by Brunello Rosa
6 April 2021
This week the traditional IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings will take place in Washington DC, albeit still in an online format for the most part. The IMF will be releasing its latest World Economic Outlook(WEO), the much-revered guidance as to how the world economy is expected to perform over the next several years. Even if most market participants believe that the IMF always provides very cautious forecasts – forecasts that tend to be less pessimistic during market downturns and less optimistic during upswings – their projections will still be a very relevant baseline to consider.
In its last two WEO editions (in October, followed by an update in January), the IMF has upwardly revised its forecasts for global economic activity, following the shock that occurred in Q1/Q2 2020 when economic activity collapsed by double-digit percentage points. This upward revision was mostly due to the rebound recorded in Q3 of 2020, as well as the fact that some key economies performed better than expected, with China even managing to stage positive growth in 2020 and the US weathering the crisis (from an economic perspective that is; less so from a healthcare standpoint) much better than had been feared.
How will the IMF alter its forecasts in April 2021? After the rebound in Q3 2020, the global economy slowed down significantly in Q4 and Q1 2021 as a result of the new restrictions imposed by governments in response to the new waves of the pandemic, which are still partly ongoing. At the same time, some positive news started to emerge on the fight against the virus, and in particular with the beginning of vaccination campaigns in many countries. As discussed in previous columns, the dispersion in the success of those campaigns is huge.
Countries as diverse as the US, UK, Israel, Chile and the United Arab Emirates are exhibiting very encouraging vaccination rates, with large segments of their populations being vaccinated. But large countries or regions such as the EU, China, Russia and India are falling way behind in the vaccination schedule (to say nothing of Latin America – excluding Chile – and Africa). Clearly, the fact that the US and the UK could count on home-developed vaccines provided them with a competitive advantage. But the way the procurement was made and the vaccination campaign organised also played a significant role, as exemplified by countries such as Serbia, which has secured doses from all major vaccine producers and is even able to offer inoculations to foreigners.
As discussed in our recently-published Global Outlook and Strategic Asset Allocation paper, for us this means that some countries will be able to exhibit a truly V-shaped recovery, most notably the US and China. Other regions however, such as the EU, will remain mired in a painful U-shaped recovery, with risk of permanent scarring and damage to growth potential. In the UK, meanwhile, the effects of Brexit will limit the potential economic upswing. This means that US long-term yields will likely continue to rise, however gently, as economic activity recovers and inflation increases. And the US dollar will continue to appreciate against major currencies; chiefly, against the EUR and JPY.
But this means that Emerging Markets will become more vulnerable in coming months and years – as suggested by indicators such as the Brookings-FT Tracking Index for the Global Economic Recovery (Tiger), as the huge amount of debt issued to counter the pandemic will become harder to sustain. There is no doubt that the IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report (GFSR), which will also be issued this week, will discuss the financial stability implications of this worrisome development. G20 Governors and Finance Ministers are set to use the IMF meetings as an occasion to discuss how to make EM debt more sustainable, including through debt-relief measures.
by Brunello Rosa
29 March 2021
The third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is in full swing. According to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University, there have now been 126 million cases and 2.8 million deaths. The number of variants has increased to the point that the new strain of the virus may be very different from the original strain – there are some who are already openly speaking about a Covid-21. A number of European countries are now introducing new restrictive measures, with Germany, France and Italy all now being very close to lockdown situations, which would last at the very least until Easter, and more likely until the end of April. As we discussed in previous columns, the evolution of the pandemic is dramatically uneven across different countries and regions. In the US and the UK the number of new cases (i.e. the pace of increase) is falling, while in other countries, such as Brazil and India, it is rising. In China and Japan, the virus seems to be contained for the time being.
An important reason behind this difference in the pandemic’s evolution is the variety of success in vaccination campaigns. In the US, 100 million citizens have received at least the first inoculation of the anti-Covid vaccine thus far (in the first 59 days of Joe Biden’s presidency), corresponding to 40% of the US population. Biden now plans to have vaccinated the entire adult population of the US by May 1st. In the UK, almost 30mn people have been vaccinated, corresponding to 47% of the population. In other countries, Israel has already vaccinated 100% of its population, the United Arab Emirates 79% and Chile 50%. In the EU, only around 15% of the population has received at least a first dose, while China, India and Russia are clearly laggards, with 7.5% or less of people having received a first inoculation.
As discussed previously, the US clearly enjoys the fact that three out of four vaccines developed in advanced economies are produced by US companies: Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna. The UK, meanwhile, has been able to take advantage of the vaccine produced in Oxford by the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca. The low level of vaccination in Russia is explained by the low trust the general population has in the government, and the fact that President Putin has not yet taken the Sputnik V vaccine himself.
In the EU, it is astonishing how the pharmaceutical companies of the three largest economies (Germany, France and Italy), did not develop an in-house vaccine, but rather had to rely on the US, Russia and the UK to have access to vaccines. Badly written contracts meant a dearth of doses and a very slow start of the vaccination campaign. In its latest EU Council meeting on the subject, held last week, divergences regarding how to proceed on this issue emerged. Luckily, from the US, President Biden promised to help the Europeans as soon as the coverage of the US population is complete. Once again, the Europeans have to rely on their American ally to sort out their problems. A “Vaccine Marshall Plan” is clearly needed at this point, to allow EU countries to begin to catch up with the Americans.
Meanwhile, even the grand coordinated fiscal plan Europe has devised in order to counter the pandemic, the Next Generation EU, is encountering difficulties, whereas the gigantic USD 1.9tn fiscal package by Biden has been approved and is already operational. So far, only 14 out of 27 countries have ratified the European recovery plan, including Germany. However, the German constitutional Court has opened a case aimed at assessing the legitimacy of the plan according to the German constitution. This risks further delaying, if not derailing, the already slow response of the Europeans to the pandemic and the economic damage it has caused. Once again, Europe will have to rely on the spill-overs of US fiscal expansion (which the OECD calculated to be around 0.5% of its GDP) to revive its economic activity.
by Brunello Rosa
22 March 2021
According to the latest IMF figures, the global economy lost 4.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, as a result of the impact of the Covid-19 virus. This loss in income, however, only measures a fraction of the damage and pain inflicted on the global economy and the world’s population by the pandemic. We have discussed several times in this column, and more recently in an in-depth report, how the real impact of the pandemic will need to be evaluated over a number of years to come. We will need to take into account the lasting costs resulting from the loss of economic opportunity and social interaction, the damage inflicted to education and younger generations, and the imbalances in mental health caused by several rounds of lockdown and forced captivity for a social animal such as we are.
After all, income is only a portion of what general welfare is.
Economics, back when the discipline was not yet independent from other social sciences, including philosophy, actually got off to a good start in recognizing this fact. Adam Smith, who can be considered the founding father of the discipline, wrote a treaty on the Theory of Moral Sentiments, the aim of which was to describe the motivations behind economic interactions among individuals. Karl Marx, who first theorised the social struggle, the theory of labour value and the conditions of proletariat, was a Hegelian philosopher. John Maynard Keynes wrote memorable pages discussing the animal spirits behind human decisions to invest, save or consume. Even the drier, dominant neo-classical economics put “welfare” and “utility” as the objectives to be maximised by atomistic individuals, or by society as a whole.
When the theorists of “market fundamentalism” took over the discipline in the 1970-80s, economics became dominated by mathematics, and policy-making became dominated by loss functions expressed in terms of deviations from economic potential and inflation targets. Estimating “welfare,” “utility,” and -why not- “happiness” was considered far too complicated; market participants, policy makers and economic agents had instead to use proxies such as disposable per-capita income, and other similar statistics. In so doing, we lost the essence of policy-making and economics (itself already labelled the “dismal science”) which is not the pursuit of maximising incomes, but rather human welfare, or happiness.
Several indicators of this difficult-to-define concept of welfare have been developed over the years. Some took into account, for example, the environmental sustainability of economic actions and their social impact and implications. It is worth mentioning here the work done by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi on the “Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress”, and by Richard Layard from the London School of Economics aimed at “making personal happiness and wellbeing a goal of public policy.”
More recently, a World Happiness Report has been developed by a group of academic and social organisations, starting from the results of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and The Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, directed by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Its 9th edition, for 2021, has just being released. Not surprisingly, alongside indicators of economic performance and employment, a number of other indicators of environmental sustainability, social cohesion and inclusion, family support, and other such variables have been used to measure the “happiness” of countries. The report also uses data from Gallup surveys on quality of life self-evaluations, and on the frequency of experiencing positive and negative emotions.
Looking at the ranking, one immediately sees that nine of the first ten positions on the list are occupied by European countries, with only New Zealand, ranked ninth entering the top ten outside Europe. Among those European countries, once again Nordic countries take the lion’s share, behind Finland, which was confirmed as the world’s “happiest” country for the third consecutive year. So, we find Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway occupying positions 1, 2, 3, 6 and 8, respectively. “Germanic” countries are also well placed, with Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria occupying positions 4, 5, 7 and 10 on the list.
Among the continental economies, the US does not perform badly, with a well respectable 14th rank, while China does very poorly, featuring only 52nd. La joy the vivre puts France 20th, while Italy’s dolce vita places the country 25th.
What we learn from this report is that a mix of economic and technological development, social inclusion and cohesion, excellent public services, fairness, lack of corruption and – more recently – a positive response to the Covid pandemic are key factors behind countries’ happiness. European Nordic countries, once again, offer the world an example to follow.
by Brunello Rosa
15 March 2021
Last week the US Congress finally approved the USD 1.9tn fiscal stimulus package presented by the Biden administration and its Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. The package consists, among other things, of USD 441bn in direct support to household income (“stimulus cheques”), USD 246bn of unemployment benefit extensions, USD 143bn of tax credit expansion, USD 360bn of aid to state and local governments, USD 227bn for healthcare (including for Covid testing and containment), and USD 176bn for education.
The Biden package is in addition to the 0.9tn fiscal stimulus approved by the US Congress around the time of the US presidential election in November 2020, which was presented by former President Trump. Together, the USD 2.8tn fiscal stimulus is equivalent to 13.3% of the US GDP, which in current dollars is around USD 21tn. Even assuming that only one third of the stimulus will be actually spent, and two thirds will be either saved or else used to pay down debt, this still represents a 4% net stimulus to the economy, which – on the basis of this stimulus – could grow at least 6% in real terms in 2021, and perhaps even 7% in an upside scenario.
The probability of a downside scenario, wherein the US economy grows less than 6%, is quite low at this stage, for the following three reasons: 1) the fiscal stimulus has now been approved by the government and its actual implementation could be quite fast. Sending out cheques, extending unemployment benefits, and increasing tax credits are measures that can be put into action in a fortnight; 2) the risk that the market “undoes” some of the stimulus by demanding higher long-term yields (thus discouraging investment) is kept under control by the Fed’s program of asset purchases; 3) the successful vaccination campaign rolled out by the government, which has already led to around 30% of the US population being vaccinated (versus 10% of the EU, for example), means that new lockdowns and severe restrictions are unlikely to be adopted in the future.
Regarding the successful vaccination campaign one should praise the logistical and organisational abilities of the US system as a whole, especially in situations in which the military gets involved. But other factors should also be considered, including the fact that three of the four internationally approved vaccines are produced by US-based companies (Pfizer, Moderna and J&J), which have favoured their home country in the production and distribution of the vaccine. Also, the low population density of the US may at times have acted as a competitive advantage, for example by providing space to allow Americans to queue inside theirs cars waiting to be vaccinated, whereas in most countries people have to stand in lines, thus creating possibilities for contagion. In any event, the number of new Covid cases in the US has recently collapsed from around 400K a day to 60K nationwide, as spring begins and larger segments of the country start experiencing warm weather, which has proved to be a more challenging environment for the virus to propagate.
With this rebound in economic activity, coming after the 4.3% reduction in real GDP in 2020, the US in 2021 is already on track to recoup most of the GDP level lost during the pandemic. By comparison, a number of European countries (and most emerging markets) will take years to observe their GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels.
This remarkable comeback is therefore the result of a massive policy response provided by the US government through its various branches. The US federal fiscal deficit is forecast to be 10% of GDP in 2021, after being nearly 15% in 2020, the largest fiscal shortfall since 1945. This echoes the effort made by the US government to fight the Great Depression of the 1930s, and subsequently WW2, through Roosevelt’s New Deal. All this is clearly made possible by the de-factodeficit and debt monetisation carried out by the US Federal Reserve, the balance sheet of which has now reached USD 7.5tn, i.e. 35% of nominal GDP. We discussed in our previous columns how central banks, including the Fed, are fighting inflation fears and rising long-term yields. When the FOMC meets this week, it will decide whether or not more decisive actions, such an enhanced forward guidance, explicit yield curve control, or an extension of the maturity of purchased bonds, are needed at this stage.
by Brunello Rosa
8 March 2021
Financial markets have been volatile during the past couple of weeks. Anti-Covid vaccination campaigns are attracting the attention of market participants, as the speed and effectiveness of the vaccination campaigns vary greatly around the world. In the US, President Biden managed to convince Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the producer of the last-approved anti-Covid vaccine, to cooperate with Merck, its long-term arch-rival, to increase the production capacity of the new vaccine. This way, the US will have three domestically produced vaccines – by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and J&J, respectively – available for its population.
For this reason, Biden said that all adults in the US may be given the chance of being vaccinated by May, which is two months earlier than had previously been expected. A similar success story is taking place in the UK, where 21 million people (more than 30% of the country’s total population) have received at least the first dosage of a Covid vaccine.
Much less successful are the campaigns in the EU and Russia. In the EU, the limited availability of vaccines, a more vaccine-sceptical population, and logistical difficulties are making the beginning of the vaccination campaign extremely slow, with only around 5% of the EU population having received a first dosage. The Commission may be blamed for the reduced availability of vaccines, as it wanted to negotiate on the price with the pharmaceutical companies, and its contracts were much less detailed, and hence enforceable, than those signed by the US and the UK. The limited supply has reached a point that Italy has forbidden AstraZeneca to export vaccines to Australia, attracting the criticism by UK PM Boris Johnson.
Russia, meanwhile, is a peculiar case. Though having developed a vaccine much faster than its competitors (the notorious Sputnik vaccine), the level of scepticism among the general population against something offered by the government is such that only around 3% of the population has decided to be vaccinated. The fact that President Putin has not been willing to inoculate himself with the Sputnik vaccine certainly has not helped the cause.
Vaccination campaigns began while a lot of countries were still implementing severely restrictive measures, including full lockdowns in countries such as Germany and the UK. As such, economic activity remains subdued and Q1 2021 will likely be a quarter of very low or even negative GDP growth. Governments continue to provide generous fiscal stimuli: in the US for example the USD 1.9tn fiscal stimulus plan is likely to be implemented soon; and in the UK the Chancellor of the Exchequer has just announced another “spend now, tax later” Budget. Central banks remain fully accommodative, in part so as to monetise the large deficits exhibited by national governments.
Given this background, those countries such as the US, where vaccination campaigns are progressing more smoothly and the policy support is ample, economic activity has started to show early signs of vitality. Accompanying it there has been the return of some inflation fears, motivated by market participants’ awareness of the huge amount of liquidity injected by central banks into the system at a time when large fiscal stimuli have been provided and the output gaps are starting to close. In our recent in-depth analysis, we discussed how the return of high inflation is a risk scenario, rather than our baseline assumption of what will occur. Still, inflation fears have brought a sell-off in bonds, and therefore a rise in short- and long-term yields, as investors re-estimated the timing of central banks’ policy normalisation phases. This in turn has led to volatility in equity markets, which are sensitive to rises in long-term yields.
Central banks around the globe (with the Fed and the ECB at the forefront) were keen to reassure market participants that they are ready to look through short-term rises in inflation, perhaps even rises above the target levels the banks have set, as long as such rises are temporary. The US Fed has even changed its policy strategy to allow temporary inflation overshoots, as long as they are limited in size. Other, smaller central banks, such as the Reserve Bank of Australia, had to resort to additional market intervention in order to bring yields back in line with the policy targets.
In any case, central banks will have a hard time in coming years as they attempt to combine their traditional role as guardians against inflation with their current strategy of monetising the large deficits produced by countries combating the pandemic.
by Brunello Rosa
1 March 2021
The Chancellor of the Exchequer will present its first budget since March 2020 this week, the first time it has done so since the pandemic fully started. On March 8, Rishi Sunak will present to Parliament the new set of measures that are designed to provide support to the UK economy, which has been severely hit by the pandemic.
In 2020, the UK real GDP fell by 9.8% over the previous year, one of the worst performances among G7 countries. The unemployment rate rose from 3.8% at the end of 2019 to 5.4% at the end of 2020, according to the latest IMF data. The collapse in economic activity has been contained by the fact that the government provided generous support through fiscal expansion. The rise in unemployment has been contained by a series of rounds of furlough schemes, which prevented many workers from being laid off. The latest scheme, which in November was extended until March 31, will most likely be further extended into June at the very least, and perhaps beyond it.
In the meantime, the UK has gone through two additional rounds of lockdown, which have further weighed on economic activity. At the same time, the government has launched a successful Covid vaccination campaign, which has resulted in more than 20 million people receiving the first dose of one of the various vaccines available, corresponding to around 30% of the population. For comparison, in the entire EU/EEA, only 22 million doses have been distributed on a population of around 500 million, i.e. around 4.5%. If the UK’s vaccination campaign continues at its current pace, the government estimates that it will be able to provide vaccination to the vast majority of the UK population by the end of H1 2021.
Given these estimates, Boris Johnson’s government has launched a 4-step plan for a cautious but irreversible reopening of the economy by the end of June 2021 This should hopefully provide some relief to the strained economy and public finances (it may include an anticipated GBP 5bn relief package for various categories of businesses that have been most hit by the pandemic), which have observed the public deficit rising to the astronomical level of 19%, while debt has soared well above the 100% threshold. Beyond this short-term fiscal expansion, Sunak will have to show a credible fiscal consolidation plan during the post-pandemic period.
Despite all this, this week Sunak will likely announce a plan of further fiscal expansion, considering that all major national and supranational policy organisations now agree that withdrawing policy stimulus too soon is much more dangerous than withdrawing it too late, even for the overall soundness of public finances. (In the 1990s-2000s, notably, Japan showed the detrimental impact to public finances of a premature tightening of fiscal policy). Among the most anticipated measures there is the so-called Future Fund: Breakthrough, a fund that will invest up to £375m of public money in fast-growing UK technology companies, with the result being an increased exposure of taxpayers to stakes in tech start-ups.
Through all of this, Sunak will have to take into account the impact that Brexit has had on the UK economy, even if this impact has been concealed behind Covid, so far. But the impact thus far on the cost of imports and exports has much more to do with Brexit than Covid, for example, at a time when most households and businesses relied on deliveries by post or courier to keep their economic activity going during repeated lockdowns. It won’t be easy for the Chancellor (who has the ambition of becoming PM himself one day) to navigate the UK economy between the Scylla of Covid and the Charybdis of Brexit.
22 February 2021
The first G7 meeting since April 2020 was held in a virtual format at the end of last week, chaired by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The G7 leaders gathered to “discuss how the world’s leading democracies can work together to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world, prevent future pandemics and build back better from coronavirus.”
The final communique emphasised the role of “strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies”, with an aim to “work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism.” To a certain considerable extent, the arrival of Joe Biden as president of the Unites States has marked the return of multilateralism as a method of tackling the massive challenges that the leading world economies face.
In particular, the leaders of the G7 will cooperate to fight the Covid pandemic, with a global plan for vaccine production and distribution. The G7 countries pledged to work together “to strengthen the World Health Organisation (WHO),” and support “its leading and coordinating role” to “accelerate global vaccine development and deployment.” This reference to the WHO is particularly important as one can remember when former US president Donald Trump decided to defund the organisation at the time the global pandemic was starting.
But by now experience should have thought us that the only way to fight global challenges such as air pollution and ocean pollution, climate change, and pandemics is by fostering international cooperation, not by diminishing it.
In this respect, the final statement makes a very important point: “On the 23rd February the Prime Minister will chair a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on the link between climate change and conflict... The discussions at the meeting will inform crucial action ahead of the UK-hosted COP26 Summit in November.”
Other commitments on this front include the need to “promote global economic resilience; harness the digital economy with data free flow with trust; cooperate on a modernised, freer and fairer rules-based multilateral trading system that reflects [G7] values and delivers balanced growth with a reformed World Trade Organisation at its centre; and, strive to reach a consensus-based solution on international taxation by mid-2021 within the framework of the OECD.”
The return of multilateralism is definitely good news. In a period of disruption of global supply and value chains due to the pandemic, and interrupted international travel, the risk of de-globalisation has never been stronger. The rise of autocratic and populist leaders around the world has only worsened the situation. In this respect, G7 countries also made progress in mentioning the strengths and values of democratic, open economies and societies at the beginning of the statement, and deciding not to invite Russia at the upcoming meeting in Cornwall in June (as had initially been planned by Donald Trump), at the time when severe repression is occurring within Russia following the arrest of Vladimir Putin’s main opponent Aleksej Naval'nyj.
On the economic front, the G7 stated that they have given “unprecedented support…over the past year totalling over $6 trillion across the G7.” G7 countries will continue to support their “economies to protect jobs and support a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive recovery.”
To tackle global challenges, the world needs a multilateral and inclusive approach. The populist threat is still too strong to be under-estimated, especially at a time when pandemic-related restrictions and border closures have marked the return of nation-states to the centre of the policy response.
15 February 2021
The recent rise in Eurozone inflation, from -0.3 y/y to +0.9% y/y in January 2021,has sent some shivers down investors’ backs, especially considering that inflation has also risen from +0.2% y/y in May 2020 to 1.4% y/y in January 2021 in the US. Mostly it is technical factors that are behind this rapid increase in inflation numbers: base effects kicking in after one year of pandemic, the recent rise in oil prices (partly driven by the economic rebound after the slump in economic activity experienced in 2020), the recalibration of the basket of goods and services being used to calculate inflation gauges, and in the case of Germany and the Eurozone the fading of the deflationary effect of the 2020 VAT cut that was taken to counter the worst effects of the pandemic.
In spite of the recent increases, inflation remains definitely under control, well below the central banks’ targets, which are usually set around 2% in most developed markets. In the short term, some potential increases may derive from supply bottlenecks due to the disruption of global supply and value chains, which can reduce the availability of goods and services. The pandemic has shown that although these supply and value chains were very long and efficient during the merry years of globalisation, they are also very fragile.
So, the main reasons behind a potential increase in inflation in the short run may be technical factors and supply shortages. To observe a more persistent rise in inflation we would need to wait for the closure of the largely negative output gaps that exist around the world, when economic activity returns towards potential and unemployment rates approach the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU). We do not expect this normalisation in economic activity to occur before H2 2021 at the earliest, with 2022 and 2023 more likely candidates.
Even then, the “new normal” in economic activity may be very different from the era that preceded it. Jobs will be even more precarious than they were pre-crisis; the gig economy may become the new paradigm for an entire generation; the bargaining power of unions will be virtually zero for years to come. Hence, the possibility of strong, persistent, domestically-generated inflation will be limited in any case.
Considering this, how will central banks react? The vast majority of central banks in both DMs and EMs will likely look past temporary inflation spikes, especially if they are easily explained by technical factors. They can certainly tolerate transient increases in inflation due to short-term shortages of supply, so long as the output gap remains largely negative. They may be less tolerant towards a rise in inflation if the output gap is closing (even if that inflation is generated by technical factors or supply shocks), as a closing output gap may feed into inflation expectations. They will definitely be very vigilant against domestically-generated, demand-driven inflation deriving from the closure of the output gap and from unemployment rates reaching the NAIRU.
Even in those circumstances, however, the reaction of central banks is likely to be moderate, at least to begin with. The adoption of formal or informal versions of Average Inflation Targeting (AIT) regimes will dictate that banks keep their monetary policy stance looser than they otherwise would, so as to recoup some of the price level lost during the years of inflation overshooting target levels.
In any case, inflation is the variable to watch in coming years, given the impacts it could have on asset prices. A rapid rise in inflation will likely dent the valuation of all major asset classes, and will certainly hurt bonds (both sovereign and corporate), and most likely equities as well (via their dividend discount models of valuation) if central banks are expected to normalise their policy stances sooner than they otherwise would.
