WASHINGTON – Maersk, (based in Denmark) is the largest shipping conglomerate in the world. Their business is to transport every day tens of thousands of containers from exporters to importers around the world. The company just announced losses for 2015. Just a temporary setback? Well, apparently not. Maersk ascribes this setback to shrinking global trade volumes. Their profits are way down because a much weaker world economy generates much less shipping of goods.
The worst since 2008
Maersk’s CEO is quoted by the WSJ saying that the conglomerate is facing a “massive deterioration”, adding that this is the worst they have seen since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008. Got that? We are back to a 2008-like scenario. I suggest that this is really bad.
And Maersk believes that this weak trade flows trend will continue in 2016. We should pay close attention to what Maersk managers say. Global shipping volumes are a very good proxy for world economic health. 95% of all manufactured goods are transported via containers that get to destination thanks to global shipping companies like Maersk.
Less activity in ports world-wide
Maersk is not alone in predicting bad times. DP World, a very large Dubai based port facilities management company, with operations in 70 terminals in practically every continent, chimed in, indicating that their business (handling the containers moved by Maersk and other shipping companies) is down, significantly. And the IMF confirms this pessimism about a global economy that run out of steam. They have lowered their forecasts for both growth and international trade flows.
So, here we go. The big companies that handle global trade are hurting. Their business is down because the world economy is slowing down, at a rapid pace. They are worried.
And why is that? Because the day of reckoning is finally getting close. The jig is up. For several years we have lived in a fools’ paradise created by easy money created by central banks that caused asset price inflation in developed countries, and too much easy credit in emerging markets. Underlying economic conditions all over were rather weak, but everything looked good because of the artificial froth created by monetary easing. `
Central banks to the rescue
Until recently, when stock market worldwide showed signs of weakness, investors simply waited for central banks in the US, the EU, UK, and Japan to come to the rescue. And they were never disappointed. Trying to boost sagging economies, central bankers would launch, or relaunch, monetary easing, and zero per cent interest.
They would ladle quantitative easing, or QE. If it wasn’t enough, they would ladle some more. When that did not do the trick, they went further. Some of them (Japan’s Central Bank just joined the group) stopped paying interest to commercial banks parking their funds with them.
More of everything
And when even that proved to be insufficient, some of them started charging interest on deposits as a way to force banks to lend more in order to induce more growth. (Even Janet Yellen, the Chairwoman of the US Fed, just declared during a congressional testimony that negative interest rates could be looked at here in the US as a policy option, in some scenarios).
All these gimmicks produced some results. But nothing stellar. With all this gigantic monetary stimulus, the US has been growing at a modest 2%. Europe, at roughly 1%, has done much worse. Still, notwithstanding meager results, the international financial community seemed to be comfortable.
As long as the central banks seemed to be in control, busy doing one thing or another to prop up markets and keep stock markets reasonably buoyant, (regardless of the weak underlying economic fundamentals), it all looked promising.
Except that everybody, unless totally insane, must have known that nothing was right. Here is the thing. The extravagantly long season of monetary easing did not do much to grow the economies. But zero interest rates pushed cash from savings into stocks, therefore artificially boosting stock prices.
This cannot go on for ever.
Therefore, investors paying high prices for inflated assets must know that these high valuations were and are artificial. What happens when the central banks cannot provide any more monetary easing?
Governments have done nothing
It is true that central banks intervened so heavily mostly because governments did practically nothing. Sadly, in most western countries there has been no serious attempt to launch new pro-market, pro-growth, pro-investments policies. And it is obvious that, without a business friendly policy environment, there will be fewer investments, less innovation, less enterprise, fewer new companies, and fewer new jobs. And this means no growth, or lackluster growth.
But policy-makers, paralyzed by their ideological blinders that privilege spending on social issues as opposed of investments in future growth, sat on their hands.
It is true that central bankers, at least in the US and in the EU, pleaded with governments. They wanted action, real reforms that would free up resources, favor enterprise and therefore new growth. They did say that they could not manage the economies all on their own. But nobody listened, and almost nothing happened.
