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How the Cycle of Despair Could Pivot Very Quickly

Guest Post by Bill Blain from the Morning Porridge:

“If you are feeling depressed, then stop reading the Daily Mail. It will most certainly help.”

This morning– The news looks bleak. A cataclysm of gloom is set to sink Europe and the UK – but, maybe things aren’t as bad as we think. Good news and a realisation things can get better could stabilize sentiment, and build a recovery base. Maybe?

Perhaps the most important of Blain’s many Market Mantras is: “Things are never as bad as we fear, but seldom as good as we hope.” 

Try to remember it as you read about the multiple challenges facing Occidental Economies:

  • The Ukraine War: Uncertainty on what may happen next and how it could further escalate, and otherwise remain a long-term barrier to growth.
  • The Energy Spike and Energy Insecurity: A massive lightbulb moment for governments, with the threat of economies being destroyed by the rise in energy costs. Power outages and energy rationing are set to cripple Europe – apparently.
  • Embedded inflation and rising social discontent on the back of wage inflationary pressures: increasing discord is expected across Europe
  • Ongoing Supply Chain disorder: China no longer exporting deflation through cheap goods, while key strategic products (including chips) remain scarce.
  • Geopolitical Instability changing established relationships: the support the West traditionally assumed from the Gulf and Asia is no longer apparent as China eyes Taiwan and digests Hong Kong.
  • Political Instability: Populist politics in the US, UK and Europe raise increasing doubts on currencies, bond markets and economic growth. Italy’s next government will call for Europe to reach an accommodation with Russia

Plus, all the usual stuff:

  • Unravelling the massive stock and bond market distortions following 14 years of monetary experimentation and mispriced money
  • Inflation, inflation and inflation…
  • Consumer Cost of Living Crisis hitting debt sustainability.
  • Central Banks hiking interest rates to combat inflation – even as governments are splurging on fiscal rescues.
  • The rising risk of recession and stagflation.

It’s not a pretty picture out there…

But maybe we are being unduly gloomy?

Get over it. Things are never as bad as we fear! Markets, expectations and outcomes evolve – and when things look bleakest, they often tend to move in a more generally positive direction than feared. (True – sometimes they get worse…)

The thing is… we like to scare ourselves.

Any newspaper editor will confirm horror headlines garner most hits, and sell more subscriptions than good news. Negative headlines drive and magnify negative reactions, and curiously are easier to accept than good news. We are biased to always assume the worst – which is why if you put 5 market talking-heads in a room to talk about growth, they will always agree the world is about to end in a cataclysm – which never happens. (In my experience..)

If you are feeling particularly nervous – then whatever you do, not read the new Nouriel Roubini end-of-everything book: “MegaThreats: Ten Dangerous Trends that Imperil our Future”. It’s classic Econo-dysto-Porn. It is apparently so miserable it will sell millions of copies. You would never have heard of Roubini if his books were about how successful the US economy is – he would be correct, but who wants to read about it?

Dr Doom appeals to the current doom and gloom zeitgeist. He called the 2008 crisis. Now he says were heading for the ultimate economic disaster; “a great stagflation that will make the 1970s look moderate.”. Oh dear. I guess I better get the bunker ready. The “preppers” who blame the Davos Cabal and other rich conspiracy theories for all our woes, will say he underestimates the coming “great reset”. Whacky populist Politicians will use it to argue for economic isolationism. A chum was joking the right portfolio composition now is 40% Gold, 40% Tinned Goods, and 20% Small Arms.

If you are of a nervous disposition, don’t buy the Roubini (actually, it’s not published till October..) He will upset you with his recipe for debt crises, geopolitical tension, serial pandemics, migration, climate change and host of other nasty things… They will only upset you further. That other voice of professional global economic misery, Nassim Taleb says: “I have never read a more lucid and nuanced account of our financial condition.”

Again, I say… Relax. Get over it.

Things are not going to be easy… but the end of the World is a long, long way away…

So even though Liz Truss has packed her cabinet with yes-men, and binned anyone who even shook Rishi Sunak’s hand, while Europe is scrabbling to find ways to bailout consumer and small business energy bills through windfall taxes and unravelling renewable pricing agreements…. things could yet surprise us to the upside.

I’m serious. When everyone else is fearful, when everyone else is out… that’s the time to be brave. (Or to put it another way – if we’re doomed.. go out with a boom!)

Humanity is generally more inventive and innovative than we give ourselves credit for. Give us a chance and we tend to find solutions. (Even Americans will eventually stumble on the right solution – after first exhausting every other possibility!) The work-around, muddle-through process works best in market economies, rather than in stultified command economies – meaning Russia and China are set to suffer most, a lesson their new friends in the Gulf, Asia and Latin America will come to rue.

