Tag: China

Dead Cat Bounce: Intra-day swing of 700 Dow points, ending down 200

Dead Cat Bounce: Intra-day swing of 700 Dow points, ending down 200

Futures this morning were up over 500 points, most of the trading during the day was above the 16,000 level between 250 and 400 points up. But we’ve closed at 15,666, the lows of the day.

Though yesterday’s numbers were eye-popping, today is arguably going to create more jitters. Big intra-day swings that end on lows scare traders. Though China and Japan were down, most of Europe and Asia was up. So the stage was set for an uptick in the US. Which reminds me of the senior equities trader who once told me “Europe does nothing at all till 1pm when the Americans come in to set the tune”. The negative close means the three largest markets, China, Japan and the US closed down today.

There’s the inevitable talk of painting the close. And there is the competing view that the morning session was just a dead cat bounce.

The real story is that Chinese over-investment in infrastructure and capital goods is grinding to a halt (they’ve built more roads, rails and apartments than they need). It’s all fueled by large increases in borrowing which is what causes most bubbles. Given the size of the Chinese economy, this has had an impact on resource prices (who is going to use all that oil and iron). At the margins, this will impact US businesses, especially the global behemoths. There are some parallels to the US situation in 1928, also coming at the end of a period of extensive capital investment (also in railroads) and when the US was emerging as a major economic powerhouse.

The backdrop is that US stocks are at cyclically high valuations, at least as measured by longer-term ratios like CAPE. This coupled with a 7 year long rally means a lot of people are rightfully wondering whether stocks can go higher.

As an aside, over 80% of stocks on the Shanghai exchange were untradable yesterday. Many of them because they hit the daily limit of a 10% fall in prices, the rest are suspended at the request of company management.

The real risk is China, not Greece – 2015 Q2 Letter

The real risk is China, not Greece – 2015 Q2 Letter

Two inflection points long in the making appear to have arrived simultaneously over the past few weeks. In Europe, negotiations between Greece and Euro-zone countries that have lent to Greece appear to have broken down; and in China, the stock market has taken a remarkable tumble. In itself, the Shanghai market’s steep fall is not surprising or remarkable (this was a market which had risen 150% over the previous year), but it is interesting in terms of what it portends for other markets and factors in China.

The various actors in the Greek/Euro crisis have indulged in brinksmanship for a number of years. The ECB, Euro-zone countries and the Greek government have stumbled from one crisis to the next, taking action only when forced to do so. And when they have acted, the result is to defer rather than reach resolution. It is clear to us that no final resolution of Greece’s sovereign debts can be made without some debt relief. The Greek economy has shrunk enormously under the weight of uncertainty and austerity policies. None of the modeled targets for growth have been met and Greece’s debts are now a larger multiple of Greek GDP (180%) than ever before, largely because of the sharp decline in GDP. A sudden growth spurt may solve that, but given high unemployment, it is difficult to see that materializing without some level of debt relief to lower the amount of the outstanding loans and interest payments. In reality, the only thing that has been achieved thus far is that Greek loans have been moved from the balance sheets of European banks to the balance sheets of European nations. European (and international) banks that lent to Greece, knowing the risks, were bailed out. There has been no such deliverance for Greece itself, and, despite frantic 11th hour negotiations, we do not expect one in the coming days.

A crucial factor that has made the crisis much worse for ordinary individuals in Greece is the absence of a pan-European deposit guarantee scheme. Bank customers in the US have enjoyed a federal guarantee for their deposits since the 1930s. This guarantee currently applies to the first $250,000 on deposit at an FDIC covered institution and has been the primary reason the US has avoided widespread bank runs by retail customers for the past 80 years. In contrast, deposit guarantees and guarantee funds in Europe are run at the member state level. So Greece guarantees the deposits in its banks up to 100,000 Euros. Of course, Greece (unlike the US federal government) has no ability to actually print Euros on demand. That means most bank customers treat its deposit insurance with justified skepticism. Greek banks too cannot count on the European Central Bank to lend to them freely in a crisis. There is an emergency lending facility, but it works through the member state central banks and let’s just say relations between Greece and the ECB are not exactly amicable at the moment.

These two factors taken together explain the phenomenon of Greek pensioners queuing for hours to withdraw the maximum amount permitted from their bank accounts each day (60 Euros). They do not trust the funds will be covered by deposit guarantees and Greek banks are limiting withdrawals, afraid they will run out of Euros.

As a study in contrasts, we have Puerto Rico, which is facing a similar government debt crisis, largely brought on by similar factors (mismanagement, misstatement of financial data, etc.). Yet, the impact is limited to the government’s ability to issue more debt and the value of its bonds. Puerto Rico’s bank will face no runs and will continue to function even if the government runs out of money. They are regulated and insured at the federal level. So, though Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is very serious, and will likely require some level of write downs, its banking system continues to hum along and is not at risk. If the European Union had a similar bank deposit guarantee system, we believe the Greek crisis would not have been as severe.

