economy


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Google is a search company, an advertising company, and, lately, an autonomous vehicle company. It’s also…a real estate development company?

Google said last week that it would acquire some 300 modular prefabricated homes. Google plans to place the homes on land it controls in Mountain View and offer it to employees as temporary housing.

It’s not exactly news that there is something of a crisis of affordable housing in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area. Thanks to zoning, difficult conditions (the region is hilly and prone to earthquakes) and tradition, the housing stock in the region generally consists of tract housing or low-rise buildings. A two-decade technology boom (with a couple of busts in between) has led to a relentless rise in jobs, a growing population, immense wealth, and an uptick in the number of companies eager to stake out real estate for their offices.

Given all the structural and logistical barriers to putting up housing, it’s often difficult for markets to supply what people need. In 2015, San Francisco added 4,100 new apartments — or one for every 204 people in the city. (By contrast, Seattle in the same year added one new unit for every 48 residents.)

The region’s housing shortage is posing some vexing fundamental challenges to even the smartest companies. It’s hard to fill open positions when there is nowhere for the people hired to fill those position to live, or if your business model doesn’t let you pay the wages necessary to allow people to live nearby. And the other option — relocating to, or expanding in, some place where housing cost are much more manageable — may not jibe with strategy. We know that growing companies want to be at the center of the action, which is in cities or larger metropolitan areas where lots of like-minded companies cluster.

The solution for many highly modern and futuristic industries may be to go back to the future — and start providing housing. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, companies in manufacturing, textiles, railroads, and mining built company towns, which often included employee housing. In doing so, paternalistic employers not only supplied a vital service in undeveloped areas, they were also able to keep closer tabs on employees’ behavior.

The region’s housing shortage is posing some vexing existential challenges to even the smartest companies

 

As the 20th century progressed, company towns went out of fashion and big employers were generally content to let the market organically provide sufficient housing for workers. But in the past several years, we’ve begun to see a recognition that the market — and even the generous government incentives that support new construction — can’t always provide housing quickly or cheaply enough. In North Dakota over the past 10 years, an impressive boom in shale-oil drilling brought a gusher of jobs to thinly populated regions of the state. When the housing industry was slow to respond, companies turned to man camps — modular, prefabricated barracks.

Northern California is a long way from North Dakota, geographically and economically. But the impulse to provide housing is similar. Employers are realizing that the dynamics in the housing market are such that they can’t simply sit back and wait. If you operate in an area where the median house costs well into the seven figures, and there’s not much new construction, you need to get more involved in your employees’ lives by helping to provide them with housing. Palo Alto, a once-sleepy college town, is at the epicenter of the tech boom. In recent years, Stanford University has expanded its efforts to provide housing for professors, who would otherwise be unable to afford to live anywhere near the laboratories and classrooms where they work. In regions all across the country, workforce housing — apartments, condos, townhouses built for teachers, police officers, and public employees — is becoming more of a trend.

You may expect workers in these lower-paying industries to have a greater need for affordable housing. But not so for staff at one of the most valuable and profitable companies out there to be in similar straits. Google could jack up wages to a level that allows workers to find the type of housing they want. Of course, that would not only eat into profits, but it would exacerbate the problem. Sending more people armed with cash into the elevated rental and home-purchase market would serve to drive prices up further, which would then require still-higher wages. (That, kids, is what the economists used to call inflation.)

Another option would be to start looking to hire larger numbers of people in other parts of the country — elsewhere in California, or in Phoenix, or in Detroit. And some technology companies are doing that. But the tendency, even among networked technology firms, is to concentrate at a big headquarters. There is something to be gained by having as many people under the same roof, or on the same campus, as possible. Apple’s newly opened headquarters in Silicon Valley has 2.8 million square feet of space.

There’s no doubt that Google would much rather spend time, money, and other resources on things that will drive its business forward, like self-driving cars or tweaking its search algorithm. But talent-driven companies have to focus, first and foremost, on recruiting and retaining the people who will make the business succeed. For companies intent on keeping the preponderance of their operations in places where housing is expensive and scarce, real estate development may become a core competency.

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The answer seems obvious: falling productivity is due to a misallocation of capital:

 

LONDON – In all major economies, the so-called productivity puzzle continues to perplex economists and policymakers: output per hour is significantly lower than it would have been had the pre-2008 growth trend continued. The figures are stark, particularly so in the United Kingdom, but also across the OECD. And while it goes without saying that economists have many ingenious explanations to offer, none has yet proved persuasive enough to create a consensus.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, output per hour in France was 14% lower in 2015 than it would have been had the previously normal trend growth rate been matched. Output was 9% lower in the United States and 8% lower in Germany, which has remained the top performer among developed economies, albeit only in relative terms. If this new, lower growth rate persists, by 2021 average incomes in the US will be 16% lower than they would have been had the US maintained the roughly 2% annual productivity gain experienced since 1945.

