February 19 – February 25, 2016

China’s media censorship. Life insurance companies face a daunting future. S&P earnings not quite so. Commercial real estate values in limbo.

Some weeks I wonder if there will be enough quality material to post and then there are weeks like this one when there is a deluge.  I am going to focus on four themes, three that apply to everyone and one that is specific to commercial real estate.  1) The New York Times provided some great coverage this week highlighting Beijing’s increased censorship of the media, first in Edward Wong’s “Xi Jinping’s News Alert: Chinese Media Must Serve the Party” and second in Edward Wong and Neil Gough’s “As China’s Economic Picture Turns Uglier, Beijing Applies Airbrush”, 2) was an article in The Economist “The fallout from low interest rates (2): The lowdown” that highlights the effect low and negative interest rates are having on life insurance companies, 3) is a must read by Justin Lahart “S&P Earnings: Far Worse Than Advertised” in The Wall Street Journal, and 4) for the commercial real estate professionals is Tracy Alloway’s Morgan Stanley Says U.S. Commercial Real Estate Price Growth Will Be Flat in Bloomberg.

Other items that are worth a mention (there is quite a bit this week):

  • World trade records biggest reversal since crisis in 2008. “The value of goods that crossed international borders last year fell 13.8% in dollar terms – the first contraction since 2009 – according to the Netherlands Bureau of Economic Policy Analysis’ World Trade Monitor. Much of the slump was due to a slowdown in China and other emerging economies.”
  • Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times wrote a great article around the theme of recessions following development of ‘the world’s tallest tower’ in The Chinese chronicle of a crash foretold.
    • “Today, some analysts describe the Chinese real estate market as the single most important sector in the global economy – and the biggest risk factor. This is less fantastic than it sounds when you consider that in two years – 2011 and 2012 – China produced more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century.
    • “The building boom of recent years has led to enormous excess inventory but the true scale is impossible to estimate because developers and local governments are offered incentive to under-report the problem.”
    • “An outright decline in real estate investment, which is surely coming, will also have profound implications for the rickety, debt-laden Chinese financial system. Analysts estimate that more than 60% of Chinese bank loans are directly or indirectly tied to real estate.”
    • “According to officials in several Chinese cities, their solution is to break ground on entirely new districts and to offer land to “better quality” property developers at marked down prices. The hope is that developers will abandon the existing empty blocks, and build higher quality apartments that can be sold to consumers for big discounts because of the lower land costs.”
    • Never mind the write offs and losses that would have to take place on the unused buildings. Question: are they completely uninhabitable or is really a matter of demand?
  • The Buttonwood column in The Economist does a good job of pointing out one of the larger problems of the weak markets.
    • “Since the crisis commercial banks seem to have retreated from their market-making role. The impact of this shift has been disguised by the huge amounts of liquidity injected by central banks. But as central banks scale back their support, the underlying investors (pension funds, insurers, hedge funds and the like) will have to rely on each other to act as willing buyers and sellers. That seems highly likely to result in more volatile markets than in the past, especially when the outlook for the economy is unclear. Buckle up.”
  • A good but somewhat sad read in the NYT, Reporting on Life, Death and Corruption in Southeast Asia.
  • If you want to scare yourself… China’s Ticking Time Bomb: A Runaway Banking System Bloated With Hidden Bad Loans and Singapore Lawyers Warn of 1998-Like Pain as Debt Defaults Spread
  • Lastly, all commercial real estate professionals, especially those on the retail side of the business should read Weak Holidays Force Retailers to Shrink, Rethink Web

Interesting graphics:

From The Economist, all is not well in Hedge Fund land.

Economist_Hedge funds_2-25-16

*Note: bold emphasis is mine, italic sections are from the articles.

Xi Jinping’s News Alert: Chinese Media Must Serve the Party. Edward Wong. The New York Times. 22 Feb. 2016.

As China’s economy downshifts to a ‘new normal,’ the party heads in Beijing are finding the media to be a thorn in their side particularly when it relates to information that isn’t positive.  Thus…

All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity” – Xi Jinping, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

Mr. Xi also wants to curb the presence of foreign media companies. Last week, government agencies announced a regulation that would prevent foreign companies from publishing and distributing content online in China. That could affect Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, among others.”

Hardly seems sporting.

“An essay in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, offered an explanation on Monday about why Mr. Xi was unveiling his policy now.

“It is necessary for the media to restore people’s trust in the party, especially as the economy has entered a new normal and suggestions that it is declining and dragging down the global economy have emerged,” the essay said.

“Some political analysts note that Mr. Xi’s attempts to impose total control over the media say as much about his personal insecurities as they do about any Marxist-Leninist ideological vision that he holds.

