The Growing Risk of a 2020 Recession and Crisis

Across the advanced economies, monetary and fiscal policymakers lack the tools needed to respond to another major downturn and financial crisis. Worse, while the world no longer needs to worry about a hawkish US Federal Reserve strangling growth, it now has an even bigger problem on its hands.

Nouriel Roubini

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NEW YORK – Last summer, my colleague Brunello Rosa and I identified ten potential downside risks that could trigger a US and global recession in 2020. Nine of them are still in play today.

Across the advanced economies, monetary and fiscal policymakers lack the tools needed to respond to another major downturn and financial crisis. Worse, while the world no longer needs to worry about a hawkish US Federal Reserve strangling growth, it now has an even bigger problem on its hands.

Many involve the United States. Trade wars with China and other countries, along with restrictions on migration, foreign direct investment, and technology transfers, could have profound implications for global supply chains, raising the threat of stagflation (slowing growth alongside rising inflation). And the risk of a US growth slowdown has become more acute now that the stimulus from the 2017 tax legislation has run its course.

Meanwhile, US equity markets have remained frothy since our initial commentary. And there are added risks associated with the rise of newer forms of debt, including in many emerging markets, where much borrowing is denominated in foreign currencies. With central banks’ ability to serve as lenders of last resort increasingly constrained, illiquid financial markets are vulnerable to “flash crashes” and other disruptions. One such disruption could come from US President Donald Trump, who may be tempted to create a foreign-policy crisis (“wag the dog”) with a country like Iran. That might bolster his domestic poll numbers, but it could also trigger an oil shock.

Beyond the US, the fragility of growth in debt-ridden China and some other emerging markets remains a concern, as do economic, policy, financial, and political risks in Europe. Worse, across the advanced economies, the policy toolbox for responding to a crisis remains limited.

The monetary and fiscal interventions and private-sector backstops used after the 2008 financial crisis simply cannot be deployed to the same effect today.

The tenth factor that we considered was the US Federal Reserve’s interest-rate policy. After hiking rates in response to the Trump administration’s pro-cyclical fiscal stimulus, the Fed reversed course in January. Looking ahead, the Fed and other major central banks are more likely to cut rates to manage various shocks to the global economy.

While trade wars and potential oil spikes constitute a supply-side risk, they also threaten aggregate demand and thus consumption growth, because tariffs and higher fuel prices reduce disposable income. With so much uncertainty, companies will likely opt to reduce capital spending and investment.

Under these conditions, a severe enough shock could usher in a global recession, even if central banks respond rapidly. After all, in 2007-2009, the Fed and other central banks reacted aggressively to the shocks that triggered the global financial crisis, but they did not avert the “Great Recession.” Today, the Fed is starting with a benchmark policy rate of 2.25-2.5%, compared to 5.25% in September 2007. In Europe and Japan, central banks are already in negative-rate territory, and will face limits on how much further below the zero bound they can go. And with bloated balance sheets from successive rounds of quantitative easing (QE), central banks would face similar constraints if they were to return to large-scale asset purchases.

On the fiscal side, most advanced economies have even higher deficits and more public debt today than before the global financial crisis, leaving little room for stimulus spending. And, as Rosa and I argued last year, “financial-sector bailouts will be intolerable in countries with resurgent populist movements and near-insolvent governments.”

Among the risks that could trigger a recession in 2020, the Sino-American trade and technology war deserves special attention. The conflict could escalate further in several ways. The Trump administration could decide to extend tariffs to the $300 billion worth of Chinese exports not yet affected. Or prohibiting Huawei and other Chinese firms from using US components could trigger a full-scale process of de-globalization, as companies scramble to secure their supply chains. Were that to happen, China would have several options for retaliating against the US, such as by closing its market to US multinationals like Apple.

Under such a scenario, the shock to markets around the world would be sufficient to bring on a global crisis, regardless of what the major central banks do. With the current tensions already denting business, consumer, and investor confidence and slowing global growth, further escalation would tip the world into a recession. And, given the scale of private and public debt, another financial crisis would likely follow from that.

