Jul 022016
 
 July 2, 2016  Posted by at 4:38 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  


Jack Delano “Lower Manhattan seen from the S.S. Coamo leaving New York.” 1941

Brexit is nowhere near the biggest challenge to western economies. And not just because it has devolved into a two-bit theater piece. Though we should not forget the value of that development: it lays bare the real Albion and the power hunger of its supposed leaders. From xenophobia and racism on the streets, to back-stabbing in dimly lit smoky backrooms, there’s not a states(wo)man in sight, and none will be forthcoming. Only sell-outs need apply.

The only person with an ounce of integrity left is Jeremy Corbyn, but his Labour party is dead, which is why he must fight off an entire horde of zombies. Unless Corbyn leaves labour and starts Podemos UK, he’s gone too. The current infighting on both the left and right means there is a unique window for something new, but Brits love what they think are their traditions, plus Corbyn has been Labour all his life, and he just won’t see it.

The main threat inside the EU isn’t Brexit either. It’s Italy. Whose banks sit on over 30% of all eurozone non-performing loans, while its GDP is about 10% of EU GDP. How they would defend it I don’t know, they’re probably counting on not having to, but Juncker and Tusk’s European Commission has apparently approved a scheme worth €150 billion that will allow these banks to issue quasi-sovereign bonds when they come under attack. An attack that is now even more guaranteed to occcur than before.

 

Still, none of Europe’s internal affairs have anything on what’s coming in from the east. Reading between the lines of Japan’s Tankan survey numbers there is only one possible conclusion: the ongoing and ever more costly utter failure of Abenomics continues unabated.

It’s developing in pretty much the exact way I said it would when Shinzo Abe first announced the policies in late 2012. Not that it was such a brilliant insight, all you had to know is that Abe and his central bank head Kuroda don’t understand what their mastodont problem, deflation, actually is, and that means they are powerless to solve it.

That Abe said somewhere along the way that all that was needed was his people’s confidence to make Abenomics work, says more than enough. The multiple flip-flops over a sales-tax increase say the rest. People don’t become more confident just because someone tells them to; that has the opposite effect. Deflation results from reduced spending, which in turn comes from not only decreasing confidence as well as a decrease in money people have available to spend.

That modern economics sees everything not spent as ‘savings’ adds significantly to the failure -on the part of Abe, Kuroda and just about everyone else- to understand what happened in Japan over the past 2-3 decades. To repeat once again, inflation/deflation is the velocity of money multiplied by money- and credit supply. The latter factor has in general gone through the roof, but that means zilch if the former -velocity- tanks.

That this velocity is -still- tanking, in Japan as well as in the western world, is due to, more than anything else, an unparalleled surge in debt. At some point, that will catch up with any economy and society. Even if they are growing, which our economies are not. Growth has been replaced with credit, and credit is debt. It’s safe to say that money velocity cannot possibly ‘recover’ until large swaths of debt have been cancelled, one way or another.

For Japan we saw this week that “..household spending fell for the third straight month in May and core consumer prices suffered their biggest annual drop since 2013..” (Reuters) while “..The Topix index dropped about 9% in June, plunging on June 24 with the Brexit vote, the most since the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. The yen strengthened about 8% against the dollar in June.. (Bloomberg).

Japan has an upper-house election in a little over a week, and it seems like Abe can still feel comfortable about his position. A remarkable thing. The country needs to stop digging, it’s in a more than 400% debt-to-GDP hole, but Abe won’t listen. The rising yen is suffocating what is left of the economy, as are the negative interest rates, but all the talk is about ‘further easing’.

 

Still, Japan is outta here, and this has been obvious for a long time to the more observant observer. In the case of China, it is a more recent phenomenon, and it will even be disputed for a while to come. It’s also one that will have a much more devastating effect on the west. We’ve seen problems in various markets in Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong, but the real issues on the mainland are still to be sprung on us.