“The most important thing is for him to announce his absolute authority,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian. “He doesn’t feel effective and confident in dealing with problems, and he lacks a sense of security.”

Mr. Zhang added, “He worries the Chinese Communist Party will lose political power, and he also worries that his peers will shove him from his position.”

A subsequent and related article:

As China’s Economic Picture Turns Uglier, Beijing Applies Airbrush. Edward Wong and Neil Gough. The New York Times. 25 Feb. 2016.

“‘Data disappears when it becomes negative,’ – Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research, which analyzes the Chinese economy”

“In January data released last week, the Chinese central bank omitted or hid one key number and altered the parameters of another that gave insight into what the central and commercial banks were doing to prop up the country’s currency.”

When you go around and meet state-owned industry people, everybody laughs at the national statistics, so I don’t know why foreigners believe them,” – Ms. Stevenson-Yang.

Unfortunately, political control of the media is not unique to China (think Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the issue is how important to the global economy China has become and yet the country’s data is questionable at best making it difficult for other policy makers to ascertain appropriate steps to help the global economy along.


The fallout from low interest rates (2): The lowdown. The Economist. 20 Feb. 2016.

Subtitle: Insurers regret their guarantees

This article articulates the challenges that life insurers are facing (let alone banks, pensions, etc.) in the low-to-negative interest rate environment.

“Insurers tend to be prudent investors who like steady returns, which is why around 80% of their assets are in fixed-income securities. This served them well during the financial crisis, but today – with bond yields at historic lows, and even in negative territory-it hurts their investment income. This is particularly true for life insurers, which own over $21 trillion of the industry’s $28 trillion (of) assets, and rely heavily on this investment income to pay policy holders.”

“European insurers are especially exposed. Over two-thirds of life-insurance policies in force in the EU today offers some sort of guarantee.”

“Moody’s, a rating agency, reckons those most at risk tend to be in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Taiwan, where average duration gaps are especially large (14 years in Norway) or guaranteed rates are eye-wateringly high (4-5% in Taiwan).”

“The average returns promised to German policyholders are far higher than the yields on government bonds that insurers can now buy. Corporate bonds offer returns that are barely higher, which leaves two options: invest in riskier assets such as equities (which will require the insurer to put more capital aside), or face the fact that annual payouts to policyholders will outstrip income, a recipe for losses.”

“Faced with this prospect, life businesses are doing what they can to push risk back to the customer. In some countries, such as France, the promises made to existing policyholders have the built-in flexibility to be scaled back. But mostly the burden falls on new policyholders, who are no longer sold products with guarantees.

Ironically this de-risking creates a different danger: that the industry becomes irrelevant. By removing the key selling point of an insurer over a mutual fund – the assurance that a policy will pay out no matter what – the industry risks negating its business proposition to investors looking for security.”

“The classic model thrives on short-term interest rates of between 2-6%, government bonds yielding at least 4% and no worries about defaults.”


S&P Earnings: Far Worse Than Advertised. Justin Lahart. The Wall Street Journal. 24 Feb. 2016.

This article is an eye opener.

“With most calendar-year results now in, FactSet estimates companies in the S&P 500 earned 0.4% more per share in 2015 than the year before. That marks the weakest growth since 2009. But this is based on so-called pro forma figures, results provided by companies that exclude certain items such as restructuring charges or stock-based compensation.

Look to results reported under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and S&P earnings per share fell by 12.7%, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. That is the sharpest decline since the financial crisis year of 2008. Plus, the reported earnings were 25% lower that pro forma figures – the widest difference since 2008 when companies took a record amount of charges.

The implication: Even after a brutal start to 2016, stocks may still be more expensive than they seem. Even worse, investors may be paying for earnings and growth that aren’t anywhere near what they think.”

WSJ_The GAAP Gap - 2-25-16

“Companies ostensibly provide pro forma figures to better reflect the underlying tenor of their operations… But companies have had a history of treating the ordinary as extraordinary when business conditions worsen.

Indeed, outside of 2008, the only other times the GAAP gap was as wide as last year was in 2001 and 2002. That was back when companies wrote off billions of dollars worth of dot-com bubble-era investments.”

“Companies sometimes will also look past charges that result from big swings in the value of their assets. Chesapeake Energy, for example, on Wednesday reported a full-year 2015 loss of $14.9 billion under GAAP.

But the company said that after adjusting for items “typically excluded by securities analysts in their earnings estimates,” it lost just $329 million. The major item Chesapeake and many other energy companies left out of their 2015 pro forma results were charges related to the steep decline in energy prices.”