Even assets that are traditionally considered to be inflation hedges, such as gold, may need to prove their resilience in the event of rising inflation. Certainly crypto-assets will have to prove that they really are a good inflation hedge, even if these days they are highly sought after given mounting inflation concerns. Indeed, inflation may be the one variable that could transform the expected “roaring twenties” into the “moaning twenties” – if investors are disappointed by asset prices.
by Brunello Rosa
8 February 2021
At the beginning of last week, Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella shocked the Italian political system by announcing that he will confer the charge of forming the government upon Mario Draghi, one of the most well-known public figures at the international level. Mario Draghi has been President of the European Central Bank, inaugural Chair of the Financial Stability Board, Governor of Bank of Italy and Director General at the Italian Treasury. This career in public service has been briefly interrupted by a significant stint between 2002 and 2005 at Goldman Sachs, as Vice Chairman and Managing Director and member of the Executive Committee.
Mario Draghi is mostly known, internationally, for his pronouncement “whatever it takes” , when he promised in July 2012 in London that the ECB will do anything to preserve the integrity of the Euro. These few words anticipated the introduction of the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs), i.e. potentially unlimited purchases of bonds of countries subject to idiosyncratic speculative attacks. Between 2014 and 2015 he managed to introduce negative policy rates and even direct purchases of public and private assets, the so-called Quantitative Easing, in the conservative setting of the ECB, a Frankfurt-based institution still dominated by the Bundesbank monetarist approach.
By making those moves, Draghi was internationally praised for having “saved the euro” from what technically was called “redenomination risk”, but what in reality would have been a catastrophic collapse of the single currency and – with it – of the entire European integration project.
Now Draghi has been called upon to save the European project from another danger. Because of the pandemic, Italy (the first country to be hit by Covid-19) has lost almost 10% of GDP in 2020, its public deficit has exploded to 10% of GDP and its debt/GDP ratio skyrocketed to almost 160%, only a tad below Greece in the Eurozone. As the pandemic hit other European countries, it became evident that Covid was not a idiosyncratic shock to Italy, but rather a systemic shock that – once again – threatened the survival of the EU.
After many months of negotiations, EU leaders finally agreed an economic rescue plan in July 2020, the so-called Next Generation EU plan, which contains the crucial Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). The Next Generation EU plan is the legacy that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to leave to the next generation of EU leaders, a plan to make the EU more resilient, just, environmentally sustainable and digitalised. It was also an extreme exercise of solidarity from the countries “of the North” (Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, etc.) to the countries “of the South” (Italy, Spain, etc.) at the time in which most of the latter needed it.
Now it is obvious that if this exercise of solidarity were to fail because the southern countries (chiefly Italy) prove not to be able to spend the funds coming from Europe efficiently and effectively, while accompanying them with a plan of reforms, the entire edifice of European solidarity would be badly shaken, with the risk of collapse of the integration process existing again over the next few years. Draghi’s job in Italy will need to show that the country as a whole is able to devise a plan of investment and reform that would make Italy ready for the challenges of the future. For him, the biggest challenge will be convincing a highly divided and reluctant parliament to vote for such a plan of reform to re-launch the country, however painful that may be.
by Brunello Rosa
1 February 2021
Last week, media attention was attracted by the epic fight between day traders and the giants of Wall Street. That story is largely known now. Thousands of retail investors, organising themselves on platforms such Reddit and trading on online exchanges such as Robin Hood, have been purchasing the shares of the moribund company GameStop (considered a sort of “Blockbuster” for gaming), a company that funds such as Melvin Capital, which specialises in equity long/short strategies, had been heavily shorting in previous months.
With the price of the stock rising from $17 per share on January 4th to $347 on January 27th, those funds were scrambling to purchase the stocks they needed to cover their short position. But the extent of the bet was such that those shares did not exist, resulting in their prices being pushed up at the speed of light. Eventually, regulators such as the SEC decided to intervene, to calm a market dynamic that was becoming uncontrollable, with retail investors prevailing against hedge funds and Melvin Capital closing its short position and needing to be rescued by its competitors. As the theory says, to be successful a speculative attack needs coordination among the agents involved in it, and a coordinated signal that suggests when the attack should start. The Reddit community had both.
Taking sides in an issue of this sort is hard. One could feel sympathy for the market Lilliputians revolting against the giants of Wall Street, and especially the millennials behind this movement. Nevertheless, the coordination of actions in this way is dangerously close to market manipulation. Hedge funds do not attract popular sympathy, especially hedge funds that short the equities of struggling companies and so can result in the bankruptcy of businesses that might have otherwise survived. But this very strategy – shorting – is also the one instrument that market participants have to signal inefficiencies in the management or unviability of business models.
As for the regulators, they are supposed to be the guardians of the market but tend to act too late, when the damage has already been done. Often, during severe market corrections, some regulators also ban short selling altogether, leaving the impression that market forces should be left free to act only if they push market prices up (the so-called Bernanke Put – now the Powell put).
In the end, it does not really matter who is the good guy in this story, and who is the felon. The real question is what this episode signals, and what the lessons are that must be learnt. It seems to us that this “Reddit army” is following the tradition of fight-the-system/anti-globalisation movements that started with the Seattle WTO protests at the end of the 1990s (remember Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”?) and continued with protests such as Occupy Wall Street.
One could even claim that the entire crypto-asset movement (net of its abundant scams, illegal activities and manipulation) was originally a way to disrupt “the System”.
So, there is a fil rouge that connects all these protest movements in their “rage against the machine”, represented in dystopian movies such as The Matrix franchise. But one needs to be careful here. History teaches us that most revolts and revolutions aimed at democratising the system end up with autocratic regimes or even ferocious dictatorships. Even the mother of all revolutions, the French Revolution of 1789, ended up with Napoleon’s empire and eventually the “restoration” of the Congress of Vienna.
The revolutions of 1848 (the year in which the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx was published), which led to the temporary fall of many absolutist monarchies in Europe, similarly ended up with the election of Napoleon III to become the President of France. He too later became Emperor and an absolutist ruler. On a much smaller scale, the anti-globalisation sentiment prevailing among the middle- and low-income classes in the United States was eventually channelled by a plutocrat from New York: Donald Trump.
The lessons to learn here seem to be the following:
1) Social malaise due to the restriction and loss of job opportunities induced by the pandemic is leading people to find other sources of income perceived as rapid and safe, such as day stock trading.
2) Central bank liquidity, issued to help banks survive and sovereigns monetise public debts, is making one-way bets too widespread in the markets, thanks to the perceived “Bernanke put”.
3) The financial system seems more de-anchored from economic fundamentals than ever, increasing the chances of all sorts of distortions and manipulations occurring, which can end in devastating market crashes.
4) The revolt of the people by way of coordination through electronic platforms is a signal of the underlying social malaise that, though exacerbated by the pandemic, originated decades ago with the decoupling of salary and productivity growth and the beginning the globalisation process.
5) These events are further confirmation that politics, markets and geopolitics these days are taking place first and foremost within cyber space. Politicians around the world should take note of these events, if they do not want to see this revolt exiting the computer screens and taking to the streets.
by Brunello Rosa
25 January 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic has now entered its second year, and its second wave that began in the autumn is now mixing with the expected third wave, which was forecast to peak in the spring of 2021 (following the example of the Spanish flu of 1918-19). The vaccination campaign has started, but the recent delays experienced in Europe in particular mean that heard immunity may not be reached before the autumn of 2021, at the earliest.
After a year of the pandemic, we are now in a position to start evaluating the effectiveness of the overall policy response that has been employed against it. By way of comparison, during the Global Financial Crisis, which originated with a banking crisis in 2007-2009, the policy response was initially inadequate, as the policy arsenal available at the time was incomplete, and even the theoretical framework employed by policymakers was shaky at best. The knee-jerk reaction by public authorities at the time consisted of the nationalisation of troubled lenders, unlimited liquidity provisions and timid cuts in the policy rates by central banks. Only later in the process did central banks develop their full arsenal of tools, consisting of zero or negative rate policies, purchases of public and private assets, forward guidance on policy rates, asset purchases and reinvestment policies, and credit easing through the introduction of funding-for-lending schemes.
It took years for many governments to realise that fiscal policy had to be part of the policy mix as well, and that a level of government coordination with monetary policy would not imply fiscal dominance. It took even longer to develop macro-prudential instruments to control financial imbalances in the economy and adopt smarter ways of stabilising troubled financial institutions than simply using taxpayer money (which later fuelled anti-establishment movements and populism).
Because of the lessons learned from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), at the beginning of the current pandemic the economic policy response was quick, adequate and effective.
Central banks immediately reactivated their entire arsenal of policy tools, plus some additional innovations (for example the Reserve Bank of Australia’s yield curve control at the shorter end of the curve, to reinforce forward guidance).
Governments meanwhile realised that ideology-driven fiscal budget constraints could not be accepted in a pandemic, and so launched large fiscal stimulus packages that drove deficits and debt into territories generally seen during wartime. Banks were little affected by the shock, as they had become more resilient after the GFC.
The economic policy response was, therefore, adequate for the most part, and has been partially effective in alleviating the worst impacts of the pandemic. The healthcareresponse was, however, suboptimal, especially in Western countries. In China, where the pandemic originated, the overall healthcare response was more forceful (in part, thanks to reduced sensitivity to citizens’ privacy as well as social rights by the government), and, as a result, more effective. In Western countries, the policy responses were more erratic and less effective. Vaccination campaigns started much later in Western countries than in China and Russia; though, of course, that may have been largely because the vaccine trials followed standards that were probably more accurate.
Still, the concern remains that, as during the GFC, the initial policy response has been too conservative, and driven by questionable metrics. The measures that have been adopted, such as social distancing and lockdowns, derive from the medieval age. Policymakers have adopted the minimisation of deaths as the objective function, as opposed to considering it a constraint for the maximisation of true objective function, which is social welfare across the spectrum of social, economic and age groups. This conservative approach has resulted in disastrous repeated lockdowns, which will likely have massive long-term social and economic consequences that will be hard to manage once the pandemic emergency is over.
As happened after the GFC, it will take years to realise what the best policy mix would have been. And, when this realisation finally happens, it will probably already be too late.
by Brunello Rosa
18 January 2021
In our recent column, we noted how political risk was on the rise at the beginning of the year. This week will prove particularly challenging in this regard.
In the US, the inauguration of the 46th president in US history on January 20th, rather than merely featuring a speech by the new “leader of the free world”, as usually takes place, will instead be a highly risky event, with the state of emergency still in place after the “insurrection” that occurred on January 6th, when Donald Trump supporters entered the US Congress to stop the parliamentary ratification of the electoral college vote. The FBI warned that there may be armed protests in 50 states planned on the day of the inauguration, organised by far-right movements. To make things worse, the incumbent president said he will not attend the inauguration ceremony, thus opening a wound in the transition of power in the world’s leading democracy.
In Europe, Italy is staging yet another government crisis. As is typical when centre-left governments are in power, a component of the majority detached itself in a sign of disapproval over the management of the pandemic and the process followed by the government in drafting the recovery and resilience national plan. Similar episodes occurred in 1998 when Rifondazione Comunista left Prodi’s first government, and in 2008, when UDEUR left the second Prodi government. The centre-right found itself in a similar situation in 2010 when Fini’s component of the Popolo della Liberta’ left Berlusconi’s fourth government. On that occasion, the government managed to survive a confidence vote by parliament thanks to a group of MPs (the so-called “Responsabili”) coming from opposition parties which joined the majority.
As we discuss in our in-depth scenario analysis, we believe that Giuseppe Conte is tempted to follow this example of the centre-right, by trying to find support in a group of MPs coming from the current opposition (or, from Italia Viva, Matteo Renzi’s party that has been part of Conte’s governing coalition until now).
But this is proving harder than anticipated. At this stage, a new government with “Responsabili” coming from opposition parties, or a new pact with Italia Viva, seem the likeliest scenarios. Elections seem the least likely outcome, yet cannot be completely ruled out.
In Germany, Armin Laschet, currently the president of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, was elected to succeed Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as Chair of the CDU and, therefore, become the frontrunner to be the next Chancellor when general elections are held in September 2021. We anticipated the potential election of Laschet in May 2018, when he was totally out of the political radar screen. Laschet is a continuity candidate, so very reassuring in this respect, and he could easily lead a new centre-right coalition, or a new grand coalition with the SPD or the Greens after the elections.
He may yet be challenged in his race to the become CDU/CSU candidate for the Chancellorship by Jens Spahn, the health minister whose effective management during Covid has boosted his profile at the national level, or by Markus Söder, the popular leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister-party. In our view, as we discussed in an in-depth analysis of German politics, the main political weakness of Laschet is that he might leave the right flank of the party uncovered, as compared to Fredrik Merz. That political space on the right that may then be occupied by the AfD, thus posing risks to the Germany’s leadership in the European integration process.
Last but not least, in the Netherlands, PM Mark Rutte and his cabinet resigned last weekin response to a child welfare fraud scandal. Rutte will, however, remain in office until the March 2021 general election, in which he hopes to be confirmed as party leader and Prime Minister. The election in the Netherlands has been one of the main reasons behind the slow ratification process by national parliaments of the Next Generation EU recovery plan. This delay poses a serious threat to the actual implementation of the plan.
by Brunello Rosa
11 January 2021
While new, more infectious, but so far not more deadly variants of Covid-19 are being discovered in many countries across the globe – for example in the UK, the USand South Africa – anti-Covid vaccines are being rolled out to limit the virus’ spread. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca products have started being distributed in many countries, and vaccination campaigns will be carried out for months to come.
A number of countries are adopting more severe restrictions to movement and social interactions in the meantime, by imposing new lockdowns. Germany has just extended its lockdown until the end of the month. The UK has launched its third full lockdown in nine months, and Spain is doing similarly. There is hope that after a third wave of the pandemic in the first few months of 2021, and an initial adjustment period to the vaccine rollout, the worst part of the crisis might end by June and, gradually, the pandemic may be overcome as we approach the end of 2021.
While we are still in the middle of the battle, it may be hard to think about what comes after the pandemic is over. But this is an effort that we need to start making. We have already discussed how we think that the geopolitical ranking of countries will change after the pandemic, most notably with the US losing ground in favour of China. The latest episodes in Washington, with rioters entering and devastating Capitol Hill while Senators and Representatives were certifying the results of the electoral college that voted Joe Biden as the 46th US President, will damage the image of the US democracy for a long time, especially if one thinks that Trump might try to run for President again in four years.
In a previous column, we reminded readers how, after the 1918-19 pandemic and WW1, the fascist party was born in Italy, and totalitarian leaders emerged subsequently in various parts of Europe. Some analysts are making a comparison between the rise of fascism and the events in Washington on the 6th of January.
But there will be more far-reaching consequences still. Social distancing and quarantines are not novel inventions: they have been the defense of humanity against pandemics for centuries. Their effects have been felt for decades after the end of their respective crises. For example, a parallel has been recently drawn between the roaring Twenties of the twentieth century, which begun after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, and the situation that will exist a year or so from today. Various analysts wonder what will happen after the harsh restrictions on people’s movement are finally lifted.
On the one hand, there is a theory that some of the limitations on people’s movement will remain for a long period of time even after the pandemic ends, inducing safer behaviour in society at large, with less travel, endless commuting, and extravagant social interaction taking place than was the norm before 2020. Opposite theories exist however, which suggest that once limitations will be lifted people will over-compensate by engaging in even more extreme social interaction, at the limits of debauchery even, lifted by over-excited animal spirits.
In reality, a combination of these two scenarios may eventually emerge: more social control via digital platforms, more authoritarianism able to impose limitations on people's movement, but also more extreme forms of social interaction, especially in private life, to compensate for the reduced social and political freedom and limited economic opportunity that has been experienced this past year.
by Brunello Rosa
4 January 2021
In our global outlook published at the end 2020, we argued that 2021 will be a volatile macroeconomic and geopolitical year. From a purely macroeconomic perspective, if the anti-Covid restrictions in place in 2021 are milder than those put in place for 2020, the global economy should experience a rebound that could see it grow by 4% (according to our central scenario). This means that, following a 5% contraction in 2020, by the end of this year economic activity might still be at a level lower than it was at the end of 2019. There are significant upside and downside risks to this central scenario, and the unfolding of events directly and indirectly related to the evolution of the pandemic will likely lead to a volatile 2021 from a macroeconomic perspective.
Geopolitics will be volatile as well. 2020 started with the killing of Quasem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by the US, and ended with the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme, presumably by Israel. There are fears of renewed tensions between the US, Israel and Iran occurring on the anniversary of the assassination of Suleimani on January 3rd.
The US and Israel will themselves be at the centre of heightened political risks in the next few days and weeks. In the US, this week will be crucial, given the runoff election for the two Senatorial seats in Georgia. As discussed in our report, if these seats were to be won by the Republicans (currently the baseline scenario), there might be a last attempt by the Republican party in the Senate to block the ratification of the results of the Electoral College for the election of Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States, which is scheduled to take place January 6th. If this were to happen, we could witness the beginning of a serious constitutional crisis, which could end up in the Supreme Court.
Even if that fails, a Senate in the hands of the Republicans mean that Biden’s presidency will be held hostage to Mitch McConnell’s delaying practices.
If the Democrats win both seats (currently a risk scenario), the 50-50 count in the Senate would give Kamala Harris the decisive say in many crucial votes, including in confirmation hearings for cabinet ministers. At that point Biden may become hostage to the leftist component of the Democratic party, which would push him to spend large amounts of money to fund infrastructure projects and fiscal stimuli. Between these two risks, perhaps paradoxically the traditionally moderate and centrist Biden may actually prefer being hostage to McConnell’s practices, rather than to those of his own party’s left wing.
Israel meanwhile will hold another general election on March 23rd, its fourth in two years. These frequent elections are a sign that Israel’s political system remains highly fragmented and ineffective. The formal reason for the collapse of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was the refusal by the prime minister to pass a budget that would cover 2020 and 2021, as demanded by the leader of the Likud’s coalition partner Benny Gantz, who was supposed to take over from Netanyahu in November 2021 according to the agreements made at the time the current government was formed in May 2020. Netanyahu’s intention in holding another election in March is to avoid having to give up his job to Gantz.
In Europe, Italy is about to start a period of political instability which might eventually lead to general elections in the spring (an unlikely outcome at this stage), if a compromise for a new government, or a new version of the current government, is not reached between the parties supporting Giuseppe Conte in parliament. In fact, press reports suggest that by the 7th of January, Matteo Renzi might withdraw Italia Viva’s delegation from government, thus formally opening the political crisis, whose final outcome is yet unknown.
by Brunello Rosa
28 December 2020
Just hours before Christmas, the UK and EU Brexit delegations announced that they reached an agreement which will prevent the most catastrophic effects of a no-deal Brexit from materialising. The agreement, reportedly in thousand pages of legal text, will regulate some of the most contentious issues, including:
Tariffs and Quotas: most of the deal is centred around eliminating tariffs and quotas on goods crossing the borders between the UK and the EU. The UK had a goods import deficit of GBP 79bn with the EU in 2019.
Financial Services: The deal mostly regards goods, and very little is said about financial services, and services in general, even as they still represent 80% of the UK economy and the UK has a GBP 18bn export surplus in services to the EU in 2019. The debate on “equivalence” will continue for years and so will the negotiations around it.
Level Playing Field and State Aid: The UK and the EU will maintain common standards on workers’ rights, and on social and environmental regulations. The UK will adhere to common principles on state aid.
Dispute Resolution and the Role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ): If either the UK or the EU departs significantly from common standards existing on 31 December 2020, resulting in a negative impact on to other side, a dispute mechanism will ensue, which could lead to tariffs being imposed on imported goods. The EU lost the battle to have the ECJ police the governance of the deal. The ECJ will continue to exert its authority over Northern Ireland, given the special status deriving from the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Data and Security: The EU has the most advanced regulation of data protection on the planet (the so-called GDPR directive), and has not yet recognized the UK’s data protection regulation as being “equivalent.” For the time being, there will be a transition period of four months, in which data will continue to flow freely between the two sides of the English Channel. Regarding security matters, the exchange of information will not occur “in real time” as it has supposed to have done until now.
Fishing: for some reason, this relatively unimportant issue became politicised. The agreement states that the value of the fish caught by the EU in UK waters will be cut by 25% with a phasing in period of five and a half years. Once the transition period is over, the UK will have full control of the access to its waters, and could make much larger cuts to the value of fish the EU catches within them.
So, regarding this last-minute agreement in its entirety, should we view the glass as half full or half empty? In our opinion it is half full. As we discussed in our preview (in which we predicted a skinny deal to be reached by the end of the year, without further delays), the risk existed that a no-deal Brexit would materialise, as the UK government might have masked the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit behind the Covid disaster. It is therefore especially good news that the more catastrophic consequences of a no-deal Brexit have been prevented.
However, clearly a number of issues remain unresolved. First and foremost is the issue of financial services, which is the most notable absentee in the deal. Also, data sharing and protection as well as the issue of “regulatory divergence,” which remains the real “holy grail” of Brexit, remain to be finalised in coming months and years. The UK will have some manoeuvring space to diverge in coming years, but maybe not as much as it would have liked.
In the end, the Brexit saga developed itself as we expected in terms of process and outcome. In terms of process, as we predicted at the very beginning of this saga, Brexit had similar dynamics to Grexit: referenda, multiple elections, changes in government, breaking points followed by temporary agreements. In terms of end result, stepping back a few years, the final outcome is very similar to what we predicted just over three years ago, in November 2017, when we said “Hard Brexit With Canada-Style FTA Is The Most Likely Outcome”. We were correct in predicting that (1) Brexit would eventually occur; (2) it would not be reversed by parliament or by another referendum; and (3) a grand bargain over the various aspects of the post-Brexit transition was unlikely to emerge at any point in time; and (4) the final outcome would be hard-Brexit with a skinny deal on some basic aspects.
by Brunello Rosa
21 December 2020
Cyberspace has become just another dimension of our physical environment. The Covid-19 global pandemic, in forcing billions of people to limit their physical interactions, has shown how many activities can be moved to the cyberspace, including those that traditionally were aimed at increasing social networking, such as conferences and seminars. The global economy has become very much dependent on the well-functioning of cyberspace. At a time in which physical interaction is de-facto forbidden, a crash in the digital world would have severe economic and social repercussions. Yet last week one of the worst cyber-attacks in recent history was reported by many US federal agencies. Microsoft was also reported to be exposed to this attack.
In geopolitics, the continuity between the cyberspace and the physical environment has become equally evident. Cyber-security has become the buzzword in this field; national security threats mostly come from technological developments. It is well known that the ban on 5G technology coming from Huawei and ZTE by the US and their allies was based on geo-strategic considerations. In this respect, the examples of Stuxnetand NotPetya are illuminating. Stuxnet, a computer worm directed against uranium-enriching centrifuges in Iran, has been considered the “world's first digital weapon.” The NotPetya attack against Merck and its clients and suppliers was, similarly, referred to as being akin to an “act of war.”
Following these developments, the concept of “Digital Sovereignty” has emerged. The contest over the ownership of data (the “oil” of the digital era) could lead to cyber-wars in the 21st century. Finding international rules in this very sensitive field is imperative if we want to keep a peaceful geopolitical environment, in cyberspace as well as in the tangible world. Most countries are developing their “cyber armies” to defend cyberspace, which has become in effect the fifth dimension in national security programs, together with land, sea, air and extra-terrestrial space.
But technology is also a formidable enabler of positive developments for mankind. In our most recent FIN-TECH report, written along with Klecha & Co., we discuss how technology could be the vehicle to fast-tracking further European integration, for example. We discussed how one of the key goals of the Von Der Leyen Commission is to promote the digital transformation of EU countries. The new Recovery and Resilience Facility also requires that around a third of investments will be aimed at increasing the digitalisation of economic activities. And the European Central Bank has just launched a report on the possible adoption of a digital euro as a way of accelerating the process of European banking union.
In the geo-strategic arena, with the role of NATO coming under increasing scrutiny even in the US, the Europeans know that they will need to increase their military cooperation if they want to find a niche space in the developing Cold War between US and China. In this respect, the launch of the military Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) among European countries and of the European cyber-security agency(ENISA) represent crucially important first steps.
by Brunello Rosa
14 December 2020
As we discussed in our column last week, 2020 is ending with a number of issues unresolved. The second wave of the pandemic is raging across the globe, with the US registering the highest number of daily cases and deaths since the beginning of the crisis, Europe mired in its second round of severe restrictions (with Germany moving to a full lockdown that is set to last until January 10th), and a number of EMs still struggling to flatten their infection curves.
Today, the US electoral college will finally elect the country’s 46th President, after the Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit filed by Texas’ attorney general against Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, alt-right supporters of Trump (including the so-called Proud Boys) gathered in Washington until yesterday to protest against the electoral result, suggesting that another four years of political tensions in the United States may underway. The EU, meanwhile, is getting closer to approving its multi-annual budget, but the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility remains problematic. A no-deal Brexit looms large. As a result of these uncertainties, economic activity remains weak, and Q4 is likely to be another quarter of stagnation , or even contraction, with carry-over effects likely into Q1 2021.
