Streetwise Professor

March 1, 2017

Ivan Glasenberg: Mistaking Luck for Genius?

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 8:58 pm

Glencore is back from the brink, posting a $1.4 billion profit for 2016. When I first read about the 2016 results, I wondered aloud to a friend whether Ivan Glasenberg would have learned something from the company’s near death experience, or instead would consider the fall someone else’s fault, and the resurrection the result of his genius. I should have known it would be the latter.

Glasenberg has been gloating about the 2016 results, and flaunting them as some sort of vindication. He is openly musing about paying a $20 billion dividend to the company’s “long suffering shareholders,” and is looking for acquisitions, including in North American grain trading.

The fact is that Glencore and Ivan Glasenberg were (and are) just along for a ride on the commodity price roller coaster, which is located at a Chinese amusement park. When the roller coaster plunged as the Chinese economy shuddered in 2015, Glencore plunged along with it. Now, in large part due to Chinese policy moves that have caused the prices of coal and other raw materials to climb again, Glencore has rebounded. Management genius had nothing to do with it.

Well, that’s not completely true. Glasenberg made the conscious choice to transform Glencore from a trading firm that was basically flat price neutral to a mining firm with a big exposure to the flat prices of coal and copper in particular. So the big drop and the rebound are the result of his choice.

When Glencore was in peril in 2015, I said that its fate was dependent on commodity prices, and hence on Chinese policy, rather than any decision that management can make. I said that Glencore was along for the ride. That turned out to be true. It remains true going forward. That was the fundamental strategic choice that has shaped and will continue to shape its performance. Management can at best optimize performance over the cycle, but the cycle will dominate.

Prior to 2015, Glencore management did not optimize. The firm was over-leveraged: it continued to operate with trading-firm like leverage levels even though it faced bigger commodity price risks. Glasenberg/Glencore have cut down on debt in the past year, and this reduces the likelihood of a repeat of 2015–if they stick to a lower leverage policy going forward. But the fact is that the biggest driver of Glencore’s fate is not decisions made in Baar, but the whims of policymakers in Beijing.

It is interesting to compare Glasenberg’s crowing to the more muted tones of other mining firms which have also profited from the rebound. The managements of these other firms apparently realize that what the cycle giveth, the cycle can taketh away. Is Peabody Coal’s management preening over the company’s rebound? No. They are silently grateful that factors outside of their control have turned their way. Similarly, Noble eked out a profit, but its management isn’t breaking their arms patting themselves on the back.

Traders typically make deals of relatively short duration, and it is possible to evaluate trading decisions and trading acumen based on P/L. But by transforming Glencore into a mining company with a  supersized trading arm, Glasenberg purposefully made a very long term trade with a duration of years (decades, even): quarterly or even annual fluctuations in P/L tell you little about the wisdom of such a trade. It is therefore rather disturbing to watch Glasenberg gloat on the basis of a profitable year driven by a cyclical turn with which he had exactly zero to do with.

And let’s put this in perspective. Glencore lost $5 billion in 2015. 2016 made up less than 30 percent of that loss. There is still a long way to go to determine whether the big, multi-year trade that Glencore made a few years ago was a smart play or not.

Perhaps Glasenberg still has a trader’s mindset, and a trader’s time horizon, suited for a transaction cycle measured in weeks or months, not years or decades. If so, the company might be in for a big future fall, because its guiding light is apt to mistake luck for skill.

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January 24, 2017

Two Contracts With No Future

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:14 pm

Over the past couple of days two major futures exchanges have pulled the plug on contracts. I predicted these outcomes when the contracts were first announced, and the reasons I gave turned out to be the reasons given for the decisions.

First, the CME announced that it is suspending trading in its new cocoa contract, due to lack of volume/liquidity. I analyzed that contract here. This is just another example of failed entry by a futures contract. Not really news.

Second, the Shanghai Futures Exchange has quietly shelved plans to launch a China-based oil contract. When it was first mooted, I expressed extreme skepticism, due mainly to China’s overwhelming tendency to intervene in markets sending the wrong signal–wrong from the government’s perspective that is:

Then the crash happened, and China thrashed around looking for scapegoats, and rounded up the usual suspects: Speculators! And it suspected that the CSI 300 Index and CSI 500 Index futures contracts were the speculators’ weapons of mass destruction of choice. So it labeled trades of bigger than 10 (!) contracts “abnormal”–and we know what happens to people in China who engage in unnatural financial practices! It also increased fees four-fold, and bumped up margin requirements.

The end result? Success! Trading volumes declined 99 percent. You read that right. 99 percent. Speculation problem solved! I’m guessing that the fear of prosecution for financial crimes was by far the biggest contributor to that drop.

. . . .

And the crushing of the CSI300 and CSI500 contracts will impede development of a robust oil futures market. The brutal killing of these contracts will make market participants think twice about entering positions in a new oil futures contract, especially long dated ones (which are an important part of the CME/NYMEX and ICE markets). Who wants to get into a position in a market that may be all but shut down when the market sends the wrong message? This could be the ultimate roach motel: traders can check in, but they can’t check out. Or the Chinese equivalent of Hotel California: traders can check in, but they can never leave. So traders will be reluctant to check in in the first place. Ironically, moreover, this will encourage the in-and-out day trading that the Chinese authorities say that they condemn: you can’t get stuck in a position if you don’t hold a position.

In other words, China has a choice. It can choose to allow markets to operate in fair economic weather or foul, and thereby encourage the growth of robust contracts in oil or equities. Or it can choose to squash markets during economic storms, and impede their development even in good times.

