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    本輪經濟繁榮將告終,我們該怎么辦?

    本輪經濟繁榮將告終,我們該怎么辦?

    Geoff Colivn 2018-07-29
    經濟增長放緩,牛市落幕,要做什么才能避免受到沖擊?

    夏日炎炎,商界對美國經濟的樂觀情緒也像烈日一樣火爆。美國一流企業首席執行官協會Business Roundtable調查顯示,今年6月美國大企業首席執行官信心爆棚,他們預計的企業營業收入和投資規模都超出3月的預期,信心值創該調查十五年來新高。首席財務官同樣信心滿滿。四大會計師事務所之一德勤調查顯示,首席財務官最近對北美經濟的預期達到八年來最高水平。美國獨立企業聯盟報告顯示,小企業領導者的樂觀心態也達到了過去三十年來從未有過的高位。用一個比喻評價,美國商界上下一派歌舞升平、擊鐘鼎食的氣象。

    這種時候要讓歡騰的舞步戛然而止似乎有些不盡人情。我們不會這么潑冷水。今年7月中旬,預測機構料將公布二季度GDP增長預期,即便他們預計美國經濟至少未來幾個季度仍會保持強勁增長也不意外。失業率正處于歷史低位,就業前景向好吸引更多美國人重返勞動力大軍。難怪商界領袖們如此有信心。

    THE OPTIMISM IS BEAMING like the summer sun. America’s big-company CEOs are bursting with confidence, in June expecting to take in even more revenue and make bigger investments than they foresaw in March, when they were more confident than ever before in the 15 years the Business Roundtable has been surveying them. CFOs are just as ebullient. Their perception of the North American economy was recently the highest in the eight years Deloitte had been asking about it. Leaders of small businesses also are brimming with optimism—more than at any time in the past 30 years, reports the National Federation of Independent Business. At least figuratively, confetti is flying, disco balls are spinning, and Champagne corks are popping across the length and breadth of American business.

    It seems a shame to pull the plug on the dance music, so we won’t, exactly. As of mid-July, forecasters were expecting the announcement of a knockout GDP growth number for the second quarter, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the U.S. economy continued to grow impressively for at least a few quarters more. Unemployment is near historic lows, and better job prospects are drawing more workers back into the labor force. No wonder business leaders are confident.

    美國失業率走勢

    然而,經濟走強的跡象掩蓋了一些根本現實,這些現實問題不會逐漸消失,也不容忽視。股市上漲停滯等信號暗示,當前美國的經濟擴張已接近尾聲,而不是剛剛起步。我們稍后會介紹更多此類信號。對經濟擴張的擔憂已推升長期利率,不利于資產估值。貿易戰影響的不確定性導致很多企業推遲行動,收縮潛在投資。事實上,歌舞升平氛圍背后,經濟的警告信號無處不在。美國經濟增長遲早會大幅下滑,甚至衰退,而且可能比我們想象中來得快。一貫如此。

    季節性變化將至

    先從明顯的跡象說起:經濟是一個周期接另一個周期。不同于自然界的四季更迭、月盈月缺或是潮汐起落,商業周期的起止向來難以預測。某個時候經濟活動會暫時走上巔峰,然后開始收縮,直至最終跌落最低谷,此后又開始回升。諷刺的是,判斷我們處在增長期末尾的熟悉標志就是經濟過熱,有點類似印度的夏天:企業促使工廠生產,超出其長期可持續的水平,員工加班增加。需求非常強勁,通脹開始回升,導致央行加息,于是股價等資產估值趨平或者回落。全球最大對沖基金橋水基金的首席執行官瑞·達利歐指出:“這就是經濟強勁時股票和其他資產價格往往下跌的原因?!?

    現狀正是如此。美國國會預算辦公室(CBO)發現,今年國內經濟開始有過熱跡象,產出超過了潛在的長期可持續水平。今年5月國會預算辦公室預計,隨著薪資上漲,越來越多勞動者將重返工作崗位。6月就是如此。人才市場供應繼續吃緊,勞動者對找工作很有自信,自愿離職率創十七年來新高。同時,雇主可能為了吸引并留住優秀員工而不得不競相加薪,這將直接打擊企業盈利。

    通脹和利率雙雙走高,國會預算辦公室預計漲勢可能持續。達利歐稱,綜合所有因素來看,“我們都很清楚現在處于商業周期的‘末期’?!?

