Markets Insight

June 18, 2013 5:23 pm
Markets Insight: It’s hard to write a happy ending to ‘QE’ story
Markets are starting to differentiate between countries and assets

Was it just a transitory bout of angst? Or have we finally witnessed the end of the great 32-year bull market in bonds?

It feels to me like the latter with yields on 10-year and 30-year US Treasuries up by half a percentage point since the start of May and emerging markets in a funk. We are in such uncertain monetary territory that anything could yet happen to upset that judgment. What is clear is that the rules of the global market game have changed in a remarkably short space of time.

This is most visible in currency markets where the absurdity of risk-on, risk-off trading appears to be coming to an end.

Since the financial crisis there has been a tendency for traders to move into emerging market and commodity currencies and into equities in the risk-on phase where central banks succeeded in persuading investors to assume more risk. In risk-off mode they moved back into the dollar which enjoyed haven status because of its pre-eminent reserve currency role and its solid underpinning by highly liquid markets.

In the turmoil of recent weeks the dollar has been strengthening on good news – the opposite of its recent risk-on behaviour. At the same time emerging market currencies have ceased to be a vehicle for providing generalised risk-on exposure to financial markets, while emerging equities have underperformed developed world equities.

The change is particularly apparent for commodity currencies, which now more realistically reflect the unwinding of the resource boom and the likely decline in the resource-intensity of growth in China as the balance of the economy shifts from exports and investment to consumption. For countries such as Australia, which has seen phenomenal growth for the best part of two decades, it makes sense to allow the Australian dollar to take some of the strain of this adjustment.
At the same time currency wars are becoming less warlike. There was a happy symbolism in the decision by Brazil’s finance minister Guido Mantega last week to scrap a 1 per cent tax on short dollar positions in the futures market, which were a convenient way to bet on an appreciating real. It was he who introduced the tax in 2011 while complaining of currency wars.

Among the biggest fallers has been the South African rand, reflecting the fall in the gold price. This is partly related to movements in the US bond market, because the rise in Treasury yields means the opportunity cost of holding gold, which produces no income, is rising. Tightening US liquidity is traditionally bearish for the yellow metal.

And then there is Japan, where the recent plunge in the equity market was accompanied by an appreciation of the yen amounting to almost 9 per cent in just three weeks. The relief across the rest of Asia has been palpable. That, too, amounted to a notable change in market behaviour. Throughout Japan’s 23-year economic and financial crisis there has been little financial linkage with the rest of the world and minimal contagious fallout. Yet it was the announcement of the big proposed increase in the Bank of Japan’s asset purchases in April that provided the trigger for the recent turmoil in the markets.
The depreciation of all these currencies is substantially about dollar strength. As well as the more favourable interest rate differential on Treasuries, the dollar benefits from the more robust performance of the US economy relative to Europe and Japan; likewise from the perception that its markets are more flexible and its energy position increasingly strong. And, of course, the dollar is still the only currency that can absorb substantial inflows in a panic.

The good news about the new rules of the game is that markets are beginning to differentiate more carefully between countries and assets on the basis of fundamental analysis, which is a vast improvement on knee-jerk risk-on, risk-off behaviour.

The less good news is that the eurozone still hangs like a dark cloud over the global economy, in recession with no comprehensive solution in sight to the problem of imbalances and a banking system that is undercapitalised and overloaded with sovereign debt. It is curious that the euro strengthened against the dollar in the recent turmoil. A reckoning may be around the corner.

Yet the US is also a potent source of uncertainty, because of the great tapering debate, relating to whether and when the Federal Reserve will retreat from quantitative easing. As Stephen Lewis of Monument Securities remarks, the fear that the Fed will not taper, or indeed dare not taper, may be as significant a factor in the current malaise as anxiety that it will. The market, he adds, has realised it is difficult to write a happy ending to this story.

Too darn right.

The writer is an FT columnist
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

If Bernanke really shakes the tree, half the world may fall out

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Last updated: June 18th, 2013

Ben Bernanke

We no longer have a free market. The world’s financial asset prices have become a plaything of central banks and the sovereign wealth funds of a few emerging powers.

Julian Callow from Barclays says they are buying $1.8 trillion worth of AAA or safe-haven bonds each year from an available pool of $2 trillion. Nothing like this has been seen before in modern times, if ever.