Lastly, what makes the Greek case significant and holds the market’s attention is not the size of Greece’s debts, which at around 300Bn are large, but not enormous. A 30% write-down of those debts would be 100Bn, some individual banks took write-downs in the 30-70Bn range during the financial crisis. Clearly Greek creditors (EU countries for the most part) could survive a 30% write-down.

What concerns the markets is that the Greek crisis lays bare an uncomfortable truth. The European Union is both unable, and unwilling to act decisively or with coordination in a crisis. The reasons are myriad, but to us, it has been particularly striking to hear World War I and II era rivalries and events repeatedly invoked by some commentators and even senior politicians. A skeptical observer might say that the institutions created to avoid the recurrence of war on the European continent seem to be hell-bent on re-living them. In contrast, though, we in the United States have had the traumatic experience of reliving civil war-era animosities over the past few weeks, those fervently invoking a North/South divide are firmly in the fringe and have been for at least a century. The same cannot be said of Europe.

We have been wary of asset prices and debt burdens within China for a number of years. Some of those concerns have bubbled to the surface in the last few weeks as the Chinese domestic market has endured a series of dramatic losses with many stocks hitting their down limits and several have halted trading entirely. Companies can also ask to suspend their own shares and many have. Most observers have expected such a crash since the on-shore Shanghai market has risen over 75% this year. What was underappreciated is how much of this rise has been driven by large numbers of first-time retail investors, many of them buying stock on margin (borrowed money). The conditions appear to resemble the state of the US market on the eve of the 1929 and 2000 stock market crashes. In certain ways, there are broader parallels with 1929. China is at roughly the same stage of relative development with the US that the US was to the UK in 1929. China has also seen massive investment in capital infrastructure with declining returns, not unlike the US investment in railroads in the 20s. Lastly, there are large quantities of questionable loans on the books at Chinese banks. Taken together, this story is much bigger and could have much wider repercussions than that just a few down days in a large emerging market.

The final consideration is political. Though there is a lot of tittering at the prospect of the Communist party attempting to support the stock market, this is driven by legitimate fears of political unrest if a severe downturn were to materialize. Coupled with factionalism within the party, such a downturn could make for a very volatile period in China, politically speaking. The impact is likely to be felt across commodity sectors (where China remains a major consumer), and a risk of contagion to other markets. In the short term, we expect the US markets will be seen as a relative safe haven. Though clearly, as one of the three largest economies in the world, any Chinese downturn will affect global market values.

On balance, we view the bursting of the Chinese equity bubble and antecedent effects as more significant than the Greek debt crisis. In terms of wealth impact, they certainly are — the Chinese stock market has lost over $3Tn over the past few weeks. That is ten times the amount of outstanding Greek debt. Margin balances owed by Chinese investors are larger than Greek debt. The real concern, though, is that the stock market bubble in its rise and fall, may lead to a bigger reckoning of Chinese financial institutions which are holding real-estate and provincial debt. As the real-estate sector has slowed, demand for land, which constituted a crucial source of funding for Chinese provinces, has dried up. Both real-estate developers and Chinese provincial government debts are looking very weak and they are widely held by Chinese banks and investors.

In general, we recommend appropriate caution for investors. Though the US markets may appear to be isolated from events in Europe and China, and might even benefit from some short-term “flight to safety”, they will eventually be impacted, and current valuations stateside do not bode well for that reckoning.

We continue to believe that investors will be well served to reduce exposure to risk assets in their portfolios and move some money into short term bonds and cash while awaiting a better buying opportunity.

Facebook, Cypherpunk and Psychohistory

Facebook, Cypherpunk and Psychohistory

One of the more notable financial news stories of the year so far is the decision of social media heavyweight Facebook to go public (an event we alluded to in our top 10 themes for 2012). The question on everyone’s mind is whether a potential $100 billion market valuation is appropriate for a company that had roughly $1 billion in net income last year. It wouldn’t be the first tech company to trade at a three digit P/E (we’re looking at you salesforce.com), but it would be the largest. We are going to leave the valuation question aside for a moment and think in broader terms.

In our view, there are a few factors to keep in mind when considering the lofty growth expectations that surround Facebook.

Fewer, poorer, new users: At 845 million relatively regular users, Facebook already has the cream of the crop when it comes to potential consumers. The economic elite — by far the most attractive consumers — are, for the most part, already on Facebook. The next billion users will have less spending power, and will not consume as many of the digital goods Facebook wants to sell them, nor will advertisers pay as much for access to them.

With the exception of China (where Facebook is banned), the network has no other large upper-middle class markets it can tap into. Since the next billion Facebook users will have more modest means and this could be a tricky cultural and business shift. Facebook initially set itself apart by limiting usage to select colleges. Over time it has successfully expanded availability to new demographics (older users and international users) . But its user base has always been the more affluent segment of each market.

By highlighting this, we’re not trying to diminish the broader value of an open social network and its ability to connect people and create opportunities for them. We hope Facebook continues to be another powerful Internet tool available to a person of modest means to foster deeper connections, expand their horizons and develop themselves. But we do recognize that social networks by definition will mirror divisions in societies, and certain virtual spaces will be more attractive than others to specific groups.