I do not see how, given the absence of the rule of law and the just-demonstrated willingness to intervene ruthlessly, that China can credibly commit to a policy of non-intervention going forward. And because of this, it will stunt the development of its financial markets, and its economic growth. Unfettered power and control have a price. [Emphasis added.]

And that’s exactly what has happened. Per Reuters’ Clyde Russell:

The quiet demise of China’s plans to launch a new crude oil futures contract shows the innate conflict of wanting the financial clout that comes with being the world’s biggest commodity buyer, but also seeking to control the market.

. . . .

The main issues were concerns by international players about trading in yuan, given issues surrounding convertibility back to dollars, and also the risks associated with regulation in China.

The authorities in Beijing have established a track record of clamping down on commodity trading when they feel the market pricing is driven by speculation and has become divorced from supply and demand fundamentals.

On several occasions last year, the authorities took steps to crack down on trading in then hot commodities such as iron ore, steel and coal.

While these measures did have some success in cooling markets, they are generally anathema to international traders, who prefer to accept the risk of rapid reversals in order to enjoy the benefits of strong rallies.

It’s likely that while the INE could design a crude futures contract that would on paper tick all the right boxes, it would battle to overcome the trust deficit that exists between the global financial community and China.

What international banks and trading houses will want to see before they throw their weight behind a new futures contract is evidence that Beijing won’t interfere in the market to achieve outcomes in line with its policy goals.

It will be hard, but not impossible, to guarantee this, with the most plausible solution being the establishment of some sort of free trade zone in which the futures contract could be legally housed.

Don’t hold your breath.

It is also quite interesting to contemplate this after all the slobbering over Xi’s Davos speech. China is protectionist and has an overwhelming predilection to intervene in markets when they don’t give the outcomes desired by the government/Party. It is not going to be a leader in openness and markets. Anybody whose obsession with Trump leads them to ignore this fundamental fact is truly a moron.



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January 17, 2017

Didn’t Know China is a Beacon of Economic Openness & Political Freedom? You’re Not Worthy of Davos!

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:26 pm

The Davos set is in such a complete meltdown over Trump that they are desperate for someone to champion the cause of globalism and to fight against the growing tide of protectionism. And they found him! Chinese President Xi Jinping.

No. Really. The slobbering over his speech today praising globalization and criticizing protectionism was embarrassing, even by Davos standards.

Trump’s views on trade are utterly misguided, but to view Xi and China as some sort of avatar for an open society is not just bizarre. It’s perverse. Beyond perverse, really.

China’s economy is a Frankenstein of controls and state intervention. Vast swathes of the Chinese economy are strongly protected from foreign competition, and foreign investment is heavily regulated. The currency is also tightly controlled, and not freely convertible: that will happen in a decade, if ever. I am not saying that that the currency is currently manipulated downwards. To the contrary, at present the reverse is true. Chinese are looking for every way possible to get money out of the country, a sure sign of an overvalued currency. (Small illustration: visit a luxury car dealer in any major city in the US, and you’ll note how many of the buyers are Chinese.) The government  is doing everything possible to prevent it, and may be forced to go to hard capital controls. The point is that in the currency as in other things, the Chinese buy open markets a la carte, and only when it pleases them.

In brief, China is a heavily controlled mercantilist economy. Xi and the Chinese do things that Trump could only dream of in his greatest flights of mercantilist fantasy. To view Xi as the anti-Trump is utterly ridiculous, even by the clownish standards of the Davos dips.

Trump’s presidency and the environmental holocaust that it will supposedly bring has also led many to turn to China for leadership on climate. This is just as clueless, even if one overlooks the real pollution that chokes China–already this year, 60 Chinese cities have declared smog emergencies–and focuses on the far more speculative issue of CO2.

Yes, China has spent gazillions on wind and solar. But what has it received for its massive investment? This NYT article gives a great illustration:

On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the Jiuquan Wind Power Base stands as a symbol of China’s quest to dominate the world’s renewable energy market. With more than 7,000 turbines arranged in rows that stretch along the sandy horizon, it is one of the world’s largest wind farms, capable of generating enough electricity to power a small country.

But these days, the windmills loom like scarecrows, idle and inert. The wind howls outside, but many turbines in Jiuquan, a city of vast deserts and farms in the northwest province of Gansu, have been shut off because of weak demand. Workers while away the hours calculating how much power the turbines could have generated if there were more buyers, and wondering if and when they will ever make a profit.

“There’s not much we can do right now,” said Zhou Shenggang, a manager at a state-owned energy company who oversees 134 turbines here; about 60 percent of their capacity goes unused each year. “Only the state can intervene.”

China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has pointed to its embrace of wind and solar power and other alternatives to coal to position itself at the forefront of the global effort to combat climate change.

More than 92,000 wind turbines have been built across the country, capable of generating 145 gigawatts of electricity, nearly double the capacity of wind farms in the United States. One out of every three turbines in the world is now in China, and the government is adding them at a rate of more than one per hour.

But some of its most ambitious wind projects are underused. Many are grappling with a nationwide economic slowdown that has dampened demand for electricity. Others are stymied by persistent favoritism toward the coal industry by local officials and a dearth of transmission lines to carry electricity from rural areas in the north and west to China’s fastest-growing cities.

Then there’s this: “Wind power now accounts for 3.3 percent of electricity generation in China.”

And so how does China generate power? With dirty coal, mainly–as the choking smog in Beijing and other major cities testifies.