No reforms in the US
In the US nothing has been done about reforming entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) and a horrendously complicated, burdensome federal tax system that discourages business creation. On the contrary, instead of reducing regulations, the US government keeps adding more, this way suffocating enterprises with unnecessary mandates.
In Europe, if anything, it is even worse. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe back in December 2010 announced “Abenomics” a major reform plan consisting of “three arrows”: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. Well, thanks to a subservient Bank of Japan, he got the monetary easing. But the rest –especially the structural reforms– did not happen. Abe simply could not deliver. Japan continues to stagnate.
Central banks keep easing
So, confronted with systemically weak economies, and no help from policy-makers, the central banks tried to provide more oxygen via monetary stimulus. And it worked; but only a little. However, in so doing, the central banks created unprecedented asset price distortions and misdirected the allocation of capital. Trying to buy some time, they created a gigantic mess.
And now investors are very uneasy. They are on the lookout for any signs that may indicate the imminent collapse of this house of cards. They know that China, the most astonishing example of fake growth almost entirely financed (since the 2008 Great Recession) by unprecedented levels of new debt, is doing poorly. How poorly? Well, we do not know, because we cannot trust Chinese economic statistics. But global investors know that something really bad is brewing there. There is massive industrial over capacity, and no new demand. There is capital flight. For how long can the Chinese Government keep so many virtually bankrupt companies open? Not for ever.
And the same investors know and fear the cascading effects of the China retreat, some of them already unfolding, (and captured by Maersk’s warning on world trade flows deterioration). Indeed, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and others are closely tied to the Chinese economy. Many of their companies are part of China’s supply chains. So, as China goes down, they follow. This means a broader contraction.
And then you have all the commodities producing countries, also hurt badly by China’s slow down. This would be bad enough as it is. But it is made a lot worse by the fact that the rapid growth of many sectors (not just commodities) in emerging markets was debt-financed. Now that business is down, and profits have disappeared, where is the money to pay back the loans? These companies are going down, while their fall causes losses in the financial sector. This means more negative ripple effects.
So, here is the picture. Stock markets are over valued. Commodities producing countries are in bad shape because of lack of demand from China and over supply. There is too much bad debt.
Too much debt
Now, is this another September 2008 in the making? Who knows really. It is clear that no major economy is in high gear. On top of that, at least some highly indebted companies will be unable to make it. There are nasty rumors of troubled European banks with too many non performing loans on their books. Now they are abandoned by investors who fear the worst.
In China, at least for now, the losses are disguised through heavy-handed interventions by the state. But what about elsewhere? In the US, for instance, many of the companies that participated in the now defunct shale oil boom borrowed heavily to finance their operations. Because of the oil price collapse, now many of them will go under. This already hurt producers, contractors, suppliers and vendors, not to mention tens of thousands of high paying jobs lost. And you have to add the banks that financed the energy boom to the list. More broadly, the global financial system is exposed to a lot of non recoverable loans in emerging markets.
So, there you have it. The global economic slow down is here to stay, according to Maersk and others. I would trust them. It is their core business to properly understand trends in trade flows.
Commodities prices are not going to rebound. Mining multinationals from Glencore to BHP Billiton to Vale are in bad shape. China got a massive indigestion and stopped buying. Brazil is in a recession. Russia is doing poorly because of low oil prices. Europe is fragile. And there is a lot of bad debt in distressed emerging countries.
US cannot insulate itself
It is true that in this rather gloomy context the US is not doing so badly. We have some growth, (a bit more than 2%), and unemployment is way down, (4.9%). The point is that the US is not strong enough to be able to insulate itself from these global currents. While the American economy is less dependent on foreign trade, many large US companies are tied to world markets. (Think about Caterpillar, or General Electric). If they suffer because of lost foreign sales, there will be ripple effects. At some point America as a whole will also feel the pain.
And if this happens while investors lose confidence in the Fed’s ability to keep propping up markets with some more tricks, then all bets are off. At that point expect a mad rush for the exit.
Right now a US recession seems a very distant possibility. But may be it is a lot closer than we think.