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

China Rising?

So much ink has been spilled–especially over the last several years–about the rise of China that I wanted to devote a blog to the subject.

I won’t bury the lead: I believe China is more likely another Japan than another United States on the rise.  My goal is not so much to tell the future–I don’t know what will happen–as much as it is to cast doubt on the overwhelming consensus of China’s inevitable rise to supremacy.

What consensus you might ask?  That China’s economy will inevitably surpass the U.S.’s in the next 10, 20, or 30 years; that China will surpass the U.S. in technological superiority; that China will surpass the U.S. militarily; that China will surpass the U.S. in every way possible, it seems.

All of these things very well may come to pass.  But, it is not written in the stars, and the consensus view is almost entirely built on an extrapolation of current trends–a technique of forecasting which is almost never accurate.

As an interesting illustration of forecasting difficulty, I’d like exhibit #1 to be Paul Kennedy’s excellent book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.  Now, granted, this book came out in 1987, when Japan’s ascendancy was widely accepted as given, but it’s a wonderful example of how someone extremely knowledgeable in a specific field can suffer from the biases of extrapolation. 

In his book, he speaks of the 5 centers of power at the time: the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Japan, China and the European Economic Community.  He spells out how clearly Japan is surpassing or going to surpass the U.S. in computers, robotics, telecommunications, automobiles, trucks, ships, biotechnology and aerospace. 

Please understand, he was writing in 1987, when Japan Inc. was thought to be unbeatable, buying up property all over the world, technologically unstoppable.  He didn’t know Japan would fall into an economic funk a mere two years later where Japan’s economy wouldn’t grow for the next 22 years (nor did he see the fall of the U.S.S.R. coming, and even seems to poo-poo the idea).  So much for Japan Inc. and extrapolation of the past.

But, really, how could anyone really think that Japan would surpass the U.S. in computers and software?  Or biotechnology and aerospace?  Yes, Japan has definitely done better in robotics, automobiles and ships, but to provide such a long and overwhelming list as a historian?  A bit naive, I think.

The consensus view on China reminds me in many ways of the view 20 years ago of Japan.  Don’t get me wrong, Japan and China are very different stories, but people’s perception seems to be similar. 

Just as China’s centrally planned economy and “state capitalism” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) is seen as the wave of the future and a better way to govern, so Japan’s Ministry for International Trade and Industry (MITI) and it’s coordination of economic activity was seen as a huge advantage over the U.S.’s capitalism. 

Just as China’s production of engineers and scientists is seen as an unstoppable force, so was Japan’s.  Just as China’s high research and development budget is seen as superior, so was Japan’s.

Just as China’s high national savings rate is seen as an advantage over the U.S.’s consumption, so was Japan’s.  Just as China’s superiority in aptitude tests is seen as intellectually over-powering the U.S.’s poor scores, so was Japan’s.

I believe people make these extrapolations because they don’t really understand the sources of growth.  They simply expect the recent past to keep going, but it almost never does.

Just as Japan’s extraordinary growth came from adopting western technology and industry and having huge western markets to sell to, so does China’s.  If either Japan or China had had to create these industries from scratch, as the U.K. and U.S. had done, the growth would never have materialized.  And, just as Japan’s economy has demonstrated over the last 20 years, if China ever has to rely on it’s own consumers and businessmen for innovation and growth, you’ll see growth fall off a cliff.

Neither Japan nor China invented the Bessemer process, or assembly lines, or transistors, or binary computer logic, or almost any of the other major innovations which allowed them to grow.  They got it all from the west. 

And, this brings me back to my blog of two weeks ago, where I said that return on capital is the most important concept in finance.  You see, neither Japan nor China view return on capital as a primary concept.  Japanese businessmen are frequently on record saying that the U.S.’s focus on shareholder returns is ridiculous.  China is a communist state that sees returns on investment as a mere means to other ends.

The U.S. and U.K., at least during periods of innovation, let returns on capital as determined by individuals allocate resources, instead of some central planning bureaucracy.  The U.S. and U.K., thanks to intellectual greats like Adam Smith (a moral philosopher, not economist), recognized that human potential was unlocked when individuals were able to pursue their self-interest, as long as there was a rule of law and, specifically, protection of property rights.

Good luck finding that intellectual framework in Japan or China. 

In forecasting the future, this return on capital concept is vital to accuracy. 

If the U.S. abandons its focus on return on capital (as the U.K. has in most ways done), good-bye growth and innovation, good-bye technological and military superiority, good-bye world leadership. 

If Japan adopts a focus on return on capital at the individual level, which I believe is possible over time (perhaps in the next decade) welcome back growth and innovation. 