In brief, China’s renewables boom is a classic example of green hype, and of the grotesque malinvestment that has occurred in China in the past decades, especially post-financial crisis. Keep this in mind when you interpret Chinese economic statistics. These thousands of windmills that produce nothing contributed to measured Chinese GDP–but they contribute virtually nothing to its actual economic wealth or consumption. Much of measured Chinese GDP growth is due to the incurring of costs that confer no benefits, and is as economically meaningful as Soviet statistics. (Alas, allegedly smart people are as deceived today by China as they were by the supposed Soviet miracle.)

The article also contains this tidbit: “The tepid demand for electricity in an economic downturn has also exacerbated the troubles for renewable energy. Demand for electricity grew by only 0.5 percent in 2015, the slowest rate of growth since 1974.” But measured GDP increased 6.9 percent. It’s hard to reconcile those figures.

But the “elite” is so obsessed with Trump and the havoc that they are just sure he will wreak on trade and the environment that they embrace the leader of a mercantilist environmental disaster as their savior.

And it’s not just economics. The elites project every conceivable oppression fantasy on Trump, and portray him as a mortal threat to racial and religious minorities (including Jews–quick: Someone warn his son-in-law!), LGBTQXYZwhateveritisnowIcan’tkeepupandwillprobablyrunoutofletters, immigrants, and on and on and on. Yet they are lionizing a real oppressor, indeed, the leader of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet: what it lacks in rigor compared to North Korea, it makes up with in size. They ignore real oppression and get hysterical over oppression that exists exclusively in their imaginations.

I would say these people are not serious. I wish that were true. The problem is that these people are deadly serious.

They are also completely without a clue. Davos founder Klaus Schwab ostentatiously said that Trump was not invited. First, as if Trump gives a flyer–indeed, he probably considers this a compliment. Second, and more importantly, it demonstrates exactly why this lot was utterly blindsided by the events of 2016–most notably by Brexit and the election of Trump. Davos–and elite conversation around the world–is a carnival of confirmation bias, an impenetrable bubble of self-congratulation utterly cut off from the people they condescendingly claim that they want to help. People with way too much money and way too little sense.

At the risk of sounding like Tom Friedman quoting some cab driver, I will relate a story from today that illustrates the disconnect between those in Davos giving tongue baths to a mercantilist leader of a police state and the people who are toppling their heroes and putting their arch enemies in their stead. While getting a haircut, my barber–a Lebanese immigrant, by the way, not a member of Storm Front–said “I don’t pay much attention to politics, but I hope Trump tells the Chinese to go fuck themselves.” (Note: China had not been part of the conversation up to that point.)

But this is our world now. Due to the Trump derangement syndrome the allegedly liberal globalist elites heap praises on the leader of a protectionist, mercantilist, serial human rights violator. And all the while ignoring those with more common sense (like my barber), then wondering why they are losing.


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December 3, 2016

The Trumpharrumphers’ Latest Freakout

Filed under: China,Economics,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:30 pm

In the nearly 4 weeks since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a daily freakout on this issue or that. Every day, we hear about another statement or appointment or Tweet that is apparently going to result in the impending arrival of the end times. For those thinking about career moves, becoming a Pfizer manufacturer’s rep in a blue state is a sure winner, because Xanax sales are certain to skyrocket.

Yesterday’s Freak Out by the Trumpharrumphers–which is spilling over into today–is that their bête noire took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. How this call came about is somewhat obscure. CNN reported that a former Cheney advisor now working the Trump transition, Stephen Yates, arranged it. Yates denies it.

That’s really neither here nor there. The issue is whether this is some grave blunder on Trump’s part. The immediate reaction by many is that this was thoughtless and rash, but I wouldn’t be so sure. It could very well be calculated to send a message to China that Trump does not accept the status quo that has developed over the past decades. China has challenged this status quo, particularly through its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. This could be Trump’s way of pushing back. Sending a message to the revisionist power that revisions can be a two way street.

It is a low cost way of sending that message. Unlike some alternatives, it is not latent with potential for an immediate confrontation. China would have to make an aggressive countermove. Consider an alternative way of sending a signal: sending US ships or aircraft to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. That presents the potential of immediate conflict, due either to the decision of the leadership in Beijing, or a hotheaded commander on the spot. Recall that soon after Bush II took over that the Chinese forced down a US EP-3 aircraft off Hainan.

Not to say that Trump will not order freedom of navigation missions after becoming Commander in Chief. Just pointing out that taking the phone call certainly gets China’s attention, and gets it to think about what the new administration’s posture will be, without putting US and Chinese military forces in close contact in a way that could result in a disastrous incident.

One thing that is very striking about the hysterical reaction to The Call is that many of those responding most hysterically that it raises the risk of World War III have also favored a much more confrontational approach with Russia, especially in Syria. Gee, you’d think that declaring a no fly zone over Syria would create a far greater risk of an armed confrontation between nuclear superpowers than taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president.

This asymmetric approach to Russia and China makes no sense. Yes, Putin has a zero sum view of the world; wants to revise the post-Cold War settlement; nurses historical grievances; and believes that the United States is hell-bent on denying Russia its proper place in the world (or worse yet, overthrowing its government). But the Chinese have a zero sum view of the world; want to revise the balance of power in Asia; nurse historical grievances; and believe that the United States is hell-bent on denying China its proper place in the world. Russia hacks. China hacks. Indeed, if anything, Chinese hacks have been far more threatening to US national security than the alleged Russian hacks that have generated the greatest outrage, namely the DNC and Podesta email lacks. For instance, the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database likely caused grievous harm to US security: the DNC and Podesta hacks only embarrassed, well, political hacks. (Which probably explains the intensity of the outrage.) Insofar as Russian propaganda is concerned, if RT (which does not even register on the Nielsen ratings) and fringe internet sites gravely threaten US democracy, we have bigger problems to worry about: we will have met the enemy, and he is us.