The UK exhibits a particularly chronic case of the syndrome. British productivity was 9% below the OECD average in 2007; by 2015, the gap had widened to 18%. Strikingly, UK productivity per hour is fully 35% below the German level, and 30% below that of the US. Even the French could produce the average British worker’s output in a week, and still take Friday off. It would seem that, in addition to the factors affecting all developed economies, the UK has particularly weak management.

Some contributing factors are generally acknowledged. During the crisis and its immediate aftermath, when banks’ efforts to rebuild capital constrained new lending, ultra-low interest rates kept some firms’ heads above water, and their managers retained employees, despite making a relatively low return.

On the other hand, new, more productive, and innovative firms found it hard to raise the capital they needed to grow, so they either did not expand, or did so by substituting labor for capital. In other words, low interest rates held productivity down by allowing heavily indebted zombie companies to survive for longer than they otherwise would have done.

The Bank of England has acknowledged that trade-off, estimating that productivity would have been 1-3% higher in the UK had it raised interest rates to pre-crisis levels in the recovery phase. But they believe the consequences – slower income growth and higher unemployment – would have been unacceptable.

This argument has now been extended beyond the banking system, to the capital markets themselves. Critics of central banks have claimed that a sustained policy of exceptionally low interest rates, reinforced by huge doses of quantitative easing, have caused asset prices to rise indiscriminately. That has not only had adverse consequences for the distribution of wealth; it has also muted the ability of capital markets to distinguish between productive, high-potential firms and others that deserve to fail. According to this view, a rising tide lifts even fundamentally unseaworthy boats.

This argument has some explanatory power, though it says little about the value added by highly paid asset managers and whether they really are prepared to put their money to work simply on the basis of a monetary-policy effect on relative prices, paying no attention to individual companies’ strategies and performance. But the key question the argument raises is what to do about it.

Would it really have been preferable to tighten policy far earlier, to kill off weaker companies in the interests of improving productivity? The BoE has given an explicit answer, and the other major central banks implicit answers, to that question. They do not think so.

A preferable approach to resolving the problem might be more vigorous use of the tools available to market regulators. These authorities tend to focus more on investor protection than on the allocational efficiency of the markets they oversee. Investor protection is important, of course, but as the Nobel laureate Eugene Fama put it, “the primary role of the capital market is allocation of ownership of the economy’s capital stock.”

A regulator focused on that objective would be especially rigorous in overseeing the transparent disclosure of information, and would seek to promote vigorous competition among companies and also, crucially for this objective, among investors. It should not be acceptable for asset managers to earn extravagant returns for following a market benchmark.

There are, no doubt, other dimensions to the productivity puzzle. Maybe we are not measuring output well. As developed economies become more service-based, our measures of output become less objective. In many service industries, outputs are effectively measured by inputs. Maybe we are not measuring enhancements in quality, which may mean that output increases are understated. Maybe we have reached a point at which the productivity boost from Internet-based technology has been cashed, and we need another technological leap to move forward again.

But one key challenge for central banks, as we edge toward the normalization of interest rates, will be to develop a framework for thinking about the impact of monetary policy on the allocation of capital. The task is urgent, as the social and political implications of a prolonged period of no productivity or real wage growth may be very serious. Indeed, arguably they have been factors behind the political upheavals in the US and the UK already.

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Because of the secular headwinds facing global economies, currently labeled as the “New Normal” or “Secular Stagnation”, investors have resorted to “making money with money” as opposed to old-fashioned capitalism when money and profits were made with capital investment in the real economy.

How is money made with money? Think of it simply as an extension of maturity and risk – all beginning with those $20 or maybe $100 bills in your purse or stashed safely in the cookie jar at home. Since cash yields nothing, and in fact depreciates in value day to day given even low 1%-2% inflation, savers/investors exchange cash for alternative choices involving less liquid, longer maturity, and in some cases more risky assets. A bank deposit that earns interest but offers ATM accessibility in measured amounts would be a first step. The available yield – more than 0% but hardly attractive given bank fees and the like – would be a first example of making money with available cash.