    美國經濟走到這一步經歷了很長時間,從歷史角度看,這種持久性不同尋常。包括上次衰退后的經濟復蘇階段在內,美國經濟擴張已經持續110個月,可以說相當長壽,如果在人類世界堪比年逾百歲的老人。根據美國國家經濟研究所分析,這是164年來美國第二長的擴張期,期間美國經濟擴張平均持續39個月。唯一一次超過當前擴張的時期是1991年到2001年,當時維持了120個月。

    然而年邁未必意味著經濟擴張將壽終正寢,但步入老年通常會出現一些狀況。一旦開始衰老,就會整體崩潰。老年學專家稱之為病變,常常和一些“并發癥”相互關聯。當前美國經濟的繁榮表象之下,已埋伏很多病變。

    勞動力不足

    經濟產出概念非常簡單:由勞動力、資本和生產力組成的函數。很簡單的一個事實是,如果勞動力增長非常緩慢,就像當前美國勞動力市場一樣,經濟很難快速增長。20世紀70年代,勞動力增速為每年2.6%,現在約為0.2%。原因之一是,幾十年來,美國人生孩子越來越少(去年美國生育率降至歷史最低水平)。隨著嬰兒潮一代不斷老去并退出勞動力市場,美國工人數量將急劇下降。美國勞工統計局去年10月預測,2016年至2026年間將新增1150萬個就業崗位,勞動力缺口達100萬人。

    為了應對人口減少的壓力,美國公司依賴大量國外人才。2017年,移民占美國勞動力的17.1%,多年來該比例一直在上升。事實上,正如今年早些時候明尼阿波利斯聯邦儲備銀行行長尼爾·卡什卡里在《華爾街日報》撰文提出,對美國來說吸引關鍵勞動力“像享受免費午餐一樣”。

    Yet all these signs of economic strength mask fundamental realities that won’t fade away and mustn’t be ignored. The current economic expansion is much nearer its end than its beginning, as accumulating hints suggest—including the stagnating stock market, about which we’ll say more in a bit. Already the concerns are pushing up long-term interest rates, which is bad for asset values. Uncertainty about the effects of a trade war is causing many companies to postpone action, dampening potential investment. Indeed, look past those disco balls and you’ll see economic warning signs everywhere. A significant slowdown or even recession is coming sooner or later, and it’s probably coming sooner than you think. It always does.

    A Seasonal Change is Coming

    LET’S START WITH THE OBVIOUS: Economies follow cycles. Unlike with seasons or the moon or the ocean tides, the timing of the business cycle is never easy to predict. But at some point, economic activity reaches a temporal peak, then begins to contract until eventually it bottoms out and starts growing once more. A familiar sign that we’re in the waning stage of the growing season, ironically, is that the economy overheats—think of it as an Indian summer: Companies push factories to produce more than their long-term sustainable output, pushing employees to work more overtime. Demand is so strong that inflation starts to increase, leading central bankers to raise interest rates, which causes asset values, including stock prices, to level off or fall. Ray Dalio, CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, writes, “That is why it is not unusual to see strong economies accompanied by falling stock and other asset prices.”

    All of that is happening now. The Congressional Budget Office finds that this year, the economy has begun overheating in just this way, producing more than its sustainable longterm potential. The CBO predicted in May that as wages rose, more people who had left the labor force would come back to work, and, yes, that’s just what happened in June. The labor market continues to be tight, with workers so confident that they’re voluntarily quitting their jobs at the highest rate in 17 years. Meanwhile, employers will likely have to bid up wages in order to attract and keep good workers, hitting corporate earnings directly.

    Inflation and interest rates are rising and will likely continue to do so, forecasts the CBO. With all those factors combining, says Dalio, “We know that we are in the ‘late-cycle’ part” of the business cycle.

    It is somewhat remarkable, historically speaking, that it has taken this long to get here. America’s current expansion is 110 months old (including the recovery period after the last recession), which makes it a marvel of longevity—the economic equivalent of a supercentenarian. The current growth run is the second longest in the 164 years for which the National Bureau of Economic Research has done the analysis; the average expansion has run a mere 39 months. The only one that outlasted this one lived to be 120 months old (1991–2001).

    Old age isn’t by necessity a death knell for an expansion—but then, there is something that tends to accompany it: When things start to break down, they break down en masse. Gerontologists call these tandem and often interlinked pathologies “comorbidities.” And in this economy, just under the skin, there seem to be plenty of them.

    We Don’t Have Enough Workers

    ECONOMIC OUTPUT is pretty straightforward in concept: It’s a function of labor, capital, and productivity. The simple fact is, it’s hard for an economy to grow very fast if the labor force is growing very slowly, as the U.S. labor force is doing. In the 1970s, it increased at a 2.6% annual rate; now the rate is about 0.2%. One reason for this is that for many decades, Americans have been having fewer and fewer babies (the U.S. fertility rate dropped to a new all-time low last year). As the baby-boom generation continues to age and exit the workforce, the number of American-born workers will sharply decline. This past October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that over the period of 2016 to 2026, there will be 11. 5 million jobs created and a million fewer people in the workforce to fill them.