User disengagement: There’s a chance Facebook jumps the shark and usage drops. Despite its meteoric rise in recent years, Facebook operates in the notoriously fickle world of social media, where users may tire of a particular platform and seek out the next hottest thing (let’s not forget Friendster or Myspace, once robust social networking communities before Facebook came along).  While Facebook has done a phenomenal job building its user base and cornering the social media market, there are other platforms out there waiting to swoop in should there be a misstep (Google+), or capitalize if users ultimately decide they prefer to segregate their status updates (Twitter) from their picture sharing (Instagram) and location data (Foursquare).

In addition to the possibility of competitors poaching away market share, there is also a question as to how users will interact with the platform going forward.  We already see a divergence in the frequency with which men and women use Facebook. Women use Facebook much more regularly than men do. Over time, we could see photo-sharing and instant updates lose their novelty value for certain users who then disengage from Facebook.

Advertising could be ineffective on Facebook: It’s tough for an advertiser to grab a Facebook user’s attention when they are competing with photos and updates from their nearest and dearest. Ads on Google search are powerful revenue generators primarily because the user is searching for something and the ad is related to the search. A Facebook user, on the other hand, is visiting the site because they wish to see photos or updates of their family and friends. An ad on Facebook generally disrupts the user-experience.

Of course, Facebook could use the reams of data it has on each user to suggest a gift for your wife or girlfriend based on browsing or comment history; but this could easily mis-fire and be considered intrusive. Similarly, word of mouth recommendations are very powerful drivers of product sales, and Facebook is an effective medium for friends to share these; but advertisers tamper with word of mouth at their own risk. Our sense is that Facebook has become a virtual family gathering or a dinner party, and overt advertising or sponsorship will always feel slightly out of place at such an event.

On Facebook everyone knows who you really are, even if you’re a dog. All that said, there is one aspect of Facebook that sets it apart from virtually every other website and could end up being extremely valuable. From the very beginning, Facebook has insisted on “real names” and worked to keep anonymous or fraudulent identities off the platform. The result is that Facebook can tie virtually each of its 845 million users to a real-world identity. They have also built an authentication framework on their platform which other sites can use in lieu of asking users to pick new passwords or user ids. Since Facebook has photographs of all your friends, they can be used as a challenge if unauthorized activity is detected. Your ability to recognize your friends, along with Facebook’s knowledge of who they are, combined with a large photo database, makes it very difficult for an unknown attacker to try to hijack your profile. This has meant an enormous shift in the previously anonymous world that the Internet was, and it remains a rare and valuable commodity. It is a service Facebook could charge other sites for down the road. For Facebook, it may be the next big thing. Perhaps bigger than targeted ads.

Further Reading:

The genesis for this post came as a result of a wide-ranging conversation we had recently, and which led us to think about two of our favorite books…

The first is Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, a 20 year old book that predicted much of the impact the Internet would have on human society. No one who has ever read that book can underestimate what anonymity can lead to and what power accrues to an entity that can definitively identify 20% of humanity.

The second book is Asimov’s Foundation series, which is what got one of us interested in Economics and reinforced the constancy of human behavior.  Some of the conversation about 3-D printing and replicators also brought to mind Asimov’s gem, The Last Question.

 

Photo credit: Flohuels

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

Here are our top 10 investment themes for 2012.  These are the topics we think will have the biggest impact on client portfolios in the coming year…

 

1.  Steady as she goes: We think it unlikely the Fed will raise rates in 2012, largely due to the presidential election. With the ongoing crisis in Europe, the Fed would normally be engaging in further monetary easing, but there is nowhere to go below the current 0.00% target overnight rate. In most presidential election years, the Fed is hesitant to make large moves in either direction, to avoid appearing politically biased. That instinct is especially heightened in an election cycle where Fed policy action and arcane monetary policy debates have unexpectedly become contentious, emotional political issues.

2.  Risk Off: We believe risk assets (stock, real-estate, long-dated and high-yield bonds) will have a difficult 2012. Stocks have benefited from a sharp rebound after the credit crisis and are now back to the higher end of the historical range. Bonds meanwhile, are trading at yields that are lower than any seen in two generations. During the course of 2012, we would expect both to correct towards the mean. This should provide some interesting buying opportunities, especially for dollar-based investors.

3.  Break-Up or Make-Up, Brussels is good for both: 2012 should be the denouement for the European sovereign debt crisis.  Though it has been over a decade in the making, things have finally come to a head. All the dominoes (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy) are lined up, and we wait to see which the two players (France and Germany) will allow to fall before they stop the carnage. We believe a Greek default is extremely likely this year. Even if there is a pre-negotiated haircut with some lenders, the market will treat it with the seriousness that the first default by a “developed” economy in a generation should. In either case, Greek bondholders should be prepared for losses on the order of 60% of par value.

4.  Euro Trash: We expect the Euro to bear much of the burden of the European sovereign crisis, and the currency to weaken significantly against the dollar. We would not be surprised if the Euro approached parity with the dollar over the course of the year. When we discussed a Euro break-up last year, it seemed like an outlier scenario. We have been amazed at the speed with which events have moved and a potential Euro-exit for one or more peripheral economies is now being openly discussed.

