Thursday, July 10, 2008

The FDIC and You

Well friends it's time to talk about bank failures and wealth preservation. We have talked about insolvent banks on multiple occasions before but the threat of large banks failing is now imminent. Countrywide was saved from such a fate by Bank of America. Now IndyMac is right on the edge. They're not officially dead yet - only mostly dead but there's no Miracle Max in sight.

Their recent letter to stakeholders reads like a death certificate:
  • regulators involved
  • prohibited from getting brokered deposits
  • can't sell stock (no buyers)
  • asset sales would deplete capital (tacit admission of mis-valuation)
  • ===> must stop making loans
The FDIC has been bulking up for months now, anticipating a wave of bank failures. So far it's been a few small banks but now it's the big boy's turn. So how secure are bank deposits and and how much can the insurance fund really cover? For now, it looks like the answers are pretty safe (as long as you're under the $100,000 limit) and a pretty good amount as they have $54.5 billion in the fund as of the March 31 report.

The report contains further indications that they see the problem as serious and imminent. For instance, last March the fund held $3.7 billion in cash, going to $4.0 billion in December and $8.0 billion this March. Clearly they are raising cash in anticipation of something. There is a similar pattern to the provision for losses from negative last March to $95 million in December and $525 million the March. Interestingly, that last number is about 2.5x the estimated losses on ALL failed banks YTD.

$5.6 million - Douglass National
$214 million - ANB Financial
$2.3 million - First Integrity

ANB is almost the entire amount but was not shut down until
May. The FDIC was already anticipating a lot more at the end of March. It will be fascinating to see what kind of provisions they made at the end of June. We should have that report in approximately 2 weeks. The banks that have failed so far have cost the FDIC about 10% of deposits to make the depositors whole. This suggests that the regulators were planning on banks with another $3 billion in deposits going bad as of 4 months ago but IndyMac alone is much larger than that.

So what kind of impact should we expect if the FDIC has to liquidate a large part of their portfolio to make good on their guarantees? Personally, we're expecting a bear steepening of the yield curve but have a look at the composition for yourself:

There is a big slug of bonds maturing in 2009 so if FDIC is forced to liquidate, the pressure should be strongest on the 2-year and shorter Treasury market. Given the amount of cash, it would take a significant failure to force them to liquidate much before the maturity dates but we want to start thinking about the possibility and the implications of such an event.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

China Syndrome

Today we turn our attention to China - certainly the most celebrated economy in the world today and possibly the most celebrated ever. Yet China's contemporary economy may be the most unbalanced in the history of the planet.

The Problem
Though it is hard to find reliable numbers, most sources agree that capital investment in China accounts for
over 40% of GDP. Frankly, this is a terrifying and unprecedented number. For reference, Japan during their boom years was typically around 30% of GDP and never exceeded 35% for long. During the Roaring Twenties, fixed investment in the US economy averaged less than 20%. Looked at a bit differently, about 42% of China's economy is based on ------ the expansion of the economy. This creates tremendous momentum but also huge potential for disaster. Essentially, everything will be fine as long as everyone there believes the economy will continue to expand at a breakneck pace and invests accordingly. This is virtually the definition of a pyramid scheme. Does anybody see anything wrong with this picture? Does this perhaps sound familiar? It should since the psychology is the same as every bubble in history.

So what could go wrong and how would it likely play out? I'm going to use post-war US recessions since that is an example most readers can relate to and gauge the seriousness. In reality, the US economy is relatively stable and mature so I would expect volatility to be much higher in China, not to mention the bubble nature of current investment levels. During its post-war recessions, US capital spending declined between 10% and 30% - with the extreme value being achieved in the 1980-82 period. This is simply the impact of over-investment during the preceding boom and the sudden realization of that fact and the resulting over-capacity during the recession.

The most likely trigger for a fall in China's capex is weakening exports. They don't even have to stagnate to trigger real problems, much less fall. When the current investment pattern is predicated on rapid and continuous growth, material decline in the growth rate should be sufficient to kick off lower capital spending. An event the magnitude of 1980 would cause a direct hit of 12% of GDP in China in addition to any multiplier effects and that is hardly unthinkable. Keep in mind that exports themselves account for 33% of Chinese GDP so any outright decline there would be a real problem for them - likely triggering a minimum 20% fall of GDP. Frankly it will be difficult for them to avoid it given the economic and political climate in their trading partners.

