December 9 – December 15, 2016

You can be certain that China is doing what it can to buy local. A US municipal pension crisis takes center stage in Dallas. Yeah, interest rates are going up – oh wait, what…

Headlines

Special Reports / Opinion Pieces

Briefs

  • Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times added some context to Opec’s recent production cut agreement with non-Opec member countries and likened it to a swan song.
    • Oil has rallied on recent production cuts agreed to by both OPEC and key non-OPEC countries (Russia).
    • “To top it off, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister signaled a willingness to cut, if necessary, even beyond the agreed limits to prop up prices – an announcement billed by some as a ‘whatever it takes’ moment to warn markets off testing the cartel’s resolve.”
    • However, the oil industry has changed and the US Shale producers are challenging Saudi Arabia for the key swing producer status. Two key facts to consider are 1) “…the break-even price for many shale producers is coming down  surprisingly fast. That means that the level at which shale can replace any OPEC cutback keeps going lower.” And 2) “…that, partly due to its manufacturing-style cost structure, shale is a dispersed private activity. Especially in market economies, it would be very difficult to decide production levels strategically even if one wanted to. So if US shale oil takes over Saudi Arabia as the global market’s swing producer, it will behave in a very different, and largely unstrategic, manner.”
    • “All this means is that OPEC – even with its new non-OPEC friends – has largely used up its ammunition by driving prices to where they are now.”
  • Tom Mitchell of the Financial Times illustrated how Trump’s policy shifts pose ‘unthinkable’ risks for China investors.
    • “We do not take an outbreak of a US-China trade war as our baseline case… But the … US election clearly show[s] how the conventional wisdom in economics may backfire these days. We need to think of previously unthinkable risk scenarios.” – Zhiwei Zhang, economist at Deutsche Bank
    • In regard to new capital controls, the “companies most at risk from the restrictions on dividend remittances include large automakers GM, Volkswagen and Toyota, for whom China is their largest and most profitable market.”
    • “Left to its own devices, the ruling Chinese Communist party would rather not restrict foreign investors’ dividends or punish American multinationals, even if Mr. Trump does indeed upend Sino-US relations…. Last week the party’s politburo identified ‘actively attracting foreign investment’ as one of its key ‘economic work tasks’ for 2017.”
    • “The risk for US multinationals lies in the fact that the Communist party is not entirely free to decide how it reacts to foreign ‘provocations.’ The party’s hand can be forced if an increasingly nationalist public feels the leadership is not being assertive enough in defense of territorial interests.”
    • It would seem the counter-argument would be that the Communist party should be able to pacify its citizens through its control of the media and propaganda apparatus, but as we’ve seen state-side, false news spreads far-and-wide and can affect people’s beliefs and behaviors.

 Graphics

FT – The ECB, bond buying and the capital key: a Q&A – Elaine Moore 9/7

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FT – Casino stocks jolted by Macau ATM limit reports – Peter Wells 12/8

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FT – Amazon’s no-checkout store threatens death of the cashier – Mark Vandevelde and Lindsay Whipp 12/8

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WSJ – Daily Shot: BAML EM High Yield Index (Spread) 12/9

  • “Despite higher bond yields, the global chase for yield continues.”

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Bloomberg – Good Luck Privatizing the American Dream – Mark Whitehouse 12/12

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WSJ – The Simple Truth About China’s Economy – Nathaniel Taplin 12/13

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Bloomberg – Tokyo Regains Costliest City for Expats Title as London Drops – David Roman 12/14

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Featured

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

South Korea, Germany at risk from China tech rise. James Kynge. Financial Times. 13 Dec. 2016.

According to a recent report by The Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), a Berlin-based think-tank, the “Made in China 2025” plan is going to dramatically alter the market for a number of industrial countries that rely on China for a large portion of their sales.

“Industrial countries should have no illusions: Made in China 2025 will elevate a small but powerful group of Chinese manufacturers, dramatically increasing their competitiveness.”

“The Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Japan and South Korea are most at risk from the strategy because each of them derives more than 40% of the value of their industrial output from the high-tech and medium-tech industries that are targeted in China’s plan.”

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“The Merics report, which was based on an examination of policy documents, expert journals and newspaper articles, as well as more than 60 interviews with Chinese experts, finds that one clear aim of the industrial strategy is to cultivate domestic champions to replace the sales by foreign companies in China.”

 “Such an intent, the report says, can be seen in a semi-official document called Made in China 2025 Key Area Technology Roadmap, which has been endorsed by Ma Kai, a vice-premier and the official heading the interministerial Leading Small Group for Constructing a Manufacturing Superpower.”

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“Indications of strong state support are reinforced by funding being made available to spur Chinese innovation in smart manufacturing. The Advanced Manufacturing Fund, established this year, was approved by the State Council (cabinet) and is charged with spending its Rmb20bn allocation on upgrading the technology of important industries.”

“Another fund, the National Integrated Circuit Fund, has capital of Rmb139bn at its disposal and the Emerging Industries Investment Fund, which was also approved by the State Council, has Rmb40bn to spend on promising domestic companies.”

“The Merics report suggests that such assistance, plus the ability of some companies to undertake acquisitions of industry leaders overseas, is likely to catapult some Chinese manufacturing giants into the vanguard of global technology.”

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A stampede for the exit: A Dallas public pension fund suffers a run. Economist. 8 Dec. 2016.