5.  Blue States/Red States: The US presidential election cycle should be the major story in the US in 2012. US and individual state debt burdens will be the most important topic of debate, as the European sovereign debt crisis plays out in the background. American politicians will have to negotiate some cut in benefits for the charmed baby-boomer generation to ensure the financial burden of these programs in coming years does not doom the economic prospects of their children and grandchildren. This negotiation of a new social compact between the generations is the most important issue of our times.

6.  Chinese Math: At the 18th Communist party congress to be held this year, we expect power to be transferred to a new generation of Chinese political leaders. We have no doubt that the enormous state apparatus will be fully utilized to ensure economic stability during the transfer. However, we believe these efforts will ultimately be for naught. The structural shift required as China moves from an investment driven economy to a consumption driven one will make for a tumultuous year in Chinese markets. The stock market has been depressed for almost five years, GDP growth is slowing as labor costs rise, and we expect Chinese real-estate is beginning to make the first moves in an unavoidable decline towards more reasonable levels.

7.  Revolutionary Times: We were surprised to see the speed at which the political structure of the Middle East has been transformed in a remarkable series of revolutions. Though we have been aware of the demographic pressures that created the basis for these changes, their rapidity has astounded us. As events unfold in the Arab world, something perhaps even more remarkable has begun to happen in Russia. A previously apathetic Russian electorate seems to be flexing its muscle in opposition to a renewed Putin presidency.  We expect to see more political turmoil in Europe and the Middle East in 2012. This coupled with major elections and power-transfers in the US and China make for a very uncertain 2012 politically speaking. In our view, this will make for very jittery markets throughout the year.

8.  Oil Slicks: The events in the middle-east will of course have an impact on energy prices. We expect political tensions to keep oil prices artificially inflated in 2012, but longer-term we think $100 oil is unsustainable as alternative energy sources approach cost-parity with conventional sources. And while we’re talking about oil, we would like to reiterate our skeptical view of gold prices, which we believe would be well under $1,000 an ounce if the political and economic future were not as muddy.

9.  Smart Homes: The past decade has seen the widespread adoption of computing and telecommunications technology touch virtually every aspect of human activity. We expect the markets to be enamored with a couple of very high-profile IPOs expected in 2012/2013 (Facebook and Twitter). We believe some of the higher profile IPOs of 2011 will perform poorly (GroupOn for instance). The larger story will continue to be the steady march of the internet into every device and living room, placing a strain on core Internet infrastructure. We heard relatively little about a seminal event that took place in 2011, the last large block of addresses (IPv4 numbers) was assigned and there is no address space on the current infrastructure to accommodate another few hundred million devices. The public discussion has centered around the addition of new top level domain names (like .com, .org), but the addresses that sit behind these are the real concern. A new addressing scheme (IPv6) has been built into most devices for years, but adoption is minimal. We expect this will have to change in 2012, with a few hiccups along the way.

10.  Housing: Still a buyer’s market: We expect the overall US housing market to remain stagnant in2012 with pockets of strength, particularly in major urban areas (NYC, DC, San Francisco) and some suburban and rural areas that did not overbuild in the run-up to the credit crisis.  We believe there is still too much supply available and US consumers as a whole will be reluctant to financially over-commit themselves given job security concerns and how many were burned by homeownership in the past few years, despite record low mortgage rates.

 

2011 Q1 Letter & upcoming webinars

2011 Q1 Letter & upcoming webinars

We held our first “webinar” earlier this month on the timely topic of municipal bonds. We have posted the narrated presentation at www.youtube.com/wsqcapital for the benefit of those who were unable to attend. We plan to host three webinars this quarter:

To register for any of these webinars, please visit blog.wsqcapital.com. We will continue to add recordings of future presentations to our page on youtube. Feel free to pass along an invitation to anyone in your circle interested in learning more about these topics.

IRA contributions, Roth IRA conversions

Most taxpayers can make IRA contributions for the 2010 tax year up until the individual tax-filing deadline, which is April 18, 2011 this year.

Roth IRA conversion rules have changed and virtually anyone can now convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. Partial conversions of an IRA account are also permitted. Please contact us if you’d like to discuss specific issues surrounding your circumstances.

Interest Rates & QE2

In prior letters, we have discussed the extraordinary measures the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world have taken to keep interest rates at historic lows. Short-term rates in the US remain below current inflation levels, which means savers are being penalized for holding cash. This is no doubt due to the actions of the Fed which continues to purchase the bulk of newly issued US Treasuries under its Quantitative Easing program. We estimate short and medium-term rates are 1.5% to 2.0% below where they would otherwise be.

Meanwhile, the flames of inflation have begun to flicker. A combination of increased demand and easy money policies has driven up food and commodity prices. If this trend continues, maneuvering through the obstacle course of rising inflation will take a toll on the global recovery. And as is usually the case, the burden will be heaviest for the world’s poorest who spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities. We are beginning to see some policy action and rate hikes in developing markets. Unless inflation levels stabilize quickly, this will begin to impact global trade. We caution bond investors that future returns are likely to be lower than those in recent years past. We continue to recommend high-quality bonds with 3-5 year maturities.

