You’ve seen the Great Unwinding; get ready for the Great Reckoning

Companies and investors now need to prepare for the Great Reckoning, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

We have reached the second anniversary of the Great Unwinding of policymaker stimulus. Almost inevitably, this now seems likely to be followed by a Great Reckoning, a consequence of the policy mistakes made in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

The Great Unwinding began with China’s decision to move away from the stimulus policies adopted by the previous leadership. Since then, those who expected stimulus to return have been disappointed. The leader of the Populist faction in the Politburo, Premier Li Keqiang, has attempted to manoeuvre in this direction several times, most notably with last year’s failed stock market rally. But in the end, strategy has continued to be set by President Xi Jinping and his Princeling faction, who has consistently focused on the need for structural reform with his New Normal economic programme.

Oil and commodity markets, along with the value of the US dollar, have been the leading indicators for the paradigm shift set off by the Unwinding. Oil prices have fallen by more than 50 per cent, and the USD Index has risen by around 15 per cent, as two core assumptions from the stimulus period have been over-turned, namely that:

□  Oil would always trade above $100 a barrel
□  China’s economy would always grow at double-digit rates

BrentChart 1: the median price of oil since 1861 has been $23 a barrel

It therefore seems highly likely, as chart 1 suggests, that oil is now returning to its median price for the past 150 years of $23 per barrel. In modern times, there have been only two occasions when it has moved away from this level:

□  The twin OPEC crises of the 1970s and 1980s, which caused a genuine shortage of product
□  The twin stimulus programmes in the 2000s and 2010s, where central bank liquidity overwhelmed the normal process of price discovery in the market

The end of stimulus has similarly impacted other major commodities, as chart 2 shows. Their pricing soared during the subprime period of the early 2000s, and went even higher during the post-2008 period. But this proved to be a temporary illusion, as the promised economic recovery was unsustainable in the long term.

CommodsChart 2: copper and other commodities have been hit by China’s slowdown

The past two years of the Great Unwinding have, therefore, seen investors facing, Janus-like, in opposite directions at once. They could not ignore the mounting evidence of over-supply in oil markets, for example, where the International Energy Agency’s latest monthly report has warned that June saw OECD commercial stocks of crude and products “swelling by 5.7 mb (million barrels) to a record 3,093 mb”. But nor could they simply ignore the impact of new stimulus measures by central banks in Japan, Europe and the UK, as these provided the firepower to fund some short-lived but spectacular speculative rallies in futures markets.

Today, however, the chickens are coming home to roost with regard to the policy failures of the stimulus period. Pension funding has now reached “crisis point”, in the words of the UK’s former pension minister, while Deutsche Bank’s CEO has argued that ECB policies are “working against the goals of strengthening the economy and making the European banking system safer.”

The critical issue is that central banks have been in denial about the changes taking place in demand patterns as a result of ageing populations and falling fertility rates. Their Federal Reserve/US-type forecasting models still assume that raising interest rates will reduce demand, and lowering them will release this pent-up demand. But today’s increasing life expectancy and falling fertility rates are completely changing historical demand patterns. We are no longer in a world where the vast majority of the adult population belongs to the wealth creator cohort of those aged 25–54, which dominates consumer spending:

□  Increasing life expectancy means people no longer routinely die around pension age. Instead, a whole New Old generation of people in the low spending, low earning 55+ generation is emerging for the first time in history. The average western baby boomer can now expect to live for another 20 years on reaching the age of 65
□  Fertility rates in the developed world have fallen by 40 per cent since 1950. They have also been below replacement levels (2.1 babies per woman) for the past 40 years. Inevitably, therefore, this has reduced the relative numbers of those in today’s Wealth Creator cohort, just as the New Old generation is expanding exponentially

The Fed/US models are therefore long past their sell-by date. The New Olders already own most of what they need and their incomes decline as they approach retirement. So they have no pent-up demand to release when interest rates are reduced. In fact, they have to save more and spend even less, in order to avoid running out of cash during their unexpectedly extended retirement. A more modern forecasting model, based on these demographic realities, would immediately recognise that demand growth and inflation are therefore likely to be much weaker than in the past.

“You cannot print babies” should be the motto hanging on every central bankers’ wall. Unfortunately, it is too late to quickly reverse their demographic myopia. Instead, the Great Unwinding is now set to evolve into the Great Reckoning. Investors, companies and individuals must prepare for heightened levels of volatility, as markets continue their return to being based on the fundamentals of supply and demand, rather than central bank liquidity.

Paul Hodges publishes The pH Report, providing investors and companies with insight on the impact of demographic changes on the economy.

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