27/02/2014 - 04:22

Energy, manufacturing behind US rebound

27/02/2014 - 04:22


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The US is getting its economic house in order, again, surprising many with its resilience and initiative.

Energy, manufacturing behind US rebound
OIL DRIVEN: The energy boom is boosting demand for drilling services and infrastructure, lowering energy costs and reducing the US trade deficit.

The ongoing problems with the US economy are well known.

Its level of public debt is too high, its spending on social security and health is unsustainable, and its health system is woefully inefficient – spending more relative to GDP than most OECD countries but with worse life expectancy.

Added to this are a low level of savings, transport infrastructure that’s becoming run down, a political system dominated by ideology, and a share market that has had a rough time over the past 14 years as the tech and housing credit booms burst.

Despite this, however, it is dangerous to write the US off. Every two or three decades it seems to reinvent itself. It did it with electricity and mass production in the 1920s, with consumerism, petrochemicals and aviation in the 1950s and 1960s, and with deregulation and the IT revolution in the 1980s and 1990s.

The US was written off by many during the 1930s only for it to emerge as the world’s major super power and strongest economy in the post-war years. The same occurred in the

1970s after the debacles of the Vietnam War, Watergate and stagflation, after which it was reinvigorated by policies of the Reagan administration.

After the debacle of the tech wreck and credit bust of past decade – and the loss of its AAA credit rating by S&P – many have been tempted yet again to write the US off. But once more it seems to be bouncing back.

This time around the drivers include: American policy makers’ determination to fix their problems; an energy boom; a manufacturing renaissance; and ongoing innovation.

The Fed and the deficit

American policy makers are criticised a lot, for first undertaking quantitative easing and now for slowing it. But they do show a determination to fix things once they go wrong and for moving a lot faster than other countries. This has been evident since the GFC with the Federal Reserve trying one approach after another to stabilise and then get the US economy moving again, and the forced

recapitalisation of US banks, which helped restore confidence.

That these policies are working is evident in the Fed’s moves to slow its quantitative easing program, effectively taking the US off life support, as it appears to be getting to the point where it no longer needs it.

But perhaps the big surprise for many is the massive slump in the US budget deficit over the past few years, which basically explains why you don’t hear much about it these days. The US budget deficit has shrunk from more than 10 per cent of GDP in 2009 to less than 3 per cent of GDP this year. This reflects a combination of stagnant government spending during the past few years and surging revenue growth.

It is expected to start rising again beyond 2015 to around 4 per cent of GDP by 2022 (according to the Congressional Budget Office) as an aging population starts to boost spending on social security and health, so there is still more to do.

But the savings from the 2011 debt agreement, the scaled back ‘fiscal cliff’ and the ‘sequester’ spending cuts add up to almost $US4 trillion over 10 years and should not be ignored.

It’s a long way from the fiscal mess of a few years ago.

The energy boom

It seems only yesterday that the peak oil fanatics were raving on (yet again) about how global oil production would soon peak and we would have to ditch the car and return to the horse and buggy. It was nonsense then and even more so now.

The basic thing they missed is that rising oil prices will both lead to more fuel efficiencies (just look at all the hybrid cars now available) and make economic access to new supplies of energy viable.

This is happening in the US with a vengeance as fraccing technology is leading to a massive energy production boom. US oil production is up about 45 per cent during the past five years, which has taken it back to 1990s levels, and total energy production including gas is back to late 1980s levels.

By around 2020, US oil production is likely to have returned to 1970 levels and the US will be back to being the world’s biggest oil producer.

The energy boom is providing a huge boost to the US economy by boosting demand for drilling services and infrastructure, lowering energy costs and reducing the US trade deficit. US oil is trading around $US7 a barrel below global prices and US natural gas prices are tending to run around one third below European levels and one fifth of Japanese levels.

Rough estimates put the boost to US economic growth from the energy boom at 0.2 per cent per annum. This also means less dependence on the volatile Middle East.

Manufacturing renaissance

Numerous companies have announced that they plan to expand manufacturing production capacity in the US. This ranges from a plant to build a Honda super car to Apple bringing some component manufacturing home to the US.

The drivers have been a combination of:

• lower energy costs as cheap gas has led electricity suppliers to switch to gas, depressing the price of electricity;

per cent very low unit labour costs – as solid productivity growth and low wages growth have kept unit labour costs for manufacturers remain about 1980 levels; and

• the low $US after a decade-long decline, which is still down 30 per cent or so from 2001-2002 levels.

As yet this has only resulted in a tentative rise in manufacturing production relative to overall GDP, but it is likely to improve further as the manufacturing base starts to expand again. It’s a very different situation to that here, but then again we have seen a doubling in the value of the $A during the past decade, somewhat higher wages growth and surging electricity prices … but that’s a different story

American ingenuity

Finally, underpinning all of this is American ingenuity and an economic system that encourages it and provides it with finance. The bulk of the new gadgets we get are developed in the US, which remains at the forefront of the IT revolution.

Since 1975, the eurozone has given rise to just one of the firms to join the world’s top 500 companies, whereas 26 of them came from the US.

What does it mean for investors?

The key message is that the US is getting back in business (putting aside the winter freeze) with a potential to grow maybe as much as 0.5 per cent per annum more over the medium term compared with what otherwise would have been the case.

There are several implications for investors. First, a stronger US economy is good for the global economy and supports the view that global share markets have entered a new secular (or longer term) bull market. Consistent with this, US shares have broken out to a new record high – both in terms of the S&P 500 price index and in terms of real returns after spinning their wheels since March 2000.

Second, the US looking stronger at a time when several emerging countries have hit a more difficult patch favours traditional global shares over emerging market shares.

Finally, while US, and hence global, shares appear to have entered a new secular bull market, returns are likely to be more constrained than was the case during the last secular bull market that started in 1982. This is because starting point valuations for shares are not as attractive as in 1982 and the boost from falling inflation and interest rates won’t be repeated again in the years ahead as inflation is already low.


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