Budgets and Bluster

The issues facing most developed-market governments are remarkably similar whether we are talking about Greece, Ireland and Spain, or the US, California and Illinois. The long-term challenge involves tackling unfavorable demographics and enacting the painful policy reforms required to tackle the cost of social programs. In the short term, the double-whammy of a real-estate/financial crisis requiring an immense expenditure of government support, followed by a great recession driving down tax revenues have created huge deficits. The exact mix differs: in Ireland the cost of a bank bail-out has supercharged the national debt, whereas in Greece the crisis is compounded by a culture of tax-evasion and protectionism. In the US, the core problem is reforming Medicare and a health-care system that takes in more revenue per person and results in lower levels of health than those in other developed countries.

The imminent congressional debates over the federal budget and the national debt ceiling will bring fiscal issues front and center in the US. As the 2012 election campaign kicks off over this summer, we expect fiscal issues will be key in every race. In Europe, meanwhile, the moment of reckoning for Greece, Ireland and Portugal fast approaches. European institutions will either have to come up with a plan for debt-restructuring or direct support to assist struggling governments in the short-term. Meaningful progress towards the longer term demographic and policy challenges will also need to be made.

 

Nature, Energy and Politics

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami took a terrible toll on the people of Japan. The economic damage is also enormous as a significant percentage of the area’s power generation and distribution capacity has been offline for weeks, impacting businesses and residences across the main island of Honshu. Rolling blackouts have affected many areas, including Tokyo. Two nuclear power generation facilities (Fukushima I and II), with a total of ten operational reactors between them, suffered severe damage. It is now clear that all the reactors at Fukushima I will need to be scrapped. A large amount of fuel from the operating reactors and spent fuel stored at the facility has been damaged and released into the environment. The situation remains critical and the full extent of the crisis is still unknown.

Nuclear power generation requires operational and design expertise far more specialized than other forms of energy production. In general, the industry has recognized this and a great deal of thought and effort has been put into improving design and procedures. We should also not forget that most other forms of energy generation carry their own risks, and often a higher carbon footprint. For instance, the production and burning of coal costs numerous miners their lives every year, and damages the respiratory systems of populations globally. Hydro-electric dams have failed due to design faults or natural disasters causing a large number of casualties. We firmly believe renewable energy must be at the core of any long-term solution to global energy needs. Nevertheless, replacing our current energy infrastructure is a multi-decade project and represents an enormous investment. One step towards that process would be to accurately account for the true health and environmental costs of all forms of energy production. As things currently stand, the conventional energy industry derives numerous economic benefits from tax-breaks, favorable industrial policy and political gridlock in assessing the true environmental cost of greenhouse gas emissions.

With all this in mind, we believe certain modern nuclear plant designs can play a role as a crucial bridge technology. In many fast-growing economies, nuclear power is the only viable alternative to coal and gas for large scale power generation. It is clear though, that the nuclear industry will face tough public scrutiny and a risk re-assessment is underway. We are particularly concerned about the operational safety of nuclear power in countries without a strong tradition of accountability, independent oversight and open public discourse (see China). Some of these concerns are acute for certain developed nations such as Japan, which has few energy resources of its own and relies on nuclear power for 24% of its electricity needs. As a result, we continue to view long-term investments in renewable energy favorably.

Upheaval in the Middle East

Mass protests in the Arab world have captured the world’s imagination since the sudden, largely peaceful overthrow of Ben-Ali in Tunisia. We certainly do not believe every group engaged in protest has benign intentions and recognize that in some countries one repressive regime may be replaced by another. That said, we are hopeful the power of public protest and increasing civic engagement by ordinary citizens will transform the moribund political and economic regimes in the region. For the time being, we expect this part of the world will continue to experience upheaval over the next decade or more. In many of these societies, oil wealth has distorted economies and politics. A demographic bulge is now bringing about rapid change. Investors should remain aware that demographic and political change may cause certain markets to be disrupted over the next decade.

We are positive on emerging markets in the long-term, but advise caution for the present since asset prices have risen very rapidly. Further rises in oil prices could accelerate inflation and lead to a slow-down in global growth, which would impact emerging markets negatively.

 

Regards,

 

Louis Berger                                                                                        Subir Grewal

 

 

Coming to a head…

Coming to a head…

In our last few letters, we have discussed the extraordinary measures undertaken by governments across the world to support aggregate demand, and the extensive borrowing required to do this.  Over the past three months, both of these issues have been thrown into stark relief by events.