The key issue is capability. With the exception of nuclear weapons, Russian capabilities are declining and limited, whereas Chinese capabilities are increasingly robust. The Soviets were big on “the correlation of forces.” The correlation of forces is strongly against the Russians at present. They have limited ability to project power beyond their immediate borders, and then only (in a persistent way) against ramshackle places like the Donbas and Abkhazia. The Russian Navy is a shambles: its current deployment off Syria would make Potemkin blush. The Navy faces the same problem that it has faced since the time of Peter I: it is split between inhospitable ports located at vast distances from one another. The submarine force has made something of a comeback, but its surface units are old and decrepit, and fielded in insufficient numbers. The potential for expansion is sharply constrained by the near collapse of Russian shipbuilding: even frigate construction is hamstrung because of the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines.

Russia is also in an acute demographic situation: during his recent speech, Putin crowed that fertility had increased from 1.70 live births/woman to 1.78–still well below replacement. This problem manifests itself in the form of increasing difficulties of manning the Russian military. It still relies on conscription for about 1/2 of its troops, and those serve for an absurd 12 months. After 8 years of reform efforts, 50 percent of the personnel are now kontraktniki, but the Defense Ministry’s refusal to release information on the number of contract soldiers who leave each year (while touting the number of new volunteers) suggests that there is considerable turnover in these forces as well. There is still no long-term cadre of non-commissioned officers, and the force structure is still very top heavy.

Moreover, this military rests on a very shaky economic foundation. In particular, Russian military manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was, and the fiscal capacity of the state is sharply limited by a moribund economy. This makes a dramatic expansion in Russian military capability impossibly expensive: even the modest rearmament that has occurred in the past several years has forced the government to make many hard tradeoffs.

In contrast, Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

In contrast to Russia, China is actually in the position of having a surfeit of military manpower, and is looking to cut force numbers while increasing the skill and training of the smaller number of troops that will be in the ranks after the reforms are completed.

Policy should emphasize capability over intentions. Intentions are hard to divine, especially where the Russians and Chinese are involved: further, the United States’ record in analyzing intentions has been abysmal (another argument for gutting the CIA and starting over). Moreover, intentions change. It must also be recognized that capabilities shape intentions: a nation with greater power will entertain actions that a weaker power would never consider.

Taking all this into consideration, I would rate Russia as a pain in the ass, but a pain that can be managed, and far less of a challenge to US interests than China. Putin has played a very weak hand very well. Indeed, as I have written several times, we have actually fed his vanity and encouraged his truculence by overreacting to some of his ventures (Syria most notably). But the fact remains that his is a weak hand, whereas China’s power is greater, and increasing.

I am not advocating a Cold War: East Asia Edition. But when evaluating and responding to capabilities of potential adversaries, China should receive far greater attention than Russia. Certainly there is no reason to risk a confrontation over Syria, and pique over embarrassing disclosures of corrupt chicanery that the perpetrators should damn well be embarrassed about is no reason for a confrontation either. A longer term focus on China, and managing its ambitions, are far more important. That is a relationship that truly needs a revision–a Reset, if you will. And methinks that Trump’s taking the phone call from the Taiwanese president was carefully arranged to tell the Chinese that a Reset was coming. A little chin music to send a message, if you will.

A more provocative thought to close. Realpolitik would suggest trying to find ways to split China and Russia, rather than engage in policies like those which currently are driving them together. A reverse Nixon, if you will. I am by no means clear on how that would look, or how to get there. But it seems a far more promising approach than perpetuating and escalating a confrontation with a declining power.

PS. This is fitting in many ways:

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November 29, 2016

A Policy Inspired More by the Marx Brothers Than Marx

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:51 pm

As goes China, so go the commodity markets. The problem is that where China goes is largely driven by a bastardized form of central planning which in turn is driven by China’s baroque political economy. In past years, China’s rapid growth conferred on the government a reputation for wisdom and foresight that was largely undeserved, but now more people are waking up to the reality that Chinese policy engenders tremendous waste, and that the country would actually be richer–and have better prospects for the future–if its government tempered its dirigiste tendencies.

Case in point: Morgan Stanley’s Chief China Economist uses the ham-fisted intervention into the coal industry to illustrate the broader waste in the Chinese system:

These reforms entail the necessary reduction of excess capacity, particularly in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and industries where overproduction issues are often the most acute.

While economists agree that a reduction of excess capacity, particularly in heavy industry, is key to the nation’s efforts to get on a more sustainable growth trajectory, China’s supply side reforms bare little resemblance to the “trickle down” Reaganomics of the 1980s, which seized upon tax cuts and deregulation as a way to foster stronger growth.

In Morgan Stanley’s year-ahead economic outlook for the world’s second-largest economy, Chief China Economist Robin Xing uses the coal industry to detail two key ways in which supply-side reforms with Chinese characteristics have been ill-designed.

“The state-planned capacity cuts and the slow progress in market-oriented SOEs reform have come at the cost of economic efficiency,” laments the economist.

In a bid to shutter overproduction and address environmental concerns, Beijing moved to restrict the number of working days in the sector to 276 from 330 in February.