But capitalism, or should I say finance-based capitalism, requires more return in order to be profitable for its savers/investors. The next step, for individuals and institutions alike, might be a 6-month CD or a 90-day Treasury bill where yields suddenly approach 1% (at least in the U.S. In Euroland and Japan they are negative but that’s another story). But 1% will not pay the bills for most savers or financial institutions where investors demand compounding returns of 6%, 7% or 8% +, so alternative assets further out the risk/liquidity/maturity spectrum come into play. Corporate bonds, stocks, and private equity are legitimate extensions from non-yielding cash that are part of modern day finance-based capitalism. Savers/investors make money with their money (cash) as long as economies grow and inflation stays reasonably conservative. There is nothing new in all of this, but it helps to outline the fundamental process to understand why today’s economy is so different from that of decades ago and why it induces risks that were not present before.

Those differences and risks primarily are a result of secular headwinds whose effects are difficult to observe in the short run – much like global warming. “New Normal” high debt, aging demographics, and deglobalization along with technological displacement of labor are the primary culprits. Excessive debt/aging populations/trade-restrictive government policies and the increasing use of machines (robots) instead of people, create a counterforce to creative capitalism in the real economy, which worked quite well until the beginning of the 21st century. Investors in the real economy (not only large corporations but small businesses and startups) sense future headwinds that will thwart historic consumer demand and they therefore slow down investment. Productivity – which is the main driver of economic growth and long-term profits – slows down. Productivity in fact, in the U.S. and almost everywhere in the developed world has flat-lined for nearly five years now and has increased by only 1% annually since 2000 and the aftermath of the Dot-Com recession.

So instead of making money by investing in the real economy, savers/investors increasingly are steered toward making money in the financial economy – making money with money. And that, thanks to nearly $8 trillion of QE asset purchases from major central banks and the holding of short-term borrowing rates near zero or even negative, has made this secular shift in monetary policy extremely profitable. Bank margins have been lowered but their stocks and almost all other stocks have soared here in the U.S. and globally. Investors have discovered that making money with money is a profitable enterprise and have exchanged the support of central banks for the old-time religion of productivity growth as a driver of their strategy. The real economy has been usurped by the financial economy. Long live the financed-based economy!

But asset prices and their growth rates are ultimately dependent on the real economy and, the real economy’s growth rate is stunted by secular forces which monetary and even future fiscal policies seem unable to reverse. In fact, as I have mentioned many times in prior Investment Outlooks, monetary policy may now be a negative influence in terms of future economic growth. Zombie corporations are being kept alive as opposed to destroyed as with the Schumpeterian/Darwinian “survival of the fittest” capitalism of the 20th century. Standard business models forming capitalism’s foundation, such as insurance companies, pension funds, and banking, are threatened by the low yields that have in turn, produced high asset prices. These sectors in fact, have long-term maturities and durations of their liabilities, and their assets have not risen enough to cover prior guarantees, so we see Puerto Rico, Detroit, and perhaps Illinois in future years defaulting in one way or the other on their promises to constituents. Faulty finance-based capitalism supported by the increasingly destructive monetary policy begins to erode, not support the real economy.

So instead of making money by investing in the real economy, savers/investors increasingly are steered towards making money in the financial economy – making money with money.

My point in all of this is that making money with money is an inherently acceptable ingredient in historical capitalistic models, but ultimately it must then be channeled into the real economy to keep the cycle going. Capitalism’s arteries are now clogged or even blocked by secular forces which when combined with low/negative yielding “safe” assets promise to stunt U.S. and global growth far below historical norms. Ultimately investors must recognize this risk along with increasingly poorly hedged liabilities and low growth resulting from “New Normal” secular headwinds in developed economies. Add global warming to this list, and you have the potential for low asset returns in which the now successful strategy of “making money with money” is seriously threatened. How soon this takes place is of course the investor’s dilemma, and the policymakers’ conundrum. But don’t be mesmerized by the blue skies created by central bank QE and near perpetually low interest rates. All markets are increasingly at risk.

Money will currently be made, or at least conservatively preserved, by acknowledging the exhaustion of “making money with money”. Strategies involving risk reduction should ultimately outperform “faux” surefire winners generated by central bank printing of money. It’s the real economy that counts and global real economic growth is and should continue to be below par.

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It is ironic in a way that the Federal Reserve and its “rate hikes” have played a crucial role in setting back “reflation.”  There was some renewed hope up until that last FOMC vote in mid-March.  But since then, contrary to how markets “should” approach a higher federal funds band, bonds and funding have moved opposite. Swap spreads that for the first two and a half months of this year were decompressing, suggesting an easing in “dollar” pressure, began to compress (meaning for the 10s and 30s more negative) all over again after March 15.

