If they’re bailing on the market… what are the odds trouble is approaching?
When civilians launched a suicidal attack on an armed force in Kyiv on February 20, their sense of representing “the nation” far outweighed their concern with their individual mortality. The result was to swing a deeply divided society from the verge of civil war to an unprecedented sense of unity. Whether that unity endures will depend on how Europe responds. We hope and trust that Europe under German leadership will rise to the occasion. We must, however, end with a word of caution. A replay of the Cold War would cause immense damage to both Russia and Europe, and most of all to Ukraine, which is situated between them.
"There is a big flight to quality," warns one trader as the spread between interest rate swaps (implicitly bank risk) and government bonds soared to a record high. This "crisis gauge" flashing red is also followed by 3 month SHIBOR (short-dated interbank lending rates) surging to an 8-month high. China's CDS have jumped 30bps since the Fed taper and as Bloomberg reports that billionaire investors like George Soros and Bill Gross have drawn uncomfortable parallels between the situation in China now and the US before 2008 (when this crisis gauge was key in spotting the carnage to come). Simply put, the banks don't trust each other...
Asian equities are trading lower across the board on the back of some negative credit stories from China. Shanghai Securities News noted that ICBC and some other banks have curbed loans to developers in sectors such as steel and cement. Slower gains in home property prices in China’s tier 1 cities are also not helping sentiment. Beijing and Shenzhen prices rose 0.4% in January, which looks to be the slowest monthly gain since October 2012 according to Bloomberg. Elsewhere there are reports that a property developer in Hangzhou (Tier 2 city in China) is reducing its unit prices by 19%. Our property analysts noted that given the strong gains seen in Tier-1 and some bigger Tier-2 cities in 2013, a slowdown or negative trends in price growth should not be a surprise. Nevertheless, it has been a very weak day for Chinese and HK markets with the Shanghai Composite and the Hang Seng indices down -2.0% and -1.2% lower as we type. Across the region, bourses in Japan and Korea are down -1.0% and -0.6%, respectively.
A curious finding emerged in the latest 13F by Soros Fund Management, the family office investment vehicle managing the personal wealth of George Soros. Actually, two curious findings: the first was that the disclosed Assets Under Management as of December 31, 2013 rose to a record $11.8 billion (this excludes netting and margin, and whatever one-time positions Soros may have gotten an SEC exemption to not disclose: for a recent instance of this, see Greenlight Capital's Micron fiasco, and the subsequent lawsuit of Seeking Alpha which led to the breach of David Einhorn's holdings confidentiality). The second one is that the "Soros put", a legacy hedge position that the 83-year old has been rolling over every quarter since 2010, just rose to a record $1.3 billion or the notional equivalent of some 7.09 million SPY-equivalent shares. Since this was an increase of 154% Q/Q this has some people concerned that the author of 'reflexivity' and the founder of "open societies" may be anticipating some major market downside.
China is now the second largest economy in the world and for the last 30 years China's economy has been growing at an astonishing rate, wowing the world, as spending and investment has been undertaken on a scale never seen before in human history - 30 new airports, 26,000 miles of motorways and a new skyscraper every five days have been built in China in the last five years. But as we (and Michael Pettis, George Soros, and Jim Chanos - among many others) have warned, it is all eerily reminiscent of what happened in the West... the vast majority of it has been built on credit. This has now left the Chinese economy with huge debts and questions over whether much of the money can ever be paid back (spoiler alert: it can't and it won't).
While the eyes of the world were focused on the now infamous "Credit Equals Gold #1" Chinese wealth management product - it's imminent default and last-minute bailout by 'investors' unknown - the coal industry in China continued to collapse (as we noted here). We noted at the time how bailing out current high-yield product investors would merely amplify the problems down the line and it seems that Chinese authorities have heard that message. As Reuters reports, a high-yield investment product backed by a loan to a debt-ridden coal company failed to repay investors when it matured last Friday, state media reported on Wednesday.
Size matters, it would seem, in the world of elite hedge fund managers. George Soros' Quantum Fund had its 2nd-best year on record, adding $5.5bn (22%) to the pound-breaking billionaire's horde and has now shifted above Ray Dalio's Bridgewater fund as the most successful hedge fund of all time. As The FT reports, since inception in 1973, Quantum has generated almost $40bn. Four other funds including Tepper's Appaloosa, Mandel's Lone Pine, and Klarman's Baupost also made more than $4 bn for their investors. Since they were set up, the top 20 hedge funds have made 43 per cent of all the money made by investors in more than 7,000 hedge funds.
