Linear Talk – Interview with Chris Watling of Longview Economics

Interview with Chris Watling of Longview Economics – Reducing Equity Risk – 6 to 24 month forecast.

 

 

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Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion

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Macro Letter – No 100 – 13-07-2018

Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion

  • Emerging market currencies, bonds and stocks have weakened
  • Fears about the impact of US tariffs have been felt here most clearly
  • The risk to Europe and Japan is significant
  • Turkey may be the key market to watch

As US interest rates continue to normalise and US tariffs begin to bite, a number of emerging markets (EM’s) have come under pressure. Of course, the largest market to exhibit signs of stress is China, the MSCI China Index is down 7% since mid-June, whilst the RMB has also weakened against the US$ by more than 6% since its April low. Will contagion spread to developed markets and, if so, which country might be the ‘carrier’?

To begin to answer these questions we need to investigate this year’s casualties. Argentina is an obvious candidate. Other troubled countries include Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. In each case, government debt has exacerbated instability, as each country’s currency came under pressure. Other measures of instability include budget and trade deficits.

In an effort to narrow the breadth of this Macro Letter, I will confine my analysis to those countries with twin government and current account deficits. In the table which follow, the countries are sorted by percentage of world GDP. The colour coding reflects the latest MSCI categorisation; yellow, denotes a fully-fledged EM, white, equals a standard EM, green, is on the secondary list and blue is reserved for those countries which are so ‘frontier’ in nature as not to be currently assessed by MSCI: –

EM Debt and GDP

Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank

For the purposes of this analysis, the larger the EM as a percentage of world GDP and the higher its investment rating, the more likely it is to act as a catalyst for contagion. Whilst this is a simplistic approach, it represents a useful the starting point.

Back in 2005, in a futile attempt to control the profligacy of European governments, the European Commission introduced the Stability and Growth Pact. It established at maximum debt to GDP ratio of 60% and budget deficit ceiling of 3%, to be applied to all members of the Eurozone. If applied to the EM’s listed above, the budget deficit constraint could probably be relaxed: these are, generally, faster growing economies. The ratio of debt to GDP should, however, be capped at a lower percentage. The government debt overhang weighs more heavily on smaller economies, especially ones where the percentage of international investors tends to be higher. Capital flight is a greater risk for EM’s than for developed economies, which are insulated by a larger pool of domestic investors.

Looking at the table again, from a financial stability perspective, the percentage of non-domestic debt to GDP, is critical. A sudden growth stop, followed by capital flight, usually precipitates a collapse in the currency. External debt can prove toxic, even if it represents only a small percentage of GDP, since the default risk associated with a collapsing currency leads to a rapid rise in yields, prompting further capital flight – this is a viscous circle, not easily broken. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980’s was one of the more poignant examples of this pattern. Unsurprisingly, in the table above, the percentage of external debt to GDP grows as the economies become smaller, although there is a slight bias for South American countries to continue to borrow abroad. Perhaps a function of their proximity to the US capital markets. Interestingly, by comparison with developed nations, the debt to GDP ratios in most of these EM countries is relatively modest: a sad indictment of the effectiveness of QE as a policy to strengthen the world financial system – but I digress.

Our next concern ought to be the trade balance. Given the impact that US tariffs are likely to have on export nations, both emerging and developed, it is overly simplistic to look, merely, at EM country exports to the US. EM exports to Europe, Japan and China are also likely to be vulnerable, as US tariffs are enforced. Chile and Mexico currently run trade surpluses, but, since their largest trading partner is the US, they still remain exposed.

This brings us to the second table which looks at inflation, interest rates, 10yr bond yields, currencies and stock market performance: –

EM Markets and Inflation

Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank

In addition to its absolute level, the trend of inflation is also an important factor to consider. India has seen a moderate increase since 2017, but price increases appear steady not scary. Brazil has seen a recent rebound after the significant moderation which followed the 2016 spike. Mexican inflation has moderated since late 2017, posing little cause for concern. Indonesian price rises are at the lower end of their post Asian crisis range. Turkey, however, is an entirely different matter. It inflation is at its highest since 2004 and has broken to multiyear highs in the last two months. Inflation trends exert a strong influence on interest rate expectations and Turkish 10yr yields have risen by more than 5% this year, whilst it currency has fallen further than any in this group, barring the Argentinian Peso. For comparison, the Brazilian Real is the third weakest, followed, at some distance, by the Indian Rupee.

India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia may be among the largest economies in this ‘contagion risk’ group, but Turkey, given its geographic proximity to the EU may be the linchpin.

Is Turkey the canary?

The recent Turkish elections gave President Erdogan an increased majority. His strengthened mandate does not entirely remove geopolitical risk, but it simplifies our analysis of the country from an economic perspective. Short-term interest rates are 17.75%, the second highest in the group, behind Argentina. The yield curve is inverted: and both the currency and stock market have fared poorly YTD. Over the last 20 years, Turkish GDP has averaged slightly less than 5%, but this figure is skewed by three sharp recessions (‘98, ‘01 and ‘08). The recent trend has been volatile but solid. 10yr bond yields, by contrast, have been influenced by a more than doubling of short-term interest rates, in defence of the Turkish Lira. This aggressive action, by their central bank, makes the economy vulnerable to an implosion of growth, as credit conditions deteriorate rapidly.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

In Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018 – Is the US exporting a recession? I concluded in respect of Europe that: –

…the [stock] market has failed to rise substantially on a positive slew of earnings news. This may be because there is a more important factor driving sentiment: the direction of US rates. It certainly appears to have engendered a revival of the US$. It rallied last month having been in a downtrend since January 2017 despite a steadily tightening Federal Reserve. For EURUSD the move from 1.10 to 1.25 appears to have taken its toll. On the basis of the CESI chart, above, if Wall Street sneezes, the Eurozone might catch pneumonia.

Over the past few months EM currencies have declined, their bond yields have increased and their stock markets have generally fallen. In respect of tariffs, President Trump has done what he promised. Markets, like Mexico and Chile, reacted early and seem to have stabilised. Argentina had its own internal issues with which to contend. The Indian economy continues its rapid expansion, despite higher oil prices and US tariffs. It is Turkey that appears to be the weakest link, but this may be as much a function of the actions of its central bank.

If, over the next few months, the Turkish Lira stabilises and official rates moderate, the wider economy may avoid recession. Whilst much commentary concerning EM risks will focus on the fortunes of China, it is still a relatively closed, command economy: and, therefore, difficult to predict. It will be at least as useful to focus on the fortunes of Turkey. It may give advanced warning, like the canary in the coal-mine, which makes it my leading indicator of choice.

 

 

China – leading indicator? Stocks, credit policy, rebalancing and money supply

China – leading indicator? Stocks, credit policy, rebalancing and money supply

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Macro Letter – No 88 – 08-12-2017

China – leading indicator? Stocks, credit policy, rebalancing and money supply

  • Chinese bond yields have reached their highest since October 2014
  • Chinese stocks have corrected despite the US market making new highs
  • The PBoC has introduced targeted lending to SMEs and agricultural borrowers
  • Money supply growth is below target and continues to moderate

Chinese 10yr bond yields have been rising steadily since October 2016. They never reached the low or negative levels of Japan or Germany. 1yr bonds bottomed earlier at 1.76% in June 2015 having tested 1% back in 2009.

The pattern and path of Chinese rates is quite different from that of US Treasuries. Last month rates increased to their highest since 2014 and the Shanghai Composite index finally appears to have taken notice. The divergence, however, between Shanghai stocks and those of the US is worth investigating more closely.

The chart below shows the yield on 10yr Chinese Government Bonds since 2007 (LHS) and the 3 month inter-bank deposit rate over the same period (RHS):-

china 10yr vs 3 m interbank - 10yr

Source: Trading Economics

From a recent peak in 2014, yields declined steadily until October 2016, since when they have begun to rise quite sharply.

The next chart shows the change in yield of Government bonds and AAA Corporate bonds across the entire yeild curve:-

China_Government_vs_Corp_AAA_Yield_Curve

Source: PBoC

The dates I chose were 29th September – the day before the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) announced their targeted lending plan. The 22nd November – the day before the Shanghai index reversed and 6th December – bringing the data set up to date.

