Feb 022020
 
 February 2, 2020  Posted by at 3:30 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  11 Responses »


Samuel Colman The Edge of Doom 1836-38

 

What the future will bring for the 2019nCoV novel Wuhan coronavirus is still unclear. An epidemic it already is, but is it also a pandemic? Some 20 countries have reported infections, but it still could all fizzle out; 305 deaths can be forgotten by next week. Nobody can tell you how this will play out, not even the most experienced and/or smartest virologists and other experts.

Because there’s no telling what viruses will do, not even for them, and because while they have some idea about the infinitesimal size and lifespan of viruses, “ordinary” people have no grasp of either, and that includes managers, planners and politicians. Whether in the rich west or in “up and coming” China.

 

The timeline is quite literally terribly obvious. In early December -and it could have been even earlier-, it was obvious to doctors and Communist Party (CCP) politicians in Wuhan that something was wrong. But their painfully predictable reaction was to hope this would pass. Never a bad word should be uttered about the Party, and nothing said that could embarrass it.

December passed, as news was getting worse and more obvious due to a large number of “pneumonia” patients. Chinese doctors published an article in the Lancet this week (this week, 6 weeks after the fact!) saying human-to-human transmission had been established by mid-December.

But the code of silence was not broken, even when a man died from the virus on January 9. It took until mid-January before word got out, a full week later. By then millions of people had left and/or entered Wuhan, a city of 11 million, potentially infecting millions of other Chinese and perhaps people abroad. 5 million later left the city for Lunar New Year.

On January 10, the virus was defined and the sequence was shared, but testing didn’t start for another week; patients were registered as pneumonia sufferers, including those that died (we have no idea how many there were).

 

 

Then, mid January, doctors starting testing for the virus. The first “exported” case was noted in Thailand on January 13, but it still took more time for the potential threat to be realized and reported. The Party boys were still hoping it would all pass. Can you blame them? They are civil servants, they don’t know anything about viruses, or their threat.

Ironically, over 300 civil servants (Party officials) and health care workers were sanctioned very recently for not doing enough. The Party makes sure the blame is put on individuals, not on itself. Even if all they’ve done is follow the party line. It’s very simply how the system works. And not just in China. If the virus might come to a town near you, check where the blame is placed. It won’t be the president or prime minister, health workers will be first in line, civil servants second.

It’s good to note how fast the novel virus has spread. If only to show what those who are determined to keep such a thing silent are up against. Can’t be easy. 291 cases on Jan 20, 14,562 cases 13 days later. Those are exponential numbers, even if the number of fatalities “only” rose by 46 overnight.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the main threat in viruses is their ability to mutate and become deadlier. This virus now has at least those 14,562 hosts which they can use to mutate in. Hong Kong University doctor and epidemiologist Gabriel Leung and his team said in a Jan 31 report: “In our baseline scenario, we estimated 75,185 infections as of Jan 25.” . And they were reporting on Wuhan alone. In other words, well over 5 times as many hosts and chances for the virus to mutate in just one city. In a city of 11 million people, numbers like that are perhaps not that extreme.

 

 

Back to politics. We have had two phases so far. 1 is first discovery followed by total silence. 2 is damage control, and deflecting all blame from the Party.

We are now in phase 3. The WHO, which was caught napping as much as the Party in phase 2, lavishes great praise on that same Party now for its “extraordinary safety measures”. Locking down entire cities (increasingly people are not even allowed to leave their homes), speed-building hospitals, you name it. And the WHO is not the only entity praising the Party.

The reason why there is so much emphasis on this is that the CCP is desperate to show everyone, at home and abroad, that it is in control. That there is no reason to worry, at least not due to actions by the Party. If other countries have problems, that is not the Party’s fault.

And also, the Party will take it from here, no need for foreign assistance. They’ll allow in some doctors, preferably WHO related, and they have asked both the US and EU for medical equipment and doctors’ uniforms, hazmat suits, that sort of thing, just so nobody asks any further questions: see, we do accept help! We’ll let you know if we need anything.

