Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Forecasts for the economy & markets in 2008

Author: Abheek Barua, Chief Economist, HDFC Bank
Source: Rediff

Since this is my last piece this year I thought I would write about the forecasts I have made for the global economy and financial markets for 2008. There is an important caveat, of course. The global macroeconomic and financial environment remains terribly volatile and a number of these predictions could go wrong.
Let me get to the forecasts. The jury appears to be still out on whether the US is headed for a recession next year (going by the textbook, a situation in which GDP growth turns negative for two successive quarters) or whether swift action by the US Federal Reserve is likely to prevent such a situation. US consumption data like retail numbers occasionally surprise positively and US inflation is far from dead. However, despite this bit of fuzziness I remain somewhat sanguine about the following trends.

Whether it qualifies technically as recession or not, the US is likely to see a marked slowdown at least in the first half of 2008, which could last well into the second half of the year. Besides, despite central banks' best efforts, it will take a while for American and European banks to resume lending to each other and to even slightly risky borrowers. Thus, I see the credit squeeze in the US and Europe continuing and perhaps even getting worse in the near term.

The US slowdown is likely to have knock-on effects on the global economy and world GDP growth is likely to moderate. More specifically the result of sharp currency appreciation, harder interest rates and a credit squeeze will begin to take a toll on euro-zone growth. The UK is well into a cyclical downturn.

As I have argued in earlier columns, I think it is impossible for Asian economies to remain immune to a downturn in the developed economies and growth rates will soften in this region as well. I honestly don't know much about Latin America but I think it is sensible to assume that what applies to Asia applies to these economies as well.

Global energy and food prices are likely to remain elevated in the first quarter but are likely to dip subsequently as demand compression on the back of slowing world demand begins to reflect in prices. I am, for example, convinced that concerns about fresh oil supplies and oil peaks notwithstanding, slower global growth is fundamentally incompatible with oil prices at over ninety dollars a barrel.

The same logic might just apply to other assets including stocks. If indeed the signs of global slowdown become more acute, large investors might begin to dump equities and hold on to safer assets like treasury bonds. If there is growing aversion to equities as an asset class, Asian markets (including Indian stock markets) will also take a hit. The slide in stock prices will not be due to risk-aversion alone.

If global growth slows, the slowing down will begin to impact the top line and bottom line growth of companies across economies. That in turn will buttress the negative sentiment towards risky assets. The bottom line: be prepared for a "correction" in the Indian stock market next year.

There is a potential offset. The US Fed is likely to follow a policy of phased quarter percentage point cuts in its target interest rate - I expect the American central bank to cut the Fed funds rate thrice next year. Thus while inflation risks will weigh on the Fed's mind, I expect growth concerns to dominate and spur the Fed to cut rates some more. I expect the European Central Bank to hold interest rates until the second half and then start cutting signal rates.

My bank's research team has forecast two rate cuts next year, possibly in the second half. The Bank of England is likely to be swifter with two quarter percentage point cuts in the first half of 2008. We also expect more direct liquidity both through unilateral cash infusion by central banks and perhaps through more co-ordinated intervention.

The question is: what happens to all this liquidity when central banks turn on their cash spigots? If investors remain terribly risk-averse, a lot of it would go into low-risk government bonds.

US treasury bond prices will continue to move up and yields will decline as this process continues. Besides, if US assets keep getting cheaper and cheaper, investors will sniff a bargain and start buying these assets. In fact, some of the bigger funds have already started picking up chunks of the American financial industry where valuations have hit rock-bottom. Asian sovereign investment funds, for instance, are bailing out cash-strapped American banks, picking up significant equity stakes in the process.

Finally, there is also a chance that some of the money will start finding its way into emerging financial markets where growth rates, at least in relative terms, will remain high in comparison with the rest of the world. What happens then? My prediction is that emerging markets including India are likely to get buffeted by the crosswinds of rising global liquidity and cheaper interest rates, on one side, and concerns about slowing growth, on the other. This means two things.

Our stock markets will remain volatile for a while to come and sharp upswings could be followed by a quick downturn. Ditto for the currency markets. The interplay of these opposing forces also means that these markets will be stuck in a range. Thus I do not see the possibility of prolonged phases of decline, nor do I see the prospect of an untrammelled bull run.

What will take the markets out of the doldrums? Since the problems of the US economy lie at the heart of all the problems, it will take some clarity on the situation there to do this. Any strong signal that the US cycle has bottomed out will lead to a quick re-pricing of risk and realignment of asset prices.