The general observation is simply that yields have risen across the maturity spectrum, but the next chart, showing the change in the spread between government and corporate paper reveals some additional nuances:-

China_Government_vs_AAA_Corp_Spread

Source: PBoC

Spreads have generally widened as monetary conditions have tightened. The widening has been most pronounced in the 30yr maturity. The widening of credit spreads may be driven by the prospect of $1trln of corporate debt which is due to mature between now and 2019.

Another factor may be the change in policy announced by the PBoC on September 30th. Bloomberg – China’s Central Bank Unveils Targeted Lending Plan to Aid Growth provides an excellent overview:-

Banks will enjoy 0.5 percentage point RRR cut if eligible lending exceeds 1.5 percent or more of their new lending in 2017

Deduction will be 1.5 percentage point if eligible lending reaches 10 percent or more of new lending in 2017, or if “inclusive finance” loans take up 10 percent of total outstanding loans in 2017

Rural commercial banks who meet an earlier requirement that at least 10 percent of new lending is local can receive a 1 percentage point reduction

The RRR is the Reserve Requirement Ratio. This is a targeted easing of lending requirements aimed at directing credit to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) rather than state owned enterprises (SOEs) and encouraging lending to the agricultural sector. It also favour banks over the shadow banking sector. This policy shift was a rapid response to a trend which has been evident this year. Whilst credit continues to expand the percentage of credit directed to SMEs dropped from 50% in 2016 to 30% in 2017 – this policy aims to rebalance the supply of credit.

Despite expectations that the first half of 2017 would be strongest, the Chinese economy continues to grow above official forecasts, Q3 GDP came in at 6.8%. M2 money supply growth, by contrast, was only 8.8% in October versus 9.2% in September. The chart below shows the declining pattern over the past five years:-

China_M2_Money_Supply_5yr_growth_rate_CEIC

Source: CEIC, PBoC

8.8% M2 growth still looks high when compared with the US (6%) the EU (5.1%) or Japan (3.9%) but with GDP increasing by 6.8% it does not look excessive. It is worth noting, however, that the PBoC target for M2 growth in 2017 is 12% down from 13% in 2016.

What impact has this had on stocks? Not much, so far, is the answer:-

Shanghai Index - 5yr

Source: Trading Economics, Shanghai SE

Chinese stocks, as I have mentioned previously, do not look excessively expensive by several measures, however, this is not to suggest that they will not fall. According to Star Capital, at the end of September the PE ratio for China was 7.6 but the CAPE ratio was a much higher 17.3. The Dividend yield (3.9%) offers some comfort nonetheless.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Chinese economic growth remains spectacular but the authorities are interested in promoting inclusive growth rather than encouraging individual speculation. Official interest rates have been 4.35% since October 2015, which is the lowest they have ever been, however, the reverse repo rate was increased in January from 2.25% to 2.45% and the standing loan facility rate increased in March from 3.1% to 3.3%. The bond market expects this mild tightening bias to continue. Meanwhile, inflation, which was 1.9%, up from 0.8% in February, is hardly cause for concern.

Chinese stocks can be divided into SOEs and Non-SOEs. Since the beginning of 2017 the sectors have diverged sharply, as this chart of the WisdomTree China ex-State-Owned Enterprises Fund (CXSE) versus the MSCI China Index (NDEUCHF), indicates:-

Wisdomtree_ex-SOE_ETF_vs_MSCI_China_YTD

Source: WisdomTree, MSCI

Even since the end of November, when stocks fell abruptly, the outperformance of, what some are calling new-China, has been maintained. This is not to suggest that PBoC policy is deliberately designed to support the new-China economy, but when the interests of the Chinese people and that of enterprises align it can be a winning combination.

It is still too soon to predict the end of the rise in Chinese stocks, the authorities, however, are determined not to allow a repeat of the speculative bubble of 2015. The combination of a continued decline in the pace of money supply growth and higher bond yields, may see Chinese stocks decline in response to monetary tightening before those of developed nation countries. Chinese stocks trade differently to those listed in more open markets, nonetheless, the importance of China should not be underestimated: it might even be the leading indicator for world markets.

Is Chinese growth about to falter?

Is Chinese growth about to falter?

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Macro Letter – No 83 – 15-09-2017

Is Chinese growth about to falter?

  • The IMF revised Chinese growth forecasts higher in July – were they premature?
  • Retail sales, industrial output and fixed investment have slowed
  • The Real Estate sector is still buoyant but home price increases are moderating
  • Narrow money supply growth has slowed, other parts of the economy will follow

China has long been the marginal driver of demand for a wide array of commodities. In an attempt to understand the recent rise in the price of industrial metals, the strength of Chinese demand is a key factor. The picture is mixed.

The chart and commentary below is taken from Sean Corrigan’s August newsletter – Cantillon Consulting – China: Is the tide turning?:-

China_Money_Supply_-_Cantillon_August_2017

Source: Cantillon Consulting

As Corrigan goes on to say:-

As the deceleration has progressed, the PMI has shown its expected downward response. In due course, company revenues – and ultimately profits – will follow if this is long maintained.

Greater recourse to receivables financing (funded partly by recourse to shadow finance) can delay full recognition of this awhile, but it cannot fail to impair either the magnitude or the quality of earnings as it works through the economy.

At the heart of the credit equation lies the Real Estate market:-

China_Real-Estate_and_M1_-_Cantillon_-_August_2017

Source: Cantillon Consulting

During 2016 property prices in China increased by 19%, new homes by 12.4%, the fastest since 2011, but the market has cooled of late due to government intervention to subdue its speculative excess. New-home prices, excluding government-subsidized housing, gained from the previous month in 56 of 70 cities in July, compared with 60 in June. New Home Sales for August were the weakest in three years at +3.8%, however, investment in Real Estate development increased 7.8% last month – this is hardly a collapse. House prices are still forecast to rise by 6.8% in 2017 with growth driven by continued increases in second and third tier cities:-

China house prices - 2nd and 3rd tier cities - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

There are concerns that the property market may crash later this year but Chinese authorities seem to be cogniscent of this risk. They lifted restrictions on international bond sales in June, allowing cash strapped property developers to tap international markets. Bloomberg – Indebted China Developers Get Funding Relief as Bond Sales Soar – covers this story in greater detail.

With Real Estate contributing around 15% to GDP this more moderate pace of expansion is expected to temper the pace of growth for the second half of 2017. In Q2 GDP was estimated at 6.9%, the same level as Q1 – this puts nominal growth near to a five year high.

The tide appears to have turned; Industrial output, fixed investment and retail sales all slowed during the summer. Industrial output rose 6% in August, the weakest this year. Retail sales rose 10.1% down from 10.4% and 11% in July and June. Fixed-asset investment in urban areas was up 7.8% in the year to August, the slowest since 1999:-

China growth indicators - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

In a paper published at the end of August The Kansas City Federal Reserve – Has China’s Growth Reached a Turning Point? provide further support for expectations of a slowdown in Chinese growth. As they note, judging whether the recent rebound in China’s growth is temporary or more sustained, is a complex issue:-

The Chinese economy is undergoing a transition in which economic growth is rising in some sectors of the economy but declining in others. At the same time, China’s official quarterly GDP figures have been criticized for being overly smooth and less informative. Moreover, Chinese government policies have stimulated or cooled the economy at different times, further muddling the signal from economic data.

The authors construct a factor model but find that:-

…no single common factor explains the majority of the variation in Chinese activity. This is consistent with the view that the Chinese economy is in a transition, so different sectors are less synchronized. Indeed, our analysis shows that the five most important factors together account for about 75 percent of the total variation in the selected Chinese data.

The heat-map matrix – darker colour = greater importance – is shown below (apologies for the poor resolution):-

KCFR_Factor_model

Note: “M” corresponds to manufacturing, “I” corresponds to investment, “T” corresponds to trade, “C” corresponds to consumption, “S” corresponds to services, “R” corresponds to real estate and finance, and “P” corresponds to policy.

(Sources: Wind and authors’ calculations.)

Source: Kansas City Federal Reserve

Here are the weightings which the authors assigned to each factor and the cumulative total:-

KCFR_-_Factor_weights

Source: Kansas City Federal Reserve

In conclusion the authors look in detail at the evolution of the drivers behind their principal factor – Factor 1:-

KCFR_Factor_1_breakdown

Source: Kansas City Federal Reserve

As China is transitioning from an investment- and export-driven economy to a more consumption-driven economy, the recent improvement in the manufacturing, investment, and trade group is likely to be temporary. Indeed, this improvement may reflect the rebound in global commodity prices that led to higher industrial profits and production; an increase in fiscal spending, which supported investment; and improvement in global growth coupled with the depreciation in the Chinese currency at the end of last year, which boosted Chinese exports. These driving forces may prove to be temporary, casting doubts on the sustainability of recent strength in the manufacturing, investment, and trade group.

