The end of the calendar year, and the decade, means readers should brace themselves for a bombardment of articles with all manner of forecasts and predictions for 2020. As always, many will be spectacularly wrong given human beings are particularly awful at forecasting. However, in the world of financial trading the trend is often your profitable friend. More importantly, trends can be evidenced with hard data. On that basis we thought it might be helpful to identify a mix of financial and geopolitical trends which are already established but will continue to impact business owners and investors for the forseeable future. Here’s our Top 10 with the usual health warnings:
- Debt: Global debt has just topped the $250 trillion mark according to the International Institute of Finance (IIF). It’s rather scary to think that in the ten years since the credit crisis of 2008-2009 the world has piled on another $70 trillion of debt. This debt mountain is incredibly sensitive to rising interest rates. Hence, central banks led by the Fed have had to abandon attempts in 2018 to return interest rates to more normal levels. Central banks are now stuck in a Japan-style debt trap with additional credit creation achieving less and less stimulatory impact on economies. Now, frustrated and worried central banks are pressuring politicians to introduce fiscal policies to break out of this stagnation spiral. Unfortunately, politics at a global level is increasingly polarised.
- Democracy: Levels of income inequality not seen since the 1930s presents the potential danger of history repeating itself. Democracy is under pressure. The Freedom House think tank published a report in 2018 highlighting that year as the 13th in succession where democratic freedoms were in decline. A total of 68 countries witnessed a tightening of civil liberties and political rights whereas only 50 countries registered progress in these areas. As 2019 comes to a close the strong-arm tactics of Trump, Putin, Xi, Orban, Erdogan and Prince MBS do not provide reassurance that authoritarian trends will reverse any time soon.
- ESG: There is grounds for optimism that businesses and investors see “doing good” as a prerequisite for wealth creation. It almost sounds like common sense but the ESG investment framework covering Environment, Social and Governance factors is gaining traction rapidly with $30 trillion worth of investments now employing ESG metrics in their investment processes. That $30 trillion number will grow and standardised metrics to measure and audit ESG will be the next challenge for business and investor alike.
- Trade: President Trump is now saying phase 1 of the China-US trade negotiations might not conclude until after the 2020 US elections. Who knows what will come out of Trump’s mouth next but expect 2020 to again be dominated by trade tensions in the EU with Brexit, and in Asia-Pacific with China. The rise of populist politics and trade protectionism are the two sides of a no-win economic confidence trick. Closer to home, Boris Johnson’s bombastic certainty of concluding trade deals with Europe by the end of 2020 will be particularly painful to watch unravelling.
- China: The most important macro story apart from debt in the world today is China. It’s arguably the engine of growth which services the planet’s debt. By the end of this year Chinese consumers will have purchased goods worth more than $5 trillion, exceeding that of the original consumption super power, the US. So, financial markets will now have to pay much closer attention to the role of Chinese consumer confidence in the global economy. Think of how many decades financial research and trading teams have agonised every first Friday of the month for the US Non-Farm Payrolls. Get ready for Sunday night China economic reports but before that keep an eye on bond default newsflow. There have been four or five relatively significant blow ups in recent weeks, even involving State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Do not underestimate the potential impact on consumer confidence if the all powerful state can’t save its own.
- Tech Tension: Technology has been a dominant driver of markets since the credit crisis. Some companies now have user bases which would be in the top 3 populations of the world if they were sovereign states. Think Facebook and Alipay with 2.5 billion and 1 billion users respectively. As Microsoft and Apple’s combined market value now exceeds that of Germany’s entire stock market at $2.25 trillion it is tempting to think this is a high water mark for tech valuations. Two developing stories/trends suggest the tech sector could meet some growth challenges. First, Facebook’s power and abdication of responsibility on publishing false information to huge numbers of people is moving towards a 1911 moment. That date is neither a typo nor hyperbolic. For the historians, that’s the year when the Standard Oil refinery monopoly was broken up. Second, the rise of ESG is ultimately not compatible with corporate deference and fear of China’s wrath. The recent China anger incidents involving the NBA, Apple and Google suggest corporates may have to decouple from Chinese internet and broadcasting platforms. Yes, the internet could splinter and anyone following the Huawei case with fears over 5G security might be forgiven for thinking a “net split” is not just a possibility but inevitable.
- Content is King: Even with a potential internet split, original content continues to be the critical asset for every media platform on the planet. We mentioned monopolies earlier but has anyone noticed that Disney has quietly assembled a portfolio of content assets with enormous power? Even before Star Wars opens in cinemas, Disney has accounted for $1 in every $3 spent in cinemas in 2019! The battle for content has exploded to unsustainable levels with almost 500 originally scripted TV shows produced this year. In 2012 that number was less than 300. And the costs are rocketing. One statistic we read recently was that for each $1 of a Netflix subscription the user was receiving $1 billion of content. It’s not just entertainment content. Think about the $5 billion valuation of Manchester City implied by the recent private equity investment made by Silver Lake Partners from Silicon Valley. Live sport is hot but $5 billion for a franchise which can’t fill its home ground…?
- Energy: Climate change is for some top hedge funds now a critical factor in every investment selection. The climate crisis headlines multiply each week and this means continued pain for fossil fuel investors. Apple’s valuation is now bigger than the entire US Energy sector. Furthermore, for fossil fuel dependent economies like Saudi Arabia and Russia it is striking that their levels of sovereign interference have increased in recent years in the likes of Yemen, Syria and Ukraine. There is a suspicion that this projection of international power is an attempt to disguise significant structural weakness.
- AI: We have been inclined to highlight the risks/areas to avoid but Accenture tells us there is a $14 trillion opportunity in AI across 16 industries in the years out to 2035. Health, finance, logistics and agriculture all look particularly suited to AI innovation and it is striking to see an out-of-favour sector like finance now attracting the largest chunk of venture capital money via European fintech.
- Inflating Value: And that leaves us finally with another potential positive albeit it is difficult to argue this trend is established just yet. However, we can include this in our list with a speculative health warning! For years, value investing has been clobbered in performance terms by growth and momentum investing strategies. Yes, it might be difficult for oil to make a come back but other commodities could bounce back sharply if inflation picks up. Whisper it very gently but there is data/evidence to support wage inflation picking up in Europe. Wages are growing at the fastest pace in a decade and Europe remains the largest trading bloc in the world. A stronger Europe would be a very positive development. No doubt, investors stuck in value strategies will be watching hopefully for an end to their performance misery. The rest of the world should hope for the same too.
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