Mohamed El-Erian: We get signals that the system is under enormous stress

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Leading economist and investor believes world leaders, and global capitalism, have reached fork in road between equality and chaos

The bad news is that another economic crisis could strike within two years. The good or better news is that such a shock is not nailed on. Its a 50% chance. But the developed world is approaching a T-junction. One road leads to higher growth and a more inclusive form of capitalism while the other turns towards recession, instability and turmoil.

The speaker is Mohamed El-Erian, one of the biggest names in financial markets, who advised President Obama. Born in New York to Egyptian parents, he spent 14 years at Pimco, the worlds biggest bond fund manager. Six of those years were as chief executive before he quit, citing the need to have a different perspective on life and spend more time with his family. His daughter, when she was 13, handed him a 22-item list of key moments in her life he had missed.

He was educated in the UK, at Cambridge and Oxford universities, and began his career at the International Monetary Fund. These days he is chief economic adviser to Allianz, the German financial powerhouse that owns Pimco and where the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown is another adviser.

One of El-Erians signals of trouble in the system is Brexit. Others include the fact that 30% of the worlds government debt traded with negative yields at one point last year meaning investors were paying to own an asset from which they could only lose money. Then there was the election of President Trump, plus a French election in which both establishment parties were blown away in the first round. No one would have predicted all those events 18 months ago.

Why arent the financial markets in uproar at the loss of so many supposed certainties? On Brexit, El-Erian says politicians were smart to slow down the process, extend the timetable and avoid being forced into decisions by markets. It allowed investors to stop obsessing over hard and soft forms of exit and think in terms of slow Brexit.

We are still now in the pause phase, including up to and after your general election. Thereafter markets will slowly, and I stress slowly, start to get impatient and start to pay more attention than they have before now to negotiating stances on both sides.

Similarly with Trump: the protectionist part of his campaign, which was meant to be scary for markets, looks less frightening today. In fact, says El-Erian, protectionism was never a day one problem: He inherited a spaghetti bowl of trade agreements. At the end of the day, El-Erian expects concessions that allow the president to say trade is still free but fairer.

Donald Trump: He inherited a spaghetti bowl of trade agreements. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

What was the day one issue? The legacy of too many years of low growth and insufficiently inclusive growth: that the breakage to the system accumulates over time and its very hard to predict tipping points.

This is the nub of El-Erians analysis of why the developed world is approaching a fork in the road. The inequality generated by the current low-growth climate has three elements: inequality of wealth, income and opportunity. The last of the three manifested in high youth unemployment in many eurozone countries, for example is the most explosive element.

The minute you to start talking about the inequality of opportunity, you fuel the politics of anger. The politics of anger have a tendency to produce improbable results. The major risk is that we dont know how much weve strained the underlying system. But what we do know is we are getting signals that suggest its under enormous stress, which means the probability of either a policy mistake or market accident goes up.

The head-scratching part is that financial markets are not reflecting these worries. Measures of volatility stand at their lowest since 1983. If you talk to investors, they will tell you how worried they are about geopolitics, says El-Erian. And, if you ask them how they are positioned, they will tell you almost maximum risk.

There is an explanation of sorts, he thinks. Investors have been conditioned to think central banks can suppress volatility. They also see that the low growth appears stable. And they think the piles of cash on some companies balance sheets will come their way in the form of dividends and share buybacks. You need a major shakeout to change that mindset, he says.

But there is unambiguous evidence that these artificial conditions cant last, he says. After the financial crisis of 2008-09, there was a small chance to engineer a new growth model in which governments would come through with infrastructure spending and reforms.

Instead, the sense of urgency went away. Central banks stemmed the crisis, but the rest of the package didnt follow. We are now seeing the limits of relying on central banks, El-Erian believes.

The politics have become too disruptive, the finance has become too disruptive. Depending on where you view the political process, were either going to take a turn towards higher, more inclusive growth that will reduce political polarisation and the politics of anger. Or, alternatively, low growth becomes recession, artificial financial stability becomes unsettling volatility, and the politics get a lot messier.

A protester demonstrating over cuts to unemployment benefit and other austerity measures in Spain. Photograph: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

How do we take the high, benign road? El-Erian has a four-point plan.

First, we need to get back to investing in things that promote economic growth, infrastructure, a more pro-growth tax system for the US, serious labour retooling … If youre in Europe, youth employment is an issue youve really got to think about very seriously.

Second, countries that can afford to do so must exploit the fiscal space, meaning borrowing to invest or cutting taxes. He puts the US and Germany unambiguously in that category and to a certain extent the UK.

Third, pockets of extreme indebtedness must be addressed, a lesson he learned working with the IMF in Latin America in the 1980s. When you have a debt overhang, its like a black cloud, he argues. It sucks oxygen out of the system. You cannot grow of it: whether its Greece or student loans in the US, you need to deal with debt overhangs. The process of debt forgiveness is hard, he concedes, because some people are unfairly rewarded but the alternatives are worse.

Fourth, regional and global governance needs repair. He compares the eurozone to a stool with one-and-a-half legs instead of four. The complete leg is monetary union, the half is banking union. The missing legs are fiscal integration, meaning a common budget, and political harmonisation. No wonder the eurozone is unstable, he says: You can do three legs, you cant do one and half.

To return to El-Erians core T-junction analogy, none of the required manoeuvres sound easy. You dont need a big bang, he replies. If you want to take the good turn you have to see some progress on some of these elements. If you dont, then we take the other turn. He ascribes equal probabilities its a political judgment.

Whats an investor to do? El-Erian says his own approach, which he admits is hard for the average person to copy, is framed like a bar-bell. At one end, hes invested in high-risk startups where you dont need all to succeed. At the other, hes in cash and cash-like investments. In the middle, hell invest in public markets only tactically.

The bottom line: Im risk off.

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