Given this background, policymakers know that monetary and fiscal stimulus is still very much needed to support aggregate demand and supply. Job-retention and salary-support schemes have been renewed anywhere. New rounds of fiscal stimuli are being planned globally. Even in the US, after the formal election of Joe Biden as president, the long-waited-for USD 1tn plan seems ready to be agreed upon.
Through all this, central banks realised that they could not just sit on their hands. In the G10, a number of central banks have decided to provide another “shot” of monetary stimulus before the year ends. In November, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut rates to its alltime low, and begun formal QE; the Reserve Bank of New Zealand introduced a Funding For Lending Program ahead of a possible adoption of negative rates in 2021; the Bank of England (BoE) increased the size of QE by GBP 150bn (while keeping its powder dry in case of no-deal Brexit); the Riksbank increased and extended its QE program by SEK 200bn. So far, in December, the ECB increased the size of its PEPP program by EUR 500bn, while also further boosting its credit-easing facilities (TLTRO3 and PELTROs).
This week, another four G10 central banks will hold policy meetings: the Federal Reserve (Fed), Norges Bank, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan (BoJ). The Fed is unlikely to add further monetary stimulus after the strategy review made it clear that the Fed will not increase rates and that QE will remain part of the “conventional” landscape for the foreseeable future. The BoJ has been happy to be on the back-seat of the policy response for some time, following years of audacious monetary experiments, including yield curve control. It will likely remain so in December, though it may announce an extension of its credit easing facilities. The BoE is not expected to do anything after last month’s surprisingly large package; not before knowing whether or not it will have to use its bazooka to stem the effects of a final breakdown in the Brexit negotiations with the EU. Norges Bank will likely keep its key policy rate unchanged at zero, and continue promising to keep it at that level for the foreseeable future.
In any case, even with rates at zero, or negative, and all sorts of monetary instruments being put in place, G10 central banks will remain ready to intervene to support aggregate demand. Meanwhile they are working on their next big tool: their own digital currency (the Riksbank, PBoC and ECB are at the forefront of this trend), which will allow them to take policy rates deep into negative territory to fight the next systemic crisis – which hopefully will not manifest itself for many years yet.
by Brunello Rosa
7 December 2020
As we approach the end of the year, many issues that have characterised 2020 remain unresolved, even if some of those issues may be inching towards being solved, or at least towards a stabilisation period. The most dramatic of these remains the Covid pandemic of course, with many European countries dealing with a severe second wave and the US registering the highest number of infections and deaths since the beginning of the crisis. The commercial and social restrictions imposed by countries to avoid the spread of the virus are pushing a number of economies to the verge of a new contraction in Q4 2020, which could become another technical recession if these restrictions continue in Q1 2021.
It is unclear as of yet when the most acute phase of the pandemic will end. A third wave is possible between January and March, and a number of central banks, including the ECB – the Governing Council of which meets this week – assume that there will not be significant stabilisation before June 2021, when the vaccination process of large segments of the population is expected to be underway. Regarding vaccines, some good news is emerging: in the UK, regulatory authorities have approved, in an emergency procedure, the diffusion of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine as of this week; EU authorities are waiting for further tests before giving the vaccine the green light.
Having said all this, the real effectiveness of these vaccines will not be tested until applied to large parts of the population; in part, because the procedure (based on mRNA procedure) is highly innovative and experimental. In any case, as vaccines are applied and as more effective treatments are discovered, there should hopefully be better news regarding the pandemic by mid-2021.
Another open issue regards the result of the US presidential elections. Incumbent US President Donald Trump still refuses to concede victory to President-Elect Joe Biden, threatening to take the legal challenge to the Supreme Court. However little the chance of succeeding he has, clearly Trump’s refusal to concede is creating a wound to the US electoral (and therefore democratic) system. By law, all legal challenges should be settled at least six days before the electoral college meets.
This year this happens on December 14th, so by December 8th all legal challenges are supposed to be settled – the so-called “safe-harbor deadline”. So, hopefully within the next few days the result of the US presidential election will be settled.
However, the type of presidency that Biden will embark on may depend heavily on the run-off elections for the two senatorial seats in Georgia that will be held on January 5th. As discussed in our analysis, if the Democrats manage to win both of these run-offs, they will have fifty senators, which would give Vice-President Kamala Harris the deciding vote in the Senate. If the Republicans win at least one seat, then they will likely block a number of very important decisions by the Biden administration until at least the mid-term elections are held in 2022.
Two other notable issues that remain open are Brexit and the approval and implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) in the EU. Regarding Brexit, after yet another round of inconclusive talks, the two sides agreed to make a final attempt this week to see if some of the remaining issues on state aid, fisheries and regulatory divergence can be ironed out. We still expect a skinny agreement to emerge, in order to avoid at least the most catastrophic effects that would result from a no-deal Brexit. But, as the number of days remaining to December 31 shrinks, tensions in the negotiating process are set to increase.
Regarding the RRF, Poland and Hungary have applied a veto to its approval, which they intend to use so long as the link between the rule of law and the disbursement of funds remains part of the final agreement. Again, we still expect a final agreement to be reached, with sticks and carrots used to convince the two countries to remove their veto. But this means that the implementation phase will be at least delayed, and most likely will be a bumpier process than had initially been expected.
Given all these uncertainties, which are weighing on economic sentiment and activity, policymakers have promised to keep the tap of monetary and fiscal stimulus open. As discussed in our latest Markets Review and Outlook, markets remain edgy and volatile, buffeted by the news on the uncertainties described above on the one hand, and the support provided by policymakers on the other.
by Brunello Rosa
30 November 2020
In mid-November, the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), together with Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement. The Agreement will improve market access with tariffs and quotas eliminated in over 65% of goods traded and make business predictable with common rules of origin and transparent regulations, upon entry into force. The RCEP is likely to be the one of the largest free trade agreements in history. It will cover “a market of 2.2 billion people, with a combined size of US$26.2 trillion or 30% of the world’s GDP,” according to its signatories.
Most importantly, the agreement signals that although globalisation may be not be in the greatest shape, it is not dead. It should not come as a surprise that the signing of the agreement came around two weeks after the US presidential election that have brought back an internationalist president such as Joe Biden to the White House. Biden was among the architects of the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was resurrected by Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe under the name of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In fact, after four years in which the Trump administration has worked to demolish the international order created by Republican and Democratic presidents alike over the past few decades – pulling out the US of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the Paris agreement on climate change, the above-mentioned TPP, NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, the World Health Organization, and withdrawing US soldiers from the Middle East and Afghanistan and even from NATO member states such as Germany (to take just a few examples) – the new administration will likely try to reassert the US role in the world as being the cornerstone of globalisation.
This is happening at a time in which even a Conservative government in the UK, just about to pull out of the EU, is signing trade deals with Japan and Canada.
As discussed in our recent report, while Biden will try to undo some of the damage made to the international position and reputation of the US by his predecessor (just as Trump tried to undo what he thought were the mistakes of the Obama administration), he would nevertheless be making a mistake if he simply tried to turn the clock back by a few years and ignore what has happened in the world in the meantime.
The backlash against globalisation has been real, even if represented by unlikely champions such the billionaire Trump. In France, the Gilet Jaunes protests has threatened a globalist leader such as Emmanuel Macron, while around the world autocratic and protectionist leaders have emerged. Biden will have to take into account the events of the last few years if he wants to succeed on the world stage of today.
In any case, the Covid pandemic has balkanised the global supply and value chains, fostered protectionism and led to border closures. The damage caused to the global economy is immense, and its social consequences will be felt for years to come. It is impossible to think of an enduring recovery without a reopening of the economy and relaunching of international travel and trade.
Globalisation has had plenty of flaws, and caused endless discontent, but it has managed to take hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, especially in Asia. That is a fact the newly signed RCEP agreement makes abundantly clear.
by Brunello Rosa
23 November 2020
In July 2020, an agreement was made between EU leaders to approve the Next Generation EU (NGEU) rescue package to assist the recovery of economies that are being plagued by the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences. The agreement was saluted by some as Europe’s “Hamilton moment” (when US states’ debt were federalised). While we consider the agreement a historic step in the process of European integration, we never subscribed to the idea that NGEU represents the EU’s Hamilton moment. , at the very least because there is no “joint and several” guarantee by member states on the bonds issued by the Commission.
Moreover, the amount of “federal” fiscal expenditure remains modest compared to national budgets and the overall EU GDP. In our analysis of the agreement, we also highlighted the risks to the ratification process, which requires each parliament of the 27 EU countries to approve the package (a unanimous process akin to a Treaty change).
The implementation of the NGEU package, which includes the Recovery and Resilient Facility (RRF), is proving as hard as we expected it to be. Two countries, Hungary and Poland (both of which are currently subject to the proceedings of Article 7 for the violation of basic EU values, such as the independence of the judiciary) blocked the adoption of the agreement, and also vetoed the Multiannual Financial Framework for the years 2021-27, unless the provisions of the agreement regarding the respect of the rule of law are removed or softened. The ratification process is likely to be bumpy in the Netherlands as well, given the upcoming general elections in the spring of 2021. We expect these hiccups to be overcome eventually, but the actual introduction of the package is likely to be postponed at best.
Additionally, it is taking time for countries to present their respective national recovery plans, on the basis of which EU funds will eventually be disbursed. Only 5 out of 27 countries have presented such plans, without which the RRF remains a theoretical exercise. Recently, the EU Commissioner for economic affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, encouraged countries to speed up the process of presenting those plans, by establishing emergency procedures. He was particularly explicit in the case of Italy, one of the largest beneficiaries of the NGEU in absolute terms (though less so as a percentage of its GDP).
As we have highlighted in our analysis, the NGEU package would have never been approved in its current form if the UK had remained part of the EU. In 2015, the UK opted out of the establishment and use of the EFSM, the facility created to sort out the Greek – and subsequent Eurozone debt – crisis, the model from which the NGEU and RRF have been designed.
Post-Brexit, the presence of the UK was not an obstacle to the approval of a package that further pushed the process of European integration. As we discussed in our recent publication, the UK and EU are approaching the endgame of the Brexit negotiations. We expect a skinny deal to emerge eventually, in order to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, the UK has struck a deal in principle with Canada, rolling over the terms of the deal that Canada and the EU made in 2017. This follows the trade agreement the UK made with Japan. Both agreements get the UK closer to joining, or at least benefiting from, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, i.e. what remained from TPP after the US pulled out of it. If Trump had won the US presidential election (and it is becoming increasingly unlikely that he will do so, as most of his lawsuits against Joe Biden’s victory are being rejected by judges), the UK might have struck an FTA with the US and used it to put pressure on the EU to compromise on Brexit. But now this solution is not at hand. Also, the UK could reach FTAs with Canada and Japan quickly only because they are based on the deals made by the EU with those countries in recent years, both made following years of negotiations.
Given these circumstances, it is becoming increasingly clear that an agreement on Brexit between the UK and the EU is the most convenient option for both sides.
by Brunello Rosa
16 November 2020
Last week, Pfizer reported initial results of the tests of its anti-Covid vaccine, exhibiting a 90% efficacy rate. The news sparked optimism among global investors, with equity markets rallying (MSCI was up 2.2% on the week). This occurred while a number of European countries started to enter national lockdowns (as we discussed last week), as the infection rates soared again, posing a risk that national health systems will be overwhelmed. This second round of lockdowns will have dramatic effects on societies and their economies. A double-dip recession has now become the baseline scenario for European economies, as Q4 is likely to be another quarter of negative growth.
In the US, daily infection rates have reached 180,000, the highest level on record. Nonetheless, in spite of some localised restrictions, state governors are still reluctant to declare the total closure of economic activities. In this respect, the US presidential election might represent a slightly more positive direction being taken. With 306 votes in the electoral college, Joe Biden has won the presidential race. As we discussed in our in-depth analysis of the results, Donald Trump will try to launch a series of legal challenges to this outcome, but they are unlikely to succeed.
With a 36-vote advantage in the electoral college, Joe Biden may afford to judicially lose a couple of relatively large states, and yet remain president elect. This means that, in spite of the short-term noise and the difficulty in the transition process, this huge element of political uncertainty has been removed for investors. A divided Congress (if the Senate remains, as it seems likely, controlled by the Republicans) means that the fiscal stimulus is likely to be smaller than would otherwise be the case had the Democrats won, but this means the Fed may be required to do a bit more.
As we discuss in our “Brexit Endgame” preview, the Brexit saga is likely to enter its final crunch week. An agreed text needs to emerge at the end of the EU Summit on November 19 for a no-deal Brexit to be avoided on January 1st, 2021. A skinny FTA is likely to emerge this week or in coming days, as the government cannot conceal Brexit behind Covid anymore, as Covid has proved to be a national disaster anyway.
Countervailing these events, a new round of monetary and fiscal stimulus is likely to be adopted by national governments and central banks. Central banks in particular are reacting. The ECB has already announced an expansion of its programs in December. The Bank of England (BoE) has approved a new increase in its APF facility by deliberating an increase of GBP 150bn in asset purchases until the end of 2021. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) has launched a new credit-easing facility (a Funding For Lending Programme). Both the BoE and the RBNZ have contemplated the possibility of introducing negative policy rates, although the actual implementation of such a program may be postponed well into 2021.
During all of this, equity markets have been continuing to make a timid comeback following the slump of early 2020, while remaining vulnerable to the series of corporate defaults that may follow the peak of the Covid-induced crisis. The only real winners seem to be the tech companies (well represented by NASDAQ), which can take advantage of the massive increase in digital application due to widespread lockdowns
by Brunello Rosa
9 November 2020
As we discussed in our recent publications, a number of countries, especially in Europe, have decided to enter a new phase of general lockdowns. France, for example, after adopting a curfew policy that proved ineffective, started to implement a general lockdown from October 30 to December 1st. Germany, which during the first phase of the pandemic witnessed an infection rate markedly lower than other countries (the result of more effective testing measures and a larger number of intensive care units) is also introducing a sort of semi-lockdown now, from November 2 to November 30. Italy is adopting a three-tiered restriction system which might easily morph into a national lockdown in coming days. The UK, which adopted a tiering system earlier on, switched to full lockdown on November 5, which for now is set to last until December 2nd. Other countries, such as Greece, Belgium and Spain, are adopting similar measures.
These generalised lockdowns have been decided upon as the second wave of the pandemic hit following the reprieve that occurred during the summer (as we discussed in our recent column). Studies have shown that this second wave originated from a virus mutation that occurred in Spain during the summer. As Spain – together with France – decided to adopt an open-door policy during the summer holidays in order to save the tourism season, this mutated version of the virus has spread across Europe this autumn. Most governments seem to be flirting with the idea that a full lockdown in November will allow countries to reopen for Christmas, but this strategy seems self-defeating in the light of the Spanish example above: any sacrifices made during these weeks in November would likely be nullified by a reopening of shops and a restarting of domestic and international flights for the holiday season.
The question is on what basis these new generalised closures were decided. Most governments got scared, and seemed frankly unprepared to this second wave, as the number of new cases soared in recent weeks (see map above). Some governments decided to adopt new lockdowns after a certain threshold of new daily cases was reached (a threshold that would purportedly translate into a relatively predictable percentage of hospitalisations, intubations and – eventually – deaths).
But these metrics seem highly questionable. In a pandemic generated by an airborne virus, to reach “heard immunity” it is obvious that the number of cases will have to increase. Over a relatively short period of time, a vast proportion of the population will in theory have to get infected (even without necessarily being symptomatic) in order for herd immunity to be achieved. For the same reason, even the apparently more sophisticated metric of the percentage of positive cases as a share of the overall number of tests (a metric which should control for the increase in the number of tests), appears to be wrong. Over time, as we reach heard immunity, that percentage will have to increase towards 70-80% without necessarily being a cause for alarm.
In that case, what metrics should actually be used? Well, first of all, in order to get a sense of the speed at which the virus is spreading, governments should compare the actual rate of infection with the theoretical rate of infection as calculated by epidemiologists.
A natural progression of the virus’ spread should not lead to generalised closures of the economy, whereas a faster-than-expected spreading should prompt the adoption of increasingly severe restrictions. The second metrics should be based on the hospitalisation rate (and within it, the intubation rate), so as to make sure health systems are not overwhelmed. This is because the unfortunate statistic of Covid is that only 50% of those entering intensive care actually make it out alive (rendering intubation effectively a coin toss). But again, the solution to this problem is building more intensive care units (ICUs) and adopting more effective treatments, not adopting new lockdowns. Most governments did not increase their ICU capacity between the first and the second waves of the virus, in spite of the fact that the coming of the second wave was highly predictable.
In fact, it seems anachronistic that social distancing, a medieval solution against pandemics, remains today the most effective way of stopping the virus, in the era of massive technological and medical advancement. The case of Donald Trump may serve as an example. He was hospitalised and then released within 3-4 days, after receiving innovative (indeed, almost experimental) cures, including a mix of remdesivir, an antiviral drug, with polyclonal anti-bodies and other substances. This example proves that an extremely effective treatment for the disease does exists, but is clearly not available to the vast majority of the population.
Finding an effective cure might prove even more promising than developing a vaccine. The three most advanced products under trial (in phase three) won’t be ready before March 2021 at the earliest and won’t be available for the wider population before Q3-Q4 2021 at best. Additionally, the effectiveness of these vaccines may prove elusive, if the virus mutates. Recently, the WHO has identified a new variant of the virus deriving from farmed minks in Denmark. If this new variant were to spread further, the vaccines currently under development may prove to be not very effective, and new vaccine trials may need to start from scratch.
Clearly the solution to this pandemic must be a mix of social distancing, better treatments, and the development and usage of vaccines, with lockdowns being the extrema ratio. Perhaps the emphasis should now be put on treatments rather than vaccines, as countries needto reopen. Economies and societies cannot tolerate this “stop and go” approach, whereby total closures are followed by partial re-openings, for too long. The long-term economic, social and political consequences of such an approach could be devastating.
Companies are now unable to plan and invest without any certainty about the near future, and workers are continuing to increase their levels of precautionary savings and are under-consuming out of the fear of joblessness as a result of the pandemic. Mental illnesses are also becoming endemic, as a mix of fear, anxiety, and stress is faced by individuals around the globe. Entire sectors, for example the hospitality and transportation sectors, are on their knees and struggling to survive as their business models simply cannot cope with pandemics. The political consequences of pandemics should never be under-estimated either. In 1919, Benito Mussolini formed the Fasci di Combattimento (the predecessor of the Fascist Party) not only immediately after World War 1, but also following the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic. It is not out of the question that political radicalisation could similarly follow Covid-19.
by Brunello Rosa
2 November 2020
This week investors’ attention will be focused on the US presidential election, which will take place on November 3rd. In reality, as of Wednesday last week, 75 million people have already voted, either in person or by post. This represents around 54% of the total turnout recorded in 2016. So, it is quite likely that this year the turnout will be higher than in the last election, even if the number of people who will physically vote on Tuesday is lower than usual, as it probably will be due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
As we discussed in our preview, the Covid-19 pandemic - its economic and social effects, and the way it was managed - will clearly represent a determining factor of the final outcome of the election. According to the latest statistics, the US, with its 9.2 million reported cases (out of 46.2 millions worldwide) and 230,000 deaths (out of 1.2 millions globally), has had a very unfavourable track record. Despite being just 4.3% of the world’s population, the US has had almost 20% of reported cases and deaths. This means that something has gone wrong in the way the pandemic was managed, or the way the US healthcare system is organised. We know both elements are true: President Trump’s management of the crisis has been erratic at best, and large parts of the population are still not covered by public or private healthcare.
Having said that, the US is not alone in this crisis. A number of countries, especially in Europe, are facing the second wave of the pandemic after re-opening their economies during the summer. As a result, new total or partial lockdowns (of at least one month) have been carried out by Germany, France, and the UK, and likely will soon be by Italy as well.
The economic impact of these new restrictions will be large, and therefore the V-shaped recovery that some policymakers were fantasising about will not materialise (as early as March we have been saying that such a recovery was unlikely to happen). A long, uneven, bumpy U- or W-shaped recovery will likely take place instead.
Given all this, central banks have re-started their engines of monetary easing to complement fiscal stimulus. Last week, the European Central Bank explicitly said that in December it will recalibrate all its instruments, the Bank of Japan reiterated that it stands ready to act, and the Bank of Canada began a sort of semi-twist in its asset purchases to increase the effectiveness of QE. This week, we expect the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of Australia to actually deliver more monetary stimulus with a combination of increased asset purchases, rate cuts, enhanced forward guidance and additional credit easing.
This is the climate in which the US election will take place. In our previous comments, we discussed the successes and the failures of Trump’s presidency. In our preview we discussed how we believe that election night will likely be followed by a nasty legal battle by Trump, who has been saying for months that the postal vote (which Democrat voters prefer) is rigged. He might be trying to claim victory after a possible advantage deriving from the in-person voting during election night, but for the US television networks it will be hard to declare the winner in each state with 50% of the votes still to be counted. The only way the result will not be severely contested is if Biden wins a large majority in the electoral college, something could happen if he were to win a large state such as Florida.
Eventually, we still expect Biden to emerge as the final winner, perhaps even leading a “blue sweep”, with the Democrats taking control of the Senate as well. However, a word of caution is needed. As Michael Moore - the movie director who predicted Trump’s victory in 2016 - said, “Trump electors are always undercounted in polls.” A surprise victory by Trump cannot be ruled out.
by Brunello Rosa
26 October 2020
Months ago, UK PM Boris Johnson said that unless an agreement between the UK and the EU was found by the October 15th EU Summit, both sides should start preparing for a “no deal” scenario at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. The EU Summit ended without such an agreement, and Johnson said that negotiations will be over unless the EU becomes ready for a “fundamental change” in perspective. In effect, the UK government has been repeatedly telling companies and individuals to prepare for a no-deal environment.
After a few more days of back-and-forth declarations from the two sides, negotiations have in fact re-started in London in “submarine mode”, i.e. with sherpas from the two sides aiming at preparing a joint text, without consulting with their political stakeholders and without briefing the press as to the level of progress they have made. At the end of this “tunnel phase” of the negotiations, a joint text agreed by the two sides may emerge.
There are three main areas of contention here: fisheries, state aid and dynamic regulatory alignment. Regarding fisheries, the EU would want EU boats (mostly from France, Spain and Ireland) to continue fishing in British waters, whereas the UK wants exclusive access. Regarding state aid, the UK wants to be able to subsidise its industries, which will need to adjust (sometimes heavily) post Brexit, whereas the EU wants the UK government to follow EU rules that forbid countries (outside of the current Covid-19 emergency) to provide state aid to private companies, so as not to distort the existing “level playing field”. For the same reason, the EU wants the UK to continue aligning also in the future (i.e. “dynamically”) with EU regulations even after the end of the transition period, something the UK will resist as much as possible as it attempts to reap the benefits of Brexit.
At the same time as these talks proceed, a number of other major events are occurring that could have an effect on the positions of Britain and the EU. In the US, the presidential race is entering its last phase ahead of the November 3rd vote.
As discussed in our preview, we currently expect Joe Biden to win the race, even if perhaps after a nasty legal battle. If Biden wins, Johnson’s negotiating strategy might fail, as he needs the support of Donal Trump to show that the UK has a viable alternative to trading with the EU (however credible the threat of severing trade ties with Europe might actually be).
Meanwhile the UK has managed to strike a trade deal with Japan, which – according to the UK government – will be able to “secure additional benefits beyond the EU-Japan trade deal, giving UK companies exporting to Japan a competitive advantage in a number of areas… The deal is also an important step towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).”
Given this background, the EU and the UK will now have to
decide whether to make at least a “skinny deal” in order to avoid a cliff edge at the end of December, without which major disruptions could possibly occur in the financial industry, in transportation and trade. Room for compromise exists: the UK can give in on fisheries and state aid in exchange for the freedom to diverge from the EU from a regulatory standpoint. Indeed, the UK will never be able to absorb all the fish available in its seas with its small domestic market, and has never been particularly keen on state aid since the Thatcher’s liberal revolution.