This suggests that the increase in commodity demand outside China has led to increases in prices and that this has helped boost Chinese GDP growth.

Indian, an economy with a large enough GDP to tip the scales, has been slowing since Q1 2016 so the KCFR conclusion seems like the cart leading the horse, it’s little wonder they express it tentatively.

Which brings me to a recent article from Mauldin Economics – or, more accurately China Beige Book – China: Q2 Early Look Brief in which Leland Miller takes issue with the idea that Chinese growth has peaked, corporate deleveraging is the cause, and that the commodity sector is in slowdown mode.

Here’s an extract which gives a flavour of Miller’s contrarian perspective:-

Why Rebalance When You Can Have Both?

The second quarter saw minimal progress in moving away from manufacturing toward services leadership in the economy. This was an excellent failure, however, since services performed well and manufacturing almost as well. Manufacturing tapered but extended its powerful rally since the first half of 2016. Revenue, hiring, and new orders were all higher on-quarter and sharply higher on-year. Still, services outperformed manufacturing in revenue and profits. Hiring in services has been uneven, but Q2 was solid.

Commodities Surprises to the Upside.

Defying early signs of a slowdown, our biggest Q2 surprise was another robust performance in commodities. Make no mistake, the warning signs look like Times Square: the second quarter saw huge across-the-board jumps in inventory, sliding sales price growth in three of four sub-sectors, and rising input costs. Yet, more firms again saw rising sales prices than input cost hikes, sales volumes accelerated, and cash flow moved from red to black, bolstering balance sheets.

Away from Markets’ Gaze, Aluminum Shines.

Commodities’ unsung hero: aluminum. CBB data show aluminum firms wildly outperforming the current market narrative, seeing broad Q2 gains in revenues, profits, volumes, output, and new orders, as well as cash flow, which jumped into the black for the first time in our survey’s history. The why is less clear than the what, but one obvious possibility is aluminum is the latest recipient of some of China’s excess liquidity. The #moneyball may have struck again.

Miller goes on to admit that Real Estate has slowed, credit conditions have deteriorated (outside the property space) and inventories in manufacturing, retail, and commodities hit all-time highs. By one estimate China’s unused steel capacity equals the output of Japan, India, America and Russia combined. Personally I only take issue with Miller’s spelling of aluminium!

China Beige Book remain more optimistic than the majority of commentators but they end their review on a note of caution:-

China’s attempt at deleveraging has been discussed to no end, but its implications are not well understood. In Q1, corporate reporting to CBB showed credit tightening was limited to interbank markets. In Q2, it hit firms: bond yields and rates at shadow banks touched the highest levels in the history of our survey, and bank rates their highest since 2014. So why did borrowing not collapse, denting the broader economy? One reason is what we call the “Party Congress Put.” While borrowing did see a mild drop for the third straight quarter, companies’ six-month revenue expectations remain robust in every sector save property. Companies assume deleveraging is transient, likely because they are skeptical the Party will allow economic pain in 2017. It will not be until 2018 when we find out whether deleveraging is genuine – because it won’t be until 2018 that it will actually hurt.

This brings me back to the question, what caused the initial increase in commodity prices? Part of the impetus behind the rise has been a deliberate curtailing of supply by the Chinese authorities, however, investors should be wary of equating a rise in prices with a sustainable recovery in demand. The Economist – Making sense of capacity cuts in China described it thus:-

Stockmarkets have been on a tear over the past 18 months. Shares are, on average, up by a third globally. Commodities have rallied. And the optimism has infected corporate treasurers, who, for the first time in five years, are spending more on new buildings and equipment. Plenty of factors have fed into the upturn, from Europe’s recovery to early hopes for the Trump presidency. But its origins date back to a commitment by China to demolish steel mills and shut coal mines.

On the face of it, that is an unlikely spark for a change in sentiment. Normally, growth comes from the investment in new facilities, not the closure of those in use. In fact, China’s case is a rare one. By taking on extreme overcapacity, its cutbacks have provided a boost, for itself and for the global economy. The risk, however, is that the way the country is going about the cuts both disguises old flaws and creates new ones.

In early 2016 China announced plans to reduce steel and coal capacity by at least 10% over five years – equivalent to around 5% of global supply. By 2020 they aim to reduce coal output by 800m tonnes – 25% of Chinese production. Steel capacity is set to be slashed by 100m-150m tonnes – 20% of total output – and aluminium, by 30%.

This is not the first time China has attempted to manipulate global commodity markets, yet previous forays disappointed. This time it’s different – a dangerous phrase indeed! Higher prices for steel are likely to encourage domestic investment in new supply. Iron Ore stocks at Chinese ports have reached record levels. Meanwhile the underlying problem – oversupply – has not been addressed. Signs of a roll-back in policy are already evident in the coal industry, where mines which had their production capped at 276 days in 2016, have been permitted to revert to 330 days production this year.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Returning to my original question – is Chinese growth about to falter? In his recent article for the Carnegie Endowment – Is China’s Economy Growing as Fast as China’s GDP? Michael Pettis writes:-

… I would argue that “the end of China’s stellar growth story” has already occurred, and occurred quite a long time ago. Growth in the Chinese economy has collapsed, but growth in economic activity has not collapsed (let us assume, with Grenville, that somehow the reduction in GDP growth from over 10 percent to 6.5 percent does not represent a slowdown in economic activity). The growth in economic activity has instead been propped up by the acceleration in credit growth and by the failure to write down investments that have created economic activity without having created economic value. In that case, high GDP growth levels simply disguise the seeming collapse of underlying economic growth in a way that has happened many times before—always in the late stages of similar apparent investment-driven growth miracles.

The question which springs from Pettis’s article is, when will the non-performing investments be written off? Given the relatively modest government debt to GDP ratio in China (69%) there is still scope to postpone the day of reckoning, but in the shorter-term, trade tensions with the US and a certain reticence on the part of major Central Banks to embrace infinite QE, risks interrupting the current rebound in global growth over the next two years.

The IMF WEO – July 2017 update left global forecasts for global GDP growth unchanged at 3.5% for 2017 and 3.6% for 2018, but their forecasts for China were revised higher by 0.1% and 0.2% respectively. The increasing levels of debt, inventory build and buoyancy of the Real Estate sector may be sufficient for China to avoid a slow-down in GDP growth, but this will be the result of a further inflating of their debt bubble.

Chinese stocks, which continue to trade on single digit P/E ratios, look inexpensive, but this is how they almost always look. Chinese government 10yr bond yields have risen by more than 1% since October 2016 to 3.67% (14-9-2017). Despite the rhetoric emanating from Washington DC, the RMB has retraced much of the ground it lost during 2016 – since January the RMB has strengthened by 4.7% against the greenback.

An economic slowdown in China will prompt the authorities to provide liquidity, this in turn should feed through to lower interest rates, which in turn will help to support domestic stocks. US pressure, such as economic sanctions or the imposition of regulatory constraints, is likely to lead to a renewed weakening of the Chinese currency. A process lower domestic bond yields will help to accelerate. Chinese equities remain in a technical up-trend, as does the currency, while the direction of bond yields is upward as well. This favours remaining; long stocks, short bonds and long the RMB.

When might things change? It is difficult to forecast – I am a trend follower by inclination. The, possibly apocryphal phrase, attributed to Keynes, that ‘The markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent,’ is etched firmly on my heart. The Chinese edict limiting coal production was, perhaps, the catalyst for present rally. I prefer to trade leaders rather than laggards and will therefore be watching the price of Chinese coal closely. Below is the five year chart:-

ICE_South_China_Coal_-_5yr

Source: Barchart.com

There is room for a downward correction – to fill a technical gap – but I see no reason to sell industrial commodities on the basis of this price pattern. Notwithstanding Pettis’s more nuanced view, I believe growth, as we understand it on a month to month basis, may slow. If it occurs the slowdown will be gradual, moderate and, if the government intervenes, might be deferred: though, in the long run, not indefinitely.

