Can Abe turn on the fountain of youth?

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At 17,357 points today, Japan’s flagship index has nearly doubled since Mr. Shinzo Abé took power in late 2012. Among the developed countries, it is by far the best performer. Its performance has been twice as strong as that of the S&P 500 and three times that of the EUROSTOXX 50. The country’s paltry economic performance hardly justifies such a rise. Perhaps the BoJ’s pump priming is to be considered the lone explanation for the rocketing Japanese market, which would be analogous to recognizing that we are merely facing a giant speculative bubble. What factor would justify the Nikkei’s performance? Perhaps the belief that Abenomics has the magical power to combat the primary cause of the Japanese economy’s suffering: the ageing Japanese population?

Bonds Gone Wild

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Will they rise or won’t they? There is no end to the uncertainty on the future direction of long-term interest rates. Impatience is growing as well, with, however, this paradox: the fear of being surprised by a precipitous drop in prices on the bond markets (i.e. rocketing long rates) contrasts with the long-held desire to see long rates increase, which would be a clear signal that economic conditions have improved. For nearly one year (since the start of the « taper caper »), the US market has been on edge. Now, the Bank of Japan has said it is concerned that Japanese bond markets are not taking the country’s new inflation context into account, worried about the effects should inflation finally wake up. These kinds of comments are surprising to say the least….

Global investment: lingering disappointment

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The improvement in the global economic backdrop since late 2013 has not provided the desired results when it comes to investment. Although the European recovery has shown a few positive signs, an overview of global investment trends continues to paint a disappointing picture:

  • In the U.S., where recent corporate earnings and leading indicators have fallen short of expectations;
  • In Japan, where the 2013 rally remains highly dependent on companies’ export performance, which has become somewhat of a mixed bag;
  • In the emerging world, where many Asian countries are confronted with excess capacities, at a time when most big countries are now paying the price for their structural shortcomings;
  • In Europe, where – unlike the rest of the world – leading indicators are actually encouraging: could the region rise to the challenge? Of course, such a scenario is unrealistic

The extended absence of an improvement in investment prospects is one the most troubling constraint for future economic development. We discuss this topic in further detail in « Investment inertia: what is at stake« .

Mr. Draghi Seems Quite Sure of Himself…

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The President of the ECB is confident in his ability to stare down deflation risk and bring the inflation rate up to its official target of 2%…on a 2016 horizon. Well that was reassuring; the euro celebrated the news by increasing to USD 1.386 this morning, a record since October 2011! Could we have expected anything different? Apparently not. The ECB wasn’t about to shoot itself in the foot by announcing that its forecast pointed to a deflationary scenario, tacitly recognizing that it would fail in its deflation battle.

Global Inflation – Disinflation Is Gaining Ground Across the Globe

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At the global level, disinflation is gaining ground. After a temporary rebound during spring, global inflation continued its downtrend in the second half of 2013 and ended the year at 3.2%. Inflation remains very weak in the developed world, at 1.3% in December, and has also sagged in many emerging markets in recent months, to finish 2013 at 6.1%.

In fact, as of December 2013, nearly half the countries (39) in our sample of 80 countries had inflation rates of less than 2%, which is markedly higher than a year ago (24). These figures have seen the addition of a growing number of Asian economies (6), the United States and Canada as well as all 27 members of the EU – without exception. Moreover, the number of countries with moderate inflation (3-4%) decreased sharply while the proportion of high-inflation economies (>6%) has not changed considerably and includes African countries and conflict-plagued countries for the most part.

  • Disinflation Is Gaining Ground Across the Globe
  • Commodity Prices Easing
  • Price Picture Still Mixed in EMs
  • Deflation Risk Remains High in the West  
  • United States, Not Quite in the Clear Yet
  • Euro Area, Deflation Risk Spreading to Core
  • Imports, an Additional Source of Disinflation
  • Increase in Real Interest Rates, the Bigger Threat

Scenario 2014–2015 : The Roller Coaster Economy

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2014 is off to a positive start: U.S. growth is trending upward, the euro area is pulling out of recession, Japan is reaping the benefits of its competitive strategy, and world trade is picking up. All these bright spots should be enough to end two years of global deceleration and bring about a return to growth of over 3 percent this year. But while this is certainly good news, it doesn’t tell us much about the key challenges ahead. To understand them, we need to address the much more complex question of whether 2014 will usher in a second leg of the global recovery—one that is sufficiently sturdy to ensure a lasting upswing and leave five years of convalescence well behind us. As things now stand, we feel we still have two good reasons for assuming it won’t:

  1. The deleveraging process is still producing dysfunctional effects around the world.
  2. Five years of crisis have seriously eroded the global economy’s growth potential and its ability to handle the higher interest rates the current upturn will inevitably entail.

