Brexit – what is Boris’ next U-turn?

If there is one behaviour which has characterised Boris as Prime Minister, is the frequency of U-turns. The major one last year was giving in to the EU on Ireland so he could get a Withdrawal Agreement passed. This year they have mainly been on Covid and exams for schools but I am now wondering what his Brexit U-Turn could look like.


Current Brexit situation

Without an agreement on the terms of a trading relationship, we will have a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. This is not as serious as a no-deal Brexit would have been last year because now we have the Withdrawal Agreement. While we would not have trade agreements with the EU or any of the countries with whom we trade under EU’s trade agreements, we would also not be a rogue state reneging on our international obligations and agreements.


Pervious Brexit negotiations

The UK is acting like there can be a last-minute deal and the way to get there is brinksmanship. This was the case last year with the Withdrawal Agreement which the EU had already drafted. Talks were taken to the brink requiring either the EU to back down, the UK to back down or we go over the cliff edge. In this instance it was the UK that caved in, agreeing to a border in the Irish Sea and some commitment to EU’s level playing field rules in any future trade agreement. The EU had a draft we could sign, and Boris eventually signed it claiming victory and that the EU backed down.


Can the UK just cave-in again?

One path that many think likely is that Boris takes negotiations to the brink, then at the last-minute U-turns, agrees with the EU’s position, signs an agreement and claims victory.

But there is a serious problem with this idea. In contrast to the Withdrawal Agreement, there is nothing to agree to. There is no such draft of a trade agreement and there is not going to be one. The negotiations are the method by which the draft can be written, and these are not happening.

Why are talks making no progress?

The sticking point is the level playing field rules.

The UK signed up to them in principle in the political declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement but is now saying that they did not really mean it. The EU takes the declaration seriously and has based its negotiating position with it as a starting point.

Another way to think about this is that the UK and EU want to have very different types of agreement. The EU wants an overall governance structure into which all the detailed issues can be placed and resolved. The UK wants piecemeal agreements with much less overall governance or enforcement structure.

What deals are possible?

The table below lays out how I think the EU sees the options:

screenshot_2

  • Status quo is the one they want to negotiate. Zero tariffs, zero impediments to trade (such as regulatory and standards barriers) with a full level-playing field agreement.
  • No Deal is another simple option on the table, without level-playing field agreement, and the UK operates as a 3rd party country under WTO rules.
  • Canada-style agreement with some level-playing field provisions and some reduction in tariffs and barriers to trade is another option. The EU’s position is, given the geographical proximity of the UK, the level-playing field provisions would need to be more stringent that they are with Canada. The process of negotiating such a mixed deal is very complicated with many technical issues and perhaps even more complex political ones. For example, the Canada deal negotiations with the EU started in 2009 and are only recently being finally ratified. This timeframe is common for this type of deals as we saw with the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal which started in 2008, was agreed in 2015 and then Trump withdrew the US before it was implemented.

What does the UK appear to want?

The UK’s position appears to be zero tariff, zero impediments to trade and zero level-playing field.
(The ‘have cake and eat it’ option)
This is not something the EU is willing to entertain which is why the negotiations are stuck.

Which way will Boris jump?

If Boris is going to do another U-turn and agree to the EU’s framework then he needs to do it soon. This is not something that can be drafted and ratified in December. By all accounts Boris is not focusing on this issue and in this regard no-deal looks the most likely outcome.

Has the US stock market disconnected from the real economy? Part 4

In my previous three posts, I examined the pricing fundamentals of the US stock market. In this post I will look at possible explanations for the pricing.

  1. Don’t fight the Fed

The argument here is that the Fed is active in monetary policy to offset the negative effects of the recession. In the recessions of 2001 and 2008, interest rates were around 6% and could be slashed giving a huge boost to the economy. In addition, in 2008, the Fed began its expansion of its balance sheet and continued it with QE in 2010.

In the recession of 2020, the Fed’s tools are more limited but it is fair to say they are using them as aggressively as they can and have managed to get long term interest rates to fall despite the vast surge in government debt issuance. The question remains of why the Fed will be so much more effective now than in previous recessions as the forecasts and pricing suggest.