The gritty potential of Fire Ice – Saviour or Scourge?

The gritty potential of Fire Ice – Saviour or Scourge?

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Macro Letter – No 80 – 30-06-2017

The gritty potential of Fire Ice – Saviour or Scourge?

  • Estimates of Methane Hydrate reserves vary from 10,000 to 100,000 TCF
  • 100,000 TCF of Methane Hydrate could meet global gas demand for 800 years
  • Cost of extraction is currently above $20/mln BTUs but may soon fall rapidly
  • Japan METI estimate production costs falling to $7/mln BTUs over the next 20 years

On June 6th Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced the Resumption of the Gas Production Test under the Second Offshore Methane Hydrate Production Test this is what they said:-

Concerning the second offshore methane hydrate production test, since May 4, 2017, ANRE has been advancing a gas production test in the offshore sea area along Atsumi Peninsula to Shima Peninsula (Daini Atsumi Knoll) using the Deep Sea Drilling Vessel “Chikyu.” However, on May 15, 2017, it decided to suspend the test due to a significant amount of sand entering a gas production well.

In response, ANRE advanced an operation for switching the gas production wells from the first one to the second one for which a different preventive measure against sand entry is in place. Following this effort, on May 31, 2017, it began a depressurization operation and, on June 5, 2017, confirmed the production of gas.

Sand flowing into the well samples has been a gritty problem for the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy – ANRE since 2013. They continue to invest because Japan relies on imports for the majority of its energy needs, especially since the reduction in nuclear capacity after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It has been in the vanguard of research into the commercial extraction of Methane Hydrate or ‘Fire Ice’ as it is more prosaically known.

Methane hydrates are solid ice-like crystals formed from a mixture of methane and water at specific pressure in the deep ocean or at low temperature closer to the surface in permafrost. For a primer on Methane Hydrate and its potential, this November 2012 article from the EIA – Potential of gas hydrates is great, but practical development is far off – may be instructive but a picture is worth a thousand words:-

Methane Hydrate diagram - EIA

Source: US Department of Energy

During the last two months there have been some important developments. Firstly the successful extraction of gas by the Japanese, albeit, they have run into the problem of sand getting into the pipes again, which poses an environmental risk. Secondly China has successfully extracted gas from Methane Hydrate deposits in the South China Sea. This article from the BBC – China claims breakthrough in mining ‘flammable ice’ provides more detail. The Chinese began investment in Fire Ice back in 2006, committing $100mln, not far behind the investment commitments of Japan.

Japan and China are not alone in possessing Methane Hydrate deposits. The map below, which was produced by the US Geological Survey, shows the global distribution of deposits:-

Methane_Hydrate_deposits_-_USGS_-_2011

Source: US Geological Survey

For countries such as Japan, South Korea and India, Methane Hydrate could transform their circumstances, especially in terms of energy security.

Estimates of global reserves of Methane Hydrate range from 10,000 to 100,000trln cubic feet (TCF). In 2015 the global demand for natural gas was 124bln cubic feet. Even at the lower estimate that is 80 years of global supply at current rates of consumption. This could be a game changer for the energy industry.

The challenge is to extract Methane Hydrate efficiently and competitively. Oceanic deposits are normally found at depths of around 1500 metres. Even estimating the size of deposits is difficult in these locations. Alaskan and Siberian permafrost reserves are more easily assessed.

Japan has spent $179mln on research and development but last week METI announced that they would now work in partnership with the US and India. The Nikkei – Japan joining with US, India to tap undersea ‘fire ice’ described it in these terms, the emphasis is mine:-

Under the new plan, Japan will end its lone efforts and pursue cooperation with others. The country has been spending tens of millions of yen per day on its tests. By working with other nations, it seeks to reduce the cost.

A joint trial with the U.S. to produce methane hydrate on land in the state of Alaska is expected to begin as early as next year. Test production with India off that country’s east coast may also kick off in 2018.

The new blueprint will define methane hydrate as an alternative to liquefied natural gas. Based on the assumption that Japan will be paying $11 to $12 per 1 million British thermal units of LNG in the 2030s to 2050s, the plan will set the target production cost for methane hydrate over the period at $6 to $7.

In the shorter term METI hope to increase daily production from around 20,000 cubic metres/day to around 56,000 cubic metres/day which they believe will bring the cost of extraction down to $16/mln BTUs. That is still three times the price of liquid natural gas (LNG).

Here is the latest FERC estimate of landed LNG prices/mln BTUs:-

LNG_prices_-_May_17_FERC

Source: Waterborne Energy, Inc, FERC

You might be forgiven for wondering why the Japanese, despite being the world’s largest importer of LNG, are bothering with Methane Hydrate, but this chart from BP shows the evolution of Natural Gas prices over the last two decades:-

bp-statsreview

Source: BP

Japan was squeezed by rising fuel costs between 2009 and 2012 only to be confronted by the Yen weakening from USDJPY 80 to USDJPY 120 from 2012 to 2014. If Abenomics succeeds and the Yen embarks upon a structural decline, domestically extracted Methane Hydrate may be a saviour.

Cooperating internationally also makes sense for Japan. The US launched a national research and development programme in 1982. They have deep water pilot projects off the coast of South Carolina and in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in the permafrost of the Alaska North Slope.

Technical challenges

As deep sea drilling technology advances the cost of extraction should start to decline but as this 2014 BBC article – Methane hydrate: Dirty fuel or energy saviour? explains, there are a number of risks:-

Quite apart from reaching them at the bottom of deep ocean shelves, not to mention operating at low temperatures and extremely high pressure, there is the potentially serious issue of destabilising the seabed, which can lead to submarine landslides.

A greater potential threat is methane escape. Extracting the gas from a localised area of hydrates does not present too many difficulties, but preventing the breakdown of hydrates and subsequent release of methane in surrounding structures is more difficult.

And escaping methane has serious consequences for global warming – recent studies suggest the gas is 30 times more damaging than CO2.

Given the long term scale of the potential reward, it may seem surprising that the Japanese have only invested $179mln to date, however these projects have been entirely government funded.  Commercial operators are waiting for clarification of the cost of extraction and size of viable reserves before entering the fray. Most analysts suggest commercial production is unlikely before 2025. With the price of Natural Gas depressed, development may be delayed further but in the longer term Methane Hydrate will become a major global source of energy. Like the fracking revolution of the past decade, it is only a matter of when.

The history of fracking can be traced back to 1862 and the first patent was filed in 1865. In the case of Fire Ice, I do not believe we will have to wait that long. Deep sea mining and drilling technologies are advancing quickly in several different arenas. The currently depressed price of LNG is only one factor holding back the development process.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Predicting the timing of technological breakthroughs is futile, however, the US energy sector is currently witnessing a resurgence in profitability. In their June 16th bulletin, FactSet Research estimated that Q2 profits for the S&P500 will rise 6.5%. They go on to highlight the sector which has led the field, Energy, the emphasis is mine:-

At the sector level, nine sectors are projected to report year-over-year growth in earnings for the quarter. However, the Energy sector is projected to report the highest earnings growth of all eleven sectors at 401%.

This sector is also expected to be the largest contributor to earnings growth for the S&P 500 for Q2 2017. If the Energy sector is excluded, the estimated earnings growth rate for the index for Q2 2017 would fall to 3.6% from 6.5%.

The price of Brent Crude Oil has been falling but the previous investment in technology combined with some aggressive cost cutting in the recent past has been the driving force behind this spectacular increase in Energy Sector profitability. Between 2014 and 2016 Energy Sector capital expenditure fell nearly 40%. I expect a rebound in capex over the next couple of years. It may be too soon for this to spill over to commercial investment in Methane Hydrate, but developments in Japan and China during the past two months suggest a breakthrough may be imminent. The next phase of investment may be about to begin.

The Risks and Rewards of Asian Real Estate

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Macro Letter – No 69 – 27-01-2017

The Risks and Rewards of Asian Real Estate

  • Shanghai house prices increased 26.5% in 2016
  • International investment in Asian Real Estate is forecast to grow 64% by 2020
  • Chinese and Indian Real Estate has underperformed US stocks since 2009
  • Economic and demographic growth is supportive Real Estate in several Asian countries

Donald Trump may have torn up the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but the economic fortunes of Asia are unlikely to be severely dented. This week Blackstone Group – which at $102bln AUM is one of the largest Real Estate investors in the world – announced that they intend to raise $5bln for a second Asian Real Estate fund. Their first $5bln fund – Blackstone Real Estate Partners (BREP) Asia – which launched in 2014, is now 70% invested and generated a 17% return through September 2016. Blackstone’s new vehicle is expected to invest over the next 12 to 18 months across assets such as warehouses and shopping malls in China, India, South-East Asia and Australia.