It’s not difficult to assess why that was the case, where eurodollar futures, for example, could rise in price and therefore signal a (much) lower interest rate paradigm in the not-too-distant future despite the outwardly “hawkish” policy stance.  I wrote earlier this week:

“The markets ‘wanted’ the Fed exit to be the one that was described three years earlier, where ‘overheating’ was a more common term slipped consciously into policymaker speeches and media presentations. But the Fed only disappointed, with Janet Yellen at her press conference forced by less fawning questioning to admit, complete with the deer-in-headlights stare only she can give, that none of the models foresaw any uptick in growth whatsoever. Worse, the FOMC statement confirmed that though the CPI was nearly 3% at that moment, it was indeed going to be just a temporary artifact of oil price base effects, and that officially inflation was not expected to return to ‘normal’ until after 2019. Major, major buzzkill.”

In other words, as we have been saying all along, the Fed is exiting not because recovery is coming but because it never will.  There is, in their official judgment, nothing left for monetary policy to accomplish.  This pathetic economic condition, which they describe in their own way, through calculations like low or possibly negative R*, is now our baseline. What was unthinkable just three years ago (in the mainstream) is reality; ten years ago, it was plain impossible.

In January 2009, I wrote, “The economy is not likely to repeat the Japanese scenario.”  Unlike Japan, I reasoned, the American economy was far more dynamic and flexible, qualities that counterintuitively were on display at that very moment.  US businesses were laying off millions of workers every month, a horrible result for them but systemically what was necessary to restore profitability and cash flow.  Japan’s economy in the 1980’s and 1990’s was a contradiction of rigidity and a tangle of sclerosis, I thought, therefore its undoing and where the US would defeat the comparison.

Now so many years later, here the whole world sits in exactly the Japanese scenario.  Boy, was I wrong thinking that the Fed’s inability to affect the monetary system would be so easily set aside; or, if not so easily than overcome after enough time through good ol’ Americana.  I quite reasonably if naively assumed that faced with such incompetence on the policy level the far more dynamic American economy (which it was) would find its way out of that mess through other means. I had failed to appreciate the scale of the disaster on a longer timescale, how the eurodollar system had over the decades before entangled itself in everything here and everywhere else; and what that truly meant.

The most unambiguous and convincing evidence is how interest rates are low and have only remained that way no matter what, echoing what Milton Friedman wrote in 1963 about the 1930’s.  The issue cannot be business but money.

“The Federal Reserve repeatedly referred to its policy as one of ‘monetary ease’ and was inclined to take credit – and, even more, was given it – for the concurrent decline in interest rates, both long and short.”

He wrote again in the 1990’s warning the Japanese of the same condition, calling it the “interest rate fallacy” because though it is a clear sign of monetary tightness it is made unclear by economists who never seem able to understand money.  It’s a weird result for any central bank to be staffed with people who, at the top at least, can’t comprehend the nature of their own primary task.  It is far more so when it is a major central bank in a premier economy facing an historic liquidity situation.

It is downright criminal given the economic consequences of it, first Japan now the world.  The repeated situation strains all credibility, for the Japanese case was up to 2007 one of the most studied in all history.  How in the world could US (and European) officials end up making all the very same mistakes?

For one, US policymakers believed, in a way as I did, that they were superior to their Japanese counterparts.  In June 2003, the FOMC discussed these very scenarios and how the Bank of Japan was already at a place they increasingly believed they might have to follow.  QE had begun in March 2001 on that side of the Pacific, and was expanded after only a few months. In the US, the Federal Reserve had lowered the federal funds rate, what they believed was “stimulus”, even well more than a year after the official end of the dot-com recession.

By the start of summer in 2003, the short-term money rate was down to 1%, a level only a few years before that was thought beyond the pale of good monetary stewardship; so much so, that the gathered committee members at that meeting waxed philosophically about what they were doing, and even as Alan Greenspan contemplated what they really could do. The tone of that part of the discussion, centered on Japan and its experience at the zero lower bound that for the Fed had suddenly come into view, was “what if it’s us?”

“MR. KOHN.  Another problem in Japan was that the authorities were overly optimistic about the economy. They kept saying things were getting better, but they didn’t. To me that underlines the importance of our public discussion of where we think the economy is going and what our policy intentions are.”

That’s only true if you can be honest about it.  Japanese policy was only ever the same as American policy in that respect, for in all cases central banks believe they hold enormous power that given the will to use can only result in the preferred outcome.  Stimulus of the monetary type has been reduced to a tautology, or at best unchallenged circular logic; it works because it works. Or, as Ben Bernanke stated in his infamous “deflation” speech of November 2002:

“But the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.”