At the same time, for Brexit to be a success, obtaining regulatory divergence over time (especially on new areas such as data collection, management and protection) is absolutely essential for the UK. The EU might accept this trade-off, as long as the UK does not become a de facto offshore financial centre and does not engage in savage regulatory competition. If such a compromise does eventually emerge, it will still be “hard Brexit,” but perhaps less hard than it otherwise could be.
by Brunello Rosa
19 October 2020
As the second wave of the pandemic is in full swing, its economic impact is becoming increasingly evident. The rapid increase of new daily Covid cases in Europe, which have recently surpassed those of the US, is forcing a number of European countries to implement renewed restrictions, such as partial lockdowns, or tiered systems such as those adopted by the UK. If the experience of the Spanish flu is of any guidance, the world might even experience a third wave in spring 2021, before a combination of incipient herd immunity, better treatment and availability of vaccines finally manage to tame the pandemic in H2 2021.
As a result of a longer than expected pandemic and more restrictive measures, the economic impact of Covid-19 is likely to be larger and longer than initially estimated.
According to the latest estimates of the IMF, although global growth should fall less this year than had been expected in June (by 4.4% in 2020, with a 0.8% upward revision) the rebound after that is also expected to be shallower (5.2% in 2021, vs the 5.4% that had been expected in June). So, the IMF too is getting closer to the idea that the recovery will be U-, rather than V-shaped. But we consider even these projections to be too optimistic.
If that is the case, it means that policy support is likely be larger and more prolonged than had been initially envisioned. During the IMF meeting a message emerged clearly: fiscal stimulus needs to be at the forefront of the policy response, with monetary policy either complementing fiscal policy or – bluntly said – simply monetising the ballooning fiscal deficits and debts.
In fact, according to the latest forecasts in the IMF’s fiscal monitor, the US will reach a deficit of 18.7% of GDP, the UK of 16.5%, and the euro area of 10.1% in 2020, with France 10.8% and Italy at 13%. In terms of gross public debt in percentage of GDP, the IMF estimates the US to reach 131.2% in 2020, the UK 108%, the Euro area 101.1, with France at 118.7% and Italy at 161.8%.
As a result of these ballooning levels of public deficits and debts, rating agencies are starting to re-evaluate the sustainability of public finances, and starting to take action accordingly. During the last week end, Morningstar DBRS downgraded France from AAA to AA, with the outlook moved from negative to stable. Equally, Moody’s has downgraded the UK from Aa2 to Aa3, also changing the outlook from negative to stable. The downgrades of these solid sovereign issuers will have little market impact, especially because the respective interest rate curves in those countries remain historically low. But for other countries, rating actions might have a larger impact.
For example, the Italian rating will be reviewed by S&P Global, DBRS and Moody’s between October 23rd and November 6th. After the recent downgrades of more solid sovereigns such as the UK and France, a downgrade of the Italian rating becomes more likely. However, Italy’s position is more precarious as the country is already at the bottom of the investment grade grid, being Baa3 for Moody’s, BBB for S&P, BBB- for Fitch and BBBh for DBRS. A downgrade by Moody’s and Fitch would make Italy one of the most significant “fallen angels” of this crisis.
In terms of immediate impact, the effects of a potential downgrade have been partially softened by the ECB, which has already said that “fallen angels” will continue to be used as collateral in refinancing operations or in PELTROs. However, asset managers following indices may need to start rebalancing their portfolios as a result of a downgrade. All this is to say that Covid-19 not only can attack the human body in unexpected ways, but may have larger economic repercussions than was initially envisaged.
by Brunello Rosa
12 October 2020
This week, the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank will begin. Though large component of the scheduled events will take place virtually, the IMF will still be releasing the latest edition of its World Economic Outlook (WEO), which includes updated estimates of growth and inflation for the vast majority of the economies of the world. According to the Brookings – FT tracking index, the recovery will remain fragile and patchy. This is in line with the column we published on 28 September, titled “Covid’s Second Wave Threatens Economic Recovery and Market Stability.”
This is also in line with our latest Global Outlook Update - Market Views - Q4-2020 Strategic Asset Allocation, titled “Volatility To Create Opportunities, While Investors Keep Focus On The Long Term”. In that report we discussed how the Covid pandemic was likely to come in at least two, if not three, waves, the same way the “Spanish flu” pandemic did in 1918-19. In our analysis, we discussed how the second wave was the most deadly of the three waves during that pandemic a century ago. Given the rise in cases registered globally in the last few weeks, it is clear we are at the beginning of the second wave of the current pandemic. We cannot rule out there being a third wave in the months ahead, if the vaccine is not found before Q1 2021 (as we assume in the baseline scenario of our Global Outlook Update).
Our report also discusses how we expect global growth to be worse than had been estimated by the IMF in June (we expect -5.3% growth, vs the -4.9% the IMF estimated), with the rebound in 2021 more anaemic as well. As a result, monetary and fiscal accommodation will still be required.
In terms of fiscal policy, most governments will continue to provide protection to companies and individuals, but, as UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said in parliament at the end of September governments will not be able to save every company and every job. In Europe, where the institutional setting remains more fragmented, the approval and implementation process of the Next Generation EU plan is now encountering some difficulties, which might delay the arrival of its funds further into 2021.
For this reason, monetary policy needs to remain highly accommodative. Following the Fed’s de facto promise of keeping rates extremely low for a much longerperiod of time, all other central banks are reacting, both in developed and emerging markets. In the G10 sphere, we expect imminent moves (in November) from the Bank of England, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, featuring a combination of rates cuts, revised forward guidance, larger asset purchases and new credit-easing facilities. Negative policy rates have started to enter the radar screen of the central banks in the so-called Anglosphere (the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), which so far have been the most reluctant to adopt them.
Through all of this, markets remain volatile, with equity markets having just experienced the second week of a rebound after four weeks of market losses. Meanwhile we are entering the most delicate part of the US electoral campaign, which could culminate in a 10% correction in equity markets in case of a highly contested result. In this volatile environment, strategic asset allocators should focus on longer-term investment horizon.
Picture source: Taubenberger JK, MorensDM. 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006;12(1):15-22.
by Brunello Rosa
5 October 2020
Last week US President Donald Trump tested positive with the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection, together with a number of members of his family, his inner circle and White House staff. Press reports suggest that he might have contracted the virus from his senior advisor Hope Hicks (former director of strategic communications at the White House) or, possibly, during what was defined as a “super-spreader” event, held at the White House on September 26th, just a few days before he tested positive.
The first obvious concern is whether, how and when the US President will fully recover from the disease, for which he was hospitalised and treated with innovative (indeed, almost experimental) cures, including a mix of remdesivir, an antiviral drug, with polyclonal anti-bodies and other substances. In a recent message from the hospital, Trump declared himself to be in good shape and on his way to recovery.
The second concern is what type of impact this event could have on the US Presidential race. Since the first debate between Trump and the Democratic nominee Joe Biden took place on September 29th, it is not impossible that Joe Biden also contracted the virus, possibly from Trump, Trump’s family, or his inner circle, members of which were not wearing a facemask at the debate. If both candidates were to have Covid, it is possible that at least one, if not both of the subsequent debates (currently scheduled for October 15th and October 22nd) will be cancelled. This would be a real novelty for US Presidential elections; the American public has been able to watch televised presidential debates since 1960.
Another issue is that Trump’s infection might fundamentally alter his political strategy. Clearly, most of his bold communication was centred around his attempt to downplay the significance of the virus.
This was an attitude that he shared with all of the other major Covid-sceptics, such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom have also fallen ill with Coronavirus in the last few months.
Having contracted the virus himself, and being hospitalised (in a military facility), it will be hard for Trump to continue downplaying the significance of the pandemic and its impact on public health, the economy and society in general. There have now been almost 210,000 cases directly attributed to Covidin the United States.
Additionally, given Biden’s advantage in the polls, it was clear that Trump was getting ready for a nasty legal battle following the night of the vote on November 3rd. Trump thought the election result could reach the Supreme Court, as it did in 2000 in the contested election of George W. Bush and Al Gore. That partially explained the heist with which he appointed Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court pick in substitution of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 19th. If Trump (and – a fortiori – if both Trump and Biden) were still to be in hospital in November, would that strategy still pay off?
Finally, and most importantly, will Trump’s infection fundamentally alter the American voters’ perception of how Trump handled the pandemic? The obvious narrative from the Democrats would be that, the same way that Trump didn’t care for his own health (and his family’s and inner circle’s health), he was way too nonchalant on his approach to the pandemic for the country, ultimately allowing the virus to spread out of control and result in a death toll much higher than what would have been the case had he had adopted more stringent containment measures.
The Republican response is likely to be based on Trump’s recovery: a fast and full recovery would be used as an argument to say that the significance of the virus and the pandemic is vastly over-stated. This would help Trump’s light-touch approach to appear be justified. The voters will ultimately decide whose narrative gets more traction.
by Brunello Rosa
28 September 2020
In many countries in Europe, a second wave of Covid-19 infections is materialising. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, recent developments in Spain, France and the UK seem to be particularly serious. Unlike during the first wave, Italy is less exposed this time. The 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases for 100,000 inhabitants is 320 in Spain, 230 in France, 96 in the UK and 32 in Italy. For reference, the same figure is 30 for Germany, which has responded best to the epidemic among large countries in Europe.
As the map above shows, in Spain the situation already seems to be close to critical, with Intensive-Care Units (ICUs) on their way of being filled up again like they had during the first wave from March to June. In France, the situation is also alarming, with large portions of the country reporting some of the highest infection rates in Europe. In these two cases, the recurrence of the virus seems to be connected to the relaxation of social distancing policies during the summer, which had been adopted to at least partially save the tourism season.
In Italy, the rules have remained as stringent as they had been before (although people became more relaxed in implementing them, as was the case in Sardinia), but the severity of the initial lockdown seems to be having beneficial long-term effects. In the UK, the situation is also becoming increasingly critical, as the government openly incentivised people to return to work and go out for dinner, with the scheme Go Out To Help Out.
The idea that the situation is more severe in the UK than in Germany and Italy because “British people love freedom,” as declared by UK PM Boring Johnson during his recent Question Time, is simply laughable. [Italy’s President Mattarella’s response that “also Italians love freedom, as well as seriousness” was impeccable]. In all cases, the re-opening of schools is constituting, at the very least, an amplifying factor in the spread of the virus.
As a result of this second wave of infections, governments are imposing new sets of restrictions. In particular, in the UK the government extended the emergency state for six more months and has taken a U-turn on public exercises (bars and restaurants must close by 10pm) and on business policies (once again suggesting people to work from home whenever possible). It seems to be a repeat of what happened in March-April, when the government declared a total lockdown after a series of initial restrictions. Press reports suggest that a total lockdown could be declared in coincidence with the two-week school holidays at the end of October.
Needless to say, these new restrictions will take their toll on economic activity in Q4, making the materialisation of the so-called V-shaped recovery even less likely to occur. The big hope of having a vaccine ready by this winter seems to be vanishing rapidly, leaving us all no other option than co-existing with the virus for a few more months, perhaps until the summer of 2021. Financial markets will react to this new situation with further corrections in equity valuations and, given the continued accommodative stance by central banks, with a further fall in sovereign bond yields.
by Brunello Rosa
21 September 2020
The Abraham Accords Peace Agreement, signedbetween United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel in Washington last week, is aimed at the normalisation of the former two countries’ diplomatic relations with Israel. It marks the shift towards various new geo-strategic equilibria being reached in the Middle East.
This process had begun in 2011, when the Obama administration started to withdraw US troops from Iraq. It continued in 2014, with the end of the US fighting mission in Afghanistan, and was then epitomised in 2015 by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany and the EU. Obama’s aim, following Metternich’s and (more recently) Kissinger’s example, was that of creating a “balance of power” among the major countries in the region, to allow a gradual withdrawal of the US from the Middle East, which had become less strategically important since the beginning of the shale oil and gas revolution. To achieve that goal, Obama aimed at creating a balance of power between NATO (represented by Turkey), Sunni Muslims (Saudi Arabia), Jews (Israel) and Shia Muslims (hence the JCPOA with Iran).
The plan failed for two main reasons. First, as soon as the US started to withdraw from the region, Russia entered it with full force, becoming a decisive player. Second, the new US administration led by Trump reneged on the JCPOA and marginalised Iran in favour of the traditional US alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia. This has led to an escalation of tensions with Iran, culminating in the assassination of General Suleimani by the US at the beginning of 2020.
Between 2016 and 2020, the only two countries that managed to make serious advances in the region were Russia and Turkey, the two deciding in effect to partition between themselves spheres of influence in Syria, Libya and the Easter Mediterranean.
The Abraham Agreement marks the beginning of a new phase. First of all, the notion that in order to achieve a durable peace in the region, the Palestinian question needs to be addressed first, with the creation of two states between the Jordan River and the sea (deriving from the 1993 agreements in Oslo) has been wiped out. The logical order has been seemingly inverted. Rather than Palestinian statehood being a prerequisite to Sunni Arab states recognizing Israel, Sunni countries of the region will instead start normalising their relationship with Israel first, and this normalisation might eventually lead to the creation of a proper Palestinian state in the future.
Second, the fact that the US administration was actively involved in the mediation process via its secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the fact that the agreement was signed in Washington, means that the US is still actively engaged in the process. In other words, only when a new geo-strategic regional equilibrium is reached the US may start to dis-engage. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden has committed to continuity of this approach as well.
Third, Turkey, as a NATO member, will be less able to play its own game in the region, having to abide by the superior interests of the US and of the alliance generally.
Fourth, for the first time since 2015, Russia has been placed on the backfoot, and could not dictate its conditions.
Finally, as it seems that many other countries in the region are now aiming at normalising their relationship with Israel as well, it is possible that this new, more pragmatic approach to a seemingly unsolvable problem might have the ability to lead to a new geo-strategic equilibrium being reached in the Middle East.
by Brunello Rosa
14 September 2020
Last week the UK government presented a bill to regulate the smooth functioning of the internal market following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU on January 31st, 2020, which will exert its full effects starting from January 1st, 2021, at the end of the so-called transition period. As has been widely reported by the media, many clauses of the internal market bill override the provision of the so-called Northern Ireland (NI) protocol, which was signed between the EU and the UK alongside the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) in order to ensure that a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland does not return following the UK’s departure from the EU.
As was clear from the very beginning, the implementation of the so-called Irish backstop would have effectively put a customs and regulatory border in the Irish sea, de-facto breaking the “union” of the Kingdom, while leaving Northern Ireland within the EU customs union. For that reason, Theresa May repeatedly refused to accept that option, considering that “no UK prime minister could ever accept” such a condition. Boris Johnson instead revitalised the plan, and that was the key to unblocking the negotiations with the EU in November 2019, perhaps knowing that he would have reneged that pact less than a year later.
The UK government has explicitly said in parliament that the internal market bill would break international law and that the government’s intention was in fact that of overriding the Withdrawal Agreement with domestic legislation. Top EU officials (starting with the leaders of the Council and the Commission, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, respectively) have called on the UK to respect the pacts signed with the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol (pacta sunt servanda, tweeted von der Leyen).
Where does all this leave the ongoing UK-EU negotiations?The two sides agreed that any deal would need to be reached by the EU Council by October 15th, to give enough time for EU parliament and national parliaments to ratify the treaties. For this reason, the EU sent the UK the ultimatum of either withdrawing the internal market bill or making it compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement and NI protocols by the end of September 2020, in order to have at least 15 days to make a final attempt to strike a skinny free-trade agreement (FTA).
This FTA would be even less ambitious than the one the EU recently signed with Canada (the so-called Canada-minus FTA). But it is self-evident that, given the tight schedule, the risk of a no-deal scenario has returned with a vengeance.
Is this just hard-ball negotiation tactics by Boris Johnson? One could suspect that, with deadlines approaching, the two sides are trying to play chicken to see who gives up first. That’s a possibility. However, Boris Johnson is on the record saying that for him a no-deal scenario is a perfectly legitimate and desirable outcome. Also, “no deal” is the only logically consistent end-point of his entire Brexit campaign.
Finally, no deal is the only way the UK would have a proper and final clean break from the rest of the EU, allowing maximum freedom in terms of state aid, taxation and regulatory divergence. It would be the final and cherished prize to secure in return for all the hardship of Brexit. Therefore, we do not think that this is just negotiation tactics. If the final outcome is no-deal, Johnson would sell it as his personal victory.
What’s wrong with a “no-deal” outcome? While the UK can gain something in the short term from reneging on the pact with the EU that was signed just a few months back, doing so would represent a terrible precedent. For a country aiming at “striking trade deals around the world” (such as the one it recently signed with Japan) as the “Leave” propaganda said, being perceived as a counterparty that not only does not respect its word, but does not even respect the treaties it signs, would be a terrible signal to send to other countries that could be potentially interested in striking a deal with the UK.
The UK has taken hundreds of years to move from encouraging piracy to providing one of the most reliable legal systems in the world. If Boris Johnson decides to go down that route, it could cause severe damage to the country’s international reputation. With the UK already being one of the countries hardest-hit by the economic repercussions of Covid, its PM needs to be careful in inflicting more damage from the effects of a no-deal Brexit, even if (as we discussed in our column of May 11th) he could get away with it in the short run by blaming Covid for the economic consequences of a disorderly exit from the EU.
by Brunello Rosa
7 September 2020
During the latest Jackson Hole symposium of central bankers and academics, which was held for the first time in a virtual format and, therefore, was open to the broader public, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell provided the main conclusions reached in the Review of the Fed’s Strategy, Tools and Communication. In our recent analysis, we provide all the details of that decision.
In a nutshell, the Fed decided to introduce what has been labelled as Average Inflation Targeting (AIT), which means that the Fed will allow inflation to overshoot the 2% target for brief periods (by a limited amount), in order to make up for the lost price level during periods of target-undershooting. This system is clearly designed for the present period, during which the Fed has been undershooting the inflation target for a very long time. The new framework will therefore allow the Fed to keep rates low for longer, and to look through potential inflation spikes that may arise due to Covid-induced supply-side constraints.
Clearly, a potential side effect of this approach (typical of all “averaging” or “level-based” regimes) is what happens when there is a persistent period of above-target inflation. In theory, the Fed should then keep policy rates higher than they otherwise would, to send inflation below target for some time. In turn, that would possibly induce a marked slowdown or recession (as occurred during Paul Volcker’s experience to combat spiralling inflation in the 1970-80s). Although now that seems a distant problem, it might occur at some point if stagflationary pressures were to emerge. The Fed will likely cross that bridge only when the time comes to do so.
In any case, the immediate policy implication is that the Fed will likely keep interest rates at record lows for longer than previously thought, as now the Fed can wait for inflation to be above target before increasing rates, rather than start raising rate as soon as inflation starts moving, consistently and convincingly, towards the target level.
This has clear market implications for bond and equity prices (likely to be supported by the lower rates), credit spreads (likely to remain more compressed than would otherwise be the case) and for the US dollar, which will likely stay as weak as it currently is, and remain so in the future as well. Long-term yields have briefly edged up on the announcement of the Fed’s approach, as the implied breakeven inflation level embedded into them rose, together with inflation expectations.
The real question is how all other central banks (in the G10, but also in EMs), will react to this move by the Fed. They will not be able to afford staying put: when the “mothership” that is the US Federal Reserve moves, all others will have to react, and move in the very same direction. The real risk is therefore that a new race to the bottom will now ensue, of interest rates and other accommodative monetary policies. Such a process may be additionally likely as the other central banks seek to prevent their own currencies appreciating versus the dollar, in the middle of the most severe economic contraction since the Great Depression.
The first G10 central bank to meet after the Fed announcement was the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). As discussed in our review of the policy meeting, the RBA decided to leave its policy rates unchanged, but did increase the size of its credit easing facilities. This week, the Governing Councils of the ECB and of the Bank of Canada will each meet. As discussed in our previews, we expect both central banks to keep their policy stances broadly unchanged, while keeping a clear easing bias and adding a dovish twist as a response to the Fed’s policy review.
In the next few months, these and other central banks will meet. The risk is that another significant round of policy easing, carried out by a number of central banks, is just around the corner.
by Brunello Rosa
31 August 2020
Japanese PM Abe Shinzo resigned at the end of last week, suffering as he is from a pathology (ulcerative colitis) that had already previously caused him to resign in September 2007, back when he had only been in office for one year. This institutional crisis could not come at a worse time for Japan, which is facing a second wave of Covid and is in the middle of the worst economic contraction in decades, with GDP having fallen by 7.8% q/q in Q2, the third consecutive quarterly drop in the country’s GDP.
Abe’s second term in office started in December 2012, with the resounding victory in the general election that led to a solid majority for his party, with 328 MPs out of 480 in the House of Representatives of the Diet. With the support of a strong cabinet featuring former Prime Minister Tarō Asō as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Yoshihide Suga as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Akira Amari as Economy Minister, Abe launched his celebrated Abenomics, consisting of three “arrows”: ultra-loose monetary policy, initial fiscal stimulus followed by fiscal consolidation, and structural reform.
As generally happens, the policy package started with the lower-hanging fruits, i.e. massive monetary easing in 2013, which led to the adoption of QQE (quantitative and qualitative easing), followed by the introduction of various forms of forward guidance, credit easing, negative policy rates and (last but not least) yield curve control. All these monetary innovations led to the weakening of the JPY, and the massive rise in Japanese equity valuations (Nikkei and Topix), with Japanese companies recording record profits, often hoarded abroad.
The other two arrows proved less successful: following an initial JPY 10tn stimulus package, fiscal consolidation came with the rise in the consumption sales tax, from 5% to 8% in April 2014. That fiscal tightening led to the Japanese economy to a stall and, eventually, a recession in Q2 and Q3 of that year, which plagued Abe’s second term in office. The decision to proceed with the planned second hike in the sales tax rate (from 8% to 10%) in 2019 led to similar results, with the ongoing recession aggravated by the arrival of Covid. The pandemic has also forced the government to postpone the flagship event with which Abe wanted to conclude his period in office: the Olympic games in Tokyo. They will now have to wait until 2021 at least.
The pandemic has also forced the government to postpone the flagship event with which Abe wanted to conclude his period in office: the Olympic games in Tokyo. They will now have to wait until 2021 at least.
The third arrow has been even less successful, as the planned and implemented structural reforms were watered down and ineffective at best, in a country where the population is rapidly ageing and shrinking (from almost 130 million today to around 100 million only a few decades from now, barring a significant change in birth rates or immigration). As a result of all this, the overarching aim of bringing the deflationary period to an end after almost thirty years has miserably failed, with inflation struggling to remain above zero. Other notable failures of Abe’s second term in power were the attempt to hold a referendum to change article 9 of the constitution in order to allow Japan to re-arm, and the failure to settle an old territorial dispute with Russia.
However, Abe’s period in office also saw some important successes, such as his ability to remain in power for 7 years in a row, ending the endemic instability of Japanese governments that had defined the decades before Abe’s ascent. The re-vitalisation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after Trump ditched it in 2016 was another success (it has been relabelled the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). One could also classify as a success Abe’s ability to forge a good working and personal relationship with US President Trump, which may have helped lead the US to engage with North Korea, and stop North Korea’s missile tests of rockets sent over the Japanese territory.
What lies ahead for Japan? Next year, the general election was supposed to bring a new LDP leader and PM to power; now the process is accelerated. The race has begun, with credible contenders being Fumio Kishida (LDP’s head of policy), Shigeru Ishiba (former defence minister), Yoshihide Suga and the old Tarō Asō, who would not mind a final stint in power before retiring. More than their personalities, it is Japan’s policies that will matter. Assuming that for the time being monetary and fiscal policies will remain amply accommodative, one needs to understand how Japan will position itself strategically in international affairs, at a time when the US election is as uncertain as ever and China has become more assertive than ever. The next few months will determine the path Japan will follow in coming years.
by Brunello Rosa
24 August 2020
The Democratic National Convention (DNC) was held in Milwaukee last week – mostly in virtual format, given Covid-19 – with the nomination of Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate for the US presidential election on November 3rd. On August 11th, Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate and candidate for the Vice-Presidency of the United States. With Harris’ appointment and Biden’s nomination by the Democrats, the race for the White House against the incumbent Republican President Donald Trump and his VP
Mike Pence has officially begun.
Donald Trump is currently under attack for his management of the Covid-19 crisis, with the number of infected people in the US having reached 5.6 million people and the number of deaths 175,000, the highest number of confirmed cases and reported deaths in the world. This has led to the sharpest contraction of the economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s (-32.9% SAAR in Q2), with a rise in the number of unemployed people, which reached in 14.7% of the workforcein April 2020, before falling to the current level of 10.2%. The successful management of the pandemic and the economic track record will not be arguments that Trump will be able to credibly run on during the electoral campaign. Equally, the divisive and polarising nature of his presidency, including the rise of “white supremacist” movements across the US, will make Trump’s re-election harder.
