"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.
"It is not true that those who worried about the rise of consumer credit in the US in the mid 2000s were “wrong” until the stopped clock eventually was right," this strikes me as an incredibly superficial analysis, explained only by the fact that many of us expect economic analysis merely to predict whether the stock market will rise or fall this week. Those who worried about rising consumer credit in the US were not wrong every single year until 2007-8, when they accidentally became right. They were right every single year, and were proven right in 2007. Those who have been arguing that China is experiencing an unsustainable increase in debt have not been wrong every quarter that China has not collapsed. They are almost certainly right and it is hard even for the most foolish of bulls any longer to deny it."
Last week's liquidity crunch and market panic is a reminder that Beijing is playing a difficult game. Regardless of what happens next, the consensus expectations that China's economy will grow at roughly 7 percent over the next few years can be safely ignored. Growth driven by consumption, instead of trade and investment, is alone sufficient to grow China's GDP by 3 to 4 percent annually. But it is not clear that consumption can be sustained if investment growth levels are sharply reduced. If Beijing can successfully manage the employment consequences of decreased investment growth, perhaps it can keep consumption growing at current levels. But that's a tricky proposition. It's likely that the days of the super-powered Chinese economy are over. Instead, Beijing must content itself with grinding its way through the debt that has accumulated over the past decade.
In the aftermath of the record cash crunch in the Chinese interbank market, many financial institutions in China and abroad have been hoping that the PBOC would either end its stance of aloof detachment or at least break its vow of silence and if not act then at a minimum promise good times ahead. Alas, despite repeated confusion in various press reports that it has done that, it hasn't aside from the occasional "behind the scenes" bank bailout. And at today's Lujiazui Financial Forum, PBOC governor Zhou Xiaochuan kept the status quo saying the central bank will adjust liquidity "at the proper time to ensure market stability." That time, however, is not now.
With last night's China PMI disappointing expectations and eking out a just-expansionary miasma of hope for the growth enthusiasts, the very real question of global growth sustainability (while not on US equity market participants' minds) is coming to the fore. As Michael Pettis notes, Martin Wolf's recent perspective that it may be useful to think about Japan as a model for understanding the adjustment process in China since the Japanese model shows how risky it is to shift to a slow-growth model. While expectations for a 'relatively moderate' slowdown are common (at rates considered rapid for most economies); Pettis asks rhetorically, if part of the explanation for China’s spectacular growth of the past three decades has to do with the positive feedback loops that are so typical of developing countries with fragile and unsophisticated financial systems, then a moderate slowdown in growth may be an impossible target to achieve. Once growth starts to slow, the self-reinforcing impact on urbanization, on credit growth, on financial distress, and on expectations may force growth rates to drop far more sharply than any 'plausible' analysis would suggest.
Despite the many differences between China and the U.S., their basic problems are remarkably similiar: an economy that increasingly serves a tiny Elite, and a political/financial system that is incapable of meaningful reform. Setting aside the latest bird flu outbreak and sagging indicators of growth, China 2.0 is in trouble (with 1.0 being the Communist era of 1949 -1977 and 2.0 being the modernization/globalization era of 1978 - 2013), for it remains overly reliant on unsustainable growth dynamics. Add it all up and you get a clear picture of a government and economy that is incapable of making the kind of structural reforms that are needed to make growth sustainable.
Up until just a week or so ago, the euro, the market seems to be telling us, has been saved, and peripheral Europe is widely seen as being out of the woods. Thanks to the ECB - who are willing to pump as much liquidity into the markets as it needs - it seems rising debt levels, greater political fragmentation, and a worsening economy somehow don't really matter and it is impolitic to sound pessimistic. But is peripheral Europe really suffering primarily from a liquidity crisis? It would help me feel a lot better if I could find even one case in history of a sovereign solvency crisis in which the authorities didn’t assure us for years that we were facing not a solvency crisis, but merely a short-term problem with liquidity. A sovereign solvency crisis always begins with many years of assurances from policymakers in both the creditor and the debtor nations that the problem can be resolved with time, confidence, and a just few more debt rollovers. The key point is that bankers are not stupid. They just could not formally acknowledge reality until they had built up sufficient capital through many years of high earnings – thanks in no small part to the help provided by the Fed in the form of distorted yield curves and free money – to recognize the losses without becoming insolvent.
The great trade, capital flow and debt imbalances that were built up over the preceding two decades must reverse themselves. Michael Pettis notes, however, that these imbalances can continue for many years, but at some point they become unsustainable and the world must adjust by reversing those imbalances. One way or the other, in other words, the world will rebalance. But there are worse ways and better ways it can do so. Pettis adds that, any policy that does not clearly result in a reversal of the deep debt, trade and capital imbalances of the past decade is a policy that cannot be sustained. It is likely to be political considerations that determine how quickly the rebalancing processes take place and whether they do so in ways that set the stages for future growth or future stagnation. Pettis' guess is that we have ended the first stage of the global crisis, and most of the deepest problems have been identified. In 2013 we will begin to see how policymakers respond and what the future outlook is likely to be. The following 10 themes are what he will be watching this year in order to figure out where we are likely to end up.