He made that statement which was received without controversy as a technical matter; philosophically, he was criticized in the Weimar Germany kind of way without thinking it all the way through. A year before, the Federal Reserve, as well as the Bank of Japan I have to assume, had already found startling contrary evidence, at least as far as quantitative easing was concerned.  QE as an operative scheme is simple and straightforward; purchase assets from private banks so as to increase the level of bank reserves, therefore satisfying Milton Friedman’s supply critique. That was the same argument that Bernanke was echoing in 2002, to raise the money supply through whatever means so as to achieve what he claimed and therefore expected.

Mark Spiegel, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, had published in November 2001 an account of some already serious deficiencies observed in the effects of QE then ongoing in Japan.  As everyone expected as a matter of basic central bank math, Japan’s M1 that had sharply decelerated in its growth rate reversed course with the introduction of BoJ’s bond buying scheme expanding so-called base money.  But, as Spiegel detected, in the real world it wasn’t so simple and easy:

“While M1 has indeed enjoyed robust positive growth since the inception of the quantitative easing strategy, there has been a matching decline in the aggregate known as ‘quasi-money,’ which includes time deposits and a number of other less liquid assets. While the central bank can increase the stock of narrow money in the economy, the banks appear to be treating the exercise much like a swap of near-zero and zero interest rate assets, and they are responding with little change in their lending activities.”

The US and global banking system after 2007 has acted in the same way, as both Japanese banks in 2001 (and after) as well as American and European banks post-crisis did more than just what Spiegel had described. This liquidity “swap” was indeed far-reaching, eventually over time eroding balance sheet factors in any number of ways.  I have tracked gross notional derivative books as a proxy for this very behavior, which suggests that in truth the conditions of bank balance sheets and therefore money in Japan as everywhere else is worse than even Spiegel spelled out fifteen and a half years ago.

We are left with one, and only one, conclusion; Ben Bernanke was right that the Federal Reserve as the duly appointed US government agency is in possession of the printing press.  However, quantitative easing no matter how much academic gloss it is given is not it. Actual monetary conditions are determined by a myriad of other outside factors (relating exclusively to bank balance sheets) that appear impervious to QE-type strategies, a verdict rendered by sixteen years of experience in Japan and another eight in the US and elsewhere.

You could have made a quantitative case against QE in the Japanese or the first American instances, where the “Q” part was simply too small.  In the last five years in particular that factor has, too, been empirically eliminated, most especially by the Bank of Japan’s QQE reaching now half a quadrillion in yen reserves with the same results (none positive).

Why the Federal Reserve merely followed in BoJ’s footsteps for all these years is almost inexplicable; almost.  Again, going back to that meeting in June 2003, policymakers here knew it wasn’t working and Alan Greenspan began to wonder about his own capabilities.

“CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN.  What is useful, as has been discussed, is to build up our general knowledge so that when we are confronted with the need to respond with a twenty-minute lead time—which may be all the time we will have—we have enough background understanding to enable us to make informed decisions. We need to know how the system tends to work to be able to make the necessary judgments without asking one of our skilled technical practitioners to go off and run three correlations between X, Y, and Z. So I think the notion of building up our knowledge generally as a basis for functioning effectively is exceptionally important.”

Or, as I put it a year ago, make sure you can actually do what you say you can do before you have to do it.  The emphasis was in 2003 clearly on the “before you have to do it part” and largely because of how the Bank of Japan was executing a theoretically sound strategy that wasn’t producing the desired or expected results. But they never did that. The FOMC as well as most of the academic literature instead focused on BoJ’s execution of QE rather than the technical factors that were clearly suggesting (really proving) from the very beginning at the very least far more complexity in money than was assumed.

And so it brings the world back to repeating the Japanese mistakes, as Governor Kohn described them so many years ago, “They kept saying things were getting better, but they didn’t.”  The Fed was never honest in its assessment of what it really could do so that by the time D-day arrived for them they were arrogantly dismissive even of direct market contradictions (especially eurodollar futures that were in early 2007 correct and have remained so despite all the QE’s).  It wouldn’t have mattered if the FOMC had their skilled practitioners run off and do X, Y, and Z correlations, because X, Y, and Z were all based on the same mistaken premises, those of Ben Bernanke’s 2002 speech. Throughout the crisis period officials kept claiming “things were getting better” (subprime is contained) only to see the whole thing nearly collapse.  Afterward it was always the same, “things were getting better” (green shoots) even though QE1 was followed by a QE2, another global liquidity crisis, a QE3, a QE4, and then another global liquidity crisis.

How can even the most robust and dynamic economy move even slightly forward under those conditions?  That is another result we have over the last ten years fully tested and established; it can’t. Whatever the unobserved direct effects of monetary tightness, such outward and visible instability is another depressive factor all its own, and a very important one.