    To counter that demographic drag, American companies have relied on an influx of people from outside the country. Immigrants accounted for 17.1% of the U.S. workforce in 2017, a percentage that has been rising for years. This critical labor force infusion, in fact, has been “as close to a free lunch as there is for America,” as Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, put it earlier this year in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

    增長來自海外

    然而很少有人知道,補充勞動力實際上也面臨全球競爭。沒錯:其他出生率下降的發達國家同樣需要新工人彌補退休人員留下的崗位。之前美國一直占據優勢,不僅能吸引到低薪工人填補美國人不愿做的工作,還吸引到大批科學家和企業家。(硅谷就有座加拿大政府購買的廣告牌,建議簽證有問題的技術人員“轉向加拿大”。)這就是為什么特朗普總統的移民很可能會限制美國公司發展——移民方面的強硬政策不僅是政治立場,也是經濟政策。

    到目前為止,美國的移民打擊并未顯著減少凈移民人數,但其中復雜的風險可能對美國企業產生深遠影響,不管規模大小。

    貿易戰令其他問題情況更糟

    僅看特朗普政府移民政策的話,可能不會影響經濟增長。但聯邦政府另一項政策在邊境制造更多麻煩,而且這次是跟長期貿易伙伴。即便美國與中國、歐洲、加拿大和墨西哥之間新一輪貿易戰不會持久,也會與老齡化一樣成為不良影響。據FactSet報道,去年大部分業務在海外的美國公司比其他同行增長速度更快,盈利能力也更強。因此,發動貿易戰會嚴重影響美國最強勁的經濟增長引擎。

    從數據來看,目前與貿易有關的沖突在美國每年20萬億美元的經濟中無關緊要。即使7月初美國對340億美元中國商品征稅引發報復反應,也不會顯著降低GDP。但相關影響會以兩種相互交織的方式迅速出現。

    首先,戰爭規模再大通常也會從小型戰斗開始,之后引發不斷升級循環。當前貿易戰似乎還在發展過程中。美國針對中國的行動3月開始,當時特朗普對進口鋁和鋼鐵征收關稅,其中只有約27億美元來自中國生產商。中國隨即對同等數量的美國出口征收新關稅。第二天,特朗普提出對500億美元中國產品征收關稅;第二天中國也報復性征收關稅。雙方齟齬一直持續,現在美國威脅對5000億美元的中國進口產品征收關稅,中國則發誓要“不惜一切代價”實施報復。

    隨著賭注越來越高,言辭也愈發激烈。6月特朗普表示,中國“威脅到沒有做錯任何事的美國公司、工人和農民”。中國商務部斥責該言論為“勒索”。最新的關稅于7月生效時,中國一份黨報警告稱,“美國顯然低估了全球反對力量和中國發動報復時能發揮多大能量”。

    隨著公開威脅日漸明確,退一步的可能性越來越小。推動全球經濟增長的兩大經濟體喋喋不休地爭吵,可能發展為一場歷史性的貿易戰。

    爭端還可能以另一種方式影響美國經濟,即便雙方對抗不激化一樣會實現。問題在于人們會對未來發展不確定。正如美銀美林經濟學家米歇爾·梅耶在最近一份報告中提到,該影響——即“不確定性引發震蕩”已經發生,美聯儲很擔心。聯邦公開市場委員會在6月會議上報告稱,“由于貿易政策存在不確定性,部分地區資本支出計劃已縮減或推遲”,并補充稱“大多數參與者”擔心不確定性會影響“商業情緒”或商業信心,以及“投資支出”。

    別指望局勢很快會明確。誰也沒法預測大規模貿易戰會怎么發展。上一次貿易戰還是20世紀30年代,當時可沒有現在這般復雜快速的全球供應鏈。商業決策者對最終結果也只能猜想。

    不確定性會導致一切停擺,這對增長沒有好處。

    油價上漲將阻礙全球發展

    另一個威脅則是油價高企,經常也差點登上新聞頭條新聞。最近油價為每桶約73美元,由于美國也是化石燃料主要生產國,所以油價上漲對美國有直接好處,但油價過高也很可能削弱全球增長,因為隨著美元走強,石油(無論出自哪國) 對其他國家來說成本更高。

    What’s less widely understood is that there has actually been a global competition for this supplementary workforce. That’s right: Other developed nations with declining birthrates likewise need new workers to help offset their armies of retirees—and America has been winning this battle, luring not just low-wage workers to fill jobs that native-born Americans aren’t rushing to do but also scientists and entrepreneurs. (Witness the Silicon Valley billboards, bought by the government of America’s northern neighbor, imploring techies with visa troubles to “Pivot to Canada.”) That’s why President Trump’s immigrant-hostile policy isn’t just a political stance, it’s also an economic one—and one that’s almost sure to limit the ability of U.S. companies to grow.

    So far, America’s immigration crackdown has not significantly reduced net in-migration, but it’s a compounding risk that could have far-reaching consequences for American businesses large and small.

    A Trade War Makes Other Problems Worse

    BY ITSELF, the Trump administration’s immigration policies may not be enough to stop growth in its tracks. But another federal policy is making even more trouble at the border—this time with America’s long-standing trading partners. Nascent trade wars with China, Europe, Canada, and Mexico—even if they don’t last—have become yet another comorbidity for our aging expansion. U.S. companies that do most of their business abroad grew faster and were more profitable than the rest last year, just as in previous years, FactSet reports. Waging a trade war thus disproportionately hurts America’s strongest engines of economic growth.