At the same time, the incumbent President always enjoys a special status, which gives him a slight head start in the race. Policies, including further tax cuts and fiscal stimuli, can be adopted between now and the day of the election in an attempt to swing voters in his favour. Some further “successes” in foreign policy such as the recent agreement between the UAE and Israel, or the continued implementation of the Phase-1 deal with China can be used as “weapons of mass distraction”. So, in spite of his recent difficulties, it would be wrong to write Trump off at this stage.
In the opposite camp, Biden has emerged as the obvious centrist choice to fight against a polarising figure such as Trump. He can enjoy the support of former presidents Obama and Clinton (whereas Trump faces the disapproval of former presidents such as G.W. Bush and other GOP grandees), and Trump’s mistakes on Covid and the economy are defining the campaign for him. The choice of Harris as running mate is supposed to bring on board the votes of ethnic minorities and socially disadvantaged groups, in an attempt to win back crucial votes in swing states that in 2016 allowed Trump to win the race even with nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, some of the Republican votes that might have gone for Biden just to get rid of Trump could be put off by Biden’s choice of a VP – a VP who could potentially become President, if Biden became “unavailable” for whatever reason during his first term in office. Additionally, Harris’ centrist approach might not be enough to win back the votes of the party’s left wing, represented by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Pollsters are divided as to what the eventual outcome of the election will be. Recent national polls suggest that Biden is ahead, but we know that what really matters is the distribution of votes in key swing states. Those using sophisticated statistical methods that managed to predict Trump’s surprising victory in 2016 are also divided. The outcome is still uncertain at this stage, therefore. There are however three things we can be sure about: 1) The campaign will be acrimonious, and full of ruthless accusations thrown by both sides at their adversary. 2) In the event of a narrow defeat in the electoral college, Trump will fight hard not to leave the While House. 3) The US will emerge more divided than ever after this campaign, and a lot of effort will need to be made by whoever wins to unite the country behind the President.
by Brunello Rosa
17 August 2020
During the 20th century Europe was been plagued by dictatorships. The most known where those in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were removed from power at the end of World War II, when Germany and Italy returned to democracy; Portugal’s António Salazar lasted until 1968 (and his authoritarian government remained until 1974) and Francisco Franco until 1975, the year of his death. But somewhat incredibly, dictatorship remained a viable option in many other parts of Europe for much longer than this.
In Greece, the dictatorships of the colonels (τὸ καθεστώς τῶν Συνταγματαρχών), also known as the Junta (η Χούντα), lasted from 1967 until 1974. In Jugoslavia, the regime by Colonel Josip Tito lasted for a decade beyond the year of his death (1980), until the division of the country and Balkan wars of the 1990s. In Eastern Europe various forms of authoritarian regimes stayed in place until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, the progressive expansion of the European Union and of NATO has gone together with an expansion of democratic regimes in the region.
In some cases, such as in the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), the adoption of the Euro has also meant a consistent transition to democracy and political freedom.
Other countries, such as Poland and Hungary, have backtracked on their progress towards democracy, with the arrival of the Kaczyński brothers and Viktor Orban, respectively. For this reason, both countries are now under the procedure foreseen by Article 7 of the EU Treaty for violating basic principles of the EU, including academic freedom, freedom of expression (particularly freedom of the media), and the independence of the judiciary. In other cases, such as in the Czech Republic, right-wing populist leaders threaten the existing democratic regime.
The two most remarkable cases in Europe remain Ukraine and Belarus. Ukraine has gone through a very complicated transition, including having to deal with the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 seems to have normalised the situation – or at least frozen the status quo, for the time being. Clearly, Ukraine remains in a situation that is less than ideal, as half of the country (especially its easternmost regions) remains under the heavy influence of Russia, and no real progress seems to be taking place in the negotiations for the association of Ukraine with the EU.
The second case, Belarus, has come back to the fore in the last few days, with the recent re-election of incumbent president Aljaksandr Lukashenko, who has been in power without interruption since 1994. The election was officially won by Lukashenko with 80.1% of votes, versus 10.1% for his only remaining rival, Svjatlana Tikhanovskaya. But the EU and the US have not recognised the result the elections, and are now discussing possible sanctions on Belarus. As violent riots occurred in the capital Minsk as well as in other parts of the country, Tikhanovskaya had to flee the country in order to avoid being arrested, and will now have to continue her fight from Lithuania. The question is whether Lukashenko will manage to stay in power for a long time yet, and eventually pass the baton to his young son (as he has planned for a long time) or if he will be ousted from power. The answer to this question probably lies in Moscow.
For decades the fragile Belarus economy counted on subsidies coming from Russia, assuring it full employment, rising wages, and the well-being of its population. But as Russia itself ran into economic difficulties following the collapse in oil prices in 2014, its economic help started to wane, and with it, political support for Lukashenko’s regime. The president cannot last unless Putin and Russia support him. So, Putin will have to decide what to do; that is the reason for the recent phone conversation held between the two presidents. Lukashenko warned Putin that the riots pose a threat to the stability of Russia as well. In a a not-so-veiled request for help, he claimed that if the riots do not get stopped in Belarus, they will spread to Russia as well. That’s why a military intervention by Russia in Belarus cannot be ruled out at this stage.
For some time, the idea has existed that the president of Russia would also become president of Belarus, in something akin to a new confederation being formed between the two states. This seemed to be one of the options that Putin was considering to extend further his own mandate within Russia. However, now that Putin has managed to change the Russian constitution, allowing him to remain in power until 2036, this option seems to be less palatable, considering the lack of support among the people in Belarus for a sort-of “annexation” of their country by Russia. At the same time, a nationalistic approach, in which Belarus would try to re-assert its independence from Moscow, is not particularly popular among the wider populace either.
So, perhaps the only option remaining on the table for Putin is to keep Lukashenko in power for longer and increase economic and financial support for the country. But this solution may prove to be more temporary than either of the two presidents desire, exposing them to further revolts.
by Brunello Rosa
10 August 2020
After the disastrous collapse in economic activity recorded in Q2, with real GDP falling by double digit percentage points in many economies, including in the most advanced ones, the global economy is attempting a timid rebound in Q3. The re-opening of economies after months of widespread lockdown, when 1/3 to half of the world population was estimated to be subject to more or less draconian restrictions, is facilitating a comeback in economic activity. However, this rebound is uneven and uncertain at best. In its latest statement, the US Federal Reserve’s FOMC warned about a slowdown in this timid rebound, as signalled by many leading and contingent indicators.
Governments remain alert and active in their plans to stimulate economic activity. Among others The US is preparing its third fiscal stimulus package, the EU has just adopted the new Recovery and Resilience Facility, and the UK has prorogued its furlough schemes (together with other forms of fiscal support).
Central banks remain fully accommodative after having launched what we called “Covid-related forward guidance”. In fact, in August the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), in deciding to re-start QE after the lockdown in the state of Victoria, joined the Fedand the ECB in explicitly linking the duration of its monetary stimulus to developments of the virus.
After the so-called “time-limited” and “state-contingent” forms of forward guidance, in which the central bank will continue to provide monetary stimulus until a certain date arrives or a pre-set economic condition materialises, some central banks seem to have decided to launch a new form of state-contingent forward guidance, in which the condition to be met to reduce the stimulus is fully exogenous. Specifically, central banks will continue to keep policy rates low (or lower) or make asset purchases until there is convincing evidence that the virus has been durably and credibly contained.
Considering that the number of cases is still accelerating in very large parts of the world, such as in the US, Brazil and India, this means that central banks will keep the tap of liquidity open for the foreseeable future. Most central banks, when showing their implicitly expected path of policy rates, do not show any sign of tightening over the forecast horizon.
Who is benefiting from this situation in financial markets?
Clearly risk asset prices have been the ones that have benefited from the combination of monetary and fiscal stimulus (sometimes coordinated in “helicopter money” fashion). But there is plenty of evidence that both equity and credit markets valuations are stretched, as they are under-pricing the risk of the chain of defaults and bankruptcies which is likely to manifest itself in coming months. Perhaps also because of this reason, the clear winner so far seems to have been gold.
The yellow precious metal has in fact reached and recently overcome the 2000$ per troy ounce for the first time since the Global Financial Crisis. Gold was trading at just over $250 in the early 2000, before starting a glorious rally that brought it to $1750 (monthly prices) during the Euro crisis in 2011-12. After retracing and falling to just over $1000 in 2015, the rally re-started with some conviction in mid-2019 (when the Fed started to implement its “insurance cuts”) with a serious acceleration in the last few months.
As discussed in our recent in-depth analysis, there are multiple reasons for this rally. Gold is perceived to be a good hedge against inflation, but also deflation (as it is a physical asset, but nobody’s liability, unlike government bonds). It is a store of intrinsic value and is also perceived to be a store of US dollar value, during a time when political uncertainty and turmoil in the US, ahead of the Presidential election in November, is making many investors nervous about the greenback.
by Brunello Rosa
3 August 2020
Last week, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first estimate of the performance of the US economy in Q2 2020. After the 5% q/q drop in Q1 (a seasonally-adjusted annualised rate, SAAR), in Q2 the economy contracted by 32.9% q/q SAAR. This was slightly less than anticipated (34.1%), but still the largest contraction on record. This quarterly contraction of 8-9% (32.9% divided by four) is in line with the fall in income recorded by other major economies. It is explained, of course, by the adoption of lockdown measures that were introduced in order to slow down the spread of Covid-19.
As the Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said during the press conference following the FOMC decision to leave the central bank’s policy stance unchanged in July, this is the largest shock the US has had to endure in recent history. After an unexpected rebound in May and June, the recovery of economic activity since July has slowed down, as has been revealed by non-standard, high-frequency indicators, such as hotel occupancy and credit card use. In its latest statement, the Federal Reserve decided to establish a clear link between the expected path of economic activity and the likely evolution of the pandemic.
Following the release of the quarterly GDP figures, US President Donald Trump released a tweet in which he wondered whether the US election could be delayed “until people can vote properly, securely and safely.” Even if it is not in the president’s power to decide on the date of the election, this tweet created an outcry in the media and the Democratic party, where it was often viewed as a confirmation of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and an attempt to undercut the US democracy. Since the power to postpone the date of the election has resided with Congress since 1845, Trump’s tweet must be read as a signal of how he is ready to contest any result that would not see him as the victor in the US presidential race in November, as we discussed in our column on April 20.
But the economy is not the only preoccupation of President Trump at the moment. After putting the popular video-sharing social medium Tik Tok under scrutiny for representing a possible threat to national security, Donald Trump said he was ready to ban its operations in the US, where it counts around 50 million users. The company responded that the data it collects is stored in US-based servers (confirming once again how relevant the concept of digital sovereignty is becoming), with limited and controlled access from its employees. Some read Trump’s move as a way of either jeopardising the potential sale of the US arm of Tik Tok to Microsoft, or as an attempt to reduce Tik Tok’s price.
This is yet another confirmation that one of the main battlefields of the ongoing Cold War 2 between US and China is the tech race between the two superpowers. In a separate, but related field, our recent report on the “stunning” alliance between China and Iran discusses how Cold War 2 is taking shape in the more traditional domain of strategic alliances.
While all of this is going on, the Democratic contender in the November race, Joe Biden, will soon announce the choice of his running mate. Many see this as a potential turning point in the campaign. Biden is set to choose a candidate who, unlike himself, is not old, or male, or white, and for this reason the most credited contenders for the position are Susan Rice and Kamala Harris. But this choice must be considered in the broader context of the US presidency.
Biden, if elected would at 77 years old be the oldest US president in history at the time of his inauguration. He already hinted at the possibility of running for only one term, making his VP the natural candidate for succession in 2024. There is also a possibility that Biden could resig duringhis first term, which would of course would directly make his VP ascend to the presidency. Knowing all this, any Republican voters or swing voters who might be inclined to vote for Biden just to make sure that Trump is not re-elected in November, might want to be reassured that Biden’s running mate is as mainstream a politician as possible.
by Brunello Rosa
27 July 2020
We have often discussed how a key component of the ongoing Cold War II is a technological conflict between the incumbent dominant power (the US) and the rising star (China). Last week, US microchip producer Intel, for decades the undisputed leader in its sector, announced that it had fallen behind its development plans by at least one year, thus leaving its main competitor, TSMC a Taiwan-based company, as the leader in its field. This has been read by some analysts as the latest confirmation of the US losing its dominant position in technology, an area that for decades was the ultimate key to American success.
But this is only the last episode of a much wider saga. In particular, the battle for the distribution of 5G technology represents a significant front in the ongoing tech wars. Recently, the UK has also joined its fellow countries of the Five Eyes (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) in the broader Anglosphere, with the decision to gradually phase out Huawei in the provision of technology for the 5G British network. This was a decision that came after repeated and heavy pressures were placed on PM Boris Johnson by the US.
In this raging tech war, we must note the impetus that the Coronavirus pandemic has given to cyber-wars, as we discussed in our recent two-part report on the subject. Part 1 of that report focused on US and international developments, Part 2 focused on national developments in Russia, EU, Israel and China. The rapid increase in digital technologies that has occurred in order to provide business continuity during the long months of widespread lockdowns has made most countries, institutions and companies much more vulnerable to cyber attacks than was already the case before the pandemic began.
In the future, we will have to assume that the failure of diplomatic avenues in any serious dispute between countries could result in one of those countries carrying out a cyber attack. Such attacks will, perhaps, be launched by non-state entities at the behest of a state, in order to provide that state with “plausible deniability”.
These technological developments will certainly impact traditional areas of finance as well, such as banking. As we have discussed in our recent in-depth report on the future of the banking industry, traditional lending institutions already find themselves under siege by fin-tech developments coming from the private sector. On the other side of the spectrum, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) developed by the public sector will pose an additional threat to the traditional business model of financial institutions.
Both sides will continue to squeeze banks in the middle.
Given the widespread use of digital technologies, fin-tech developments will continue unabated in their aim of increasing efficiency and granting access of financial services to larger segments of the population which otherwise have little exposure to financial services. Central banks (with China and Sweden leading the race) will continue their journey to the eventual adoption of CBDCs, which are seen as the key to solving the next systemic crisis.
Traditional banks will have to adapt their modus operandi to fit this radically changed environment. As we discuss in our report, the key elements of their new business model will have to be digitalisation, a consumer-centricity, and further specialisation regarding local needs. This will be a process that will surely lead to further consolidation in the industry, with fewer players left on the battleground afterwards.
by Brunello Rosa
20 July 2020
Since last Friday, the special EU summit to decide on the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility is taking place in Brussels, with European leaders meeting in person for the first time after months of video conferences.
The summit started with a great distance between the positions of the so-called Frugal Four (Austria, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden) – which became Frugal Five when Finland joined the group – and those of the Mediterranean front of Italy and Spain (which is supported by France). The former group wants a reduction of the overall package proposed by the EU Commission, namely EUR 500bn in transfers and EUR 250bn in loans, and a significant reduction in the amount made up by transfers. Within this group, the most aggressive position is expressed by the Netherlands, whose PM Mark Rutte seeks to win a majority in his country’s parliamentary election next spring. The Netherlands, for a change, is not simply the “bad cop” of the duo with Germany. Rather, the two countries entered this meeting with two different strategic objectives. The second group of countries wants the overall size of the program to be left unchanged, and wants transfers to remain the bulk of it.
There is also a third front at the table, representing the nations of the so-called Viségrad group (Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland). Those countries, among the largest beneficiaries of EU funds (Poland in particular) want to make sure that their quota of funds in the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) remains intact.
Alliances across regions (North/South, East/West) and political families (People’s party, Socialists and Democrats, Liberals) are variable, and subject to change opportunistically.
In the middle of these different positions is Germany, with Angela Merkel trying to broker a historic deal during the period in which Germany holds the rotating EU presidency, to make sure that the eventual result is acceptable to everybody. Germany is doubly putting its face on this deal.
The EU Commission that made the initial proposal discussed at the summit is led by Ursula Von der Leyen, the former German defence minister and protégé of Angela Merkel. In addition, Merkel herself is looking to complete her long period in service with an agreement that could prove historical. Merkel’s goal is passing the EU to the next generation of European leaders, with some of the elements of solidarity that characterised the initial project still intact. So, Germany cannot risk that this summit ends with no results.
Given such distance between the positions of various blocs of countries to begin with, the sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday not surprisingly finished in acrimonious discord.
Various proposals have been presented by EU Council President Charles Michel to reduce the overall size of the package and the share of that package made up by transfers rather than loans, to make the deal more acceptable to the Frugal Five. The latest proposal foresees EUR 390bn of grants and will be discussed starting from Monday afternoon. We expect that, eventually, a compromise will emerge, if not at this meeting, at a new one later in July.
by Brunello Rosa
13 July 2020
The number of Covid-19 cases worldwide is increasing. It has now nearly reached the 13 million mark, causing almost 600,000 reported deaths. Some countries, especially in Europe and Asia, are experiencing an increase in new cases, though only to a limited extent so far, after re-opening their societies following long periods of lockdown. In other countries, such as the US and Brazil, the situation is worse; according to some experts, infection rates may already be out of control in these countries. In the US in particular, where the number of cases has now reached 3.2 million, the spread of the virus is still increasing exponentially, suggesting that the adoption of new social-distancing measures is likely to occur during the next few weeks.
As lockdown measures have eased, economic activity has been picking up, recovering from the lows touched in Q1 and Q2. Unless restrictions are re-imposed to the same extent as occurred during the first part of the year, or new restrictions imposed upon large economies such as the US have massive spillovers to the rest of the global economy, Q3 GDP growth should show a positive figure in many countries, given base effects.
In spite of the recovery in economic activity, the support of economic policy remains essential. As far as fiscal policy is concerned, most governments are still providing stimulus by way of new or renewed packages. In the US, a third fiscal easing package is underway. In the UK, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has just announced a new set of measures to support economic activity, such as the temporary reduction of VAT on certain products and services and of the stamp duty on certain real-estate transactions.
In the EU, this week there will be another summit to make progress towards the approval of the EU Recovery and Resilience fund, which should support the economies most hit by the Covid pandemic, such as Italy and Spain.
In all this, central banks are taking a breather. In recent weeks, after the massive monetary easing programs announced during H1, most central banks are adopting a wait-and-see approach. Some of them, such as the Reserve Bank of Australia, have even started to reduce their intervention in markets as the economy stabilises. This week, there will be the monetary policy meetings of the European Central Bank (ECB), Bank of Japan (BOJ) and Bank of Canada (BOC). The BoC will release its first set of forecasts since the pandemic begun, and the BoJ will update its economic outlook. As we have written in our preview, we expect them not to change their policy stance, while remaining ready to add monetary stimulus should economic and financial conditions deteriorate in coming weeks.
Central banks, which have been at the forefront of the policy response during the global financial crisis, have already used most of their conventional and unconventional arsenal. At this point, they prefer fiscal policy, and regulation, to be in the driving seat. At the end of July, the FOMC of the Federal Reserve, which sets the tone for most central banks with its decisions, will meet. It is likely to adopt a similarly cautious approach, although with the worsening healthcare conditions in the US discussed above, the meeting might result in the decision to further increase its stimulus, for example by widening the depth and spectrum of its credit-easing facilities.
by Brunello Rosa
6 July 2020
A few weeks ago we warned that the world will look very different after Covid from how things were at the end of 2019. Some of the changes we envisioned are already occurring.
We mentioned how China would try to use the crisis to make geo-strategic gains relative to its rivals, primarily the US and, more broadly, the Anglosphere. In this respect, the new more assertive geopolitical stance taken by China was visible in the military exchange that occurred between China and India in the disputed territories of the Himalayas. This direct military confrontation risks pushing India more towards the US sphere of influence, at a time when US President Trump has already expressed sympathy towards authoritarian or nationalistic leaders like Narendra Modi.
But the geopolitical confrontation between China and the Anglosphere is occurring on other fronts as well. As we discussed in a recent column, the blame game over the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic must be interpreted as part of a wider containment strategy with regard to China, a strategy which also includes the probable decision by the UK government to gradually phase out Huawei from its 5G network, following similar steps already taken by both the US and Australia.
Meanwhile, the US is still mired in the middle of a surge in Covid-19 cases, with erratic management of the crisis by US President Trump. The US now has about one quarter of the 11 millioncases of Covid recorded worldwide. As a result, the EU, which has just re-opened its external borders, has excluded the US from the list of countries from which citizens can arrive without having to undergo a period of quarantine. The US is about to enter one of the most heated presidential elections in its history, with Trump already openly speaking of “rigged” elections, alleging irregular vote-by-mail schemes and ballots printed by foreign countries.
There is even the risk that, unless the Democratic candidate Joe Biden obtains a large majority in the electoral college, the president will refuse to accept the result of the election and will not leave the White House in January 2021.
In the middle of the US and China, there is always Europe, which is trying to overcome its many contradictions. As we discussed in our recent in-depth analysis, the EU is in the middle of a difficult negotiation regarding the Recovery and Resilience Fund, with the Frugal Four (Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Netherlands) asking for much stricter conditionality attached to any funds sent to the countries that have been most impacted by the crisis, primarily Italy and Spain. In a recent interview, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that he will not accept the approval of a recovery instrument with too much additional conditionality compared to regular fiscal coordination and surveillance.
In our analysis we also discussed the national implications of such a deal, in particular in France. There, President Emmanuel Macron decided to sack Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, following the defeat of the president’s party in the local elections last week. He substituted Philippe, who had become more popular than the president for his good management of the Covid emergency, with Jean Castex, another “Enarque” who advised the president on the re-opening of the economy post-lockdown.
These movements, apparently simple domestic politics, are of the greatest importance ahead of the 2022 Presidential election. As we have said many times before, if Macron does not win a second mandate, the entire European integration project could be in serious jeopardy.
by Brunello Rosa
29 June 2020
Last week, equity indices suffered despite a rebound in economic activity in some key economies. This occurred as a rise in COVID-19 cases, especially in the US and Brazil, as well as fresh warnings over the global growth outlook and the Fed’s warning of a cap to ‘shareholder payouts’ all weighed on market sentiment.
On a weekly basis, global equity indices fell (MSCI ACWI, -0.6%, to 524), driven by the US (S&P 500, -0.5% to 3,084) and the EZ (Eurostoxx 50, -1.5% to 3,219). From the beginning of the year, the S&P 500 index is down 7%, Eurostoxx 50 is down nearly 15%, the UK’s FTSE 100 is down 18% and Nikkey 225 5%. These figures are very much in line with what we predicted a few months ago, perhaps with the only exception of NASDAQ, which has surprised us as well as market participants with a more positive than expected performance. The NASDAQ is up 9% year-to-date, mostly due to the fact that pandemic has further boosted the use of technology for business continuity.
Have these depressed valuations re-aligned equity indices with economic fundamentals? We don’t think so. Last week, the IMF released a revision of its World Economic Outlook (WEO), which featured a significant further downward revision of expected global growth, from the -3% predicted in April to -4.9% predicted now. US growth is expected to be -8.0% in 2020 (a 2.1% downward revision as compared to April’s prediction), the UK -10.2% (a -3.7% downward revision as compared to April’s), and the Eurozone at -10.2% (a -2.7% downward revision). These new forecasts are now more aligned with our own more pessimistic estimates made in April. This week, we will publish our revised forecasts alongside the Strategic Asset Allocation.
Recently, the OECD went even further than this economic outlook of the IMF. In its June forecasts, the OECD foresees a 6% contraction in global GDP (if no “second wave” of the pandemic occurs – the so called “single-hit scenario”), and -7.6% contraction in case of a second wave (the “double-hit scenario”). It expects the US to lose roughly 7.3%/8.5% of GDP in 2020 (depending on whether or not a second wave occurs), the Eurozone 9.1/11.5%, and the UK a staggering 11.5/14%. So, either these growth forecasts are too grim, or else market valuations are too optimistic.
At the beginning of the year, we warned that there was a large discrepancy between risk asset valuations, especially equities, and economic fundamentals. The collapse in valuations following the global outbreak of Covid-19, which marked the beginning of the fastest bear market in recent history, had temporarily solved that discrepancy, by bringing valuations closer in line with economic fundamentals. But the rapid recovery in equity indices (pushed by central bank liquidity) led also to the manifestation of the shortest bear market in recent history, with valuations departing again from economic fundamentals.