About our oil reserves being worth tens of billions less, hey look at that squirrel over there…

“This is why skeptics tend to call pro forma figures EBBS, or earnings before bad stuff.”

“Energy companies registered some of the biggest differences between GAAP and pro forma earnings. In total, S&P 500 energy companies had an estimated GAAP loss of $48 billion. That stands in stark contrast to the $45 billion of income they reported on a pro forma basis.

Come again… that’s a $93 billion swing.

“Materials companies reported $13 billion in GAAP earnings compared with $30 billion in pro forma earnings. And health-care companies earned $104 billion under GAAP versus $157 billion pro forma.”

“And then there was tech: Under GAAP, S&P 500 tech companies earned an estimated $176 billion in 2015, $42 billion less than their pro forma earnings of $218 billion”

“Overall S&P 500 earnings under GAAP came to $787 billion last year, S&P Dow Jones Indices estimates. That is $256 billion less than the pro forma estimate of $1.04 trillion.”


Morgan Stanley Says U.S. Commercial Real Estate Price Growth Will Be Flat. Tracy Alloway. Bloomberg. 23 Feb. 2016.

“Morgan Stanley analysts last week predicted U.S. commercial real estate prices would grow by a big fat zero percent in 2016, replacing a previous forecast of 5% growth over the course of the year.”

“We recognize the very important role that the lending markets have played in the recovery in CRE prices,” the analysts write. “Indeed, our analysis shows that a 10 percentage point decline in the loan-to-value ratio (from 70% to 60%) requires 2.25 percentage annual net operating income growth to offset the lower leverage.”

“Throw in higher financing costs-U.S. financial conditions have already tightened following the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates back in December – and required income needs to increase even more.”

Bloomberg_CRE Price Sensitivity_2-23-16

This article ties well into the one above along with Weak Holidays Force Retailers to Shrink, Rethink Web.  If the tenants, users of space, are experiencing margin squeeze, how likely is it that they’ll be able to absorb meaningful rent growth?  At this point commercial real estate appreciation (on the whole) is reliant on the cost of financing equity and debt [described in the chart as Weighted Average Coupon (WAC)].  Fortunately, as a result of low-to-negative interest rates, life insurers and SWFs are looking for yield.  However, only for the best stuff as highlighted by the growing yields in BBB CMBS offerings due to declining demand.


Other Interesting Articles

Bloomberg Businessweek

The Economist


Bloomberg – The U.S. States Where Recession Is Already a Reality 2/21

Bloomberg – China’s Debt Seen Rising Through 2019, Peaking at 283% of GDP 2/21

Bloomberg – Sovereign Wealth Funds May Sell $404 Billion of Equities 2/22

Bloomberg – Singapore Lawyers Warn of 1998-Like Pain as Debt Defaults Spread 2/22

Bloomberg – Can Things Get Any Worse for Russia? You’re About to Find Out 2/23

Contra Corner (Business Insider) – China’s Ticking Time Bomb: A Runaway Banking System Bloated With Hidden Bad Loans 2/19

CoStar – Four Major Property Sectors Showing Weaker CMBS Loan Underwriting 2/22

FT – China central bank moves to strengthen control of money supply 2/18

FT – Uber losing more than $1bn a year in China 2/18

FT – San Francisco: bubble fears fail to curb rush to build new condos 2/19

FT – Smart beta ‘could go horribly wrong’ 2/22

FT – Helicopter drops might not be far away 2/23

FT – South Korea household debt pile mounts 2/23

FT – Venture capital starts to tune out of on-demand services 2/24

FT – The Chinese chronicle of a crash foretold 2/24

FT – Exports from China to Brazil collapse as recession deepens 2/25

FT – World trade records biggest reversal since crisis 2/25

FT – Oil industry tormented by latest price slump 2/25

Investment News – FBI raids offices of Texas REIT (UDF) 2/18

NYT – In Zika Epidemic, a Warning on Climate Change 2/20

NYT – Reporting on Life, Death and Corruption in Southeast Asia 2/21

NYT – Indian Caste Protests in Haryana Choke Delhi’s Roads and Water Supply 2/22

NYT – Seas Are Rising at Fastest Rate in Last 28 Centuries 2/22

NYT – Once a Coup, Energy Transfer Deal Becomes a Nightmare 2/25

WSJ – IPO Market Dries Up as Investors Retreat 2/18

WSJ – U.S. New-Home Sales Fell Sharply in January 2/24

WSJ – Bank-Stock Bloodbath: The Cycle Financials Can’t Escape 2/24

WSJ – Weak Holidays Force Retailers to Shrink, Rethink Web 2/25


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