The bad smell hovering over the global economy

Contributor Guest Post – Written by Gray Elliot

Two red helicopters fly over Hong KongAll is calm. All is still. Share prices are going up. Oil prices are rising. China has stabilised. The eurozone is over the worst. After a panicky start to 2016, investors have decided that things aren’t so bad after all.

Put your ear to the ground though, and it is possible to hear the blades whirring. Far away, preparations are being made for helicopter drops of money onto the global economy. With due honour to one of Humphrey Bogart’s many great lines from Casablanca: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon.”

But isn’t it true that action by Beijing has boosted activity in China, helping to push oil prices back above $40 a barrel? Has Mario Draghi not announced a fresh stimulus package from the European Central Bank designed to remove the threat of deflation? Are hundreds of thousands of jobs not being created in the US each month?

In each case, the answer is yes. China’s economy appears to have bottomed out. Fears of a $20 oil price have receded. Prices have stopped falling in the eurozone. Employment growth has continued in the US. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting growth in the global economy of just over 3% this year – nothing spectacular, but not a disaster either.

Don’t be fooled. China’s growth is the result of a surge in investment and the strongest credit growth in almost two years. There has been a return to a model that burdened the country with excess manufacturing capacity, a property bubble and a rising number of non-performing loans. The economy has been stabilised, but at a cost.

The upward trend in oil prices also looks brittle. The fundamentals of the market – supply continues to exceed demand – have not changed.

Then there’s the US. Here there are two problems – one glaringly apparent, the other lurking in the shadows. The overt weakness is that real incomes continue to be squeezed, despite the fall in unemployment. Americans are finding that wages are barely keeping pace with prices, and that the amount left over for discretionary spending is being eaten into by higher rents and medical bills.

For a while, consumer spending was kept going because rock-bottom interest rates allowed auto dealers to offer tempting terms to those of limited means wanting to buy a new car or truck. In an echo of the subprime real estate crisis,vehicle sales are now falling.

The hidden problem has been highlighted by Andrew Lapthorne of the French bank Société Générale. Companies have exploited the Federal Reserve’s low interest-rate regime to load up on debt they don’t actually need.

“The proceeds of this debt raising are then largely reinvested back into the equity market via M&A or share buybacks in an attempt to boost share prices in the absence of actual demand,” Lapthorne says. “The effect on US non-financial balance sheets is now starting to look devastating.” Continue reading