The argument that yields have fallen and so the yield on all assets should follow is decent and intuitive but doesn’t explain why pricing is so much more optimistic than in previous recessions. In the other recessions of 2001 and 2008, we also saw sharp falls in interest rates but the impact of the drop in growth and thus earnings vastly overwhelmed this. The argument to justify the current situation would have to be rather different, that earnings will not drop very much (unlike previous recessions) and that Fed intervention will be huge and long-lasting, despite a rapid recovery of the economy.

It is true that Fed intervention this time around is truly monumental, the increase in the size of their balance sheet is over $3trn in the past quarter alone. If you can remember as far back as the Global Financial Crisis, the increase of $1trn in the balance sheet was seen by many as dangerous and would inevitably lead to hyperinflation. It may indeed be true that this huge intervention has flowed through to other asset markets, driving this stock market rally, but I do not expect the rise to be permanent. I do not expect the Fed to keep buying $3trn a quarter in financial assets to support the markets, particularly if the analysts are correct in expecting profits to immediately bounce back.

  1. Private investors

This is an argument I find rather appealing. Fiscal transfers from the US government, in response to Covid, have been massive but poorly targeted. For example, the PPP (Payroll Protection Programme) came in the form of forgivable loans which did not have to be fully spent on payroll. Much of $500bn PPP has been in effect gifts to affluent people who do not need it to support spending.

Overall transfers from the government have been over $1trn, whilst spending has fallen by nearly $400bn. This leaves a lot of extra cash sitting in the bank accounts of affluent people and since they are not spending it, they are investing it. I would suggest in equities and putting that much money into the US market in a short time is going to have a large impact on the price.

Looking more closely at the typical small investor in the US, there has been a recent move to choosing their own stocks. They will tend to pick stocks they have heard of, that has been rising rapidly, that is sexy. They buy tech stocks like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. They even buy Tesla because Elon Musk is so often in the headlines and he makes it sound like a tech stock.

This is a classic bubble environment. A rapid influx of new money causes a spike in prices, whether it is art, vintage cars, fine wines, or stock markets. Tesla is now worth more than all the other car manufacturers in the world combined while producing less than 1% of the cars. It takes a lot of effort to find a fundamental rationale for that.

Has the US stock market disconnected from the real economy? Part 3

In the last two posts, I examined the fundamental basis for earnings of the US stock market. In this post, I will look at pricing and to what extent the market is discounting any of the risks highlighted.

Given that we have been looking at earnings already, all we need to get to the index price is to multiply by the Price-Earnings (PE) ratio from the chart below.

It is clear from the chart that PE ratios have been rising as confidence in the durability of profit growth has cemented. The current pricing levels are such, that even if earnings do return to record levels in late 2021, we would still have a PE ratio at the highs of the last decade.

This suggests that far from pricing any risk that NIPA data might be correct, or that the earnings drop might resemble previous recessions, the market is currently fully pricing a return to record profitability and excellent growth in profitability to continue from there.

I would rate stock market optimism as extremely high.

Has the US stock market disconnected from the real economy? Part 2

In the previous post, I examined the relationship between the economy and corporate earnings and showed that we should be sceptical about the numbers reported by companies as “earnings”. Profits, as measured by the national accounts data, not only suggest profits might be 30% lower than companies represent them to be but that they have also been declining for the past few years, rather than ever rising to record highs in the earnings series.

In this post, I will leave aside scepticism on historic reported earnings, and instead examine the impact of the recession on earnings and what we should make of current earnings forecasts. The chart below shows GAAP earnings as a percentage of sales, including the current forecasts to 2021.

Looking at the last two recessions, we see what we would normally expect. Profits and profitability hit hard, taking about 4 years to return to the levels before the recession. The depth of these earnings recessions corresponds to the depth of the economic recessions, with 2008 being much deeper than the recession of 2001.

If we look at the current recession, the market professionals who forecast earnings and the economy are expecting a completely different outcome. Despite this economic recession being far deeper than that of 2008, in fact the deepest since the Great Depression of a century ago, earnings are not expected to fall far. In addition, they are not just expected to quickly recover to the historic average of around 8%, but back up record high levels of profitability of over 10% before the end of 2021.

Have US companies disconnected from the real economy?

The chart above suggests that the drop in profits so far is entirely consistent with what we would expect in a recession. However the forecasts for profits to return to previous highs within 2 years do not tie up with examining previous recessions. These suggest a much longer recovery of 4 years but also that the current fall in profits may not be over.