But in enacting these cuts, policymakers employed a one-size-fits-all approach.

“The production limit was implemented to all companies in the sector, which means good companies that are more profitable and less vulnerable to excess capacity are affected just as much as the bad ones with obsolete capacity and weak profitability,” writes Xing.

This is largely true, but begs the question of why China adopted this approach. The most likely explanation is that the real motive behind the cuts has little to do with “environmental concerns”, though those are a convenient excuse. Instead, forcing the most inefficient producers out of business–or allowing them to go out of business–would cause problems in the banking and (crucially) the shadow banking sectors because these firms are heavily leveraged. Allowing them to continue to produce, and propping up prices by forcing even relatively efficient firms to cut output, allows them to service their debts, thereby sparing the banks that have lent to them, and the various shadow banking products that hold their debt (often as a way of taking it off bank balance sheets).

If the goal was to reduce pollution, it would have been far more efficient to impose a tax on coal-related pollutants. But this tax would have fallen most heavily on the least efficient producers, and would caused many of them to fail and shut down. The fact that China has not pursued that policy is compelling evidence that pollution–as atrocious as it is–was not the primary driver behind the policy. Instead, it was a backdoor bailout of inefficient producers, and crucially, those who have lent to them.

Morgan Stanley further notes the inefficiency of the capital markets which favor state owned enterprises:

As such, this misallocation of production serves to amplify the already prevalent misallocation of credit stemming from state-owned firms’ favorable access to capital. That arguably undermines market forces that would otherwise help facilitate China’s economic rebalancing.

But this too is driven by politics: SOEs have favorable access to capital because they have favorable access to politicians.

The price shock resulting from the output cuts hit consuming firms in China hard, which has led to a lurching effort to mitigate the policy:

This month, Beijing was forced to reverse course to allow firms to meet the pick-up in demand — another case of state dictate, rather than price signals, driving economic activities.

“In this context, we think the more state-planned production control and capacity cuts cause distortions to the market and are unlikely to be sustainable,” concludes Xing.

“Beijing was forced to reverse course” because utilities consuming thermal coal and steel producers consuming coking coal pressured the government to relent.

The end result is a policy process that owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Marx. A cockamamie scheme to address one pressing problem causes problems elsewhere.

Methinks that Mr. Xing is rather too sanguine about the ability or willingness of the Chinese government to sustain such highly distorting policies. They have done so for years, and are showing no inclination to change their ways. Efficiency is sacrificed to achieve distributive and political objectives, and the bigger and more complex the Chinese economy the more difficult it is for the authorities to predict and control the effects of their policy objectives. But this just induces the government to resort to more authoritarian means, and attempt to exercise even more centralized power. This is costly, but these are costs the authorities are willing and able to bear. Inefficiency is the price of power, but it is a price that the authorities are willing to pay.

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October 26, 2016

China Has Been Glencore’s Best Friend, But What China Giveth, China Can Taketh Away

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:55 pm

Back when Glencore was in extremis last year, I noted that although the company could do some things on its own (e.g., sell assets, cut dividends, reduce debt) to address its problems, its fate was largely out of its hands. Further, its fate was contingent on what happened to commodity prices–coal and copper in particular–and those prices would depend first and foremost on China, and hence on Chinese policy and politics.

Those prognostications have proven largely correct. The company executed a good turnaround plan, but it has received a huge assist from China. China’s heavy-handed intervention to cut thermal and coking coal output has led to a dramatic spike in coal prices. Whereas the steady decline in those prices had weighed heavily on Glencore’s fortunes in 2014 and 2015, the rapid rise in those prices in 2016 has largely retrieved those fortunes. Thermal coal prices are up almost 100 percent since mid-year, and coking coal has risen 240 percent from its lows.

As a result, Glencore was just able to secure almost $100/ton for a thermal coal contract with a major Japanese buyer–up 50 percent from last year’s contract. It is anticipated that this is a harbinger for other major sales contracts.

The company will not capture the entire rally in prices, because it had hedged about 50 percent of its output for 2016. But that means 50 percent wasn’t hedged, and the price rise on those unhedged tons will provide a substantial profit for the company. (This dependence of the company on flat prices indicates that it is not so much a trader anymore, as an upstream producer married to a big trading operation.) (Given that hedges are presumably marked-to-market and collateralized, and hence require Glencore to make cash payments on its derivatives at the time prices rise, I wonder if the rally has created any cash flow issues due to mismatches in cash flows between physical coal sales and derivatives held as hedges.)

So Chinese policy has been Glencore’s best friend so far in 2016. But don’t get too excited. Now the Chinese are concerned that they might have overdone things. The government has just called an emergency meeting with 20 major coal producers to figure out how to raise output in order to lower prices:

China’s state planner has called another last-minute meeting to discuss with more than 20 coal mines more steps to boost supplies to electric utilities and tame a rally in thermal coal prices, according to two sources and local press.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has convened a meeting with 22 coal miners for Tuesday to discuss ways to guarantee supply during the winter while sticking to the government’s long-term goal of removing excess inefficient capacity, according to a document inviting companies to the meeting seen by Reuters.

What China giveth, China might taketh away.

All this policy to-and-fro has, of course is leading to speculation about Chinese government policy. This contributes to considerable price volatility, a classic example of policy-induced volatility, which is far more common that policies that reduce volatility.

Presumably this uncertainty will induce Glencore to try to lock in more customers (which is a form of hedging). It might also increase its paper hedging, because a policy U-turn in China (about which your guess and Glencore’s guess are as good as mine) is always a possibility, and could send prices plunging again.