If China adopts a focus on return on capital at the level of the individual–an unlikely route, in my opinion–it can become a leading state.  Without that focus, growth will eventually crash and burn as it did in Japan (China is witnessing a boom in real estate, just as Japan did before its crash–coincidence?).

Forecasting China or U.S. over the next 30 years seems a bit silly without a focus on return on capital, but the consensus opinion is that it’s a done deal–China will be supreme. 

I beg to differ because I don’t believe large population, numbers of engineers, test scores or central planning are the lifeblood of growth, but the innovation of individuals who produce high returns on capital for their own benefit.

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.

China Rising?

In praise of recessions

Parenting is simple, but not easy.

What I mean by that statement is that it’s not hard to figure out what to do as a parent (simple), but it’s frequently difficult to implement in practice (not easy).

Little Vivian wants a glass of apple juice, but it’s an hour and a half before dinner and she’d prefer to drink apple juice 24/7 rather than eat any solid food–ever! 

I have a choice: I can give her the apple juice she so much desires and worry she won’t eat the food she needs, or I can give her some non-apple-juice options to make sure she’ll be hungry for dinner.

It’s easy to give her the apple juice, right?  But, will it result in the long run outcome I want?  Probably not.  So, I offer her water and tell her she doesn’t want to ruin her appetite for dinner.

The first several times I provide this option, Vivian–like any self-respecting 3-year-old– breaks down in tears.  Not being entirely hard-hearted, I feel sympathy at the cutest screaming fit you’ve ever seen (not easy).

I know the right option (simple), but I dread the implementation (not easy). 

After 3 iterations of this process, though, Vivian no longer breaks down and cries.  She expects this outcome and goes about her life quite happily knowing she can’t have what she wants whenever she wants it.

And so it is with the economy, too.  Knowing human nature, it’s easy to see that people take things to excesses at times.  Whether keg parties, American Idol, Nuremberg rallies, or investment fads, people tend to herd in ways that aren’t necessarily best for their long term well-being.

Every once in a while, economic excesses need to be purged, too, and that is what I think recessions do.  Investors, consumers, regulators, etc. get caught up in herd behavior, periodically, and recessions allow mis-allocated resources get re-allocated back to productive (positive return on capital) uses.

It’s easy to understand this process is necessary, assuming you understand human tendencies (simple), but it’s unpleasant (not easy) to watch the resulting pain inflicted.

I’m not hard-hearted enough to enjoy watching people become unemployed any more than I like watching my daughter collapse in tears.  But, I must consider the alternative.

If we try to prevent recessions, is the long term outcome better or worse?  Giving my daughter the apple juice prevents short term pain (for both her and me), but creates long term problems.  And, so it is with recessions.

Preventing recessions leads to a build-up of bigger and bigger problems.  Periodic purges prevent major disastrous purges.  If you don’t believe me, consider the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the Great Depression, and Japan’s lost decade.

In each case, political intervention was intended to keep the economy on stable footing.  The hope was to prevent short-term pain, but with little regard for long term consequences.

I think an analogy to nature here is useful.  A catastrophic fire occurred in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 that burned several orders of magnitude more acres of forest than had been experienced in the past (please see Mark Buchanan’s Ubiquity for more information).

At first, experts were bewildered at the damage and what could have caused it.  Over time, though, they began to recognize that not letting forest fires occur occasionally had led to a super-critical state where a catastrophic fire was inevitable. 

In other words, the attempt to prevent small periodic fires had caused a major forest fire that wouldn’t have even been possible without preventing small fires.

I believe the same thing is at work in the economy.  Small periodic recessions are good for purging the under-growth of our economic forest.  Without such small recessions, a super-critical state is created.  The attempt to prevent small recessions is the cause of large, disastrous ones. 

And so, I praise small periodic recessions as the necessary prevention for big, terrible ones.  It’s time to take some short term pain that is necessary, but not easy, rather than face the long term calamities that are simply not necessary. 

It’s time for the parents to say no to the kids who want something that’s bad for their long term well-being.

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.

In praise of recessions

Pushing on a string?

If you’ve ever water-skied, you know you must keep slack out of the line to stay on your feet.  If the line loosens, you have little time to take out the slack or you’ll be swimming.

The Federal Reserve, too, must keep the line tight.  Otherwise, it finds itself pushing on a string.  And, as any water skier knows, pushing on the string is of little use.

Why is the Fed pushing on a string?  Because it–like a boy with a hammer–has only one tool at it’s disposal: creating money out of thin air.

When the economy slackens, the Fed reduces interest rates (by printing or threatening to print money).  This is supposed to encourage borrowers to borrow, thus increasing economic activity.  As long as borrowers think they will get higher returns on the money they borrow than the interest rate they owe, they’ll borrow. 

