By David Llewellyn-Smith (“Houses & Holes”)
Reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness:
Great stuff today from the always entertaining and cross-disciplinary Viktor Shvets at Macquarie:
Investors seem to be residing in a world without any notable perceived risks. It is an extraordinary and unprecedented situation, particularly given unresolved issues of over leveraging and associated over capacity as well as profound disruption of business and economic models, which are not just depressing inflation but also causing extreme political and electoral outcomes while feeding Maslowian-type disappointments across labour markets.
What can explain such lack of concern regarding potential risks?
In our view, the only answer is one of investors’ perception that, as we discussed in our preview of 2H’17, ‘slaves must remain slaves’ and hence, neither Central Banks nor other public institutions can afford to step aside but need to continue to guarantee asset price inflation. In its turn, this can only be achieved by ensuring that volatilities are contained (as they are the deadliest enemy of an ongoing leveraging) and liquidity is expanding at a sufficient pace to accommodate nominal demand.
The optimists would argue that the productivity slowdown that the world experienced over the last decade was primarily caused by the global financial crisis (GFC) and that we are starting to turn the corner. Hence, optimists argue that velocity of money is likely to improve, and this would allow Central Banks to gradually (and very carefully) withdraw liquidity and rate supports. While this is the ‘dream outcome’ from Central Banks’ perspective, we don’t see any convincing evidence that this is occurring.
We maintain that the best explanation for investors’ perception that risks are low is that a combination of Central Banks’ liquidity (still running at ~US$1.5-2.0 trillion per annum), an assumption that Central Banks would swiftly reverse their policies at the slightest sign of volatility reemerging, and China’s real estate and infrastructure investment, act as ‘risk buffers’. Investors seem to believe that liquidity cannot be withdrawn, volatility must be arrested and cost of capital cannot go up, and hence, financial assets are in many ways underwritten. While Central Banks would like to have a little bit more volatility and a little bit more price discovery, they would be highly averse to shocking what is the highly financialized and leveraged global economy.
While it is hard to back what is essentially a long-term ‘doomsday’ machine, nevertheless, the above describes our view. We remain constructive on financial assets (both equities and bonds), not because we expect a return to self-sustaining private sector led recovery and growth but because we believe that an ongoing financialization is the only politically and socially acceptable answer. In our view, therefore, the greatest risk is one of policy miscalculation.
We remain constructive on financial assets, not because we believe in a sustainable recovery, but because we back the perpetual leveraging ‘doomsday’ machine.
Shvets has been pushing the “long grinding cycle” narrative for a number years now:
Despite all these challenges, Shvets still recommends his clients to invest in certain types of stocks. “The outcomes of the next 10-15 years could be quite dramatic. How do you invest in that climate? There are only two ways of investing. The first is: Assume non-mean reversion. The private sector will never recover. The only thing left would be the public sector cycle.”
This means we can conveniently forget about corporate profits, or valuations like the price-earnings ratio of the S&P 500, as many investors already have done. The only thing that matters is public sector activity in the form of central bank intervention or government stimulus programs.
An extreme example of this cycle is perhaps Venezuela. While the country is going up in flames, people don’t have enough food, and the currency is dissolving itself in a vicious hyperinflation, the stock market actually went up 10 times since the beginning of 2012. Only recently has reality caught up with stocks and the market gave up 15 percent of its gains since the beginning of the year.
‘Buy quality sustainable growth, high returns on equity. Companies capable to generate a high return on equity through margins and without leverage. Don’t worry about the price to earnings ratio, there is no mean reversion,” says Shvets. And don’t own any financials. Good advice. The stock price of the likes of Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse have been decimated this year.
The share prices of Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) and Credit Suisse AG (CSGN) have both lost almost 50 percent of their value this year (Source: Google Finance).
The other option is to invest along some pretty grim themes which benefit from the new trends identified by Shvets. “People are still going back to 20th-century thematics, it’s so old-fashioned.”
None of the new trends can be described as inspirational or uplifting, but the Macquarie portfolio reflecting the themes has bested the MSCI World Index by almost 30 percent since the beginning of 2015.
“The biggest theme is declining return on humans, the replacement of humans, biotech, augmentation of humans, opium for the people, like computer games and gambling,” Shvets said.
Then there are themes catering to geopolitical risk and potential regional war or civil uprisings, like detention and prison centers, weapons, and drones. Another theme supports the aging demography in the West, so companies holding hospitals, funeral operators, and psychiatric institutions should do well.
On the positives, Shvets notes technological disruptors like Amazon and Google. All those companies should be independent of the government and long-term structural shifts. “They go on no matter what.”
If readers shy away from profiting from these themes, there is always gold.
“If you think of gold, the only way gold loses is if normal business and private sector cycles come back. If that is the case, gold goes back $100 per ounce. The other outcomes: deflation, stagflation, hyperinflation are all good for gold.” As for a return to a gold standard, Shvets has more bad news: “Gold standards come back after the war, not before the war.”
In principle I agree therefore the MB Fund is long:
- US stocks despite the valuations;
- we are underweight Australian assets given interest rates will go to zero or the equivalent in a world of endless oversupply;
- investment becomes a matter of discerning the most potent disruptors or the most embedded rent-seekers at the best prices.
Where I disagree is that the business cycle is entirely dead. To my mind, this is a process not a one-off shift, driven by successive crises that shunt de-globalisation and de-privatisation forward with each convulsion. After all, we have not yet had an earnings-destroying event in the US in this cycle so the lack of risk has been real.
Next year China is going to slow and the Fed tighten, at some point one two many times. Mean reversion will come but then so will our next round of socialisation.