The global market outlook for 2014 will most likely be comprised of three main themes:
- Modest growth;
- Continued low inflation;
- Weakening potential.
Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) anticipates and/or recommends:
- Revised 2013 and 2014 global growth projections (2.7% and 3.6% versus 3.1% and 4%);
- A frustratingly vulnerable global recovery more than five years after the Lehman Brothers collapse;
- Despite the Eurozone exiting a recession, the ECB should be looking at policies to further reduce interest rates;
- That the Fed should keep its accommodative stance intact rather than considering the beginning of tapering.
The upside risks remain centered on capital investment – a global problem in 2013, where many corporations were long “cash” and repeatedly caught behind the investment curve.
More than five years after the onset of the Great Recession, consistent global growth remains elusive, prompting central banks to stick with artificially low interest rates while pumping an unprecedented infusion of cash into the financial system.
As they search for new ways to stimulate liquidity to augment the stimulus measures they’ve enacted, central bank policymakers must also fight deflation, and as expected, these are the themes that will continue to dominate the European Central Bank’s (ECB) train of thought as it has at the Bank of Japan (BoJ). Many foreign exchange (forex) participants and analysts are anticipating fiscal policy to be less of an impediment to U.S. growth in 2014. If so, it should allow the Federal Reserve to carefully navigate away from making asset purchases and reduce its massive $85-billion-a-month bond-buying program.
In 2013, the forex asset class managed to loiter within a contrived trading range policed by various central bank policies that, at times, led to a drop in both currency volume and volatility for painfully long stretches. The post-Lehman Brothers storm has now been replaced by a calmer period that continues to lack a badly needed injection of global corporate investment to help spur growth (think Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s third arrow problems, high unemployment in the Eurozone, and tentative U.S. growth).
There is great expectation that the U.S. and Europe will lead any rebound in the developed market. Next year, the U.S. is expected to reduce the fiscal drag (increased taxes and spending seizures) that the American economy has endured in the last few years. Hopefully, this will lead to a consensus of a real growth rate of approximately +3%. That’s a far better prospect than what’s unfolding across the Atlantic. Recent hard and soft European data would suggest a more muted and gradual recovery for the 17-member single currency bloc. In Japan where Abenomics reigns, additional monetary easing, and stimulus from Abe’s third arrow, should be capable of compensating the fiscal tightening (sales tax) Tokyo will initiate at the end of the first quarter in 2014. Japan is an export driven economy, a country that requires a weaker yen to further boost exports and economic growth. Critics of Abe’s three arrow policies are certainly wary of the fact that increasing the inflation rate to 2% may not necessarily increase consumption and economic activity. Even changes in the structure of Japan’s economy, do not necessarily mean that a lower currency may have the same effect on exports and growth. The short-yen trade has dominated many forex portfolios this past year. It has certainly been a trade of “patience,” a trade that’s expected to continue to dominate in the coming year.
In general, any stabilization in developed markets will eventually aid emerging markets, as increased demand in developed economies will soften the blow to any export deficits felt in the emerging world.
If this is what unfolds, it would be somewhat safe to assume that any improvement within the U.S., Eurozone, and Japan will complement the stabilization of China’s economy, and it should support emerging market growth next year. However, even if the cyclical outlook for emerging economies growth is pegged to improve, structural weakness is likely to persist. As a result, the spread between emerging and developed markets will probably narrow. Regarding China’s “reform package”, the focus is on how quickly China might allow productivity to rebound, as well as how it alters the orientation of growth. By any measure, China is faring best as it adjusts policy to confront the changing global outlook. The market expects steady growth to be maintained between +7.5% and +8%.
Speaking in Tongues
Monetary policy will continue to deliver effective stimulus everywhere, but nowhere is that urgency greater than in Japan and Europe. It is widely expected that Japan’s prime minister will implement new quantitative measures in 2014, while the threat of deflation may pressure the ECB to introduce negative interest rates for the first time in its tenure. The Fed is expected to begin tapering while keeping short-term interest rates low for the foreseeable future. Any central bank policy divergences will provide investment opportunities in equities, forex, and to a certain extent, in fixed-income. Central banks must continue to improve communication with the market and speak with plain language. As witnessed on a few occasions in 2013, incoherent dialogue leads to market risk.
Central banks’ monetary policies are expected to remain highly simulative and somewhat innovative in 2014. The Fed (soon-to-be under new leadership) will provide stronger forward guidance and it will reduce its monthly asset-purchase program. Other central banks will have to adapt to any move the Fed makes. With global rates remaining “lower for longer”, it would suggest more market opportunities in other asset classes like equities. However, investors have yet to experience how a Fed taper will play out.
The Fed requires the “terrible twos” to be constant before tapering will be seriously considered:
- U.S. growth more than +2%;
- Inflation greater than +2%;
- Nonfarm payrolls to print employment numbers in the +200k’s.
The forex market is under the impression that any notion of Fed tapering is data-dependent. This may not be wholly accurate. Reading between the “transparent” lines, it’s been suggested that U.S. policymakers are increasingly keen to pullback on liquidity and reduce the Fed’s monthly bond-buying program, with or without any noticeable improvement on the jobs front. If one digs deeper, it becomes obvious that the Fed is already discussing “concerns about the efficacy or costs of future asset purchases.” The main hurdle for the Fed to overcome has to do with communicating its intentions concisely. The steepness of the U.S. Treasury yield curve suggests that it so far has succeeded in getting its message across clearly to investors – front rates remain low, while the long-end has backed up. The Fed is required to partake in a fine balancing act – too much tightening too fast could cause an unsightly global domino effect.
