Posts Tagged 'China'

Am I Still Bearish? Sort of Not

I have had very light equity exposure for an extended period of time with periods of being net short to being fairly long. Fortunately, with the indices having been range bound, the opportunity cost has been insignificant. As I mentioned in a prior note being bearish is exhausting, lonely and counter to my natural optimism (although I do admit to always maintaining a healthy dose of cynicism). Imagine taking your child to see 101 Dalmatians and loudly rooting for Cruella deVille to come out on top. Your kid shrinks away to another seat on the other side of the theater while others shun you. That’s how bears are treated.

I continually second guess my investment thesis, trying to see what the other side sees. I weigh the inputs underlying my stance, marking them to market. I try to remove the bias of my position as I seek additional data that is either supportive or unsupportive of my position. And of course, there is always the fear of acting from emotion that prompts a change in thinking, a feeling that you weren’t invited to the party, of being left out. And most of all, there is that greatest fear of all, of having reversed course at absolutely the wrong time. And in full disclosure, I have not always made the turn in a very timely fashion. I did well in 2008 but hardly made any money in 2009. Although I was still ahead of the game, it still didn’t feel good missing out on a ripping bull market move.

So where am I now? I am warming up to the market. Why? Well, I have often said I have seen this movie before and it ended badly but maybe there will be a different ending to this installment because everyone else had also seen the prequel to the 2011 financial crisis. My ending has banks struggling to raise capital, some, like Dexia or perhaps Greece, going belly up, credit continuing to tighten, economies contracting – the culmination of all these fears and others I haven’t listed causing a massive wave of selling. But guess what? Merkel and Sarkozy and the more responsible members of the G-20 and EU were also around in 2008 and they have no interest in revisiting that scenario. Granted they have waited too long and the cost of delay has ratcheted up the price of a cure. Germany and France have the most to lose by not putting forth a viable solution. While expectations for a total and complete solution are still high, they have been ratcheted down enough to be attainable, or near attainable with the promise to be completely resolved in the next 3 to 6 months. Shock and awe is not in the cards and everyone knows it. But will they give us enough to put a floor under the market and cause under invested funds to chase performance? I think so.

Swimming upstream, against the tide of bullishness that is the unwavering stance by the vast majority of pundits and market participants is difficult enough but imagine the flood gates being opened and the water gushing at you as you flutter kick your portfolio like a foam kickboard. The world is awash in liquidity. It all comes down to not fighting the Fed. But the much maligned U.S. Fed has recruited a legion of Central Bankers to fight the battle: the EU, IMF and China. This is a massive liquidity push by every printing press on the planet. So for now, I am entering into surrender negotiations and further increasing my exposure further.

I am by no means becoming fully invested for I still have that evil twin whispering in my ear. The global economy is in terrible shape but what do I know that others don’t? I don’t have an edge on China – it’s a property bubble that has already begun to leak – but the Chief Communist (as opposed to Chief Economist) knows that. I think that will end ugly but they can throw enough money at it in the interim to allow the S&P to rise to 1250, a random number, while their market declines. Europe is in recession but that thinking is convention and is nothing that $1.3 trillion can’t cure.

The most alpha will likely be generated through commodities and materials – the most economically sensitive investments – but I can’t go all that way in. There is too much risk in case I am wrong. I do like the fertilizer companies for the long term and although recovering, they have been beaten worse than a Middle Eastern dictator. I still prefer the more boring fundamentally, bottoms up investments epitomized by MDRX, KO, QCOM, WLP, NIHD. My risk is in bottom fishing on HPQ and, dare I admit it, RIMM. I cut back my Euro short against the dollar but will rebuild that position again at some point.

How long the cure lasts is what keeps a lid on my exposure. At some point austerity leads to slower growth and U.S. economic policy is non-existent as Washington remains rudderless. Everyone believes China will bail out every local government, corporate and individual spectators but I don’t. After all, they are communists and not prone to providing handouts to failing billionaires or local governments who have repeatedly disobeyed central government directives. There will be some pain to teach them a lesson.

I won’t be discouraged if there is a sell on the news mentality once the EU deal is announced. And I am rooting for another delay in the announcement because that means they are still arguing – eh, negotiating. And I expect leaks from the negotiations to cause some volatility. We should continue to move higher, perhaps rally 20% before going lower, likely hitting prior lows.

Whoops, there I go again.

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.

Yesterday’s Blog – Nat Gas; Netflix (NFLX) Hastings Has A Solution for Europe; President Obama, Merkel,

My sources provided unique insights into the European Finance Ministers’ Meeting in Poland this past weekend:

Germany: I would like to invite Herr Geithner to our little party.

