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Economy

A Red Letter Day for Global Trade


Brexit

July 24, 2016 is a day when two events impacting world trade became real – and create
a puzzle of after-effects. The implications of Brexit and the opening of a higher-capacity Panama Canal are going to ripple through a wide range of industries over the coming months and years.

At this writing markets are roiling around the world over Brexit. What’s puzzling is that there seemed to be almost no market adjusting in advance of the vote. What? Didn’t the polls continue to estimate the vote was too close to call? In those instances I always advise clients to be ready for either outcome and to take actions in advance to hedge, protect, and be ready to trigger pre-thought moves.

The EU is a key piece of the global economy. There’s no doubt it is weakened by this action. In economic forecasts recently I’ve been warning of the difficulty that arises when two major economic players are simultaneously at risk of recession. Britain and the EU may simultaneously dip after this action and the difficulties in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and China could trigger a serious downturn.

The Canal? A longer-term but perhaps even more precarious situation. Panama took the low bid on the reconstruction of their overwhelmingly prime asset. The limitations to “Panamax” sized vessels limited shipping for at least the last 40 years of the century-old infrastructure. The rebuilding of the lock system enables very large container vessels through the “new” Canal.

Problems? Count em. Substandard concrete based on fracture-prone Panamanian rock. Poor design. Reliance on Spanish-built tugs that can only reliably operate in reverse, not forward. Not enough room in the locks for giant ships and the tugs at front and rear of the ships. Insufficient steel reinforcing in several areas of the new locks. And all that along in an El Nino-induced record drought that means that super-vessels don’t have enough water to float between the oceans.

One mistake. One super-ship into a lock wall and it all comes tumbling down. Planned volumes through the Canal like US grain into Asian markets are disrupted. China’s shipments to US East Coast ports. Months if not years of delays. Funding shortfalls that could topple the Panamanian economy.

Fiduciaries, leaders, directors, management? Sharpen up your implication thinking and start the discussions and actions now.

Image - Copyright: nerthuz / 123RF Stock Photo

Quick Look at the Economy

2016 isn’t off to the greatest economic start if you’re anywhere but the United States. China’s stock market has flirted with free fall, the Middle East has Shia-Sunni outright war in the tea leaves, and commodity prices have all but collapsed. The EU and Japan still pass the mirror test to see if they’re breathing – but barely.

With clients in agriculture, financial services, and construction on the agenda for the first half of the year I’m asked to weigh in. Generally, I’m optimistic.

There are problem areas. Commodity prices in the low range means crop farmers see the end of their 6-7 year run of record returns. Not a lot of new pickups in the shed these days. It’s a return to eking out profit from slim margins. Livestock producers benefit from lower feed prices. A lot of eyes are on the presidential election where a Republican win could affect biofuel policy that’s been buoying up grain prices – with corn as the leader. Plus the El Nino introduces even more weather and moisture uncertainty than usual. The dollar is expected to remain strong, working against exports. Huge amounts of US grains are sold overseas and the competition is stiff.

Financial service companies – banks, insurance, credit unions – depend on a stable to rising economy to produce loan demand. A GDP performance for the US economy usually points to a reasonably good year but it’s not quite that simple. The Fed is raising interest rates, albeit tentatively. The rest of the world is not. It makes for difficult decision-making. I’ll be in the room for about a dozen strategic planning meetings in this sector this year and the discussions will be “interesting.”

No sector deserves a better environment than construction and the outlook is fairly good this year after nearly a decade of abysmal to bad news. Commercial construction for 2016 should be up. One of the key indicators, billings at architectural firms, were up significantly for all of 2015 which should translate to buildings coming out of the ground in ’16. The home building sector is also looking positive. The National Association of Home Builders is projecting about a 25% increase in 2016 year on year despite some nagging worries about labor availability and costs. Job creation is a big driver in this sector.

But the question about whether the US economy can stand up to a world slowdown still stands. There are several factors that work in the country’s favor:

  • The US is so much better an investment destination than other global regions that it stands to attract more capital.
  • US consumers, as long as the job outlook remains strong and fuel prices remain low, will spend.
  • China is a totalitarian state. Don’t overlook the possibility that it can do almost anything it wants to get growth back up to a 5% GDP range. Plus it still possesses huge cash reserves.
  • The EU and Japan don’t have a great recent track record for growth but neither do they stand to take a deep dive into recession.

