As shutdowns are eased around the world, forecasters are debating the likely shape of the recovery. The optimists point to a V-shaped recovery, the pessimists L-shaped, and the cautious look for something less linear, such as W, U or √.
In truth, it is very difficult to know at this stage. The risks aren’t black swans, they are known unknowns, but we simply don’t have enough information at this stage to form our judgment.
|WHAT WE DON’T KNOW||WHAT WE KNOW|
|Whether reopening will coincide with a reacceleration in infections||Governments are willing to provide significant stimulus without fear of resulting debt
|Whether the reopening can broaden or will need to remain narrow, with ongoing social distancing||Central banks do not believe they are out of ammunition
|How the US election will influence the market||Returns from low-risk assets will be anaemic in the coming years
|How Brexit will conclude|
|The degree to which China-rest of world relations will change|
The first set of known unknowns relates to the virus itself. As the economic and fiscal costs have become apparent, politicians have hurried to ease shutdowns, whether the infection is under control or not. It is possible that the combination of a degree of ongoing social distancing, track and trace systems, and better hygiene practices will mean that the reopening happens without a reacceleration in infections. But there is also a risk that the infection rate will pick back up. Governments may be reluctant to re-impose shutdowns in such a scenario, but there will still be economic costs if people choose to socially distance voluntarily (see chart below).
Proportion of goods and services consumption likely to be most affected by pandemic
% of household consumption
We are closely tracking how the virus progresses as well as using high frequency data to gauge the extent to which economic activity is normalising (see charts below). To find the latest statistics on these, please refer to our On the Minds of Investors piece, Monitoring the global impact of Covid-191, which is updated twice a week.
Covid-19 infections and travel and navigation app usage
Daily increase in Covid-19 cases 7-day moving average
Travel and navigation app usage % of 2019 average
As the weeks and months drag on, the more lasting consequences of the recession will become more evident. Policymakers globally have made a gallant attempt to limit the impact and absorb the losses of Covid-19. Grants and subsidies aimed to shift the losses on to government balance sheets. These, in turn, were shifted to central bank balance sheets as asset purchase programmes were expanded to absorb the additional issuance. Governments have been able to issue record high levels of government bonds, at record low interest rates.
Furlough, or short-shift schemes have been the cornerstone of the policy response in Europe (see chart below). However, unemployment has still risen in the UK. The moves on the continent of Europe have been more moderate, but we suspect this is flattered by people not categorising themselves as unemployed because they are not actively looking for work due to either a need to look after children or a choice to remain socially isolated.
US and Europe labour markets
US unemployment Thousands
Proportion of jobs benefiting from government support schemes % of total employment
In the US – which hasn’t adopted widespread furlough schemes – unemployment rose to 14.7% in April though came down slightly in May to 13.3%. We would be considerably more worried about a double-digit unemployment rate were it not for the fact that the US social safety net has been made considerably more generous. Indeed, estimates suggest that 75% of those that have lost work are in fact better off given the additional USD 600 a week that has been added to unemployment benefits. This boost to benefits is set to expire on 31 July and, though an extension of some sort looks likely, it is likely to be less generous. We are therefore monitoring labour market data closely to gauge any shift in unemployment from those currently classified as temporary to permanent (see chart above).
What will be the lasting consequence of higher levels of public debt? Is a new wave of austerity ahead? Public sector pay and benefit freezes – which were an important component of the spending restraint in the last expansion – seem unlikely given the degree of austerity fatigue in the population. Wealth taxes may be appealing given the resilience of asset prices, but these policies run into the practical problem that much of people’s wealth is stored in housing assets and held by individuals that are asset rich and income poor. One off ‘Pigouvian’ income taxes on higher earners are also being touted. We see it as more likely that finance ministers will forge ahead with plans to tax the large multi-nationals that obtain tax advantages by choosing favourable domiciles.
There is one global debt-reducing strategy we see as almost inevitable: interest rates will be held down for the foreseeable future. One suspects that policymakers are hoping for a repeat of the post-war period, in which a combination of yield curve control and financial repression kept the interest rate below nominal growth and helped erode government debt as a percent of GDP (see charts below).
US financial repression in the 1940s
US nominal GDP growth and 10-year Treasury yield %, nominal GDP growth is % change year on year
US public debt outstanding % of nominal GDP, by fiscal year
Lower interest rates will help corporates, which, on aggregate, have also experienced a significant rise in debt as a result of Covid-19. While we don’t expect governments to focus on deleveraging, the same may not be said for the corporate sector. Corporate deleveraging may constrain investment spending and employment growth and, in turn, the economic recovery.
So what is the letter most apt to describe the economic recovery? Our standard alphabet might not suffice but, in our view, expecting a symmetrical V is too optimistic. The recovery is likely to be more gradual, with a few stop-starts along the way. All the while, investors should be mindful of some sizeable tail risks lurking.
One such risk is China’s relationship with the world in the wake of Covid-19. Our opinion is that de-globalisation is easier (politically) said than done. China is highly integrated in global supply chains. As the 2019 trade war demonstrated, it is very hard to reduce trade links without causing significant economic harm in western economies. However, it does seem likely that China will come under scrutiny for regulatory standards, which may in turn raise inflationary pressures. Despite the economic realities, rhetoric towards China may intensify for short-term political reasons.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the US, which enters full election mode in the coming months. At this stage it is still difficult to say anything definitive about who will win, whether the victor will have full control of Congress, or the impact on markets.
The top priority for whoever emerges successful will be to manage the recovery as the economy restarts in earnest in 2021. Tough choices will need to be made about whether to push on with further stimulus or to try to tighten the purse strings as the recovery takes hold. President Trump had already flagged his desire for a second round of tax cuts prior to Covid-19, but with US national debt-to-GDP now set to rise above 100% this year, further corporate tax cuts could face greater opposition. While Trump is yet to lay out a clear agenda for a second term, the tough-on-China and tough-on-trade stances that were at the core of the 2016 Republican campaign will remain a key tenet of his approach.
For the Democrats, as the most left-leaning candidates exited the primary race, so did their policies. Yet it is clear that presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s vision for corporate America is still very different to that of President Trump. Two topics that investors will need to monitor closely are a proposal to use anti-trust legislation to clamp down on ‘Big Tech’ and plans for corporate tax changes. Biden’s campaign team has also been keen to emphasise its candidate’s tough-on-China credentials. Historically, escalating trade tensions have favoured the higher-quality US stock market relative to other regions, but a ramp-up in pressure on the tech titans would pose risks to US market leadership given the high weights to the technology and communication services sectors in US indices.
The second half of the year may therefore put us in the unusual position in which the political risk premium may be higher on US assets than on those of continental Europe, where the signs look increasingly positive. Though it still needs to be ratified by all EU member states, the European Recovery Fund is a significant step forward. Not only will it provide invaluable short-term help for countries like Italy but it provides a strong signal for the long term with regards to the fiscal integration that is much needed to complement the monetary union.
If the recovery in the US lags due to lingering Covid risks, and perceptions of political risk change, we could see downward pressure on the dollar.