Countdown To Trend Exhaustion…?

It’s day 96 of my 100-day no alcohol challenge, so who’s counting? I’m certainly not exhausted. Quite the contrary, but recently I have been prone to describe the benefits as “over-rated”. However, this proximity to completion does focus the mind on other things potentially ending in the world of business and investment. In particular, and by pure coincidence, in my day-to-day risk role I’m seeing some multi-year business trends begin to stall or enter new phases of growth. But, first let’s deal with a monetary shift.

The consensus view on inflation and interest rates was that both were on a downward trajectory with central banks promising to cut rates if consumer prices were on track for a more manageable 2% annual growth. Europe seems to be on track, and the ECB just today indicated its rate cut cycle could begin in the summer. If anything, the Fed (FOMC) in the US was going to move before the Europeans, with money market traders heavily betting on a June cut. Ouch! This week’s US inflation report (CPI) caused some real pain for those traders as core CPI came in ‘hot’ at a year-on-year 3.8% rate of price increase. That’s way off a 2% level targeted by the Fed and means a significant reversal in monetary leadership as money markets now price an ECB cut in June, and the Fed to follow suit in September. That’s a big change in expectations.

As always, the cost of money (rates) drives all financial asset prices and this ‘change’ in trend could have an immediate impact on currency markets. Watch the Japanese yen continuing to fall to a 34-year low versus the dollar and Tokyo’s stock market at a 34-year high. A Bank of Japan rate hike might be needed to stabilise its currency, but not necessarily cheered by stock market investors. In fact, the yen-dollar relationship is often used by traders as a proxy measure of ‘risk’. The trend in markets for the last 15-18 months has been ‘risk on’. In other words, asset prices have generally rallied as investor confidence grew. A shift to ‘risk off’ could hurt some of the higher flying assets of recent times. I note Goldman Sachs’ investment division is growing wary of US technology (“Magnificent 7”) but there’s another newer asset class which might also stall its impressive return to form.

Bizarrely, this new asset class was designed and built to escape the scrutiny and influence of the all-powerful global central banks. I’m talking cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin which has quietly risen to its historic pricing highs of $72,000. However, rather than become independent of the traditional global financial system, Bitcoin has become an asset used by traders to increase risk exposure (buy Bitcoin) or reduce risk (sell Bitcoin).  So, if ‘risk on’ trends are due a pause or reversal, it will be deliciously ironic that decisions in an office in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, by Bank of Japan officials could drive the price action of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. However, cryptocurrencies are not the only technology asset on a serious upward trend but facing a few teething problems. The hottest investment topic on the planet right now is AI. However, like central banking, there seems to be an emerging divergence of fortunes…

The remarkable feature of the AI investment boom, compared to crypto and metaverse, is the sheer scale of investment. It’s not just hype. Nvidia, the $2 trillion poster child of AI and manufacturer of the chips powering AI learning models, is booking real orders and reporting real 6-fold revenue growth in little more than 12 months. However, the future ‘winners’ in providing these AI services are less visible. Of course, Big Tech, with Amazon, Microsoft and Google leading the charge, are busy building or acquiring chips, talent, language models, data and technologies to win the AI race. This race requires vast amounts of investment capital and the smaller players are beginning to struggle. Once upon a time, London-based StabilityAI had raised $100 million at a $1 billion ‘unicorn’ valuation but has ended up with a CEO/founder departure, a Getty Images lawsuit, $99 million of debt and just $11m of revenues. A recent Forbes article suggested the firm had run out of cash to pay its Amazon(AWS) cloud computing bills. Clearly, the overall AI investment trend is intact but it is important to understand the nuances and risk-shifts within that structural story. Now, for an excellent example of that point.