Both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping know that it is in their countries’ interest to avoid a global crisis, so they have an incentive to find a compromise in the next few months. Yet both sides are still ratcheting up nationalist rhetoric and pursuing tit-for-tat measures. Trump and Xi each seem to think that his country’s long-term economic and national security may depend on his not blinking in the face of a new cold war. And if they each genuinely believe the other will blink first, the risk of a ruinous clash is high indeed.

It is possible that Trump and Xi will meet for talks during the G20 summit on June 28-29 in Osaka. But even if they do agree to restart negotiations, a comprehensive deal to settle their many points of contention would be a long way off. As the two sides drift further apart, the space for compromise is shrinking, and the risk of a global recession and crisis in an already fragile global economy is rising.


Nouriel Roubini, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and CEO of Roubini Macro Associates, was Senior Economist for International Affairs in the White House's Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank.

People v power

The rule of law in Hong Kong

Huge demonstrations have rattled the territory’s government—and the leadership in Beijing























THREE THINGS stand out about the protesters who rocked Hong Kong this week. There were a great many of them. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in what may have been the biggest demonstration since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997. Most of them were young—too young to be nostalgic about British rule. Their unhappiness at Beijing’s heavy hand was entirely their own. And they showed remarkable courage. Since the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014, the Communist Party has been making clear that it will tolerate no more insubordination—and yet three days later demonstrators braved rubber bullets, tear gas and legal retribution to make their point. All these things are evidence that, as many Hong Kongers see it, nothing less than the future of their city is at stake.

On the face of it, the protests were about something narrow and technical. Under the law, a Hong Kong resident who allegedly murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan last year cannot be sent back there for trial. Hong Kong’s government has therefore proposed to allow the extradition of suspects to Taiwan—and to any country with which there is no extradition agreement, including the Chinese mainland.

However, the implications could not be more profound. The colonial-era drafters of Hong Kong’s current law excluded the mainland from extradition because its courts could not be trusted to deliver impartial justice. With the threat of extradition, anyone in Hong Kong becomes subject to the vagaries of the Chinese legal system, in which the rule of law ranks below the rule of the party. Dissidents taking on Beijing may be sent to face harsh treatment in the Chinese courts. Businesspeople risk a well-connected Chinese competitor finding a way to drag them into an easily manipulated jurisdiction.

That could be disastrous for Hong Kong, a fragile bridge between a one-party state and the freedoms of global commerce. Many firms choose Hong Kong because it is well-connected with China’s huge market, but also upholds the same transparent rules that govern economies in the West. Thanks to mainland China, Hong Kong is the world’s eighth-largest exporter of goods and home to the world’s fourth-largest stockmarket. Yet its huge banking system is seamlessly connected to the West and its currency is pegged to the dollar. For many global firms, Hong Kong is both a gateway to the Chinese market and central to the Asian continent—more than 1,300 of them have their regional headquarters there. If Hong Kong came to be seen as just another Chinese city, Hong Kongers would not be the only ones to suffer.

The threat is real. Since he took over as China’s leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has been making it clearer than ever that the legal system should be under the party’s thumb. China must “absolutely not follow the Western road of ‘judicial independence’,” he said in a speech published in February. In 2015 Mr Xi launched a campaign to silence independent lawyers and civil-rights activists. Hundreds of them have been harassed or detained by the police. The authorities on the mainland have even sent thugs to other jurisdictions to abduct people, including a publisher of gossipy books about the party, snatched from a car park in Hong Kong and a tycoon taken from the Four Seasons hotel in 2017. The message is plain. Mr Xi not only cares little for the rule of law on the Chinese mainland. He scorns it elsewhere, too.

