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Investors right to see through the gloom to economic upturn

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It is richly paradoxical. Both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average indices hit record levels earlier this week. At the same time, the US economy is struggling to recover, the jobs market is weak and both the public and private sectors are racking up record levels of debt thanks to a devastating pandemic.

The imminent expiry of policy safety nets in the US points to yet more unemployment along with rising corporate defaults next year. The story is much the same across the developed world.

It is tempting to call the investor mood Panglossian optimism. Yet the market is right to look through this apparent amplification of the disconnect between stock prices and the real economy. Since the coronavirus-induced panic in March, equities have been driven by heavily expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. Taken together with recent good news about vaccines, that pretty much ensures a powerful economic upturn in 2021.

Chris Watling of Longview Economics points out that the US corporate sector generated spare free cash flow in the second quarter of this year despite the economic downturn, which typically marks the start of new economic cycles. Households around the world, he adds, have considerable levels of excess savings, amounting to 7.5 to 10 per cent of gross domestic product — enough to spark high levels of potential spending and economic stimulus.

Investors should nonetheless recognise that a market that is substantially driven by policy is often storing up future trouble. This is certainly the case here because the ultra-low interest rates resulting from the central banks’ asset-buying programmes have unhinged the normal relationship between risk and reward.

One obvious example relates to the discipline imposed by bond market vigilantes when excessive government bond issuance threatens a return of inflation. There is simply no point investors refusing to absorb government paper if the central banks will mop it up regardless.

In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes talked of the euthanasia of the rentier where investors relying on interest income would struggle to survive as rates fall. In today’s world of low and negative interest rates we are witnessing both the euthanasia of the rentier and of the bond vigilante.

By forcing investors into a search for yield, the central banks have also ensured that credit risk is being mispriced. A striking example this week was Peru issuing sovereign debt with a 100-year term and a coupon of 3.23 per cent immediately after a constitutional crisis. Peru is not Argentina but this is still taking a very generous view in this historically default-prone region.

The most insidious consequence of unconventional central bank policies is moral hazard. Ultra-low interest rates provide an incentive to borrow because they take the pain out of debt servicing. The result has been an extraordinary debt binge. The Institute of International Finance, a finance trade body, estimates that global debt will rise more than $20tn from 2019 levels to $277tn by the end of the year, equivalent to 365 per cent of GDP.

This accumulation of debt appears to have a diminishing ability to generate growth. This is worrying because the complementary monetary policy toolbox is close to bare. Earlier this month Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the IMF, wrote in the Financial Times that we are in a global liquidity trap. That is, interest rates are so low that households and companies hoard cash. When that happens, monetary stimulus ceases to have much impact on the price level.

Hence many passionate speeches by central bankers calling for fiscal policy to take up more of the burden in addressing the pandemic. Yet in the US plans for further fiscal expansion are gridlocked on Capitol Hill, while in Europe, Hungary and Poland are holding up ratification of the EU budget and proposed coronavirus recovery fund.

It is hard to blame the central banks for their actions since the great financial crisis of 2007-08. Without them a depression would have been inevitable. The snag is that the world will be increasingly vulnerable in due course to inflation because central banks will be reluctant to destabilise the economy and financial system by raising interest rates when debt is at unprecedented levels for fear of jeopardising their independence.

Equities are on heady valuations. In the short term the market will toss and turn in response to coronavirus and vaccine news. With fund managers’ cash holdings now back down to pre-coronavirus levels, according to the Bank of America global fund managers’ survey, a wobbly period may be due. But long-term investors should sit it out. News on fiscal policy will probably improve and a recovery is undoubtedly coming.

john.plender@ft.com



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ExxonMobil proposes carbon storage plan for Texas port

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ExxonMobil is pitching a plan to capture and store carbon dioxide emitted by industrial facilities around Houston that it said could attract $100bn in investment if the Biden administration put a price on the greenhouse gas.

The oil supermajor is touting the scheme ahead of the US climate summit starting on Thursday, where President Joe Biden plans to announce more aggressive national emissions targets and hopes to spur world leaders to increase their own carbon-cutting goals.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, “should be a key part of the US strategy for meeting its Paris goals and included as part of the administration’s upcoming Nationally Determined Contributions”, said Joe Blommaert, head of Exxon’s low-carbon focused business, referring to the targets that countries are required to submit under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Oil and gas producers have sought to highlight their commitments to tackle emissions ahead of this week’s climate talks, which promise to heap pressure on the fossil fuel industry. BP pledged to stop flaring natural gas in Texas’ Permian oilfields by 2025, while EQT, the country’s largest natural gas producer, said it backed federal methane regulations.

The International Energy Agency has called carbon capture and storage, which uses chemicals to strip carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, “critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path”.

But the technology has struggled to gain traction as costs have remained persistently high. The most recent setback in the US came last year with the mothballing of the Petra Nova project, the country’s largest, which captured carbon from a Texas coal-fired power plant.

Many environmental groups have been critical of the oil and gas industry’s focus on carbon capture, arguing it is used to justify continued investment in oil and gas production and is not economical, especially as the costs of zero-carbon wind and solar power have plummeted.

Exxon said that establishing a market price on carbon — which has been attempted by a handful of US states, Texas not among them — would be important. The US government should “implement policies to enable CCS to receive direct investment and incentives similar to those available to other efforts to reduce emissions”, Blommaert said.

Exxon declined to comment on the carbon price it thought was needed to justify the investment, but said its plan would generate $100bn of investment from companies and government in the Houston region.