Long term I have zero doubt the West will emerge from the current crisis in stronger shape! We will definitely emerge stronger than either Russia or China. Tech, health and welfare are going to be so much better here. Demographics and taxes – the two most powerful forces in the galaxy – will ensure it. The Occident is ageing, but wealthy (and marginally more healthy!) Russia is poor and old. China got old without getting rich.

The cycle of despair can turn very quickly – one piece of good news can trigger a chain reaction of positivity.

Let’s start with the Ukraine war. It’s a desperate bloody affair for Ukraine, and even more so for Russia. The losses, and the unsustainability of the logistical inventories on both sides, mean a peace is likely. An increasing number of analysts believe Putin will shortly announce he has won, and offer a peace based on the current front lines. He will put the onus on Europe to pressure Ukraine to accept by playing his energy card.

Matteo Salvin of the Italian League, who will be in the next Italian government, has called for an end to Russian sanctions across Europe, to support Italian consumers. Italy is demanding Europe reopens the gas taps by kowtowing to Moscow.

But, much as it will pain the Ukrainian people, we’d be wrong to accept. Winning is important. Whatever the Russian troll-bots would have you believe, there is no moral equivalency between Ukraine and Putin. Letting Putin win would be appeasement, and just be a problem delayed. Russia is the aggressor and must be seen to lose and lose badly. We don’t give folk the credit for understanding that.

It can happen. Europe’s energy situation is not nearly as bad as we think. We don’t need to be beholden to Russia. Putin’s big bluff is founded on persuading us he holds all the keys and has an absolute lock on our energy. He does not. Once we realise Russia can lose, the mood changes.

The latest numbers show Europe’s gas reserve tanks are ahead of the expected curve – the winter storage facilities will soon by 90% full, even with NordStream 1 pipeline remaining shut and not a molecule more from Russia. Even Germany has been able to replenish stocks faster than expected. It’s been costly. Europe has paid top dollar – filling the tanks by buying at the top of a highly distorted market. Europe has paid the cost – now we have to figure out how we afford it without bankrupting SMEs, beggaring consumers and destroying our economies. The blueprints on how to do so are still there from the Pandemic.

Even though I gleefully read that JP Morgan is going to repatriate bank staff from Frankfurt to London because of power cut risks, if we get a normal European winter (as opposed to a very cold one) Europe, including Germany, will avoid power cuts. Things are not as bleak as we fear.

Meanwhile, European businesses are successfully diversifying their energy and raw material supply chains – I was hearing how BASF is keeping fertiliser markets open by importing ammonia from the USA, which ends up being cheaper overall, is less energy dependent, and has the advantage of taking fertiliser security out of Russia or Chinese control. That’s just one single example of how the entire Occidental economy is cutting its reliance on the outside world, and making the group economy of the Democratic West stronger.

Liz Truss is going to announce an imperfect £100-150 bln bailout package. It shows UK government can deliver; biting the bullet to absorb the massive increases in consumer and SME energy bills. It will keep inflation closer to 10% than Goldman’s 22% horror snapshot.

Solving for Europe is not without challenge. Bailing out consumers and SMEs is not so simple – although the EU is talking windfall taxes. How the EU and EBC hold together the Euro in the wake of growing social unrest, recession, job cuts, denied wage demands, the apparent income inequality in society, and the cost of living crisis, is going to spawn a host of naysayers saying the Euro will collapse.

But here’s the thing. It’s easy to explain how Euro will disappear in a puff of logic – but historically that’s not what happens. It’s more likely to surprise its detractors by surviving – external pressures pulling it together rather than apart. Europe is not stupid – they have seen what Brexit has done – and is doing – to the UK.

How quickly market sentiment shifts depends on how quickly we can bring down inflation. That’s a problem for smart governments and aware Central Banks to coordinate. In Europe, the big fear is the new right-wing (and probably kompromated) Italian government will cave, and demand Europe surrenders also. Europe might do best to simply sling them out – why not?

Rather than the end of the World, what we have is a crisis. It doesn’t necessarily end the way we fear most. Yes, there will be problems, unrest and instability, but the reality is better than we think: Europe will survive the winter. That’s a good starting point.

The UK will stagger through yet another likely Tory embarrassment till the next election, and idiots will continue to tell me anything is better than a Labour government. No its not – a change will do us all good. We will survive the winter, and while inflation still has to work its way through the economy – it will not be the end of everything.

Head to the grindstone, keep the portfolios under review. Crisis is coming, but it’s never the end of the World – well, not yet anyway.

Guest Post by Bill Blain from the Morning Porridge.

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