Guest Post: The Great Fall of China?

Continuing the theme of politics influencing investing we witnessed last week at SALT, here’s another great piece from Jeffrey Dow Jones at Cognitive Concord. If China is really the potential disaster described here, now is the time to ask whether or not your portfolio is buckled in.

The Great Fall of China?

One of my themes to watch in 2012 was China. I thought this was going to be a very important year for China, one that generates a lot of debate and dialog. So far, I’d say that this has been mostly correct. Maybe not in terms of the ubiquity and size of the Chinese discussion, but definitely the different dimension.In case you’re still thinking of China as this rapidly industrializing, cheap-exporting, exponentially growing awesome economy that will soon be kicking the United States to the curb and stealing its lunch money, it’s time to stop living in 2007 and wake up in 2012. The vector has changed.Bloomberg Businessweek did a great article on this last week. Giving it a read should get you quickly up to speed on the broader points, especially about why all the drama around Bo Xilai matters for economics.I can’t tell you how fascinating the evolution of this economic story has been to me. Five years ago, I think the word “insecure” accurately summed up the way the U.S. felt about China. That was the context for the discussion back then. Today, however, we’re a lot less worried about what being the #2 economy means — why does it matter if the largest economy in the world is still a very poor nation? — and instead we are nervous that China slowing down may take us with them. Can’t have that, now.  No, sir.

There’s also a newer, stronger component of moral superiority to the debate. Open up the Wall Street Journal and you are repeatedly exposed to commentary about how a “proper” economy ought to be run. Turn on MSNBC and you get a steady stream of human rights stories with China as the main villain.

If you want to take a deeper look at the economic angle and you can clear your schedule for the afternoon, I’ll recommend Hugh Hendry’s latest epic commentary. Hendry runs the Eclectica fund and I used to follow his stuff religiously until he stopped writing and kinda disappeared. This is his first published research since 2010.

In any case, the essence of his argument is that China is speeding towards disaster. I’ve spent a lot of time in this newsletter about negative real interest rates here in this country and the perverse incentives that disquilibria like that can create. But in China the financial repression is far worse and has persisted for much longer. With inflation that usually runs between 7-9% per year and a government-imposed cap of 0.72% on bank deposits, savers in China (a nation that really likes to save, too) is forced to deal with negative real rates of -7%. With that kind of disincentive to save, nobody should wonder why they have a pretty spectacular real estate bubble over there.

For the most part, businesses and investors remain optimistic on China:

Sentiment is high.  But I can tell you one thing about investment sentiment in general: it’s correct right up until it’s too late to matter. Sentiment changes after pain, not before. It’s a lagging indicator, not a leading one.  If you’re interested in avoiding pain connected to with a flailing (failing?) Chinese economy, tracking measures of sentiment won’t help you.

That’s why the other data from that survey is so interesting. It showed that over 70% of these U.S. companies surveyed reporting that China’s regulatory environment is the same or getting worse and 90% that say China is losing competitiveness because of rising costs. Concern about an economic slowdown also rose significantly between 2011 and 2012. So there’s a bit of a contradiction in this data.

Perhaps it’s just a case of people still being optimistic, only less so. That’s not always indicative of disaster.  Though it can be the first step on a slide towards it.

The stock market, on the other hand, is a lot more clear.

It’s worried:

That’s not a healthy chart. Even if you masked the name of it, I wouldn’t want to buy that asset. It’s a classic chart pattern: bubble, burst, bounce, followed by slow-disintegration.

It has taken a while for this trend to really become clear, so you can see why the pre-bubble China narrative persisted in the mainstream until around the end of last year. Being so fixated on Europe in 2010 and 2011 made it that much more difficult to worry about what was happening in the Far East.  Now that we have a better grip on what life ahead for Europe will look like and what it means for the markets, we can turn our attention elsewhere. Just in time to tune into a slowing Chinese economy.

I saw thousands of those charts in the wake of the tech bubble. Most of those charts have no future. They end in bankruptcy or a take-out. As an investor, you want no part of them. You keep hoping that someday, maaaybe, they’ll get back to those old highs but they never do. The old highs were an illusion, an inflated multiple.

Every once in a while, if the asset in question is a large and important company, they just take time to finally grow into their multiple.

Intel is a textbook example of this:

In this example the asset is finally trending in the right direction, making new highs, and doing it from very sensible valuations. Intel pays a 3% dividend and trades at under 12x earnings. (Full disclosure: I do not own it.)

China won’t go bankrupt or disappear the way that a crappy company can. Its chart will someday turn back around. The question is how long. Will the Chinese economy become an investment with a fair multiple and acceptable growth prospects in a few years? Or will the investment’s struggles drag out for decades like Japan?

Uncertain Outcomes

The truth is I don’t know enough about China. I don’t have the answers. Because of my role in the industry and because I consume a way-above-average quantity of financial news and commentary, I might know a little more about it than Joe Shlabotnik on the street. But I honestly don’t know enough about it to speak with certainty and authority. The reality is that very few actually do.