This suggests that we are in for a period of economic instability. We are therefore forecasting that after 3.5 percent growth in 2014, global GDP will increase by only 3 percent in 2015.

The upturn, then, is likely to be short-lived, yet it’s still a reality—meaning it will necessarily affect market expectations.

We are sharply raising our long-term interest-rate forecast for the first half of 2014, but we predict backsliding before the year is out. Needless to say, there will be timid attempts at returning to normal monetary policy in the first few months of the year, but because they are unlikely to get very far, our outlook up to mid-2015 does not involve increases in key rates by the leading central banks—the Federal Reserve, the ECB, the BoJ.

Although initially encouraged by the improved economic climate to press ahead with tapering, the Fed may soon find itself overwhelmed by largely uncontrollable jumps in long-term Treasury yields.

All in all, this should be a highly volatile year.

A Fresh Round of Central Bank Action Coming Up in 2014


If we’re correct in assuming the Federal Reserve is not about to start scaling back its asset purchases, worldwide liquidity injections should hit a new high next year. Whereas the aggregate balance sheet of the four leading central banks showed little change in the first half of 2013, we can expect widespread central bank activism over the next few quarters:

  • At a rate of 85 billion dollars a month, the Fed’s asset purchases should amount to 1.02 trillion dollars a year.
  • The Bank of Japan will be adding anywhere from 600 to 718 billion dollars to its balance sheet as it strives to meet its target of expanding Japan’s monetary base by between 60 and 70 trillion yen a year (making it some 40 percent larger than at the beginning of 2013).
  • The Bank of England will be buying 610 billion dollars’ worth of Gilts in connection with its objective to purchase 375 billion pounds of assets via its Asset Purchase Facility.
  • The ECB’s probable upcoming LTRO is likely, in our estimate, to provide Europe’s banks with between 250 and 500 billion euros, or 350 to 750 billion dollars.

The “Big Four” should thus be injecting a cool 1.6 to 2.5 trillion dollars into the system in annual terms (at a pace of 135 to 208 billion a month). This should continue, if not throughout 2014, then at least through the early part of the year. In the low-case scenario, that would equal 10 percent of American GDP; in the high-case scenario, it would equal almost the entire size of France’s economy in 2012! But whether the ECB follows suit or not, the annual flow of fresh liquidity should return to the highs seen in 2011 and 2012—and for the ECB’s LTROs, could even set a post-2008-crisis record.

Japan Bull Markets Die of Anemic Demand


Japan’s reflation campaign looks impressive. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to work.

True, the substantial depreciation of the yen brought about by the BoJ policy of massively injecting liquidity into the system has driven up corporate profits since the start of the year—even way up in some cases. But this competitive surge has had such a depressive effect on other economies in the region that they now offer a shrinking market for Japanese goods. In fact, what Japan is exporting may well be its own deflation, and to a degree at least commensurate with the inflation target set by the government.

So what can be expected of “Abenomics” if it fails to engineer a rebound in exports? Domestic forces certainly won’t generate inflation: population aging has already done serious damage to the country’s growth potential, and encouraging mass immigration—the only policy with a chance of reversing that trend—is simply not on the government agenda today.The other measures announced will therefore be about as effective in boosting potential output as a band-aid on a wooden leg. With its supply-side bias, the Abe administration’s strategy will have no lasting impact on growth unless it succeeds in re-igniting demand.

All this makes it hard to buy into the current stock market enthusiasm. The Nikkei bull run since last December just doesn’t square with the persistently bleak outlook for the Japanese economy. What follows is a new analysis of this issue by Frank Benzimra, one that concludes with the firm recommendation to dump Japanese equities.