    By the numbers, the trade-related skirmishes so far are insignificant in America’s $20 trillion-a-year economy. Even the tit-for-tat imposition of tariffs on $34 billion of trade by the U.S. and China in early July will not, by itself, noticeably reduce GDP. Yet the effects could easily mushroom, in two intertwined ways.

    First, even the biggest wars typically start with minor battles that spark an unstoppable cycle of escalation. In the current trade war, that appears to be underway. Hostilities with China began in March when President Trump imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, only about $2.7 billion of which come from Chinese producers. China responded with new tariffs on an equivalent amount of U.S. exports. The next day, Trump proposed tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports; China proposed retaliatory tariffs the day after that. On and on this went until the U.S. has now threatened tariffs on nearly all of America’s $500 billion of Chinese imports, and China has vowed to retaliate “at any cost.”

    As the stakes get higher, the rhetoric gets more bellicose. China is “threatening United States companies, workers, and farmers who have done nothing wrong,” Trump said in June. China’s Trade Ministry called the speech “blackmail.” When the latest tariffs took effect in July, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper warned that “Washington has obviously underestimated the giant force that the world’s opposition and China’s retaliation can produce.”

    As public threats become more explicit, backing down from them appears ever less likely. That’s how a piddling spat between the world’s two largest economies, jointly the foundation of global economic growth, could become a historic trade war.

    But the second way the current dispute could damage the U.S. economy doesn’t even require that hostilities get worse. It requires only that people become less certain about where all this is headed. That effect—an “uncertainty shock,” as Bank of AmericaMerrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer called it in a recent note—is happening already, and it worries the Fed. “Contacts in some Districts indicated that plans for capital spending had been scaled back or postponed as a result of uncertainty over trade policy,” the Federal Open Market Committee reported from its June meeting, adding that “most participants” were concerned such uncertainty could depress “business sentiment”—confidence, that is—“and investment spending.”

    Don’t expect much more clarity anytime soon. No one can predict where a large-scale trade war would lead. The last one occurred in the 1930s, when today’s intricate, light-speed global supply chains would have been nearly unfathomable. Which leaves business decisionmakers only to wonder how all this shakes out.

    Uncertainty prompts paralysis—and that’s no good for growth.

    Rising Oil Prices Will Gum Up Global Gears

    ANOTHER THREAT—this one lingering just below the top news headlines—is the high price of oil. Recently around $73 a barrel, it’s on balance a direct benefit to the U.S. now that America is a prodigious producer of the fossil fuel—but expensive oil is also very likely to dent global growth, particularly since the strengthening dollar makes oil (wherever produced) yet more costly for other countries.

    油價反彈

    經濟合作與發展組織(OECD)是以促進全球經濟增長為目標的政府間機構,該機構指出,高油價是主要的“重大風險”之一。盡管某些人可能認為美國不必在意全球經濟普遍放緩,但油價走高終將有損美國大公司和許多小公司的利益。

    刺激政策可能會短暫推動經濟增長...

    正如我們指出,經濟衰退和承壓的跡象似乎反映出上一個商業周期終結。但有個很重要的反證,因為我們多次聽說最近聯邦政府減稅和支出增加。一些經濟學家表示,令人興奮的刺激計劃將避免經濟衰退,不僅如此,未來幾年還會推動迅速增長。

    實際上,從所有傳統標準看,經濟增長都堪稱亮眼。經過多年低速擴張,2018年可能是十年內GDP增長最強勁的一年。但不能指望刺激來保持刺激。

    西北大學經濟學家羅伯特·J·戈登在最新著作《美國經濟增長的興衰》里的觀點相當有說服力,他指出美國從1870年到1970年的“特殊世紀”是“獨特的高速增長期,以后無法重復?!彼f,以前人們認為GDP增長3%很正常,但已不可持續。然而,減稅和增加支出營造的“舊式財政刺激”將推動短暫強勁的增長,“至少一段時間內增長3%以上”,而且“未來四到六個季度平均增長3%”。 他表示,“然后刺激政策效應逐漸消失?!苯洕氐骄徛鲩L的新常態。

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental agency aimed at fostering economic growth worldwide, points to high oil prices as one of the main “risks that loom large.” And while a broad global slowdown may seem, to some, removed from U.S. interests, it would hurt America’s biggest companies and many of its smaller ones as well.

    The Stimulus May Pad Growth For A While…

    THE SIGNS of economic senescence and stress, as we noted, would seem to mirror the end of past business cycles. But there’s one big counterpoint, as we’ve all heard many a time, and that’s the recent federal tax cut and spending increases. That whammy of a stimulus, say some economists, will stave off any recession—and not only that, it will jumpstart growth for years to come.

    Indeed, the economy, by all traditional measures, seems to be growing smartly. After years of low-horsepower expansion, 2018 could be the best year for GDP growth in at least a decade. But don’t count on the stimulus to keep stimulating.

