The developed world remains mired in the deleveraging phase of the long-term debt cycle. The European deleveraging has been badly managed and is escalating, bringing Europe closer to either a debt implosion or a monetization and currency collapse. The impact of the European deleveraging has spread to the emerging world through diminished capital flows which have weakened their growth rates and undermined their asset prices. In the US, the deleveraging is progressing in a more orderly fashion but continues to weigh on the economy's ability to grow without the monetary support of the Fed. Our studies of deleveragings have proven to be invaluable through this period (let us know if you would like a copy of the expanding library). Because the dynamics of deleveragings are understandable and observable throughout history, one can reasonably assess the nature of their outcomes over time. But because highly-indebted systems that are in deleveragings are also inherently unstable, the timing of discrete events is always highly uncertain (e.g., the shift from austerity to monetization, an exit from the euro, etc.). Through these studies we have continued to refine the indicators we use to measure how the forces of deleveraging are impacting various economies and markets, and we continue to make the relevant adjustments to our investment process that both allow us to anticipate these shifts and to control our risks through the unpredictable twists and turns.
At this point in time Europe is in the most critical stage of the deleveraging process, without a credible plan that will allow a transition from an "ugly" deleveraging, where incomes fall faster than debts decline, to a "beautiful" one, where income grows faster than debts. A transition from an "ugly" to a "beautiful" deleveraging requires an acceptable mix of default, redistribution and monetization. Steps have been taken in this direction, but they remain well short of what is necessary. The range of potential outcomes for Europe and the impacts on the global financial system are wide, so navigating this environment will require flexibility and an understanding of how new policy decisions will affect the path of the deleveraging.
The unresolved European imbalances and the differences in their impacts on each country have produced widening differences in the self-interests of these countries, which have led to political divergences that have magnified the risks. Unlike a year ago, Germany and France no longer stand in solidarity as backstops behind the euro system, but have been divided in their self-interest by divergent financial conditions which are leading to conflicting rather than unified political orientations. France's deteriorating finances and economy have shifted its self-interest toward alliances with "recipient" (lower credit rated) countries like Italy and Spain and away from "contributor" (higher credit rated) countries like Germany and the Netherlands, leaving Germany more isolated as a guarantor of the risks in the euro system and in its views about how to manage the imbalances. Given these shifts in the alliances between contributor and recipient countries we think that the popular assumption that the Germans and the ECB (which requires agreement of the key factions within it) will come through with money to make all of these debts good should not be taken for granted. Said differently, we think that there are good reasons to doubt that European bank and sovereign deleveragings will be prevented from progressing to the next stage in a disorderly way, without a viable Plan B in place. This fat tail event must be considered a significant possibility.
Given the lack of global private sector credit creation, the world's economies remain highly reliant on government support through monetary and fiscal stimulation. Now that the most recent round of global monetary stimulation has ended, world economic growth has slowed and central bankers are in the process of stimulating again. We estimate that in the past few months, global growth has slowed from about 3.3% to 1.9% and that 80% of the world's economies have slowed, including all of the largest. The breadth of this slowdown creates a dangerous dynamic because, given the inter-connectedness of economies and capital flows, one country's decline tends to reinforce another's, making a self-reinforcing global decline more likely and a reversal more difficult to produce. And at this point, while actions have been taken, none of the world's largest economies are stimulating aggressively via either monetary or fiscal policy, further reducing the odds of a reversal.
About half of the global slowdown has been due to slower growth in China. In recent years, China has been the locomotive of world growth and its recent sharp slowdown has had knock-on impacts on numerous countries and markets. China itself now makes up 12% of world GDP and its interactions with the rest of the world add to its impact. China is a large export destination for many countries and is the largest marginal consumer of raw materials in the world, so its slowdown has disproportionately hurt the economies which export to China, and its weaker commodity consumption has hurt the commodity producers. In response to this slowdown, China has begun to ease monetary policy and is contemplating more aggressive fiscal stimulation, but the actions have so far been gradual and have not yet been sufficient to produce a notable economic response.
US conditions have slipped with the rest of the world and the Fed has decided to extend its Twist operation; to end it would have been an inappropriate tightening. Last year's hump in growth has passed as numerous temporary forces have faded, and private sector credit growth remains weak, so growth is converging on the growth of income of around 1.5%. Besides the drag from Europe and the potential for a contagious debt blowup there, numerous US federal programs will expire in the fourth quarter, and given the likely political divisions after the election it will be a challenge for the new Congress to deal with these in a timely manner. Without action, the expiration of these programs represents a fiscal drag on growth of about 2.5%. Given the lack of new aggressive Fed stimulation, the threat from Europe, the simultaneous decline in major country growth rates and the fiscal cliff, the risks to US growth are skewed to the downside.
Over the past 18 months what markets are discounting has changed radically, with a clear bias toward discounting much weaker growth for a longer period of time. This shift is reflected in the rise in credit spreads, fall in bond yields, much lower discounted future earnings growth, flattening of the yield curve, currency moves and shifts in commodity prices. But such price changes simply reflect a transition from the discounting of one set of future economic conditions to the discounting of another set of future economic conditions. After discounting a relatively imminent return to normalcy in early 2011, markets are now pricing in a meaningful deleveraging for an extended period of time, including negative real earnings growth, negative real yields, high defaults and sustained lower levels of commodity prices. This pricing is the midpoint of discounted expectations and each market has an equal probability of outperforming or underperforming. By balancing the portfolio's exposure to discounted growth and inflation, a disappointment in one asset class will be offset by gains in another, without the necessity of predicting which it will be.
Ray Dalio is an American businessman and founder of Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater Associates has since attracted many clients including pension funds and is currently (as of January 2012) the largest hedge fund in the world with nearly $120 billion under management.