Last week we were the first to raise the very real and imminent threat of a default for a Chinese wealth management product (WMP) default - specifically China Credit Trust's Credit Equals Gold #1 (CEQ1) - and its potential contagion concerns. It seems BofAML is now beginning to get concerned, noting that over 60% of market participants expects repo rates to rise if a trust product defaults and based on the analysis below, they think there is a high probability for CEQ1 to default on 31 January, i.e. no full redemption of principal and back-coupon on the day. Crucially, with the stratospheric leverage ratios now engaged in such products, BofAML warns trust companies must answer some serious questions: will they stand back behind every trust investment or will they have to default on some or potentially many of them? BofAML believes the question needs an answer because investors and Trusts can’t have their cake and eat it too. The potential first default, even if it’s not CEQ1 on 1/31, would be important based on the experience of what happened to the US and Europe; the market has tended to underestimate the initial event.
While manufacturing and services PMIs disappointed, the big problem in big China remains that of an out-of-control credit creation process that is blowing up. As we previously noted, instead of crushing credit creation, the PBOC's liquidity rationing has forced distressed companies into high-interest-cost products in the shadow-banking world. Investors on the other side of "troubled shadow banking products" had assumed that 'someone' would bail them out but this evening Reuters reports that ICBC has confirmed that it will not rescue holders of the "Credit Equals Gold #1 Collective Trust Product", due to mature Jan 31st with $492 million outstanding. The anxiety from contagion concerns of the first shadow-banking default has pushed the Shanghai Composite back near 2,000 for the first time since July - and to its narrowest spread to the S&P 500 in almost 8 years.
These men are masters of the capital markets. They are voting with their feet and pulling their capital out of them. Given that their personal compensation is closely linked to assets under management and profit sharing, this decision is akin to the choice to forego additional wealth that could be made quite easily (none of these individuals would have trouble raising several billion more in capital) rather than trying to find opportunities in a challenging market.
It's been one of the worst years for gold in a generation. A flood of outflows from gold ETFs, endless tax increases on gold imports in India, and the mirage (albeit a convincing one in the eyes of many) of a supposedly improving economy in the US have all contributed to the constant hammering gold took in 2013. Perhaps worse has been the onslaught of negative press our favorite metal has suffered. It's felt overwhelming at times and has pushed even some die-hard goldbugs to question their beliefs... not a bad thing, by the way. To us, a lot of it felt like piling on, especially as the negative rhetoric ratcheted up. This is why it's important to balance the one-sided message typically heard in the mainstream media with other views. Here are some of those contrarian voices, all of which have put their money where their mouth is...
Chinese borrowers are facing rising pressures for loan repayments in an environment of overcapacity and unprofitable investments. Unable to generate cash to service their loans, they have to turn to the shadow-banking sector for credit and avoid default. The result is an explosive growth of the size of the shadow-banking sector. The PBOC thought it could control this by limiting liquidity but underestimated the effects of its measure. Largely because Chinese borrowers tend to cross-guarantee each other’s debt, squeezing even a relatively small number of borrowers could produce a cascade of default. The reaction in the credit market was thus almost instant and frightening. Borrowers facing imminent default are willing to borrow at any rate while banks with money are unwilling to loan it out no matter how attractive the terms are. Should this situation continue, China’s real economy would suffer a nasty shock.
- 'Life-threatening' cold bites Midwest, heads east (Reuters)
- Gold Analysts Get Most Bullish in a Year After Rout (BBG)
- Asian Stocks Fall Most in Three Weeks on China Services (BBG)
- Angela Merkel in skiing accident, cancels visits (Reuters)
- High-Speed Traders Form Trade Group to Press Case (WSJ)
- Toyota and Honda post record China sales (FT)
- China Shadow Banking Risks Exposed by Local Debt Audit (BBG)
- J.P. Morgan to Pay Over $2 Billion to U.S. in Penalties in Madoff Case (WSJ)
- Corruption trial of Trenton, N.J., mayor starts Monday (Reuters)
- Car Makers at Consumer Electronics Show Tout Ways to Plug Autos Into the Web (WSJ)
2013 Was A Year Of Calm In The World Of Finance ... 2014 May Not Be So Calm ... Highlights Of Year - German Gold Repatriation, Record Highs In Yen, Huge Chinese Demand - Lowlights Of Year - Massive Paper Sell Offs in April/June and First Deposit Confiscation and Capital Controls ...