    Robert J. Gordon, the Northwestern University economist whose latest book is The Rise and Fall of American Growth, argues persuasively that America’s “special century” from 1870 to 1970 represented “a singular interval of rapid growth that will not be repeated.” Regular yearly GDP growth of 3%, once considered normal, is no longer sustainable, he says. Yet “old-fashioned fiscal stimulus” from tax cuts and a spending boost will produce a brief but powerful blast of growth—“3%-plus growth for at least a while” and “an average of 3% growth probably for the next four to six quarters.” Then, he says, “the stimulus fades away.” And it’s back to the slow-growth new normal.

    美國歷年GDP增長的預測

    當然,一切假設短期內經濟會出現提升。然而可能不會。出于多種原因,刺激措施可能無法像宣傳中一樣發揮作用。首先,減稅和支出增加等財政啟動通常在商業周期底部部署,而不是頂部。舊金山聯儲研究人員在一項新研究中表示,相關政策對不斷增長的經濟體影響不大。有證據表明,“實際提升作用可能遠遠低于許多人預計”,可能“接近零”。

    美聯儲前主席本·伯南克則預計,近期將出現巨大變化。他在最近的華盛頓政策討論中表示,刺激計劃“選了個非常錯誤的時機”。(他拒絕了采訪。)“經濟已經充分就業?!贝碳ご胧敖衲旰兔髂陮洕斐芍卮蟠驌?,2020年也是??傆幸惶齑蟊坷菓褷柪牵▌赢嬈巧l現自己站在懸崖邊雙腳踩空?!?

    此外,許多公司將省下來的稅款用于股票回購,而不是投資經營。股東可能很高興,但從長遠來看不會刺激經濟增長。我們認為,雖然刺激措施可能會推進經濟擴張,但很像把汽車油門踩到底。一段時間里速度非???,甚至可能令人興奮,但很快汽油就會耗盡......或者撞車。

    ......然后情況可能更糟

    值得注意的是,刺激還會產生另一種影響:國會預算辦公室宣稱,比起沒有近期減稅和支出增加的情況,未來十年累計的聯邦赤字將增加1.6萬億美元。如果各種稅收和支出條款結束時國會決定繼續的話,赤字規??赡芨?,現在看起來可能性很高。這點很令人擔心,具體來說有多個原因(正如《財富》雜志的記者肖恩·塔利在2018年4月1日發表的《深陷債務》里提到)。下一次經濟衰退不可避免地到來時,華盛頓就無法采用通常的減稅和增加支出的手段補救。如果債務不斷膨脹讓外國投資者感到害怕,購買美國國債減少,利率只能上升,聯邦利息支付將會增加,在惡性循環中債務更快擴張。

    許多公司已過度杠桿化

    雖然人們對聯邦債務日益增長的威脅已經討論很多,但另一項基本被忽視的信用風險中也出現了麻煩:企業債務。非金融公司債務已經上升到GDP的73.5%,創歷史新高,卻沒引起太多關注。

    目前來看問題并不是很嚴重,因為利率一直很低,這也是公司大量借貸的重要原因之一。但隨著利率上升,美國公司生存環境日趨惡劣。標普國際信貸分析師安德魯·張表示,如果利率上升而經濟放緩,也就是雙重打擊齊下的話,眼下創紀錄的企業債務“將成為大問題?!爆F在看起來發生的可能性越來越大?!叭藗兡芤庾R到風險,但行動起來并不是很規矩?!彼嬖V《財富》雜志。公司債的投資者越來越緊張。投資級公司債是今年上半年表現最差的債券。

    That, of course, assumes we’ll get that short-term boost. We may not. The stimulus may not work as advertised for a number of reasons. First, fiscal fire-starters like tax cuts and spending increases are usually deployed at the bottom of the business cycle, not the top. They just don’t add much oomph to an economy that’s already growing, say researchers at the San Francisco Fed in a new study. The evidence suggests that “the true boost is likely to be well below” what many forecasters predict and could be “as small as zero.”

    Former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke foresees a more dramatic near future. The stimulus is arriving “at the very wrong moment,” he said at a recent Washington policy discussion. (He declined an interview request.) “The economy is already at full employment.” The stimulus “is going to hit the economy in a big way this year and next year, and then, in 2020, Wile E. Coyote is going to go off the cliff.”

    What’s more, many companies are spending their tax bonus on share buybacks rather than investing it in operations. That may make shareholders happy for a while, but it’s not going to stimulate economic growth over the long haul. Our take is that while the stimulus might extend this expansion, it’s a lot like flooring the accelerator in a car. For a time, you go really fast, and it might even be thrilling—but pretty soon you run out of gas … or crash.

    …And Then It May Make Things Worse

    THE STIMULUS, it’s important to note, will have another effect as well: The accumulated federal deficit over the next decade will be $1.6 trillion larger than it would have been without the recent tax cuts and spending increases, according to the CBO—and it will be larger still if various tax and spending provisions set to end are renewed by Congress, as seems highly likely. That’s concerning for all kinds of reasons (as Fortune’s Shawn Tully showed in “Deep in Debt,” April 1, 2018). When the next recession inevitably arrives, Washington will be less able to apply the usual remedies of lower taxes and greater spending. If ballooning debt eventually spooks foreign investors into buying fewer Treasuries, rates will have to rise and federal interest payments will grow, expanding the debt even faster in a bad-news feedback loop.