This would be just the result of inflated current investment combined with a typical cyclical decline in demand overseas. We don't need a replay of the Great Depression for China's economy to suffer horribly. From 1929 to 1932, capital investment in the US economy fell by over 90%. Given the much higher weighting of such spending in China today, the result of such an event would be literally unthinkable.

You might ask why China's currency is doing so well if their economy is so vulnerable? And that would be a fair question, though we would point out that the Shanghai exchange is down over 50% in less than a year, so some markets are reflecting probable severe damage to the economy. But the answer to the currency issue is the one that we often give - perception lags reality.

It's usually a pretty good bet that the locals will know their market better than those who are far away. This is just common sense. In China, only local buyers can participate on domestic stock exchanges and they have obviously gotten a lot more cautious since the Fall. However, the currency market is subject to outside forces despite the nation's currency controls. Essentially, the locals have started to sell China while the foreigners are still buying. We have long believed that there is a hot money problem in China since their currency reserves have been growing a lot faster than their trade surplus would suggest. In addition, the reported surplus itself looks pretty squirrelly.

The hot money problem has recently been recognized by the government and some of the financial press. Here's an example from the Financial Times:
Given that the inflows far outstrip trade and direct foreign investment, China appears to be receiving vast amounts of speculative "hot money".
The FT article goes on to cite an estimate of $150-$170 billion of hot money flowing into China in the first 5 months of 2008. This money is coming in despite the collapsing stock market and despite the fact that the Yuan is losing domestic purchasing power at a rapid pace - far faster than the currencies the money is coming out of certainly. This is the virtual definition of speculative money flow. The FT continues:
China has two big attractions for foreign investors - interest rates are higher than in the US and the currency is expected to appreciate.
Of course real interest rates in China are hugely negative - 400 basis points or more due to high and rising CPI. This is a far worse situation than in the US or Eurozone. And why is the currency expected to appreciate? Why because everyone THINKS so. Kind of reminds of the tongue-in-cheek description of a celebrity as "some who's famous for being well-known." What it boils down to is herd-animal behavior. The herd is going over there, they must know something. Let's follow them, the grass must be better over there. Mooooooo.

One final clip from the Financial Times:
But government officials also believe that illegal transfers are taking place - through foreign companies declaring that funds are for direct investment and then putting the money in the bank and exporters exaggerating the value of overseas revenues in order to bring in extra funds. (As an aside, economists point out that if fraudulent export receipts really are widely used to bring in hot money, China's politically troublesome trade surplus would actually be much lower than thought.)
Prior to 2005, China's trade surplus never exceeded $50 billion on an annual basis. It hit $100 billion that year and roughly $250 billion in 2007. The dollar peg was dropped in mid-2005 and the surplus began to grow explosively at the same time, soaring through the period of the stock bubble. The monthly surplus peaked in October 2007, the same month as the stock markets did worldwide - including China's. Since the suspected route of the hot money is fraudulent trade or investment deals, we cannot know with certainty but the timing of the flows is highly suspicious.

Here at Financial Jenga, we are automatically suspicious of consensus, orthodoxy or any widely-held belief unless there is strong evidence to support it. The meme of unstoppable growth in China does not meet that test. While that country has many strengths, they appear to already be discounted and then some. The massive imbalances create vulnerabilities and the economy appears to be just as much a bubble as anything in the West - perhaps more so. In this case, the bubble is in factory investment, not housing but tremendous over-supply is already present, with more being created. The Wall Street Journal recently published a front-page article about factories closing down as overseas demand falls and China's manufacturers become uncompetitive due to rising costs. We've already discussed the implications of that scenario. We have long believed that China today is very comparable to Japan 20 years ago and we see nothing to make us change that hypothesis.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Silent Scream

(editor's note - This blog entry was completed and posted on July 4. The entry date is showing as July 1, as the software uses the date on which the first draft was saved.)

Marc Faber was on Bloomberg TV today and he mentioned that the higher reported consumer inflation rates in Asia were a function of lower per capita GDP and a higher proportion of income spent on food and fuel - which are nearly the only prices that are rising aggressively. Common sense right? But of course that really made me start thinking - always a dangerous prospect.

Asia, Inc.

So Asia's consumer "basket" looks a lot different than that of the average American or Western European. But there are other differences as well. Many Asian nations are resource-poor, major importers of either food, raw materials or both and they depend upon exports of manufactured goods to pay for those imports. Now, let's look at the situation from a slightly different perspective. The industrial sectors of Asian economies look much like any diversified manufacturing enterprise.

