#171. Inflexion point


Though most people have better things to do than watch market indices, it hasn’t escaped public notice that stocks have risen at record rates just as economies have decelerated ever nearer to stall-speeds. Market logic, such as it is, seems to be that previous falls ‘priced in’ the consequences of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis, and that, latterly, investors have started to ‘buy the recovery’.

To put any trust at all in the thesis that has powered the market rebound, you’d need to place unquestioning faith in the concept of a ‘V-shaped’ economic recovery.

The hugely influential International Monetary Fund certainly endorses this view. In its latest, slimmed-down set of WEO projections, the IMF predicts that world economic output will fall by -3.0% in 2020, and then grow by +5.8% next year. This would mean that GDP was higher (by +2.6%) in 2021 than it was in 2019. It’s implicit, though it’s not stated, that growth will then revert to something not dissimilar to previously-anticipated annual rates of between 3.0% and 3.5%.

This is a classic ‘V assumption’.

The view that has been taken here throughout this crisis has been that this kind of rebound is extraordinarily implausible. If, as seems increasingly likely, the market now ditches the fiction of a ‘V-shaped recovery’, markets could be poised for catastrophic falls. If this is how things pan out, hindsight might decide that the ‘Lehmann moment’ in this second-wave crash was the news that investment guru Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway fund has liquidated its entire holdings of airline stocks.

Unless you’re an investor, none of this may seem to matter very much. After all, prolonged support from the Federal Reserve and other central banks has created a ‘positivity bias’ in the minds of investors, so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to everyone else if the recent sharp rally in stocks turned out to be a colossal exercise in complacency and wishful thinking.

There are, though, far broader economic implications to the probability that, like investors, the government and business ‘high command’ has reached the point at which trust in a ‘V-shaped’ recovery starts to evaporate. Indeed, ‘ditching the V’ would have profound consequences, both for policy and for the practicalities of “exit” from lockdowns.

Airlines have become very much the bellwether for how the prospects for business and the economy are perceived.

Let’s remind ourselves that, prior to the crisis, the general expectation was that the aviation industry would continue to grow at annual rates of about 3%, implying aggregate expansion of around 90% by 2040.

Though it’s long been recognised that a sharp fall in passenger numbers during 2020 is inescapable, the ‘V-shaped’ assumption, hitherto, has dictated that this would be followed by a rapid rebound, with volumes pretty quickly recovering to (or very near) trend levels. This, it has been assumed, would leave the longer-term outlook largely intact, a scenario illustrated in the left-hand chart in fig. 1.

Fig. 1 

Air traffic

To believe this, you’d have had to assume that passengers would put away all of their fears about close proximity, dismiss from their minds any idea of a second wave of infections, and ignore their battered financial circumstances. If you did believe this, the only meaningful issues would be the duration of the crisis, and the ability of airlines to out-last it.

Where the longer-term outlook is concerned – and well before the advent of the coronavirus – the view here has been that continuing exponential growth in passenger aviation is implausible. This is a stance which forms part of a broader “peak travel” thesis.

This view isn’t confined to aviation, or to travel more generally. Rather, the Surplus Energy Economics interpretation is that the global economy has already reached the cusp of “de-growth”.

Simply stated, rapid rises in ECoE (the energy cost of energy) have put prior growth in prosperity into reverse, and are starting to exhaust the ability of financial gimmickry to hide this underlying reality.

This means that it would be counter-intuitive to expect exponential growth in any part of the economy, and particularly in any sector driven by discretionary consumer spending. The logic of de-growth is that we should now start to concentrate on those issues – including de-complexification, simplification, de-layering, loss of critical mass and falling utilization rates – which will determine the rate of de-growth, and the shape of the shrinking economy.

Returning to aviation, the outlook is likelier to be the “accelerated de-growth” scenario illustrated in the right-hand chart in fig. 1. The black line shows the “peak travel”, de-growth interpretation as it was understood before the pandemic, and the red one shows how the coronavirus crisis is likely to have modified this outlook. The gist of it is that any recovery in aviation from the 2020 slump will be very pedestrian indeed.

Of course, neither the consensus nor the ‘high command’ is going to accept the broader economic de-growth thesis any time soon – established ways of thinking are far too entrenched for that.