The dramatic and extremely sudden deterioration of Greek sovereign credit in the marketplace forced the European Central Bank (ECB) into a rapid about-face.  Germany’s elected representatives blinked and committed to a vast fund to support Mediterranean nations. Very few people expected to see the IMF lead a rescue package for European Monetary Union member-states in their life-times.  Eroding confidence in the ECB and EMU led to a deterioration in the value of the Euro as talk of this currency supplanting the US Dollar as the new global reserve currency did a sharp 180 degree turn and even sober commentators began to talk of a break-up of the European monetary union and the Euro’s death.  Meanwhile, bond-holders have turned their sights on the increasingly precarious state of sovereign balance sheets in most of the developed world.  Shocked by the speed with which Greek bonds lost value, most bond buyers are thinking seriously about sovereign credit risk in the developed world, awakening from a period that lasted two generations during which these risks were largely ignored.  Meanwhile, treasury officials the world over review the results of their bond auctions nervously, wary of any sign of demand slacking.  In many cases, their own central banks are becoming the most reliable buyers or financiers of new debt.

Three months ago, we wrote in an earlier post:

Numerous stimulus programs across the world will also be removed over the course of this year, including bank loan fueled infrastructure spending in China.  As the global economy has these crutches removed, we will watch with great interest to see how severe the damage to core private enterprise has been.

We believe this process has begun and the initial signs do not augur well for the global economy.  We have seen a debate re-kindled recently about whether the withdrawal of stimulus at this juncture is a repeat of “errors” made in the 1930s, when stimulus spending was reduced to control deficits.  However, with aggregate debt levels in the developed world as high as they are, we see few alternatives to a steady reduction of the extraordinary fiscal and monetary measures undertaken to control the crisis.

We also feel it’s necessary to discuss the “Flash Crash” of May 6th.  In our blog post the next day, we wrote that:

Since US equity market prices are far higher than underlying valuation (according to our measures) we were not surprised by the extent of the drop.  But we were very surprised by the speed at which the drop occurred, as well as the speed of the partial recovery.  It reminded us of the precipitous declines and partial reversals we saw during the height of the credit crisis in 2008 and 2009.   …

Though the US equity markets are receiving most of the attention, they are not the only source of the current volatility. Numerous other markets saw immense turbulence yesterday, including, but not limited to, overnight funding (libor), treasuries and particularly currency markets.  …

The major conclusions we draw from the trading action of the past week is that:

  1. Numerous market participants have limited conviction and their default stance is to step aside quickly in a falling market.
  2. The Euro-zone crisis will continue to roil markets until it is properly addressed.
  3. There are many underlying concerns about commodity prices, Chinese real-estate prices, credit-worthiness, etc. and they can manifest themselves very quickly.

Given the information we have, and our view of overall valuations, we caution investors to remain extremely vigilant and maintain a defensive posture.

All three major indices, Dow Jones Industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq composite closed out this quarter below the intraday lows reached that day.  The ten-year treasury is now below 3%, and no amount of commentary on US federal and municipal debt-levels appear to impact the decline.  Meanwhile, the Baltic Dry Index has dipped below 2500 again (amidst talk of expanding fleets and falling Chinese imports).  Speaking of China, we see more commentators openly questioning the solvency of Chinese banks and the reasons behind big IPOs.  All of this underpinned by the fact that unemployment and underemployment rates in western countries remain stubbornly high.

Not only is it increasingly difficult to write off the events of May 6th as a mere technicality, we believe that sudden decline has lead to deep distrust and uncertainty amongst investors.  Investors were already wary of fundamental economic and market conditions, the flash crash gave them reason to cast suspicion on the technical organization of the market.  This coupled with the SEC’s indictment of the premier US Bank, Goldman Sachs on charges of fraud, has fueled suspicion of large player’s motives and methods.  Many individual investors now believe the market is rigged against them, for the benefit of the largest trading firms and their most senior traders.  In our view, it was always thus.   Professional traders, whether they be electronic market-makers or specialists on the trading floor have always enjoyed a privileged position, which is completely appropriate given their role as liquidity providers and their responsibility to maintain orderly markets.  What we find difficult to accept is the extension of these privileges new players, without them being asked to shoulder the same responsibilities.

We do not see many silver linings amidst a climate of mutual suspicion and bad news.