Mainland stock exchanges are as good a place as any to begin with. The combined tally for Shanghai and Shenzhen looks like this -data till June 23-; yes, that’s a loss of over 40% in the past year.

Beijing has been trying very hard to paper over these numbers, even quit supporting it all for a while through 2014, only to do a 180º when they didn’t like what they saw (foreign reserves drawdown), and now PBoC injections have gone bonkers: $316 billion in one month would mean $4 trillion on a yearly basis in what is really nothing but monopoly money.

Meanwhile, corporate bonds are, perhaps partly because of volatility, becoming an endangered species. Maybe the PBoC can do something there as well, the way Draghi does in Europe (must be high on the agenda), but there’s already so much bad debt we hardly dare watch.

China must and will try to keep boosting exports by devaluing the yuan. It’s just waiting for an opportunity to do it without being accused of currency manipulation. Perhaps it can create that opportunity?! Create a crisis and then use it?! Regardless, this Reuters headline yesterday sounded very tongue in cheek:

China To ‘Tolerate’ Weaker Yuan

China’s central bank would tolerate a fall in the yuan to as low as 6.8 per dollar in 2016 to support the economy, which would mean the currency matching last year’s record decline of 4.5%, policy sources said. The yuan is already trading at its lowest level in more than five years, so the central bank would ensure any decline is gradual for fear of triggering capital outflows and criticism from trading partners such as the United States, said government economists and advisers involved in regular policy discussions. Presumptive U.S. Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump already has China in his sights, saying on Wednesday he would label China a currency manipulator if elected in November.

Note: remember Japan above? The yen rose 8% against the USD just in June, as the yuan fell by just 4.5% in all of 2015 (6.8% over the past 2 years). Now you go figure what’s happening to Japan-China trade. And the yuan is still hugely overvalued. But the desire to be part of the IMF basket of currencies comes with obligations. Trump doesn’t help either.

I said in the beginning of this year that a 30% devaluation was something of a minimum, and that certainly continues to stand. So yeah, creating a crisis may be the only way out. An accident in the South China Sea perhaps. Combined with a ‘tolerance’ for a 50% weaker yuan….

All of the above leads us to the title of this essay: deflation is coming in from the east. China’s economy’s already in deflation, even though it will take some time yet to be acknowledged. A very ‘nice’ report from Crescat Capital provides a bunch of clues.

China QE Dwarfs Japan and EU

In July of 2014, we wrote about the huge imbalance with respect to China’s M2 money supply and nominal GDP relative to the US. At the time, China’s M2 money supply was 71% higher than the US but its economy was 56% smaller, which we said was an indication of the overvaluation of the Chinese currency. Since that time, the yuan has fallen by only 6.8% relative to the dollar. We haven’t seen anything yet.

Today, the circumstances have significantly worsened. Money supply has continued to grow faster than GDP. With over $30 trillion of assets in its banking system and an underappreciated non-performing loan problem, we are convinced that China is headed for a twin banking and currency crisis. Money velocity has reached historically low levels which reflects China’s extreme credit imbalance and its crimping impact on its ability to generate future real GDP growth.

Just as worrying as the immense amount of credit built up, China has been reporting major downward revisions in its balance of payments (BoP) accounts. For more than a decade, China had been reporting an impossible twin surplus in its BoP accounts. When we wrote about this issue in 2014, we emphasized the likelihood of massive illicit capital outflows that not been accounted for. At that time, according to the State Administration of Foreign Exchange of China (SAFE), China had accumulated a BoP imbalance that was close to $9.4 trillion surplus since 2000 which we believed represented capital outflows that should have been recorded in the capital account.

