Streetwise Professor

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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September 14, 2015

You May Not Be Interested In a Clash of Civilizations, But A Clash of Civilizations Is Interested In You

Filed under: China,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:25 pm

Cast your eyes around the world, and they are likely to land on a scene of conflict and chaos. In the Middle East, obviously, from pillar (Libya) to post (the Persian Gulf). In the center of Eurasia (Ukraine). In the South China Sea and the DMZ. The world situation has not been this fraught since the 1930s.

If you are like me, you crave an explanation. You could do far worse than start with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Huntington’s article and subsequent book of the same title unleashed a storm of furious criticism when it came out in 1993. But standing 22 years later, Huntington looks prescient, and many of his critics look like utter fools.

The best evidence of this is to look at the antagonists in the most important cockpits of conflicts.

Start with Ukraine. Putin has explicitly invoked the idea of “a Russian world” and has justified his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere as a legitimate defense of Russian people, language, and culture from the assaults of his enemies, especially in the West. Putin and other Russians tirelessly invoke contrasts between Russian civilization and European civilization in particular.

Putin and Russians generally think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Next consider China. China’s leadership too views China as a great civilization that was oppressed by others (Westerners, Japanese), and which is now assuming its proper place in the world. They express a clear cultural-civilizational-chauvinism. If anything, the Chinese people are even more aggressively chauvinistic than their leaders.

The Chinese leadership and people think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

And of course, there is Islam. That Islam believes that it is in a civilizational war with just about everybody, but in particular the West, needs no explication. Yes, there is an intramural civil war within Islam, between Sunnis and Shia, but (a) this is complicated by a civilizational clash between Arab and Persian, and (b) this conflict is in no small part a battle over who will lead the clash of Islam with the infidels.

The jihadis and the mullahs and vast numbers of Muslims generally believe they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Who doesn’t believe it? The skeptics and doubters reside mainly in one civilization: the Western.

Indeed, Huntington’s harshest critics resided (and reside) in the West. They are, in the main, progressives, which, like top quarks, come in left-handed (mainly those who self-identify as progressives) and right-handed (e.g., neocons as epitomized by Francis Fukuyama) varieties. Despite their differences in specific policies, they share a dialectical view that history progresses in one direction, and that it is relentlessly moving to a final state, and that in the end, humanity as a whole will converge to this state. The left progs’ final state is socialist/statist: the right progs’ final state is liberal and democratic.

Obama is clearly a progressive, so understood. His most consistent trope in responding to conflict, with Putin or the Islamists, is to say that history will leave them behind; that they are swimming against the tide of history. Obama said this to Putin about Ukraine: he just said it about Syria: he has said it about Isis. His policy towards Iran is predicated on the belief that once Iran is readmitted in into the community of nations, it will become a Normal Country, and discard its Islamist civilizational mission.

So part of the failure of many of those in the West to believe in the Clash of Civilizations is rooted in a worldview that such conflicts are an atavism that will disappear as the world converges to-progresses to-some homogenous end state in which all existing differences are dissolved.

But that’s not the only part. Another part is a paradox of Western civilization. The West’s distinguishing characteristics include skepticism, criticism and doubt. That very skepticism, criticism and doubt have led many (especially on the left, but also many on the right) to conclude that Western civilization is flawed, corrupt, defective, and certainly not superior to any other civilization, and hence not worth fighting for. Thus, the self-criticism that defines Western civilization prevents many in it from fighting for it. In this respect too, Obama is an exemplar.

A big part of the reason the past few years have seen a waxing of the Clash is precisely that the leader of the leader of Western civilization has declined to fight for it, due to a rather strange combination of fatalism (history will progress and nations will converge due to fundamental historical forces) and a belief that its civilization has no right to assert itself, because of its inherent flaws. This is in contrast to the American role post-1945, which self-confidently (on the whole, with exceptions like post-Vietnam) believed in the superiority of Western (and specifically American) civilization, and exerted its power (economic, social, cultural, and often military) to create and maintain a rough order even at the fault lines of civilizational conflict (notably the Middle East, but also between Europe and Russia, and between China and the rest of Asia).

So one way to understand the mess that the world is in now is to take Huntington’s idea of enduring antagonisms and frictions between competing and incompatible civilizations, and add the retreat of the one power that largely kept those antagonisms and frictions under control.

We are arguably in the midst of a new world war, though one that is fortunately, for now anyways, not as cataclysmic as the two that preceded it. But it is a different type of world war not only because of its lower intensity, but because it is not a war between two dominant blocs. Instead, it is a multipolar war with at least four major civilizations jostling at various points around the globe. This multipolarity makes the struggle less predictable, and far more confusing. It will only become more so unless the West, and in particular the US, realizes the nature of the ongoing conflict, and reengages accordingly.

A phrase often attributed to Trotsky (probably wrongly) seems apt here: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Rephrased: you may not be interested in a Clash of Civilizations, but a Clash of Civilizations is interested in you. If we don’t awaken to that reality, we are destined to be the losers in that clash.

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September 9, 2015

The Future of Chinese Futures

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:19 pm

China has created some amazingly successful futures markets in recent years. By contract volume, the top 5 ag futures are traded in Zhengzhou, Dalian, or Shanghai, as are 4 out of the top 5 metals contracts. Once upon a time, China also had the most heavily traded equity futures contracts. Once upon a time, like two months ago.

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.

The stock market (led, as is usually the case, by index futures) was bearing bad news, so the Chinese decided to shoot the messenger. Then back over it a few times with a tank and bury it in cement. Just to make sure.

