Archive for the 'Coal' Category

Merkel Wagers EU pact on Semifinals; RIMM and HBS; Steel

I have three theories as to why the EU provided the market moving agreement overnight:

1)      Wagers between the Mayors of competing teams in the World Series or Super Bowl usually involve food – lobsters, steaks, etc.  The EU has taken this to an entirely new level.  As such I wonder whether Merkel wagered Germany’s approval of the pact announced this morning on the outcome of yesterday’s Euro 2012 Championship Semifinal match.

2)      Merkel is the anonymous GP of a very large hedge fund with lagging performance. Her lock-ups expire July 1st so she needed a big end of the quarter mark-up on her portfolio today.

3)      Merkel has been diagnosed with a very rare, life threatening disease and is not expected to live out the European ratification process, thus allowing her to stay true to her pledge “not in my lifetime.”

 

I have been neutral in terms of market exposure, cautious of the greater risk than reward, unwilling to bet that the 19th time is the charm.  While this agreement has some of the characteristics of the others – execution and final details to be worked out – it exceeded both my expectations and the markets’.  Nonetheless I do believe the rally can continue despite continuing trouble on the earnings front – NKE and F being the latest – until we reset over the next few weeks from earnings reports.  Within a relatively neutral exposure to equities I have been initiating small positions in some fairly beaten up names such as JOY, TOT and ANF and covered shorts in steel over the last few days, closing them out yesterday as a couple of steel companies reported EPS and the stocks rallied.  While the actual metrics on these companies are different than my shorts in X and MT, I didn’t believe the market would distinguish.    Should they rally much from here, I will return because the issues remain and the steel business has very high barriers of EXIT.  Unlike coal, capacity has increased as prices have declined due to softening end demand. I don’t see this changing with China continuing to  slow.

 

The rally in materials and energy, with extremely high short interest, is going to make next Weds.’ fireworks look like a Sputnik launch.

 

With European bank balance sheets still in disrepair and lending non-existent, unchanged in any meaningful way by today’s announcement, JPM should pick up significant share helping to offset the governor on earnings provided by tighter regulations and low interest rates in the US.  WFC has also started to expand beyond these shores, albeit in a not particularly meaningful way.

 

Thus the only questions are  “have stocks sufficiently discounted the slowing global economy?” and “is this just another false start by the EU fueling a quarter end short covering rally?”   To the first, the easy and correct answer is that some have and some haven’t.  To the latter question: Yes, for now but doesn’t mean we can’t rally for the next week or so.  I’m not going all in, that’s for sure.

 

RIMM – the Dean of Harvard Business School has likely sent a Thank You note to the BOD at RIMM, thanking them for providing the material for the best case study they have seen in years.  The death blow here is not the quarter but the continued delay in the release of the BB10.  Developers will not invest much in new apps for this device thus making it DOA.

 

Playing Poker with the EU: Why There Won’t Be A QE 3

Wistful visions of a Bernanke Put have kept many invested. It is everything they want it to be: the lifeline, the safety net, the impetus for economic growth.  However, I believe it is unlikely to happen.  The logic is simple: Europe is much more fiscally troubled than the US and is arguably the source of not only market turmoil but also for economic angst in the US.  Without a shock and awe resolution from the EU, any further easing from the US will be ineffective in reversing our declining economic fortunes so why waste the powder.  And with Europe in much more desperate shape, in recession , broadly, and possibly headed toward a depression in Spain (Greece there already) it is much more incumbent upon the EU to provide a shock and awe solution to their economic woes sooner rather than later.  Additionally, Bernanke has come under significant criticism for his prior QE’s so why not let Europe do the heavy lifting this time around?  The European solution, if credible, will obviate the need for further stimulus from the US.  China keeps threatening to stimulate their economy and should this happen,  this could also lessen the burden on the American economy.   If I were Bernanke, I would play this hand to conclusion.  Not even another deficient jobs number will change my view.  In fact, I believe that the payroll report will come in above consensus based upon what I hear from my source who has been almost clairvoyant in their forecasts based upon real-time information.  They see strength across all sectors.  It won’t be a blow out number but should be comfortably above consensus.  This will lead to a short covering rally and a good opportunity to lower exposure

Separately, a great review for The Big Win http://seekingalpha.com/article/625331-book-review-the-big-win :

Book Review: The Big Win
Just as whale watching is a popular adventure tour for nature lovers, reading about the whales of finance is a popular pastime for investors. InThe Big Win: Learning from the Legends to Become a More Successful Investor (Wiley, 2012) Stephen L. Weiss profiles one woman and seven men who have truly excelled.