Hendry’s probably more qualified than most — I was reading his research on China years ago — and he’s done fairly extensive travel through the country. In fact, it was from him and his goofy YouTube videos that I learned of all the Chinese “ghost cities” in the first place. Bloomberg wouldn’t do their groundbreaking story on that until about a year later.

But I do know one thing about economies in general, especially the large ones. I know that they are impossible to control. Managed economies inevitably fail. This was perhaps one of the greatest economic lessons of the 20th century. The ones that appear to be working like Soviet-era Russia or the old East Germany are always revealed to have been an illusion when the curtain comes down.

Part of me wonders if, in five or ten years, we look back at China and crack up with laughter. “Trying to manage their economy! Ha! What were they thinking??”

I know that China’s economy isn’t completely managed, but it is something of hybrid.  It’s sorta free, but not really.

As an investment, my beef with China is the same as my beef with Bank of America, Societe Generale, or pre-2010 Greece: they tell me that their financial condition looks one way, but I simply cannot trust it. Perhaps that’s just my hyper-skeptical Gen-X nature. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been burned one too many times in the past. I know deep in my gut that it is in their every interest to make themselves appear as awesome as possible, even if it means playing fast and loose with FASB guidelines or flat-out lying. Given the complexity of their financial situations and a track record of obfuscation, I cannot bring myself to buy what they are selling.

Others can, and that’s great. You have my blessing. Stephen Roach loves China and loves it as an investment too. Stephen Roach is ten times smarter than I am and I have tremendous respect for everything he has to say. If you feel like you want to be bullish on China and want to invest, don’t listen to guys like me, Hugh Hendry, or Jim Chanos. Pay attention to people like Mr. Roach and fund managers like the folks at Matthews.

It’s not like any of us are any better than the others at predicting the future.

The Drama of our Times

Think about the financial crisis as a play in three acts.

The first act took place in the U.S. and exposed an embarrassingly irresponsible consumer with respect to credit and real estate, and a Wall Street loaded to the brim with messy assets, broken incentive schemes, and generally-naughty behavior.

The second act took place in Europe. It exposed a rotten political state and a gluttonous public sector, as well as an equally irresponsible banking system loaded to the brim with a different kind of messy assets.

The final act — as people like Hugh Hendry and Jim Chanos believe — will take place in Asia. Who knows exactly what details will emerge and which assets will move to what levels.  We just know it won’t be much fun.

In any case, even if you don’t want to call it a “crisis” or think of it as the third phase of a global financial event, I see a resolution of the Chinese disequilibrium that has persisted for so many years as something of an inevitability.

Hendry is bullish on the U.S.. I am too, or at least I’m bullish relative to the rest of the world. More specifically, I’m bullish on North America. I would categorically avoid Europe, China and anything connected to it (ahem, Australia), and I’d be less enthusiastic about specific businesses that are relying too heavily on China for growth.  Valuations can change dramatically or even irrationally when investors start revising downward their previous estimates for growth.

The 21st Century

There still exists this idea that the U.S. is somehow a nation in decline. That, like the Roman Empire, we are on our way out, Nero fiddling while the city is engulfed by flame. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The fundamental data simply doesn’t support this idea.  To arrive at that conclusion you have to make some fairly aggressive forecasts about the future, an act which is very difficult to do.

Yes, the U.S. has gigantic problems, and yes, they’re going to be difficult to work out.  Yes, there exists massive risk of everything from another massive recession to a collapse of our currency. But relative to the rest of the world, the U.S. and its economy enjoy tremendous power. None of that is going to change in our lifetimes. I still believe that the first half of the 21st century will, once again, be all aboutthe United States. Nevermind the details of our budget and debt problems — when you couple the U.S.’s geopolitical advantages with its solid demographic profile, it’s hard to be long-term bearish. It might be impossible, actually.  The decline of the U.S. empire will come eventually — don’t worry about that — I’m just not convinced it’ll be during my lifetime.

Along those lines, I am reminded of one of the most elegant things I’ve ever heard said about the United States, that, as a nation we are in our adolescent years, adolescence being the only time in the continuum of a human life that one feels simultaneously insecure and over-confident. Pretty much sums up our national psychology, no?

Like any other teenager, the U.S. will eventually make it into adulthood. It will be clunky, awkward, and exhausting. It will be painful and expensive at times. But we’ll do it. I don’t think it’s quite time toinvest heavily in the U.S., but as I’ve written before, we’re getting closer to that point. One more big freakout or cyclical bear, and I’m loading my and Mrs. Concord’s IRAs with U.S. equities. That’s going to coincide with the nadir of optimism about the U.S., and probably a second round of faith in a new China or hopeful Europe.  I fully expect the world to think me crazy for getting long the United States at such a juncture.

Oh well.