The Fed, the ECB, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, et al, own $10 trillion in bonds. China, the petro-powers, et al, own another $10 trillion. Between them they have locked up $20 trillion, equal to roughly 25pc of global GDP. They are the market. That is why Fed taper talk has become so neuralgic, and why we all watch Chinese regulators for every clue on policy.

We will find out tomorrow whether Ben Bernanke is ready to blink after the market ructions of the last three weeks, sobered by the cascading upsets across the Brics and mini-Brics; or whether he will stay the course with Fed tapering sooner rather than later.

Investors seem to think he will indeed blink, or at least blink enough to put off the day of reckoning for another three month investment cycle, which is what hedge funds care about, and that if he doesn’t blink it will be because the economy is picking up speed. They cling to the Bernanke Put, when the new reality may instead be the Bernanke Call.

Perhaps Bernanke will oblige one more time, knowing that the US economy has yet to absorb the full shock of fiscal tightening, the biggest squeeze for half a century. Besides, core PCE inflation is down to 1.1pc. Jim Leaviss from M&G says the Fed would normally be cutting rates by 1.5pc under the Taylor Rule in these circumstances, not tightening.

Yet what causes me to hesitate is the drip of reports and comments from key figures in – or near – the Fed seeming to suggest a loss of nerve, or who fear that QE has turned counterproductive.

First we had a paper co-written by Frederic Mishkin Bernanke’s close friend and a former board memberwarning that is becoming ever harder for the Fed to extricate itself safely from QE, and the door my shut altogether from 2014.

Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy” said the Fed’s own capital base could be wiped outseveral times” once borrowing costs spike. It said trouble could compound at an alarming pace, with yields spiking up to double-digit rates by the late 2020s. By then Fed will be forced to finance spending to avert the greater evil of default.

Then we had the minutes of the Federal Advisor Council arguing that it is “not clearwhether QE is really boosting the economy, while the toxic side-effects are all too clear. It warned of “unsustainable bubbles” in asset prices. It said zero rates are pushing pension funds underwater on their liabilities, and even claimed that QE may be causing firms to defer investment.

Since then the Bank for International Settlements has issued a full frontal attack on the credibility of QE, saying it “doesn’t work” and is doing more harm than good. Even the Boston Fed’s ultra-dove Eric Rosengren has talked of early tapering, a clear sign that the Fed’s centre of gravity has shifted.

So don’t be surprised if Bernanke talks tough tomorrow, and don’t underestimate the implications if he does. The point was put nicely by Jan Loeys from JP Morgan in a note last week:

In Fed hiking cycles over the past half century, 10-year US Treasury yields on average bottomed some 6 months before the first rate hike. In the current cycle, where rate cuts have been complemented by large-scale asset purchases, the end of the easy money period is harder to define. It is surely well before the first rate hike.
The end of the current easy money regime is set to have a bigger impact than previous ones as the current one will have lasted much longer and was much more extreme.

We have learned from past regime changes that the longer they last, the more the market will have got used to them, and could even be said to become leveraged and addicted to the old regime.
In addition, after major regime changes, we find that the leverage to the old one was each time much larger and in different places tan most of us had assumed. A regime change is like shaking a tree and having no idea who or what will fall out.

Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey, are already falling out. Any other candidates?

Whither China?

John Mauldin

Jun 18, 2013

All weekend long and this morning as I wake up in Monaco, the number of disparate publications screaming at me about problems in China is just overwhelming. Then I get myself up early to hear a speech by the esteemed British economist Charles Dumas of Lombard Street fame, and I am confronted with even more China. I have been watching China for a long time, expecting a crisis, as I readily admit I simply do not understand a country that has defied so many of the economic laws of gravity for so long. Some kind of return to normal economic paradigms seems almost mandated, but the question has always been when. Have the Chinese discovered some new control mechanism, found some different levers to pull that they should share with the rest of the world, or will we see them revert to something that looks more like whatever it is that passes for "normal" these days? My bet has always been the latter.

