One of the recurring analogues we have used in the past to describe the centrally planned farce that capital markets have become and the global economy in general has been one of a increasingly chaotic sine wave with ever greater amplitude and ever higher frequency (shorter wavelength). By definition, the greater the central intervention, the bigger the dampening or promoting effect, as central banks attempt to mute or enhance a given wave leg. As a result, each oscillation becomes ever more acute, ever more chaotic, and increasingly more unpredictable. And with "Austrian" analytics becoming increasingly dominant, i.e., how much money on the margin is entering or leaving the closed monetary system at any given moment, the same analysis can be drawn out to the primary driver of virtually everything: the inflation-vs-deflation debate. This in turn is why we are increasingly convinced that as the system gets caught in an ever more rapid round trip scramble peak deflation to peak inflation (and vice versa) so the ever more desperate central planners will have no choice but to ultimately throw the kitchen sink at the massive deflationary problem - because after all it is their prerogative to spur inflation, and will do as at any cost - a process which will culminate with the only possible outcome: terminal currency debasement as the Chaotic monetary swings finally become uncontrollable. Ironically, the reason why bring this up is an essay by Pimco's Neel Kashkari titled simply enough: "Chaos Theory" which looks at unfolding events precisely in the very same light, and whose observations we agree with entirely. Furthermore, since he lays it out more coherently, we present it in its entirety below. His conclusion, especially as pertains to the ubiquitous inflation-deflation debate however, is worth nothing upfront: "I believe societies will in the end choose inflation because it is the less painful option for the largest number of its citizens. I am hopeful central banks will be effective in preventing runaway inflation. But it is going to be a long, bumpy journey until the destination becomes clear. This equity market is best for long-term investors who can withstand extended volatility. Day traders beware: chaos is here to stay for the foreseeable future." Unfortunately, we are far less optimistic that the very same central bankers who have blundered in virtually everything, will succeed this one time. But, for the sake of the status quo, one can hope...
Chaos Theory, via Pimco
- Debating a future of inflation vs. deflation is radically new territory for investors. The chaotic nature of the choice facing societies is whipsawing equity markets and dominating bottom-up factors.
- Equity investors seem to be pricing in a combination of outcomes, with the largest weighting going to a goldilocks, mild inflation scenario. But the market’s large daily swings reflect jumps back and forth as investors update the probabilities of very different destinations.
Once per quarter investment professionals from across PIMCO’s global offices gather in Newport Beach for our Economic Forum. These sessions have been the foundation of PIMCO’s investment process for years; we debate and update our short-term and long-term views for the global economy, and, from that, for individual asset classes, such as government bonds, corporate bonds, mortgages and stocks. Last month we gathered for our December Forum and the topic that dominated the discussion, as it has in recent quarters, was the fate of the euro. Will the eurozone break up? Will European governments impose extreme, deflationary austerity to control their deficits? Will the ECB monetize the region’s debts and risk inflation in order to preserve the common currency?
Listening to my colleagues make their arguments during the Forum, I was taken back to my days fifteen years ago when I was an engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois. You may wonder what a debate about the global economy has to do with engineering. It reminded me of one of my favorite classes: nonlinear systems – the study of natural and man-made systems that, at times, behave very oddly. Allow me to explain.
Most systems we interact with every day are linear: if you change an input to the system by a small amount, the output will also change by a small amount. Think about driving to work: if you leave your house 10 minutes early, you will usually arrive about 10 minutes early. If you turn up the flame on a stove a little, the pot of water will heat a little faster.
But some systems, under certain conditions, behave very differently. These systems are said to have “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – very small changes of the inputs can lead to enormous variations of the output. Mathematicians have given these systems the label of being “chaotic” and experts in the field are called “chaoticians.” (The term “chaotician” always struck me as ridiculous. Could you imagine introducing yourself this way?) The weather is the best example of a real-life chaotic system. Predicting the weather beyond a few days is impossible because minor variations lead to large changes in the future. Go back to the driving example: if you leave 10 minutes late, rather than 10 minutes early, you might hit rush hour, and the extra 10 minutes ends up costing you an hour. Chaos theory describes the conditions under which a system changes from linear and smooth to highly nonlinear and violent, where minor changes to the inputs will lead to enormous variations of the output.
Western societies are facing a seemingly minor choice, but that choice will lead to vastly different endpoints for the global economy and for asset prices.
In a “normal” economic environment investors debate a narrow range of outcomes: will the U.S. grow by 2.8% or 3.2%? Will inflation remain at 2.0% or climb to 2.3%? Debating a future of inflation vs. deflation is radically new territory for investors. The chaotic nature of the choice facing societies is whipsawing equity markets and dominating bottom-up factors.