In our recent analysis, we warned about the possibility that a U-shaped (or W-shaped) recovery could be accompanied by a V-shaped rally in financial markets. However, our recent in-depth analysis shows that equity valuations seem to be mis-aligned not just with macroeconomic fundamentals, but also with microeconomic variables that serve as an input for equity valuation models, such as expected earnings per share. There is also a mis-alignment with the signals from the credit market, in particular the expected default rates. What is underpinning high valuations seems to be only low interest rates (both current interest rates and expected future interest rates), which is a purely circular argument. Clearly, central bank liquidity has been underpinning valuations for a long time now. It is perhaps to break the virtuous (but also vicious) circle that, after the easing spree of March/April, most global central banks are now adopting a more cautious stance, with a partial withdrawal of some of the extraordinary measures introduced in the last few weeks.
In any case, the evolution of the pandemic and the global economy remain highly uncertain, and so “prudence” should be the buzzword for market participants at this time.
by Brunello Rosa
22 June 2020
Last week, China announced that a number of boroughs in Beijing had to be locked down as a result of a new localised outbreak of Covid-19 in the city, possibly originating from another food market. The Chinese authorities said that investigations concluded that the coronavirus strain detected at the Xinfadi market in Beijing came from Europe, even if they admitted that this particular strain “has existed longer than the current coronavirus strain circulating in Europe.”
So, it appears that China is now making accusations of other countries and regions for the possible second wave of pandemic it might be suffering. This is, of course, similar to the way most countries have accused China for having caused the pandemic in the first place, whether “naturally” (if the virus spread out the wet market in Wuhan), or “artificially” (either intentionally, or by accident, given the presence of the notorious research lab in Wuhan itself). What then should we make of this blame game between China and the rest of the world?
One should not be confused by the exchanges of allegations between politicians and even heads of state and governments. In most cases, these allegations are made to assuage the domestic opinion more than to attack the foreign entity, in order to distract attention and divert responsibility away from themselves. This is a usual game in politics. However, there is also something deeper going on now, which makes the current situation different from those which typically exist.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, we believe that after this pandemic, and after the containment measures that have been adopted to counter this pandemic, the world will look very different from how it was until the end of 2019. In particular, the economic or political power ranking of countries and regions could change on a global scale.
For certain, the economic and political “distance” between the major global players will be very different: for example, China will be able to reduce the gap with the US on a number of dimensions. The US, with its erratic response to the pandemic, and its inability thus far to rein in the pandemic, will most likely lose ground versus China, whose response to the virus having been much more rapid and forceful. Europe is still debating which policies to adopt to recover from it.
The US and its closest allies in the Anglosphere (the so-called “Five Eyes”: the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) are trying to respond this evolution of events. Clearly, the first point of attack is about the origin of the crisis, which is undoubtably in China; emphasizing this fact also serves to diminish the relevance of Beijing’s strong response. For the first time in history, countries or state entities (such as Missouri and Mississippi) have expressed their intention to ask for “compensation” or “reparations” in non-war related circumstances, and this will continue to put pressure on China.
But there are other open fronts as well. As we know, the new Cold War between US and China has several components, one of which is the very relevant technological competition. Recently, the US imposed further restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei (which were subsequently partly eased).
Countries in America’s inner circle, such as Australia, have taken similar measures. This has meant a sharp deterioration in the bilateral relationships between Beijing and Canberra, even despite the fact that China has been the main importer of Australia’s iron ore and coal in the last few years. But in the “new world order” of disrupted global supply chains, geopolitical considerations will trump economic cost/benefit analysis. This is an unfortunate evolution. It will eventually hurt the end consumer globally, as it will lead to a reduced choice of products and higher prices.
by Brunello Rosa
15 June 2020
In this world of de-materialised data, where the control of the cyber space and the most advanced communication and information technologies seems necessary to gain a strategic advantage versus the geo-political rivals, it is quite dystonic to learn how global and regional powers still consider the control of the sea as a key factor for assert dominance over a geographical area.
We have discussed many times how the new Cold War between US and China was increasingly driven by the technological competition between the two world’s super-powers, in particular in the fields of artificial intelligence, big data and 5G technologies, with the US trying to at least slow down China’s Agenda 2025, foreseeing the Asian giant becoming the world’s first country in the most technologically advanced sectors of the future. More recently, we have discussed how Russia, the world leader in cyberwarfare techniques, was using the Covid-induced crisis to make geo-strategic advances by using its competitive advantage in the field.
But exactly when all the advanced world is making the greatest use of online technologies to carry on its economic activities and circumvent the restrictions imposed by the lockdowns, we learn how the good old control of key maritime routes and straits, or the acquisition of naval basis is still considered a key ingredient for asserting geo-strategic dominance.
In the G2 heightening rivalry between US and China, the disputes over the east and south China sea have acquired absolute prominence in determining how the rivalry will evolve, including regarding the still unresolved trade dispute. As discussed in our recent report, roughly $5 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea (SCS) each year, including oil and natural gas. It’s clear that controlling SCS enables China to potentially choke off these routes and severely impair neighboring economies and global trade.
Press reports suggest that Beijing has steadily fortified seven islands or reefs, equipping them with military bases, airfields and weapons systems. This means, that while US President Donald Trump might be trying to apply the Art of The Deal in the negotiations, China might be applying the Art of War by general Sun Tzu, implying that any comprehensive trade deal with China might need to include a resolution of SCS sovereignty issues, potentially an unachievable result.
Clearly, China’s difficulty in projecting its geopolitical influence by controlling the seas is a massive constraint, compared to the US historical prevalence over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Belt and Road Initiative (where the “Road” is a maritime route) is a way for China to break that constraint disguised behind commercial interests.
In other reports, we have discussed how the control of the strait of Hormuz was considered by Iran as a key to re-assert its authority in the Persian/Arabian gulf, potentially impairing global trade of oil from the region.
Finally, in our recent report, we have discussed how geopolitical tension was rising in the Mediterranean sea, with two open fronts in Syria and Libya, where regional powers are playing their chess game. Turkey and Russia seem now close to reach an agreement on the two fronts, with Tukey having completed its “Open Sea Training” operations (thus extending its maritime influence from the Dardanelles to Cyrenaica), and Russia getting closer to achieve its most cherished goal: naval bases in the west Mediterranean sea (in Bengasi – together with the air base in Al Jufra), to complement its historical posts in Latakia and Tartus in Syria. Controlling what the Romans called Mare Nostrum(“Our Sea”) seems to be, two thousand years later, still a desirable strategic objective.
by Brunello Rosa
8 June 2020
In our column in October of 2018, following Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, we asked: “Will The World’s Next Strongman Come From Brazil?”. Bolsonaro, who had been an underdog in the election until he was stabbed at a campaign event only one month before the vote took place, had already been displaying all of the characteristics of the strongmen who were already populating the globe at that time (Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, Orbán, Kaczynski, Erdoğan, Duterte, Modi, etc.), including a passion for (or in his case, a past within) the military, an admiration for non-democratic regimes, and a preference for the use of force to solve international and domestic disputes.
Fast forward almost two years later to today, and, taking into account the natural tendency of Covid-induced economic restrictions to strengthen autocratic behaviours, here we are: Bolsonaro is not only proving to be the world leader who is most reluctant to adopt containment measures against the spreading of Covid-19, a reluctance which has made Brazil the new epicentre of the pandemic, together with the US, but a judge from the country’s Supreme Court has also accused Bolsonaro of wanting to abolish democracy in Brazil in order to establish an “abject dictatorship”. Justice Celso de Mello, in a WhatsApp message leaked to the media, reportedly said: “We must resist the destruction of the democratic order to avoid what happened in the Weimar Republic when Hitler, after he was elected by popular vote, did not hesitate to annul the constitution and impose a totalitarian system in 1933.”
These allegations came after Bolsonaro attended a rally at which demonstrators, wearing paramilitary uniforms, called for Brazil’s parliament and supreme court to be shut down and be replaced with military rule, and after Bolsonaro’s Minister of Culture was forced to resign after quoting Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. This should not be surprising, given that Bolsonaro packed his government with more than 100 current and retired military officers, including his vice-president and at least 6 cabinet ministers.
In a recent in-depth analysis by John Hulsman, we discussed Bolsonaro’s record in government, showing how the president of Brazil has been out of his depth over myriad issues hamstringing his erratic presidency. In particular, we noted how three C’shave been plaguing the populist leader: (lack of) Competence, (lack of) Competition within the right-wing camp, and Corruption; and how these have dramatically morphed together into an existential threat to Bolsonaro’s continued rule.
At the same time, we also noted the three B’s that could lead to his political salvation: Beef (Agribusiness), Bullets (the Military), and the Bible (the growing number of Brazilian Evangelical Christians). In fact, much of the President’s enduring and loyal political base is clustered around these three groups. These constituencies could help Bolsonaro politically survive, or even thrive, for a continued period of time. Indeed, we concluded our analysis of Bolsonaro’s political record by noting that although Bolsonaro is embattled, he is probably in no immediate danger of impeachment.
But while the three B’s are protecting Bolsonaro from impeachment, and while his power base is holding for the present, none of the three C’s have been even remotely dealt with. As time passes, and these structural problems turn increasingly septic, what seems now to be a slow unspooling of the Brazilian president may suddenly become a torrent that washes away “The Trump of the Tropics” for good.
Before this happens, though, the risk remains that Bolsonaro will officially or unofficially suspend democracy in Brazil, bringing a return of the dictatorship that the country abandoned in 1985.
Picture Credit: Julio Cortez/AP
by Brunello Rosa
1 June 2020
In the last few days, the streets of Minneapolis and other major US cities have been filled by people protesting the treatment of George Floyd, who died while in policy custody. The facts are sadly well known, and the fact that the police officer Derek Chauvin has been arrested did not placate the ire of the African-American community or the wider population. Protests have become violent in the last couple of days, as they have in previous similar occasions, most notably in Los Angeles in 1992, after a trial jury acquitted LAPD officers’ accused usage of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King.
So, this type of episode is unfortunately not new, and it will likely happen again in future. What makes this episode peculiar and particularly noticeable in this period is that it is happening as social tensions are clearly on the rise, with a number of protests being staged in various parts of the US against the lockdown measures introduced in many states. The most worrying of these took place outside the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing on April 30, when a number of protesters showed up equipped with firearms.
This is quite concerning, considering this is a year in which one of the most tense presidential elections in US history will take place. The election will be tense not just because of the logistical difficulties resulting from Coronavirus, or from the fact that the margin between the two contenders is likely to be small, but also because there is widespread concern that if Trump were to lose, he might not accept the result – even were it to come in the form of a verdict from the Supreme Court – and will instead refuse to leave the White House.
These episodes are taking place in the US, but other parts of the world are not immune from this same sort of situation. Protests against lockdown measures are happening in many different countries: the UK, Germany, Australia, Belgium, Italy, Poland, etc. At this stage, most of these protests are motivated by social anger against the restrictions that have been placed on personal liberties. In some cases, they have also been motivated by dissatisfaction regarding the economic impact of the measures being adopted to stop the spread of the virus. But even if the lockdown measures were to be alleviated in coming months, social tension might not ebb.
In fact, the real economic impact of the anti-Covid measures will be felt in the autumn. In Q2, there was an immediate impact deriving from the closure of economic activities. But those companies that could remain open used these months to process the orders arrived until the end of Q1 2020. But in Q3/Q4 2020 it will be clearer how many businesses have in fact survived, and how many new orders will have arrived.
The risk is that the collapse in economic activity of Q1/Q2 will have a long-lasting impact on economic systems, with serious repercussions on employment and, therefore, on social cohesion. This is the reason why governments around the world are trying to gradually re-open their economic systems, and why support in the form of government policy will need to remain abundant for the foreseeable future.
by Brunello Rosa
26 May 2020
We have been following the vicissitudes of the EU integration process for years now. To recap the milestones of our view, we have been saying that unless the EU changes tack, it will be very hard for the incomplete federalisation process of Europe to survive in a new world in which continental economies (the US, China, and India) will make the most relevant geo-strategic and economic decisions. Covid will make this new world come sooner than anticipated, even if the relative ranking of countries will be different than would have otherwise been the case.
The EU is currently an incomplete transfer union, in which resources (human, physical and financial capital) move from the periphery to the centre. The two main poles of attraction have been the UK (within the EU) and Germany (within the euro area). Somewhat ironically, one of the greatest beneficiaries of these influxes, namely the UK, has decided to leave, because the influx of migrants became politically unsustainable (or so the Leave campaign sold it as being). Brexit has proved us right, that the EU dis-integration process has begun.
The optimists believe that without the UK a more cohesive union will emerge, and therefore the integration process will finally be able to proceed. This is likely to be an over-estimate of what will actually take place. The presence of the UK was the excuse all other reluctant countries were using not to proceed further with the integration process. Was the UK blocking the completion of the euro-area banking union with the adoption of EDIS (the European Deposit Insurance Scheme)? Of course not. It was Germany that was doing so.
With the rise of populist parties in all major EU countries(Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland) and also in smaller countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, etc,), it was clear that, a soon as any severe crisis would arrive, it would constitute an existential threat to the EU.
And, at that point, the EU would reveal whether or not it was up to the game, by completing its integration process, or else accelerate the ongoing dis-integration process. The shock has now arrived, of course, with the Coronavirus. We wondered whether the EU would finally face its “Hamilton moment” (i.e. finish its integration process) or, instead, its “Jefferson moment” (return to some form of Confederation, with limited sharing of sovereignty).
Facing the abyss, France and Germany have tried to come up with a proposal to mitigate the devastating effects of Covid and lockdowns on the economy of the continent. In an interview, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has called it Europe’s “Hamilton moment.” We wish that was true. The proposal has merits, and is in line with our previewfor how the EU would respond to the Covid crisis.
But some of the details reveal that we are still quite far from any form of debt mutualisation, and the distrust that exists between the Northern “frugal four” (Finland, Denmark, Austria, Sweden) and the “profligate” Southern countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, etc.) remains high. We will see what the Commission proposal looks like on May 27, and what compromise the Council will be able to make in June and the following months.
Our suspicion is that we will merely witness another round of the eternal “muddle through” that seems to characterise recent European history. To some extent, this would be better than the immediate collapse of the EU project, as any such collapse would have enormous economic, social and political costs. On the other hand, we doubt that any “more of the same” approach will equip Europe to succeed in the post-Covid world.
by Brunello Rosa
18 May 2020
We have discussed several times how serious the Coronavirus-induced economic crisis is. The lockdown measures introduced by many countries to mitigate the spreading of the virus have created a collapse in economic activity, on the order of 20-40% on a quarterly basis. This could result in a fall in real GDP of about 7-10% in many developed economies, with a rebound next year that will be mushy and uneven at best.
To mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19, a number of countries have adopted large stimulus packages consisting of fiscal expansion and monetary easing, in most cases in a coordinated fashion that closely resembles helicopter-money drops. Financial markets have, as usual, anticipated economic developments – equity prices collapsed around the world at the end of February/beginning of March, sending most of them into bear-market territory (-30% from their peak). Other segments of the market have given clear signs of dislocation. As discussed in our recent outlook, oil prices turned negative for the first time in history on April 20, as the collapse in global demand more than offset the cut to production that was decided upon by OPEC+ (including Russia) on April 12th.
Since the lows reached on March 23rd, equity markets have tried to rebound, but have done so with varying degrees of success. In the US, the S&P500 has recovered around half of the losses; it is now only down 11% year-to-date. The NASDAQ has managed an even more astonishing rebound, being at par year-to-date, thanks to the even more widespread use of technology during the lockdown. The Dow Jones, in contrast, which represent more traditional industries, is down 17% year-to-date.
In Europe, where the pandemic has led to harsher forms of lockdown (which are now being relaxed), the situation is less rosy, with the exceptions of Switzerland and Sweden. Equity markets remain down 25%-30% year-to-date. All these developments are in line with what we expected in our global outlook update.
As we previously discussed, a sustained recovery in market valuations could only occur when a durable solution (a vaccine or medication) to the healthcare crisis is in sight. Until then, market valuations will remain subject to downside risks. Nevertheless, as markets are leading indicators of economic activity, they will start to recover much sooner than the real economy. Conversely, the unemployment rate, which is a lagging indicator, will take much longer to normalise than economic activity in general. In the US, where unemployment insurance schemes and other similar automatic stabilisers are less widespread than in Europe, initial jobless claims reached 36 million in the first 7 week of the crisis. Non-farm payrolls dropped by 20.5mn in April, the largest monthly drop on record, with the country’s unemployment rate reaching 14.7%, up from the historically low 3.5% rate just a couple of months earlier.
Public authorities are coming to the rescue: the Fed has just launched a Main Street program of credit easing. But the reality remains the same as it has been since the Global Financial Crisis: the liquidity injections by central banks tend to translate into asset price reflation, which mostly helps Wall Street, while other measures, even those akin to helicopter drops of money, leave Main Street in the doldrums. Again, this could be the result of the difference between leading and lagging indicators of economic activity, with equity prices rising much more quickly than unemployment rates in the wake of a serious crisis. But perhaps it could also signal the need to refocus the aim of the stimulus packages in the first place.
by Brunello Rosa
11 May 2020
According to the most recent statistics, the UK is now third in the ranking of countries most affected by Coronavirus, after the US and Spain. It is second (after the US) in terms of number of deaths, with around 32,000 reported victims. Given the severity of the situation, the government, after initial hesitation, launched a complete lockdown of the country and its economy on March 23rd. Now, the government seems ready to relax some of these rules (for example, on daily exercise), while also tightening boarder controls (e.g. imposing a 14-day quarantine on anybody arriving in the UK). The central government – but not, for example, the devolved government in Scotland – is ready to move from the slogans “Stay Home/Protect the NHS/Save Lives” to “Stay Alert/Control The Virus/Save Lives”.
The impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the UK economy was recently estimated by the Bank of England, in the “illustrative scenario” described in its May Monetary Policy Report. The Bank estimated a 14% drop in the UK’s economic activity in 2020, followed by a V-shaped recovery of 15% in 2021. This estimate takes into consideration the overall policy response, namely a massive fiscal stimulus accompanied by a large monetary easing package, including rate cuts, increased QE and credit easing measures. The fiscal stimulus includes the innovative Job-Retention Scheme, by which the government will pay 80% of the salary of “furloughed” employees (up to GBP 2,500 a month) as long as their companies do not fire them, until June 30. The monetary stimulus includes a form of direct fiscal deficit, with the re-activation of the Bank’s “Ways and Means”, i.e. the Treasury account at the BoE.
While the pandemic and containment measures take their toll on the UK economy, the other major chapter of the UK’s political economy, Brexit negotiations, has re-started. As we have discussed in our previous analysis, the UK has no intention to seek another extension to the implementation period beyond December 2020.
The EU now seems to have accepted this position, which initially was motivated by the UK’s intention not to repeat the experience of requesting multiple extensions as occurred during the prime ministership of Theresa May, which led to political chaos. But now there are two additional motivations, which we consider to be even stronger.
First, as we explained in our analysis, “no deal” Brxit is the only logical conclusion of the approach brought forward by Johnson and his political side of the Conservative party, which won in a resounding way at the December 2019 elections. Second, the economic damage caused by the pandemic and the containment measures will easily mask any economic damage deriving from “no-deal” Brexit. The most visible aspect, namely travel restrictions and border controls, would be implemented anyway due to Covid.
Thus for now the UK government has all the advantages of not seeking for an extension by June 30 while knowing that it can always get one at the very last minute). It will make “no deal” more likely, thereby strengthening its negotiating position at the table. And if a hard Brexit does occur, it is probably what hard-Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and his chief advisor Dominic Cummings, Dominic Raab (currently foreign minister and senior secretary of state) and Michael Gove (in charge of Brexit planning) ultimately want.
What happens if a no-deal, hard Brexit eventually occurs as a result of this tough negotiating approach? Well, the economic damage deriving from leaving the customs union and the single market without a deal, as well as increased border controls and customs checks, will likely be attributed by the government to the pandemic and the lockdown, rather than to the hard Brexit. The UK will also be free to respond to the additional economic shock by completely dis-aligning itself from the EU in terms of taxation, regulation, as well as product and labour standards. In the post-Covid world, where every country will try to do as much as possible just to remain afloat, the UK position might even not be perceived particularly at odds with that of other European countries, including those who will remain in the EU.
by Brunello Rosa
27 April 2020
We have discussed the macroeconomic impact of Coronavirus in several recent columns and research pieces. It is clear that we have already started witnessing large falls in economic activity around the globe in Q1. In some countries, GDP had fallen already 4-5% on a quarterly basis, and the collapse of real GDP growth will be in double digits in Q2. As a result, oil prices have collapsed into negative territory for the first time ever. Unemployment rates are soaring everywhere, with the US having witnessed a 30mn rise in initial jobless claims in the last six weeks, wiping out the gains made over the past several years.
Governments and central banks are coming to the rescue with large stimulus packages, but these will still struggle to reach small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and the self-employed, which will be decimated by the crisis. Helicopter money works only if money reaches every corner of the system, without remaining concentrated in the hands of a lucky few and without remaining concentrated in intermediary institutions such as banks.
When economies and societies do re-open, nothing will be like it was before. We will have to live together with the virus for so many months, potentially for another year until a vaccine becomes available on a large scale for most of the global population. Until that time social distancing will remain the mantra in most work and business environments.
Teams might need to work on alternate days or weeks. Open-space offices will remain unfilled for the months to come. In the aviation industry, planes will fly half empty and airports will devote much larger spaces to passengers.
In the hospitality industry, restaurants will have to find ways to serve food while complying with social distancing regulations, and hotels will remain half empty at best.
In such an environment, what is the right strategy to adopt in order for your business to survive? Well, during the financial crisis, Richard Koo’s theory of “balance sheet recession” got a lot of attention. It was based on the fact that, in a financial crisis, private sector agents are trying to deleverage, and therefore the only entity able to increase its debts is the government. In such an environment, private sector agents switch from being profit-maximisers to become debt-minimizers, to regain financial viability.
In this crisis, unless private-sector agents receive grants from public authorities, they will need to take loans, which banks will offer at a very cheap rate and with favourable conditions as a result of central bank’s credit-easing measures. In this crisis, therefore, private-sector agents cannot afford to be debt-minimizers. Also, especially companies should forget about being profit maximisers, in order to avoid frustration and disappointment. In an environment such as the one described above, they will be forced to run at half-capacity at best and therefore they will surely suffer losses.
Since losses will come no matter what, the ideal business strategy to adopt is to minimize such losses, without regretting too much the lost revenues and profits. Most of those losses, especially in public services, will likely be subsidised by the government. In some cases, subsidization will not be possible, and so the aim should be to develop enough internal efficiencies to minimise future losses. The development of the various forms of remote working point exactly in that direction.
by Brunello Rosa
27 April 2020
Last week, we analysed some of the ongoing issues that risk being overlooked as a result of the Covid-induced crisis. One of these issues was the impact of the crisis on carbon emissions. According to recent estimates, with 28 countries in the world having adopted full or partial lockdowns, the movements of a third of the world population are now enduring some form of restriction as a result of social distancing. Economic activity has been severely reduced because of this; the IMF is estimating a contraction of real GDP in 2020 of approximately 3% (but we expect it to be closer to 4%). Some sectors have completely shut down, and international travel, especially via planes, has collapsed. Statistics show that commercial air traffic has shrunk 41% below 2019 levels in the last two weeks of March. The situation since then has likely worsened even more, as more countries have adopted some form of lockdown.
As a result of this collapse in economic and travel activity, air pollution has collapsed, and greenhouse gas emissions have been dramatically reduced. According to the United Nations, since lockdowns and shutdowns begun, CO2 emissions have dropped by 6%. By the time the year ends, there will be an estimated 0.5%-2.2% reduction in CO2 emissions due to Covid (or even 5%, according to some experts), depending on the model adopted to predict the pick-up in economic activity in Q3 and Q4 2020. This could be the first reduction in global emissions since the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis.
To some extent, the Covid-induced lockdowns have provided an unexpected, yet welcome, massive natural experiment as to the impact that a reduction on human economic activity can have on greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming (the rise in the earth’s temperature, estimated to be around 0.2˚ C every decade). This hopefully will resolve once and for all the vexata quaestio of whether global warming is caused by human activity or other unrelated factors.
However, the UN warns, this temporary reduction in emissions will not stop climate change, which derives from the accumulation of the effects of many decades of human activity. Especially if the solution to this crisis will be the implementation of public infrastructure projects that have a significant environmental impact.
While having gone silent in the last couple of months, climate change activists have gained a number of arguments in their favour. Not just on the impact that a reduction of economic activity might have on pollution and global warming, but also on the need for international coordination and cooperation to achieve that result. There is, however, another argument that will likely get traction. As the chart above shows, carbon emissions have increased in tandem with world population, which has risen from the 3 billion people of 1960 to the 7.6bn of 2018 (more than doubling in two generations). The UN estimates that there will be 11.2bn people in 2100, and if greenhouse gas emissions continue to be correlated with world population, the world’s temperature will rise well above any target being discussed in the various Conferences of The Parties (COP) rounds.
