Earlier this month, Kyle Bass asked a funny question in a discussion with CNBC’s David Faber. To wit: “If some fund manager in Texas is saying that your currency is dramatically overvalued, you shouldn’t care on a $10 trillion economy with $34 trillion in your banks. I have, call it a billion - it’s so small it should be irrelevant and yet somehow it’s really relevant.”
Bass was referring to China’s penchant for firing off hilariously absurd “Op-Eds” in response to anyone who suggests that the country may indeed be experiencing the dreaded “hard landing” or that a much larger yuan devaluation is a virtual certainty. The People’s Daily literally laughed at George Soros when the aging billionaire said he was short Asian currencies in Davos. “Declaring war on China’s currency? Ha ha,” PD wrote. Chinese media also called Soros a “crocodile,” a “predator,” and said his yuan gambit “cannot possibly succeed.”
That’s what Bass means when he says the Chinese seem to be quite ornery for a country that claims to be unabashedly confident about the prospects for their economy. Bass, like Soros, is betting on a steep devaluation of the yuan. In fact, he thinks a one-way bet on RMB weakness is "the greatest investment opportunity right now." The thesis is simple. Here’s some of our commentary from last week followed by key excerpts from the CNBC interview which should serve as a nice recap of why Bass thinks the yuan is set to fall by 30-40%:
China’s banking system, Bass told CNBC, is a $34 trillion ticking time bomb, and when it explodes, Beijing will need to plug the holes. $3.3 trillion in FX reserves will be woefully inadequate, he contends.
“Very few people have looked at what the cause of the problem is,” Bass begins. “They’ve let their banking system grow 1000% in 10 years. It’s now $34.5 trillion.”
Bass then goes on to note that special mention loans (which we’ve discussed on any number of occasions) are around 3% of total assets. “If they lose 3%, that’s a trillion dollars,” Bass exclaims. Ultimately, Bass's argument is that when China is forced to rescue the banking system by expanding the PBoC's balance sheet, the yuan will for all intents and purposes collapse. This is of course exacerbated by persistent capital flight.
Below, find some other soundbites from the interview. Notably, towards the end, Bass says that if China is right and speculation around a much larger devaluation is indeed unfounded, then it’s curious why China seems to care so much about what “one fund manager in Texas thinks.”
From Kyle Bass:
“The IMF says they need $2.7 trillion in FX reserves to operate the economy. They’ll hit that number in the next five months. Those who think they can burn it to zero and they have a few years ahead of them, they really only have a few months ahead of them.”
“When they lose money in their banks they’re going to have to recap their banks. They’ll have to expand the PBoC balance sheet by trillions and trillions of dollars.”
“No one’s focused on the banking system. Focus will swing to it this year.”
“A Chinese devaluation of 10% is a pipe dream. It will be 30-40% by the end.”
“If some fund manager in Texas is saying that your currency is dramatically overvalued, you shouldn’t care on a $10 trillion economy with $34 trillion in your banks. I have, call it a billion - it’s so small it should be irrelevant and yet somehow it’s really relevant.”
“If 4% of the population takes out their $50,000 quota, the FX reserves are gone. We lose ourselves in the numbers. $3.3 trillion is a big number, but the reserves to bank assets number is one of the worst in the world.”
On Wednesday, Hayman is out with a 12-page letter to investors in which Bass explains why he's making such an outsized bet against China. Most of what Bass says has been covered in these pages extensively for years.
Put simply: China has an enormous debt problem and the rapidly decelerating economy means that the country's banks will only be able to paper over the soaring NPLs for so long. If Beijing wants to eliminate the acute overcapacity problem that's contributed mightily to the global deflationary supply glut, it will mean allowing the market to purge misallocated capital. And that means bankruptcies and a wave of defaults. "The unwavering faith that the Chinese will somehow be able to successfully avoid anything more severe than a moderate economic slowdown by continuing to rely on the perpetual expansion of credit reminds us of the belief in 2006 that US home prices would never decline," Bass begins.
"Banking system losses - which could exceed 400% of the US banking losses incurred during the subprime crisis - are starting to accelerate," Bass adds. "Our research suggests that China does not have the financial arsenal to continue on without restructuring many of its banks and undergoing a large devaluation of its currency."