First, a caveat about what Weiss describes as “the ugly reality of whale watching,” by which he means “blindly following large, smart buyers into a stock or other investment.” (p. 25)

 

Unless an investor has insight into the whale’s rationale for making a particular investment, his time frame, and his risk appetite, the investor is at a considerable disadvantage. It is critically important, as Weiss writes, to “understand the process. … The true value of these case studies … is in understanding each investor’s methods, not standing in awe of their results.” (pp. 32-33)

 

Weiss’s eight legends—Renée Haugerud, James S. Chanos, Lee Ainslie, Chuck Royce, A. Alfred Taubman, James Beeland Rogers Jr., R. Donahue Peebles, and Martin J. Whitman— each carved out a niche and developed an investing style.

Haugerud, for instance, is a top-down investor. Her hedge fund, Galtere Ltd., has a five-stage investment process: taking the temperature of the global markets, developing a few themes, microanalyzing and selecting strategic investments, timing trades technically, and applying risk management. Her “big win” came in 1993. With gold trading as much as 40% above the world’s highest cost of production and the one-year bonds of Canada’s western provinces yielding 9 to 12%, she shorted gold for a rate of less than 1%, bought the bonds, and hedged her short gold position with undervalued small-cap stocks of mining producers in Australia that had high margins and low production costs. “‘All three legs worked,’ as Haugerud puts it, and all kept working for a good long while. It was a simple trade, and the returns were good enough to carry that year’s performance to her stated goal and beyond.” (p. 50)

Chanos is a short seller, Ainslie a stock picker, Royce a small cap investor. Taubman and Peebles are both real estate developers, Rogers is a commodities investor, and Whitman is best known as a distressed debt investor.

What do all these legends have in common? Weiss catalogs seven traits: no emotion, no ego, long-term investors, discipline, thorough research process, passion and work ethic, and drive. Or, reduced to six words:

 

“Drive. Passion. Process. Equanimity. Discipline. Humility. These are the commonalities between all those profiled in this book and the qualities that make for a great—and legendary—investor.” (p. 17)

 

The Big Win is an easy, thoroughly enjoyable read for those who want to learn from the whales.

The European Spring: Why Caution is the Best Market Position

In typical Hollywood fashion, the producers of the successful Arab Spring

have announced the sequel,  The European Spring, starring the people of

France.  In fact, pre-filming has already begun for the 3rd installment in

the series, The US Spring which will be airing the first Tuesday in

November.

The French

The French hosting elections on a Sunday is itself an interesting issue; I

have to assume they value their days off during the work week too much to go

to the polls than they value their leisure time on Sundays.  Logistics

aside, the polls point to a victory by François Hollande and socialism again

taking front and center stage in the City of Lights.  (Why shouldn’t

Parisians leave the lights on – the government is footing the bill.)   Of

course, Sarkozy can pull it out in the final days if he is able to draw in

the fence sitters and Le Pen acolytes; this should not be completely

discounted.  But assuming Hollande wins, I have heard the argument that this

event is already priced into the market. So will the rhetoric about

endangering the EU fade as political campaign promises often do?  Not on

your life.  With legislative elections upcoming on June 10th and June 17th,

the rhetoric is just beginning.  Those arguing against France’s

participation in the bailout fund and austerity as the path to growth will

be emboldened to speak even louder.  That, after all, will be the proven

path to winning a seat in the National Assembly of the Fifth Republic.

The Greeks

The Greeks have their own election on Sunday.  With massive unemployment,

there is hardly a reason to hold their elections on the weekend. Don’t these

people need something to do during the week or is that when the beaches are

less crowded?  From all reports, it looks like the coalition will survive by

the slimmest of margins. The rhetoric here too will build as their exit from

the EU remains the likely end game.  But if the coalition falls apart,

either on Sunday or near term, then the collapse of the EU is an immediate

fait accompli.