Because of one simple variable we have followed a path that a decade ago was believed literally impossible. Indeed, everything that has happened this last period had it been described to someone in 2005 would have sounded totally insane.  And there is only one factor capable of creating that situation, the one, tragically, most experts were the least concerned about. Life does have a habit of unfolding in that way, where the one thing you don’t expect is what kills you in the end. Call it the maestro’s curse, no conundrum required.

We aren’t yet dead, though we are now living in John Maynard Keynes’ long run.  Apologies to Dr. Keynes, it does matter, quite a bit actually.  Chaos, whether social or political, is the inevitable product of extended economic dysfunction.  People will put up with a lot, a large recession and even a sluggish recovery, but no people (the Japanese have committed to demographic suicide) will be able to withstand the social consequences of unceasing bleakness and no legitimate answers for it.  Such a condition offends all modern sense of human progress.

It is a testament to how far down we have gone, that in 2017 pleading with the Fed to just say it one more time, “things are getting better”, because that is all that is left standing between the comforting fiction and the cold reality of Japanification.  It could only have been a bitter blow, for the Fed in truth was up until now good for only that one thing, meaning optimism; carefully worded, of course, but in the end constant positivity about recovery even if always off just over the horizon. For many, that fiction was more meaningful than being led unwilling to the truth about a world without growth.

Thus, all hope is not extinguished, merely transposed to right where it belonged all this time.  Central bankers have said “listen to us because that is the only way for recovery”; only now to say instead, “listen to us because there is no recovery” as if nobody is allowed to notice the change.  We need only stop listening to economists altogether because they were wrong then and utterly so now.  The problem isn’t economics but economists, the former having been removed from the latter generations ago.

That is the great unappreciated truth about Japanification. It was never about zombie banks and asset bubbles, at least so far as separate issues from economists who know nothing, prove they know nothing, and then refuse to learn when all results show it. Nobody ever bothers to challenge a central banker about money because who would ever do such a thing?  It is such a thin façade, though, as once you move past it to do so is incredibly easy.  One need read only a single FOMC transcript from 2008 (and now 2011) to establish this.

As “reflation” hopes fade just as they did three years ago, how the world proceeds is a choice.  It is a collective one, but one that must be made nonetheless. We can allow nothing to ever change as the Japanese have.  The political situation in Japan has been upended several times over the past quarter-century, but what is the one thing that has remained constant no matter which side sits in power?  The Bank of Japan.  Republican or Democrat, what is the one thing that hasn’t changed in America?  Monetary policy that was and remains strangely devoid of any money.

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  1. The economy is now at or near its best, and we see no major economic risks on the horizon for the next year or two,
  2. There are significant long-term problems (e.g., high debt and non-debt obligations, limited abilities by central banks to stimulate, etc.) that are likely to create a squeeze,
  3. Social and political conflicts are near their worst for the last number of decades, and
  4. Conflicts get worse when economies worsen.

So while we have no near-term economic worries for the economy as a whole, we worry about what these conflicts will become like when the economy has its next downturn.

The next few pages go through our picture of the world as a whole, followed by a look at each of the major economies. We recommend that you read the first part on the world picture and look at the others on individual countries if you’re so inclined.

Where We Are Within Our Template

To help clarify, we will repeat our template (see www.economicprinciples.org) and put where we are within that context.

There are three big forces that drive economies: there’s the normal business/short-term debt cycle that typically takes 5 to 10 years, there’s the long-term debt cycle, and there’s productivity. There are two levers to control them: monetary policy and fiscal policy. And there are the risk premiums of assets that vary as a function of changes in monetary and fiscal policies to drive the wealth effect.

The major economies right now are in the middle of their short-term debt cycles, and growth rates are about average. In other words, the world economy is in the Goldilocks part of the cycle (i.e., neither too hot nor too cold). As a result, volatility is low now, as it typically is during such times. Regarding this cycle, we don’t see any classic storm clouds on the horizon. Unlike in 2007/08, we don’t now see big unsustainable debt flows or a lot of debts maturing that can’t be serviced, and we don’t see monetary policy as a threat. At most, there will be a little touching the brakes by the Fed to slow moderate growth a smidgen. So all looks good for the next year or two, barring some geopolitical shock.

At the same time, the longer-term picture is concerning because we have a lot of debt and a lot of non-debt obligations (pensions, healthcare entitlements, social security, etc.) coming due, which will increasingly create a “squeeze”; this squeeze will come gradually, not as a shock, and will hurt those who are now most in distress the hardest.