Last year 22 Asia-focused property funds raised a total of $10.6bln. Recent research by Preqin estimates that $33bln of cash is currently waiting to be allocated by existing Real Estate managers.

Blackrock, which has $21bln in Real Estate assets, predicts the amount invested in Real Estate assets will grow by 75% in the five years to 2020. In their March 2016 Global Real Estate Review they estimated that Global REITs returned 10% over five years, 6% over 10 years and 11% over 15 years.

This year – following the lead of countries such as Australia, Japan and Singapore – India is due to introduce Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) they also plan to permit infrastructure investment trusts (InvITs). Other Asian markets have introduced REITs but not many have been successful in achieving adequate liquidity. India, however, has the seventh highest home ownership rate in the world (86.6%) which bodes well for potential REIT investment demand.

UK asset manager M&G, make an excellent case for Asian Real Estate, emphasis mine:-

Exposure to a diversified and maturing region which accounts for a third of the world’s economic output and offers a sustainable growth premium over the US and Europe.

Diversification benefits. An allocation to Asian real estate boosts risk-adjusted returns as part of a global property portfolio; plus there are diverse opportunities within Asia itself.

Defensive characteristics, with underlying occupier demand supported by robust economic fundamentals, as showcased by Asia’s resilience during the European and US downturns of the recent financial crisis.

What M&G omit to mention is that investing in Real Estate is unlike investing in stocks (Companies can change and evolve) or Bonds which exhibit significant homogeneity – Real Estate might be termed the ultimate Fixed AssetLocation is a critical part of any investment decision. Mark Twain may have said, “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” but unless the land has commercial utility it is technically worthless.

The most developed regions of Asia, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, offer similar transparency to North America and Europe. They will also benefit from the growth of emerging Asian economies together with the expansion of their own domestic middle-income population. However, some of these markets, such as China, have witnessed multi-year price increases. Where is the long-term value and how great is the risk of contagion, should the US and Europe suffer another economic crisis?

In 2013 the IMF estimated that the Asia-Pacific Region accounted for approximately 30% of global GDP, by this juncture the region’s Real Estate assets had reached $4.2trln, nearly one third of the global total. During the past decade the average GDP growth of the region has been 7.4% – more than twice the rate of the US or Europe.

The problem for investors in Asia-Pacific Real Estate is the heavy weighting, especially for REIT investors, to markets which are more highly correlated to global equity markets. The MSCI AC Asia Pacific Real Estate Index, for example, is a free float-adjusted market capitalization index that consists of large and mid-cap equity across five Developed Markets (Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore) and eight Emerging Markets (China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand) however, the percentage weighting is heavily skewed to developed markets:-

Country Weight
Japan 32.94%
Hong Kong 26.40%
Australia 19.81%
China 9.62%
Singapore 6.30%
Other 4.93%

Source: MSCI

Here is how the Index performed relative to the boarder Asia-Pacific Equity Index and  ACWI, which is a close proxy for the MSCI World Index:-

msci_asian_real_estate_etf

Source: MSCI

 

The MSCI Real-Estate Index has outperformed since 2002 but it is more volatile and yet closely correlated to the Asia-Pacific Equity or the ACWI. The 2008-2009 decline was particularly brutal.

Under what conditions will Real Estate investments perform?

  • There are several supply and demand factors which drive Real Estate returns, this list is not exhaustive:-
  • Population growth – this may be due to internal demographic trends, such as higher birth rates, a rising working age population, inward migration or urbanisation.
  • Geographic constraints – lack of space drives prices higher.
  • Planning restrictions – limitations on development and redevelopment drive prices higher.
  • Economic growth – this can be at the country level or on a per-capita basis.
  • Economic policy – fiscal stimulus, in the form of infrastructure development, drives economic opportunity which in turn drives demand.
  • Monetary policy – interest rates – especially real-interest rates – and credit controls, drive demand: although supply may follow.
  • Taxation policy – transaction taxes directly impact liquidity – a decline in liquidity is detrimental to prices. Annual duties based on assessable value, directly reduce returns.
  • Legal framework – uncertain security of tenure and risk of curtailment or confiscation, reduces demand and prices.

The markets and countries which will offer lasting diversification benefits are those which exhibit strong economic growth and have low existing international investment in their Real Estate markets. The UN predicts that 380mln people will migrate to cities around the world in the next five years – 95mln in China alone. It is these metropoles, in growing economies, which should be the focus of investment. Since 1990, an estimated 470 new cities have been established in Asia, of which 393 were in China and India.

In their January 2017 update, the IMF – World Economic Outlook growth forecasts for Asian economies have been revised downwards, except for China:-

Country/Region 2017 Change
ASEAN* 4.90% -0.20%
India 7.20% -0.40%
China 6.50% 0.40%

*Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam

Source: IMF

The moderation of the Indian forecast is related to the negative consumption shock, induced by cash shortages and payment disruptions, associated with the recent currency note withdrawal. I am indebted to Focus Economics for allowing me to share their consensus forecast for February 2017. It is slightly lower for China (6.4%) and slightly higher for India (7.4%) suggesting that Indian growth will be less curtailed.

China and India

Research by Knight Frank and Sumitomo Mitsui from early 2016, indicates that the Prime Yield on Real Estate in Bengaluru was 10.5%, in Mumbai, 10% and 9.5% in Delhi. With lower official interest rates in China, yields in Beijing and Shanghai were a less tempting 6.3%. These yields remain attractive when compared to London and New York at 4%, Tokyo at 3.7% and Hong Kong 2.9%. They are also well above the rental yields for the broader residential Real Estate market – India 3.10% and China 3.20%: it’s yet another case of Location, Location, Location.

This brings us to three other risk factors which are especially pertinent for the international Real Estate investor: currency movements, capital flows and the correlation to US stocks.

Since the Chinese currency became tradable in the 1990’s it has been closely pegged to the value of the US$. After 2006 the currency was permitted to rise from USDCNY 8.3 to reach USDCNY 6.04 in 2014. Since then the direction of the Chinese currency has reversed, declining by around 15%.

This recent currency depreciation may be connected to the reversal in capital flows since Q4, 2014. Between 2000 and 2014 China saw $3.6trln of inflows, around 60% of which was Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Since 2014 these flows have reversed, but the rate of outflow has been modest; the trickle may become a spate, if the new US administration continues to shoot from the hip. A move back to USDCNY 8.3 is not inconceivable:-

usdcny-1994-2017

Source: Trading Economics

Chinese inflation has averaged 3.86% since 1994, but since the GFC it has moderated to an annualised 2.38%.

The Indian Rupee, which has been freely exchangeable since 1993, has been considerably more volatile: and more inclined to decline. The chart below covers the period since January 2007:-

usdinr-10-yr

Source: Trading Economics

Since 1993 Indian inflation has averaged 7.29%, but since 2008 it has picked up to 8.65%. The sharp currency depreciation in 2013 saw inflation spike to nearly 11% – last year it averaged 5.22% helped, by declining oil prices. Official rates, which hit 8% in 2014, are back to 6.25%, bond yields have fallen in their wake. Barring an external shock, Indian inflation should trend lower.

Capital flows have had a more dramatic impact on India than China, due to the absence of Indian exchange controls. A February 2016 working paper from the World Bank – Capital Flows and Central Banking – The Indian Experience concludes:-

Going forward, under the new inflation targeting framework, monetary policy will likely respond even more than before to meet the inflation target and adjust less than before to the capital flow cycles. One concern some people have with the move of a developing country such as India to inflation targeting is that it could result in greater exchange rate flexibility. Having liberalized the capital account progressively over the last two and a half decades, the scope to use capital flow measures countercyclically has perhaps diminished as well.

Thus in years ahead, reserve management and macroprudential measures are likely to play a more significant role in helping respond to capital flow cycles, just as the policy makers and the economy develop greater tolerance for exchange rate adjustments.

