mobilisation of the pro-independence parties and their affiliates and supporters, already badly hit by the incarceration of the leaders of the pro-independence movement. 


The result was quite different from what the Government was hoping for. The pro-independence front, constituted by JuntsxCat (led by Carles Puigdemont from the “exile” in Brussels), ERC (the pro-independence, left-wing party led by Oriol Junqueras, now in prison) and CUP obtained 70 seats out of 135. The first party was Ciudadanos (Cs) led by Ines Arrimadas, which won 37 seats, but the unionist front with PSC-PSOE and PP only got 67 seats in the regional parliament. It won’t be easy for the pro-independence front to converge on a common President of the Generalitat (the first round needs to take place by February 10th), although JuntsxCat and ERC seem willing to cooperate to form a government running an independentist platform, although less radical than the one that led to the unilateral declaration of independence. 


Theoretically speaking, CatComu’-Podem (the local declination of Podemos), which gathered 7.5% of votes and 8 seats, could be the kingmaker. As we have discussed in our publications, if it joined forces with ERC and the pro-independence movement, it might push for the adoption of a Scotland-type independence referendum, i.e. a legitimate consultation approved by Madrid (after a constitutional reform or with a constitutional law). However, so far Podemos has decided not to take sides, considering that Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, remains on the fence. In coming weeks, we will see whether they decide to take a more active role. 

 

In any case, as we warned already in our initial working paper, the issue of Catalan independence will not be settled for some time, and its economic repercussions will continue to be felt across the board. After the elections, the equity prices of the regional banks lost 3%, impacting the overall national index, which has been the underperformer of Europe since May. The impact on the Catalan economy of the unilateral proclamation of independence has been indubitably negative, with thousands of companies forced to relocate their registered office (if not their trading offices) outside Catalonia, to protect themselves against a potential escalation of the tensions. But the result of the elections show that somehow the independence “dreamland” is still considered attractive by a vast proportion of the Catalan electorate.


Two weeks after the EU Council gave green light to the second phase of “Brexit” negotiations and Corsica saw the convincing victory of the pro-autonomy front, the issue of the Catalan independence returned to the fore, to show once again that the institutional setting of regions within the EU is a pan-European issue. We have argued that the creation of sub-national or trans-national regions as the center of the political decision-making process is one of the key areas in which the EU needs to make progress, if it wants to survive in the long run. This week’s election has been a clear reminder of this urgent need. 


(Renata Bossini contributed to this analysis) 

Brexit vs Grexit: Why The Negotiations Will Remain Bumpy

By Brunello Rosa

11 December 2017


After six months of negotiations, a preliminary deal has been reached between the UK and the EU to “unlock” the talks on the “second phase” of the Brexit negotiations, when a new “trading arrangement” will have to be established between the two sides.


While welcoming these developments, which are also in line with our narrative and scenario analysis, at this stage we consider more relevant to emphasise that this is just the beginning of a very long process, which is likely to be bumpy until the very end. The UK will likely have to compromise on a number of issues, and in some cases capitulate. According to the text agreed in Brussels on 8 December, if “no deal” is reached between the UK and the EU, the entire UK will have to guarantee “full alignment” with the EU rules of the single market and the customs union, to prevent a hard border from re-emerging between Northern Ireland and EIRE. This would look very similar to a “Norway-style” solution, which is considered unacceptable by the vast majority of UK political leaders. On the other hand, if the eventual outcome is a Canada-Style FTA, this is very similar to “hard” Brexit, and with very little protection for the financial services industry; again, a sub-optimal outcome to say the least. 


But other outcomes are also possible, depending on the political economy of events. To elucidate this point, in our latest Working Paper, we take as an example the negotiations occurred between Greece and the EU in 2015. Apart from the obvious differences, there are several lessons that can be drawn from that experience, and in particular that: 1) a series of elections and referendums might be required to get to the eventual political equilibrium; 2) the political party that starts the process might not be the one that manages – and finishes – it; 3) all sides of the negotiations should be prepared for unexpected U-turns; 4) Negotiations tend to finish at the 11th hour, and beyond; 5) The eventual outcome might be very different from the initially expected results.  


Comparing the Greek sequence of events in 2009-2015 with the Brexit timeline (starting from 2015) reveals that the UK is only at the very beginning of a long process, which might evolve in many different directions. As we discussed in our previous reports, given the current information set, a Canada-style FTA agreement seems the most likely scenario. But the information set will evolve over time, and with it the possible potential outcomes. 

Is a German “Grand Coalition” Necessarily Good News?

By Brunello Rosa

4 December 2017

  

The current consensus view is that Germany’s political deadlock could be solved only by the SPD entering again a “grand coalition” with the CDU/CSU. This would represent good news for both Germany and Europe because: domestically, a “grand coalition” would likely last longer than a minority government or a Jamaica coalition, and an SPD-led finance ministry would partly soften the fiscal discipline imposed by former Finance Minister W. Schäuble; and internationally, the SPD would push for more European integration than a Jamaica coalition would have done, and would make German commitments more credible. 


It is true that the more pro-European set of German policies deriving from this baseline scenario, coupled with French President Macron’s push for more domestic reform as well as European integration and risk sharing should be able to at least counterbalance the centrifugal forces coming from Britain, as well as Southern and Eastern Europe, allowing the European integration process to muddle through for a few more years. At the same time, in our view, there are two downside risks that cannot be underestimated.


First, Germany traditionally tends to have a conservative fiscal stance regardless of the ruling coalition. So, even if a grand coalition is formed, the SPD might not be in the position of significantly moving this needle of German policymaking, in spite of somewhat increased infrastructure investment and higher spending on social programs. Secondly, if the grand coalition fails there is a risk of making euro-skeptic AfD and FDP stronger and that would be bad for Germany and for Europe down the line. In fact, if the SPD enters timidly the grand coalition (as it was the case in 2005-2009, and in 2013-2017), at the end of this experience its political capital could be completely exhausted, with the serious risk of becoming an irrelevant party like other socialist parties in Europe (e.g. PS in France, PSOE in Spain and PASOK in Greece), with the Greens and the Left sharing the spoils of the left-wing electorate. At the same time, a Merkel-less CDU could also be in dire straits, unable to attract more than 20-25% of votes, leaving a large proportion of the right-wing electorate to the FDP and AfD (which already now have, combined, almost 25% of the votes). 


This means that, at the end of this experience (in 3-4 years), Germany runs the risk of finding itself with an even more fragmented political spectrum, unable to form a governing coalition, and express a government strong enough to complete the European integration process, when centrifugal forces could be even stronger. We have already argued that the 2017-2022 years are the most critical for Europe, when the integration process must be put on serious track for completion. Failure to do so would mean that 4-5 years from now, the ongoing dis-integration process would become unstoppable, and would likely lead to a re-configuration of Europe in clusters of countries with strategically diverging objectives.