    Many Companies Are Already Overleveraged

    WHILE MUCH has been said about the growing menace of federal debt, trouble is brewing as well in a different and largely overlooked credit risk: corporate debt. Without many alarm bells sounding, the debt of nonfinancial companies has risen to 73.5% of GDP—an all-time high.

    It hasn’t been a problem so far because interest rates have been so low—which is a big reason companies borrowed so heavily in the first place. But as interest rates rise, the Goldilocks environment is darkening. Today’s record corporate debt “would be a problem if rates are rising while the economy slows—a double whammy,” says S&P Global credit analyst Andrew Chang. That’s exactly the scenario that is beginning to seem more likely. “People are aware of the risk but not quite behaving like an aware citizen,” he tells Fortune. Investors in corporate bonds are getting nervous. Investment-grade corporate debt was the worst-performing category of debt investment in this year’s first half.

    聯邦債務的增長

    一些債券持有人指出,美國公司持有近2萬億美元的現金,以此來自我安慰。但該說法有兩大漏洞。首先,24家大公司占據了龐大現金儲備的一半(領頭的是蘋果公司,現金達2670億美元),但這些公司的債務可占不到總體的一半。

    其次,企業美國的凈債務,即債務減去現金規模仍然達息稅折舊及攤銷前利潤的1.5倍(即扣除利息、稅收、折舊和攤銷后的利潤)。債務收益率達到過去15年來最高?!艾F金可能處于歷史最高水平,但債務也一樣,”標普國際的張表示,“人們卻沒注意到債務部分?!?

    情況已經相當嚴重,連美聯儲都開始留意了。今年4月,美聯儲理事萊爾·布雷納德表示,“我們梳理了金融脆弱性后發現,兩個領域風險上升:資產估值和商業杠桿?!眱煞N風險都與公司債務有關。布雷納德指出,公司債券的收益率“比歷史水平低”,意味著當前債券價格非常高。而且與債務收益率一樣,商業杠桿“相對于歷史水平來看很高”。

    明白了么?如果沒完全理解,看看負責評估美國金融穩定性的財政部金融研究辦公室的評論,可能會清楚一些:“非金融業務杠桿率......在潛在漏洞的熱力圖上已變紅色”。

    這一不良趨勢也引發央行人士擔心,因為有時只要出現小波動就能導致一連串公司破產。正如布雷納德觀察,“利潤受到意外負面沖擊加上利率提升”可能會打擊一系列債券以及出貸方。如果真的發生,不僅會對債券市場造成壓力,還可能影響整體經濟。

    可靠的指標正在下降

    緊盯債務及其成本很有必要,因為債券利率在預測經濟衰退方面向來很準,現在也快要預測出下一次衰退。如果長期(10年期)國債收益率低于短期(三個月)國債收益率,也即收益率曲線倒掛,就說明衰退不遠。過去的50年里,該指標從未漏報也未誤報過經濟衰退。收益率曲線倒掛就意味著經濟衰退,唯一的問題距離經濟衰退開始還有多少時間;平均而言是10個月,不過2008-09經濟衰退之前有16個月。

    Haver Analytics的數據顯示,截至7月中旬,收益率曲線尚未倒掛,但已非常接近,比2008年金融危機和經濟衰退之前還要接近。

    Some debt holders try to comfort themselves by noting that U.S. corporations are sitting on nearly $2 trillion of cash. But that reasoning faces two big holes. First, just 24 companies account for about half of that mammoth cash cache (led by Apple, with $267 billion), yet they account for nowhere near half of America’s corporate debt.

    Second, corporate America’s net debt—that is, debt minus cash—is still about 1.5 times Ebitda (earnings stripped away from interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). That would make it the highest debt-to-earnings ratio in the past 15 years. “Cash may be at an all-time high, but so is debt,” says S&P Global’s Chang, “and people aren’t noticing the second part.”

    The situation is serious enough to grab the Fed’s attention. Fed governor Lael Brainard, speaking in April, said, “Our scan of financial vulnerabilities suggests elevated risks in two areas: asset valuations and business leverage.” Both risks involve corporate debt. Brainard noted that yields on corporate bonds are “low by historical comparison,” meaning the bonds look awfully expensive. And business leverage, like that debt-to-earnings ratio, is “high relative to historical trends.”

    Got all that? Well, if not, maybe this comment from the Treasury’s Office of Financial Research—the arm of the department that assesses U.S. financial stability—can bring home the message: “Nonfinancial business leverage ratios … are flashing red on the heat map” of potential vulnerabilities.