That said, I do not expect China to slip silently away. It is here to stay, and it will be bigger and more dynamic in the future, but the transition from an economy driven by investment and massive debt into one more soundly based on domestic consumption will not be easy. Today's Outside the Box will focus on readings on China that came my way this weekend. The first is from the formidable Lyric Hughes Hale, an expert on Japan and Asia, founder of China Online, who is married to the eminent economist David Hale. I have had the pleasure of meeting with them and find them quite the economic power couple. She gives us a tour of recent work on China. Perhaps, as she asserts, the current Chinese economic model, based on cheap labor and cheap money, has run its course. The challenges that face China are daunting.

Just a few quotes from some of the other pieces I read in the last 48 hours:

China's shadow banking system is out of control and under mounting stress as borrowers struggle to roll over short-term debts, Fitch Ratings has warned. The agency said the scale of credit was so extreme that the country would find it very hard to grow its way out of the excesses as in past episodes, implying tougher times ahead. "The credit-driven growth model is clearly falling apart. This could feed into a massive over-capacity problem, and potentially into a Japanese-style deflation," said Charlene Chu, the agency's senior director in Beijing." (from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the London Telegraph)

And then Stratfor writes:

A cash crunch over the past three weeks has caused rates on loans between banks to spike to the highest levels since mid-2011, drawing attention back to China's financial instability. Rates have since subsided, but conditions exist for them to remain elevated over the next month or beyond.

Unlike two years ago, at least one bank has already defaulted on a loan and there are rumors that other defaults have occurred. The emergence of bank defaults poses a serious challenge to the central government's efforts to clamp down on credit growth as part of its broader attempt to reform the country's economy.

And finally, my friend Simon Hunt, who has been deeply involved in China for decades and spends many months each year traveling throughout the country meeting manufacturers, writes:

The credit crisis that we have been warning about has arrived. Debt has reached such peak levels that it can no longer be put under the carpet and rolled over for another day. The economy is having a mini-recovery this month but will weaken again in July.

Not expecting a collapse, Simon does see that serious adjustments are needed and believes they will be enacted:

Nor is there much of a risk that China's credit markets will implode because banks have built up a US$3 trillion war chest which is lodged with the PBOC and because [the] government has assets that can be utilized. The question is how the pain will be shared out throughout the country.

China always has my attention. I believe that Japan is forcing their hand with its own massive quantitative easing. China may have the easiest answer of all the major global trading countries, however. All they have to do is gradually float their currency. As Charles Dumas noted, they have $4 trillion in savings that will look for a home outside of China. A floating currency will weaken the renminbi against major world currencies and help their export businesses. It will also drive US Senators Schumer and Graham nuts, which is a side benefit. A floating currency with no significant QE when the Fed is printing with full abandon will be the strongest argument against the accusation that China is manipulating its currency. Interesting times.

I hope you are enjoying your summer, wherever you may be.

Your needing more gym time analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

China’s Innovation Hurdle

By Lyric Hughes Hale

At a meeting in Chicago, the China-United States Exchange Foundation released a report, "U.S.-China Relations in the Next Ten Years." Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opened the meeting, chaired by CH Tung, the former Hong Kong chief executive, as well as Henry Paulson, the former U.S. treasury secretary. The mood was celebratory, especially after the overnight announcement that the presidents of both countries would be meeting in California in June, sooner than expected.

The idea of a bilateral U.S.-China free trade agreement was floated, in effect to create a new G2. The two countries are currently so interdependent that in some ways China and the U.S. are already one nation. I could only imagine the reactions of Japan and the EU to a formal alliance of the world's two largest economies.

My mind wandered back to the book I have been reading recently, Timothy Beardson's Stumbling Giant - The Threats to China's Future. In particular I remembered one of the author's pithier comments. He said that when commentators coined the new term 'Chimerica' to describe the interconnectedness of both countries, they might have missed the allusion to the word chimerical or fanciful.

In spite of their opposing points of view, both the conference participants and Mr Beardson would agree on at least one point: the current Chinese economic model, based on cheap labor and cheap money, has run its course.

The demographic challenge is the greatest of all. Here is a bracing forecast: China's population in 2100 will shrink to 941 million, but the U.S. population will grow to 478 million. Instead of four Chinese to every American, there will be two. As Beardson notes:

Societies with steadily falling populations do not normally have a sustained high rate of economic expansion. As China's population is estimated to peak around 2026 and then to fall, there is a narrowing window for China to continue its high economic growth rates.