Central banks’ powers to rectify these problems are more limited than normal, which adds to the downside risks. Central banks’ powers to ease are less than normal because they have limited abilities to lower interest rates from where they are and because increased QE would be less effective than normal with risk premiums where they are. Similarly, effective fiscal policy help is more elusive because of political fragmentation.

So we fear that whatever the magnitude of the downturn that eventually comes, whenever it eventually comes, it will likely produce much greater social and political conflict than currently exists.

The “World” Picture in Charts

The following section fleshes out what was previously said by showing where the “world economy” is as a whole. It is followed by a section that shows the same charts for each of the major economies. These charts go back to both 1970 and 1920 in order to provide you with ample perspective.

1) Short-Term Debt/Economic Conditions Are Good

As shown below, both the amount of slack in the world economy and the rate of growth in the world economy are as close as they get to normal levels. In other words, overall, the global economy is at equilibrium.

Ray Dalio
2) Assets Are Pricing In About Average Risk Premiums (Returns Above Cash), Though They Will Provide Low Total Returns

Liquidity is abundant. Real and nominal interest rates are low—as they should be given where we are in the longterm debt cycle. At the same time, risk premiums of assets (i.e., their expected returns above cash) are normal, and there are no debt crises on the horizon.

Since all investments compete with each other, all investment assets’ projected real and nominal returns are low, though not unusually low in relation to cash rates. The charts below show our expectations for asset returns (of a global 50/50 stock/bond portfolio). While those returns are low, they’re not low relative to cash rates.

Relative to cash, the ‘risk premiums’ of assets are about normal compared to the long-term average. So, both the short-term/business cycle and the pricing of assets look about right to us.

3) The Longer Term Debt Cycle Is a Negative

Debt and non-debt obligations (e.g., for pensions, healthcare entitlements, social security, etc.) are high.

4) Productivity Growth Is Low

Over the long term, what raises living standards is productivity—the amount that is produced per person—which increases from coming up with new ideas and implementing ways of producing efficiently. Productivity evolves slowly, so it doesn’t drive big economic and market moves, though it adds up to what matters most over the long run. Here are charts of productivity as measured by real GDP per capita.

5) Economic, Political, and Social Fragmentation Is Bad and Worsening

There are big differences in wealth and opportunity that have led to social and political tensions that are significantly greater than normal, and are increasing. Since such tensions are normally correlated with overall economic conditions, it is unusual for social and political tensions to be so bad when overall economic and market conditions are so good. So we can’t help but worry what the social and political fragmentation will be like in the next downturn, which, by the way, we see no reason to happen over the next year or two.

Below we show a gauge maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia that attempts to measure political conflict in the US by looking at the share of newspaper articles that cover political conflict from a few continuously running newspapers (NYT, WSJ, etc.). By this measure, conflict is now at highs and rising. The idea of conflicts getting even worse in a downturn is scary.

Downturns always come. When the next downturn comes, it’s probably going to be bad.

Below, we go through different countries/regions, one by one.

Looking at the Individual Economic Blocs

United States

As shown below, the US is around equilibrium in the mid-to-late stages of the short-term debt cycle (i.e., the “in between” years), and growth remains moderately strong. Secularly, the US is at the end of the long-term debt cycle. Debt levels are high and have leveled off after a period of deleveraging. The Fed has started to tighten gradually, but interest rates remain low, so the Fed has limited room to ease in the event of a downturn. And as we’ve covered in prior Observations (so won’t go into here), the US is in a period of exceptional political uncertainty

 

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A NEW commodity spawns a lucrative, fast-growing industry, prompting antitrust regulators to step in to restrain those who control its flow. A century ago, the resource in question was oil. Now similar concerns are being raised by the giants that deal in data, the oil of the digital era. These titans—Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft—look unstoppable. They are the five most valuable listed firms in the world. Their profits are surging: they collectively racked up over $25bn in net profit in the first quarter of 2017. Amazon captures half of all dollars spent online in America. Google and Facebook accounted for almost all the revenue growth in digital advertising in America last year.

Such dominance has prompted calls for the tech giants to be broken up, as Standard Oil was in the early 20th century. This newspaper has argued against such drastic action in the past. Size alone is not a crime. The giants’ success has benefited consumers. Few want to live without Google’s search engine, Amazon’s one-day delivery or Facebook’s newsfeed. Nor do these firms raise the alarm when standard antitrust tests are applied. Far from gouging consumers, many of their services are free (users pay, in effect, by handing over yet more data). Take account of offline rivals, and their market shares look less worrying. And the emergence of upstarts like Snapchat suggests that new entrants can still make waves.