The same accumulated BoP number today, revised by SAFE several times since, is now a deficit of about $2.8 trillion. Essentially, with its revisions, the SAFE has acknowledged even more capital outflows over the last 16 years than we had initially identified. On the capital account side, there was a downward revision of $10.1 trillion – from a $4.2 trillion surplus to a $5.9 trillion deficit. On the current account side, the revisions show that Chinese exports have not been as strong as initially reported over the last decade and a half. China’s current account surplus has been reduced by $2.1 trillion– going from $5.1 trillion to $2.9 trillion over the last 16 years. What we initially considered to be a $9.4 trillion imbalance has been more than proven by a $12.2 trillion revision.

Those are some pretty damning numbers, if you sit on them for a bit. There was another graph that came with that report that takes us head first into deflationary territory. China’s velocity of money:

That is utterly devastating. It’s what we see in the US, EU and Japan too, but ‘we’ have thus far been able to export our deflation -to an extent- to … China. No more. China has started exporting its own deflation to the west. Beijing MUST devalue its currency anywhere in the range of 30-50% or its export sector will collapse. It is not difficult.

That it will have to achieve this despite the objections of Donald Trump and the IMF is just a minor pain; Xi Jinping has more pressing matters on his mind. Like pitchforks.

The ‘normal’ response in economics would be: in order to fight deflation, increase consumer spending (aka raise money velocity)! But as we’ve seen with Japan, that’s much easier said than done. Because there are reasons people are not spending. And the only way to overcome that is to guarantee them a good income for a solid time into the future, in an economy that induces confidence.

That is not happening in Japan, or the US or EU, and it’s now gone in China too. Beijing has another additional issue that (formerly) rich countries don’t have. This is from a recent Marketwatch article on Andy Xie:

China Is Headed For A 1929-Style Depression

[..] Xie said China’s trajectory instead resembles the one that led to the Great Depression, when the expansion of credit, loose monetary policy and a widespread belief that asset prices would never fall contributed to rampant speculation that ended with a crippling market crash. China in 2016 looks much the same, according to Xie, with half of the country’s debt propping up real-estate prices and heavy leverage in the stock market – indicating that conditions are ripe for a correction. “The government is allowing speculation by providing cheap financing .. China “is riding a tiger and is terrified of a crash. So it keeps pumping cash into the economy. It is difficult to see how China can avoid a crisis.”

And then check this out:

China’s GDP grew 6.9% in 2015, its slowest pace in a quarter-century. For 2016, Beijing has set a GDP target of 6.5% to 7%; The latest spate of global uncertainties prompted Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank to trim their forecasts to 6.4% and 6.6%, respectively. The export sector, long a driver of Chinese growth, is sputtering due to global saturation and household consumption is barely 30% of China’s GDP, Xie said. In the U.S., household consumption accounted for more than 68% of GDP in 2014, according to the World Bank.

Yeah, China is supposed to be going from an export driven- to a consumer driven economy. Problem with that seems to be that those consumers would need money to spend, and to earn that money they would need to work in export industries (since there is not nearly enough domestic demand). Bit of a Catch 22. And definitely not one you would want to find yourself in when the global economy is tanking.

The more monopoly money Beijing prints, the more pressure there will be on the yuan. And if they themselves don’t devalue the yuan, the markets will do it for them.

Kyle Bass says China’s $3 trillion corporate bond market is “freezing up” (see the third graph above), which threatens to undermine the $3.5 trillion market for the wealth management products Chinese mom and pops invest in. He expects a whopping $3 trillion in bank losses, an amount equal to the entire corporate bond market (!) “to trigger a bailout, with the central bank slashing reserve requirements, cutting the deposit rate to zero and expanding its balance sheet – all of which will weigh on the yuan.”

With the yuan down by as much as it would seem to be on course for, wages and prices in the west will plummet. This wave of deflation is set to hit western economies already in deflation and already drowning in private debt, and therefore equipped with severely weakened defenses.

Leonard Cohen once wrote a song called “Democracy Is Coming To The USA”. Maybe someone can do a version that says deflation is coming too. Not sure that’s good for democracy, though.

Have a great Holiday Weekend.