Comprehensive reforms are needed in the Chinese economy. Absent government policies that will quickly alter the longstanding behavior patterns of Chinese consumers, the middle class and especially the poor will be incentivized to save for retirement, for health care, and for education.

Chinese leaders however have fully subscribed to the mantra of gradualism, and what is missing is a sense of urgency about the transition. While Mr Beardson does not completely dismiss the possibility, he seems unconvinced that these changes, especially the transition to an innovation economy, can be made in time:

The model is comprehensively broken and it faces multiple challenges. China is no longer the cheapest country in which to manufacture. Currency movements have disadvantaged it, wages have risen, social and environmental costs are increasing. Export margins were always thin, but with rising costs there is a little buffer available to absorb the impact... If the old cheap export and fixed investment model is broken, the alternative should be a combination of the long-awaited innovation and domestic consumption. However, the downturn showed that the country's technological and economic competitiveness still lags behind world standards.

Being a superpower involves hard power, military might, soft power and economic dominance. Of course, these are all related, and all are dependent upon the ability to innovate. This, of course, has long been the strong suit of the U.S.

Will China be able to meet the innovation challenge? One of the great successes of Beardson's book is his chapter 'The Elusive Knowledge Economy' in which he describes the current state of innovation in China, as well as the historical and cultural factors that will affect its future development.

The world appears genuinely worried by China's scientific advances. However, I will argue that the platform is lacking for China to create an innovative economy. This is for reasons of education, history, culture, ethics and politics.

His overall conclusion is stark: 'China is failing in innovation' but he leaves open the possibility that this might change. He knocks down false indicators, pointing out that China's high ranking in terms of R&D spending has been falsely adjusted to reflect local living standards (PPP) while the costs of laboratory equipment, for example, are really based on global standards. These are the fine distinctions that explain a lot.

Based upon Beardson's long and successful history in Asia, unsurprisingly Chinese culture is not neglected. Here he touches on a subject near to my heart, which is the absolute necessity of freedom of information as the basis for innovation. This is also the Achilles heel of Chinese soft power, which suffers when freedom of expression in China is visibly repressed. According to the South China Morning Post, recently university professors in China were given a directive not to discuss the following seven topics: freedom of the press, civil society, civic rights, historical mistakes by the Communist Party, elite cronyism, and an independent judiciary. If universities are the cradle of innovation, this is not the atmosphere in which critical and independent thought can possibly thrive.

In other words, China may accumulate the funding, build the laboratories and staff them, but it might not possess a 'non-hierarchical scientific culture, fertile institutional framework and critical thinking' -- the necessary soft skills... If critical thinking and social stability are seen as opposites in a zero-sum game, China will be the loser. However, China can achieve much if it wills it.

Essentially, Beardson's argument is that China's heretofore-successful model is about to run out of steam, and it will not be able to innovate its way out of this corner without essential political reforms.

Some would disagree and cite China's economic success. They note that Haier has become a global company and brand, and that the Internet in China in particular has created many innovations and changed the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Steve Blank, of the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, recently visited web companies in both China and Japan. He sees China at a turning point, rather than reaching a hard limit, as he describes innovation with Chinese characteristics:

For the last 10 years China essentially closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies with the result that Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Dropbox, and 30,000 other websites were not accessible from China. This left an open playing field for Chinese software startups as they 'copy to China' existing U.S. business models. Of course 'copy' is too strong a word. Adapt, adopt and extend is probably a better description. But for the last decade 'innovation' in Chinese software meant something different than it did in Silicon Valley. China Startups-The Gold Rush & the Fire Extinguishers

Dan Harris, an intellectual property attorney and author at China Law Blog, looks at another aspect of innovation that is often cited as evidence that China is pulling ahead of the U.S. – the number of patent applications filed by Chinese companies. In a recent article he cites the $18B China now pays for licensing foreign technologies.

Those who say China is innovating often cite the massive numbers of IP filings being made by Chinese companies in China. I use those numbers to counter those who allege that filing trademarks, copyrights and patents in China is a waste of time, but I do not think they show much regarding innovation.