Other than that, the Party is in full control, thank you very much. And if Chinese people start protesting the failures of the Party so far, as they are, that is none of anyone else’s business. “We” have it under control”. Ask the WHO, they said so too.

 

If the Party is allowed to get away with this behavior aimed at self-preservation above anything else, including human lives of both Chinese and foreigners, something bad is sure to happen. Maybe not this time, maybe this one will fizzle out. But the next one, or the one after that, will not.

It is obvious how dangerous this is, putting the interests of the Party, or the economy, above the risk of spreading global pandemic. But is is also obvious why it happens. And it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen only in China. Though the country in its present state is a ideal breeding ground.

Flights are halted. Hundreds of millions will soon be in lockdown. Exports will plunge, because production will. Which will hit the west as much as China. Just so the Party can say it did what had to be done, and so it will stay in power. Xi Jinping knows his power depends on the economy, but he thinks he has what it takes to hold on to power even when the economy tanks.

He can simply declare force majeure, he can tell his people how much worse things would have been had he not decided to lock down everything.

We’ve been following the numbers of infections and fatalities now for 2 weeks or so, even as we know they don’t mean much, they’re just Party propaganda. The Party will release what it thinks it must, but no more. Perhaps we need other sources; these will come if and when things get out of hand. Not that we know they will.

Xi can claim today that he has control. He can say things are not too bad, but we don’t really know, he’s issuing the numbers. What we do know, and there’s the crux, is that he was 6 weeks late in starting to acknowledge the epidemic, in contacting the outside world, in acknowledging his mistakes, and in acknowledging that such mistakes are baked into the model that keeps him in power.

Phase 1 is complete denial, not a word. Phase 2 is damage control, massaging the numbers downward. Phase 3 is “close all the doors, not to worry, nothing to see here, we got this, no you can’t come in, too risky!”

But, yeah, praise him while you can. The only praise he cares about is from people just as clueless as he is anyway.

The Party is a highly effective vehicle for protecting its own interests and survival. For other things, perhaps not so much. Viruses can be quite deadly at times. Combine them with politics and the risk factor rises exponentially.

Tragedy assured. Just not every single time.

 

 

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Oct 192018
 
 October 19, 2018  Posted by at 1:04 pm Primers Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »


M. C. Escher Meeting (Encounter) 1940

 

It’s no surprise that China has its own plunge protection team -but why were they so late?-, nor that Beijing blames its problems on Trump’s tariffs. GDP growth was disappointing at 6.5%, but who’s ever believed those almost always dead on numbers? It would be way more interesting to know what part of that growth has been based on debt and leverage. But that we don’t get to see.

So we turn elsewhere. How about the Shanghai Composite Index? It may not be a perfect reflection of the Chinese economy, no more than the S&P 500 is for the US, but it does raise some valid and curious questions.

Borrowing from Wolf Richter, here are some stats and a graph::
• Lowest since November 27, 2014, nearly four years ago
• Down 30% from its recent peak on January 24, 2018, (3,559.47)
• Down 52% from its last bubble peak on June 12, 2015 (5,166)
• Down 59% from its all-time bubble peak on October 16, 2007 (6,092)
• And back where it had first been on December 27, 2006, nearly 12 years ago.

 

 

The first thing I thought when I saw that was: how on earth is it possible that in an economy that’s supposedly been growing 6%+ for a decade, stocks have gone nowhere at all? And obviously the role of the Shanghai index is different from that of the S&P, the DAX or the FTSE, but at the alleged Chinese growth rate, the economy would have almost doubled in size in 10 years. And none of that is reflected in stocks?

 

 

And if you think Shenzhen is a better barometer of ‘real’ China, Tyler Durden had this graph yesterday. Not the same as Shanghai, but similar for sure.