The Hong Kong government says the new law has safeguards. But the protesters are right to dismiss them. In theory extradition should not apply in political cases, and cover only crimes that would incur heavy sentences. But the party has a long record of punishing its critics by charging them with offences that do not appear political. Hong Kong’s government says it has reduced the number of white-collar offences that will be covered. But blackmail and fraud still count. It has said that only extradition requests made by China’s highest judicial officials will be considered. But the decision will fall to Hong Kong’s chief executive. That person, currently Carrie Lam, is chosen by party loyalists in Hong Kong and answers to the party in Beijing. Local courts will have little room to object. The bill could throttle Hong Kong’s freedoms by raising the possibility that the party’s critics could be bundled over the border.

It is a perilous moment. The protests have turned violent—possibly more violent than any since the anti-colonial demonstrations in 1967. Officials in Beijing have condemned them as a foreign plot. Ms Lam has been digging in her heels. But it is not too late for her to think again.

In its narrowest sense, the new law will not accomplish what she wants. Taiwan has said that it will not accept the suspect’s extradition under the new law. Less explosive solutions have been suggested, including letting Hong Kong’s courts try cases involving murder committed elsewhere. Anti-subversion legislation was left to languish after protests in 2003. There is talk that the government may see this as the moment to push through that long-shelved law. Instead Ms Lam should take it as a precedent for her extradition reform.

The rest of the world can encourage her. Britain, which signed a treaty guaranteeing that Hong Kong’s way of life will remain unchanged until at least 2047, has a particular duty. Its government has expressed concern about the “potential effects” of the new law, but it should say loud and clear that it is wrong. With America, caught up in a trade war with China, there is a risk that Hong Kong becomes the focus of a great-power clash. Some American politicians have warned that the law could jeopardise the special status the United States affords the territory. They should be prudent. Cutting off Hong Kong would not only harm American interests in the territory but also wreck the prospects of Hong Kongers—an odd way to reward its would-be democrats. Better to press the central government, or threaten case-by-case scrutiny of American extraditions to Hong Kong.

But would this have any effect? That is a hard question, because it depends on Mr Xi. China has paid dearly for its attempts to squeeze Hong Kong. Each time the world sees how its intransigence and thuggishness is at odds with the image of harmony it wants to project. When Hong Kong passed into Chinese rule 22 years ago, the idea was that the two systems would grow together. As the protesters have made clear, that is not going to plan.

Risky Borrowing Is Making a Comeback, but Banks Are on the Sideline

New and untested players, some backed by Wall Street, have helped borrowers pile up billions in loans. What could go wrong?

By Matt Phillips


A decade after reckless home lending nearly destroyed the financial system, the business of making risky loans is back.

This time the money is bypassing the traditional, and heavily regulated, banking system and flowing through a growing network of businesses that stepped in to provide loans to parts of the economy that banks abandoned after 2008.

It’s called shadow banking, and it is a key source of the credit that drives the American economy. With almost $15 trillion in assets, the shadow-banking sector in the United States is roughly the same size as the entire banking system of Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy.

In certain areas — including mortgages, auto lending and some business loans — shadow banks have eclipsed traditional banks, which have spent much of the last decade pulling back on lending in the face of stricter regulatory standards aimed at keeping them out of trouble.  
But new problems arise when the industry depends on lenders that compete aggressively, operate with less of a cushion against losses and have fewer regulations to keep them from taking on too much risk. Recently, a chorus of industry officials and policymakers — including the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, last month — have started to signal that they’re watching the growth of riskier lending by these non-banks.
“We decided to regulate the banks, hoping for a more stable financial system, which doesn’t take as many risks,” said Amit Seru, a professor of finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Where the banks retreated, shadow banks stepped in.”

Safe as houses

With roughly 50 million residential properties, and $10 trillion in amassed debt, the American mortgage market is the largest source of consumer lending on earth.

Lately, that lending is coming from companies like Quicken Loans, loanDepot and Caliber Home Loans. Between 2009 and 2018, the share of mortgage loans made by these businesses and others like them soared from 9 percent to more than 52 percent, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication.



Is this a good thing? If you’re trying to buy a home, probably. These lenders are competitive and willing to lend to borrowers with slightly lower credit scores or higher levels of debt compared to their income.