So when I said last year that Glencore was hostage to coal prices, and hence to Chinese government policy–well, here’s the proof. It’s worked in the company’s favor so far, but given the competing interests (electricity generators, steel firms, banks, etc.) affected by commodity prices, a major policy adjustment is a real possibility. Glencore–and other major commodity producers, especially in coal and ferrous metals–remain hostages to Chinese policy and hence Chinese politics.

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September 12, 2016

The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:03 pm

When I was in Singapore last week I spoke at the FT Asia Commodities Summit. Regardless of whether the subject was ags or energy or metals, China played an outsized role in the discussion. In particular, participants focused on China’s newish “supply side” policy.

There is little doubt that the policy–which focuses on reducing capacity, or at least output in steel, coal, and other primary industries–has had an impact on prices. Consider coking coal:

Coking coal, the material used by steelmakers to fire their blast furnaces, has become the best performing commodity of 2016 after surging more than 80 per cent over the past month on the back of production curbs and flooding in China.

Premium hard Australian coking coal delivered to China hit $180.9 a tonne on Friday, this highest level since price reporting agency Steel Index began publishing assessments in 2013. It has risen 131 per cent since the start of the year, outpacing gold, silver, iron ore and zinc — other top performing commodities.

The main driver of the rally — which has also roiled thermal coal — is Beijing’s decision to restrict the number of working days at domestic mines to 276 days per year from 330 previously.

This policy is aimed at the improving the profitability of producers so they can repay loans to local banks. But it has reduced output and forced traders and steel mills to buy imported material from what is known as the seaborne market.

80 percent. In a month.

Or thermal coal:

Newcastle thermal coal is heading for the first annual gain in six years as China seeks to cut overcapacity and curb pollution. While the timing of the output adjustment is unavailable, it may start in September or October after recent price gains, Citigroup said in the report dated Sept. 8. Bohai-Rim is 26 percent higher from a year ago, when it was 409 yuan, while Newcastle has climbed as much as 40 percent this year.

The phrase “supply side reform” actually fits rather awkwardly here, at least to a Western ear. That phrase connotes the reduction of regulatory and tax burdens as a means of promoting economic growth. But Supply Side Reform With Chinese Characteristics means increasing the government’s role in managing the economy.

A better description would be that this is The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics. FDR’s New Deal was largely a set of measures to cartelize major US industries, in an effort to raise prices. The economic “thinking” behind this was completely wrongheaded, and motivated by the idea that there was “ruinous competition” in product and labor markets that required government intervention to fix. Apparently the higher prices and wages were supposed to increase aggregate demand. Or something. But although the New Deal foundered on Constitutional shoals only a few years after its passage, in its brief existence it had proven to be an economic nightmare rent by contradictions. For instance, if you increase prices in an upstream industry, that is detrimental to the downstream sector for which the upstream industry’s outputs are inputs. According to scholarship dating back to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, and continuing through recent work by Cole and Ohanian,  interference in the price mechanism and forced cartelization slowed the US’s recovery from the monetary shock that caused the Great Depression.

The motivation for the Chinese policy is apparently not so much to facilitate the rationalization of capacity in sectors with too much of it, but to increase revenue of firms in these sectors in order to permit them to pay back debt to banks and the holders of wealth management products (which often turn out to be banks too). Further, the policy is also driven by a need to sustain employment in these industries. Thus, the policies are intended to prop up the financially weakest and least efficient companies, rather than cull them.

So step back for a minute and contemplate what this means. Through a variety of policies, including most notably financial repression (that made capital artificially cheap) and credit stimulus, China encouraged massive investment in the commodities and primary goods sectors. These policies succeeded too well: they encouraged massive over-investment. So to offset that, and to mitigate the financial consequences for lenders, local governments, and workers, China is intervening to restrict output to raise prices. Rather than encouraging the correction of past errors, the new policy is perpetuating them, and creating new ones.

Remind me again how China’s government got the reputation as master economic managers, because I’m not seeing it. This is an example of a wasteful response to wasteful over-investment: waste coming and going. Further, it involves an increase in government intervention, which obviously has those in favor a more liberal (in the Smithian sense) free market policy rather distraught, and which foreshadows even more waste in the future.

The policy is also obviously fraught with tensions, because it pits those consuming primary and intermediate goods against those producing them–and against the banks who are now more likely to get their money back. That is, it is a backdoor bank (and WMP) bailout, the costs of which will be borne by the consumers of the goods produced by industries that were supersized by past government profligacy.

Ironically, the policy also stokes something that the government purports to hate: speculation. Policy volatility encourages speculation on the goods and industries affected by these policies. The large movements in prices in the coal and iron-steel sectors in response to policy changes provide a strong incentive to speculate on future policy changes.

Further, it creates the potential for moral hazard in the future. Future lenders (and purchasers of WMP) will look back on this policy and conclude that the government may well undertake backdoor bailouts if the companies they have lent to run into difficulties. This is hardly conducive to prudent lending and investment.

This is not foresighted policy. It is extemporizing to fix near-term problems, most of which were created by past measures to fix near-term problems. There is a Three Stooges aspect to the entire endeavor.

Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Glencore is no doubt very grateful for Chairman Xi’s heavy-handed policy intervention. It has probably played a larger role in bringing the company back from the brink than did the company’s prudent efforts to cut debt. But it is probably too late, alas, for Peabody Coal, and Arch Coal, and all those “coal people” whom former empathizer in chief Bill Clinton mocked last week. The ingrates!