10 themes for ’10

10 themes for ’10

  1. Who’s Hiring? We expect to see the US unemployment rate peak in 2010 at 11%.  While seeing a peak will certainly be an encouraging sign, we don’t believe this will be followed by a rapid economic recovery creating the millions of jobs necessary to lower the unemployment rate down to pre-recession levels (5%).
  2. I’m fine with fixed returns: The credit crisis of ‘08-‘09 saw many individual and institutional investors badly burned by overexposure to riskier assets like stocks, commodities and real estate.  While there has been a strong recovery in many risky assets over the past 10 months, we expect investors will continue to re-allocate towards less volatile investment classes, such as bonds, with a trend towards a classic 50% stock 50% bond allocation.
  3. Collecting from sovereigns: 2009 ended with warning signs emerging from Dubai and Greece that there is a potential for default or credit deterioration among sovereigns that have over-extended themselves.  We expect to see a number of credit downgrades for developed nations as their persistent deficits, long-term pension/health-care liabilities and weak growth come into focus.  2010 may well see a sovereign nation default on foreign-currency debt obligations.  We expect the US Dollar and US treasury credit to strengthen in any ensuing flight to safety.
  4. Reading tea leaves at the Fed: On December 16, 2008, in an effort to encourage banks to lend and provide liquidity for the financial markets, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to effectively 0%.  This rate held throughout the entirety of 2009.  We expect this run to end in 2010 with the Fed raising interest rates in 4th quarter of the year.  We expect the Fed to tighten rates to the 1-2% range and then pause for a few quarters.  This will likely result in the yield curve flattening since long term yields will not rise as quickly.  Unlike many other market commentators, we do not expect high inflation despite large increases in measured money supply.  A sharply lower velocity of money and reduced money-creation via private sector credit will dampen inflation.
  5. Pay me my money down: Continuing the trend from 2009, we believe paying down debt will remain the highest priority for US consumers as they attempt to get their financial houses in order.  This will disrupt a strong recovery in corporate profits, particularly retailers (which rely on consumer spending to drive growth), as some businesses will misjudge the new environment.  However, this is very good for the long term health of the US economy.
  6. A cold year for growth: We expect the US economy will see almost negligible growth in 2010.  Margins will continue to contract for US businesses and profit growth will remain slim. The expiration of stimulus programs and slim prospects for their renewal in a mid-term election year will reduce aggregate demand.  Cost cutting and efficiency measures will continue to be necessary to offset top-line deterioration.
  7. Arranged Marriages: With margins slimming, interest rates at historic lows, the unemployment rate in double digits and the US consumer cutting spending, we see corporations increasingly turning to mergers and acquisitions in order to grow market share, particularly in the cash rich tech and energy sectors.
  8. New kids on the block: Emerging markets proved to be more resilient to the global recession than developed economies.  We expect growth in emerging markets will continue to out-pace growth in developed economies.  But this growth will not be enough to offset the stagnation in developed economies or lead to a robust global recovery.
  9. Red alert: We believe there is continued risk for a massive correction in China.  We remain skeptical of the veracity of the economic data released by the government and don’t see how the white-hot level of growth can be sustained when China’s main trading partners (namely the US, Europe, Japan) continue to suffer from the effects of the global credit crisis.
  10. Fool’s gold: We believe certain commodities are poised for a sharp sell-off over the next year.  Highest on our list for a correction are gold (which only has value if others think it does) and oil (many Iraqi and South American fields coming online and low growth implies low energy use).
Demographics and Technology

Demographics and Technology

In our view, as long as a society enjoys relatively free markets and the rule of law, long-term economic growth rates are largely determined by two factors: demographic trends and the pace of technological advancement.

In terms of demographics, birth rates high enough to keep a country’s population relatively young, replenish the work force and keep dependency ratios low are crucial to sustained growth. Because of low birth rates, limited immigration and rapidly aging populations, Japan and Western Europe face significant challenges ahead as their population continues to age. Two recent articles on demographic trends in different parts of the world served as reminders of the importance of demographics. The first is an article in the Economist on demographic trends in Africa and another in China Daily about rapid demographic changes in China.

Technological advancement allows a society to produce goods and services with less effort and resources, allowing its population to be more efficient. The classic example is the mechanization of agriculture, which has allowed much of the world to satisfy its demand for food while freeing most of us to pursue careers other than farming. In some cases, technology can even help make demographic transitions easier, for example, Japanese firms have been developing robots to help care for their rapidly growing elderly population.

For us, the impact of technological advancements was underscored earlier this week while reviewing an official statement for a municipal bond initially issued in 1993. The entire 75 page document had been hand typed (on an actual typewriter) and made us realize how far word processing has evolved from the days of the humble Smith-Corona. We can only imagine the amount of effort it required to calculate various tables on a hand-held calculator and the toll repeated revisions must have taken on the typist’s fingers. Inexpensive electronics, modern word-processing and spread-sheets have transformed this process entirely, and let us use our time far more productively. Happily for global growth, the pace of technological progress continues unabated and we fully expect that by 2025 we will look back at 2009 and find much that is amusingly archaic.

China: Investing when faced with questionable statistics and political risks

China: Investing when faced with questionable statistics and political risks

Up until the late 19th century, the academic discipline now known as Economics was called Political Economy. I’ve always liked that term because it implicitly acknowledges that all economic activity occurs within a political and legal framework. Economics, in contrast, sounds technical and removed from the messy world of politics. Of course, politics and economics have always been firmly intertwined and this will continue to be the case until governments and their citizens stop using the political process to influence economic outcomes. We expect this to happen immediately after winged hogs start flying loops outside our office window.

With the possible exception of Russia, China has the highest degree of state involvement in industry of any country in the G-20, and there are signs that this state involvement is growing. The high degree of political influence in economic affairs is a primary reason we have been wary of investment in China. It is difficult for us to justify risking investment capital in Chinese companies when the basic tenets of open markets don’t seem to apply to them: shareholders have limited transparency, substantial ownership stakes are held by sponsors closely allied with the Communist Party, key suppliers and customers are directly controlled by the goverment, and the state plays an active, dominant role in key industries with an explicit aim of perpetuating the rule of the current regime. Political considerations doubtless play a role in commercial decisions and this does not make for an efficient market.