They also have invested in some sophisticated technology. Just ask Andrew Downey, a 24-year-old marketing manager in New Jersey who is buying a two-bedroom condo. To finance the purchase, he plugged his information into LendingTree.com, and Quicken Loans, the largest non-bank mortgage lender by loans originated, called him almost immediately.
“I’m not even exaggerating,” he said. “I think they called me like 10 or 15 seconds after my information was in there.”

Quicken eventually offered him a rate of 3.875 percent with 15 percent down on a conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage of roughly $185,000. Eventually he found an even better offer, 3.625 percent, from the California-based lender PennyMac, also not a bank.

“I really didn’t reach out to any banks,” said Mr. Downey, who expects to close on his condo in Union, N.J., this month.

The downside of all this? Because these entities aren’t regulated like banks, it’s unclear how much capital — the cushion of non-borrowed money the companies operate with — they have.

If they don’t have enough, it makes them less able to survive a significant slide in the economy and the housing market.

While they don’t have a nationwide regulator that ensures safety and soundness like banks do, the non-banks say that they are monitored by a range of government entities, from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to state regulators.

They also follow guidelines from the government-sponsored entities that are intended to support homeownership, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy their loans.

“Our mission, I think, is to lend to people properly and responsibly, following the guidelines established by the particular agency that we’re selling mortgages to,” said Jay Farner, chief executive of Quicken Loans.

Risky business loans

It’s not just mortgages. Wall Street has revived and revamped the pre-crisis financial assembly line that packaged together risky loans and turned those bundles into seemingly safe investments.

This time, the assembly line is pumping out something called collateralized loan obligations, or C.L.O.s. These are essentially a kind of bond cobbled together from packages of loans — known as leveraged loans — made to companies that are already pretty heavily in debt. These jumbles of loans are then chopped up and structured, so that investors can choose the risks they’re willing to take and the returns they’re aiming for.

If that sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because a similar system of securitization of subprime mortgages went haywire during the housing bust, saddling some investors with heavy losses from instruments they didn’t understand.

If investors have any concerns about a replay in the C.L.O. market, they’re hiding it fairly well.

Money has poured in over the last few years as the Federal Reserve lifted interest rates. (C.L.O.s buy mostly loans with floating interest rates, which fare better than most fixed-rate bonds when interest rates rise.)
























Still, there are plenty of people who think that C.L.O.s and the leveraged loans that they buy are a potential trouble spot that bears watching.

For one thing, those loans are increasingly made without the kinds of protections that restrict activities like paying out dividends to owners, or taking out additional borrowing, without a lender’s approval.

Roughly 80 percent of the leveraged loan market lacks such protections, up from less than 10 percent more than a decade ago. That means lenders will be less protected if defaults pick up steam.

For now, such defaults remain quite low. But there are early indications that when the economy eventually does slow, and defaults increase, investors who expect to be protected by the collateral on their loan could be in for a nasty surprise.

In recent weeks, warnings about the market for C.L.O.s and leveraged loans have been multiplying. Last month, Mr. Powell said the Fed was closely monitoring the buildup of risky business debt, and the ratings agency Moody’s noted this month that a record number of companies borrowing in the loan markets had received highly speculative ratings that reflected “fragile business models and a high degree of financial risk.”

Small, subjective loans

Leveraged loans are risky, but some companies are seen as even too rickety, or too small, to borrow in that market.  

Not to worry. There’s a place for them to turn as well, and they’re called Business Development Companies, or B.D.C.s.
They’ve been around since the 1980s, after Congress changed the laws to encourage lending to small and midsize companies that couldn’t get funding from banks.

But B.D.C.s aren’t charities. They’re essentially a kind of investment fund.

And they appeal to investors because of the high interest rates they charge.

Their borrowers are companies like Pelican Products, a maker of cellphone and protective cases in California, which paid an interest rate of 10.23 percent to its B.D.C. lender, a rate that reflects its high risk and low credit ratings.

