Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth – Mike Tyson
In the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008, the central banks of Western countries started printing money and pumping it into their financial systems. The hope was that by flooding the financial system interest rates could be maintained at low levels. At low interest rates people would borrow and spend more and economic growth would return. The Federal Reserve of United States led the money printing race. But money printing hasn’t led to people borrowing and spending as was expected, as can be seen from the accompanying chart.
The total loans in the United States currently amount to around $58 million. The loans have been growing at 2% per year in the last five years and 3.5% over the last 12 months. As can be seen from the accompanying graph this rate of loan growth is much slower than the growth in pre-financial crisis years, when the loan growth was at around 10% per year. It even touched 20% in 2007, a year before the crisis broke out. Hence, economic growth in the United States was a clear function of the loan growth in the pre-financial crisis years. Now that the loan growth has slowed down so has economic growth. So what will it take to bring this growth back? As Bill Gross who formerly worked for PIMCO, one of the largest mutual funds in the world, put it in a September 2014 column “Over the long term, however, economic growth depends on investment and a rejuvenation of capitalistic animal spirits – a condition which currently does not exist…The U.S. and global economy ultimately cannot be safely delivered with artificially low interest rates, unless they lead to higher levels of productive investment.” The standard theory that has emerged in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that consumer demand has collapsed in the Western world and this has led to a slowdown in economic growth. In order to set this right people need to be encouraged to borrow and spend. The trouble is that it was “excessive” borrowing and spending that had led to the crisis in the first place. Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales suggest this in a new afterword to Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: “For decades before the financial crisis in 2008, advanced economies were losing their ability to grow by making useful things. But they needed to somehow replace the jobs that had been lost to technology and foreign competition… So in an effort to pump up growth, governments spent more than they could afford and promoted easy credit to get households to do the same. The growth that these countries engineered, with its dependence on borrowing, proved unsustainable.” Interestingly, from 1900 to 1980, 70–80 percent of the global production of goods happened in the United States and Europe. By 2010, this share had declined to around 50 percent, around the same level that it was at in 1860. Also, faced with increased global competition, Western workers were unable to demand the pay increases that they used to in the past. This led to Western governments following an easy money policy, where they encouraged citizens to borrow and spend, and this ensured that economic growth remained strong. But in the aftermath of the financial crisis this growth model has broken down with people not borrowing as much as they did in the past. So what is the way out? The way out is to create sustainable growth that is not financed through debt-fuelled consumption all the time. As Rajan and Zingales put it “The way out of the crisis cannot be still more borrowing and spending, especially if the spending does not build lasting assets that will help future generations pay off the debts they will be saddled with. The best short-term policy response is to focus on long-term sustainable growth.” Nevertheless that is easier said than done. A March 2011 working paper by Michael Spence and Sandile Hlatshwayo provides the reason for the same. As the economists point out “Between 1990 and 2008, jobs have seen a net increase of 27.3 million on a base of 121.9 million in 1990..Almost all of those incremental jobs (26.7 of 27.3 million) were created in the nontradable sector. In the aggregate, tradable sector employment growth was essentially flat.” So what does this mean? Jordan Ellenberg defines the term nontradable sector in his book How Not To Be Wrong—The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. Nontradable sector is “the part of the economy including things like government, health care, retail, and food service, which can’t be outsourced and which don’t produce goods to be shipped overseas.” Hence, basically whatever could be outsourced outside the United States has already been outsourced. This is simply because it is cheaper to produce stuff outside the United States. And this is likely to continue in the years to come. Over the coming decades, a billion more people are expected to join the work force in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This will apply a further downward pressure on costs and prices. Hence, Americans will not really be in a position to demand pay increases as they could have in the past. What is true about the United States is also true about other developing countries as well. Given this, the Western growth model is well and truly broken. And as of now, the way things stand, it doesn’t look like if it will be fixed any time soon.