Pandemics, if the virus is natural and not man made, may be partly a reaction to overpopulation (and therefore pollution). It is a clear signal the planet is sending that it may not have enough natural resources for all its inhabitants, at least not if resources are so unequally distributed. If the world does keep on increasing its human population without significantly changing its development model, pandemics will become more frequent and deadly in the future.
If, then, we want to learn some lessons from the immense tragedy represented by Covid, they might include the following: 1) human beings are for the most part responsible for the catastrophes that befall them; 2) if the world’s development model does not radically change in favour of sustainability and renewable resources, extreme weather events will continue to affect the planet and pandemics will plague its human (and more generally, animal) population; and 3) only a coordinated and cooperative international approach can provide the solution to these historical issues.
by Brunello Rosa
20 April 2020
We have lately been discussing four fundamental dimensions of COVID: healthcare, economics, policy, and market implications. On the healthcare front, advancements have been made that increase intensive-care capacity (with field hospitals and other logistical arrangements) as well as testing, treatment and progress towards a vaccine. On the economics front, we have just released our latest estimates of the macroeconomic impact of lockdowns around the world. We have often also discussed the policy reaction (fiscal, monetary and regulatory) that will be needed to mitigate the effects of the macroeconomic impact and market implications of all these factors.
Besides these four fundamental dimensions of COVID, we have also analysed what could be the long-term geopolitical implications of this crisis. Namely, China is set to gain the most from a strategic perspective, at the expense of the US, while the EU faces yet another existential crisis.
In this column, we want to discuss some of the events that are now occurring which risk being overlooked because of the pervasiveness of the news regarding the main dimensions of the crisis discussed above. We might call these the collateral effects of COVID. They too could have serious consequences, and perhaps even represent a turning point in the world’s history.
On the one hand, as we have recently discussed in our in-depth analysis, there is the progress that is still being made by various countries in technologies such as artificial intelligence, which could provide a massive geo-strategic advantage to those who master them first. Russia, for example, is certainly using this period to make gains vis-a-vis its international competitors, by making large use of AI, and not just to find a cure for COVID-19. Russia is certainly not alone in this game, but it has a historical head-start over most other countries where cyberwarfare is concerned.
On the other hand, the US is about to enter one of its more turbulent periods in recent history. The US is already the country in the world with the largest number of confirmed cases and deaths, and yet partisanship regarding how to face this pandemic still prevails, with science being regularly questioned by populist political leaders and media. The US will soon have to face an election in a time of the pandemic, the result of which (as we discussed in our recent analysis) is now too-close-to call. There are those who suggest that if Trump were to lose by a small margin and the vote were to be contested, he would not accept the verdict of the Supreme Court, like Al Gore did when he run and lost against George W. Bush in 2000. The requests on Twitter made by President Trump to “LIBERATE” a number of states that are being governed by Democratic governors who are imposing COVID-related restrictions, and the gathering of armed militias to protest those restrictions, do not bode well for the future.
Around the world, authoritarian leaders are using the excuse of lockdowns to increase their grip on power and leave even less freedom to opposition parties and the press. This is happening even in Europe, within the European Union, ostensibly the most advanced defender of civil and political liberties in the world, where Hungary’s PM Victor Orban has created a de-facto dictatorship.
On a larger scale, the fight against climate change has gone incredibly silent in the last few weeks. Clearly there is an even more imminent threat to deal with, but at the same time, the arguments made by those fighting against climate change have been made even stronger by the COVID crisis. The virus, if natural and not man made, is certainly a reaction of overpopulation and pollution. With lockdowns imposed in most countries, the world has just carried out its largest natural experiment as to how pollution can be greatly contained if human activities are drastically reduced. At the same time, the opponents of those advocating against climate change will say that the top priority now is re-starting the world’s economic engine, rather than worrying about the side effects such as pollution and climate change.
All these example show that even as we follow the news about the COVID crisis, we should not lose sight of what else is happening in the world, which could have long-lasting consequences that will become apparent only when the current emergency is ended.
by Brunello Rosa
6 April 2020
The Covid pandemic has now led to more than a 1.2 million people being infected around the world, and 68,000 confirmed deaths. It is now clearly understood that the economic impact of this crisis will be far worse than was the 2008-09 financial crisis, and maybe as bad as that of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It could, potentially, be even worse than the Great Depression (as Nouriel Roubini calls it, a Greater Depression).
After initial hesitations, in particular in the US, UK, Brazil and Sweden, the pandemic has now generated a policy response that is broadly homogeneous around the globe. From a healthcare perspective, partial or total lockdowns have been imposed by several countries, with severe restrictions that can be slightly less draconian in those countries which have a population historically used to self-discipline, such as the UK. Of the largest countries, only the US is still reluctant to adopt serious measures of suppression, preferring forms of light mitigation instead. This is a mistake that will cost dearly down the line.
In terms of fiscal policy, virtually every economy has launched schemes aimed at guaranteeing liquidity and credit to large, medium and small enterprises, and fiscal support to workers, without much distinction between protected salaried workers and unprotected self-employed ones. In terms of monetary policy, almost all central banks in the world have adopted a combination of cuts to policy rates, increasing asset purchases, funding for lending schemes, longer-term refinancing operations against wider collateral, easier access to emergency lending, FX intervention and swap lines. Regulators have relaxed capital and liquidity requirements for financial institutionsto increase their lending capacity.
Despite all this, stock prices in equity markets, sovereign yields of reserve currency countries and oil prices continue to fall. Why? The answer is simple: there is still no light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Even if policy makers throw the kitchen sink at the crisis, they will not resolve the underlying issue, which is the containment of (or the cure for) the virus.
Only medical experts and scientists, in this occasion, hold the key to solving the crisis. The measures introduced so far and discussed above only aim at buying time for scientists to find a solution. Initially, they are intended to flatten the curve of contagion, reduce the influx of patients into hospitals requiring expensive intensive-care units (ICUs), and increase their ICU capacity, perhaps by building field hospitals.
Following these necessary initial measures, progress needs to be made in the other three directions that will lead to the eventual “victory” over the virus. First, testing needs to become available on a much larger scale, in order to trace the diffusion of contagion. And, more so than the current antigenic testing (which tells if somebody is currently infected), the development of reliable forms of antibody tests will be crucial, to easily determine who had been infected and has developed immunity (even if such immunity is only temporary) and could therefore – for example – return to work. Secondly, if a treatment is found that alleviates the symptoms and reduces the need for ICUs, this would mark a major change in people’s perceptions of the virus. It will help people calculate the risk of living in a world where the virus is still prevalent, which is likely to become necessary at some point unless we are willing to keep the world shut for the next 18 months.
Finally, there is the goal of developing a vaccine that would allow people to develop antibodies and return to work. On this front, there might be some promising progress that could speed up the process compared to the 12-18 months currently being estimated. Even still, we are talking about a timeline of several months before the fastest vaccine could possibly become available to millions of people.
Only when some breakthrough on a combination of these fronts occurs will it become possible to realistically say that there is some light that can be seen at the end of the tunnel. At that point, equity prices will find credible reason to rebound. The bad news is that we do not know when these breakthroughs might occur. The good news is that they could happen at any point in time during the next few weeks.
by Brunello Rosa
14 April 2020
As we discussed last week, the impact on economic activity and markets from Covid depends crucially on medical advancements made in the fight against the virus. When progress on the medical front is considered sufficient by market participants, it is likely that risky asset prices will then start to recover (certainly, they will do so before economic activity itself stabilises). The impact of the virus on economic activity could also become smaller if enough advancement is made on the medical front.
While China is facing its second mini-wave of contagion, deriving mostly from people returning home from abroad, there are reports that Spain is tentatively starting to re-open some of its non-essential activities, such as factories and some offices. Italy has started to plan a gradual re-opening, aimed at May 4th, and a task force led by former Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao has been appointed by the government to plan a gradual re-opening of the economy. An undersecretary of Conte’s government even ventured to say that Italy’s beaches could be open this summer, if social distancing measures are in place.
The situation is very different in the UK, the US and Sweden, which have been late to adopt social distancing measures, and are still in the fast-accelerating part of the contagion curve. In particular, in the UK, the country has been following a path not too dissimilar from that of Italy, and its Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted that he could have died of Covid-19 during his stay in the hospital. In the US, the scenes of public burials in New York has shocked people around the globe. In Sweden, PM Stefan Lofven had to apologise for being too slow and timid in adopting social distancing measures.
However, some glimmers of hope are starting to emerge from the medical front, which, as we said last week, consists of four sub-fronts. On the increase in intensive-care capacity, a lot of progress has been made worldwide, with the construction of field hospitals. This should help manage the expected increase in the number in patients admitted to hospitals in the most-hit countries.
On testing, the availability of antibody tests (which can tell if somebody had been infected and has developed some form of immunity to the virus) has increased massively, and the Lombardy region, one of the areas most affected by the epidemic, has stated that soon a large-scale distribution of what will be considered “Covid-19 health passports” will begin. On the other two medical sub-fronts, namely treatment and vaccine, plenty of progress has been made as well.
As to a possible cure for the virus, doctors have identified the three phases of infection. Against the first phase, when the virus starts to attack cells, at least two medicines have proved to be effective, Cloroquineand L-Asparaginase. If a virus still manages to infect the body, anti-inflammatory medicines (such as steroids that reduce inflammation and the immune response) can reduce the impact on the affected person.
In the third phase, when infection becomes serious, the virus causes an over-production of antibodies that clog the lungs and create small thrombus that start circulating throughout the body, causing multiple organ failure and eventually death. Against this, a group of doctors in various hospitals in Italy have started to test the efficacy of a traditional anticoagulant, the heparin, which prevents the formation of thrombus. Initial clinical tests show that this cure is effective and, if heparin is given early enough, patients might not need to be hospitalised. From this mix of cures, it is likely that very soon a clinical protocol to treat patients in the various phases of the disease will become standardised, thus reducing the need for intensive-care units. The good news is that most of these medicines are quite common and therefore not very expensive.
On the final front, the vaccine, good progress has also being made. Besides the progress that has been made in Pittsburgh, which we mentioned last week, another team of researchers, based in Italy in collaboration with Oxford University, has found a methodology that will be tested by the end of the month, which could result in a vaccine being ready by September (in small samples).
All this is to say that much effort is being made to reduce the impact of the virus on the health of people and on economic activity. While we need to remain vigilant against second and third waves of the virus (which could be more deadly than the first), three strains of which have already been identified, it is encouraging that some progress is being made on the medical front.
by Brunello Rosa
30 March 2020
In our column of March 16th, titled “The World Is Likely To Be Radically Different After The Coronavirus Crisis” we mentioned that the Coronavirus is posing an existential threat to the survival of the EU. In this column, we want to further elaborate on this issue, following the EU Council meeting on March 26, in which the heads of state and governments failed to reach a deal for a common strategy to fight the crisis.
The underlying principle behind the EU integration process is the solidarity that member states should display towards one another on all matters of common interest, after centuries of inter-European conflict. For this reason, the first embryo of the EU was the European Coal and Steel Community, coal and steel representing the key ingredients for the economic recovery in the post-War period. Once solidarity ceases to exist, there is no reason for the Union to exist either. In spite of the initial, delusional hope that COVID-19 was an asymmetric shock to Italy rather than a generalized crisis across the region, and could therefore be addressed by the activation of article 122.2 of the EU Treaty (i.e. grants to the country “seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by … exceptional circumstances beyond its control”), it is now clear that is a symmetric shock to every country of the EU.
This means that the EU as a whole should react to it, with common instruments, rather than by simply adopting a coordinated approach of national policies by individual member states. Instead, so far national selfishness has prevailed, and countries have reacted by adopting a series of policies based on their individual circumstances. For example, at the fiscal level, Germany has announced a plan of EUR 550bn of fiscal easing (of which EUR 156 will be fresh expenditures), France a EUR 300bn plan, and Italy, given its more stringent budget constraints, only a first EUR 25bn plan followed by another EUR 25bn likely to be announced in April. Virtually all countries have re-instated national borders and suspended the Schengen agreement.
At the EU level, there has thus far been only a partial and temporary suspension of the Growth and Stability Pact (GSP) and an easing of the discipline regarding state aid to private-sector companies. Even the ECB was initially reluctant to engage in its mandatory spread-compression activities, until finally the EUR 750bn PEPP was launched, with the inclusion of Greece and the suspension of the issuer limits. But this is still too little compared to what the EU could and should do to face the existential crisis before it.
With Brexit underway, and the UK initially threatening to deviate from the continental practices of social distancing to follow a chimeric and flawed herd immunity approach; with Schengen and the GSP suspended; with every country following its own approach to COVID, from para-military lockdowns (in Italy, for example) to minimal social distancing rules (e.g. in Sweden), the risk is that re-converging when the crisis is finished will become virtually impossible, as every country will find it more convenient to pursue its national strategies and interests. A country might, for example, bitterly and understandably decline to pursue European reintegration because it felt that it was neglected during the crisis.
Take Italy, for example. In 2011-12 Italy was brought to the verge of default because of the slow and flawed response (by moral hazard considerations) from the EU/EZ to the Greek crisis. Italy, which participated in the rescue packages for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, came under speculative attack because it was perceived as being part of the PIIGS grouping of economies. Only Draghi’s “whatever it takes” pledge and the consequent OMT avoided the disaster. In 2015, during the migrant crisis, Italy was then left alone facing the arrival of ships landing on the southern shores of Europe. In 2020, after the symmetric exogenous shock deriving from COVID, the implicit message from the EU was: “deal with it by yourself, we’ll be lenient on your fiscal position, ex-post.” It is not clear where solidarity is in all this, and we should not be surprised if, at the end of the crisis, the levels of EU-scepticism will be at historical highs. Other countries are in similar positions, and if the EU fails to rise to the historical task it is now facing, it might end up being the largest, institutional victim of Coronavirus.
So, while Merkel and Von Der Leyen declared their opposition to Eurobonds/Coronabonds being used to finance a pan-European recovery plan, the Eurogroup has been tasked with coming up with technical proposal on the feasibility of risk-sharing instruments. Hopefully, it will come up with some serious proposals in the next couple of weeks, and these approaches will be adopted by the EU Council. But other roads are possible, such as the possibility of activating ESM loans with virtually zero interest rates and null or very limited conditionality. That, in turn, could open up the possibility of using the OMT to fight unwarranted widening of sovereign yield spreads within the EZ.
by Brunello Rosa
23 March 2020
We have discussed Coronavirus in a series of columns in our weekly Viewsletter this year. Discussing the virus is inevitable, considering the importance the COVID-19 will have on all aspects of life for a large part of the world population – with its health, economic conditions and financial repercussions. Our first column on COVID dates from February 3rd, when China was starting to impose some of its most draconian measures while all other countries were ignoring the risk or happily living in denial. On that occasion we warned that “Coronavirus Poses a Downside Risk To The Global Economy.”
One month later, on March 2nd, we commented on how financial markets had finally caught up with reality of the virus, saying that markets “Belatedly Correct on Coronavirus Concerns.” The week after that, we discussed how central banks had tried to come to the rescue with more of the same “medicine” (i.e. rate cuts and a limited increase in asset purchases). Finally, last week, we took a longer-term view that the world will look radically different a year from now.
This week, we are discussing how central banks and governments have finally realised the magnitude of the shock and the therapy needed to mitigate its impact. As we discussed in Part 1 of our Global Outlook Update, we now expect the global economy to experience a global recession in 2020, as our baseline scenario. In downside scenarios, the economic contraction could be much more pronounced and prolonged. As most countries are now realizing what was, in our opinion, self-evident, namely that Italy has simply been a leading indicator of what could happen if they do not contain the spreading of the virus early on, the policy decisions deriving from this “epiphany” are now finally starting to appear on the horizon.
As we discuss in Part 2 of the Global Outlook Update, most countries are now adopting monetary and fiscal expansion measures to limit the damage to the economy deriving from the draconian measures adopted to contain the virus. These draconian measures which include the partial or total lockdown of the country, suspension of all international travel, re-instatement of borders, even within the EU with the suspension of Schengen, etc. In the US, the Fed has brought its policy rate to zero and re-started QE, and the government has presented to the Senate a USD 1.6tn fiscal easing package, potentially including forms of cash directly sent to households. The UK government has announced a GBP 330bn fiscal easing package, while the BOE slashed rates to virtually zero and re-started QE. In France, President Macron has announced a EUR 300bn fiscal package, while Germany has finally thrown its ridiculous “schwarz null” policy out of the window and pledged EUR 550bn of fiscal stimulus (including loans and credit guarantees), of which EUR 156bn will be fresh money expenditures. The ECB, following the initial mishap by President Lagarde, has staged its “Whatever it Takes – 2” moment, launching its new PEPP plan of EUR 750bn of asset purchases.
The next stage in this process is increased coordination between the monetary and fiscal responses, both of which are needed for the overall response to the crisis to be effective. This will likely translate into forms of direct or indirect debt and deficit monetisation, which has been variously labelled as People’s QE, MMT or helicopter drops of money. It is with some relief that we finally see these “helicopters” taking off to fight the effects of COVID on the economy and financial markets.
by Brunello Rosa
16 March 2020
Now that the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) has officially been declared a pandemic by the WHO, an increasing number of countries are adopting measures to counter its spreading. Financial markets have collapsed as a result; it is clear that we are facing a serious health, economic and financial crisis. This is likely to be more serious than that in 2008-09, which was a banking, demand, and confidence crisis. This is a demand, supply, and confidence crisis, in which banks have not yet played a major role. In 2008-09 there was the element of uncertainty as to how low housing and asset prices would fall before finding a floor. Today, in contrast, there is a much larger element of uncertainty: How long will this crisis last?
In fact, the re-opening of economies even after the number of new cases is dropped to zero will remain gradual at best. Until a vaccine becomes available, the virus can always come back and force the authorities to close their economies all over again to stop the contagion. So, let us make the assumption that not until 12-18 months from now, if a vaccine then becomes available to everybody, will the end of the health emergency occur. For the sake of the argument, let us assume that we will be able to expedite the production of a vaccine to only 12 months from now. The world would then be in some form of emergency until Q1 2021.
What will the world be like that will emerge from this crisis? We believe that the world in 2021 will be radically different from that which exists today.
In China , there will be two opposing forces. On the one hand, there will be the conviction that the regime was able to contain the virus in three months of very hard work, which in turn gave much of the rest of the world the template to use when attempting to contain the virus themselves. The regime could use this to strengthen its grip on society, and on any form of dissent, or against any emerging appreciation for Western values such as “privacy”. On the other hand, the regime will at the same time be blamed for hiding the real nature of this pandemic for too long, causing the damage at global level that now plainly exists. Chinese society might also have to rethink some of its millennial traditions (including food and hygienic standards) that make China the origin of virtually every new flu strain. Overall, we believe China will come out stronger and even more modernised from this experience, even if its regime might need to make further strides to regain legitimacy and trust among the wider populace.
On the other side of the Pacific, there is the US, where the political leadership is held by a person, President Trump, who embodies of the polar-opposite attitude that led the Chinese to a rapid victory against the virus: indecisiveness, mis-representation of facts, open criticism of scientifically-proven theories in favour of his gut feelings, under-reaction followed by over-reactions. There is enough to make many people re-think the idea that a large and complex country like the US can be governed by virtually anybody so long as the “deep state” and its institutions are alive and well. Given its initial mistakes, the US will take much longer to rein in the disease. Perhaps the worst economic impact will be felt just before the November election, and therefore COVID could easily cost Trump the re-election. But the country will be shaken in its preference for relatively low personal and corporation tax levels at the cost of many public goods such as a universal healthcare system and good-quality education. The US has lost its supremacy in many domains versus China; this crisis will further shake its position as the world’s leading country.
In between these two countries, there is the EU, which will face its most serious existential crisis since its foundation. The uncoordinated health and fiscal response to the virus, plus the arbitrary and unilateral closures of the borders (i.e. suspending the Schengen agreement) have, once again, shown the fragility of the European construct and the possibility of its collapse. The only truly pan-European institution has missed this opportunity to show leadership, as it did during its previous existential crisis, the Euro crisis, in 2012. The package of measures adopted last week was borderline adequate given the stage of the threat, considering that the package could be further expanded in coming months. But the ECB cannot afford mishaps such as that which was made by President Lagarde, when she said that “it’s not the ECB’s job to close the spreads within the EZ sovereign bond yields.” In the absence of Eurobonds or EZ safe assets, it is precisely the ECB’s job to ensure that the spreads remain compressed, in order to ensure the smooth transmission of monetary policy. Additionally, the ECB has a facility (OMT) specifically designed to close widening spreads unwarranted by market fundamentals. In addition, because most countries will move into forms of fiscal-monetary coordination, the EU, with its 27 fiscal regimes and several central banks, will have much harder time than the ECB would at implementing a similarly coordinated response to the crisis.
In conclusion, we believe that all the three main areas of the world will face serious crises of political legitimacy and, in the case of the EU, existential threats. Other countries and regimes will equally come under severe stress and could collapse as a result of this crisis. The rankings of countries at the global level will change drastically after this crisis, in many dimensions. We should prepare to see debt/GDP ratios approaching 150-200%, as often occurs during wartime. Global supply chains will be further disrupted; the tendency towards de-globalisation will be reinforced. Returning to the “new normal” will be another enormous task of world leaders in 2021; at least, for those leaders who will have politically survived.
by Brunello Rosa
9 March 2020
The latest news from the COVID-19 front is a mixed bag. In China, following the draconian measures of containment the country adopted during the last few weeks, the official number of new cases is close to zero. A number of existing cases still need to be resolved, but there are not new infections occurring that would aggravate the situation. In the rest of the world, however, the situation is starting to become increasingly bad. In Italy, which has been the country with the second highest number fatalities (almost 370), the daily percentage increase of new cases is still around 20-25%, which means that the number of reported cases doubles every 4-5 days. Thus the diffusion of the infection is still in its exponential phase. And the number of cases is increasing in other countries too, including Germany and the UK and, of course, the US.
Albeit slowly, authorities in Germany, the UKand at EU level are awakening to the fact that COVID-19 is not going to remain a phenomenon limited to Italy, a conviction some European leaders have deluded themselves with for too long. This means that, in time, a larger response will be put in place. In the US, it seems that we are still in the delusional phase in which COVID-19 will remain primarily limited to China and Europe, with only a limited spread in the US. The response has therefore been limited and insufficient so far. The number of swab tests being carried out is still ridiculously low, and the official number of infected people is being kept artificially low by the fact that they are not being detected.
But the story of this virus always shows the same news cycle.
Initially, politicians delude themselves that the problem will remain limited to other countries. As soon as the first person dies in that country as a result of COVID-19, this delusion is no longer tenable, and so the initial timid admission and response occurs. When the number of deaths increases, one can easily infer the total number of infected people by knowing that the mortality rate at global level is around 3.4%. When the number of cases reaches the thousands, the response then becomes forceful. In Italy, the entire region of Lombardy has been quarantined, as have other provinces from neighbouring regions: people cannot get in or out.
As the disease spreads, the economic damage worsens. In our upcoming updated outlook, we will show how we expect global growth to be closer to 2% in 2020 than 3%. This means that in some countries, such as Italy and Japan, there will be a recession this year. Other countries could be equally badly affected – Germany might also fall into a recession, and US growth is likely to be around half of what was expected back in December. To prevent the economic downturn from becoming too large, policy makers are coming to the rescue. Fiscal authorities are trying to design targeted relief plans, in particular to support solvent but illiquid small and medium sized enterprises.
Central banks can also act faster to support market sentiment. A number of them have cut rates in the last few days: the Federal Reserve by 50bps to 1.00-1.25% (intra-meeting), the RBA by 25bps to 0.50%, the BoC by 50bps to 1.25%. Elsewhere, the central banks of Hong Kong and Malaysia cut their interest rates by 50bps (to 1.50%) and by 25bps (to 2.50%), respectively. These interventions are necessary to support market sentiment but will do little to solve the problem generally. The market understands all this, and therefore the selloff in equities continues. Equities will continue to adjust until market participants believe that the virus has been successfully contained at the global level. Even in the best-case scenario, this could take at least a couple of quarters. If the US delays its response to the virus in order to keep the economy strong during an electoral year, the process will be severely delayed, with the result being that immense damage to global health and economic activity could ensue.
by Brunello Rosa
2 March 2020
At very long last, financial markets caught up with the reality of the coronavirus, selling off last week in the worst market performance since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. As the Financial Times reported, “mounting concerns at the rapid spread of the coronavirus caused one of the quickest market corrections in the benchmark US S&P 500 since the Great Depression in the 1930s.”