There is a wider lesson here. Namely, China may talk the reform talk, but doesn’t walk the reform walk. It likes one way bets:  markets when they are rising, not when they are falling. And not just the futures markets have been told to get their minds right. Chinese authorities-and by authorities, I mean security services-have told fund managers not to sell, only buy. A market with Chinese characteristics, apparently: all buyers and no sellers. Kind of zen actually, in the spirit of “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

This urge to exercise ham-fisted control is exactly the kind of thing that will impede China’s development going forward. It will undermine the ability of capital markets to do their jobs of incentivizing the accumulation of capital and directing it to the highest value uses.

China’s predilection for control has manifested itself in futures markets in other ways. You might recall some months ago that I wrote about China’s threats against Singapore and ICE if the American exchange offered lookalike contracts on ZCE cotton and sugar at its new Singapore affiliate. Yesterday ICE announced the contracts it will launch in Singapore, and cotton and sugar lookalikes were conspicuous by their absence.

No competition for us, thank you. We’re Chinese.

This protectionism may help ensure the success of China’s new futures market initiative: an oil futures contract. Protectionism and pricing in yuan and constraints on the ability of mainland firms to trade overseas make it likely that the contract will succeed. The Chinese are overoptimistic, however, if they believe this contract will supplant WTI and/or Brent. LME and COMEX copper, and ICE cotton and sugar, to give some examples, have thrived even as Chinese markets in these commodities grew. Moreover, myriad restrictions on the ability of foreigners to trade in China and the currency issue will make the Shanghai contract impractical as a hedging and speculative vehicle for non-Chinese firms and funds: the main non-Chinese trading will likely be arbitrage plays between Shanghai, CME/NYMEX and ICE, which will ironically serve to boost to the US exchanges’ volumes.

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. I 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.

 

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August 25, 2015

Donald Trump: Leader of the Mercantilist Zombie Apocalypse

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 6:53 pm

Running the risk of serious brain damage, I watched Trump on O’Reilly last night. It was a cage match to determine the world champion of economic ignorance. I declare it a tie.

The “discussion” started out with China. O’Reilly asked Trump about China’s alleged devaluation policy. Except O’Reilly couldn’t pronounce “devalue”: he kept saying “devaluate.” But Trump took the bait and ranted (but I repeat myself) about how China has relentlessly devalued its currency over the years.

Except, of course, it hasn’t. It devalued years ago, but since the financial crisis it has pegged the yuan to the dollar, and only recently made two small devaluations.

Indeed, the yuan has been appreciating in recent years. Since 2011 the yuan has risen from about 6.8 to the dollar to 6.2 to the dollar, before dropping to 6.4 to the dollar as a result of the devaluations. It is arguable whether the yuan is undervalued or overvalued as a result of the peg, but that’s something completely different than devaluation. And it is just wrong to say, as Trump does, that China has been relentlessly devaluing its currency for years. If anything, indicators are that the currency has become overvalue of late: in particular, capital outflows signal overvaluation. Look at real estate markets in the Bay Area, Vancouver, Sydney, etc., or step into any luxury car showroom in the US, and you will see a lot of Chinese buyers. That’s a telling anecdote, but there is hard data to back that up.

What’s more, it’s not as if the US has been passive post-crisis. QE anyone? To ignore this is to ignore one elephant in the room, and criticizing the currency peg without mentioning QE has more than a little of the feel of “Mommy! No fair! Johnnie hit me back!”

Further, even if the Chinese have engaged in policies that keep their currency artificially low, the effect on the US is not unambiguously bad. Yes, some US industries and workers are harmed, but consumers overall would get a great boon, as we exchange overvalued paper for artificially cheap goods. It is not uniformly bad for US manufacturing either, as many of the “consumers” are manufacturers who can purchase cheaper inputs. This raises the derived demand for other inputs, including some labor.

The best part was where Trump repeated one of his common themes that American leadership is dumb (I don’t disagree) but that Chinese leadership is really smart. But then he went on to screech that the Chinese have created a huge bubble that is imploding, and threatens to bring down the US economy with it. But, if the Chinese leadership is so damn smart, why would they create a huge bubble, and then be incapable of preventing its bursting? And if we live in a zero sum world where China’s gain is America’s loss, wouldn’t a Chinese economic collapse be good for the US?

Another lowlight was the discussion of trade with Mexico, which is apparently also governed by those overqualified for Mensa. (Who knew?) He is furious at Nabisco for moving a plant from Chicago to Mexico. Presumably if elected president he will force the company to forego use of the “Ritz” brand (because that’s the name on a fancy-schmancy American hotel!) and preclude them from selling Oreos with a cream center in the US. Nope, just two dry chocolate biscuits, unsweetened, held together with a nail. Ford also came in for a bashing for moving assembly to Mexico.

Perhaps to give him more intellectual credit than he deserves, Trump is a died-in-the-wool mercantilist who believes trade is a zero sum game, and who favors protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor currency policies. He talks like it is the late-80s, and Japan is still an economic juggernaut that will overwhelm the US, completely overlooking the fact that Japan’s crypto-mercantilist policies gifted it a 25 year long lost decade, and that neo-mercantilist China is on the brink of the same fate. If it is lucky.

Adam Smith is spinning in his grave.

But alas, mercantilism is a like a zombie. It has no brain, and has proven impossible to kill. Which means, I guess, that in Donald Trump, it has found its perfect advocate.

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