Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
DoubleLine CEO Jeffrey Gundlach warned investors Tuesday that the U.S. is unequipped for recession as it becomes increasingly strapped by debt.
“Any thoughtful person would be concerned,” the so-called “bond king” said in a webcast. “It’s sounding like a pretty bad cocktail of economic risk, and risk to the long end of the bond market.”
The billionaire investor said the United States is “out of tools” to gin up the economy during the next recession. He pointed to the Federal Reserve’s decision to leave interest rates steady and a dovish turnaround that boosted stocks this year.
The Fed signaled it would not hike rates for the rest of 2019. Even with record low unemployment, “it seems like the economy economy can’t handle a 2.5% Fed funds rate,” he said.
Gundlach also said most of the U.S. economy’s gross domestic product, or GDP, growth boils down to the amount the country borrowed. He likened the spending problem to maxing out a credit card.
“Growth in the economy is simply growth in the debt,” he said. “That’s what’s really responsible for growth in GDP.”
In the first quarter, U.S. GDP expanded by 3.2%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That marks the best GDP growth to start a year in four years. Despite GDP growth and strong employment, Gundlach said the U.S. faces “dangerous” economic times ahead.
The risk of recession within two years is “extremely high,” while there’s about a 50% chance of recession within a year, he said. In the next six months, Gundlach put the likelihood at 30%.
He doubled down on warnings against corporate bond market. Gundlach said the possibility that a third of corporate BBB-rated bonds would receive downgrades sounds similar to the bundle of risky securities that blew up during the financial crisis.
“It’s not that different from subprime,” he said. “Don’t be picking up dimes in front of a steam roller — the fundamentals are poor and the valuations are high.”
In a CNBC interview last week, Gundlach warned that the BBB-rated bond market that is now bigger than the junk-bond market. He pointed to Morgan Stanley figures that “45%, not just of the BBB, but the entire corporate bond market, would be junk right now.”
Gundlach runs the $50 billion DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund. Its five-year performance is one of the best in its category, but lags most of its peers in 2019 with a gain of just 2%, according to Morningstar rankings.
The investor said he expects equity markets to go negative at some point this year, and “end the year with little progress.”
Vladimir Putin muscles into Africa, which is bad news for US interests
Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently bought himself into an African country for a relative pittance, working through Yevgeny Prigozhin, his favorite contractor for such special projects, which have ranged from attempting to tip U.S. elections to saving Syria’s dictator.
With that partner, Putin won an insider’s influence over the strategically placed Central African Republic, or CAR, and priority access to its oil, diamonds, gold and uranium resources. At least that’s how one U.S. government official, with years of experience tracking such matters, explains this bargain basement price of geopolitical cunning.
The story goes that President Faustin-Archange Touadera, though elected fairly in 2016, was struggling to exert control over much of the nation’s territory. Soldiers from a United Nations peacekeeping mission were working to stabilize the country amid clashes between rival militias, but inadequately.
That’s when Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his catering business, stepped forward with money, training, paramilitary support and other survival help. (That’s the same Prigozhin indicted by Robert Mueller for funding a social media troll factory to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) Russia also provided CAR’s president his national security advisor, Russian intelligence agent Valery Zakahrov, who serves him to this day.
Welcome to our new era of major power competition, which is playing out globally, sometimes quietly and sometimes this colorfully. What the CAR story provides is yet further evidence that America’s autocratic rivals, both Russia and China, are acting with greater operational creativity and strategic purpose than their counterparts – in this case France and the United States.
In the Central African Republic, Washington had discarded this resource-rich country, poised strategically between Africa’s Muslim north and Christian south, as a place of marginal importance. US officials are now scrambling to frame a response.
Ensuring his escalating African efforts aren’t missed, Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will convene 50 African leaders at the first-ever Russian-African Summit in Sochi this October. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a frequent traveler to Africa, says its purpose will be to cement “Russia’s active presence in the region. “
When Moscow sees a vacuum in Africa left by Europe or the United States, it increasingly steps in with trade and business agreements, military sales and cooperation, and political and paramilitary support. What it lacks in China’s means it makes up for with muscle. Putin’s efforts sometimes fail: Russia bet on the wrong horse in Sudan and paid handsomely for a nuclear energy contract in South Africa that looks less likely now that Jacob Zuma has left power.
Russia’s successes, however, are more frequent. And both Russia and China see themselves involved in a long game for position and influence on an African continent that by 2050 will have 25% of the world’s working age population and the greatest store of rare earth materials outside of China. What’s more, its 54 countries make up the most important voting bloc in the United Nations, providing both China and Russia the wherewithal to block Western initiatives.