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But there is cause for concern. Internet companies’ control of data gives them enormous power. Old ways of thinking about competition, devised in the era of oil, look outdated in what has come to be called the “data economy” (see Briefing). A new approach is needed.

Quantity has a quality all its own

What has changed? Smartphones and the internet have made data abundant, ubiquitous and far more valuable. Whether you are going for a run, watching TV or even just sitting in traffic, virtually every activity creates a digital trace—more raw material for the data distilleries. As devices from watches to cars connect to the internet, the volume is increasing: some estimate that a self-driving car will generate 100 gigabytes per second. Meanwhile, artificial-intelligence (AI) techniques such as machine learning extract more value from data. Algorithms can predict when a customer is ready to buy, a jet-engine needs servicing or a person is at risk of a disease. Industrial giants such as GE and Siemens now sell themselves as data firms.

This abundance of data changes the nature of competition. Technology giants have always benefited from network effects: the more users Facebook signs up, the more attractive signing up becomes for others. With data there are extra network effects. By collecting more data, a firm has more scope to improve its products, which attracts more users, generating even more data, and so on. The more data Tesla gathers from its self-driving cars, the better it can make them at driving themselves—part of the reason the firm, which sold only 25,000 cars in the first quarter, is now worth more than GM, which sold 2.3m. Vast pools of data can thus act as protective moats.

Access to data also protects companies from rivals in another way. The case for being sanguine about competition in the tech industry rests on the potential for incumbents to be blindsided by a startup in a garage or an unexpected technological shift. But both are less likely in the data age. The giants’ surveillance systems span the entire economy: Google can see what people search for, Facebook what they share, Amazon what they buy. They own app stores and operating systems, and rent out computing power to startups. They have a “God’s eye view” of activities in their own markets and beyond. They can see when a new product or service gains traction, allowing them to copy it or simply buy the upstart before it becomes too great a threat. Many think Facebook’s $22bn purchase in 2014 of WhatsApp, a messaging app with fewer than 60 employees, falls into this category of “shoot-out acquisitions” that eliminate potential rivals. By providing barriers to entry and early-warning systems, data can stifle competition.

Who ya gonna call, trustbusters?

The nature of data makes the antitrust remedies of the past less useful. Breaking up a firm like Google into five Googlets would not stop network effects from reasserting themselves: in time, one of them would become dominant again. A radical rethink is required—and as the outlines of a new approach start to become apparent, two ideas stand out.

The first is that antitrust authorities need to move from the industrial era into the 21st century. When considering a merger, for example, they have traditionally used size to determine when to intervene. They now need to take into account the extent of firms’ data assets when assessing the impact of deals. The purchase price could also be a signal that an incumbent is buying a nascent threat. On these measures, Facebook’s willingness to pay so much for WhatsApp, which had no revenue to speak of, would have raised red flags. Trustbusters must also become more data-savvy in their analysis of market dynamics, for example by using simulations to hunt for algorithms colluding over prices or to determine how best to promote competition (see Free exchange).

The second principle is to loosen the grip that providers of online services have over data and give more control to those who supply them. More transparency would help: companies could be forced to reveal to consumers what information they hold and how much money they make from it. Governments could encourage the emergence of new services by opening up more of their own data vaults or managing crucial parts of the data economy as public infrastructure, as India does with its digital-identity system, Aadhaar. They could also mandate the sharing of certain kinds of data, with users’ consent—an approach Europe is taking in financial services by requiring banks to make customers’ data accessible to third parties.

Rebooting antitrust for the information age will not be easy. It will entail new risks: more data sharing, for instance, could threaten privacy. But if governments don’t want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon.

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Finally, a brief prediction. One of the mistakes people make when thinking about the future is to think that they are watching the final act of the play. Mobile shopping might be the most transformative force in retail—today. But self-driving cars could change retail as much as smartphones.

Once autonomous vehicles are cheap, safe, and plentiful, retail and logistics companies could buy up millions, seeing that cars can be stores and streets are the ultimate real estate. In fact, self-driving cars could make shopping space nearly obsolete in some areas. CVS could have hundreds of self-driving minivans stocked with merchandise roving the suburbs all day and night, ready to be summoned to somebody’s home by smartphone. A new luxury-watch brand in 2025 might not spring for an Upper East Side storefront, but maybe its autonomous showroom vehicle could circle the neighborhood, waiting to be summoned to the doorstep of a tony apartment building. Autonomous retail will create new conveniences and traffic headaches, require new regulations, and inspire new business strategies that could take even more businesses out of commercial real estate. The future of retail could be even weirder yet.

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