The surge and sudden stop nature of international capital flows, to and from India, are likely to continue; the most recent episode (2013) is sobering – the Rupee declined by 28% against the US$ in just four months, between May and August. The Sensex Stock Index fell 10.3% over the same period. The stock Index subsequently rallied 72%, making a new all-time high in March 2015. Since March 2015 the Rupee has weakened by a further 10.3% versus the US$ and the stock market has declined by 7.7% – although the Sensex was considerably lower during the Emerging Market rout of Q1, 2016.

Stock market correlations are the next factor to investigate. The three year correlation between the S&P500 and China is 0.37 whilst for India it is 0.60. Since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) however, the IMF has observed a marked increase in synchronicity between Asian markets and China. The IMF WP16/173 – China’s Growing Influence on Asian Financial Markets is insightful, the table below shows the rising correlation seen in Asian equity and bond markets:-

imf_china_correlation_rising_-_march_2016

Source: IMF

With so many variables, the best way to look at the relative merits, of China versus India and Real Estate versus Equities, is by translating their returns into US$. Since the GFC stock market low in March 2009, returns in US$ have been as follows. I have added the current dividend and residential rental yield:-

Index Performance – March 09 – December 16 Performance in US$ Current Yield
S&P500 207% 207% 2%
FHFA House Price Index (US) 9.70% 9.70% 2.20%
Shanghai Composite (China) 50% 49.20% 4.20%
Shanghai Second Hand House Price Index 74% 72.85% 3.20%
S&P BSE Sensex (India) 204% 135.25% 1.50%
National Housing Bank Index (India) 58%* 38.45% 3.10%
*Data to end Q1 2016

Source: Investing.com, FHFA, eHomeday, National Housing Bank, Global Property Guide

There are a number of weaknesses with this analysis. Firstly, it does not include reinvested income from dividends or rent – whilst the current yields are deceptively low. Data for the S&P500 suggests reinvested dividend income would have added a further 40% to the return over this period, however, I have been unable to obtain reliable data for the other markets. Secondly, the rental yield data is for residential property. You will note that Frank Knight estimate Prime Yields for Bengaluru at 10.5%, 10% for Mumbai and 9.5% for Delhi. Prime Yields in Beijing and Shanghai offer the investor 6.3% – Location, Location, Location.

The chart below shows the evolution of the Shanghai Second Hand House Price Index since 2003:-

china_-_ehomeday_-_shanghai_second_hand_house_pric

Source: eHomeday, Global Property Guide

For comparison here is the National Housing Bank Index since 2007:-

india_-_national_housing_bank_-_house_price_index

Source: National Housing Bank, Global Property Guide

Finally, for global comparison, this is the FHFA – House Price Index going back to 1991:-

us_-_federal_housing_finance_agency_-_house_price_

Source: FHFA, Global Property Guide

The Rest of Asia

In this Letter I have focused on China and India, but this article is about Asian Real Estate. The 2004-2014 annual return on Real Estate investment in Hong Kong was 14.4% – the market may have cooled but demand remains. Singapore has delivered 11.7% per annum over the same period. Cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok remain attractive. Vietnam, with a GDP forecast of 6.6% for 2017 and favourable demographics, offers significant potential – Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are the cities on which to focus. Indonesia and the Philippines also offer economic and demographic potential, Jakarta and Manilla having obvious appeal. The table below, sorted by the Mortgage to Income ratio, compares the valuation for residential property and economic growth across the region:-

Country Price/Income Ratio Rental Yield City Price/Rent Ratio City Mortgage As % of Income GDP f/c 2017
Malaysia 9.53 4.07 24.6 72.87 4%
Taiwan 12.87 1.54 64.91 78.76 1.80%
South Korea 12.38 2.04 49.1 85.47 2.40%
India 10.28 3.08 32.44 123.44 7.40%
Singapore 21.63 2.75 36.41 134.33 1.60%
Pakistan 12.09 4.08 24.51 156.97 5.10%
Philippines 16.91 3.75 26.69 162.87 6.60%
Bangladesh 12.89 3.25 30.81 181.3 6.80%
China 23.29 2.23 44.83 189.71 6.40%
Mongolia 15.77 9.78 10.22 203.47 1.80%
Thailand 24.43 3.8 26.29 212.03 3.30%
Hong Kong 36.15 2.25 44.35 224.85 1.80%
Sri Lanka 17.49 4.91 20.38 238.64 4.80%
Indonesia 21.03 4.67 21.41 247.68 5.10%
Vietnam 26.76 4.52 22.1 285.55 6.60%
Cambodia 24.32 7.44 13.44 292.43 7%

Source: Numbeo, Focus Economics, Trading Economics

There are opportunities and contradictions which make it difficult to draw investment conclusions from the table above: and this is just a country by country analysis.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Real Estate, more so than any of the other major asset classes, is individual asset specific. Since we are looking for diversification we need to evaluate the two types of collective vehicle available to the investor.

Investing via REITs exposes you to the volatility of the stock market as well as the underlying asset. Investing directly via unlisted funds has been the preferred choice of pension fund managers in the UK for many years. There are pros and cons to this approach, but, for diversification, this is likely to be the less correlated strategy. Make sure, however, that you understand the liquidity constraints, not just of the fund, but also of the constituents of the portfolio. The GFC was, in particular, a crisis of liquidity: and property is not a liquid investment.

Unsurprisingly Norway’s $894bln Sovereign Wealth Fund – Norges Bank Investment Management – invests in Real Estate for the long run. This is how they describe their approach to the asset class, emphasis mine:-

The fund invests for future generations. It has no short term liabilities and is not subject to rules that could require costly adjustments at inopportune times.

…Our goal is to build a global, but concentrated, real estate portfolio…The strategy is to invest in a limited number of major cities in key markets.

According to Institutional Real Estate Inc. the largest investment managers in the Asia-Pacific Region at 31st December 2014 were. I’m sure they will be happy to take your call:-

Investment Manager Asian AUM $Blns Total AUM $Blns
UBS Global Asset Management 9.33 64.89
Global Logistic Properties 9.26 20.14
CBRE Global Investors 8.56 91.27
LaSalle Investment Management 8.05 55.75
Blackstone Group 7.58 121.88
Alpha Investment Partners 7.48 8.70
Blackrock 7.32 22.92
Pramerica Real Estate Investors 6.84 59.17
Gaw Capital Partners 6.64 9.16
Prologis 6.08 29.98

Source: Institutional Real Estate Inc.

In their August 2016 H2, 2016 Outlook, UBS Global Asset Management made the following observations:-

Although property yields across the APAC region are at, or close to, historical lows, demand for real estate exposure in a multi-asset context is set to remain healthy in the near-to-medium term. Capital inflows into the asset class will continue to be supported by broad structural shifts across the region related to demographics and demand for income producing assets on the one hand, and (ex-ante) excess supply of private (household and/or corporate) sector savings on the other. Part of this excess savings will continue to find its way into real estate, both in APAC and in other regions…

Real Estate investment in Asia offers opportunity in the long run, but for markets such as Shanghai (+26.5% in 2016) the next year may see a return from the ether. India, by contrast, has stronger growth, stronger demographics, higher interest rates and an already weak currency. The currency may not offer protection, inflation is still relatively high and the Rupee has been falling for decades – nonetheless, Indian cities offer a compelling growth story for Real Estate investors. Other developing Asian countries may perform better still but they are likely to be less liquid and less transparent. The developed countries of the region offer greater transparency and liquidity but their returns are likely to be lower. A specialist portfolio manager offers the best solution for most investors – that’s assuming you’re not a Sovereign Wealth Fund.

China – Coal, Steel, Water and Demographics – Which way now?

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Macro Letter – No 62 – 30-09-2016

China – Coal, Steel, Water and Demographics – Which way now?

  • The price of coking coal has risen 164% this year, doubling since July
  • The NDRC is still attempting to reduce both coal and steel production this year
  • The April stimulus package has boosted construction and infrastructure demand
  • The pace of Chinese growth has stabilised but at a much reduced level

This year several commodity markets saw significant price increases. I discussed this in Macro Letter – No 51 – 11-3-2016 – How do we square the decline in trade with the rebound in industrial commodities?

The price of Iron Ore, Aluminium and other industrial metals has rallied sharply over the last few weeks – WTI now seems to have followed suit. Most commentators regard this as a short covering rally.