Similar to our notional enterprise, these nations' factory sectors buy raw materials and energy. They employ people, paying wages in the process and sell a finished product to a customer. Substitute "import" for buy and "export" for sell and it's actually a pretty good analogy. A few differences, instead of profits, these entities collectively produce a surplus for the nation and they are also responsible for feeding and housing their workforce like an old-fashioned company town to the extent that the workforce doesn't grow its own food.So how do current conditions affect our metaphorical manufacturer? Inputs costs are rising fairly fast overall, with oil being a spectacular example though most increases are far more sedate and a fair number of industrial inputs are falling in price. Just as important, labor costs are rising. This is an obvious corollary to rising living standards and wage costs have been rising by double digits across much of Asia for years. At the same time, demand for many of their products has been weakening as their key markets (US, Europe, Japan) drop into a coordinated recession. So raising prices significantly isn't a solution as they would quickly suffer loss of market share. These factory economies are backed into a corner as surely as domestic manufacturers, with rising costs and falling demand. The Asian suppliers have the additional burden of rising labors costs on top of that. They can choose either lower revenues, lower profit margins (surplus) or some of both.

Now let's look at factors that introduce some added complexity to the model. Instead of cutting wages, nations also have the option to devalue their currency. This effectively reduces labor costs though not other inputs if they are imported. Lower "profits" can take the form of actual margin compression at the individual companies or smaller surpluses in the trade account. The factory sectors of Asia have an additional burden of the industrial surplus having to subsidize food imports - which of course are rising in price fairly quickly also.

What we see then are economies that likely will have to accept either smaller surpluses, lower corporate profits, lower wages, weaker currencies or some combination of the above.

Theory meets fact

Normally, high inflation rates tend to be associated with weakness against other currencies. Rapid declines in domestic purchasing power usually are accompanied by lower international purchasing power - again common sense. This is doubly true if the high-inflation economy does not raise interest rates to restrain demand. CPI equivalents have been high and rising across Asia for some time now, yet the currencies - like most others have been gaining vs. the dollar. To make matters worse, real interest rates in those countries are negative as well and have been for some time. Consumer prices are going up faster in most Asian economies than even the worst-case numbers here in the US - for instance John Williams at Shadow Government Statistics.

It has been odd to see such currencies rising against the dollar but there are several factors that have contributed. First was the differential in growth rates. Second was the perception of deep trouble in the US financial system combined with the impression of unstoppable rise for Asia. Third was the systemic imbalance of trade. Well, now we see that the extenuating factors are all at least beginning to falter. Growth rates are falling across Asia and we believe this is only the beginning of a very deep retrenchment there. The perception has shifted and the false impression that Asia would be immune to the problems of the US has been broken. The terms of trade are also starting to shift as fewer goods are sold to the US and other export markets. US trade deficit remains relatively flat with less of a gap with Asia being offset by higher oil prices.

In light of these factors, we are seeing high CPI and deeply negative real interest rates catching up with many Asian nations. Significant, and in some cases quite large currency reversals have taken place. One of the worst is India, where double-digit CPI, twin structural deficits and a severe slowdown are the story. With CPI pushing 12% and policy rates between 6.0% and 8.5% it's no wonder the Rupee recently reversed - down over 10% vs the dollar this year. Similar situations are brewing in Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and China, not to mention Vietnam. With the exception of still-hyped China, these currencies have lost 5-14% against the dollar from their recent highs. It's taken a while but normal economic relationships seem to be asserting themselves.

As we mentioned above, these economies are in the midst of a squeeze that will push down revenues and profits as well as the currency. Despite significant drops in many regional exchanges, fundamental deterioration can drive this process much further. The potential for a currency kicker on the downside simply makes these markets even more attractive as shorts. Loss of confidence could inspire capital flight, which would devastate both the local stock markets and the currencies. Again, with the exception of China, these nations probably won't have to worry about their currencies being too strong for much longer.

The stock markets and currencies of Asia's industrializing nations are screaming but few people seem to be listening. They were key beneficiaries of the UDB and it's demise will hurt them in direct as well as indirect ways. But that is a subject for another post.

Tea Leaves
So, why does the dollar index still look so weak? The index really isn't a good indicator of the strength of the dollar against the world since it is a trade-weighted index. Note that the Euro accounts for 57.6% of the weight, with both the Pound and the Yen also in double digits. The policies of the Fed have done nothing to help the dollar but at this point, the weakness is just as much a tribute to the ambitions of the EU and Germany's near-pathological fear of inflation as they are the result of incompetence at the Fed (though there is plenty of that). I have almost nothing good to say about the Federal Reserve but they only deserve half of the credit for the decline of the dollar index.