The simultaneous growth of global GDP and an ageing demographic has ensured a steady flow of pensions and savings capital into equity markets. This has resulted in long-run returns for investors in developed equity markets of 6-7% per annum over the decades. However, as the investment pool of retirees increases my little ‘risk radar’ is seeing a problem and a solution. Firstly, many readers will be aware of the Irish stock exchange(ISEQ) and the mighty London Stock Exchange (LSE) losing constituent companies to other major exchanges(NYSE, Nasdaq) or publicly listed companies being bought out by private capital. Only this week we were forced to ponder a scenario where the LSE could possibly lose FTSE 100 index titans, Royal Dutch Shell (move to a higher valuation US stock market listing) and BP (reports of a bid from Adnoc, Abu Dhabi’s national oil company). From a simple numbers perspective, the investment opportunity pool on a public market/exchange (LSE) is not just shrinking by hundreds of billions (in market capitalisation) but also potentially losing two of the 5 biggest income generators (dividends) for pensioners in the UK. That’s a problem. Now, the solution.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, in a recent CNN interview highlighted the same problem; at its peak in 1996 the US had 7,300 publicly listed companies. Today that number is 4,300. However, like AI, investment capital might just have shifted into a different corner of the same opportunity pool. In fact, it has. The number of US companies backed by private equity firms has grown from 1,900 to 11,200 over the last two decades (Source: JP Morgan). So, the solution for investors is to expand their investment horizons into private equity funds, private buy-out deals, EIIS investments etc. Until incentives are improved for companies to go public (regulation, quarterly reporting burdens, costs, PR etc), this public-private shift will continue and investors/pensions will have to find opportunities and income/dividends in private companies. Bluntly, the future is bright, but it’s private. And, it is no accident that Spark Private Portfolio investors are currently being offered an exclusive opportunity to expand their portfolios into an interesting private healthcare buy-out deal. Unsurprisingly,  the most valuable private companies right now are very much looking at the future – check out Open AI ($100 billion ) and SpaceX ($180 billion) – but what about that other Musk combination of new tech and transport, Tesla?

Tesla’s 30% share price decline in 2024 might be perceived as a Musk-specific governance issue but the entire electric vehicle sector (EV) is encountering some growing pains. Check out these headlines:


EV Sales Revved Up. Now Buyers Are Pumping The Brakes – Barrons


Ford to delay rollout of new electric pickup and SUV as EV sales slow –   The Guardian


China’s first quarter EV sales growth slowest in a year –  Reuters


As the benchmark player, Tesla’s poor recent results and actual year-on-year sales decline in the US prompted the commentariat to quickly ask whether this was an EV market blip or something more structural. From this Dublin desk, and a country with an abysmal track record on timely infrastructure modernisation, it looks like the charging infrastructure (not enough charge points on routes) for the EV revolution is due some catch up globally. In particular, US consumer surveys continue to cite charging/range anxiety as a factor. More short-term factors probably include high interest rates (falling soon?), consumer expectations of continued manufacturer discounting and new super-cheap Chinese alternatives. This all sounds very familiar to long term observers of global durable goods manufacturing cycles, and with so many companies investing to win the EV landgrab, there will be casualties among manufacturers. Just ask the computer chip industry. In fact, that industry gives us a chance to conclude on a positive note.

If anyone doubted the Bidenomics manufacturing revolution in the US, then this week was seismic. Taiwan’s chip manufacturing giant, TSMC, confirmed an expansion of its capital investment in the electoral swing-state of Arizona. The new TSMC investment number is $65 billion compared to an initial plan of $40 billion and will result in 3 chip factories being built in the state. Critically, a mix of US government grants and loans offered to TSMC will add up to a whopping $11 billion of investment incentives. That’s great news for Arizona, albeit TSMC might have to plan for male-only recruitment. It looks like the AI chips of the future will be built in Arizona, but the state’s Supreme Court is definitely searching for the past. In imposing a total state-wide ban on abortion this week, the state’s highest court had to travel back in time to revisit supportive legal text in the statute books from …..1864. Now, that is exhausting.

Stay Connected
Latest News