For investors, an added appeal is that the B.D.C.s don’t have to pay corporate taxes as long as they pay 90 percent of their income to shareholders. Shareholders eventually pay tax on that income, but in a tax-deferred retirement account like an individual retirement account, the structure can amplify gains over time.

So, naturally, B.D.C. assets have grown fast, jumping from roughly $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion last year, according to data from Wells Fargo Securities and Refinitiv, a financial data provider.



Some analysts argue that risks embedded in B.D.C.s also can be hard to understand. Because B.D.C.s own loans in small companies that aren’t always widely held or traded, there are often no public market prices available to use to benchmark the fund’s investments.

B.D.C.s have also been increasing leverage to bolster returns. It means they’re using more borrowed money, to make these loans to high-risk borrowers. That strategy can supercharge returns during good times, but it can also make losses that much deeper when things take a turn for the worse.

8 Reasons a Huge Gold Mania Is About to Begin

by Nick Giambruno




An epic gold bull market is on the menu for 2019.

I'm not talking about a garden-variety cyclical gold bull market, but rather one of the biggest gold manias in history.

This gold mania will be riding the wave of an incredibly powerful trend... the re-monetization of gold.

The last time the international monetary system experienced a paradigm shift of this magnitude was in 1971.

Then, the dollar price of gold skyrocketed over 2,300%.

It shot from $35 per ounce to a high of $850 in 1980. Gold mining stocks did even better.

Today, gold is still bouncing around its lows. Gold mining stocks are still very cheap. I expect returns to be at least as great as they were during the last paradigm shift.

So let's get right into it, starting with the first four catalysts that will send gold prices higher…

No. 1: Basel III Moves Gold Closer to Officially Being Money Again

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is located in Basel, Switzerland. It's often referred to as "the bank of central banks." Its members consist of 60 central banks from the world's largest economies.

It facilitates transactions – notably gold transactions – between central banks, the biggest players in the gold market.

The BIS also issues Basel Accords, or a set of recommendations for regulations that set the standards for the global banking industry.

On April 1, 2019, Basel III went into effect around the world.

Buried among what was mostly confusing jargon was something of huge significance for gold:

A 0% risk weight will apply to (i) cash owned and held at the bank or in transit; and (ii) gold bullion held at the bank or held in another bank on an allocated basis, to the extent the gold bullion assets are backed by gold bullion liabilities.

What this means in plain English is that gold's official role in the international monetary system has been upgraded for the first time in decades.

Banks can now consider physical gold they hold, in certain circumstances, as a 0% risk asset. Previously, gold was considered riskier and most of the time could not be classified in this way. Basel III rules are making gold more attractive.

Central bankers and mainstream economists have ridiculed gold for going on 50 years now.

They've tried to downplay its role in favor of fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar. They've tried to trick people into believing it isn't important.

The fact is gold is real money... a form of money that is far superior to rapidly depreciating paper currencies. This is why central bankers don't want to acknowledge how important it is.

And this is precisely why Basel III is important. It signifies the start of a reversal in attitude and policy.

Basel III is giving gold more official recognition in the international financial system. It represents a step towards the re-monetization of gold... and the recognition of this powerful trend in motion.

No. 2: Central Banks Are Buying Record Amounts of Gold

Countries are treating gold as money for the first time in generations...

In 2010, something remarkable happened. Central banks changed from being net sellers of gold to net buyers of gold. Remember, central banks are by far the biggest actors in the global gold market.

This trend has only accelerated since...

The World Gold Council reports that in 2018, central banks bought a record 651 tonnes of gold. This is the highest level of net purchases since 1971 when Nixon closed the gold window.

And it's a 75% increase from 2017.




Russia Was the Biggest Buyer


Russia's gold reserves have quadrupled in the last decade, making it the fifth-largest holder of gold in the world.

Last year, Russia notably dumped nearly $100 billion worth of U.S. Treasuries, and, according to the World Gold Council, replaced much of it with gold.

If this trend continues, and I expect that it will, Russia will soon become the third-largest gold holder in the world.