    Those trends trouble central bankers because all it takes is a single jolt, in some cases, to create a cascade of corporate havoc. As Brainard observed, “unexpected negative shocks to earnings in combination with increased interest rates” could hammer those bonds and the lenders who own them. If that happens, it won’t just stress the bond market. The effects could ripple through the whole economy.

    Reliable Indicators Are Pointing Down

    FOCUSING ON DEBT and its cost is wise because bond interest rates boast an excellent record of forecasting recessions—and they’re close to predicting one now. When the yield on long-term (10-year) Treasury securities falls below the yield on short-term (threemonth) Treasuries—an inversion of the yield curve—a recession is on the way. Over the past 50 years, this test has given no false positives or failed to signal a coming downturn. Yield curve inversion has always equaled recession, and the only question is how long it will be before the recession starts; on average, it’s 10 months, though it took 16 months before the 2008–09 recession.

    As of mid-July, the yield curve had not inverted, but it was getting close—closer than it has been since just before the 2008 financial crisis and recession, according to Haver Analytics.

    國債收益率曲線

    另一個可靠的衰退指標則令人驚訝。當前失業率處于低谷,這有點反常,因為低失業率表明經濟在強勁增長。但超低失業率也意味著擴張接近極限。過去65年里該指標從未出錯,也從未誤報。

    復雜的是,只有低谷過去我們才能確定。今年5月失業率創下了17年來的最低點3.8%,然后在6月上升至4%,因為更多工人重新開始找工作。到底是不是失業率低谷,至少還得過幾個月才能知道。但就目前而言,我們只能說我們比較接近。

    市場和經濟不可避免地轉向時,會像所有變化一樣變成機會。

    除了知道哪些指標最能預測經濟衰退,我們還知道不應該問誰:經濟學家。至少在這項任務上,他們很糟糕。多年以來,全球各地的經濟學家從未在經濟衰退幾個月前成功預測。奈德·戴維斯研究公司發現,美國“1970年以來的七次經濟衰退中,經濟學家預測全體失敗”。實際上,經濟學家從來“預測”不到衰退,直到衰退到來才知道。而且即便衰退開始他們也會低估下降趨勢,只能不斷修改預測,一直拖到經濟衰退結束前不久才能說對。經濟學家在幫助人們了解經濟運作方式方面有些貢獻,但在預測經濟衰退上真的很差。

    這點很重要,因為這意味著經濟衰退到來之前專家不會預告,也就意味著你得自己做好準備。

    分析師還在幻想

    在此背景下,華爾街分析師似乎沉浸在樂觀情緒里無法自拔。過去70年中,美國企業利潤年復合增長率為5.6%。在史上最大牛市,即1982年到2000年間,利潤增長率為6.5%。然而華爾街分析師認為標準普爾500指數公司利潤還能以每年15%飆升,不是幾個季度,而是未來五年內。

    有史以來最偉大的投資者之一,約翰·鄧普頓說:“牛市出于悲觀主義,在懷疑中成長,在樂觀情緒里成熟,最終在興奮中消亡?!碑斍暗臉酚^情緒像是興奮,不客氣的說就是精神錯亂。

    想預測市場拐點很愚蠢,沒人知道未來半年或12個月股票走勢怎樣。即使當前價格太高,市場也不一定會暴跌。也可能長期滯漲,直到利潤趕上價格。

    Another highly reliable presage of downturns is surprising. It’s a trough in the unemployment rate—counterintuitive because low unemployment shows that an economy is growing strongly. But super-low unemployment also means the expansion is pressing up against its limits. In the past 65 years, this indicator has never missed and has never called a false positive.

    Complicating such a call is the fact that we can’t be sure a trough has occurred until after the fact. Unemployment hit a 17-year low of 3.8% in May, then edged up to 4% in June as more workers rejoined the labor force looking for jobs. Whether that turns out to be a bottom won’t be known for at least a few more months. For now, though, we can only say it’s hard to believe we aren’t at least very near one.

    When the markets and the economy inevitably do turn, it will be, like all change, an opportunity.

    In addition to knowing which indicators are best at predicting recessions, we also know whom not to ask: economists. At least on this one task, they’re terrible. Around the world, over long periods of time, the consensus of economists has consistently failed to predict recessions even a few months before they begin. Ned Davis Research finds that in the U.S., “economists, as a consensus, called exactly none” of the seven recessions since 1970. In fact, economists typically do not “forecast” a recession until after it has started, and even then they initially understate the decline, revising their estimates until finally getting them right shortly before the recession ends. Economists are highly valuable in helping the rest of us understand how the economy works, but they’re notably reluctant to predict downturns.

    This is important to remember because it means the experts won’t tell us a recession is coming until it’s already here. Which means it’s up to you to prepare for it. (For some help, see the sidebar “Where to Invest When the Party Ends” on the next page.)

    Analysts Are In Fantasyland

    AGAINST THAT BACKDROP, Wall Street analysts seem utterly clueless in their optimism. Consider that over the past 70 years, U.S. corporate profits have grown at a 5.6% compound annual rate. During the greatest bull market in history, from 1982 to 2000, they grew at 6.5%. Yet Wall Street analysts believe the profits of the S&P 500 companies will rage ahead at a searing 15% annual pace—not for a few quarters, but over the next five years.