The Rhetoric

So the chatter will increase as the citizens of France, the Netherlands,

Italy, etc., continue to question with increasing authority and anger, why

they should labor under austerity programs in order to support the

irresponsible governments of Spain and Greece.  This will continue to

pressure the indices particularly as Spain and Italy continue coming to the

market to roll over their debt. At present, there is no avenue to growth and

Draghi seems unwilling to inject anymore stimulus into the markets until

governments put forth growth initiatives (and maybe, actually do cut

spending).

The Sequel

So this is the sequel to the Arab Spring as the Europeans rise up and say no

mas.  It is a more civilized uprising, as they perhaps torch candles instead

of themselves, but an uprising nonetheless. And then, in November, it will

be our turn.

Add to this the slowing US economy – yes, slowing, not a pause, and the EU

and China continuing to slow, and you have a rather poor outlook for US

equities.  But Brazil is the bright spot, isn’t it?  Nope. China is the

economic delta for Brazil.  We had an earnings season that few had expected

in terms of growth and outlook but the skepticism about the future is what

preys most acutely on the market, and, the economy.  Sure there are bargains

to be had but like most retailers, there is never one clearance price.  And

yes, Treasuries are fully valued and arguably in a bubble, but that’s been

the story for a while too.  I don’t know who is good picking bottoms and

tops so I’m staying low beta and fairly neutral.  There is very little

chance that under this scenario, allocators have a call to arms for

equities.  That will happen but not now. Not perhaps unless there is a

Romney victory and Europe puts forth some plans for growth.  I would

actually support a position that puts Greece in default, cuts back on

austerity in favor of responsible spending for growth  but I’ll leave my

daydreaming for when I’m at the chick flicks my wife occasionally drags me

to.

I continue to be short global cyclical stocks such as materials.  I hate

beta, except perhaps on the short side and bunting instead of the long ball.

As my favorite metals and mining analyst, Pete Ward, said to me yesterday,

“steel has very high barriers of exit.”

During your market respite, you may want to read an excellent new book: The Big Win.

News Flash: Europe is Slowing; News Flash: China is Slowing

March 22, 2012

News Flash: China is Slowing

News Flash: Europe is Slowing

News Flash: Goldilocks May Have Left the Building

“There is the school of thought, of which I am not a student, that believes we shouldn’t worry about China and Europe since U.S. GDP is not overly reliant upon either Europe, 2% of total U.S. GDP, or China, 0.6% of GDP, but given that our economic revival is not particularly robust, any potential hit to growth has to be regarded seriously.   And it is the strengthening domestic economy, abetted by perhaps misplaced optimism on the global economy that overshadows the current weakness abroad.”

Like most, I tend to operate from selective memory. Sometimes I have to venture far into the archives to find a pearl of wisdom, other times the proverbial ink has yet to dry. Fortunately, this occasion finds me in the latter camp leading to a trip back to March 6th.  I actually present this somewhat cheekily since the S&P has had a nice move since the date I wrote the above but completing the thought, I remained bullish equities within a much reduced net long position laboring under the belief the non-US swoon would not really hit our economy until year end.  That is still the case from an economic standpoint.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the massive credit issues in Europe have caused a slowdown nor should anyone be surprised about China, where economic indicators have revealed a contracting economy for 4 months.  However, with the market being a discounting mechanism perhaps I was too optimistic.  I went on to say:

“To bottom line it, the market is in a consolidation phase and faces the likelihood of a minor correction near term while remaining highly dependent upon data in the U.S. and continued optimism about the European and Chinese economies.” 

This will update my outlook and clarify my views.  The market is in a consolidation phase with a slight bias to the downside in the very near term as we are in a good news vacuum pending earnings.  Optimism still reigns regarding China’s ability to manage their way out of their declining economic fortunes and the yields on sovereign debt in the countries that matter, while recently forfeiting some of their optimism, are still at much more reasonable levels.   THE KEY FACTOR GOING FORWARD WILL NOW BE EARNINGS SEASON which I suspect will acquit itself well in most areas of the economy except for certain sectors, such as coal and steel, where I have been very visibly short, and which have already updated their outlook.   (Every steel company, regardless of business model, has disappointed but has guided to a turn in fundamentals resulting in a nice move off the bottom.  I am still short.  And coal remains in a death spiral.)   This will provide support for the market at that juncture but for now, in a good news vacuum, the path of least resistance is slightly lower.