Though the story of China’s increased influence in Africa is well-known, the competing Russian version has only recently gained more attention.
The Guardian this week, reporting from documents leaked to the Mikhail Khodorkovsky funded Dossier Center, reports that Russia is seeking to bolster its presence in at least 13 African countries – having already signed military deals in 20 states – “by building relations with existing rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of ‘leaders’ and undercover ‘agents.'”
The documents include a map that assesses the level of cooperation between Prigozhin’s “company” and individual African countries, scoring them at between one to five points on matters of cooperation that include military, political, economic, police training, media and humanitarian projects.
This Russian activity hasn’t gone without notice in Washington. Last December, national security advisor John Bolton, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, laid out what he called “the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy.”
“In short,” said Bolton, “the predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa; threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment; interfere with U.S. military operations and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests.”
He outlined a three-part response, which included advancing trade and commercial ties, countering radical Islamist terrorism and violent conflict, and ensuring U.S. aid dollars are more effectively deployed.
The United States, however, is playing catch-up and lacks not only the bandwidth but also the focus. It also hasn’t yet fully absorbed the requirements of this new, global struggle for influence, one where the costs of losing may not be apparent until it’s become a fait accompli.
One of the earliest experts to spot this Russian shift of attention to Africa was J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Pham isn’t ready to predict a return to the Cold War’s zero-sum competition in Africa, but he does believe the United States and Europe “no longer can ignore Moscow’s resurgent interest” and its reconstituting of a strategic web of access.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War tracks several lines of Russian effort: military basing, security cooperation, capturing the emerging nuclear energy market, gaining access to natural resources, leveraging private military contractors and growing agricultural export markets for its wheat.
One of the most telling recent efforts, reported in a BBC documentary earlier this year, involved a Russian campaign to influence presidential elections in Madagascar. According to the BBC, the Russians worked with six of the 35 presidential candidates. Candidates who received Russian money told the BBC they were instructed to back off and support the front-runner, who Russia was also backing, when it became apparent he would win.
Yet tracking these sorts of Russian activities in Africa can be a perilous game. Last July, three Russian journalists investigating Prigozhin’s paramilitary involvement in CAR were shot dead outside the capital city.
Russia’s price for acquiring influence in the Central African Republic might have been a small one. The price for the United States and Africans alike of neglecting this Russian shift may be far higher.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.
Boeing heads to Paris Air Show hobbled as 737 Max crisis clears way for Airbus
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane
Stephen Brashear | Getty Images
Boeing’s best-selling plane, the 737 Max, has been grounded since mid-March after two crashes of the aircraft within five months killed a total of 346 people. Regulators have not said when they expect to allow the jets to fly again, sending major airlines scrambling to cancel flights during the peak summer travel season as the grounding drags on longer than expected.
Boeing is planning to brief suppliers and airline customers about the latest fixes for the 737 Max at the Paris Air Show, which starts Monday. Investigators have implicated the planes’ stall-prevention system in the two crashes, one in Indonesia in October followed by another in Ethiopia in March. Boeing has prepared a fix for that system but regulators haven’t signed off on it yet.
“The air show is an important event for us to meet with customers, partners and suppliers and engage with them on our path forward on the 737 Max and reinforce our unrelenting commitment to safety,” Boeing said in a statement.
An opening for Airbus
With its focus on restoring trust — and getting its cash cow back in the air — Boeing isn’t expected to announce any orders of the plane. The Paris Air Show was also supposed to set the stage for Boeing to reveal that it will offer a highly anticipated new aircraft, but analysts say the company has likely shelved those plans against the backdrop of safety concerns about the 737 Max and questions about its certification.
“If I were Boeing I would not want to launch an aircraft into that kind of environment,” said Samuel Engel, who heads the aviation group at consulting firm ICF. “I would not want to taint my new baby with that doubt.”
Boeing competitor Airbus on Friday hinted in a media briefing that it could soon launch the Airbus A321XLR — an extended-range version of its new narrowbody A321LR plane. Analysts expect the announcement during the show. The single-aisle aircraft would provide range without the expense of operating a widebody plane and could potentially win over customers long before Boeing’s new twin-aisle plane is officially announced. Some existing A321 customers, like JetBlue Airways, which in April announced its first service to Europe, could opt to convert some of its orders for the longer range model.
It was after the Paris Air Show in June 2011 that American Airlines announced a large order for both Boeing planes and for its first Airbus jets it more than 20 years. The Airbus order included 260 planes, half of them for the neo, or new-engine option that provided more fuel efficiency. Two months later, Boeing unveiled the 737 Max, its new fuel-saving update to the line of planes that had been flying since the 1960s.