 

 

But other aspects of the Chinese economy are perhaps more interesting, I think. China’s mom and pop are not typically in stocks. In the Zero Hedge article I took that graph from, there is also this:

“There’s a liquidity crisis in the stock market, and pledged shares are again starting to sound the alarm,” said Yang Hai, analyst at Kaiyuan Securities. [..] The fear is that if Beijing does nothing, the self-reinforcing liquidation is only set to get worse: with $603 billion of shares pledged as collateral for loans – or 11% of China’s market capitalization, – traders are increasingly concerned that forced sellers will tip the market into a downward spiral.

[..] China in June told brokerages to seek approval before selling large chunks of stock that have been pledged as collateral for loans, while the top financial regulator in August warned the industry that it’s closely watching corporate stock pledges. Neither of those warnings appears to have generated the desired outcome, and the result is that two-thirds of Shenzhen Composite stocks are now at 52-week lows or worse.

[..] what are investors to do in this time of panicked selling? Why demand more bailouts of course, like begging the National Team to step in and rescue them (just like in the housing market): “If there are no real policies to cure the array of problems and ailments in our market, no one will be willing to take the risk,” said Hai. “Authorities keep saying that there is room for more polices, but where are they?”

“It’s high time the state stepped in,” said Dong Baozhen, a fund manager at Beijing Tonglingshengtai Asset Management. “The national funds cannot just sit on the sidelines and watch this atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”

It’s this clamoring for the state to come to the rescue of people who are losing money that would appear to define China today, where there is a stock market and housing market, and many ‘investors’ making lots of money, but where the mentality still seems to lurk back to days of old whenever things don’t only go up in a straight line.

There was another report recently of people demonstrating outside a property developer’s office because the firm had lowered purchase prices by 30%. Those that had paid full price now stood to lose that 30%. This happens frequently, and it can get violent. Mom and pop are not in stocks, they are in real estate:

Property accounts for roughly 70 per cent of urban Chinese families’ total assets – a home is both wealth and status. People don’t want prices to increase too fast, but they don’t want them to fall too quickly either,” said Shao Yu, chief economist at Oriental Securities.

The Chinese are thinking about leaders from Deng Xiao Ping to Xi Jinping that it’s great if they steer the country in a direction where everyone can get rich, but when things go awry, it’s still Beijing’s task to solve the problems if and when they occur. I would expect the same kind of thing in many western countries where people have borrowed heavily into housing bubbles, I don’t see mass foreclosures in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, but bailouts of people who grossly overpaid.

But the Chinese go a step further in their demands from central government. And that is an enormous problem for Xi going forward. One crucial facet of all this is psychological: when people count on being bailed out by their government, they will take much more risk, borrow more, with higher leverage etc. If you allow people things like pledging shares to buy more shares, or homes, and shares fall, you have an issue.

China’s well-known for companies buying each other’s shares to appear viable. It’s also known for local governments borrowing heavily from shadow banks in order for party officials to look as if they’re performing real well.

Now of course, if Beijing keeps on presenting all those growth numbers that look so solid, it’s asking for it. Moreover, the Party has lost control over the shadow banks, and it couldn’t act to regain that control if it wanted. It could initiate a program to forgive debt owed to national banks, but what’s owed to the shadows will have to be paid. We’re talking many trillions.

The Party has let the shadows in, because it made its own debt numbers look so much better. But when this whole debt balloon, on which so much of the GDP growth has rested, and the roads to nowhere and empty apartment blocks and cities, starts to pop, who are the Chinese going to turn to? For that matter, who is Xi going to turn to?

Yes, much of the western wealth has turned into a mirage, but in that respect, too, China has done what we did in a fraction of the time. Trump’s tariffs may play a role in a slowdown, but wait until the western economies deflate their debt bubbles and stop buying much of China’s products.

Bubbles vs balloons, that seems a proper way to phrase this. And for better or for worse, Jerome Powell is hiking interest rates. There’s your Needles and Pins.