But the key to a further rise in equities is the direction of US govt bonds.  While flows continue into bond funds in a meaningful way and out of equities in a less meaningful manner, a situation that surprises me, I believe this will reverse. I am short through TBF and TBT because I believe most investors have come to expect unabated and unprecedented performance and don’t realize that a an 85 bps back-up in yield from 2.15% to 3% will result in approximately a 7% loss in capital, an untenable risk/reward when considering that any appreciation of Treasuries is in the best case, severely limited.   And as the EU sovereigns continue to hold these levels, funds will flow from bunds and bonds into their higher yielding debt.

Within the slowing of global growth view, I remain short the Euro and Aussie dollar, materials and transportation, CSX (dicey), and long technology, big US banks, and defensive value.  The market will continue to pause, but not collapse, into earnings season and unlike each of the other reporting periods since the bottom in March 2009, expectations are much lower setting up for decent equity performance for the next quarter unless sentiment regarding Europe and China fall off a cliff.  I realize this straddle risks my being likened to a sell-side strategist, a label more feared than “moderate Republican” but that’s how I see it.

 

Did You Hear the One About the Bull… China, Europe and Global Growth Stocks

There is an oft told, though not particularly amusing story about an old bull and his son who stood atop a hill glancing down at a herd of attractive heifers. Exercising his fatherly duties, the newly divorced elder bull cautioned the youngster about charging down the steep slope to, let’s politely say, curry favor with the cows that grazed below.

“Com’on, Dad. Let’s go get ‘em.”

“Easy there, boy,” the father cautioned, “it’s not always good to move too far too fast. Just ask the hare that lives in that hole next door to the barn.”

“I guess you’re right,” the son responded. “Slow seems to win an awful lot.”

“Slow is not the same thing as deliberate. Deliberate is what I’m after.” “But what about the Roadrunner, Pops?” the young stud inquired, “That darn bird seems to win every time and he looks like he’s havin’ an awful lot of fun racing around.”

“You may have a point there, kid,” came the response as the father looked below, a smile forming on his lip, a twinkle brightening his dark brown eyes. “Let’s deliberately run down there and have a good old time. Don’t know what I was worried about.”

Setting aside his discipline and years of experience, the old bull was drawn in by visions of what could be if all went right. He galloped down the hill, pausing ever so briefly to enjoy himself along the way. But all good things eventually come to an end and often the easier it seems in the beginning morphs into greater difficulties at the end. Well, it didn’t end well that day for the elder bull who would eventually keel over, ending up as a set of loafers and matching billfold. In the interim, though, he sure had fun.

As with the bovines portrayed above, it’s been a quick and happy romp for the Wall Street bulls, of which I have been one. However, I have no intention of keeling over while hanging on for one more conquest. To some, the bull market is showing signs of tiring while to others, the indices will continue to move higher. Me – well, I have ratcheted down my exposure to a slight positive bias to the market – short global growth, long defensive. I am positioned this way because I see the cows at the bottom of the hill looking decidedly less attractive in the second half of the year when the slowdown in Europe and China become much more evident. That will be when the austerity measures come full measure and the realization hits that Germany alone can’t drive the EU economy but, rather, is itself dependent upon an increasingly inward looking and slowing China as well as its EU brethren who were the direct beneficiaries of Deutschland’s indirect largess via the troika. It is also when we will revisit Greece, if not sooner, and possibly Portugal. So without EU governments being able to stimulate their own economies through major public works projects; without their banks, despite the LTRO, having enough balance sheet to lend (or choosing instead to make easier money through the risk-less carry trade); without the ECB actually being able to print money; and with China’s property bubble gushing air instead of hissing, the headwinds will likely cause a downdraft in the averages.

