A brave new “green” world as Covid unleashes fiscal stimulus

June 21, 2021 10:58
Photo: Reuters

Investors like to call the market crash of Q1 2020 an “exogenous” event, a “black swan” – perhaps another way of saying that at least this time, it’s not anyone’s fault. That crisis had a profound disinflationary effect: the debt overhang, austerity, the overhaul of the banking system, combined with ageing populations and globalisation, led to a decade of low productivity, growth, and inflation, despite zero interest rates and QE.

It may be natural to see the Covid crisis through that same lens. Many of those trends were accelerated: global indebtedness increased, demand and output collapsed, unemployment is likely to remain elevated. As the world eventually returns to some new normality, why wouldn’t the old regime reassert itself?

Two reasons make the picture more complicated

The first is monetary policy: we have been saying since Fed Chairman Jerome Powell announced the conclusions of the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) framework review last September that we are seeing the most significant change to central banking in forty years, and other central banks will follow suit. The Fed’s strategy is now “outcome-based” rather than “outlook-based”. Fixed income markets and chatter about early tapering suggests that this shift in reaction function isn’t yet fully priced.

The second reason is the increased influence of the state. The pandemic forced governments to intervene in ways we would never have thought possible, such as direct lending, furlough schemes and cash payments. These emergency measures will pass, but a desire to make a safer, fairer world will persist. This is likely to encompass supply chain management, global trade, and wage distribution, but it’s also at its heart a green agenda.

Green signal

Many see environmental policy as a drag on growth from increased regulation. We see it differently: it can unlock barriers to fiscal expenditure, in particular infrastructure investment. This can potentially have a materially positive impact on global growth. We are seeing climate change coming up the list of voters’ priorities, and that’s helping political reality move in the same direction.

Going mainstream

Climate change makes a powerful moral argument for increased investment. In Germany, the Green party is polling in second place at the time of writing and will likely have a significant role in any coalition government after September’s elections. While the Greens’ final manifesto is yet to be agreed, it will include commitments to sustainable investment and digitization which are difficult to achieve without fiscal expansion. This is no longer a fringe agenda: there is growing consensus around net carbon zero by 2050, and countries such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia have come to the table to help frame the debate on this joint objective.

In particular, China’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2060, announced at the UN General Assembly in September last year, could be a turning point for clean energy investments and the global energy transition. Chinese ministries have estimated that the investment necessary to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 stands at a massive US$14.725 trillion (100 trillion renminbi) over the next 30 years as technologies such as renewables (solar panel, wind turbines manufacturing), power network infrastructure, charging infrastructure, electric vehicles and battery manufacturing are at the centre of China’s need for clean energy and an accelerated pace of electrification for transport and other industries.

US environmental policy lagged Europe during the Trump era but has returned to the forefront under Biden. We last saw major infrastructure programmes under Obama. The key difference this time is that while Obama’s plans were “shovel-ready” projects that gave a short-term boost to demand, Biden’s plans are for both regeneration of the US’s tired infrastructure and a major investment in environmental technology and renewables. If this plan can become law before the Democrats (probably) lose full control of government in the mid-term elections at the end of next year, it can have a significant impact on long term productivity and growth.

Environment takes centre stage

Inflation, productivity and growth repeatedly undershot expectations between 2008 and 2020. Many of the drivers are still intact, and we are a long way from being able to say that we are on a path to the sunny uplands of better economic growth. The only thing that isn’t transitory about the inflation debate is the debate itself: we won’t know whether inflation is here to stay until at least the end of 2021.

The bottom line for portfolios is that the scale of the impact of fiscal policy with the environment at its core, and the change to central banking, haven’t been fully appreciated by investors. Market behaviour and investor commentary continue to presuppose a return to the old regime, but when the world returns to normal it faces a fundamentally different policy backdrop. To navigate this period, you need all the flexibility you can get.

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Head of Strategy, Multi-Asset at Jupiter Asset Management