To illustrate the challenges that many municipalities are having or going to have over the coming years, witness what is going on in Dallas where the Mayor is suing the city’s policemen and firefighters to keep them from pulling their funds from the pension fund.

“At the start of the year the fire and police pension fund had $2.8bn in assets. Since then nearly $600m has been withdrawn from the plan, of which almost $500m has been taken out since August 13th. That is an alarming acceleration; in 2015 total withdrawals were just $81m.”

“Even at the start of 2016, the plan was just 45% funded, and was expected to become insolvent within 15 years… The city estimates that the funded ration has fallen to 36% after the withdrawals.”

“The crisis is the result of three linked issues: overgenerous pension promises; the flawed nature of public-sector pension accounting in America; and some bad investment decisions. In order to pay the generous benefits, the scheme counted on an investment return of 8.5% a year, absurdly high in a world where the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds has been hovering in a range of 1.5-3%. So the scheme opted for riskier assets in private equity and property. But the strategy did not work; the value of its investments declined by $263m in 2014 and $396m in 2015, thanks largely to write-downs of those risky assets.”

Dallas is not alone in its pension woes, “the average scheme (in America) was 73.6% funded at the end of 2015, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. A more conservative accounting approach, as is required of private-sector pension plans, would bring the ratio down further, to 45%.”

However, “the Dallas fund has a particularly big problem. It operates a deferred-retirement option plan (DROP) which allows police and firemen who have qualified for retirement to keep working, while their benefits are kept in a separate account earning an interest rate that has been 8-10% a year. More than 500 Dallas DROP accounts are worth more than $1m; the average account is worth nearly $600,000.”

“In addition, since 1989, retirement benefits have been upgraded using an annual cost-of-living adjustment of 4%.” Instead of say at a consumer-price index of 1-2%.

“Together, the DROP plan and cost-of-living increases make up around half of the scheme’s total liabilities.”

“There are only two possible solutions to the shortfall: put more money into the fund or cut the benefits. A 1984 referendum limits the maximum amount of city contributions – a limit that the city has reached this year. The 2015 scheme report suggested that total annual contributions to the pension fund would need nearly to double, from 37.6% to 72.7% of payroll, in order to close the deficit, and even that would take 40 years. The pension scheme has asked that the city make a one-off payment of $1.1bn in 2018, which the city says would require it to more than double property taxes.”  And of course, “any attempt to reduce past benefits will almost certainly end up in the courts.”

So… invest in even riskier ventures?

Subprime borrowers to feel pinch as Fed raises rates. Alistair Gray. Financial Times. 14 Dec. 2016.

“Subprime borrowers are set to feel the pinch as US banks nudge interest charges up in response to the Federal Reserve’s rate rise, threatening to sour more credit card loans and some types of debt.”

“About 92m consumers who have taken out loans with variable rates, such as credit cards, face higher monthly debt service payments as a result, according to TransUnion, which keeps an anonymized database of 220m borrowers. On average, the monthly increase comes to $6.45 per month.”

“A group of about 9.3m borrowers may be at risk of defaulting on at least one type of loan as a result of the rate increase, according to TransUnion.”

“The forecasts highlight the fragile financial state of many US consumers despite the economic recovery.”

“Sean McQuay, credit expert at NerdWallet, said some households are in for an unpleasant surprise since banks are not required to notify customers that their rates have ticked up in response to a rise in prime rates.”

“Savers, meanwhile, are unlikely to benefit from the Fed’s rate increase. Banks are already awash with deposits, and there is limited competition on these savings rates.”

Rather “the higher rates are expected to be good for banks, since they improve profit margins from lending. Even so, banking executives will be keeping a watchful eye on bad loans.”

Back to the consumers, the rate rise should be marginal unless the Fed does actually raise rates by 0.75 points next year and it is not accompanied by meaningful broad-sector growth in the US. As it is credit card delinquency rates are expected to increase with just the rate increase from this week.

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Other Interesting Articles

The Economist

Economist – A house divided: The alarming response to Russian meddling in American democracy 12/11

FT – Macau clarifies that daily ATM withdrawal limits to stay the same 12/8

FT – Airbnb backlash spells trouble for landlords 12/8

FT – China stocks fall by most in months amid crackdown on insurers 12/11

FT – Trump and China: the year of the chicken 12/12

FT – China challenges EU and US over market economy status 12/12

FT – S&P lowers rating for Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties 12/12

FT – Alphaville exclusive: Inside the gig economy 12/12

FT – IEA predicts oil glut will end if producers deliver deal 12/13

FT – Managing the inevitable decline of the renminbi 12/14

FT – Betting on German Bunds 12/14

NYT – Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in Election, U.S. Says 12/9

NYT – Trump Suggests Using Bedrock China Policy as Bargaining Chip 12/11

NYT – Small Investors Join China’s Tycoons in Sending Money Abroad 12/11

NYT – Drug 85 Times as Potent as Marijuana Caused a ‘Zombielike’ State in Brooklyn 12/14

WSJ – Why Would a Chinese Insurance Giant Want to Own a Gas Pipeline? 12/13

WSJ – Tata Drama Bruises Confidence of Once-Loyal Investors 12/14

WSJ – Tesla Could Lose Lead in Electric Cars to Big Automakers 12/15

 

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