Friday, February 12, 2016

China: Sleeping With the Fishes (excerpt)

Some very smart people are taking very big bets that China may be the subject of the sequel to “The Big Short,” the movie about how the subprime mortgage crisis triggered the housing and financial meltdown of 2008. That’s according to a 1/31 WSJ article titled “Currency War: U.S. Hedge Funds Mount New Attacks on China’s Yuan.” Here is an interesting item from the piece:
Kyle Bass’s Hayman Capital Management has sold off the bulk of its investments in stocks, commodities and bonds so it can focus on shorting Asian currencies, including the yuan and the Hong Kong dollar. It is the biggest concentrated wager that the Dallas-based firm has made since its profitable bet years ago against the U.S. housing market. About 85% of Hayman Capital’s portfolio is now invested in trades that are expected to pay off if the yuan and Hong Kong dollar depreciate over the next three years--a bet with billions of dollars on the line, including borrowed money. "When you talk about orders of magnitude, this is much larger than the subprime crisis," said Mr. Bass, who believes the yuan could fall as much as 40% in that period.
The Chinese government has taken note and has already sent George Soros a dead fish wrapped in newspaper. Actually, the warning to Soros and others not to start a currency “war” with China appeared in an opinion piece by a low-level government official in the 1/27 People’s Daily Online headlined “Think twice before declaring war on Chinese currency.” The official wrote: “Soros’ challenge to the RMB and Hong Kong dollar are doomed to fail, without any doubt.” We will see who wins. However, betting against China seems to be a very good bet these days. Consider the following:

(1) Depreciating currency. The yuan is already down 8.2% since it peaked on January 1, 2014. As Debbie and I have been monitoring since mid-2015, the problem is a big swing from capital inflows before last year to massive capital outflows, as shown by the 12-month sum of China’s trade surplus and the 12-month change in China’s non-gold international reserves. This proxy implied about $1.0 trillion in capital outflows last year. (See our China Capital Flows.) The author of the op-ed in China’s leading communist newspaper wrote, “But it is hard for the dollar to be strong against the RMB for the long run, since China is still maintaining an expanding trade surplus.” He didn’t mention the capital outflows.

(2) Dialing for dollars. Several factors triggered the capital flight. The Chinese government has stepped up an anti-corruption drive since it was first started during November 2012. Perhaps that caused wealthy Chinese to move funds abroad. More importantly, the tightening of US monetary policy with the termination of QE during October 2014 and the widely anticipated rate hike late last year caused Chinese companies that had borrowed in dollars to scramble to pay these loans. The resulting drop in the yuan accelerated the capital outflows. A 1/26 FT article by Gillian Tett covered this subject very well.

(3) Fewer opportunities. Of course, capital outflows may also reflect fewer profitable investment opportunities in China. Profits earned by Chinese industrial companies in November fell 1.4% y/y, marking a sixth consecutive month of decline. China’s official M-PMI dipped to 49.4 last month, the sixth consecutive reading below 50.0 and the weakest since August 2012.

On the other hand, the NM-PMI was 53.5, remaining solidly above its December 2008 low of 50.8. Still, there is no doubt that China’s economy is slowing, as evidenced by the 8.3% y/y decline in railways freight traffic through December. Last year, electricity output rose just 2.4%, the slowest pace since 2009.

The China Syndrome Again

Another movie that comes to mind, of course, is the “China Syndrome.” There is no shortage of doomsday scenarios with China as the epicenter of a global meltdown. For example, a 1/26 CNBC article is titled “A China bank contagion could blow up global markets.” While the headline is alarming, the story is actually relatively reassuring, at least relative to the headline. Here are a few of the key excerpts from this comprehensive and well done piece by Tim Mullaney:

(1) Low default risk among banks:
A measure of default risk used by Moody’s Investors Service puts the risk of any of the Big Four Chinese banks--Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China--defaulting in the next year at no more than 1.5 percent, and for some as little as 0.5 percent.
(2) Government backed:
Even with nearly $11 trillion of assets and loans that reach into all sectors of China’s $10.3 trillion economy, for now, experts see little likelihood the banks themselves will be a problem; China’s largest banks are all controlled by a government that has the determination and resources to prop them up if necessary. And their ties to U.S. institutions are narrow enough that bond-rating agencies don’t foresee anything like the financial contagion of 2008, when liquidity problems quickly spread from bank to bank and nation to nation as the extent of the mortgage crisis became clear. …

China’s banks also benefit from the explicit backing of the government there, in contrast to the U.S., where bank bailouts remain controversial seven years after the crisis. China’s central bank also has much more room to lower interest rates than does the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has set the target range for its key policy rate at 0.25 percent. The current Chinese base interest rate is 4.35 percent.
(3) Credit growing:
To date, China’s banks have not experienced anything like the cataclysms that rumbled through U.S. and European institutions between 2007 and 2009. Neither have their problems resulted in any significant shortages of credit: Retail sales in China rose 11 percent in December 2015, and housing sales have begun to rebound from an earlier dip. …

China’s banks are mostly funded by deposits rather than the capital markets, said Grace Wu, an analyst for Hong Kong-based Fitch Ratings. That makes them less vulnerable to short-term twists in the mood of markets, she said. They also have loan-loss reserves, collectively, that are nearly twice as big as the amount of loans that are 90 or more days past due, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
(4) Some cracks:
That said, China’s banks are in worse shape than a year ago, by many measures. Reported loan delinquencies have risen to 1.59 percent of loans as of Sept. 30, up from 0.95 percent at the end of 2012, Moody’s Investor Service says. And critics have seized on banks’ decisions to classify fewer loans whose borrowers are more than 90 days late on their payments as non-performing, saying banks and the government are trying to paper over the extent of a fast-growing problem.

Moody’s Investor Service cut its outlook for China’s bank sector to negative from stable, on Dec. 11. It pointed to the loan-loss problems, as well as an increase in overall borrowing to 209 percent of gross domestic product, from 193 percent a year ago, that it says raises systemic risk.

But all four of China’s largest commercial banks, each majority-owned by the government, are still rated A1/Stable--six notches above speculative grade and higher than all six of the top U.S. banks, which are rated A2 or A3. Bigger problems lurk in smaller Chinese banks that are less systemically important, the ratings agency said.”
(5) Conclusion: I know what you are thinking: Didn’t the rating agencies completely miss seeing the subprime mortgage disaster? We all know that they were actually part of the problem because they failed to rate junk credit as junk. Instead, they rated most of the junk that was sliced and diced into credit derivatives as investment grade, even AAA. It’s all in the movie.

The author of the CNBC article acknowledges the worries about a repeat of 2008. He notes:
The problems China’s banks have are focused in manufacturing and wholesaling--and an increasing number of those borrowers are relatively small businesses, Moody’s said. That raises the risk that their problems are not well understood or that they could worsen.
However, it is true that China’s bank loans are funded entirely by deposits. The ratio of M2 to bank loans was 1.48 during December and has exceeded 1.28 since the start of the data in December 1999. Then again, in yuan terms, bank loans are up a whopping 210% since December 2008. In dollar terms, they are up $10.2 trillion, from $4.4 trillion during December 2008 to $14.6 trillion during December 2015. Yet despite all that credit, the economy has slowed significantly.

Something is fishy in the state of China.
(Based on an excerpt from YRI Morning Briefing)

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