Pondering Pandemia, Politics, & Policy Mistakes In 2022 (But The Credit Market Is The Biggest Risk)
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Let me present a list of things to worry about next year. Inflation, US and China growth, Stagflation, Central Banks, Stocks, Climate and Equality, etc, etc.. But the big risks will be the consequences of US Politics and a Liquidity Meltdown in the Credit Markets.
As promised yesterday, ahem, my outlook for 2022: I can state with some certainty that 2022 will begin very early in January and go right through to the end of December….. Otherwise, take your pick from the following:
I’ve got a number of main themes..
Inflation will not be transitory – it will grind away at savings as wage demands, labour shortages, supply chain instability, and energy costs undermine the global economy.
Two economies matter – the US will do relatively well. China is going to suffer from major energy dislocation, deepening the global supply chain crisis. Europe – really? UK – please…
There is a moderate probability of stagflation – recession plus inflation.
Central Banks have limited choices: destroy the global economy long-term by doing nothing to unwind monetary distortion, or destroy the global economy now by normalising interest rates. (Basically..)
Stock markets are not at record levels because of productivity gains or soaring earnings, but because money has been overly cheap and central banks accommodative – fuelling the rally. Mean reversion is not a risk – it’s a rule.
Credit spreads don’t reflect current real risks, which will magnify as rates rise – Credit Markets are my number one pick for a chronic liquidity crisis.
Too much easy money and minimal returns have fuelled massive speculation, financial asset inflation, crushed returns and is generating a pensions crisis.
FOMO and social media pressure reached a crescendo with retail desperately gambling on meme stocks and praying that crypto will make them rich. Hope is never an investment strategy.
Politics – especially in the US – will have major consequences for markets.
Regulatory risk in terms of tech and finance are substantial.
Climate change is now recognised as a major risk – policy makers will act.
Inequality is an even larger risk – policy makers are unlikely to act.
Let’s start with the big known unknown: Dysfunctional US Politics.
Back in January 2021 we started the year wondering if Donald Trump would actually exit the White House. He did, but left the US bitterly divided and fractional with 70% of his party convinced the election was “stolen”. The Biden administration has singularly failed to pass any meaningful legislation – and the Republicans haven’t had to do much, letting the Democrats beat themselves. There is no Democratic party as such, just different interest groups sailing in different directions.
The Republicans (at this stage) look certain to win both houses in the Nov mid-terms. That’s going to be the big political theme of the year on markets: just how badly Biden will fail and the Republicans are set to benefit.
If a united purposeful Republican party wins, then that’s a good thing? Well… it would be if it wasn’t likely to confirm a succession of voter-registration “laws”, consolidation of electoral power, and gerrymandering of seats designed to ensure the minority US party retains a majority of power. The party remains in thrall of a vengeful Trump setting its agenda, with moderates being forced out. There will be rising fears the failure of the left in the US is pushing the world’s most important economy towards long-term right-wing protectionism and global disengagement.
If we see the US morphing towards a one-party “democratic-state”, or even a Trump dynasty, markets will probably embrace it, looking forward to tax breaks, subsidies and protections, and a push-back on anti-oil and climate change programmes. Long-term the consequences of a shift to an isolationist right-wing US on geopolitics will be immense. It’s not a pretty vision. All China and Russia have to do is…. wait.
Last year I correctly predicted the global economy would stage a swift recovery from the Pandemic lockdowns, but that supply chains were troubled (brought into focus when a container ship blocked the Suez cannal), and inflation would be a rising risk factor through the year. I pointed out Billionaires got $1.9 trillion richer in 2020 on the back of recovering markets. They did it again the year just past. No political party is yet serious about addressing income inequality.
We’re heading into a very uncertain year for the global economy and markets in 2022. The fiscal consequences of the pandemic spending bailouts are mixed; on one hand government largesse avoid collapse and actually strengthened fundamentals, but the consequences include soaring wage demands, while rising debt levels terrify many investors. Inflation/Stagflation and renewed Covid recession are also known unknowns.
One immediate issue to deal with will be a winter energy crisis. Markets are vastly underestimating just what higher power prices are going to do to corporate earnings and growth across the globe. Europe is particularly vulnerable, the numbers coming out of China may be even more scary – power outages and serious industrial dislocation (caused by rising prices and their unwise attempts to bully Oz), could rapidly send renewed rounds of supply chain chaos around the globe, triggering a host of consequences.
The dearth of financial asset returns has focused investors on now ways to generate alpha on the investment spectrum. That’s always a risk – new risks require new skills and experience to manage. Some of the return strategies are founded in common sense; generating high returns from negotiated private and structured assets, (equity, debt and hybrid). However, although hopes and dreams seldom pay out, inflated hopes and expectations from “disruptive” technologies, right across to wildly speculative conflabulations like cryptocurrencies and NFTs which few folk understand, but which everyone expects to get rich from – will likely still droive markets in 2022.
Never forget – it’s not what you know about markets and expect that matters, but what the market believes that matters. The market is just a voting machine – and if the voters are daft, then prices might be daft, but the price is the price is the price. As the well known saying goes; the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. But even daft markets revert to mean stupidity over time. You can speculate and win in the short-term. In the long run, returns are mean reverting and smart long money generally wins.
So… some quick thots on two dominant other trends likely to set the story of 2022:
The risk of Policy Mistakes
There is a significant risk parts of the global economy could tip into Stagflation triggered by further Covid induced slowdowns and/or policy errors by central banks and governments raising taxes, austerity spending and overly aggressive tightening too early. Policy mistakes will remain a major fear through the new year.
The big risk for the year? Credit
At its core the credit market is broken. Credit Spreads no longer reflect real risks – they gave up doing so sometime after Central banks took over being the market. Now they simply reflect misperceived relative interest rates vs other financial assets. Ultra-low rates have distorted the business cycle – allowing failing firms to survive longer. The market sees lower default rates as positive signal of corporate resilience rather than a signal of something fundamentally wrong. (There you are, my Big Short trade: sell mispriced credit…)
When the whole market is missing debt fundamentals like the capacity to repay debt, the strength of future earnings, and resilience (ie, all the old-fashioned stuff about lending to firms with effective management with a high propensity to repay lenders), then it’s time to be betting against them.
Default risks look to be relatively low, but Zombie overleveraged firms that have beggared themselves via stock buybacks and are now clinging on due to absurdly low rates will clearly suffer as rates rise, and face financing risks in a diminished liquidity environment.. (Which will occur as rates rise.)
But if you want to sell credit… who will buy? Regulation means there is no market making, and if central banks stop buying, the smart money will already be out. The market will go offered only. Anyone left in will find liquidity as rare as an ice-cube in hell.
And on that happy note…. There are a host of other topics I need to cover like energy transition, climate threats and change, growth, the taming of ESG, and many more. I will write about them all in the porridge through the coming year…
Wed, 12/15/2021 – 06:30