China lowering their GDP target doesn’t bother me that much for a few reasons. First of all, it wasn’t a surprise – in fact, I mentioned it last week. No great vision on my part since it was the consensus estimate. Even more supportive of my fortune telling acumen, the government had leaked major portions of the statement. The bears fear not though for China has always outperformed their targets and is perhaps setting the bar low for the new comrades coming into office. And doesn’t it matter that 7.5% growth, which may in fact turn out to be 8% if history is a guide, will equate to just slightly less than the same amount of growth as in 2011 owing to a larger base from which to measure the change? (I actually find it somewhat amusing that much of what I read from the Street believes that China will continue to grow at 9-10% despite a clear trend lower.) But the action will turn inward as China grows the domestic economy through consumption rather than exports. This, to me, means less fueling of the global economy. And, of course, slower growth is, at the end of the day, slower growth. I am still not convinced China will have a soft landing – far from it. The property bubble is continuing to deflate and the central government still has little interest, it appears, in bailing out the Rolex wearing, Ferrari driving, developers. This has been made extremely clear in the beating back of measures enacted by local governments, including Wuhu and Shanghai, to foster a recovery in property prices through employing mechanisms such as relaxing credit or allowing the purchase of a second home. Not least of all, let’s not forget that some important economic indicators in China are showing contraction or multi-year weakness. There is the school of thought, of which I am not a student, that believes we shouldn’t worry about China and Europe since U.S. GDP is not overly reliant upon either Europe, 2% of total U.S. GDP, or China, 0.6% of GDP, but given that our economic revival is not particularly robust, any potential hit to growth has to be regarded seriously. And it is the strengthening domestic economy, abetted by perhaps misplaced optimism on the global economy that overshadows the current weakness abroad.

Not a lot has changed in my favorite longs and shorts with the exception of initiating a short position in U.S. bonds but I will leave that story for another note. I still prefer domestic focused companies that provide downside protection through yield or have branded franchises with a strong IP advantage or value proposition: VZ, QCOM, WLP, HK and CSC, a very interesting value name with a new CEO, low valuation and strong prospects for a turnaround. JPM is very attractive, as is WFC. They will pick up significant share from the moribund European banks, a taste of which was in WFC’s recent moves including announcing an expansion in Europe and buying BNP Paribas energy business. Strong foreign banks such as UBS will also benefit. This is an incredible opportunity for domestic banks to replace the earnings they lost from Dodd-Frank. Coal remains a core short, despite the decline in the price of the shares. Aside from WLT, which derives almost its entire earnings from met coal, virtually every other coal company generates 70-80% of revenues and earnings from steam coal. This is true of even two of the world’s largest met coal producers, ACI and BTU. Reportedly, ACI’s acquisition of Massey is not going well, an asset they clearly overpaid for, and Moody’s put them on negative watch. Additionally, as part of China’s 5 year plan, they intend to increase coal production by only 3.7%. This is despite the fact that reportedly, 40% of power generators in China that use coal lost money in 2010. Imbedded in the 4% inflation target in the 2012 plan are higher utility prices which is intended to provide relief while lowering usage. Domestically, the warm weather has resulted in stockpiles that utilities will take a long time to work off and the conversion to natural gas from coal at these plants is continuing, arguably picking up momentum. This is occasioned not just by price, but more so by environmental mandates. As to bituminous or met coal, my view on steel remains that as Europe falls into broad recession, China cools and construction continues to weaken, steel prices will continue to weaken. This will lead to more exports from Europe into the U.S. and, of course, China keeps adding to steel mill capacity. I am also short JCP, purely an issue of timing on the turnaround and what is already reflected in the stock price, and KSS. Both troll for customers in a very tough space. On the other side, I am long M.

To bottom line it, the market is in a consolidation phase and faces the likelihood of a minor correction near term while remaining highly dependent upon data in the U.S. and continued optimism about the European and Chinese economies. This Friday’s jobs number could untrack the indices either way but watch out for the second half when the can hits the wall.