But what they are likely to do is to abandon trust in a ‘deep V’ recovery, not just in aviation, but more broadly too.

De-growth itself may remain a long way from acceptance, but two economic aspects of the coronavirus crisis are gradually gaining recognition.

One of these is that we face a very protracted period of “co-existence” between the virus itself and resumed economic activity.

The second is that some industries might not be able to survive for the duration of this extended co-existence. Together, these two considerations, extended across the economy as a whole, are likely to be more than enough to kill off the recovery in the markets. More importantly, we can expect ‘abandonment of V’ to have far-reaching implications for policy.

It’s important to note that, in the absence of an effective vaccine or treatment, lockdown has been the only policy response available to the authorities. Thus far, it has met with very high levels of public co-operation, flaunted only by small minorities of the obstinate and the anti-social. It seems to be succeeding in its stated aim of “flattening the curve” of virus transmission. Of course, there are alternative viewpoints, ranging from ‘coronavirus is just another flu’ to ‘this is the end of life as we know it’. Neither view has been accepted by governments as a reasonable basis for planning.

But the authorities have always known that lockdowns have two big problems.

The first is that, for as long as they continue, they inflict compounding damage to the economy.

The second is that, once restrictions are lifted, it would be very hard indeed to reimpose a “lockdown 2.0”. This latter consideration has inclined governments towards caution, despite the siren, often self-interested voices calling for an accelerated “exit”.

Recognition of “co-existence” seems to be moving the authorities away from an ‘everything stops, everything resumes’ stance towards a much more nuanced position, in which some economic activities can be restarted relatively quickly, whilst the resumption of other activities will take very much longer.

Aviation falls very much into the second category. If physical (wrongly labelled “social”) distancing needs to remain in situ, it’s almost impossible to see how airports and airlines can return to operation. Even if they could, it’s very hard to envisage passengers returning in their droves. Quite apart from the fact that most people are going to be a lot poorer after the crisis, there will remain an extreme and prolonged unwillingness to enter crowded spaces. Aviation has the additional handicap – which it shares with the cruise industry – that people will be reluctant to risk finding themselves put into extended isolation, either at their destination or on their return home.

Both the practical and the psychological implications of the crisis for consumers are likely to be profound, and to extend far beyond the international transport and tourism sectors. As and when the virus recedes, most households are likely to have experienced a draining of their savings, an increase in their debts and a meaningful reduction in their incomes. To health-related fears will have been added a new financial conservatism, reflected in a reduced propensity to engage in discretionary (non-essential) purchases.

Changes in consumer circumstances are likely to have their corollary in the commercial sector, too. Businesses which survive this crisis will, in a majority of instances, emerge with very stretched balance sheets and seriously impaired revenues and earnings. They can be expected to turn borrowing-averse, and to take an ultra-cautious line both on operating costs and on investment.

Just as consumers will be reluctant to spend on non-essential purchases, businesses are likely to keep discretionary outgoings to a minimum. This means that acceptance that a V-shaped recovery isn’t going to happen can be expected to have the same effect on sectors like advertising that it has on consumer areas such as travel.

Financially, both investor and government attitudes are likely to undergo significant alteration as the improbability of a V-shaped recovery becomes apparent.

Governments which might have been willing to support companies and sectors through a relatively short hiatus will take a markedly less accommodating line when faced with the prospect of providing such support for a very much longer time. They might also reflect that bankruptcy, whilst it wipes out shareholders, does not in fact ‘destroy’ businesses and their assets, but simply transfers ownership to creditors.

Framing these considerations will be recognition that the resources of governments face deep and permanent impairment, and that public priorities are very likely to have changed.

What is emerging now – and is likely to reach even into the rarefied levels of investor calculation – is that neither the assurance nor the comparative simplicity of a V-shaped recovery is persuasive.

The wise course from here would be an acceptance, if not (yet) of de-growth, then of a wholly altered economic, financial, political and social landscape. Denial will of course continue in many quarters, but the centre of gravity will move fundamentally as a single observation gains traction.

That observation is that a ‘V-shaped’ recovery is not going to happen.