Sunday, 2 November 2008

Submerging Market Update

note: This post was begun some time ago and the date-time stamp reflects the initial draft. The bulk of the data has been added since then.

China: The Collapse Begins
Chinese exports are collapsing and industrial activity with it.
Recent reports suggest that they are experiencing mass factory shutdowns with owners and manager absconding. According to the BBC, migrant workers from rural areas are returning to their homes in the countryside en masse. Those watching the media would think that an shocking collapse came out of nowhere in the last few weeks. Readers of Financial Jenga have known that this was not just possible but virtually inevitable for many months.

China could spend some of their dollars but they need to keep at least $1 trillion so the Yuan doesn't completely crash and burn. The interesting problem is the currency mismatch and "sterilization" issues. China's money supply growth is going to fall quickly as there will be fewer incoming dollars against which to issue new Yuan. Yes they will also be exporting fewer dollars to pay for raw materials but that doesn't matter to the unemployed citizens.

The mismatch issue is more critical. Everybody likes to talk about China's currency reserves. The problem is they've already been used up. Yes, they still have the dollars at the central bank but they've already issued Yuan against them as part of their "sterilization" operations. I.e. they cannot use the reserves to "stimulate" the domestic economy. They can SPEND them abroad, which will enable China to consume but will add production elsewhere, doing nothing for the production side of the Chinese economy. The mismatch problem is that they need more Yuan but what they have are Dollars. Much of the existing base of Yuan supply only exists because of the Dollar reserves. If they spend down the reserves, they either have to reduce their domestic money supply or simply print more money to make up the difference.

People like to point to China's dollar reserves but they've already had as much stimulative impact on China's economy as they ever will. Note that the Yuan is NOT a convertible currency. There is no large pool of Yuan outside of China that could be exchanged for dollars and spent in the domestic economy. Nor can they be lent out with the understanding that the loan be spent on Chinese goods (vendor financing). They have already done that indirectly by purchasing Treasury and Agency debt. Those looking for such an impact don't understand the structure of China's financial system.

Latin Cognates
Despite a vicious snapback, the trend is quite clearly down. Likely driven in part by the Fed's dollar swaps, these markets found support last week but it looks like a dead cat bounce. During that week a rally in their sovereign bonds of 200 basis points +/- 10 bp, left Mexico and Brazil debt trading 8.55% and 7.58% respectively. What this tell us is that the threat of immediate default has been averted by Fed imprudence but no one is willing to lend at anything less than a huge multiple of the 100 bp spreads we saw only a year and a half ago.

Latin economies are heavily dependent on natural resource extration. Thus they have had and continue to have a symbiotic relationship with the resource-eating black hole known as China. With consumption slowing worldwide and the initial feedback effects on the exporting countries, we are starting to see resource demand falling but the excess capacity created is collapsing commodity prices. The storm of demand destruction is roaring up the supply chain and spawning tornados that tear through individual sectors. The latest example comes from Brazil, where giant mining conglomerate Vale do Rio Doce is desperately cutting spending. The
big news is the cancellation of 12 giant ore carriers - which would have been built in new Chinese shipyards. At the same time, they are cutting ore production as demand falls.

An intersting question is how much demand for their own ore Vale just destroyed by cancelling the ship order. This is a vicious circle as the feedback loop in the symbiotic relationship turns negative. Rising expectations and optimism feed off themselves - until they don't anymore. Then ugliness always ensues. In this case the fall will be long and ugly - like that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. We have dubbed it the Universal Debt bubble as virtually every country and every industry was caught up in it. Countries like Brazil and China were some of the biggest beneficiaries of the UDB, yet those who advocated the Decoupling Theory essentially argued that the biggest beneficiaries of a trend would be hurt little if at all when it ended. The silliness of THAT position is now manifest for all to see.

Containment Breach
We've heard many times how the crisis would be "contained" to a specific industry or geographic region. The authorities making these countless claims were either lying, incompetent or both. We see now that it is and was global and across the board - thus UDB is very accurate. While we expect exporters and raw materials producers to suffer worse than most, the damage goes on elsewhere. German factory orders fell 8%. US durable goods spending fell 14.1% in the
3Q GDP report. Japanese auto sales have hit levels not seen since the 1970s, while US sales are Back to the Future of the 1980s. This is global and ugly friends. Please protect yourselves.

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