Paris Hilton, Europe and China, Energy – Natural Gas: the new HK and CHK, AAPL

The ratings agencies continue to be as effective as Paris Hilton at a spelling bee as seen by Moody’s latest action of putting some banks under review.   The real troubled period for the U.S. banks has, for the most part passed, so near as I can tell the ratings agencies are pressing their shorts.  To paraphrase the anti-motto of the UFT: “Those that analyze, analyze and those that can’t, work for the ratings agencies.”  Throughout my career, I never recall anyone resigning from a fund or investment bank to go on to the greener passages of the ratings agencies.  “I’ve finally made it; my dreams have come true.  I’ve landed this incredible position at S&P.  Sure I will have to get a night job to make up for the lower pay and have to adjust to working in a cubicle the size of a bathroom stall – it’s not easy balancing my family pictures on a roll of toilet paper – but I have my nights free and significantly less pressure since there is no penalty for being late or wrong.”  As a comedian feels about a significantly overweight individual with a very bad toupee, we should all be indebted to the ratings agencies for providing us with such easy fodder.

 

China continues to be a primary concern for me. I noted yesterday the downside of China’s check in the mail commitment to assist in the European bailout as a sign that things are worse for China’s economy than the market has believed.  I postulated the Chinese are seeing more than passing weakness in their economy as a derivative of the weakness in Europe, their largest trading partner.  And today we see the rationale for China’s magnanimous and proactive statement of financial support.  Foreign investment in China is declining and is at the lowest level since 2009, the bottom of the last recession.  Earlier in the week, the city of Wuhu terminated their policy of providing subsidies to home buyers at the behest of the central government, signaling to me that they are more concerned with a property bubble and inflation than they are with a slowing economy, recognizing what Greenspan failed to see.  China bulls remain steadfast in their conviction of a soft landing, the strategy underlying this belief is that the communists will deploy their massive (but fading) foreign reserves in support of Ferrari driving real estate developers, overextended municipal governments (40% of revenues from property sales and subsequent deals to develop), shadow financiers and the occasional overextended homeowner.  Now add in profligate European sovereigns and we have the first “born again” communist country.  Somehow, I believe this will not be the case, given their very long term view; they will let these folks all suffer their sins to a large extent and not be as generous as a Greek politician who has had way too many shots of ouzo.

 

However, with Europe estimated to account for approximately 18% of their trade, look for  increasing comments professing support.  In fact, China may decide to tender for the EU rather than picking off their assets piecemeal.

 

Greece will ultimately default even though the troika may put them on an allowance rather than providing a lump sum.  The installment plan buys the troika more time to put together a plan to ring fence the other over extended sovereigns.   A Grecian default, not to be confused with allowing the gray to grow out from your scalp, would result in a knee jerk reaction lower in the markets and then a move higher as the credit markets realize that the EU is finally ready to enforce fiscal discipline.   This would actually cause a major rally in the Euro but for now I am staying short, having rebuilt the position over the last week on the belief that all the good news was out and as crowded as the short trade was, the long trade was now the more popular investment.

 

I’m still in the camp of consolidation with somewhat higher equity exposure in lower beta, value stocks and short positions in commodities such as coal, steel and copper.    Perhaps we get a reaction move lower but with the massive liquidity in global markets and more due on 2/29 from the new and kinder “ECB”, bonds are the riskier asset and stocks more attractive.

 

And  one more thing, Apple.  I get that the stock action has accounted for a large percentage of the underlying averages but two things: the story is far from over and the market can move independently from the shares of AAPL.

 

Natural gas.  Looks like the lows may have been put in.  At the end of the day, we’re capitalists and the energy industry in this country is still one of the best managed sectors we have.  While the glut is not over, and hopefully the government recognizes the wisdom of incenting greater usage of natural gas as a replacement for crude, the shut ins are encouraging.  Of course, while the warm weather has increased “inventory” levels of natural gas and coal, these will be depleted at some point and are arguably reflected in the price of the equities to a large extent.  We have two CEO’s in energy that actually do what they say they will do: Floyd Wilson and Aubrey McClendon.  Floyd has been a major creator of wealth as he built and sold, to the benefit of shareholders, 3 companies. He is now in the process of doing it again with Halcon Resources (HK, a ticker in the Hall of Fame for its association with Petrohawk, has had its jersey unretired).  He makes no bones about it: I will build it and exit.  The $550 million he brought to the party underscores his commitment.  As to CHK, admittedly the debt levels, not so onerous in a different environment, are squarely in Aubrey’s sights and he has surprised the Street yet again by targeting higher levels of asset sales and further pay down of debt.  Underlying this, and somewhat unnoticed, is the transformation of a company too dependent upon natural gas (they have also announced they will shut in some gas)  to one with a stronger focus on liquids.  This is what will also drive the new HK – a focus on liquids as opposed to Petrohawk’s dry gas model.  Top CEOs understand and respond to changing market dynamics.

