Hi all. I hope you’ve been well. Sorry things have been quiet around here for a few weeks. As I’m sure you know, the markets have been kind of crazy this year and most of my time has been spent on the phone or in meetings with clients. Between that, annual reviews and an unexpected trip to Australia (more on that in another post), I haven’t had much time to write.
With that said, what the heck is going on with the markets?!? And what, if anything, should you be doing about it? Here’s a quick summary:
The Chinese economy has been slowing. Why? Several reasons. The population is aging. The Chinese currency—the Yuan—is overvalued and making their exports less competitive. Debt in China has skyrocketed. This last point is likely the most significant. Much of the debt in China was used to fuel their breakneck expansion and to meet their predetermined (i.e. not demand driven) GDP targets. This has resulted in no shortage of questionable investments and misallocated capital. I saw this first hand when I was in China several years ago. The skyline was dotted with construction cranes, but enormous new buildings sat empty. Countless high-rise apartments were built regardless of the fact that most Chinese couldn’t afford to live there. Highways, bullet trains and even entire cities were built without much concern for whether or not they were necessary. The fear is that many of those loans will never be repaid and will eventually put a significant strain on the Chinese banking system. The government is trying to engineer a soft landing, but the jury is still out on whether they’ll succeed. In the meantime, the economy is slowing and Chinese demand for commodities has dropped dramatically, which leads me to Point 2.
By some estimates, China consumes about half of the world’s commodities. As their economy slows, their demand for things like copper, steel and especially oil has dropped significantly. Add to that OPEC’s decision to open the floodgates and Iran finally pumping oil after decades of sanctions and commodities have been in free fall. This is generally good for the consumer, because gas is cheaper, but bad for many others (e.g. oil companies, employees at those companies, stockholders of those companies, banks with energy related loans, high yield bondholders, oil producing states like Texas and North Dakota, and countries that are heavily energy export dependent like Brazil, Venezuela, Canada and Russia).
Too much debt is never a problem. Until it is. Most people probably think we have less debt in the system now than we did during the 2008 financial crisis. After all, those bad home loans were mostly written off, Europe smacked Greece into shape and consumers and businesses shored up their balance sheets, right? Um, no. Unfortunately, China isn’t the only one that has piled on debt. Debt is higher now in every category—household, corporate, government, financial—than it was in 2007. The latest numbers I could find put debt $57 trillion (with a “T” like The Titanic) higher than in 2007. That’s a big gain in a short period of time and it has investors nervous. Confidence greases the gears of the global financial system. If lenders lose confidence in borrower’s ability to repay, things get dicey.
From the “what will they think of next” file, many Central Banks around the world have started adopting negative interest rates. That’s right, zero apparently wasn’t low enough. Now they’re moving to negative. ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) has given way to NIRP (negative interest rate policy) in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. The logic is to force banks to lend, weaken currencies to help exports and stimulate economies. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of people who think these policies could come with some pretty significant unintended consequences. This uncertainty has only added to the volatility.
Result: Market Volatility
Markets HATE uncertainty and all of the above have combined to give investors a heaping dose of it. Not surprisingly, most markets around the world are off to a rough start this year with 10-20% drops the norm. But don’t panic. If you go back through the archives at IR, you’ll see that I write an article like this one about once a year. The causes of the volatility change, but not the regularity. So you don’t want to overreact, but you do want to be defensive and make sure that your plans stay on track. The goal is to protect your retirement. As I’ve said many times before, the best way to do that is to Focus on Things You Can Control. That means things like asset allocation, security selection, debt, savings and cash to minimize sequence risk. Focus on those things and this too shall pass.
Have a great weekend!