But, a problem occurs if borrowers either can’t or don’t think they can get good enough returns on the money they borrow.  When that happens, the Fed can lower rates and print money all they want and the economy won’t improve.  That’s when the Fed finds itself pushing on a string.

There are serious questions about the U.S. economy being at this point.  Very smart people are concerned the Fed can’t get the economy going again, and they have powerful historic examples like the Great Depression and Japan to support their thesis.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. experienced a huge drop in economic activity, high and sustained unemployment, and significant deflation. Shrinking money supply was one of the things blamed, and so most economists have taken that as the solution to a similarly deflationary scenario like now.

Japan has been in a 20 year on-again/off-again recession.  Over this time, its stock market is down 75% and its economy hasn’t grown.  Its central bank, like the Federal Reserve, has tried lowering interest rates and quantitative easing (a euphemism for printing money).  These solutions have kept unemployment from spiking, but have done nothing to improve economic growth and have left the Japanese government with a huge load of debt.

I think these two examples are important in understanding our present situation, but most analysts and commentators miss the point.  I do think the Fed is pushing on a string, but not for the reason that most suggest.

Borrowers will only borrow if they think they can get good returns on capital.  Such lending will only be effective if positive returns on capital are earned.  For the economy to grow and standards of living to improve, you need positive returns on capital. 

The issue is not employment, nor printing money, nor interest rates, nor fiscal stimulus.  The issue is positive returns on capital.  Without that, there is no growth, only decline.

The U.S. government tried all sorts of things during the Great Depression to improve employment and get the economy going (both Hoover and Roosevelt).  The result: the worst economic decade in U.S. history.  The U.S. economy finally started growing again during World War II.  Was that because killing people and destroying property is growth?  NO!!!  It’s because the government boondoggles finally ended and individuals were able to get positive returns on capital.

Japan will not improve until positive returns on capital becomes its focus.  As long as employment and consumer demand are the focus, Japan will not grow.  Only when the Japanese economy refocuses on generating positive returns on capital will it grow again.

The same is true here in the U.S.  Printing money, lowering interest rates, giving loans to negative return on capital projects, and creating boondoggle employment will not create growth. 

The Fed is pushing on a string, but that’s because it doesn’t understand where growth comes from.  It doesn’t come from creating money or lending, it comes from positive returns on capital, and there’s nothing the Fed can do to bring that about. 

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.

Pushing on a string?

China crazy!

Need further proof that people are going nuts over China? Simply adding “China” to a company’s name has led to beating the market by 31% (for 18 listed companies so far in 2010). This is the finding of Professor Wei Wang of Queen’s School of Business and reported by Jason Zweig in the Wall Street Journal this week.

The last time this happened was between 2004 and 2007, when adding the words “oil” or “petroleum” led to an 8% boost in stock performance.

Before that, it was the technology bubble from 1998 to 1999, when adding “.com” to a company’s name led to 53% out-performance of other technology stocks.

In the late 1960’s, a company’s stock would soar if it added “-tronics” or “-dyne” to its name.

I’m sure if we went back to the 1800’s, we’d find the same thing for “canal” and “railroad” companies.

It’s a story as old as markets. People fall for the hype only to find they’ve invested in little more than smoke and mirrors.

I don’t mean to say that no company is China is worth its salt. Nor am I saying that all oil, .com, or –tronics companies are pure puffery.

But, when simply changing the name of your company to reflect the latest craze leads to serious out-performance, you know there’s a bubble afoot.

China, too, may not live up to the hype.

Is China a huge and growing market? Yes, indeed. Will China’s economy have a huge and growing impact on the world economy? Unequivocally, yes.

But, that doesn’t mean every investment in China will do well. In fact, it might be a good idea to pull back on the China hype and consider other less bubbly alternatives.

Perhaps a case history can be instructive, here. The last time people went country-crazy was the mid to late 1980’s. Then, it was Japan, Inc. Do you remember how Japan was buying up real estate in New York, Hawaii and California, and how almost everyone was convinced the Japanese way of doing everything was better?

Fast forward to 2010, and Japan has been in a 20 year off-again, on-again recession. Their stock market peaked at almost 39,000 in late 1989 only to fall below 8,000 twice in the last 20 years (down over 80%). Even now, their market is around 11,000, down over 70% from it’s peak of over 20 years ago!

Can you imagine if the Dow Jones Industrial Average were at 4,250 19 years from now!? That was the Japanese hype experience.

China’s story may not look much better 10 or 20 years from now, either.

Before jumping into the hype machine, remember the lessons of history. Extreme hype is almost always a bad sign.

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.