 

Disclosure: I am long HK, CHK, EUO and short AAPL puts.

China: Not on Goldilocks World Tour; The Global Economy; Copper, Commodities Lower.

The best thing that can be said for China is Europe.  But the worst thing that can be said for copper is China.

Europe continues to dominate the headlines, the immediacy of their issues relegating China to the back pages of the business press and investors’ minds.  This puts China in a very tough position between rooting for the EU, their top trading partner, to quickly put their sovereign debt issues behind them, and hoping they stay front and center, keeping China’s significant woes off the front page.  I know what Confucius would advise but his teachings have gone by the wayside quicker than a Ferrari barreling down Nanjing Road in Shanghai.

The biggest issue with China of course is the property bubble.  This exists not just for housing but also for commercial construction.  Given restrictions on lending at the local government level and tightening measures imposed by the central government, property developers have had to engage in creative financing techniques to continue building buildings that reportedly have very high vacancy rates. The credit agencies have taken aim at the banks, who own the local government debt, believing that the liabilities are understated, $540 billion being the amount recently mentioned by Moody’s.  I’m going to wager that Moody’s stays true to its reputation for accuracy and has vastly understated the issue, which, given the lack of transparency and controls in China, is a safe bet.  But using this figure and putting it in perspective, it is almost equivalent to the size of China’s stimulus package post 2008 crisis.  Let’s see what happens when that large sum of money works in reverse, choking off the economy and triggering defaults. What is most troubling is how much of the Chinese economy is dependent on this bubble.  This quote from Bloomberg is alarming (http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-09-23/china-s-squeeze-on-property-market-nearing-tipping-point-.html).  “China Real Estate Information Corp., a Shanghai-based property information and consulting firm, estimates 40 percent of overall local government revenue came from land sales last year.”  And, the local government involvement doesn’t stop there as they set up Trust companies, often in partnership with developers, to fund development.

Of course, there are those that hang onto the vision of the central government acting like the mother of a rambunctious 4 year old who scraps his knee but mommy won’t kiss this boo-boo and make it all better.  Sure, some of the developers who are closest to the ministers remaining open to receiving another Rolex Daytona in exchange for favorable treatment will not suffer as much but I doubt the government will bail out all the banks and developers.  The WSJ had 3 articles, all appropriately yellow flags.  Interestingly, and to this point, one of the world’s and China’s largest banks may seek to raise another $11 billion from the capital markets to protect the balance sheet against increasing bad debts.  When have you ever seen one capital raise be enough?  Exactly, and not here either since this bank has already raised $20 billion over the past two years.

In the most recent survey of home property prices recorded by the statistics bureau, for the first time less than half of the 70 cities posted month on month gains although all cities showed an increase, also for the first time this year.  This is troubling since it indicates that despite Premier Wen’s desire to cool off the overheated market, local governments refuse to participate relying heavily on higher prices on land sales.

Suppose I’m wrong and the government is more magnanimous than I estimate, writing checks to everyone who has wagered on prices forever climbing?  The conclusion for copper won’t change since it will still take a long time to absorb the current building inventory.  Construction is estimated to be between 50-70% of China’s GDP.  That soaks up a lot of energy, copper, steel and construction equipment which all feed into the global economy.

Soft landing for China?  That’s not what the direction of their bank stocks and property development companies will tell you.  I doubt that Goldilocks, she of the “not too cold, not too hot, just right” school of optimism, will be including China on her world tour.  Besides, she has signed on for additional dates in Europe and theU.S.

As to the U.S. indices, China surprisingly doesn’t mean much for now until the tipping point becomes apparent to all and the fog from Europe burns off.  All that matters for now is the impendingU.S.earnings season and Europe.  While I expect the ESFS to be approved, I’m not so sure the political appetite exists for the shock and awe leveraged fund that is needed to put a floor on the market.  But opinions on the outcome are like ipads, everyone has one.


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