    One of the all-time great investors, John Templeton, said, “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria.” This sounds like euphoria, or what we might less politely term insanity.

    Trying to call turns in the market is folly, and there’s no telling how stocks might perform in the next six or 12 months. Even if today’s prices are in fact far too high, the market need not plunge. It could just stagnate until profits eventually catch up with prices.

    兩位頂尖投資者認為,市場回歸理性之前甚至可能短期再漲一波。瑞·達利歐就在觀察“股價最后沖刺”,他認為這是構成“經典頂部”的關鍵元素?;鸾浝斫芾锩住じ裉m瑟姆曾提前發現網絡泡沫和房地產泡沫,他稱之為“崩盤”,最后全場瘋狂買入,標志著牛市終結。1999年最后三個月就是個戲劇性的例子。

    牛市如何結束以及何時結束基本無法預計,但種種跡象表明,步入第10年的牛市已臨近終點。達利歐和其他經驗豐富的投資者都表示,找不到值得買入的股票。CNBC最近一期百萬富翁調查顯示,富裕的投資者正撤出股市,轉向現金或準現金投資。耶魯大學諾貝爾經濟學獎獲得者羅伯特·希勒定期調研投資者,詢問其對股票估值沒有過高有多少信心;最新數據是自1999年以來最低水平。

    然而,華爾街分析師毫無撤退的意思?!坝悬c像1928年的情形,”席勒說?!皹酚^情緒太濃厚,感覺要去破壞氣氛都有點不愛國?!?

    所以不光要小心,還要準備

    股市泡沫、經濟指標下行、金融穩定性亮起紅燈,還有貿易戰等等……要擔心的事情太多。這并不一定意味著災難即將來臨。從現狀來看,股市可能像格蘭瑟姆說的一樣恢復上漲甚至“崩盤”。今年經濟可能會明顯增長,但不用多想也該感覺緊張了。除經濟顧問委員會,似乎沒人相信長期來看GDP可以增長3%,即便最近的刺激措施能推動增長,以后也會付出代價。經濟周期尚未消失,證據顯示我們處于一個周期的后期。我們最好為下一次經濟衰退做好準備,因為衰退真正來臨時經濟學家還是預測不出來。

    當市場和經濟不可避免地轉向時,會像所有變化一樣變成機會。不光股票會恐慌拋售,公司經理也要記住,經濟狀況不好時各行業的競爭狀況比經濟好時變化更大。

    頭腦清醒的投資者和領導者很早就面對現實,所以能安然度過低迷期。而且在經濟狀況好的時候,他們就已未雨綢繆。(財富中文網)

    本文的另一版本刊載于2018年8月1日《財富》雜志,標題為《終結即將來臨》。

    譯者:Pessy

    審校:夏林

    Two of the best investors alive think there’s even a chance of a brief market leap before sanity returns. Ray Dalio is watching for “one last spurt in equities prices,” which he considers a key element of “the classic top.” Fund manager Jeremy Grantham, who spotted the dotcom and housing bubbles well in advance, calls it a “melt-up,” a final, rapturous delirium of buying that signals a bull market’s decisive end. See the last three months of 1999 for a dramatic example.

    Exactly how and when a bull market will expire is unknowable, but signs are piling up that this bull market, now in its 10th year, has about run its course. Dalio and other sophisticated investors say they can’t find stocks worth buying. CNBC’s latest Millionaires Survey reveals that rich investors are moving out of stocks and into cash or near-cash investments. Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Shiller of Yale regularly surveys investors on their confidence that stocks are not overvalued; the latest reading is the lowest since 1999.

    Yet those Wall Street analysts are having none of it. “It’s kind of like we’re in 1928 at the moment,” says Shiller. “There’s still all this optimism and a sense that it would be unpatriotic to disturb it.”

    So Don’t Just Beware, Prepare

    FROTHY STOCKS, economic indicators pointing down, financial stability flashing red, trade war, and more—it’s a lot to worry about. It doesn’t necessarily mean calamity is just ahead. For all we know, stocks could resume rising or even “melt up,” as Grantham says. The economy may well grow impressively this year. But we don’t have to look much further out to get more nervous. No one except the Council of Economic Advisers seems to think GDP can grow at 3% over the long term, and if the recent stimulus turbocharges growth, it does so at a price that will have to be paid afterward. The economic cycle hasn’t been abolished; all evidence says we’re in the latter stages of one. And we had better be ready for the next recession, because when it arrives, economists will not have predicted it.

    When the markets and the economy inevitably do turn, it will be, like all change, an opportunity. Stocks will be on sale, and corporate managers should remember that the competitive order in any industry always changes more in adversity than in smooth sailing.

    Clearheaded investors and leaders come through downturns fine because they confront reality early—and in the best of times, they prepare for the worst.

    A version of this article appears in the August 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “The End is Near.”

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