Market Recap

Volatility has made a bit of a comeback in the last week, an extension of the general weakness we saw in April. Supposedly the market is down because of rising bond spreads in Europe and rumors that Greece will leave the EU. This was true a year ago and this was true the year before that. It’ll still be true a year from now. Bond spreads will still be concerning and there will still be plenty of talk about Greece leaving the EU.

The market is down because it’s taking a break. It rallied far and fast in the first quarter and now investors are taking some money off the table. This is the way that things go. Some days, investors feel like taking risk off. Some days, everybody seems to do it at once. It can create a vicious circle and when it does, it can manifest as panic. When the high frequency guys get involved (or hit their “off” buttons) things can get really weird.  Markets go down quicker than they go up.

I think it’s OK to be a little bullish for the short run. We aren’t on the brink of another financial crisis and with all these new bailout and liquidity mechanisms in Europe, I don’t see a meltdown on the horizon.  The biggest legitimate risk that I can see right now is if investors start getting excessively worried about the “fiscal cliff” scheduled to happen next year.  A whole lot of government spending will come out of the economy next year and the year after, and government spending is what has been keeping it all afloat since 2008.  I’m starting to hear analysts talk about it and what it’ll mean for the markets.  Perhaps next week we’ll go through some of it in more detail.

In the meantime,  I see little reason why the market can’t test those old highs in the course of the next 12-18 months.  Somewhere in that range could be the best opportunity for a long-term short that we’ve seen in a while.  My guess is that it’ll coincide with crazy-high bullish sentiment and economic optimism.  Like all the best shorts, it’ll be a difficult one to put on.

Oh well.

Answering Questions

Everyone seems to be speculating on what will happen if the coming months resemble 2008, or something a little more mellow, but at this point, the question we should be asking- even if no one wants to- is this:

What if it’s worse?

There’s no easy answer to this question, and for two reasons. For one, comprehensive managed futures data is not extensive enough to reach back to, say, the Great Depression for insight. If this gets worse than 2008, we don’t have historical data to rely on. For two, we’re looking at a very unique economic scene.  Even if we could reach back to the Great Depression for comparison, the investment realm, nation and world were drastically different at that point. If we had to make an educated guess, we would say that managed futures would potentially benefit in the volatile times that followed some kind of major crash, but there’s no way to be sure (Disclaimer: Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results).

Unfortunately, “What happens if things get worse than 2008?” is the question that literally everyone in finance is wrapping their minds around right now as they try to prepare for the coming storm. At this point, in our opinion, it’s not a matter of if things go bad so much as when and to what extent. Josh Brown of The Reformed Broker summarized it nicely here. The important part is this:

The veil between recovery and recession has never been thinner and all the old ghosts of the past have returned to haunt us once again, some of them almost exact replicas of their prior incarnations.  Witness:

Rumors of hedge funds blowing up run rampant through the tape.

Bankruptcy talk for storied franchises like American Airlines and Eastman Kodak now litters the headline ticker.

Confidence is at all-time lows.  We’ve not been this despondent about our leadership and forward-track in all of our recorded history as a society – the Civil War era and Great Depression included.

The certainty of higher taxes is also now taking hold, from the middle class on up.  We know it’s coming no matter who is elected, it’s only a matter of timing and degree.

And the banks – the banks that are still with us after the shotgun mergers of 2008 – they are haunted still by exposure to loans and homes values and other banks and leverage and all of the old bogeymen that once forced investors to rip money away for fear of utter dissolution.  Some of the most “systemic” banks in the market – Goldman ($GS), Citi ($C), Morgan Stanley ($MS), Bank of America ($BAC) – are once again trading at or below their crisis-level lows from 2009.  This after trillions in interest-free money and a two-year period of do-whatever-you-need-to-get-better.  Apparently they needed to get even more too-big and pay even heftier bonuses than ever before, not reduce risk or open up their balance sheets for serious scrutiny.  They’re going to pay for it now, flip on your quote screen.

But those are the devils we know…keep in mind that we have new ghosts this time around, perhaps even scarier ones to contend with in the coming months.

Brown goes on to explain what he thinks those unseen spectres might be, but what they are is not as important as the risk they present. Any major wrench in the gears would be kicking the global economy when its down… and possibly kicking us right off a cliff. Even with yesterday’s rally and a cautiously positive start to today, there’s a chance we’ve yet to see the worst of this.

We’re not trying to scare you or take the “Dr. Doom” moniker away from Nouriel. This is about preparing for the worst. Just as we urge our managed futures clients to expect the drawdown and anticipate it being worse than ever before, now may be the time for the average investor to expect the economy to head into drawdown in a movement more severe than we have the perspective to really comprehend.

What are the chances that the worst is yet to come? Even in a world where they’re small, they are definitely greater than zero, and that possibility is what investors need to protect themselves against. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Managed futures are not for everyone, but if it’s right for you, you may want to consider allocating to an asset class that has proven its ability (though there are no guarantees for the future) to perform during a crisis in our modern economic climate.

Don’t wait for $BAC to become a penny stock. The time to diversify is now- not after it all blows up.