May 222015
 
 May 22, 2015  Posted by at 3:13 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


NPC Dedication of Francis Asbury statue, Washington, DC 1924

The present Chinese leadership appears to be trying to gain (regain?) more -if not full- control over the country’s economic system, while at the same time (re-)boosting the growth it has lost in recent years.

President Xi Jinping, prime minister Li Keqiang and all of their subservient leaders – there are 1000’s of those in a 1.4 billion citizens country- apparently think this can be done. Yours truly doubts it.

As I’ve repeatedly said over the past years, I don’t think that they ever understood what would happen if they opened up the country to a more free-market, capitalist structure. That doing so would automatically reduce their political power, since a free market, in whatever shape and form, does not rhyme with the kind of control which the Communist Party has been used to for decades, and which the current leaders have grown up taking for granted.

I don’t think they’re fools or anything, just that their -preconceived- ideas of power don’t rhyme with the kind of economy Beijing, starting with Deng Xiao Ping, has created. In particular, they have allowed other segments of society to accumulate great wealth, and with wealth comes power.

And in fine Pandora’s Box fashion, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to reverse the process. This failure to grasp to what extent these ‘market liberation’ policies have had a Sorcerer’s Apprentice effect, may, if not must, lead to utter chaos and worse…

A closely related failure is that the rulers have allowed the shadow banking system to grow to ginormous proportions. Likely, in their eyes this ‘merely’ helped the economy grow at double digit speed for years, and they could stop it at will. But something else was growing along with it: the power of the shadow banks -and the people behind them-, both economic and political. Which is not acceptable in a one party rules all system.

And so there is a crackdown going on, presented as ‘reform’, and shadow bank loans have indeed diminished. But that is hurting the economy much more than it heals it. And so measures are reversed on the fly.

The official line is that China has to become a more consumer based economy, if only because exports are not what they used to be, due to lower living standards in the major customer economies in the western world.

The first part of the private citizens’ segment of this shift was the housing boom. Though the Chinese are traditionally strong savers, certainly compared to for instance Americans, they did borrow a lot, got into debt, to fund their real estate purchases. The first part of the problem is that not exactly all of that was borrowed from ‘official’ banks. The second is that home prices are now falling in most cities.

The Chinese are not only known as savers, they’re also notorious gamblers. That accounts for a substantial part of the housing boom, but it accounts even more for what came when that boom started fainting: stock market insanity. A craze that was fully encouraged by Beijing. As Bloomberg put it the other day:

[..] government officials and state media have encouraged the rally. China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported last week that the advance in stocks has further to go, while the China Securities Regulatory Commission has said that market gains reflect support for the economy.

Private investors, grandmas and teenage granddaughters, still believe Beijing controls the whole game. They undoubtedly must also think Xi and Li will make the housing sector rise from its ashes. This is a huge risk for the Communist Party. But they must have the illusion that they got it down. Government and citizens all believe.

The past few days have seen 2 notable companies, Hanergy Thin Film Solar and real estate/electronics conglomerate Goldin Group, lose about half their market cap within a day, for a total loss of some $50 billion. In Hanergy’s case, it reportedly took less than half an hour. And yesterday, Joyou, a Chinese branch of German bathroom giant Grohe, went straight from $400 million to just about zero.

It looks like all Beijing has left in its arsenal is extend and pretend. The question is, does it have the gunpowder to do that? While tons of people habitually point to Beijing’s $4 trillion sovereign bonds stock, they may not be a cure-all.

The same people might want to consider to what extent the Chinese growth ‘miracle’ has been funded by debt. By the printing press. And while they’re at it, they may want to ponder what’s going to happen to that debt, now growth has started sputtering.

There seems to be a consensus that Chinese debt is somewhere in the range of $28 trillion, which is almost twice US GDP, and almost three times Chinese GDP. And for all we know the debt may be much higher still. All we really have is official numbers, plus a few ‘indirect’ data. One thing we do know is that Beijing will always make everything look better than it is. Every politician does.

