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.
Even as the primary housing market was slowly circling the drain, the one silver lining was that the US rental market, largely dominated by several Wall Street investment firms, most notably Blackstone, was doing relatively well. It was doing so well that equity sponsors such as Blue Mountain couldn't wait to offload their prized REIT property to the public, culminating with last August's IPO of American Homes 4 Rent, the second-largest US homes-for-rent operator after Blackstone. And since the stock price of all these corporations was performing admirably or at all time highs, supported by the record fungible liquidity sloshing among the world's interconnected markets, nobody was very concerned.
It is time to get concerned.
Not a word about soaring prices and higher rates that have pushed median-priced homes beyond the reach of hardworking Americans
It’s the same old story being told in the London housing market and it’s like a re-run of a boring series or some B movie starring George Osborne, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister David Cameron.
While there are many hopes pinned on the housing recovery as a "driver" of economic growth in 2014, the data suggests otherwise. The optimism over the housing recovery has gotten well ahead of the underlying fundamentals. While the belief is that the current push in housing is a side-effect of a recovering economy, the reality may be a function of the speculative rush into buying rental properties for cash which created a temporary, and artificial, inventory suppression. The real driver of an economic recovery is full time employment that leads to rising wages and savings. Unfortunately, this is something that eludes the current Administration that is focused on creating new regulations on the average of every 8 minutes, raising the cost of healthcare and increasing taxes. Call us crazy, but maybe its time to try something different.
Since 1998, the markets have been in serial bubbles and busts, each one bigger than the last. A long-term chart of the S&P 500 shows us just how obvious this is (and yet the Fed argues it cannot see bubbles in advance?).
Today’s economic model was best summed up by dictator Benito Mussolini in one short sentence: “Fascism … is the perfect merger of power between the corporations and the state”. But tyranny also has its life-cycle within the balance between the past and the future. Once the past becomes far too much of a millstone for the future generations to carry any longer, governments fall and debt and servitude recede. Empires can fall largely without violence and allow a new, freer system to emerge, as most of the satellite states of the Soviet Union achieved. Or the legacy of fallen empire becomes violent chaos followed by renewed oppression, like the French Revolution. This bottom-up style revolution is happening to nations across our 21st Century. The future lies in the balance. The bell tolls for all Western nations, too. So, in the United States, it seems, liberty will have its chance again before too long.
When it comes to complex systems and unintended consequences, the key phrase is "be careful what you wish for." A lot of people are remarkably certain that their understanding of how systems will respond in the future is correct. Alan Greenspan was certain there was no housing bubble in 2007, for example (or he did a great job acting certain). Some are certain the U.S. stock market is going to crash this year, while others are equally certain that stocks will continue lofting higher on central bank tailwinds. Being wrong about the way systems responded in the past doesn't seem to deter people from being certain about the future. Complex systems don't act in the linear way our minds tend to work.
We all knew that cultures were different and that we all had a unique way of doing things that run our daily lives. In Europe they tell the banks that they will die if they are weak (apparently, after the statement issued by Danièle Nouy, overseer of the Singe Supervisory Mechanism).
The Canadian economy is rolling over and their recent jobs situation is worse than the US (and it's always cold weather-y up there?!) but the last great pillar of the 'recovery' in Canada is perhaps about to get crushed. As the WSJ noted recently, Canada's housing market is the most expensive in the world (60% over-valued by historical standards) and one simple reason explains it - Canada has been very open to foreign investors, which means that in an age of unprecedented global liquidity cash-rich wealthy individuals who are looking for places to park their excess funds can do so in its housing market. Until now... As SCMP reports, Canada’s government has announced that it is scrapping its controversial investor visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986. Soft landing?
No-one knows for sure how big a problem China's economy will eventually face due to the massive credit and money supply growth that has occurred in recent years and no-one know when exactly it will happen either. There have been many dire predictions over the years, but so far none have come true. And yet, it is clear that there is a looming problem of considerable magnitude that won't simply go away painlessly. The greatest credit excesses have been built up after 2008, which suggests that there can be no comfort in the knowledge that 'nothing has happened yet'. Given China's importance to the global economy, it seems impossible for this not to have grave consequences for the rest of the world, in spite of China's peculiar attributes in terms of government control over the economy and the closed capital account.
The point isn't that "the Fed can't do that;" the point is that the Fed cannot create a bid in bidless markets that lasts beyond its own buying. The Fed can buy half the U.S. stock market, all the student loans, all the subprime auto loans, all the defaulted CRE and residential mortgages, and every other worthless asset in America. But that won't create a real bid for any of those assets, once they are revealed as worthless. The nuclear option won't fix anything, because it is fundamentally the wrong tool for the wrong job. Holders of disintegrating assets will be delighted to sell the assets to the Fed, of course, but that won't fix what's fundamentally broken in the American and global economies; it will simply allow the transfer of impaired assets from the financial sector and speculators to the Fed.
Because the ultimate outcome of this monetary cycle hinges on how, when, or if the Fed can unwind its unwieldy balance sheet, without further damage to the economy; most likely continuing stagnation or a return to stagflation, or less likely, but possible hyper-inflation or even a deflationary depression, the Bernanke legacy will ultimately depend on a Bernanke-Yellen legacy. But what should be the main lesson of a Greenspan-Bernanke legacy? Clearly, if there was no pre-crisis credit boom, there would have been no large financial crisis and thus no need for Bernanke or other human to have done better during and after. While Austrian analysis has often been criticized, incorrectly, for not having policy recommendations on what to do during the crisis and recovery, it should be noted that if Austrian recommendations for eliminating central banks and allowing banking freedom had been followed, no such devastating crisis would have occurred and no heroic policy response would have been necessary in the resulting free and prosperous commonwealth.
Reality will reassert itself in 2014, with lemmings, flippers, and hedgies getting slaughtered as the housing market comes back to earth with a thud. The continued tapering by the Fed will remove the marginal dollars used by Wall Street to fund this housing Ponzi. The Wall Street lemmings all follow the same MBA created financial models. They will all attempt to exit the market simultaneously when their models all say sell. If the economy improves, interest rates will rise and kill the housing market. If the economy tanks, the stock market will plunge, creating fear and killing the housing market. Once it becomes clear that prices have begun to fall, the flippers will panic and start dumping, exacerbating the price declines. This scenario never grows old.