Sunday, July 26, 2009

Some Weekend Thoughts By John Mauldin

Some interesting stuff in John Mauldin's latest piece. We'll include some pertinent quotes along with our thoughts.

China is growing by about 8% a year, which is amazing on the surface of it, as their exports are down about 20% (more in some sectors). How can that be? I continually read about how China is going to lead the world out of its global funk. And 8% growth in GDP does seem pretty strong. But we need to look a little deeper.

If I told you that the next US stimulus package would be $4.5 trillion dollars, mostly given to banks that would be forced to loan out the money quickly, do you think that might jump spending and GDP in the short term? Would you start looking for a few bubbles to be created? What about the dollar?

That is the equivalent of what China is now doing. The volume of credit that is flowing into China is equivalent to one-third of their GDP. Banks that already have large problem-loan portfolios are now lending even more, in a very short time frame. China has severe capacity-utilization problems, as trade has sharply fallen; and the US consumer is unlikely to return to anywhere near the level of consumption that was the case in 2006.

The Chinese stock market is up 85% this year, and commodity and real estate prices are rising. And no wonder: the money supply shot up 28.5% in June alone. That money is looking for a home. My friend Vitaliy Katsenelson has written a very perceptive essay for Foreign Policy magazine, talking about the nature of the current growth in China.

"But don't confuse fast growth with sustainable growth. Much of China's growth over the past decade has come from lending to the United States. The country suffers from real overcapacity. And now growth comes from borrowing -- and hundreds of billion-dollar decisions made on the fly don't inspire a lot of confidence. For example, a nearly completed, 13-story building in Shanghai collapsed in June due to the poor quality of its construction.

"This growth will result in a huge pile of bad debt -- as forced lending is bad lending. The list of negative consequences is very long, but the bottom line is simple: There is no miracle in the Chinese miracle growth, and China will pay a price. The only question is when and how much."

This is very much in line with our theme of the recent China bubble. John has done a much better job in attaching specific numbers and analogies to the situation but the fundamental picture aligns with many of our posts going back to April. The larger view has not changed and the question becomes if China can complete this transition before the legs give out. The US can not be expected to provide the bubble year levels of aggregate demand that has created and supported the existing Chinese manufacturing and employment infrastructure.

I am going to quote at some length from Simon Hunt's latest note. He travels very frequently to China and is one of the world's true experts on the copper market. If you want to know something about copper, ask Simon. Copper, we are told, is the metal with a PhD in economics. If copper prices are rising, then the economy is booming. And historically, that has more or less been the case. But there may be reason to believe that PhD may be no more useful this time around than a regular Ivy League degree.

"There is no better example of this speculative activity than what is being seen in the copper market. It is easy for global merchants, hedge funds etc to ship cathode into China and warehouse it outside the reporting system, so fuelling investors' sentiments that copper demand in China is soaring and at the same time draining copper from the rest of the market.

"It is not so much industry which is doing this buying in China, but individuals, financial institutions and even small companies divorced from the copper industry who are buying and holding the metal because copper is a store of value and prices will go up is the common response. We updated our numbers for the first half of this year. They are truly staggering. Over 1 million tonnes of cathode is sitting in China mostly outside the reporting system as a punt on rising prices." (Emphasis mine)

If it is happening in copper it is likely to be happening in other commodity markets as well. If you are trading the metals, you should be aware that a quick drop could happen if demand falls off due to there being a glut of supply coming back onto the market.

This is another long-term theme that we have been exploring. Again, John does a much better job of providing specifics to back up our original assertions. We don't know who Simon Hunt is but if John asserts that he is a "true expert", we'll take his word for it. This piece we put up covers most of our thoughts on the subject, so we won't rehash but it is an ongoing story with the potential to have some serious impacts across global markets.

This is a very big deal, and from the Chinese point of view, quite smart. Right now they are stuck with $2 trillion in US Treasuries, agency paper, etc. They can't sell their dollars without really hurting the dollar, thereby forcing the renminbi to rise and hurting their own exports. But they, and much of the world, feel that the US is pursuing policies that are going to be harmful to the value of the dollar and therefore to China's largest reserve exposure.

What to do? Take those dollars and buy physical assets. Companies, natural resources, maybe a few small countries. (To my Chinese readers: that's a joke, although some in the West worry about that.)

In the card game called Old Maid we played as kids, the loser was the one who ended up with the "Old Maid" at the end of the game. For the past decade, the Chinese sent us "stuff" and we sent them dollars in the form of electrons. They in turn invested those dollars in our debt so we could buy more stuff. It was a form of vendor financing.

And now the Chinese have apparently decided to pass the Old Maid of the dollar on to other parties, who will sell them their assets for dollars. Seriously, did anyone not think they would do this? Massively selling the dollar, which so many conspiracy-theory types keep saying they will, was never really a rational option. But using those dollars to acquire productive assets? Very smart, very rational. If you figure out what they want to buy and get there first, there are profits to be had. Attention should be paid.

This is an interesting point. Many have picked up on this point previously but most have assumed those asset flows are going to be into commodities. We disagree mostly because of the numbers involved ($2.2T is a hell of a lot of commodities) but John explicitly defines the agenda of overseas acquisition, including commodities, equities and any other real assets China can get its hands on. On a quick tangent, the implications for inflation-protected or -hedged assets are huge. Specific equity sectors are likely to see flows go through the roof - we'll leave it to our readers to discuss in the comments.

Notice in the chart below that unemployment continued to rise until the first quarter of 2003. And that is also when the stock market took off. Those who see green shoots need to think about that. Meanwhile, the market is clearly telling us that it sees nothing but blue skies in the future. I truly marvel at this rally, but I continue to think it is a bear-market rally. The weakest, high-beta names are rallying the most. This rally does not seem to be the basis for a sustained bull market. That being said, Richard Russell has removed the bear from his letter and put in a bull. I may be the last bear standing.


Nothing new here for regular ZH readers but it's almost comical in the simplicity of the argument. People aren't employed. Unemployed people don't spend money. Not spending money means no green shoots. Forget second derivatives, revised seasonally adjusted housing numbers or Dennis Kneale's belief in the power of the smiley face.

This is going to be a long, jobless recovery. Hours worked per week are at an all-time low. As noted above, part-time work is very high. Employers, when things actually start to turn around, and they will, will first give current employees more hours and then expand the hours of part-time workers. There will be few new jobs for a long time.

Because our population is growing, between 130-150,000 new jobs are required each month to keep unemployment from rising. Initial and continuing claims suggest we are currently losing at least 300,000 a month.

(As an aside, the media talks about initial unemployment claims falling. That is actually not true. Unemployment claims are in fact quite high and rising, but the seasonal adjustments make them look smaller. Normally, this would not be a big deal. But the summer seasonal adjustment assumes a normal automobile manufacturing market, with layoffs in July. The layoffs came much earlier this year, distorting seasonal adjustments.)

Higher and persistent unemployment, lower incomes and wages, higher savings rates, capacity utilization at 50-year lows and still falling, rising home foreclosures, a deleveraging financial system, etc. are not the stuff of "V-shaped" recoveries. Throw in that Moody's estimates that US banks will have to write off $400 billion in 2010, and it's a very weak recovery indeed that shapes up for next year.

Not to rehash, but John again does a great job of tacking on numbers to a scenario we have been covering for a while. Investors hoping to recoup their losses from the bubble burst in short order are in for a surprise. Overall, a good reading piece to ruminate on over the weekend.

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