But the new (to me anyway) numbers that I found most salient are those relating to patent licensing. In 2012 (according to the Financial Times) 'China had a record deficit in royalties and license fees of nearly $17bncompared with an $82bn surplus for the US'. China's $17bn deficit is a result of China paying out $18bn in royalties and license fees and collecting only $1bn in such fees.

I see these numbers as extremely meaningful and what they say is that China is having to pay huge sums to other countries for innovations created outside of China and substantially less is being paid to China for innovations created there. Indeed, it is quite possible that a large chunk of the $1bn going into China for licensing and royalty payments is for innovations created by foreign subsidiaries doing research and development work within China.

Is China Really Innovating? The China Licensing Numbers Say No.

Innovation can be negative as well as positive. China's cyber security and hacking activities are front-page news. The Chinese are investing in U.S. telecommunications companies, and it is a good bet, according to an official at Google, that they have visited you already. According to Beardson however, a good offense doesn't necessarily mean that you can play great defense.

Surprisingly, an American security researcher, Dillon Beresford, claims to have successfully hacked into many highly classified Chinese military facilities: aggressive behavior is not always matched by proficient cyber security. Indeed, he states that China has 'an almost total lack of basic cyber defense'.

China is also behind on some key metrics in defense technology. To give just one example, the traditional blue water navy paradigm leaves China far behind. The U.S. has 19 aircraft carriers, including ten Nimitz class super carriers that are powered by nuclear reactors. China has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which is actually a rebuilt Soviet-era ship, and it is not nuclear-powered.

Health care is another area where the U.S. leads the world in innovation, even if our own citizens pay a high price. China has more pressing concerns however. Lack of access to basic care has erupted into violence against health care workers in China, as illustrated in Yanzhong Huang's seminal article "The Sick Man of Asia." In spite of the high density of mobile technology, which could be an ideal platform for telemedicine, there are simply not enough trained health care workers to make this a feasible alternative to bricks and mortar hospitals, and can never replace long term care for China's rapidly growing population of over 65's. Beardson muses that the aforementioned aircraft carrier might have to be scrapped in order to pay for housing for 150 million elderly Chinese with no place to go.

Worries that China will fizzle out are not new. Back in 2011 I wrote an articleentitled China's 99%: Why China Will Not Surpass the United States. Books on China and its relationship to the rest of the world abound. A quick look at Amazon for titles by country returned the following results:

U.S. 1,631,884
Great Britain 502,241
China 398,784
France 298,075
India 220,043
Canada 201,182
Japan 199,255
Mexico 195,511
Germany 130,885
Russia 74,433
Iran 22,866
Iraq 24,475
Afghanistan 13,956

China is certainly top of mind in the U.S. However, if you are going to read one book on China this year, Stumbling Giant should be it, because of its depth and scope and the even-handedness of its author. I have focused on the subject of innovation, which is a constant throughout the book, but other vital topics are covered as well, such as the environment, military power, and China's relationship with the rest of the world. Beardson recounts vital history that is largely unknown to Westerners. I particularly liked the section on China's relationship with Russia, which was disconcerting – I now feel that Russia has more to fear from Chinese border disputes than Japan.

I would have liked to have seen maps, given the geographically challenged nature of most Americans, and more graphs, given my economic propensities. The addition of photographs might have turned the book into an encyclopaedia, but they would have added to the narrative as well.
Ever since we gained the top spot, Americans have been obsessed with the possibility that other countries might upset our global dominance. After World War II we actively feared the Soviet Unión.

Then in the 70's we worried that Japan would be Number One, until it suddenly wasn't. Now we look to the Chinese to fill the competitive void.

In spite of a spate of reports from the OECD about China's economic dominance, and breathless media coverage declaring that China will overtake the United States any moment, a sense of reality is returning. China faces a myriad of huge challenges. Their traditional markets have slowed down, and their GDP is falling. A real estate bubble, civic unrest, and massive corporate and local government debt are worrying signs.

While the size of China's economy in absolute terms could be larger than that of the U.S., it certainly isn't on a per capita basis, and that's what counts in terms of satisfaction of a country's citizenry and the stability of its government. China's income inequality is now greater than in the US. Which might be all right if income opportunity were the same, but corruption blocks equal access.

Stumbling Giant should convince you in a highly nuanced way that China is far from unassailable, but we should all hope, very fervently, that she keeps her balance.