Are improving fundamentals fueling an imminent withdrawal of the Fed’s loose monetary policy? Whether the Fed begins to taper its asset purchases in December or in the first quarter of 2014 doesn’t matter all that much. Many in the market do not expect the various asset classes to perform as wildly as they had when the Fed first floated the idea back in May 2013. Regardless, equities remain the global investors’ asset of choice despite assurances that stock returns will not necessarily carry-over smoothly into 2014. Others believe that the “mighty” dollar is on edge and about to wake from a two-month slumber of tightly contained range trading. Improvement in U.S. growth and the orderly move higher in Treasury yields is sure to support the dollar. This is in stark contrast to what the forex market was exposed to during the summer of 2013’s emerging market flight. During that period, investors were wide-open to volatile spikes and the relentless selling of emerging economic assets, firm in the belief that the Fed was on the cusp of reducing its quantitative easing program. The USD should be highly favored, especially against a dovish yen and Aussie next year.
On the other side of the planet, the jury remains out on Abenomics. Of the three arrows in Abe’s quiver – bold monetary easing, flexible fiscal policy, and a growth strategy aimed at bolstering the economy’s supply capacity – only the first arrow has hit the bull’s eye. Despite the yen underperforming across the board, and Tokyo distancing itself from any suggestion of currency manipulation, the market believes that another “arrow” aimed at devaluing the yen to an even greater degree will most likely need to be drawn and released in the first quarter of 2014 – if not sooner. There is a concern that directly devaluing the yen may not provide the intended impetus. A weaker domestic currency is advantageous for an export-driven economy. However, relying on a weak yen to expand economic growth can be easily and quickly trumped by Japan’s territorial and political disputes with China, an increasingly important trading partner for the island nation.
China’s Uncertain Reform Blueprint
The world’s second-largest economy is faring best as it adjusts policy to confront the changing global outlook. China’s growth prospects will be less of a concern in 2014. The reform package reportedly proposed by Communist Party General-Secretary, Xi Jinping, following the Third Plenary Session last November, will surely dominate most analysts’ thoughts next year. The success of the plan will be determined by how these policies will be executed. After decades of rapid expansion, the Chinese economy is entering a period of slower growth, and Beijing is under growing pressure to address issues that threaten further economic development and social stability. Now that the Chinese manufacturing sector has become somewhat unprofitable, it has led to less private investment – a global problem. Though the document focuses on improving China’s capacity to carry out economic and financial reforms, it remains light on details.
According to the OECD, China’s 2013 gross domestic product (GDP) was 7.7%, and the OECD expects it to achieve 8.2% next year. While Chinese economic recovery of the last 12 months is subdued when compared to recent history, money and credit growth needs to be reined in. The OECD suggests Beijing should increase social benefits, financial liberalization, and tax reform.
Nevertheless, China’s economy remains strong. What sets China apart is that it has been growing because of structural change as the government addresses its economic weakness quickly – a by-product of its political ideology. It will continue on its trajectory to become more of a middle-income country.
Emerging Markets Outlook
Aggregate emerging market growth has slowed to less than +4% in only three years. Emerging markets are predominately pressured by the slowdown in fixed-investment spending, which accounts for approximately +50% of that pullback. That said analysts believe the cyclical outlook for emerging market growth is steadily improving. Stronger growth from developed markets is expected to boost external demand, and when coupled with still-low real interest rates in most emerging countries, it should also continue to support domestic demand. Based on the International Monetary Fund’s real GDP growth forecast for 2014-15, Turkey, Mexico, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungry, and China should be the biggest net benefiters. Of course, a stronger U.S. economy should be capable of pushing emerging markets’ real GDP growth even higher. Last summer’s intense pressure on the emerging forex market was brought about by the possibility of Fed tapering. The tightening of a loose U.S. monetary policy caused a massive backlash that saw investors and speculators dumping emerging market assets, with many seeking shelter in American assets. During this period of intense pressure, the Fed surprised the market and delayed the much anticipated tapering, in turn giving emerging markets a second life that allowed these economies to experience a relief rally. In reality, the challenges unstable emerging economies face has merely been delayed, not averted. Any emerging market countries and currencies with weak growth, structural issues, high debt, and other funding concerns will experience the pain of renewed capital market pressure when the Fed does begin to reduce its bond-buying program.
All that Glitters is Not Gold
In recent years, commodity prices have been competitively correlated with growth in emerging market industrial production. As growth slowed in these regions, so too have commodity prices, especially gold. The yellow metal will close-out 2013 in the red for the first time in 13 years. It’s no wonder that this long-time bull story will top many analysts’ 2013 financial stories of the year. With emerging market growth lagging, this has led to muted growth in overall commodity prices. This is not expected to change in 2014 – emerging market structural concerns combined with excess supply of commodities will lead to further stagnation of commodity prices. Many investors who brought gold as an inflation hedge have fared poorly. The market is losing faith in the metal as a store of value due to concerns that the Fed will reduce its asset purchases and ease the risk of accelerating inflation.
What may have caught many gold bugs off-guard is India. The world’s second-most populous country is to be dethroned as the biggest purchaser of the yellow metal on the planet. China will assume that status in 2014 with a consistent appetite. China has imported more than 100 tons of gold per month in the second half of 2013. For some, the Chinese demand is a case of too little, too late. John Paulson, the best-known gold bull since he started wagering on bullion more than three years ago, is backing away from his bet. Paulson made it clear to investors that he would not be adding to his gold fund because of inflation uncertainty. To date, Paulson’s fund has lost -63%. The market expects Chinese gold demand to continue to pick-up before the lunar New Year at the end of January 2014 due to a lack of alternative investment opportunities. With equities under pressure, and Chinese authorities dissuading real estate investment, gold remains a solid alternative.
However, spot gold prices continue to be dictated by U.S. economic data and monetary policy. Global investors need solid clues on what to expect on American policy direction for trade vindication.