And we know that they have a substantial series of issues to deal with. In fact, there are so many it’s impossible to catch them all in one comprehensive essay. China’s not nearly as simple as Greece. Let’s try a few:

• China’s housing boom is deflating, with prices down up to 6% YoY in many places, though of course for now less severe in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. As one comment said recently, paraphrased: ‘there are no more buyers, everyone around here already owns property.’

• China is in the grip of a stock mania, with millions who are losing out on their apartment investments trying to make up for their losses with stocks. Many borrow heavily for their ‘profits’ (and not always from official banks). The stock mania is already popping as well. It will probably rise a bit more at times and at places, but exchanges that skyrocket when economies flatline or worse, will be smacked down by fundamentals at some point. That is true on Wall Street and in Europe, and it’s also true in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

IPO’s are falling out of the deep blue skies like so many frogs, and people seem to think there’s all this pent-up demand for them, but the Hanergy and Goldin examples should serve as huge red lights flashing. And besides: what does pent-up demand mean when people borrow substantial parts of credit used for stock purchases?

When you read that at the Shenzhen exchange, rallies of more than 500% aren’t unusual, and the 103 stocks listed trade at an average 375 times reported earnings, you should know you’re looking at an ordinary slot machine, not an exchange that reflects any underlying real economy.

• Local governments are heavily in debt to the shadow banking system. Their liabilities may well exceed $6 trillion The crack down on the latter does not change that. Beijing has introduced a swap system, where paper can be swapped for bonds of much longer maturity at lower rates, but that leaves the question of who’s going to pay the debt to the shadow system.

Do local governments now need to borrow more from state banks just to pay off their loans to the shadow banking system? Or are the state banks themselves going to pay the debt after the swap? Or is perhaps the PBoC itself going to pay off the shadow banks directly? It looks as if the swap measures, which are pretty absurd in themselves since they encourage more borrowing, do not -or hardly at all- involve the ‘shadow debt’.

• Chinese factory activity is contracting. This is not growth slowing down, this is negative growth. Chinese consumers don’t help to avoid this, because they’re not consuming. They are doing one of three things: pay off housing -margin- debt as prices are falling, go nuts for stocks, or they are saving. No consumer based society is in sight.

• Capital outflow was $159 billion in Q1. This should be a major worry for Beijing. It hurts China’s international financial position. The country’s also stuck in its US dollar peg, and it dare not risk get out because of the potential losses on its Treasurys holdings. It’s all nice and stuff that the IMF considers including the yuan into its SDR basket, but it’s not a one way street to glory, or to the demise of the USD as some would have you think, for that matter.

Meanwhile, China keeps investing billions abroad. Untold billions in Africa. $50 billion in Brazil to damage the Amazon even more, $60 billion in the new Silk Road project.

But where does that money come from? Why is there so little scrutiny of that? Why do we all allow the Chinese to purchase our homes and our land and our industries, and make them all more expensive for ourselves?

Given that $28 trillion debt load, how is this not monopoly money, and why couldn’t we just as easily print that ourselves?

Is this a sign of how great the Chinese economy is, or is it perhaps a sign of how awful our own economies are really doing, and how indebted we are compared to Beijing? Is it because they caused our manufacturing sectors to all but vanish? How and why can a country blow a $28 trillion+ debt bubble in a decade and proceed to use that debt to buy the world? What does that say about that world?

As for China itself, and the losses on homes and stocks that are in the offing, I’ve long been on record stating I can’t see how it will not descent into civil war, and I still don’t. As I said above, Beijing never understood what forces it unleashed when it started ‘freeing’ its market, and from what I can see, it still doesn’t.

Or maybe it has, and got too scared to call a halt to what’s happening. That recent sudden permission for all 1.4 billion Chinese to open 20 stock trading accounts may be an act of desperation, as it came when real estate prices started tanking. But Xi and Li still must know, and fear, what awaits them if and when those stocks and apartments start their descent into hell.