The BSE Sensex has now been falling for close to a week now. As I write this, it’s trading at around 20,000 points, having fallen by nearly 4% since January 27, 2014. The main cause of this fall has been the decision of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, to go slow on printing money. In a meeting on January 29, 2014, the Fed decided to print $65 billion a month, in comparison to $75 billion earlier. By doing this, the Fed signalled that it would be going slow on the easy money policy that it had unleashed a few years back, in order to revive the stagnating American economy. The money printed by the Federal Reserve was used to buy government bonds and mortgage backed securities, in order to ensure that there enough money going around in the financial system. This led to low interest rates and the hope that people would borrow and spend more money, and thus help in reviving the economy. Investors had been borrowing at these low interest rates and investing money all over the world. But with the Federal Reserve deciding to go slow on money printing (or what it calls tapering), this game of easy money is likely to come to an end, soon. At least, that is the way the markets seem to be thinking. And that to a large extent explains why the Sensex has fallen by close to 4% in a week’s time. One of the major reasons behind the Federal Reserve’s decision to print less money has been the falling rate of unemployment. For the month of December 2013, the rate of unemployment was down to 6.7%. In comparison, in December 2012, the rate had stood at 7.9%. This is the lowest unemployment rate that the American economy has seen, since October 2008, which was more or less the time when the financial crisis started. This measure of unemployment is referred to as U3. A major reason for the fall in the unemployment numbers has been the fact that a lot of people have been dropping out of the workforce. In December 2013, nearly 3,47,000 workers left the labour force because they could not find jobs, and hence, were no longer counted as unemployed. This took the number of Americans not working to a record 102 million. As Peter Ferrara puts it on Forbes.com “In fact, all of the decline in the U3 headline unemployment rate since President Obama entered office has been due to workers leaving the work force, and therefore no longer counted as unemployed, rather than to new jobs created…Those 102 million Americans are the human face of an employment-population ratio stuck at a pitiful 58.6%. In fact, more than 100 million Americans were not working in Obama’s workers’ paradise for all of 2013 and 2012.” Interestingly, the labour force participation rate, which is a measure of the proportion of working age population in the labour force, has slipped to 62.8%. This is the lowest since February 1978. Also, in December 2013, the American economy added only 74,000 jobs. This was lower than the 1,96,000 jobs that Wall Street had been expecting and was the lowest number since January 2011. What this means is that even though the rate of unemployment is at its lowest level since October 2008, things are not as well as they first seem to be. Interestingly, in December 2013, the U6 “rate of unemployment” which includes individuals who have stopped looking for jobs because they simply can’t find one and individuals working part-time even though they could work full-time, stood at 13.1%. This was about double the official rate of unemployment of 6.7%. Interestingly, through much of 2013, the U6 rate of unemployment was double the official U3 rate of unemployment. What all this tells us is that the unemployment scenario in the US is much worse than it actually looks like. In this scenario it is unlikely that the Federal Reserve can keep tapering or reducing the amount of money that it prints every month. Other than the rate of unemployment, the other data point that the Federal Reserve looks at is consumer price inflation as measured by personal consumption expenditure(PCE) deflator. The PCE deflator for the month of December 2013 stood at 1.1%. This is well below the Federal Reserve target of 2%. If the PCE deflator has to come anywhere near the Federal Reserve’s target of 2%, the current easy money policy of the Federal Reserve needs to continue. As Bill Gross, managing director and co-CIO of PIMCO wrote in a recent column “the PCE annualized inflation rate– is released near the 20th of every month but you will not see CNBC or Bloomberg analysts waiting with bated breath for its release. I do. I consider it the critical monthly statistic for analyzing Fed policy in 2014. Why? Bernanke, Yellen and their merry band of Fed governors and regional presidents have told us so. No policy rate hike until both unemployment and inflation thresholds have been breached.” Given these reasons, it is safe to say that foreign investors will continue to be able to raise money at low interest rates in the United States, in the months to come. Hence, the recent fall in the Sensex is at best a blip. The easy money rally will soon be back. The article originally appeared on www.firstbiz.com on February 4, 2014 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