Poland: Whatever you say, boss.

Austria: Absolutely not. He has no personality and is way too American, always telling people what to do.

France: It’s a long trip and he probably won’t even come. He’ll probably just send a really big check as a gift with his regrets.

Belgium: Rubbish. I heard he’s in debt over his head and his boss is soon to be out of a job which means he’s also on borrowed time.

Germany: Look, I am paying for the party and I want him to come. Hopefully, he says nein and sends a check. If we don’t invite him we stand no chance of getting anything from him.

Austria: Fine. He’s your friend but I’m warning you that if he starts bossing us around, I won’t be able to hold my tongue.
And so it went.

NFLX continues to be a short, the CEO’s mea culpa aside, if for no other reason than content costs will significantly crimp margins. Perhaps the Europeans should look at Hastings strategy and separate insolvent Greece from the rest of the union, the Greeks being the NFLX version of a legacy DVD business. Apparently, Hastings doesn’t want his company’s valuation in the market to be painted with the broad brush of a declining or slower growth business so he is separating the 2 businesses. Perhaps Merkel et al should invite him to their next get together. At least he is sure to bring the entertainment.

So here I am in Nashville sitting at the gate waiting for my flight to Newark. CNN is on and everyone seems to be transfixed by the conversation leading up to the President’s speech on deficit reduction and taxes. I don’t think I have ever seen this level of interest before. Most have barely taken a bite of their deep fried bagels – everything is deep fried here, even the sushi. This is America, Nascar country as their attire attests, Dale Junior’s number featured prominently. I often wonder why they revere Junior given he’s crossed the finish line about as often as an Obama legislative proposal on taxes.

Like an Earnhardt fan, expectations were apparently incredibly high going into the weekend. But like an Earnhardt fan, the experience only resulted in disheartening disappointment. I’ve noted before that our two party system can’t agree on much these days so any expectation that the Euro’s 17 backers, some with effectively more than 2 party systems, will agree on a bailout measure for the banks and the PIIGS in a compressed time frame is folly.

Merkel is losing her mandate as yet another election pointed out this past weekend as her FDP partner suffered defeat. This conceivably puts Europe in a precarious position without a strong voice. Clearly, the coalition is fracturing, unable to even offer a carrot to the markets when they knew one was so desperately needed. Expectations are possibly higher for the FOMC to release a Q3 type statement on Weds. But even if they do, it will only provide a short term lift to the market for the economic fundamentals continue to worsen. Yes there are pockets of strength, the high end has been the savior, and the Apple ecosystem has done more than its share, but there is no disputing the declining economic picture and I would not continue to look for the upper end consumer to thrive, not in the face of higher taxes. Bullish prognosticators note the decline in the averages from the peak as more than having discounted any perceived economic malaise while hanging onto the belief that we are in a soft patch. Need I remind them that when the market rose to such heights, the global economy was on an upswing and the European sovereign mess just a twinkle in a dollar bull’s eye. Now the economy has slowed, if not reversed, and the collapse of the potential for a collapse of the Euro is real.

But the President has an answer for us. He wants to tax investment income as ordinary income, essentially removing any incentive for assumption of risk. In a perilous market environment, why put any capital at risk if there is little chance for reward? Less investment means less money sloshing around the economy and fewer jobs being created. And while we’re watching the acrimony in Washington, how about drafting the rest of us into a financial civil war, dividing the citizenry into two classes, pitting one against the other, all in the name of politics?

None of this is positive for the economy or the markets which is why I continue to be bearish

I added to my Euro short against the dollar on Thursday and still believe par is where the Euro will ultimately reside even if the new Troika comes out with a bailout package. Actually, that will further fortify my already strong conviction. Given my view on the slowing world economy – yes, even China will slow – I have exited my energy positions for the most part recalling that crude got decimated in the ’08 financial meltdown as demand suffered and speculative traders lost their appetite for risk (and their margin). The one bright spot is LNG as global demand is increasing sharply as a function of Japan and Germany using less nuclear power and Japan, China and India looking for a next generation solution to their burgeoning energy demands supposedly willing to pay as much as $20/btu all in. As more tankers and terminals are built for export, this will help sop up our overabundance of natural gas. And although I have little faith it will happen, should the administration ever propose a real energy policy, that, by the way would also create a number of jobs, natural gas would have to be in the equation.

I guess I’m not really surprised by the muted reaction in gold to all the negativity since gold is a risk asset and the appetite for risk is waning once again and margin requirements more lofty. It’s not a bad thing to see a high flying trade enter into a consolidation phase. I will keep my eye on it, looking for opportunity but will probably miss it again.


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