Over the last six months the US economy has maintaining momentum, albeit at a disappointingly modest pace. Elsewhere the economic headwinds are blowing harder, with Europe and Japan still mired in a “slow-growth/no-growth” environment. Yet during the last few weeks the spot price of premium coking coal – one of the key inputs for steel production – has doubled to more than $200/tonne. Although this is from multi-year lows seen in 2015, coking coal is now the top performing commodity market year to date:-

steel-index-coking-coal

Source: Steel Index, Amcharts.com

According to CME data, the futures curve for Australian Coking Coal is in steep backwardation out to December 2017 delivery. This suggests a short-term supply shortage rather than a generalised increase in demand.  Mining.com – Stunning coking coal rally wreaks havoc in steel, iron ore explains what has been happening:-

The rise in the price of coking is upending the economics of the iron ore and steel markets with the Australian export benchmark price climbing 164% so far this year.

Metallurgical coal was exchanging hands at $206.40 on Monday according to data provided by Steel Index as it consolidates at higher levels following weeks of panic buying not seen since 2011, when floods in key export region in Queensland sent the price surging to $335 a tonne (albeit not for long).

The rally was triggered by Beijing’s decision to limit coal mines’ operating days to 276 or fewer a year from 330 before as it seeks to restructure the industry. Safety closures and weather related supply curbs in China and Australia only added fuel to the fire.

sgx-hot-metal-spread

Source: TSI, Bloomberg, SGX

The price of Iron Ore has also risen by 31% to around $55/tonne, but, as the chart above makes clear, the ratio between the price of iron ore and coking coal is now at its lowest this century.

China’s coking coal output has fallen more than 10% due to the government edict to curtail domestic production. In response import volumes rose 45% in August alone. Goldman Sachs and Macquarie have both increased their price forecasts for 2017 and 2018.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – the agency responsible for implementing production cuts – had achieved only 39% of the annual target for reducing coal capacity and 47% of the annual reduction in steel capacity as of the end of July. The Peterson – Institute – State of Play in the Chinese Steel Industry explains the reasons for this policy. Suffice to say, China’s domestic steel production tripled between 2005 and 2015 taking its share of global steel production from 31% to 50%. Under WTO rules it will have Market Economy Status from December 2016 – a wave of anti-dumping laws suits may well follow unless it curtails production.

Despite common knowledge of official policy, commentators have suggested that the recent production cut was intended to deliberately squeeze coal prices, allowing heavily indebted coal producers to repay loans to domestic Chinese banks. After two meetings between the China Iron and Steel Association and the NDRC, coal producers will now be allowed to produce an additional 50 tonne/day from October to alleviate shortages.

The steel industry was under margin pressure even before the rise in coal prices – the government has been forcing an industry wide consolidation. The high price of coal accelerates this “oligopolisation” of the sector. It is part of a broader reform and consolidation of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The Peterson Institute – China’s SOE Reform—The Wrong Path takes issue with this policy. It has its attractions in the short-term nonetheless – consolidation reduces competition within industries, the pricing power of these consolidated “oligopolies” should rise, enabling them to increase profitability and reduce their indebtedness. President Xi has called for “Stronger, bigger, better” state-owned enterprises. I fear for the squeezed private sector in this environment.

A more important structural reform was announced last month when the Supreme People’s Court ordered the establishment of more special divisions to handle liquidation and bankruptcy cases in intermediate courts. China has an undeveloped bankruptcy code – defaulting borrowers linger, acting as a drag on the economy. At the G20 summit President Xi said, “China has taken the most robust and solid measures in cutting excess capacity and we will honour our commitment with actions”. An efficient method of “zombie corporation liquidation” would expedite this process.

Another explanation for the government’s decision to reduce the number working days at coal mines is its commitment to reducing pollution. Brookings – The end of coal-fired growth in China looks at the bigger picture:-

China’s coal consumption grew from 1.36 billion tons per year in 2000 to 4.24 billion tons per year in 2013, an annual growth rate of 12 percent. As of 2015, the country accounts for approximately 50 percent of global demand for coal. In other words, China’s economic miracle was fueled primarily by coal.

…China’s coal consumption decreased by 2.9 percent in 2014 and 3.6 percent in 2015, and the economy has maintained a moderate speed of growth. This indicates that there is a decoupling of economic growth from the growth in coal consumption. China’s coal consumption might have in fact already peaked.

Over the past 35 years, coal powered the engine of China’s rapidly developing economy. Coal represented 75 percent of overall energy consumption. This number decreased to 64.4 percent in 2015—the lowest in China’s modern history—as the country’s energy intensity decreased by 65 percent relative to 35 years ago. In fact, though rarely noticed until the recent peak, this has been part of a fundamental shift in the Chinese economy’s relationship with coal.

The authors present three arguments to support their view that China’s reliance on coal is in structural decline. Firstly, a decrease in manufacturing and construction, which have seen over-investment during the last decade or more. Second, policies on climate change and air pollution—especially the Paris Agreement’s, signed this month, which calls for a 20% clean energy target by 2030. Read China-United States Exchange Foundation – After the Paris Climate Agreement, What’s Next? for more details. Finally, China’s adoption of technological innovation in energy, communications, and manufacturing.

In his G20 speech President Xi said “…green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver”. The problem of clean water is probably the single greatest resource challenge facing China today as this article from CEAC – China that once thrived on water, faces water problems today points out:-

The total amount of water resources in China is so huge as to reach 2325.85 billion cubic meters, which is the 4th largest in the world. However, Chinese population is so large that the per capita amount of water resources is only 1730.4 cubic meters. This is extremely small in the world. Moreover, water resources are distributed unevenly by the region. Generally speaking, water is scarce in northern parts of China, including the Northeast, the North, and the Northwest regions. Beijing is in the North region. On the other hand, water is abundant in the South Central, the South, and the Southwest regions. The problem is that water is growing scarcer, while its consumption is rising. Particularly, people in Northwest China suffer from chronic shortage of water.

…It is not the quantity of water that matters critically in China. The quality of water is deteriorating rapidly. According to “The Monthly Report of Ground Water” which was released by the Ministry of Water Resources of China this January, they conducted water quality observation researches of 2,103 wells in the Songliao plain of the Northeast region and the Jianghan plain in an inland area last year, and it turned out that 80% of ground water is too severely contaminated to drink. Ground water pollution is serious, particularly in the regions of water scarcity.

In the shorter-term there has been some increase in demand. Steel usage has risen in response to the mini-stimulus package implemented in April. It was aimed largely at railway and housing construction. Electricity demand picked up again in May +2.1% from April +1.9%, fuelling an increase in demand for thermal coal. Other leading indicators, also suggest that the slowdown in Chinese growth may have run its course. There has been an increase in railway freight volumes and pickup in copper output:-

copper-5

Source: Market Realist, National Bureau of Statistics

Outside China the picture looks mixed. LME stocks of Copper and Zinc have recovered but Nickle and Aluminium stocks remain depleted. Global demand still appears to be subdued.

Chinese economy is unlikely to return to the double digit growth rates seen prior to the great recession, but, despite its indebtedness, the world’s largest command economy may be able to avoid an imminent banking crisis.

The Debt to GDP ratio continues to rise. A source of grave concern which is noted in the BIS Quarterly Review, September 2016. At the end of July total Chinese debt reached $28trln – greater than the government debt of the US and Japan combined. Corporate debt, which is fortunately denominated primarily in local currency, now stands at 171% of GDP whilst total debt stands at 255%. A favourite BIS measure is the Credit to GDP gap. A figure above 10 is a warning signal that an economy may be approaching a “Minsky Moment” – China scores 30.1, the highest of any large economy.

China has also continued to reduce its vast foreign exchange reserves, although at a more moderate pace than in 2014 and 2015. In July it reduced its holding of US Treasuries by $22bln – the largest one month decline in three years. It also released information about its gold holdings which, as many market participants had predicted, have risen substantially – it last reported this information in 2009. The US Bond sales may, therefore, have been to insure the stability of the RMB versus the US$ ahead of the G20 summit which was hosted by China this month.

Should we be concerned about a Chinese banking crisis? According to Michael PettisChina Financial Markets – Does it matter if China cleans up its banks? banking solvency is not the issue, but the indebtedness of the economy is:-

The only “solution” to excessive debt within the economy is to allocate the costs of that debt, and not to transfer it from one entity to another.