The new double-aisle plane Boeing is mulling, which it’s informally calling the NMA for new mid-market airplane, is bigger than the 737 Max but smaller than the Boeing 787. Boeing expects it could start flying by the middle of the next decade, but Airbus’ A321XLR would likely make it to market sooner and could steal some would-be Boeing customers.
“I’d say the broad timeline has not changed, but it’s very clear to us that our top priority right now is getting the Max back up and flying safely, and NMA is second to that,” Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg told investors at a conference on May 29 in New York.
‘Keep their mouth shut’
Following the crashes, Boeing suspended deliveries of the planes and cut the production rate by about a fifth, from 52 to 42 a month. As expected, Boeing this week reported a decline in May orders compared with the same period last year.
“I wouldn’t want to be Boeing at the Paris Air Show,” said Robert Mann, an airline consultant who previously worked at TWA and American. “That has to be a really humbling. They just have to keep their mouth shut and serve champagne.”
The new Airbus A321XLR fits into the manufacturer’s line of A320 planes, the workhorse narrowbody aircraft that competes with Boeing’s 737s. The extended-range version would be a “niche” product and won’t likely bring in the blockbuster orders that the shorter-range versions have, Morgan Stanley said in a note on Friday.
Orders for both plane makers have been weak lately, although some analysts expect announcements of high-value widebody orders coming for either or both manufacturers during the trade show. Boeing is developing
“You put on a brave face with a couple of twin-aisle orders,” said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Teal Group, regarding Boeing’s presence at the air show.
But aside from the 737 Max crisis issues, many airlines have already ordered narrowbody planes to replace aging aircraft.
“That’s just where we are in the cycle,” said ICF’s Engel.
Boeing has a backlog of 5,546 aircraft, more than 4,400 of them for 737s. Airbus has a backlog of 7,207 planes, close to 5,800 for planes in the A320 line.
Despite the strong order books, challenges like higher labor costs, lower profits and trade tensions are emerging for airlines and their suppliers, the International Air Transport Association warned last month when it slashed its forecast of global airline profits this year by more than 21% to $28 billion.
“Airlines will still turn a profit this year, but there is no easy money to be made,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s CEO and director general said last month.
China denies Philippines’ ‘hit and run’ allegation in South China Sea
A People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet — including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, submarines, vessels and fighter jets —takes part in a review in the South China Sea on Apr. 12, 2018.
Visual China Group | Getty Images
China has rejected Philippine allegations that a Chinese fishing vessel abandoned 22 Filipinos after it sank their boat in the South China Sea, as pressure builds on President Rodrigo Duterte to take a tougher line.
China’s embassy in Manila said the crew had sought to rescue the Filipino fishermen but fled after being “suddenly besieged by seven or eight Filipino fishing boats”.
“There was no such thing as (a) ‘hit-and-run’,” it said in a statement late on Friday, adding it would handle the issue in a “serious and responsible manner.”
The sinking took place on Sunday near the Reed Bank, the site of untapped gas deposits that an international arbitration court in 2016 ruled the Philippines had sovereign rights to exploit. Beijing disputes that.
The issue could complicate what are determined efforts by Duterte to build a strong relationship with China, despite deep mistrust among his U.S.-allied defense apparatus, which remains wary about China’s maritime militarization and what it sees as bullying and denial of Manila’s access to its own offshore oil and gas reserves.
Duterte has made no mention of Sunday’s incident during any of the lengthy and unscripted speeches he has since given. His defense minister, navy chief and spokesman have publicly denounced the Chinese crew and his foreign minister said he had lodged a protest with Beijing.
Presidential spokesman, Salvador Panelo, did not respond to a request for comment on China’s version of events.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros on Saturday called for bilateral ties to be downgraded and said China’s denial was “preposterous” and the story made no sense.
She said Duterte had plenty to say about mundane issues, but should speak up when it came to sovereignty.
“Nothing is more reassuring to the public than to see and hear their own president, the supposed architect of the country’s foreign policy, telling them that he is on top of the situation,” Hontiveros said.
Sunday’s incident is the latest confrontation involving China’s vast fishing fleet, which experts say has been co-opted to serve as Beijing’s militia and augment its constant coastguard presence in waters also claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei.
Philippines Supreme Court judge Antonio Carpio, a staunch critic of China’s maritime claims and conduct, said that among its massive fishing contingent were boats with reinforced steel hulls “purposely for ramming fishing vessels of other coastal states.”
“The Filipino people must send a strong signal to China that any new ‘grey zone’ offensive of ramming Filipino fishing vessels … will mean a break of diplomatic ties,” Carpio said in a statement late Friday.
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