Stocks are for the long run is a phrase you would have heard often. But that’s not what William H Gross seems to believe anymore. “The cult of equity is dying. Like a once bright green aspen turning to subtle shades of yellow then red in the Colorado fall, investors’ impressions of “stocks for the long run” or any run have mellowed as well,” he wrote in his monthly investment outlook for August 2012. Gross is the Managing Director of Pacific Investment Management Company (Pimco) and manages Pimco’s Total Return Fund. The Total Return Fund currently has assets under management of $263billion and is the biggest mutual fund in the world. “An investor can periodically compare the return of stocks for the past 10, 20 and 30 years, and find that long-term Treasury bonds have been the higher returning and obviously “safer” investment than a diversified portfolio of equities,” wrote Gross. So what this clearly tells us is that the higher risk of investing in stocks is not always rewarded with excess return and sometimes it might just make sense to invest in dull and boring bonds which guarantee a given rate of return. But that’s just one part of the evidence. In the really really long term stocks have done very well. As Gross points out “The long-term history of inflation adjusted returns from stocks shows a persistent but recently fading 6.6% real return (known as the Siegel constant) since 1912.” Hence $1 invested in 1912 would have turned to $500(inflation adjusted) hundred years later i.e. now in 2012. No wonder the Americans took onto investing in stocks like nobody else did. The prime reason for this was the premise that returns from equity beat that from bonds over the long run. Shankar Sharma, joint managing director and vice chairman of First Global explained this phenomenon to me in a recent interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) in this way: “Rightly or wrongly, they (the Americans and the much of the Western world) have been given a lifestyle which was not sustainable, as we now know. But for the period it sustained it kind of bred a certain amount of risk taking because life was very secure. The economy was doing well. You had two cars in the garage. You had two cute little kids in the lawn. Good community life. Lot of eating places. You were bred to believe that life is going to be good so hence hey, take some risk with your capital. People were forced to invest in equities under the pretext that equities will beat bonds… They did for a while. Nevertheless, if you go back thirty years to 1982, when the last bull market in stocks started in the United States and look at returns since then, bonds have beaten equities. But who does all this Math?” (You can read the complete interview here) What has changed now is the ability of Americans to take risk by investing in equity. “Americans are naturally more gullible to hype. But now western investors and individuals are now going to think like us. Last ten years have been bad for them and the next ten years look even worse. Their appetite for risk has further diminished because their picket fences, their houses all got mortgaged. Now they know that it was not an American dream, it was an American nightmare. So I cannot make a case for a broad bull market emerging anytime soon,” said Sharma. And this seems phenomenon seems to be clearly evident in the numbers that are coming out. As the USA Today reported in mid May: “Stocks remain out of fashion…Retail investors have yanked more than $260 billion out of mutual funds that invest in US stocks since the end of 2008, says the Investment Company Institute, a fund trade group. In contrast, they have funneled more than $800 billion into funds that invest in less-volatile bonds. Investors’ chronic mistrust of stocks is reigniting fears that an entire generation is unlikely to stash large chunks of cash in the increasingly unpredictable market as they did in the past. “Investors have suffered a traumatic shock that has caused severe psychological damage and made them more risk-averse,” says Carmine Grigoli, chief investment strategist at Mizuho Securities USA.” The phrase to mark here is “risk-averse”. As Sharma puts it “Investing in equity is a mindset. That when I am secure, I have got good visibility of my future, be it employment or business or taxes, when all those things are set, then I say okay, now I can take some risk in life.” The question that concerns us in India is how will this change in mindset impact India? Before I come to that question let me deviate a little and discuss the concept of naturally occurring ponzi schemes. A ponzi scheme essentially is a fraudulent investment scheme in which money being brought in by new investors is used to pay off the old investors. The people running the scheme typically promise very high returns to tempt prospective investors to invest money in the scheme. But this money is not invested anywhere to generate returns. The “promise” of high returns ensures that newer investors keep coming in. They money they bring in is used to pay off the older investors. The scheme keeps running till the money being brought in by the new investors is lesser than the money that needs to be paid off to the older ones. This is the point when the scheme collapses. Typically the people who run such schemes disappear with the money, before the scheme collapses. In his book, Irrational Exuberance, Robert Schiller introduces the concept of Naturally Occurring Ponzi Schemes, which happen without the contrivance of a fraudulent manager. Such a scheme works on a price to price feedback theory. When prices go up creating successes