While we don’t know with certainty which path societies will choose, we can identify a few potential outcomes and make reasoned assessments of what they mean for the economy and for equities:
1. Austerity and deflation
Borrowing money to consume allows families and societies to live beyond their means – for a time. Once the debt accumulation has run its course, reality has to set back in. For a family that may mean getting rid of a second car, dining out less often or cuts which are far more painful. It necessarily means consuming less, and to the extent that consumption equates to standard of living, it likely also means a reduced living standard. Societies face a similar challenge. The U.S. and parts of Europe have enjoyed exaggerated living standards enabled by borrowing from our future. Now that creditors are warning us they won’t let this continue forever, governments may reach consensus to cut spending and/or increase taxes to bring budgets into balance. Whatever the mix, by definition this likely means lower economic growth and perhaps a lower level of overall economic activity until debts are worked off and real growth restored. Deflation runs the risk of creating a vicious cycle, where prices fall, causing wages to fall, causing spending to fall, causing prices to fall further. This is a lower risk for a growing population such as in the United States, whereas Japan continues to suffer from such stagnation today. Europe’s demographics are much worse than America’s. The outlook for equities in this environment is negative in the short run and potentially very negative in the long run if a deflationary cycle kicks off. Corporate earnings at some point must be linked to economic growth, and stock prices represent the present value of a future stream of earnings. In a deflationary environment cash will be king – because your purchasing power will increase by just sitting on the sidelines.
2. Explicit default
The scenario of governments not paying back their creditors is extremely unlikely for countries that have their own currencies. Why default on your debt, which would trigger a crisis of confidence in your economy, when you can simply print more money? Of course, unpredictable politics can make the unthinkable possible, as we came dangerously close to seeing this summer with Washington’s debt ceiling debacle. In Europe it is likely some smaller countries, such as Greece, will default on their debt. They simply have taken on more debt than their economies can reasonably hope to pay back. And they don’t have their own currency, so printing drachma is not an option. It is hard to imagine a scenario where an explicit default would be good for equities. Just how bad depends on the size of the country defaulting and the extent of the preparations put in place to minimize the damage. For example, if countries have capitalized their banks to withstand the losses from a Greek default and the ECB funds Italy and Spain so they are not at risk of contagion, the impact to equities should be more muted. An uncontrolled default, or a default of a larger country would be very bad for risk assets and could trigger a deflationary spiral described above.
3. Mild inflation
Mild inflation is the goldilocks scenario: central banks print money to help fund governments while they employ structural reforms to make their economies more competitive and generate long-term growth. Such structural reforms take time to produce results, often many years. Printing money provides governments with that time while, in theory, reducing the sacrifices citizens must make, and the inflation that usually follows makes the fixed debt stock easier to service, because prices (and hence taxes) increase. It often results in a falling currency, which makes exports more competitive. It is easy to see why countries with their own currencies usually choose inflation as the preferred response to overwhelming debt. Although creditors suffer because the purchasing power they were expecting has been reduced, society has to make fewer hard choices and can continue to enjoy its exaggerated standard of living until the pro-growth economic reforms come to the rescue. In a scenario of mild inflation, equities should do well. Prices are contained, the economy functions and corporate profits should continue increasing. Of course, if policymakers do not use this time to implement real economic reforms, which can still be painful for certain constituencies, mild inflation doesn’t solve anything. It just delays the necessary day of reckoning.
4. Runaway inflation
The danger of mild inflation is that it may not remain mild. Inflation is driven by expectations, the collective beliefs of what the future holds that reside in the minds of millions of people. If people expect prices to go up, they will demand higher wages so they can maintain their standard of living. This will increase the cost of labor, pushing the cost of goods higher. A vicious cycle of inflation can take hold as prices climb higher and higher. The U.S. suffered from double-digit inflation in the 1970s, and in an extreme case, Germany suffered from hyper-inflation following World War I. Runaway inflation is devastating because an economy loses its anchor. People are afraid to hold cash because their purchasing power drops rapidly and so they must hoard real assets. Interest rates soar causing investments to plummet. Central bankers are generally afraid of attempting to induce mild inflation for fear they may nudge expectations more than they hoped. Nudging the collective beliefs of millions of people is an inexact science. The Federal Reserve is cautiously experimenting with its expectations-nudging-arsenal with its recent communication innovations. Runaway inflation would be very bad for most risk assets and equities in particular because of the devastating affects on real economic growth and the increases in costs of production and of capital. A loss of faith in paper currencies would mean gold and real assets would likely be king.
5. Miraculous growth
A list of potential solutions to our unsustainable debt load would be incomplete without including a high growth scenario. It is true there could be a major breakthrough in, for example, energy technology that spurs extraordinary economic growth, which would drive tax revenues higher and enable governments to pay down their debt without asking their citizens to give up their exaggerated living standards. In such a scenario, equity returns would likely be very strong, especially for the sector enjoying the innovation. The technology sector in the 1990s was an example. However, such a scenario today is low-probability. We invest based on what we think is likely to happen, rather than what we would like to happen. Policymakers can’t count on a growth miracle and neither can investors. And don’t forget the bumper tax revenues of the 1990s actually led to increased government spending in some cases when politicians wrongly assumed the increased tax revenues would last forever.
While the expected value of two equally possible outcomes, 0 and 1, is 0.5, there is zero chance the outcome will actually be 0.5. It will either be 0 or 1. Based on the level of the stock market today, with a price to earnings ratio of about 13x in the developed world and 11x in the emerging economies, equity investors seem to be pricing in a combination of these outcomes, with the largest weighting going to the goldilocks, mild inflation scenario. But the market’s large daily swings reflect jumps back and forth as investors update the probabilities of these very different destinations.
I believe societies will in the end choose inflation because it is the less painful option for the largest number of its citizens. I am hopeful central banks will be effective in preventing runaway inflation. But it is going to be a long, bumpy journey until the destination becomes clear. This equity market is best for long-term investors who can withstand extended volatility. Day traders beware: chaos is here to stay for the foreseeable future.