He goes on to recap the entire thesis, including the idea that WMPs are a big, big problem (something we've said on dozens of occasions including here when we called WMPs an "8 trillion black swan") and you can read the full letter below, but excerpted is the "what happens next" portion, in which Bass explains how things are likely to play out in the not-so-distant future for the engine of global growth and trade.
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From Hayman Capital
What Happens Next? – Fasten Your Seatbelts
The troubles in China are much larger than market participants believe. Everyone (including Chinese citizens) knows something is wrong, but few, if any, can put their finger on exactly what it is. The narrative to date has been focused on the symptoms of the problem (i.e. capital outflows and low commodity prices) as opposed to the problem itself. We believe the epicenter of the problem is the Chinese banking system and its coming losses. Once analysts, politicians, and investors alike realize the sheer size of the impending losses and how they compare to the current levels of reserves, all focus will swing to the banking system.
As it is obvious that China’s economy is slowing and loan losses are mounting, the primary question is what are China’s policy options to fix the current situation? We believe that a spike in unemployment, accelerated banking losses / a credit contraction, an old-fashioned bank run, or more likely the fear of one or all of these events, will force Chinese authorities to act decisively. The policy options that China has then are limited to:
1. Cut interest rates to zero and let the banks “extend and pretend” bad loans – lower interest rates will force more capital abroad putting downward pressure on reserves and the currency.
2. Use reserves to recapitalize its banks – this will reset the banking sector, but wipe out the limited reserve cushion that China has built up, and put downward pressure on the currency.
3. Print money to recapitalize its banks – this will reset the banking sector, but the expansion of the PBOC’s balance sheet will lead to downward pressure of the exchange rate.
4. Fiscal stimulus to revive the economy – this will help some chosen sectors of the real economy, but at the expense of higher domestic interest rates (if not done in conjunction with Chinese QE). The 2009 fiscal stimulus was primarily executed through the banking sector so a similar program would require a properly capitalized banking sector. Also, any increase in Chinese investment would reduce China’s trade surplus and ultimately pressure the currency.
The playbook from policy makers to deal with China’s challenges will likely combine several of the above measures, but ultimately a large devaluation will be a centerpiece of the response. This will allow the Chinese economy to regain the competitiveness it has lost over the past few years.
Chinese officials will realize that a meaningful devaluation is exactly what China needs to help rectify the imbalances that have built over time. Look to Japan, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and Europe as examples of countries (or a monetary union in the case of Europe) that have allowed their currencies to depreciate in order to correct the imbalances in their economies. This begs the question of whether governments are going to engage in a full-on currency war. In our view, this has already begun. One only has to look at what BOJ Governor Kuroda said to the Chinese during a panel at Davos last month. He told them to impose stricter capital controls to stem the flow of hot money out of China and to stabilize their currency. Just one week later, he moved the BOJ to negative rates and devalued the yen 2% versus the renminbi overnight. There is one thing central bankers loathe, and it happens to be free advice.
Once China realizes that it must save its banks (China only has a newly established deposit insurance system with limited coverage and little pre-funding, which could make bank runs very problematic), it will do so. The Chinese government has the capacity and the willingness to do what it needs to do to prevent a banking system collapse. China will save its banks, and the renminbi will be the valve for normalization. It is what any and every government would do if put into a similar situation.China should stop listening to Kuroda, Lagarde, Stiglitz, and Lew and start thinking about how to save itself from the impending disaster in its banking system.
Remember, Bernanke had the subprime crisis wrong when he said it was “contained,” Lagarde and Sarkozy had it completely wrong when they said speculators were the cause of Greece’s problems, and now they all have it wrong when they say China’s problems are due to a simple “communication problem” regarding its FX policy. The problems China faces have no precedent. They are so large that it will take every ounce of commitment by the Chinese government to rectify the imbalances. Risk assets will not be the place to be while all of this is happening.
Once we drew this conclusion in the middle of last year, we decided to liquidate the majority of our risk assets and position ourselves for the various events that are likely to transpire along this long road to a Chinese credit and currency reset. The next 18 months will be fraught with false-starts, risk rallies, and second-guessing. Until China experiences a significant devaluation, it will not be able to cope with the build-up of credit that has helped fuel its rise, but may, in the short-term, be its undoing.