While Emerging Market debt has recovered somewhat from the January turmoil, EM FX remains under significant pressure, and as Michael Pettis notes in a recent note, any rebound will face the same ugly arithmetic. Ordinary households in too many countries have seen their share of total GDP plunge. Until it rebounds, the global imbalances will only remain in place, and without a global New Deal, the only alternative to weak demand will be soaring debt. Add to this continued political uncertainty, not just in the developing world but also in peripheral Europe, and it is clear that we should expect developing country woes only to get worse over the next two to three years.
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.
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.
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.
With manufacturing and non-manufacturing PMIs disappointing, and the nation's banking system still stuck in the thralls of a liquidity crisis (each time the PBOC removes the punchbowl), Michael Pettis' warnings are becoming increasingly likely (even though consensus remains that China will save the world somehow - as it transitions 'smoothly' to a consumer-based economy). Ironically, he notes, GDP growth rates of 7% or more, on the other hand, will suggest that credit is still rising too quickly and that China has otherwise been unable to implement the reforms, in which case China is likely to reach debt capacity constraints more quickly. Growth of 7% for the next few years, in other words, is almost prima facie evidence that China is not adjusting.
"Just be long. Pretty much anything. So here’s how I understand things now that I am no longer the last bear standing. You should buy equities if you believe many European banks and their sovereign paymasters are insolvent. You should buy shares if you put a higher probability than your peers on the odds of a European democracy rejecting the euro over the course of the next few years. You should be long risk assets if you believe China will have lowered its growth rate from 7% to nearer 5% over the course of the next two years. You should be long US equities if you are worried about the failure of Washington to address its fiscal deficits. And you should buy Japanese assets if you fear that Abenomics will fail to restore the fortunes of Japan (which it probably won’t). Hey this is easy… And then it crashed"
- Hugh Hendry
"Debt matters... even if it is possible to pretend for many years that it doesn't," is the painful truth that, author of "Avoiding The Fall", Michael Pettis offers for the current state of most western economies. Specifically, Pettis points out that Japan never really wrote down all or even most of its investment misallocation of the 1980s and simply rolled it forward in the form of rising government debt. For a long time it was able to service this growing debt burden by keeping interest rates very low as a response to very slow growth and by effectively capitalizing interest payments, but, as Kyle Bass has previously warned, if Abenomics is 'successful', ironically, it will no longer be able to play this game. Unless Japan moves quickly to pay down debt, perhaps by privatizing government assets, Abenomics, in that case, will be derailed by its own success.
Earlier in the year we unveiled the most 'epic' Chinese over-capacity bubble chart. Of course, China bulls shrugged at such inconvenience as demand and supply imbalance (even as Michael Pettis destroyed many of their hopes and dreams as all that debt - to over-build and over-supply - has to be repaid). Fast forward to today, on the eve of the nation's Third Plenum, and Chinese leaders are facing the music. As AP reports, leaders have ordered local officials to stop expanding industries such as steel and cement in which supply outstrips demand. The call, via video conference, saw planning officials warn local leaders to stop ignoring orders to reduce overcapacity in industries including steel, cement, aluminum and glass, "Those who still violate discipline will be heavily punished." One chief engineer exclaimed, "the scale of overcapacity is unprecedented."
The last two weeks have seen US equity markets on a one-way path to the moon, breaking multi-year records in terms of rate of change and soaring to new all-time highs. However, away from the mainstream media's glare, another 'market' has been soaring - but this time it is not good news. Chinese overnight repo rates - the harbinger of ultimate liquidity crisis - have exploded from 6-month lows (at 2.5%) to 4-month highs (6.7% today). The PBOC even added liquidity for the first time in months yesterday (via Reverse Repo - at much higher than normal rates) but clearly, that was not enough and the banks are running scared once again that the re-ignition of the housing bubble in China will mean more than 'selective' liquidity restrictions.
Debt always matters because it must always be paid for by someone - even if the borrower defaults, of course, the debt is simply “paid” by the lender. As China Financial Markets' Michael Pettis notes, this is why the fact that debt in China seems to be growing much faster than debt-servicing capacity implies slower growth in the future. The author of "Avoiding The Fall", explains that if the debt cannot be fully serviced by the increase in productivity created by the investment that the debt funded, unless it is funded by liquidating state sector assets it must cause a reduction in demand elsewhere, most probably in household consumption. Therefore, in spite of all the hope among global stock-buying hope-mongers, this reduction in demand implies slower growth in the future and, of course, a more difficult rebalancing process.
Why China DOESN'T WANT the Yuan to Become the Reserve Currency
The latest default bull argument supporting higher levels of growth in China than I believe possible is the urbanization argument. Beijing is planning another major urbanization push, and according to this argument China can resolve the problem of wasted investment by investing in the urbanization process, that is it can engage in a massive investment program related to the need to build infrastructure for all the newly urbanized. Like so many of the earlier bull arguments, however, this new belief that urbanization is the answer to China’s growth slowdown is based on at least one fallacy and probably more - urbanization accommodates, it doesn‘t cause, growth. It is not the act of building all this stuff that creates wealth or real, long-term growth. It is only if building the stuff caused overall productivity to rise by more than the cost of capital and labor employed in building it that a society gets richer.
For many years before 2007-9 a few analysts have warned that rising consumer credit in the US and peripheral Europe was unsustainable. They warned that rising debt to support misallocated investment in China was also unsustainable. They warned that soaring US mortgages backed by little more than the hope that land prices could only rise would lead to a real estate crisis. They warned that commodity-exporting countries that did not hedge their bets would find themselves in serious trouble when commodity prices collapsed. Of course you could not have had a bubble unless the majority of analysts disagreed with these warnings, and most analysts did indeed disagree. So what happened when the warnings turned out to be right? The former bulls immediately trotted out the stopped-clock analogy. The reason the worriers turned out to be right, they earnestly explained, is that they are perma-bears, and as everyone knows a stopped clock will always be right twice a day... As China’s growth continues to slow and as its debt problems become obvious to even the most bullish, the stopped clock analogy is working overtime.