A major reason for Russia's gold purchases is to reduce its reliance on the U.S. dollar and exposure to U.S. financial sanctions.

It is providing a template for others to do the same, using gold as money.

For example, in 2016, news broke that Turkey and Iran were engaged in a "gas for gold" plan.

Iran is under U.S. sanctions. Through the plan, Turkey can pay for gas imported from Iran with gold.

Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and others are proving they don't need the U.S. dollar. They are conducting business and settling trade with gold shipments, which aren't under the control of the U.S. government.

This is how gold will benefit from the U.S. government using the dollar as a financial weapon.

No. 3: Oil for Gold- China's Golden Alternative

In 2017, when tensions with North Korea were rising, Trump's Treasury secretary threatened to kick China out of the U.S. dollar system if it didn't crack down on North Korea.

If the threat had been carried out, it would have been the financial equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on Beijing.

Without access to dollars, China would struggle to import oil and engage in international trade.

Its economy would come to a grinding halt.

China would rather not depend on an adversary like this. This is one of the main reasons it created what I call the "Golden Alternative."

Last year, the Shanghai International Energy Exchange launched a crude oil futures contract denominated in Chinese yuan. For the first time in the post-World War II era, it will allow for large oil transactions outside of the U.S. dollar.

Of course, most oil producers don't want a large reserve of yuan.

That's why China has explicitly linked the crude futures contract with the ability to convert yuan into physical gold – without touching the Chinese government's official reserves – through gold exchanges in Shanghai and Hong Kong. (Shanghai is already the world's largest physical gold market.)

Bottom line, China's Golden Alternative will allow oil producers to sell oil for gold and completely bypass any restrictions, regulations, or sanctions of the U.S. financial system.

With China's Golden Alternative, a lot of oil money is going to flow into yuan and gold instead of dollars and Treasuries.

CNBC estimates that the amount of redirected oil money will eventually hit $600-$800 billion. Much of this will flow into the gold market, which itself is only $170 billion.




Consider this...

China is the world's largest importer of oil.

So far this year, China has imported an average of around 9.8 million barrels of oil per day.

This number is expected to grow at least 10% per year.

Right now, oil is hovering around $60 per barrel. That means China is spending around $588 million per day to import oil.

Gold is currently priced around $1,330 an ounce.

That means every day, China is importing oil worth over 442,105 ounces of gold.

If we're conservative and assume that just half of Chinese imports will be purchased in gold soon, it translates into increased demand of more than 80 million ounces per year – or more than 70% of gold's annual production.

This shift hasn't been priced into the gold price. When it happens, the increased demand for gold from China's Golden Alternative is going to shock the gold market.

The bottom line is, China's Golden Alternative is a big step towards gold's re-monetization.

No. 4: The Fed's Dramatic Capitulation

In the wake of the 2008 crash, the Federal Reserve instituted several emergency measures. The chairman at the time, Bernanke, promised Congress they would be temporary.

This included money-printing programs euphemistically called "quantitative easing" (QE).

Through QE, the Fed created $3.7 trillion out of thin air.

That newly created money was used to buy mainly government bonds, which sat on the Fed's bloated balance sheet.

The Fed also brought interest rates to the lowest levels in U.S. history. The Fed artificially brought rates down to 0% and kept them there for over six years.

Capitalism's Most Important Price

Remember, interest rates are simply the price of borrowing money (debt). They have an enormous impact on banks, the real estate market, and the auto industry, among others.

In 2016, the Fed began its attempt to "normalize" its monetary policy by raising interest rates and reducing the size of its balance sheet to more historically normal levels. By doing so, the Fed was reversing the emergency measures put in place after the 2008 crisis.

Interest rates have risen from 0% to around 2.5%, and the Fed has drained over $500 billion from its balance sheet, or about 11% from its peak.

But then, the stock market tanked...

The S&P 500 peaked at 2,930 in late September 2018. By late December, it had crashed over 19% and appeared to be headed sharply lower.

It was the worst December in stock market history, except for December 1931, which was during the Great Depression.

