It has been anything but a happy new year for investors, who have watched as equity markets have been both volatile and trending downward, with the S&P 500 notching a nearly 6% decline since December.
But to some, this early year’s bad beginning is not just a slump, but the start of something much worse.
Andrew Roberts, RBS’ research chief for European economics and rates, who has been bearish on stocks for months, in a note this week warns that the market will fall between 10% to 20% this year. Other investments won’t do much better. Roberts’ bottom line: “sell everything except for high quality bonds.”
Wall Street analysts have in generally been cautious about 2016. Still, Roberts’ prediction for this year, which he says could be “cataclysmic” for investors, and could include a global deflationary crisis, is scarier than most.
What’s the reason for his extreme gloomy outlook? In one word, China. He says that weakness originating from the world’s second largest economy has infected the rest of the globe in a way that “all looks similar to 2008.” It was China and other emerging markets that took the baton of global growth from the rich world after the financial crisis, but investors have looked the other way as China fueled that growth with government debt. China, Roberts argues, can no longer follow that path, especially as their workforce has already begun to shrink while the country ages. “There is no one to take up the baton of growth,” Roberts writes.
Roberts’ case is helped by the fact that the price of oil has continued to fall throughout the new year. Jodie Gunzberg, Global Head of Commodities and Real Assets at S&P Dow Jones Indices points out in a research note Tuesday that S&P’s Crude Oil Total Return Index has posted the worst start to a year in history, and oil has now fallen below $30 per barrel, a fresh 12-year low. Gunzberg says, “the pace at which the price [of oil] is falling is alarming.”
Carl Weinberg of High Frequency Economics agrees. “The unthinkable is happening,” he writes in a note to clients on Tuesday. “Oil prices are repeating the colossal declines of a year ago, setting the stage for persistent disinflation.”
For Weinberg, the fact that oil prices continue to crumble is evidence that there was even more capacity in the commodity industry that we had previously thought. He also argues that we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that cheap oil is good for the global economy just because it is an important input for so many other industries. “Before we celebrate declines in energy costs for oil consumers,” he writes, “let us note that many oil-producing economies were in serious financial and fiscal trouble already when oil prices were at $47 two months ago.”
Lower oil prices will continue to destabilize the commodity-exporting emerging world, which accounts for 40% of global GDP. “Nothing good can come from” the income destruction in these economies that the oil and commodity collapse is producing, argues Weinberg. “Recessions—and depressions—occur because excesses in capacity have to be purged from the system. We do not see how the present excess supply condition in the commodity production will be reversed until and unless capacity is scrapped,” he writes. “That will hurt.”