All eyes on China

Most investors are focused on Europe, but they should be focused on China instead, because what happens in China is likely to have a greater impact than what happens anywhere else.

There are many candidates for focus next year.  The one that makes all the headlines is, of course, Europe. Its economy, as a whole, is still the largest in the world, after all. If that economy collapsed, or the European Union came apart, or the currency union changed dramatically, then it would, without doubt, impact the global economy. But, a lot of what’s happening in Europe is already discounted in market prices. News on the front page is rarely a big mover of markets because markets anticipate change more than react to it. And, although Europe’s economy is large, it doesn’t contribute much to global growth. There’s a small chance that Europe is the big mover of markets next year, but I doubt it will be.

Japan is a dark horse that may have a big impact on the global economy next year. Its economy is still #4 behind Europe, the U.S. and China, but hasn’t grown in 22 years. The issue from Japan isn’t earthquakes or tsunamis, but debt. Japan is the most indebted country in the world if you compare its overall debt to the size of its economy. The amazing thing is that they pay the lowest interest rates in the world on that debt. The reason rates are so low is that the Japanese are so willing (and compelled) to buy Japanese government debt. When retirees start to outnumber savers, though, Japan will have to start raising debt at much higher interest rates. If markets start to anticipate that inevitable transition next year, Japan could be the big mover of markets. I doubt it will be, though, because I don’t think that crisis will come to a head for another couple of years.

The Middle East is, as always, another dark horse that could greatly impact global markets. Although the Arab Spring is making the headlines, the greater concern involves ancient rivalries between Arabs and Persians, and between Iran and Israel. If Iran succeeds in creating unrest between Shia and Sunni on the Arabian Peninsula, or if Israel becomes increasingly worried about and takes action regarding Iran’s nuclear program, then oil prices will rocket and the global economy will tank. Like Japan’s issues, these are unlikely to come to a head next year. But, unlike Japan’s issues, the Middle East is unlikely to face an inevitable conclusion in the short to intermediate term.

The good old U.S. of A. is another place to focus next year. It’s an election year, so many both inside and outside North America will be curious to see how our political field changes and how that could impact the global economy. The U.S. economy is huge, but is growing so slowly that it has less impact on the global economy than it did five or ten years ago. In my opinion, our political transition is unlikely to change things much, so I doubt it’ll have a big impact on markets. Not only is Congress unlikely to tackle our debt issues during an election year, but the Fed is also running low on monetary ammunition.

China, I think, is the most likely candidate to move markets next year. It is both the world’s 3rd largest economy and the fastest growing. It is also the biggest supplier of goods to Europe and the U.S., the 1st and 2nd largest economies. It has a huge impact on emerging market growth, too, because so many emerging economies supply China with the raw materials and other inputs that fuel their manufacturing powerhouse. In 2013, China is going to go through a major political change (every 5 years, there’s a major changing of the guard) that’s likely to be anticipated by markets in 2012. At the same time, China is trying to tamp down high inflation and an overly-exuberant real estate market. Add all these factors together with a bunch of global investors over-focused on Europe, and you have a high probability that China is the one moving markets next year.

I’m not alone in doing this, but I’m watching with great interest what happens to oil and copper prices and on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Oil futures (which are high, but not outrageously so) seem to be reflecting concerns in the Middle East more than growth in China or emerging markets. Copper has fallen over 20% since last spring, but has not yet declined to global recessionary levels. Shanghai, like copper, has been falling since spring, and is down at levels last seen in the spring of 2009, when U.S. markets were hitting bottom.  

I don’t really know what will happen in markets next year, but I’m watching China with greater interest than Europe. If China tanks, the world economy will follow; if China thrives, markets are likely to do much better than expected. 

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

All eyes on China

The return of the bond market vigilantes

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign strategist, is reported to have said, “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

This quote highlights the power of markets, even over politicians.

The bond market can push around politicians because the decisions of millions of investors can raise or lower interest rates, raise or lower currency values, and push politicians into a corner where they have to change their tune.

Some see this as a dark and mysterious power run amok, but this simply is not true.

The bond market is the largest market in the world in dollar value. It does not consist of a few powerful individuals or organizations, but of millions of investors making independent decisions. When the bond market pushes politicians around, it’s because there are so many people in agreement with each other (and disagreement with government) that prices move very far in one direction.

That’s not a conspiracy; it’s a groundswell.

The bond market vigilantes are not an organized group, but their individual actions can force change. And, change it in the wind.

The vigilantes have been quiet for several years. With low inflation and high growth, there have been profitable opportunities elsewhere.

But, now that governments of the world have spent trillions getting their economies going and propping up weak companies, governments are again vulnerable to the vigilantes.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Europe, recently. Investors are understandably concerned about the balance sheets and cash flows of European countries, especially Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain (dubbed the PIGS).

Worldwide, bond markets have been raising interest rates and lowering the currency values of the weakest players.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Like the stock market bashes companies with weak business plans, the bond market bashes reckless countries. Where governments think they can print money and issue bonds without constraint, the bond market brings discipline.

The bond market vigilantes don’t cause problems, they react and point them out.

Without them, things would get much worse. Get ready to hear a lot more about bond and currency markets because sovereigns need reigning in.

Be glad they are enforcing such discipline, but stay out of their way. This is no time to bet heavily on currencies or bonds. Unless, of course, you happen to be a vigilante yourself.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.