The bottom line is that China is the 800 pound gorilla of the commodity markets, and shifts in its policies can lead to huge moves in commodity prices. Given that these policy shifts are driven by the crisis du jour (e.g., commodity producer shakiness threatening to make banks and local governments shaky) rather than good economics, and that these policy shifts are difficult to predict given the opacity and centralization of Chinese decision making, they add to substantial additional volatility in commodity prices and commodity markets: who can read the gorilla’s mind (which he changes often)?, and woe to those who read it wrong.

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May 5, 2016

If You Believe the Official Reason for Cutting Off Chinese Economic Statistics, I Have a Great Wall to Sell You

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 9:33 pm

Since October of last year, China’s National Bureau of Statistics has not published detailed data on metals markets. And it’s not just metals:

Data on oil products such as liquefied petroleum gas, naphtha and fuel oil have been withdrawn. So too have regional figures for coal, steel and electricity output.


The ostensible reason is that statistics bureau personnel were selling data for personal gain.

If you believe that, I will sell you a large wall. It’s so big they say you can see it from space! Only one like it! I sell it to you for a song.

“Anti-corruption” is the cover/pretext that the Chinese government now uses to eliminate those who have fallen from political favor. The most likely explanation for the “anti-corruption” drive aimed at economic statistics agencies is not to eliminate politically inconvenient people: it is to eliminate politically inconvenient data.

The fraudulence of Chinese official economic statistics is well known. One of the challenges of creating false official statistics for aggregate numbers like GDP growth is making it consistent with data on specific industries or sectors. The divergence between GDP growth and electricity production, for instance, has often been remarked upon.

How to solve this problem? Stop producing the underlying sector/industry/product specific data. How to do that without giving away the real reason? Use the all-purpose excuse: fighting corruption.

This has an air of plausibility: after all, corruption is rife in China. But this really doesn’t pass the smell test, especially given the timing: note that the data embargo started when concerns about the Chinese economy became acute at the end of last year.

The Chinese are desperate to maintain the illusion of 6.7 percent growth, quarter in, quarter out. Maintaining that illusion has become harder and harder as questioning of the consistency of various data sources has become more insistent. Shutting off the flow of sector/industry/product data is a brute force way of dealing with that problem.

This is another signal of the real state of the Chinese economy. The government wouldn’t have jacked up the stimulus unless the true state of affairs was far more dire than official statistics suggest. The government wouldn’t be suppressing data from the primary goods sectors unless it was also giving the lie to the official line.

Bottom line: question everything relating to the economy in China right now. Be especially skeptical about anything done under the banner of fighting corruption. That banner should be a red flag warning that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to suppress inconvenient people, or inconvenient truths. If they say it’s about corruption, it’s really about something else.


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April 29, 2016

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects, With Chinese Characteristics

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:32 pm

Commodity prices on Chinese exchanges, especially for ferrous metals, have been skyrocketing in recent weeks. Rebar, iron ore and coking coal have been particularly active, but thermal coal and cotton have been jacked too.

In response, the Chinese authorities are cracking down on speculation.  Exchanges have raised margins in order to attempt to rein in trading. The government is making ominous statements about speculation and manipulation. And we know what can happen to speculators who fall afoul of the government.

Ironically, prices never appear to be just right, by the lights of the Chinese authorities. Last summer, and earlier this year, speculators were allegedly causing stock prices and commodity prices to be too low. Now they are causing commodity prices to be too high.

This is a case of the Chinese authorities playing Claude Rains in Casablanca, and ordering a roundup of the usual suspects. Speculators make convenient targets, and they appear to be the proximate cause: after all, their trades produce the rapidly rising prices.

But the speculators are merely the messengers. If the Chinese authorities want to find the real culprits, they need to look in the mirror, for the speculators are responding to the most recent lurch in Chinese economic policy.

Put simply, after the economic slowdown of the second half of 2015 (a slowdown masked by fraudulent official statistics, but evident nonetheless), the government pushed the panic button and fell back on its standard remedy: injecting a burst of credit.  Some estimates put the Chinese debt to GDP at 237 percent. Since GDP is likely also an overstated measure of national income, due to fraudulent statistics and the fact that the losses on past investments have not been recognized (in part because much of the credit is pumped  into zombie companies that should be bankrupt) this ratio understates the true burden of the debt.

The surge in credit is being extended in large part through extremely fragile and opaque shadow banking channels, but the risk is ending up on bank balance sheets. To engage in regulatory arbitrage of capital rules, banks are disguising loans as “investments” in trust companies and other non-bank intermediaries, who then turn around and lend to corporate borrowers.  Just call a loan a “receivable” and voila, no nasty non performing loan problems.

There is one very reasonable inference to draw from this palpably panicked resort to stimulus, and the fact that many companies in commodity intensive industries are in desperate financial straits and the government is loath to let them go under: today’s stimulus and the implied promise of more in the future whenever the economy stutters will increase the demand for primary commodities. The speculators are drawing this inference, and responding accordingly by bidding up the prices of steel, iron ore, and coal.

Some commentors, including some whom I respect, point out that the increase does not appear to be supported by fundamentals, because steel and coal output, and capacity utilization, appear to be flat. But the markets are forward looking, and the price rises are driven by expectations of a turnaround in these struggling sectors, rather than their current performance. Indeed, the flat performance is one of the factors that has spurred the government to action.

