Portfolio 033 – Macro is Back, With a Vengeance

This post first appeared at Exante Data’s Money: Inside and Out.

You may not be interested in macro, but macro is interested in you.

The performance of the equity market in the first half of 2022 was the worst in several decades. The S&P 500 fell 20.6%, its worst first half since 1962. And the Nasdaq Composite fell 29.5%, its worst first half ever. These declines were primarily driven by macroeconomic factors—as was the surge that took place in 2020-21—a reality that is at odds with the bottom-up approach favored by most fund managers and analysts. 

In fact, a generation of fund managers have come of age during a period that was exceedingly favorable to equity investing. The context for investing was very stable: the demographic dependency ratio was falling while the population was growing; US institutions were functioning well; there were no large and imminent foreign threats after the fall of the Soviet Union; inflation was tame and interest rates were falling. And if, as happened every now and then, this ideal equilibrium was briefly disrupted by a crisis that hobbled markets, the Fed was always standing by at the ready to intervene and provide the necessary fuel to reignite the economy’s animal spirits.

As a result of this best-of-all-worlds configuration, it became normal for many to view the macro context as fixed and therefore as close to irrelevant to analysis. Prominent investors, pillars of the investment business, encouraged this view by downplaying the importance of macro in their own processes. The great Peter Lynch, the doyen of mutual fund equity investing, famously stated that “if you spend 13 minutes a year on economics, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.” And Warren Buffett was expansive on the subject in a 2014 CNBC interview:

My partner Charlie Munger and I have been working together now for 55 years. We’ve talked about every business you can imagine, and stocks. We’ve never had one decision that involved a macro factor. This doesn’t come up. If I talk to Charlie about [some companies], we don’t get into macro. It just doesn’t make any difference… We really don’t care whether the Fed is going to increase interest rates 100 bps or 200 bps next week.Continue reading at Exante Data >>>

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2022 French Elections with Axel Gyldén, 16 April 2022

Between the two rounds of the French Presidential election (last Sunday and next Sunday), Sami J. Karam speaks to Axel Gyldén, veteran reporter at France’s leading weekly L’Express. Topics include analysis of the first round results, President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity, Marine Le Pen’s probability of winning and what such a victory would mean for France and for Europe.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

With Eduardo Mufarej, Founder of Renova, 17 March 2022

What makes an effective politician? Politicians come from all walks of life but the vast majority of them do not have any formal training in political science or in government or in the tasks and tools of being a politician. Renova, an innovative non-partisan non-profit organization in Brazil, seeks to change that and to also improve governance, by training aspiring political candidates. In this podcast, Sami J. Karam speaks to founder and chairman Eduardo Mufarej about Renova’s mission, its training curriculum and its prospects.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

Demographics of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine

In his article of last summer “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, Vladimir Putin wrote the following:

“But the fact is that the situation in Ukraine today is completely different because it involves a forced change of identity. And the most despicable thing is that the Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions.”

The last sentence addressed the demographics of Russia, in particular the size of its population. For a long while, Putin has been mindful of Russia’s weak demographics. In the past, he has sought to stimulate Russia’s birth rate and has rewarded couples who have more children. According to UN estimates, the Russian population is not growing and its median age is rising. Because Putin views Ukrainians as the same people as Russians, a shift of the Ukrainian identity away from Russia and towards the West would mathematically reduce the total number of Russians. In other words, if you are Russian one day, you can be counted within the total Russian population. But if you no longer identify as Russian because of “forced assimilation”, it is possible that you may no longer be counted within that total.

So let’s take a quick look at the demographics of Russia, Ukraine and also Belarus since it too is viewed by Putin as part of the greater Russian people. As shown in the two tables below compiled from UN Population data, the population of Russia rose from 102.8 million in 1950 to 147.5 million in 1990, or a respectable average of 0.9% per year. But then it went flat after the breakup of the Soviet Union due to the deep economic problems that then affected Russia and other former Soviet Republics. According to the UN’s medium variant projection, Russia’s population will decline to 135 million in 2050. Meanwhile, the median age has nearly doubled since 1950 because couples are having fewer children, a phenomenon seen in many countries/regions including the United States and Europe.

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How to Tax a Billionaire (or Not)

Our institutions created centibillionaires and are now trying to contain them.

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a group of high-achieving industrialists have had enough with being exploited (in their view) by “parasitic” collectivists and “second-handers”. They withdraw to a perfect community Galt’s Gulch aka Atlantis where they can live in peace and prosperity with each other, far away from the do-nothing (in their view) populace and according to their own laws and beliefs.

Because Rand mercifully never wrote a sequel (the original has more words than either War and Peace or Les Misérables), it is not clear whether these supermen and women lived happily ever after or whether, after enjoying the initial high of sticking it to humanity, their infinite egos led them to devour each other to oblivion and Galt’s Gulch disappeared Roanoke-like with no explanation left for posterity. That is, no explanation other than the obvious which is that a healthy society requires a fuller range of social strata and cultures, not only a super-stratum and a monoculture, in order to survive and to prosper.