April, 2014 - Long Overdue Update to Our Scanning

It’s economic forecast month for me. Several ongoing clients have me addressing a range of industries with a look specifically at macroeconomic cycles and impact. I always start with a disclaimer that I’m not a predictor but a forecaster and the difference.

Forecasters look into the future and express their views with a reading on relative certainty and change those forecasts with time and new information.

Right now the US economy, the topic I’ve been addressing this month looks generally favorable with a 75% to greater chance of working through 2014 with slow growth in GDP. Probably (over 50%) in the 2% range. In other words, without “escape velocity” that would allow robust growth, a rise in interest rates, a spike in consumer confidence, and a greater demand for credit.

In short, for my clients in banking and construction, it’s OK news but we’re probably not too excited about it.

2015 looks better fundamentally. I’d move my forecast up to a 2.5 to 3% GDP growth rate in the year with a 75% probability and I think I’ll be elevating probability by year-end.

Agriculture is one of my key client segments. I’ve been privileged to work with North America’s smartest agriculture leaders, commodity associations, agribusiness companies, and farmers. I love them. And the business in this sector has been extremely good for a run of about 6 years. Unfortunately that may be ending.

Due to a combination of factors crop prices will almost certainly be falling and the bloom is off the rose for a number of players in the field. The counter-cyclical beneficiaries may be the animal protein sector where lower commodity prices translate to lower feed prices. Cattle might benefit particularly if its prices haven’t gone so high in the supermarket that consumers will further reduce their consumption.

Nobody deserved a good run more than the farmer. In my opinion they’re the most misunderstood business executives in North America today. While some critics of “production agriculture” whinge about “millionaire corn farmers” and “corporate farms” they completely ignore the statistics that over 90% of US farms are family-owned. And what family that runs a business doesn’t have that business incorporated? Only the naive.

I’ll have more to say on the agriculture outlook in later posts. Thanks to those of you who reminded me to stay at the blog. The workload has been a bit heavy but I’m about to take some time away from the road to get an overhaul of a bum ankle soon and I’ll have more time to share what I’ve learned from my smart clients in the months ahead.

The Middle East and Us

Almost 3 months into the wave of unrest in the Middle East and we’re staring at events like a deer in headlights. It might be a good time to take stock of how events might play out.

The best case scenario for an American economic recovery, avoidance of inflation, and $6 gasoline?
Moderation. Ghadifi quietly leaves Libya. A compromise between the separatists and the former cabinet and military. Eqypt remains somewhat quiet and their military fulfills promises of Mubarak crony removals and elections.

But those two possibilities are far less than certain. I’d give them less than 40% probability right now. Libya’s important production of light sweet crude oil will come offline for some time. Today I passed my first sign for $5.00 gasoline in San Diego, CA.

The more troubling events could occur in Saudi Arabia. The mere fact that government troops are firing rubber bullets at crowds is chilling. Despite the royal family throwing billions at the less advantaged citizens the groundswell from the educated population could destabilize the largest exporter of oil in the world. Crux facts: there is a huge concentration of the Shia minority around the Saudi’s oil production and shipping locations. Just like Benghazi in Libya, it’s strategic.

So what?

Think
1979.

Oil prices spike to $200 or perhaps beyond.

Oh yeah, you might not have been born then or you are too young to remember. Lines around blocks at gas stations (and there were almost 3 times as many as we have today with a population half the size). Declaration of a national crisis. Rationing. Price controls. Gas cans in auto trunks. Third world stuff.

Then, in the years that followed, runaway inflation coupled with a recession and double-digit interest rates. I was running a business in a market with real resistance to price increases when my operating line of credit went to 22%. It’s one reason I never, ever again want to make payroll for more than 40 people.

Worse, the US government can’t absorb a huge spike in what it pays to service the debt. The dollar will be wiped away as the world’s reserve currency, capital will leave the country, and the 1930’s will repeat and potentially be even more catastrophic.

I’m not saying the scenario is likely. I think it is still less than 30% probable but that probability increases daily to the point where we want to think through implications and actions.

In a recent Twitter post I pointed out a NY Times article on a fellow who’s gone “off the grid” in Texas by living in the desert on solar and wind power and capturing rainfall for water. Funny thing is that it’s both one of the most read and most e-mailed articles on the publication at this writing.

More in the days and weeks ahead. Hope for moderation in the Middle East and some leadership in our country. This could become a perfect catalyst for us to take steps to begin resolving our financial, energy, and world dominance issues.