The recapitalization of the banks is nice, in other words, but it is hardly necessary if we believe, and most of us do, that the banks are effectively guaranteed by the local governments and ultimately the central government, and that depositors have a limited ability to withdraw their deposits from the banking system. “Cleaning up the banks” is what you need to do when lending incentives are driven primarily by market considerations, because significant amounts of bad loans substantially change the way banks operate, and almost always to the detriment of the real economy.

…If we change our very conservative assumptions so that debt is equal to 280% of GDP, and is growing at 20% annually, and that debt-servicing capacity is growing at half the rate of GDP (3.0-3.5%, which I think is probably still too high), then for China to reach the point at which debt-servicing costs rise in line with debt-servicing capacity, Beijing’s reforms must deliver an improvement in productivity that either:

Causes each unit of new debt to generate 18 times as much GDP growth as it is doing now, or

Causes all assets backed by the total stock of debt (280% of GDP) to generate 50% more GDP growth than they do now.

Pettis remains pessimistic about China’s ability to grow its way out of debt. History is certainly on his side in this respect, however, policies such as the One Belt One Road Initiative, which aims to improve cross-border infrastructure in order to reduce transportation costs between China and its trading partners, still makes sense at this stage of China’s development. Comparisons have been made with the US Marshall Plan which helped to regenerate Europe after WWII but with an indicated aim of financing $4trln of new projects, its scale is much larger. Chatham House – Westward ho—the China dream and ‘one belt, one road’: Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping reviews the policy in detail, as does Peterson Institute – China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, the great rebalancing towards domestic consumption continues, at what, in other countries, would be considered break-neck speed. This may, nonetheless, be too slow for China – the mini-stimulus package, in April, was a clear political capitulation. The Kansas City Federal Reserve – Consumer Spending in China: The Past and the Future looks at the success of rebalancing to date and the prospects going forward. They point out that Chinese consumption as a share of GDP declined between 1970 and 2000 largely as a result of demographic forces – low birth rate and aging population – together with urbanisation. Post 2000 rapid house price appreciation accelerated this trend. Since 2010 consumption has begun to rise from a low point of 37% of GDP, this coincides with the peak in household savings at 42% – it is now around 38.5%. The authors predict:-

In a benchmark scenario of relatively stable income growth and a further modest decline in the household saving rate, consumption growth in China remains at around 9 percent per year over the next five years, causing the share of Chinese consumption in GDP to increase by about 5 percentage points to 44 percent by 2020. This scenario has two implications. First, it suggests that strong consumption growth is sustainable in the near future, allowing China to continue transitioning toward a consumption-driven economy. Second, it suggests that strength in near-term Chinese consumption growth will partly rely on a further decline in the household saving rate. As the household saving rate cannot decline indefinitely, consumption growth may need to rely more heavily on household income to be sustainable in the long run.

Parallels have been made with Japan where the savings rate has declined from 40% to 19% of GDP since 1970. If China follows this pattern, savings as a percentage of income will continue to decline. The transition could be relatively smooth provided the residential property market does not collapse in the interim. The FRBKC article concludes:-

The declining saving rate in China reflects both a changing demographic structure—an expected increase in the young dependency ratio after multiple decades of decline—and a changing consumption pattern of young people, who face less pressure to save thanks to financial support from their parents and grandparents.

In the long run, transitioning to a consumption-driven economy may require some policy changes. Specifically, China may need to implement successful supply-side reforms—which are on the government’s agenda but haven’t yet been significantly pushed forward—to enable domestic production to meet rising domestic demand. Although the Chinese household saving rate is declining from a very high level, the downward trend cannot last forever. A truly consumption-driven economy must rely on strong household income growth, which is ultimately driven by improved technology and investment.

In the long run, demographic forces will affect China more than any other factor. According to the Ministry of Human Resources China’s working population hit a record 774.5mln in 2015, however, the UN estimate China will have 212mln fewer workers by 2050. The UN Demographic Profile is found on page 189.

Market impact and investment opportunities

Next week the RMB will be included in the SDR – the Peterson Institute – China’s Renminbi Is about to Break the Financial Glass Ceiling discusses this in more detail. There is widespread speculation that the PBoC will widen the RMB currency bands at any moment. In other respects the PBoC is in a more difficult position. The RMB has already weakened by 5% against the US$ this year. Cutting interest rates would probably cause the currency to weaken further, riling the US voters ahead of the election. They are not impotent, however, and injected a record RMB 310bln into the money market in August – part of an overt policy to support the official banking sector, diminishing the influence of shadow banks.

Domestic investors have favoured bonds over equities for the past couple of months, while the spread between corporate bonds and government bonds has narrowed. Chinese 10yr government bond yields have fallen around 50bp this year, but official policy, encouraging investors to purchase higher yielding bonds and reduce their exposure to leveraged wealth management products and other non-standard assets, is boosting demand for corporate issues.

Retail investors, who were badly burnt in the stock market collapse of 2015, remain obsessed with the property market despite massive over-supply. Equity broker margin balances remain low. Institutional portfolio managers have reduced exposure to stocks from 62% in July to 49% this month. In the post-crash environment IPO issuance has been subdued with only RMB 955bln of capital raised in the seven months to July. This compares to RMB 1.55trln in 2015. The final quarter may see better sentiment. Stocks may get a boost from local government spending in Q3 and Q4 – if only to insure their budgets are not reduced next year. The table below, from Star Capital, ranks forty of the world’s major stock markets. Using their metrics, China is second cheapest and has the lowest PE, Price to Cash flow and Price to Book:-

Country CAPE PE PC PB PS DY Rank
Russia 4.9 7.5 3.6 0.8 0.8 4.10% 1
China 12.4 6.1 3.2 0.8 0.6 4.70% 2
Brazil 8.5 44.1 6.6 1.4 1.1 3.40% 3
South Korea 12.6 11 5.5 1 0.6 1.80% 5
Hungary 9.9 ? 5.1 1.2 0.6 2.80% 6
Czech 8.7 11.8 5.5 1.2 1 7.50% 8
Turkey 9.7 10.8 6.2 1.3 0.9 2.70% 9

Source: Starcapital.de

The Shanghai Composite Index (SHCOMP) is down 8.85% YTD and by 41.84% since its high in June 2015, however it is up 48.25% from June 2014. Russia’s RTS Index by contrast is up 72.81% from its December 2014 low but still 29.68% below its level of June 2014.

Looking outside China, several Australia-centric mining stocks have already risen on the back of the move in coking coal but it seems unlikely that the supply imbalance will prove protracted. Anglo American (AAL) is still looking to sell more of its Australian coal mines – they may well find Chinese buyers.

Outside of China, infrastructure investment across Asia Pacific is on the rise, which is supportive for industrial commodities in general. KPMG – 10 emerging trends in 2016, published in January, takes a very optimistic long term view:-

Ultimately, however, we believe that this may well be the tipping point that ushers in 50 years (or more) of prosperity as capital starts to match up with projects which, in turn, will drive economic growth in the developing world and shore up retirement savings in the mature markets.

Commodity markets tend to exhibit very individual characteristics, however, several industrial and agricultural commodities have formed a longer term base this year. Is this the beginning of the next commodity super-cycle? It’s too soon to call, but without a rise in global demand the prospects for substantial gains are likely to be limited – Indian GDP growth is slowing. The IMF WEO July update revised its India GDP forecast for 2016 to 7.4% from 7.5% – in 2015 it was 7.6%. Its China forecast was revised up 0.1% and its overall Emerging Market and Developing Economy forecast for 2016 and 2017 was unchanged at 4.1% and 4.6%, although, world economic growth was revised 0.1% lower.

China’s stock market remains cheap by many metrics, but the level of indebtedness is an impediment to economic growth. The property market, although over-supplied, continues to attract investment, but this is economically unproductive in the long run. Government policy is attempting to steer the economy towards higher domestic consumption and technologically driven, productivity enhancing, investments. Environmental issues are finally being addressed, yet the challenge of clean water remains substantial.

Near term, debt reduction – and it has yet to begin – will hamper growth, which will, in turn, reduce the attractiveness of Chinese stocks. Reform of the SOEs will involve consolidation into a smaller number of vast enterprises. Private enterprises will suffer. “Zombie” companies will start to be dealt with as bankruptcy procedures become standardised, but, as with all policy in China, a gradualist approach is likely to be implemented. Commodity markets may continue to rise due to supply side factors but I doubt that Chinese demand will rebound even to the level of 2013/2014, let alone the early part of the century.