No escape to Galt’s Gulch is currently offered to today’s billionaires who have so far opted to remain in the real world though they contend daily with insults and attacks from many quarters. It is necessary to say “so far” because some have been toying with otherworldly escapes, be they monetary via cryptocurrencies or interplanetary via emigration to planet Mars. Cryptos would free them from the gravity of central banks. And space from the gravity of Earth. After all, in our culture, “to leave it all behind” is nearly synonymous with high quality living. And to disrupt, to reject the dominant paradigm, are seen as ways to create new wealth.

Bernie vs. Billionaires

While still among us on earth however, even the ultra rich deserve… empathy. Or at least some recognition for their achievements. Their defining characteristic, shorn of all social and economic artifice, remains their humanity, not their wealth. Yet it is assumed by the angry-egalitarian political complex that it is fine to insult and harass a billionaire, as if their humanity was inversely proportional to their wealth. Starting with Bernie Sanders for example, some members of Congress have stated plainly that “billionaires should not exist”.

Because there are among the people mob inciters who amplify their message through social media, this slogan could be interpreted as incendiary, or as unsafely ambiguous. Does ‘billionaires should not exist’ mean that we should tax them until they are no longer billionaires? That would entail taking away 99% of some billionaires’ wealth. Or does it mean that we should limit their growth plans when their wealth hits the $999 million mark? Or force them to give away their wealth to charity? Or something else?

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Update: Working Age Population Around the World 1960-2050

This is an update of a similar post from 2015. The UN projections have changed but only by small numbers. The main observations are the same as six years ago (click table to enlarge in a new tab).

The working age population (WAP, those aged 15 to 64) of sub-Saharan Africa continues to grow rapidly. It has more than doubled since 1990 from 252 million to 609 million, and is expected to more than double again by 2050 to 1.3 billion. If the reality turns out to be anywhere near these projections, it will be a significant challenge for African economies to absorb and to employ productively this enormous amount of new human energy.

India faces a similar challenge with its WAP growing from 928 million now to 1.1 billion in 2050. Though daunting, this represents a slowdown in the rate of growth from the previous thirty-year span 1990-2020.

The WAP of Europe, China and Japan have already peaked and will be declining for the rest of the century, per UN projections. Europe’s decline from near 500 million in 2005 to a projected 407 million by 2050 is mainly due to eastern and southern Europe. The WAP of France and the United Kingdom will flatline to 2050 while those of Germany and Russia decline.

In the United States, the steady growth in the WAP between 1960 and 2005 combined with a falling dependency ratio to fuel strong economic conditions. Growth in the WAP is expected to be more muted in the decades ahead.

Compared to the late 20th century and the first decades of this century, the future growth in the WAP will taper off or even turn negative in several regions and countries. Sub-Saharan Africa stands out as the exception that will maintain strong WAP momentum through at least 2050.

Lebanon in Crisis, with Joe Issa El Khoury

“Historically, Lebanon prospered as a result of inflows of people and funds – people who came to take refuge in Lebanon and also funds. If we look at the post World War 2 period when modern Lebanon became independent and also at previous periods that Lebanon went through – and I mean over the past 100 or 200 years – one thing that was common to all these eras is its liberal economic system that was adopted by all who lived on this land. The constant was the liberal economic system.”____ Joe Issa El Khoury

Sami J. Karam speaks with Joe Issa El Khoury, a Beirut-based financier, about the tragic events that have unfolded in Lebanon since 2019. A sharp fall in the currency, a banking freeze, a political crisis, hyperinflation, and widespread street protests made 2019 a difficult year. But these events were then compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020.

Issa El Khoury explains the sequence of events that led to the present, and offers a possible way forward.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Joe Issa El Khoury
  • 2:25 What is it like right now on the ground in Beirut?
  • 8:33 Why did Lebanon have a golden period in 1945-75; why was it later so prone to crisis?
  • 17:40 The Rafik Hariri era and the return of growth 1990-2005
  • 20:00 What explains the weakness of the Lebanese state: geography and demographics
  • 26:30 Lebanon’s diversity as a source of wealth; Example of Lebanese cuisine
  • 30:40 Crossing the line from a laissez-faire economy to a crony economy
  • 35:05 The real estate boom of 2007-11
  • 36:55 The impact of the Syrian civil war
  • 39:10 Crowding out the private sector
  • 44:10 The proximate factors that led to the meltdown
  • 46:15 The current condition of the banking sector; Role of the Central Bank
  • 51:00 Will depositors suffer a haircut? The Lazard and other plans
  • 54:45 Talk of privatization of state assets
  • 59:45 Political patronage in the public sector
  • 1:01:50 “All roads lead to Washington DC and the acronym IMF”
  • 1:05:20 Political reform and the role of the diaspora

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

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