The company’s plans call for a hub that would capture emissions from the 50 largest emitting industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, such as oil refineries and petrochemical plants, and ship the carbon by pipeline to reservoirs for storage deep under the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The project could capture and store about 100m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2040 if developed, Exxon said. That is 2 per cent of the roughly 4.6bn tonnes of US energy-related carbon emissions in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Exxon has been under intense pressure from investors, including a proxy fight with the activist hedge fund Engine No 1, to bolster its strategy for the transition to cleaner fuels. In February, it created a low-carbon business line that it said would spend about $3bn over the next five years.

Biden’s $2tn clean-energy focused infrastructure plan would expand carbon capture and storage tax credits. The administration said it would back 10 projects focused on capturing carbon from heavy industry, but it did not endorse a price on carbon.

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Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 



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European stocks hit record after strong US earnings and economic data

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European equities hovered around record levels, the dollar dropped and government bonds nudged higher on Monday as markets continued to cheer strong economic data while also banking on continued support from the US Federal Reserve.

The regional Stoxx Europe 600 index gained 0.3 per cent during the morning to set a new record, before falling back to trade flat.

This follows a week of upbeat earnings from US banks as investors await results from big businesses including Coca-Cola and IBM later on Monday. Data released last week showed US homebuilding surged to a near 15-year high in March while retail sales increased by the most in 10 months.

The dollar, as measured against a basket of currencies, fell 0.4 per cent as bets on higher interest rates receded. The euro rose 0.4 per cent against the dollar to buy at $1.203. Sterling also gained 0.4 per cent to €1.389.

Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell told the Economic Club of Washington DC last week that the central bank would not taper its $120bn of monthly asset purchases until it saw “substantial further progress” towards full employment.

Haven assets such as government debt remained in demand. As prices ticked up, the yield on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury note fell 0.02 percentage points to 1.557 per cent, while the yield on the equivalent German Bund slid 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.271 per cent.

Investing convention assumes that US Treasuries and global equities move in opposite directions to cushion against falls in either asset class, but both have now rallied in tandem for an unusually sustained period.

The S&P 500, the blue-chip US stock index, has risen for four consecutive weeks to set new records. The yield on the 10-year Treasury has fallen from about 1.74 per cent at the end of March to just under 1.56 per cent on Monday as investors bought the debt. Treasuries and US stocks not have risen together for so long since 2008, according to Deutsche Bank.

Futures markets indicated the S&P would drift 0.2 per cent lower as Wall Street trading opens.

“I am not saying it’s a rational time in the markets,” said Yuko Takano, equity fund manager at Newton Investment Management. A reason for caution, she added, was signs of “bubbles” in alternative assets such as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens. “There is really an abundance of liquidity. There will be a correction at some point but it is hard to time when it will come.”

“Markets may have become temporarily overbought,” strategists at Credit Suisse commented. “For now, we prefer to keep equity allocations at neutral” rather than buying more stocks, they said.

In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed up 0.5 per cent and Japan’s Topix slid 0.2 per cent.

Global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 0.3 per cent to $66.57 a barrel.



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EU split over delay to decision on classing gas as green investment

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The European Commission is split over whether to postpone a decision on classifying gas generated from fossil fuels as green energy under its landmark classification system for investors.

Brussels had planned to publish an updated draft of a taxonomy for sustainable finance later this week. The document is designed to guide those who want to direct their money into environmentally friendly investments, and help stamp out the misreporting of companies’ environmental impact, known as greenwashing. 

The commission was forced to revamp its initial proposals earlier this year after the text was criticised by member states which want gas to be explicitly recognised as a low-emission technology that can help the EU meet its goal of becoming a net-zero polluter by 2050. 

Now the publication of the draft rules could be postponed again as the commission seeks to resolve the impasse. According to a draft of the text seen by the Financial Times, the commission proposed to delay the decision in order to carry out a separate assessment of how gas and nuclear “contribute to decarbonisation” to allow for a more “transparent” debate about the technologies.

But officials told the FT that some commissioners were pushing for gas to be awarded the green label now, rather than delaying the decision until later this year. 

“There are a sizeable number of voices in the commission who want gas to be included in the taxonomy,” said one official. A final decision on whether to approve the current text or delay it again for further redrafting is likely to be made on Monday.

The EU’s taxonomy is being closely watched by investors as the first big attempt by a leading regulatory body to create a labelling scheme that will help guide billions of euros of investment into green financial products.

But the process has proved divisive, as several EU governments have demanded recognition for lower-emissions energy sources such as gas. 

Coal-reliant countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania and others that are banking on gas to help reduce their emissions do not want the labelling system to discriminate against them. France and the Czech Republic, meanwhile, are also pushing for the recognition of nuclear as a “transitional” technology in the taxonomy.

A leaked legal text seen by the FT earlier this month paved the way for gas to be considered green in some limited circumstances. That has since been removed along with other sensitive topics such as how best to classify the agricultural sector, according to the latest draft the FT has seen.

EU governments and the European Parliament have the power to block the draft if they can muster a qualified majority of countries and MEPs against it. 

Environmental groups have hailed the exercise, and urged Brussels to stick to science-based criteria in defining the thresholds for sustainable economic activity.

Luca Bonaccorsi from the Transport & Environment NGO said delaying decisions on gas and nuclear risked allowing pro-nuclear countries like France and the Czech Republic to join up with pro-gas member states “to forge an alliance that will obtain the greening and inclusion of both energy sources”.

“Should they ally, it will be impossible to resist the greenwashing of these two unsustainable energy sources,” said Bonaccorsi. 

The delays in agreeing the taxonomy have forced Brussels to abandon an attempt to use it as the basis for EU green bonds that will be issued as part of the bloc’s €800bn recovery and resilience fund. About €250bn of debt will be issued in the form of sustainable bonds over the next few years, which will make the commission one of the world’s biggest issuers of sustainable debt.



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