Monday, November 3, 2008

Submerging Market Update

note: This post was begun some time ago and the date-time stamp reflects the initial draft. The bulk of the data has been added since then.

China: The Collapse Begins
Chinese exports are collapsing and industrial activity with it.
Recent reports suggest that they are experiencing mass factory shutdowns with owners and manager absconding. According to the BBC, migrant workers from rural areas are returning to their homes in the countryside en masse. Those watching the media would think that an shocking collapse came out of nowhere in the last few weeks. Readers of Financial Jenga have known that this was not just possible but virtually inevitable for many months.

China could spend some of their dollars but they need to keep at least $1 trillion so the Yuan doesn't completely crash and burn. The interesting problem is the currency mismatch and "sterilization" issues. China's money supply growth is going to fall quickly as there will be fewer incoming dollars against which to issue new Yuan. Yes they will also be exporting fewer dollars to pay for raw materials but that doesn't matter to the unemployed citizens.

The mismatch issue is more critical. Everybody likes to talk about China's currency reserves. The problem is they've already been used up. Yes, they still have the dollars at the central bank but they've already issued Yuan against them as part of their "sterilization" operations. I.e. they cannot use the reserves to "stimulate" the domestic economy. They can SPEND them abroad, which will enable China to consume but will add production elsewhere, doing nothing for the production side of the Chinese economy. The mismatch problem is that they need more Yuan but what they have are Dollars. Much of the existing base of Yuan supply only exists because of the Dollar reserves. If they spend down the reserves, they either have to reduce their domestic money supply or simply print more money to make up the difference.

People like to point to China's dollar reserves but they've already had as much stimulative impact on China's economy as they ever will. Note that the Yuan is NOT a convertible currency. There is no large pool of Yuan outside of China that could be exchanged for dollars and spent in the domestic economy. Nor can they be lent out with the understanding that the loan be spent on Chinese goods (vendor financing). They have already done that indirectly by purchasing Treasury and Agency debt. Those looking for such an impact don't understand the structure of China's financial system.

Latin Cognates
Despite a vicious snapback, the trend is quite clearly down. Likely driven in part by the Fed's dollar swaps, these markets found support last week but it looks like a dead cat bounce. During that week a rally in their sovereign bonds of 200 basis points +/- 10 bp, left Mexico and Brazil debt trading 8.55% and 7.58% respectively. What this tell us is that the threat of immediate default has been averted by Fed imprudence but no one is willing to lend at anything less than a huge multiple of the 100 bp spreads we saw only a year and a half ago.

Latin economies are heavily dependent on natural resource extration. Thus they have had and continue to have a symbiotic relationship with the resource-eating black hole known as China. With consumption slowing worldwide and the initial feedback effects on the exporting countries, we are starting to see resource demand falling but the excess capacity created is collapsing commodity prices. The storm of demand destruction is roaring up the supply chain and spawning tornados that tear through individual sectors. The latest example comes from Brazil, where giant mining conglomerate Vale do Rio Doce is desperately cutting spending. The
big news is the cancellation of 12 giant ore carriers - which would have been built in new Chinese shipyards. At the same time, they are cutting ore production as demand falls.

An intersting question is how much demand for their own ore Vale just destroyed by cancelling the ship order. This is a vicious circle as the feedback loop in the symbiotic relationship turns negative. Rising expectations and optimism feed off themselves - until they don't anymore. Then ugliness always ensues. In this case the fall will be long and ugly - like that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. We have dubbed it the Universal Debt bubble as virtually every country and every industry was caught up in it. Countries like Brazil and China were some of the biggest beneficiaries of the UDB, yet those who advocated the Decoupling Theory essentially argued that the biggest beneficiaries of a trend would be hurt little if at all when it ended. The silliness of THAT position is now manifest for all to see.

Containment Breach
We've heard many times how the crisis would be "contained" to a specific industry or geographic region. The authorities making these countless claims were either lying, incompetent or both. We see now that it is and was global and across the board - thus UDB is very accurate. While we expect exporters and raw materials producers to suffer worse than most, the damage goes on elsewhere. German factory orders fell 8%. US durable goods spending fell 14.1% in the
3Q GDP report. Japanese auto sales have hit levels not seen since the 1970s, while US sales are Back to the Future of the 1980s. This is global and ugly friends. Please protect yourselves.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Some Key Questions

The most important question facing us today, both in the US and around the world is just how much of our supposed wealth is real and how much was part of the illusion generated by bubble-mania and the UDB. Most of the actions of various governments and CBs seem aimed at preventing us from answering this question accurately. In The Limits of Optimism we outlined the various elements of the capital structure and it should be immediately apparent why the stock market is the chosen instrument for conjuring chimeras. By coercing a larger and larger percentage of accumulated capital into stocks, Wall Street ensured a large pool of buyers to continue pushing prices higher in complete defiance of fundamentals. By allowing so much of our wealth accumulation to be attached to something so insubstantial, we have collectively ensured the destruction of much of that wealth. Something that falls as soon as anyone wants to sell isn't much of an investment.

Now we see some of the real world impacts of aggressively tying ourselves to the stock market. Once again, the secondary feedback effects may be greater than the primary impact. According to the

At the end of 2007, companies in the S&P 500 had a combined pension-plan surplus of about $60 billion, The market selloff in the nine months to late September turned that into a combined deficit of about $75 billion...

Of course that was before October even started and we all know that things didn't go so well during that month either. Double digit declines were the rule for the month - pretty much across the board. The pension obligation and attempt to meet it by speculating in the stock market are yet another example of companies tying their fortunes directly to stock market whims rather than fundamental performance. It worked well for a while - allowing them to report higher profits than justified by actual results as speculative profits allowed them to pay less into the pension funds than a sensible and stable plan would have required. The reverse is now occurring and it's going to be nasty. This is yet ANOTHER headwind for corporate profits as they are forced to pay cash in to make up for speculative losses.

The lesson that should be learned here is "don't gamble with retirement money" but I fear few will choose to learn it until all other avenues have been exhausted. People can usually be counted on to do the right thing after all else fails.

Confirmed Reservations

Occasionally, I will encounter a supercilious restaurant host who will haughtily ask if we have reservations. When the right mood strikes the answer will sometimes be "yes, but we're planning on eating here anyway." In much the same vein, our prior reservations about the export economies and China in particular have been confirmed with a vengeance recently. Reuters reports that China's PMI hit 44.6 in October - indicating clear and serious contraction in factory output. This now makes three of the last four months down. In addition, recent BBC reports suggest that half of the toy factories in China have shut down since the start of the year.

Keep in mind that we expect a crash and burn in China's economy even if exports stagnate, much less roll over. Government action can partially ameliorate this but only to a small extent. We laid out the full case four months ago in China Syndrome. All of the elements preliminary requirements have now been met for this scenario to play out. The US is desperately trying to prevent a meltdown across the submerging markets with swap lines to exchange valuable dollars for garbage currencies like the Mexican Peso and the Brazilian Real. The temporary availability of dollars in those imploding economies has relieved the pressure from capital flight for the moment and perhaps even caused a small short squeeze for those who were looking for reality to catch up to those nations' financial system. But the banking systems overseas cannot sustain their credit expansion in the face of falling external demand and especially the collapse of primary commodity prices on which their economies rely heavily.