As we have written in our in-depth report on the subject, market participants are finally realising the impact that COVID-19 could have on the economic performance of the countries that have been most affected by the disease. In our column on the potential impact of COVID-19 (which we published a month ago already), we warned that the downside risks posed to the global economy by the public reaction to the virus could be huge, possibly greater even than the virus itself. In effect, last week market participants staged a panic reaction to the news coming from Italy, where entire cities were quarantined in the country’s northern region, which is the industrial powerhouse of the country, with Milan, the financial capital of the country, being the epicentre.
Since then, the situation has not improved: the number of infected people and fatalities worldwide have risen (albeit at a slower rate than in previous weeks), surpassing 85,000 and 3,000 respectively. At the same time, the number of people who have recovered from the disease has also increased, surpassing 42,000. Most importantly, the US has suffered its first fatality from COVID-19 (near Seattle). This could mark the beginning of a new phase in the crisis. In fact, as we have already said, unless the pathogen mutates suddenly in coming months, the mortality rate will remain relatively low, around 2% globally of those who become infected with it.
Nevertheless, the economic impact of the virus will derive from the reaction of governments to the news about it. No politician wants to be blamed for not having taken sufficient action in response to the virus. The first reaction from the US was the suspension of certain flights from the US to Northern Italy. As the number of cases and deaths increases in the US, however, so too will the escalation in the counter-measures the government takes. The economic impact of severe counter-measures in the US would take the economic impact of COVID-19 to a different order of magnitude, and would have a global economic impact. A global recession in 2020 is now becoming a real possibility.
The countries that have experienced the largest number of cases of infection show that the economic impact of the virus could be large, and might not necessarily be V-shaped as had been optimistically assumed by some commentators until just a few days ago. In China, the manufacturing PMI has collapsed to 35.7 in February, down from 50 in January, marking a new all-time low. Any figure below 42 in China signals an outright contraction in activity. The GDP in China, Japan, South Korea and Italy will contract sharply in Q1, and perhaps also in Q2. Fiscal packages to ease the sharp fall in economic activity are in the process of being approved in those countries. The latest is the EUR 3.6bn package announced by Italy on Sunday. These measures will help to a certain extent, but ultimately will not be able to achieve much. In particular, monetary policy, which will likely become more expansionary at the global level pretty soon, is likely to prove impotent against a supply-side shock.
Considering all of this, it is clear that market participants should brace themselves for more volatility and corrections in the weeks and months ahead. The impact of Coronavirus on global economic activity will be large and persistent. The policy response will be slower, smaller and less effective than expected. This will necessarily have to be reflected in the valuation of risky asset classes. Fasten your seatbelts.
by Brunello Rosa
24 February 2020
After entering the Democratic primary late, Michael Bloomberg is trying to establish himself as the only Democratic candidate who can defeat Trump in November. His strategy might prove to have been well-calculated. By not entering the race before the caucuses in Iowa and New Hampshire were held, he knew that by the time Super Tuesday takes place on 3 March one of the left-wing contenders (either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) would be ahead in the game – an that would scare the median voter, financial markets, and also the Democratic leadership into preferring a candidate like himself. The result of the latest primary election, in Nevada, where Sanders once again finished ahead of centrist candidates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, confirmed this trend (which can also be seen at a national level, according to recent polls), and thereby the validity of Bloomberg’s strategy.
Michael Bloomberg might have thought that, after scaring markets and centrist voters with the advancement of radical left-wing candidates (notably, of Bernie Sanders, who self-defines himself as a socialist), the democratic leadership would come to him, begging him to unify the party and lead it in the race against Trump in November. However, things might not work out as Bloomberg may have planned.
In the first televised debate in which he appeared against the other Democratic candidates, Bloomberg was frontally attacked by the left-wing contenders, in particular by Elizabeth Warren. He did not come across as particularly friendly in this exchange. A highly curated video clip of the debate, in which Bloomberg asks the other candidates who else has founded a successful business, did not do him great credit either. While he had a point, since he is indeed the only one among the remaining Democratic candidates with that achievement, the entire scene lasted no more than a couple of seconds on live television, while the video made it look much more dramatic than it had been in reality.
Also troubling the Bloomberg campaign is a series of NDAs signed by women who were allegedly mis-treated when working at Bloomberg LLC.. So, even if Bloomberg may be the only candidate who can defeat Trump in November, he still faces an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination.
In particular, Bloomberg will have to mobilize a portion of the Democratic electorate – African-Americans, other ethnic minorities, women – that is essential to win the nomination and, eventually, the general election. Some fights with the black community when he was mayor of New York will not help him in this battle. Additionally, his profile might not be particularly attractive to this key portion of the Democratic electorate. While being a truly self-made man (unlike Donald Trump, who inherited his fortune from his father), Bloomberg is still the sort of New York-style billionaire who does not necessarily attract the sympathy of minorities and other traditional segments of the Democratic electorate. Also, the story of the women-related NDAs risks sticking to him much more than to Trump, who the electorate seems willing to forgive almost anything. (Certainly, the number and depth of allegations against Trump is much larger than those against Bloomberg).
Bloomberg, therefore, might not be the white knight he was presumably hoping to become. The race for the Democratic nomination remains open. The simple truth is that the Democratic party has not been able thus far to converge towards a candidate who can truly represent a credible threat to Trump in the coming general election. The president will present as victories his trade and tech wars with China, his hard-line on Iran, and other high-profile battles that could ultimately damage the international reputation of the US and its economy. His electorate might accept this narrative, securing his re-election in November. If the Dems want to avoid this, they better start getting their act together, and fast.
by Brunello Rosa
17 February 2020
During the weekend, the annual Munich Security Conference was held in the capital of Bavaria, Germany’s richest state. Media outlets extensively reported on the key proceedings of the conference, which this year focused on the concept of “Westlessness”; i.e., on whether the world has become less Western. This is a concept they also studied in depth in their annual report. As long as the “West” is defined by the alliance between North America and Europe, along with the key additions of Australia and New Zealand (part of the so-called Five Eyes), clearly the last few years have observed a marked deterioration in this relationship, and in particular of NATO, the military alliance underpinning it.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Munich to reassure those present that NATO is alive and well, and that it is ready to deploy its benefits to its constituent countries. Pompeo specifically said that he was “happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly exaggerated. The West is winning, and we’re winning together.” However, only in November 2019, Pompeo himself warned that NATO was risking extinction unless it adapted itself to reality. This happened at the same time as French President Emmanuel Macron was reported as saying that NATO was brain-dead. So, what’s the current state of the transatlantic alliance, in reality?
It is true that NATO is still alive, but its cohesion has been severely tested recently. Trump has just approved a series of tariffs on the Europeans, following the WTO ruling on EU’s aid to Airbus in that company’s long dispute with Boeing. (Italy, which does not belong to the Airbus consortium, got exempted from these tariffs, thanks to their own successful bilateral negotiations). Other tariffs aimed at the auto sector are also being considered by the Trump administration at the moment, after being delayed by six months in May 2019.
In a few months, when the WTO will likely rule in favour of Airbus and the Europeans will be able to impose retaliatory tariffs on the US, we might be at the beginning of another tit-for-tat trade war, similar to that we have been observing between US and China in the last three years.
Within Europe, the situation is, at best, fluid. The UK has just left the EU, imposing a severe level of damage onto the geopolitical standing of the continental bloc, as discussed by John Hulsman in his recent analysis. PM Johnson is now mostly committed to establish his leadership within Whitehall, as the recent reshuffling of his government proves. What is left of the EU is in flux. In Germany, the decision by Annegret Kramp Karrembauer not to run for Chancellor at the next federal election has completely ruined Angela Merkel’s succession plans. As we discussed in our analysis of the German political scene, under certain circumstances, this might eventually lead to a desirable outcome, for example a Green-Black coalition. On the other hand, it might make Germany even more inward-looking and undecided as to how to exert its leadership on the continent. And Germany is absolutely needed by French President Macron if he wants any of his grandiose plans for the future of Europe to ever become a reality. As we discussed in our recent trip report, both the social and political opposition to Macron are weak or weakening, paving the way to his re-election in 2022 (bar a global economic crisis occurring in the meantime). But without its German dance partner, there is very little France will be able to do.
So, the West might be still in the position of taking on China, weakened by the impact that the Coronavirus might have on the Chinese economy and on the legitimacy of its regime. But the West needs to find a new sense of unity if it wants to win the battle for the geo-strategic hegemony of the future. At a time when China is trying to reach out to the Europeans, to convince them to break ranks with their historical US ally, and with Trump not hiding his distaste for the EU concept, this might be easier said than done.
by Brunello Rosa
10 February 2020
Two crucial regional elections took place in Italy a couple of weeks ago, one in Emilia-Romagna (in northern Italy) and the other in Calabria (in southern Italy). Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini greatly increased the significance of the election in Emilia-Romagna, a region that has been a stronghold of the Democratic Party (PD), making the election appear, in effect, as a referendum on the government. As we discussed in our in-depth analysis following the election, if Lega’s candidate Lucia Borgonzoni had won with a relatively ample margin, this could have led to the resignation of Nicola Zingaretti from the leadership of the PD. Since Di Maio had already resigned from his national leadership role in the Five Star Movement, a resignation by Zingaretti could have led to the collapse of the government altogether. Since Borgonzoni did not win, however, and since her opponent, the incumbent leader Stefano Bonaccini, won with a 7-point difference in the regional election, this scenario did not happen. So, Giuseppe Conte and his government could relax for the moment. Still, this respite might prove short-lived.
In fact, theoretically speaking, if the governing coalition manages to survive the additional round of elections in May/June 2020, the possibility for this parliament to last until 2022 (after the election of the new president), could be quite high, either with the current governing coalition or with a slightly different one. Elections in 2020 would become extremely unlikely and, if the coalition were to stick together for six more months from January to June 2021, then in September President Mattarella would lose his power to dissolve parliament. Thus the only theoretical window for an election would be between March and June 2021.
In reality, things might prove more complicated than this. Matteo Renzi is restless in his attempt to force a change of the Prime Minister, and is now using a parliamentary battle over the reform to the statute of limitations in criminal trials to re-launch his assault. An already fragile majority is vulnerable to defections in parliament, and the possible support from MPs from other parties (for example, from Forza Italia), would not be reassuring for PM Giuseppe Conte. He could become hostage to all sorts of vetoes. If MPs from a new party were to vote in favour of the government in a confidence vote, President Mattarella might call Conte for an update on parliamentary developments, and send him back to the Chambers for a new confidence vote, to re-assess the “perimeter” of the coalition supporting the government. The reality is that the Italian government remains fragile, and could collapse as a result of a parliamentary incident at any time.
What is the centre-right doing during all this? Salvini’s Lega continues to poll above 30%, and Meloni’s Fratelli D’Italia has now reached 10% in the polls, well ahead of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which now struggles to get to 6%. Altogether, the centre-right coalition polls around 50%. Salvini’s popularity remains very high, but not as high as it was previously. The belief in his infallibility has been now severely hit by two consecutive mistakes: his decision to make the Conte-1 government collapse in August 2019, and his decision to transform the regional election in Emilia-Romagna into a referendum on the government. He will soon face a vote in the Senate, which will decide whether or not he will have to stand a trial for “kidnapping” the migrants of the Gregoretti ship. And he will probably lose the constitutional referendum over making a cut to the number of MPs, which will take place in March. Investigations into “Moscow-gate” are continuing, meanwhile.
Can Salvini stage a comeback through all this, and so ascend to power in the coming months or years? Theoretically speaking, yes, he can, especially if the governing coalition proves incapable of sticking together. Polls suggest that Italians still seem inclined to give Salvini a chance to prove himself as PM. But the biggest obstacle to his final ascent to power is… himself. The recent re-organisation of Salvini’s party shows that he might have understood the underlying problem that has led him to all the mistakes mentioned above. During his period in government, when he was gaining popularity, he managed to antagonise the US allies (his trip to Washington was reportedly a disaster), the Europeans (his preferred target), the Chinese (by not signing the MoU on the silk-road) and the Russians (with Moscow-gate). In addition, he antagonised the vast majority of the global economic and financial establishment, which fears a breakup of the Eurozone following a potential decision by Italy, led by Salvini, to leave the euro area. It will take time for Salvini to gain credibility within all these powerful circles.
So, somewhat ironically, the centre-right led by Salvini needs time to become a credible governing coalition. And the centre-left hopes to stay in power for as long as possible. These two converging tendencies might keep this parliament alive for longer than is currently believed, even if it remains true that an accident could occur that would bring down the government at any time.
by Brunello Rosa
3 February 2020
In the last couple of weeks, the world has witnessed the outbreak of the Coronavirus (2019-nCov) infection, and its global diffusion. According to the most recent statistics, there are 14,500 people reported as infected in Asia, more than 9000 of whom are in China. The virus has been detected in at least 24 countries. Even then, it is likely that the number of infected people has been under-reported. So far, 305 people have died, with the first victim reported being located outside of China, in the Philippines.
It is understood that the virus originated in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China. It was initially reported that the origin of the virus was the seafood and poultry market in Wuhan. However, the origin remains disputed. A study published on Lancet says that the Wuhan market might not be the origin of the virus. According to some theories (bordering on conspiracy theories), the virus might have originated from a biosafety laboratory – also based in Wuhan – housing some of the world's most deadly illnesses. The lab, opened after the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, is used to study class four pathogens (P4), referring to the most virulent viruses which pose a high risk of “aerosol-transmitted person-to-person infections,” according to a press release. It is possible that we will not be able to establish for certain the origin of this virus, but we cannot exclude a-priori that the virus originated from lab experiments.
Plenty of comparisons have been made with the SARS episode, which in 2002-03 infected more than 8,000 people, killing around 700 of them. Some studies have also analysed the economic costs of SARS (estimated to be around USD 13bn). According to initial statistics conducted on the first 99 patients at a hospital in Wuhan, the Coronavirus has a case-fatality rate (the percent of deaths among those infected) of 11%. Initial estimates show that the virus has an R0 of 2.2, meaning each case patient could infect more than 2 other people. If those statistic prove accurate, this virus would be more infectious than the 1918 “Spanish-Flu” pandemic virus, which had an R0 of 1.80.
Based on current statistics, Coronavirus is definitely more infectious and deadly than SARS, and possibly also than the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, which infected more than half a billion people and killed an estimated 20-50 million (statistics were not very accurate in that case, in part because of World War I). At the same time, to most people’s surprise, the Coronavirus is less severe than the usual seasonal flu. Just to give an example, seasonal influenza epidemics cause 3 to 5 million severe cases and kill up to 650,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization. So far in this season, there have been an estimated 19 million cases of flu, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths in the US alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, what is making the Coronavirus so special, and worthy of attention, to the point that every major central banker (e.g. Fed’s Powell, BoE’s Carney and ECB’s Lagarde) had to answer a question about its impact? The point is that the panic that the outbreak has created, and the defensive reactions to it, might be causing quite a severe level of damage to the global economy (even if perhaps only temporarily, in which case the losses might be mostly recouped in the following quarters). A number of airline companies have completely interrupted all of their flights in an out from China; British Airways, which has cancelled every flight until March, being only a very notable example of this. Most importantly, the US has barred entrance to any foreigner travelling from mainland China. A number of other countries, such as Australia, have followed the US’ example. China has reacted with anger to the measures adopted by the US and other countries. China risks being isolated by the rest of the world, a position that is politically and economically difficult for Beijing to tolerate, especially as the trade and tech negotiations with the US are still ongoing, following the Phase-1 deal between the two countries.
So, more than the virus per se, it is the various countries’ reactions to the virus which pose serious downside risks to the global economy. Indeed, the global economy risks another year of stagnation, following a disappointing 2019. If that happens, central banks and fiscal authorities will likely have to do their part to support aggregate demand in the various countries directly or indirectly hit by the outbreak.
by Brunello Rosa
27 January 2020
We have discussed several times the importance of climate change and the repercussions it may have for the economies of various countries and the global geopolitical order as a whole. Among other things, climate change causes increased desertification in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, inducing millions of people to migrate in search for a chance to live. This in turn has helped lead to the rise of populist leaders trying to block the arrival of undesired migrants. Lately, the devastating fires in Australia show what an extraordinarily hot summer can mean for the environment, here and now, not just in some distant future.
More recently, climate change has risen to the top of the agenda for institutions that were previously considered quite removed from this issue, such as the International Monetary Fund with the arrival of Kristalina Georgieva at its helm, the European Commission with Ursula Von der Leyen’s “Green Deal”, and central banks, with Christine Lagarde’s ECB and Mark Carney’s Bank of England leading the way. Not surprisingly, this issue were given high priority at this year’s meetings in Davos, even if it still remains unclear how and when governments and multinationals will finally decide to seriously tackle this crucial issue. Many hopes now rest on the result of the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, to be held at the end of this year. But the experience with previous COP conferences suggests that there is a need to keep expectations at a realistic level.
In any case, it is extremely important that the level of awareness of the climate issue has finally increased, and that climate change now features very high in the agenda of policy makers.
The European Union has decided to become a world leader in this regard, and to shape a large component of its future choices on environmental sustainability. The “Green Deal” recently launched has the potential to unlock up to EUR 1tn of public and private investments, generating hundreds of thousands of job opportunities. The Bank of England has already asked financial institutions to stress-test their resilience to climate change, considering that (as the BIS recently stated) climate change could be a cause of financial instability, if a “green swan” materialises.
Among the various initiatives mentioned during her latest press conference, Christine Lagarde said that the ECB will make sure that its corporate bond portfolio will be designed to incentivise environmental sustainability. In Germany, the rise of the Green Party in opinion polls is constant, and in Austria the Greens joined the new conservative government formed by Sebastian Kurz.
While the US seems still to be missing in action, the key risk identified by some is the so-called “greenwashing” process, whereby anything that seems socially acceptable or politically advantageous is promoted as being a “green” initiative. Some key policy figures, such as Bundesbank President Jen Weidmann, recently made the point that central banks cannot replace good environmental policies decided by democratically elected political leaders. Others fear that good old-fashioned counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus might be masked by “green investment” to stimulate aggregate demand, thus producing good results in the short run, but no effects in the future.
As it often happens, “in medio stat virtus”. Climate change will need to be front and centre of policy makers’ agendas. But abusing the term for marketing reasons might eventually damage the cause rather than support it.
by Brunello Rosa
20 January 2020
At the end of last year, in our paper on the six Grey Swans facing the global economy, and in our 2020 Global Economic Outlook, we said that geopolitical instability was set to increase during the US election year ahead. The strategic calculus by Trump to secure his re-election, going into 2020, was to make sure that the US economy was as strong as possible (perhaps with a bit of help from the three insurance rate cuts “independently” delivered by the Fed in 2019, which came after plenty of pressure was put on the Fed by the President), while closing some of the open geopolitical fronts, in particular the trade dispute with China.
In fact, Trump’s “art of the deal” consists of brutally shaking his counterpart before inviting it to the negotiation table and concluding a deal on more favourable terms for himself. Following this paradigm, Trump had a window of opportunity from the mid-term elections until 2020 to unsettle the system and shake his opponents, in order to then use 2020 as the period to reach compromises with his negotiating partners that he could “sell” as victories to the US public during the electoral campaign. But, as we mentioned in previous analysis, while this tactics might work in the corporate sector, where an aggressively confrontational approach could lead the counterpart to the brink of bankruptcy and therefore make it more willing to accept the harsh terms that Trump offers, in public affairs things are not that simple. States do not go bankrupt that easily, and opponents can react in unexpected ways.
So, while Trump’s preferred choice could have been that of having a strong economy and some tail risks reduced (risks such Brexit; during Trump’s intrusion in the recent electoral campaign in the UK, he basically “ordered” Nigel Farage to step back and allow Johnson’s victory), his opponents saw a clear opportunity in 2020 to “mess things up” in order to jeopardise Trump’s re-election. Domestically, the Democrats have launched an impeachment trial, which is unlikely to succeed but will still keep Trump on his toes and will expose him on a number of fronts.
The delay in sending the impeachment article to the Senate, while being borderline acceptable, has prevented Trump from having the news on the impeachment obfuscated by escalating tensions with Iran that would have otherwise occurred at the same time as one another.
Internationally, Iran is clearly at the forefront of the historical foes that would like to see Trump go, hoping to get a Democratic president to deal with instead. This is the reason why we believe that Iran will do much more in coming months to retaliate against the killing of Qassem Suleimani, and why we believe the market is under-pricing the risk of a further escalation down the line, closer to the election date.
According to press reports, Kim Jong UN sacked its “moderate” foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, replacing him with the more hawkish Ri Son Gwon. This is seen by the intelligence community as a signal that a season of testing of ballistic missiles (launching them over key regional allies such as Japan) is about to re-start, after a period of pause.
China remains the big unknown: signing the Phase-1 deal certainly gives Trump a trophy to show during the electoral campaign, and gives China the much needed break in the escalation of tariffs. At the same time, it is clear that the trade, technological and geo-strategic dispute between the two countries will continue. One possible interpretation is that China, instead of wanting to see Trump leave office, might prefer having him remain for a second term, given the damage he is doing to the US and their international relations.
All this is to say that the historical foes of the US will use the opportunity of this electoral year and Trump’s impeachment trial to take advantage of the difficulty Trump will face in providing anything other a constrained response to any moves they may make. If Trump goes from disputes to battles to open wars, he would tip the economy into recession, thus jeopardising his re-election. As such, his options this year will be relatively limited. 2020 will be most likely “a year lived dangerously” for the world.
by Brunello Rosa
13 January 2020
Financial markets became excited at the end of last week, by signals that some of the most feared tail risks hanging over the global economy could be diminishing. On a weekly basis, global stock indices rose (MSCI ACWI rose by +0.6%, to 570), driven by DM equities (S&P 500 +0.9% to 3,265; Eurostoxx 50 +0.4% to 3,790). EM indices also rose (MSCI EMs +0.9% to 1,134), and, as markets rallied, volatility fell (VIX S&P 500 fell by -1.4 points to 12.6, below its annual average of 15.0).
Regarding tensions between US and Iran, the “measured” retaliation by Iran to the killing of Quassem Soleimani, in which rockets were fired at two US military bases in Iraq without causing casualties and major damages, and the decision by the US not to respond to that attack, was interpreted by market participants as a signal of de-escalation. Some might even hope that, after a period of increased tension, the status quo ante between the two countries might return. While it is certainly a positive development that Iran’s retaliation was not followed by further US counter-attacks, we would be much more cautious before considering the events of the last few days to be merely isolated incidents that are now effectively concluded.
In our scenario analysis, we discussed how events might still develop less favourably than markets currently imply they will be and Nouriel Roubini argued that financial markets are still seriously under-pricing the possible future evolution of events. This is true for a number of reasons. First, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei said that the initial attack on US bases was just the beginning of the retaliation, and that much more will occur in coming weeks. Secondly, President Trump’s invitation to the UK, France and Germany to also abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) means that tensions will remain elevated for some time. Third, Iran would benefit from striking closer to the November Presidential elections, when mis-calculations could lead to Trump’s defeat. Fourth, the US has in any case launched a new series of sanctions against Iran, which could eventually lead to a further reaction by Tehran.
And finally, the unintentional downing of the Ukrainian plan by Iran on the night of the retaliation show how things can go wrong even when there is no intention to kill. In his upcoming Geopolitical Corner, John Hulsman will discuss how the Iranian story is intertwined with the electoral campaign and Trump’s impeachment process.
The second piece of good news that excited market participants was that the market the announcement by the US President that he is “ready for the Phase-1 trade deal with China to be signed on January 15th at the White House”. Trump also said he would “sign the deal with high-level representatives of China”, and that he would later “travel to Beijing to begin talks for the next phase”. The market believes that this might signal the end of the saga that rattled the global economy during the past couple of years. But again, reality might be slightly harsher than what is being hoped for. Until the deal is actually signed, anything can happen, and time is on China’s side. Why should the Chinese government provide Trump with the argument that he succeeded in containing China’s trade mis-practices ahead of the election?
Moreover, even if the trade tensions do ease, the geo-strategic rivalry between the two countries will continue, with its impact on global supply chains and technological developments. In any event, once the China issue is finally considered to be done with, Trump will then simply be ready to start a fight with Europe, over various issues such as Airbus versus Boeing, auto sector trade, digital taxes, etc. So, trade tensions worldwide could very well continue going forward.