As investors, we are also concerned about the risks posed by outright state appropriation of private assets. The Chinese regime at a national level has not trampled over property rights in the blunt manner that Russia’s has, but at the local level, officials have not been shy to disposses individuals of resources and property they have a claim to. In this context, we are troubled by the arrest of employees of Rio Tinto (a major Australian mining and materials company) on charges that they engaged in trade espionage and overcharged Chinese state-owned enterprises for raw materials. We believe the arrests are linked to two other events: Rio Tinto’s refusal of a major investment by state-owned Chinalco and the controversy over the screening of a film on Rebiya Kadeer at the Melbourne Film Festival. Ms. Kadeer was punished for her activism on behalf of China’s Uighur minority by being thrown in jail and having much of her wealth appropriated by the state. It is difficult to dismiss the scenario that Chinese authorities are using the power of the state to exact retribution or push for an outcome more desirable for Chinalco.

Part of the legal argument for arresting Rio Tinto executives is that China deems many statistics to be state secrets and since so many enterprises are directly or indirectly state-owned, much commercial data on their operations could enjoy similar status. In general, unequal treatment under law, a politicized judiciary and thin protection for private property in China has made us evaluate investments in China with more than the normal level of skepticism applied towards emerging markets.

The second reason we have been skeptical of Chinese asset valuations is that the average Chinese investor has been removed from a free market environment for at least two generations. Numerous academic studies have remarked on long-lasting discrepancies between A and B shares on the Shanghai index. The shares conferred equivalent economic rights, but until 2001 A shares could only be held by domestic investors, while B shares were held only by foreign investors. A shares prices were consistently higher than those for B shares, some have suggested this was due to an information advantage held by domestic shareholders. We feel that part of the explanation is that public markets for securities are still a new experience for Chinese business-owners and investors. The people with the best local knowledge to value assets are operating in an environment with which they have limited experience. Where there is limited understanding of markets and their risks, asset prices can easily be determined by momentum driven investors and purely speculative forces. By no means is this state of affairs limited to China, but it must be taken into account when evaluating the Chinese market for investment purposes.


Amongst other troubling factors are suggestions that the economic statistics coming out of China are unreliable. This seems entirely plausible since the Chinese administration is singularly focused on controlling discussion about the Chinese for propaganda purposes. The Financial Times noted recently that the GDP numbers for the first half of 2009 do not reconcile at the state and national levels and official wage statistics were greeted with incredulity by most. The speed with which GDP statistics are produced is also cause for concern. Provincial and regional officials are evaluated and rewarded on the level of economic growth within their geographies and we feel this incentivizes double-counting and dodgy accounting to create an illusion of higher growth. Given the state-controlled nature of many industries, we feel managers at numerous commercial enterprises have similar incentives. Earlier this year, the National People’s Congress acknowledged that falsification had occured and increased penalities for fabricating data, but the revised law and penalties will not take effect till 2010.

The opening paragraph of the most recent GDP report from the National Bureau of Statistics of China can be paraphrased as “everything went according to plan in all provinces”. We find it difficult to believe this claim when so many things were going wrong in many of China’s largest trading partners. The same report tells us that export activity dropped by almost 22%, and imports fell by over 25% (which matches BDI statistics). This apparently left major export-focused regions unaffected. Broad money supply (M2) on the other hand, grew by almost 30%, which makes the maximum 10% y/y increase in the US look positively responsible. Since bank lending and money supply have risen so quickly, it is likely that some activity is being generated by nervous managers and officials using borrowed funds to meet centrally mandated growth targets.

Along with hard data on a drop in exports, the Economist has reported that commercial real-estate vacancies in Beijing are approaching 25%, a clear sign of over-building. Power generation is amongst the most reliable indicators of economic activity in developing countries where economic data series may not be robust, and by that measure the picture is far murkier than the 7.1% annualized growth rate the GDP stats project. In April, the International Energy Agency noted that Chinese GDP data for Q1 and oil consumption diverged, which is quite atypical. We are also skeptical about claims that consumer demand rose strongly along with wages since the anecdotal evidence suggests unemployment has risen markedly (the official unemployment figures have hardly budged).

Derek Scissors at the Heritage Foundation has a strongly worded piece about the statistical data coming out of China and the impact that bank lending and investment spending have had. I must note that these speculations are not new. As far back as 2001, questions about the quality and reliability of Chinese economic data have been raised by researchers publishing in China Economic Review (see Rawski 2001, Keidel 2001) in particular the use of a value-added method to calculate GDP.

All of the concerns expressed above have led us to be extremely cautious on China as investors. We are well aware that Chinese industry has become a crucial part of the supply chain for many industries world-wide, and that we cannot ignore China in international stock allocations. We also know that most investments in emerging markets carry similar risks which have to be balanced with the opportunities. That said, the mix of opacity, state control, limited local experience with asset markets and a weak judiciary creates a series of risks very difficult for an investment manager to account for, and usually leads us to exit investments in China earlier in a cycle than we would investments elsewhere. The questions revolving around national statistics makes us wary of taking shorter-term macro position and generally skeptical of those who are unreservedly bullish on China.