for some investors, this may attract public attention, promote word of mouth enthusiasm and heighten expectations for further price increases. (Adapted from Shiller 2003). The stock market is the best example. Stories about stock markets going up spread very fast. Investors, in an optimistic mood, might want to buy stock and take the stock price further up. This leads to more investors entering the market, fuelling an even greater price rise and the cycle gets repeated over and over. As Shiller mentions, “When prices go up a number of times, investors are rewarded by price movements in these markets, just as they are in Ponzi Schemes.” The point being that the real returns in the stock market are made when prospective investors are in the Ponzi scheme mode and are willing to invest. A major reason for the bull run in the stock market in India between 2003 and 2007 was the fact that foreign investors brought in a lot of money, thus driving up stock prices and generating returns for those who had already invested. But things have changed over the last five years. Between April 2007 and July 2012, the foreign investors invested Rs 3,538,108.46 crore in Indian stocks. That clearly is a lot of money. But they also sold Rs 3,537,016.97 crore worth of Indian stocks. This means that the net investment of foreign investors in Indian stocks in the last five years and three months has been a miniscule Rs 1091.49crore. During the same period the domestic institutional investors made investments worth Rs 1,571,084.73 crore. They sold stocks worth Rs 1,462,118.66 crore. Hence their net investment in stocks was Rs 108,938.27 crore. (Source: www.moneycontrol.com) It is this net investment by Indian institutional investors which ensured that the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, has delivered an absolute return of 30% since April 2007. This means an average return of 5.1% per year. I need not tell you that you would have been better off doing a fixed deposit where the returns were more or less guaranteed. If you had taken on some risk by investing in a mutual fund scheme like Birla Sun Life MIP-II Savings 5 G, you would have managed to get a return of 10.35% per year, more than double that of the stock marekt. The scheme invests 95% of the money collected in debt and the remaining in stocks. The point I am trying to make is that for the stock market in India to give good returns it is important that foreign investors bring money into India and stay invested in Indian stocks. With their attitudes towards investing in stocks changing whether they will continue to invest in India, remains to be seen. The other way out is that Indian investors start investing more money in the stock market both directly and indirectly. I don’t see that happening due to two reasons. A lot of Indian investors over the last few years invested money in the Indian stock market indirectly through unit linked insurance plans(Ulips) sold (or rather mis-sold) by insurance companies. They are now coming to the realization that they have been taken to the cleaners. Money invested five to seven years back is just about breaking even and they would have been much better off by simply letting their money lie idle in a savings bank account. This is primarily because Ulips used the premium paid by investors to pay very high commissions to insurance agents and did not invest the full premium. So these investors who were taken for a royal ride are not going to come back to the stock market anytime soon. While systematic investment plans( SIPs) offered by mutual funds have done a lot better than Ulips but the returns are nowhere in the region that would compensate for the increased risk of investing in stocks. The other reason is a more fundamental reason that was explained to me by Shankar Sharma. “Emerging market investors are more risk averse than the developed world investors. We see too much of risk in our day to day lives and so we want security when it comes to our financial investing… But look across emerging markets, look at Brazil’s history, look at Russia’s history, look at India’s history, look at China’s history, do you think citizens of any of these countries can say I have had a great time for years now? That life has been nice and peaceful? I have a good house with a good job with two kids playing in the lawn with a picket fence? Sorry boss, this has never happened…. Indians have figured out that equities are a fashionable thing meant for the Nariman Points of the world.” Given these reasons it is difficult to make a case for equities as a long term investment in India as well, though things may not turn to be as bad as they might turn out to be in America and other parts of the Western world. In the end let me quote an economist who the world always goes back to, when they run out of everything else. As John Maynard Keynes once famously said “In the long run we are all dead”. (The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 6,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/investing/the-case-against-equity-in-the-long-run-we-are-all-dead-406223.html) (Disclosure: Despite the slightly negative take here, the writer continues to makes regular investments in the Indian stock market through systematic investment plans, though the amount of investments have come down over the last six months) (Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])