A recent World Bank study ranks the largest countries in the world by 2013 GDP. The biggest are:
1. USA $16.8 trillion
2. China $9.2 trillion
3. Japan $4.9 trillion
4. Germany $3.6 trillion.
The EU countries taken together are about equal in size to the US.
From a stock market investor’s point of view, we can divide the world outside the US into four parts: Europe, greater China, Japan and emerging markets.
In the 1990s, Japan choked off incipient economic recovery twice by tightening economic policy too soon–once by raising interest rates, once by increasing its tax on consumer goods. It appears to have done the same thing again this year when it upped consumption tax in April.
More important, Tokyo appears to me to have made no substantive progress on eliminating structural industrial and bureaucratic impediments to growth. As a result, and unfortunately for citizens of Japan, the current decade can easily turn out to be the third consecutive ten-year period of economic stagnation.
In US$ terms, Japan’s 2014 GDP will have shrunk considerably, due to yen depreciation.
If Abenomics is somehow ultimately successful, a surge in Japanese growth might be a pleasant surprise next year. Realistically, though, Japan is now so small a factor in world terms that, absent a catastrophe, it no longer affects world economic prospects very much.
In the post-WWII era, successful emerging economies have by and large followed the Japanese model of keeping labor cheap and encouraging export-oriented manufacturing. Eventually, however, everyone reaches a point where this formula no longer works. How so? …some combination of running out of workers, unacceptable levels of environmental damage or pressure from trading partners. The growth path then becomes shifting to higher value-added manufacturing and a reorientation toward the domestic economy. This is where China is now.
Historically, this transition is extremely difficult. Resistance from those who have made fortunes the old way is invariably extremely high. I read the current “anti-corruption” campaign as Beijing acting to remove this opposition.
I find the Chinese political situation very opaque. Nevertheless, a few things stand out. To my mind, China is not likely to go back to being the mammoth consumer of natural resources it was through most of the last decade. My guess is that GDP growth in 2015 will come in at about the same +7%or so China will achieve this year. In other words, China won’t provide either positive or negative surprises.
For most foreigners, the main way of getting exposure to the Chinese economy is through Hong Kong. Personally, I own China Merchants and several of the Macau casinos. The latter group looks very cheap to me but will likely only begin to perform when the Hong Kong market is convinced the anti-corruption campaign is nearing an end.
In many ways, the EU resembles the Japan of, say, 20 years ago. It, too, has an aging population, low growth and significant structural rigidity. The major Continental countries also have, like Japan, strong cultural resistance to change. These are long-term issues well-known to most investors.
For 2015, the EU stands to benefit economically from a 10% depreciation of the euro vs. the US$. As well, it is a major beneficiary of the decline in crude oil prices. My guess is that growth will be surprisingly good for the EU next year. I think the main focus for equity investors should be EU multinationals with large exposure to the US.
I’m content to invest in China through Hong Kong. I worry about other emerging Asian markets, as well as Latin America (ex Mexico) and Africa. Foreigners from the developed world provide most of the liquidity in this “other” class. If an improving economy in the US and higher yields on US fixed income cause a shift in investor preferences, foreigners will likely try to extract funds from many emerging market in order to reposition them. That will probably prove surprisingly difficult. Prices will have a very hard time not falling in such a situation.