That spooked the Fed into its most abrupt change in monetary policy in recent history.

Instead of normalizing monetary policy and removing the so-called "temporary" and "emergency" measures in place since 2008 – as it had long planned to do – the Fed capitulated.

Earlier this year, the Fed announced it would not raise interest rates in 2019.

The Fed also announced it would phase out its balance sheet reduction program in the fall.

Previously, the Fed was slowly winding down its balance sheet by about $30 billion a month. At such a snail's pace, it would have taken the Fed over 10 years to drain its balance sheet back to its pre-crisis normal level.

Hooked on Easy Money

This whole charade is indicative of how utterly dependent the U.S. economy has become on artificially low interest rates and easy money.

If the Fed couldn't normalize interest rates when the debt was $22 trillion, how is it ever going to raise rates when the debt is $30 trillion or higher?

The Fed couldn't shrink a $4.5 trillion balance sheet. How is it going to shrink, say, a $10 trillion balance sheet or higher?

The answer is it can't and won't. It's impossible for the U.S. government to normalize interest rates with an abnormal amount of debt. The Fed is trapped.

After nearly six years of 0% interest rates, the U.S. economy is hooked on the heroin of easy money. It can't even tolerate a modest reduction in the Fed's balance sheet and 2.5% interest rates, still far below historical averages.

In other words, this monetary tightening cycle is over. The next move is a return to QE and 0%, and perhaps negative, interest rates. These moves would, of course, weaken the dollar and be good for gold.

By flipping from tightening to signaling future easing, the Fed has turned a major headwind for the gold market into a tailwind.

(Stay tuned for part 2.)

China’s Property Developers Have a 1.25 Billion-Square-Meter Problem

Real-estate giants have become overly reliant on funding from sales of houses they haven’t built

By Mike Bird





China’s real-estate developers are selling more unbuilt properties than they’re finishing—a lot more. When starts and completions move back toward one another, as they must eventually, the sector will feel the squeeze.

Property starts in China always outnumber completions, but in the past 12 months it has been by a factor of nearly 2.5—wider than at any time but 2010-11, following the stimulus spree China launched against the global financial crisis. The gap comes to 1.25 billion square meters.

In the 12 months through March, over 85% of residential-property sales were for future delivery, a record high. Presales are a key source of funds for highly leveraged developers, which get direct access to the cash—unlike in other countries, where much of it would be held in escrow until completion. This funding, essentially a form of debt, will dry up if the gap between starts and completions narrows.

There is no sign of immediate weakness in sales and starts. Indeed, if Beijing attempts to lift the economy with a credit boost it would likely feed into the property market—offering more time to developers, though also increasing their obligations.

Developers’ reliance on presales was demonstrated last September, when a Bloomberg report that a single province was merely considering a ban sparked a fall of more than 5% for Country Garden Holdings Co., a major developer.


Before you build it, they will buy. Photo: china stringer network/Reuters


Developers’ growth has been relentless. China Evergrande Groupreported sales of 561.9 billion Hong Kong dollars (US$72 billion) in 2018, more than triple its 2015 sales. But the sectors’ shares have performed erratically, leaving the CSI 300 Real Estate Index basically where it was at the end of 2015.

When the gap between completions and starts has narrowed in the past, as from late 2014 to early 2016, some developers have come under acute pressure. Kaisa Group Holdingsbecame the first property company to default on offshore dollar debt.

A less frothy presales market isn’t the only threat to developers. High levels of short-term dollar debt mean the companies are exposed both to any tightening in U.S. financial conditions and any further decline in the yuan.

A wobble in the financial health of Chinese developers would in turn hit the Asian junk-bond market. Almost half the region’s dollar high-yield bonds were issued by Chinese property companies, up from roughly a 10th a decade ago.

It may be some time off, but at some point the Chinese real-estate industry will hit a rough patch as funding becomes scarcer. A narrowing in the near-record gap between starts and completions could be one trigger. Investors would be wise to keep an eye on it.