When the Chinese responded to the 2008-2009 crisis by engaging in a massive stimulus program, I said that they were creating a Michael Jackson economy, one that was kept going by artificial means, to the detriment of its long term health. The most recent economic slowdown has engendered a similar response. Its scale is not quite as massive as 2008-2009, but it’s just begun. Furthermore, the earlier stimulus utilized a good portion of the nation’s debt capacity, and even though smaller, the current stimulus risks exhausting that capacity and raising the risk of a banking or financial crisis. It is clear, moreover, each yuan of stimulus today generates a smaller increase in (officially measured) output. Thus, in my view, the current stimulus will only provide a temporary boost to the economy, and indeed, will only aggravate the deep underlying distortions that resulted from past attempts to control the economy. This will make the ultimate reckoning even more painful.

But the speculators realize that the stimulus will raise commodity demand for some time. They further recognize that the stimulus signals that the authorities are backsliding on their pledges to reorient the economy away from heavy industry and investment-driven growth, and this is bullish for primary materials demand going forward: the resort to credit stimulus today makes it more likely that the authorities will continue to resort to it in the future. So they are bidding up prices today based on those predictions.

In other words, as long as the Michael Jackson economy lives and stays hooked, its suppliers will profit.

So yet again, commodity markets and the speculators who trade on them are merely a lurid facade distracting attention from the underlying reality. And the reality in China is that the government cannot kick the stimulus habit. The government may scream about (and worse) the usual suspects, but it is the real cause of the dizzying rise in Chinese commodity prices, and the burst of speculation.

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April 18, 2016

Corn is Chicken Feed, But the Losses from Chinese Malinvestment Aren’t

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 6:34 pm

The WSJ reports that China could face a $10 billion write-down on the huge corn stocks that it accumulated as part of its efforts over the past years to prop up prices for farmers. Corn is chicken feed, but $10 billion ain’t.

But I think that the moral of this story goes far beyond corn. Chinese agricultural price supports are just one example of the myriad policies that the country has adopted over recent years that distort prices and lead to misallocations of resources. Indeed, the deadweight losses from ag price supports are probably chicken feed in comparison with the waste resulting from distortions in the capital and credit markets that have led to massive malinvestment in industrial capacity (note the huge overcapacity in industries like steel), infrastructure, and housing.

Perhaps the main difference is that the corn inventories are being written down. The corn counted towards national income when it was produced, and writing down the inventories will reduce national income. Alas, the vast bulk of the malinvestments elsewhere will not be marked to market, and reported Chinese national income will be too high as a result.

What’s particularly important is that although the Chinese are apparently recognizing that their agricultural policies were inefficient, they cannot wean themselves from the credit stimulus habit. About 2 years ago I gave talks where I said China faced three alternatives, two of which were bearish for commodities: hard landing, transition to a more market-based, consumer-oriented system, or continued reliance on credit stimulus to keep measured growth high. I further opined that the latter alternative would just defer the choice between the first two for some time.

I did not venture a strong opinion on which alternative would happen, because I believed (and believe) that the choice is ultimately political, and I am in no position to predict with confidence Chinese politics. My sense was (and is), however, that sustaining the status quo was (and is) the most likely outcome. This would involve cranking up the stimulus in the face of any slowdown.

Recent experience suggests that’s the case:

China’s economy slowed further in the beginning of the year, though Beijing’s policies to revive growth with old-style tools such as lending and construction appeared to gain traction in March.

China’s gross domestic product expanded by 6.7% year-over-year in the first quarter, down from a 6.8% gain in the previous quarter, the National Bureau of Statistics said Friday. The figure, the slowest quarterly growth for China since the height of the financial crisis in 2009, was in line with forecasts.

In the past month, some confidence has returned to the world’s second-largest economy, fueled in part by sharp property-price rises in China’s major cities as well as some lessening of currency volatility and capital outflows that spilled over onto global markets last year and early in 2016. In March, China’s foreign-exchange reserves grew for the first time in five months.

Friday’s data release provided signs that a host of stimulus measures put in place over the past 15 months are having some impact—or are at least delivering some short-term gains. Industrial output, retail sales and property investment rose more than expected in March after a weak performance in January and February. Fixed-asset investment also improved.

And lending soared. Chinese financial institutions issued 1.37 trillion yuan ($211.3 billion) in new yuan loans in March, rocketing well past economists’ expectations of around 1.1 trillion yuan, and almost twice February’s volume.

This means more new malinvestment, and more papering over (with credit) the write down (and hence recognition) of past malinvestments.

This credit splurge helps explain the commodities rebound in recent months. But it also shows how tenuous the foundations of that rebound are. It is an artifact of artificially stimulated investment. Eventually, inevitably, the accumulated waste and distortions will bring the entire Chinese economy to a shuddering halt, and perhaps a crash. Eventually the accumulation of distortions becomes so great that a shakeout and rationalization is necessary, and inevitable. China is at best delaying the reckoning.

Corn is a small part of a much bigger picture. But it is a revealing part. It shows how perverse pricing policies lead to inefficient accumulations of capital that eventually become worth far less than the amount invested. Corn is relatively easy to value, and the cost of the malinvestment in corn stocks looks to be about $10 billion. When one considers how many other wasteful investments have been made in China as a result  of its interventionist policies, and the imagination staggers at what the losses would be.

Put differently, China’s performance would look far less stellar if national income accounting was accurate, and realistically marked its past investments to market. Of course, it is this very fact that induces the Chinese authorities to use every trick in the book to prevent that from happening. But there will come a day, because losses this large cannot be concealed forever.

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