July 27, 2017

Perspective

NYT – The Cost of a Hot Economy in California: A Severe Housing Crisis – Adam Nagourney and Conor Dougherty 7/17

  • “A full-fledged housing crisis has gripped California, marked by a severe lack of affordable homes and apartments for middle-class families. The median cost of a home here is now a staggering $500,000, twice the national cost. Homelessness is surging across the state.”
  • “The extreme rise in housing costs has emerged as a threat to the state’s future economy and its quality of life. It has pushed the debate over housing to the center of state and local politics, fueling a resurgent rent control movement and the growth of neighborhood ‘Yes in My Back Yard’ organizations, battling long-established neighborhood groups and local elected officials as they demand an end to strict zoning and planning regulations.”
  • “For California, this crisis is a price of this state’s economic boom. Tax revenue is up and unemployment is down. But the churning economy has run up against 30 years of resistance to the kind of development experts say is urgently needed. California has always been a desirable place to live and over the decades has gone through periodic spasms of high housing costs, but officials say the combination of a booming economy and the lack of construction of homes and apartments have combined to make this the worst housing crisis here in memory.”
  • “Housing prices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego have jumped as much as 75% over the past five years.”
  • Thus democratic State Senator Scott Wiener has sponsored “…one of 130 housing measures that have been introduced this year, would restrict one of the biggest development tools that communities wield: the ability to use zoning, environmental and procedural laws to thwart projects they deem out of character with their neighborhood.”
  • “’We’re at a breaking point in California,’ Mr. Wiener said. ‘The drought created opportunities to push forward water policy that would have been impossible before. Given the breadth and depth of the housing crisis in many parts of California, it creates opportunities in the Legislature that didn’t exist before.'”
  • “For the past several decades, California has had a process that sets a number of housing units, including low-income units, that each city should build over the next several years based on projected growth. Mr. Wiener’s bill targets cities that have lagged on building by allowing developers who propose projects in those places to bypass the various local design and environmental reviews that slow down construction because they can be appealed and litigated for years.”
  • “The bill applies only to projects that are already within a city’s plans: If the project were higher or denser than current zoning laws allow, it would still have to go through the City Council. But by taking much of the review power away from local governments, the bill aims to ramp up housing production by making it harder to kill, delay or shrink projects in places that have built the fewest.”

Worthy Insights / Opinion Pieces / Advice

FT – China’s credit squeeze sends warning on global growth – William Sterling (Trilogy Global Advisors) 7/18

  • “China has sent a deflationary chill through global markets this year by engineering a major slowdown in the growth of bank credit in the country.”
  • “In fact, we would argue that the unravelling of many of the so-called ‘Trump trades’ in global markets this year reflects the deflationary chill that China’s credit squeeze is creating, rather than simply registering skepticism about Trump administration policies.”
  • “Over the course of little more than a year, China went from exporting deflation to helping create the “global reflation” theme that was evident in global equity markets in the second half of 2016.”
  • “The most important global policymaker nobody has ever heard of is Guo Shuqing, the recently appointed chief of the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC).”
  • “With the implicit support of President Xi Jinping, Mr Guo has issued a flurry of new regulations aimed at tackling corruption and speculation, including a requirement that banks account for previously lightly regulated ‘wealth management products’ in line with capital adequacy regulations.”
  • “The result is that the credit impulse, best understood as ‘the rate of change of the rate of change’ of credit relative to GDP, has declined by a whopping 17.5% of GDP in the first quarter of 2017.” 
  • “In the meantime, expect weaker commodity prices and less upward pressure on US interest rates.”
  • “China’s impact on the world economy is significant. Over the past five years its nominal GDP has expanded by $3.7tn, an amount that exceeds the GDP of Germany. In contrast, the entire global economy has expanded its nominal GDP by only $2.2tn.”
  • “As well as accounting for nearly 170% of the growth in the world’s nominal GDP in this period, it seems that China may have made US corporate earnings great again. Per Commerce Department figures, rest-of-world profits for US corporations were up by 25% in the first quarter of 2017, while domestically generated profits were down slightly and well below their peak of 2014.”
  • “The key concern for global investors is that even though China’s credit policy may be almost as important to the global economy as shifts in Federal Reserve or European Central Bank monetary policy, China’s economic policymaking remains far less transparent than in many other key nations.”
  • “Monitoring China’s credit impulse, therefore, is perhaps the best means open to investors to ‘watch what they do, not what they say’.”

FT – Ignore the Cassandra chorus, rates won’t skyrocket – Scott Minerd (chief investment officer Guggenheim Partners) 7/17

  • “The simple truth is that, while rates may trend higher in the near term, the risk is that we have not reached the point where the macro economy can sustain persistently higher rates. If anything, political, military and market uncertainties would more likely lead to another sudden decline in rates rather than a massive spike upward.”
  • “Investors would be wise to ignore the growing chorus of Cassandra cries and look through the noise to the fundamentals. There are many things to be concerned about in the world but skyrocketing rates is not likely among them.”

A Teachable Moment – Numbers Can Lie – Tony Isola 7/20

  • “Narratives without statistics are blind, statistics without narrative are empty.” – Steven Pinker

NYT – Behind a Chinese Powerhouse (HNA) a Web of Family Financial Ties – David Barboza 7/18

NYT – Saudi King’s Son Plotted Effort to Oust His Rival – Ben Hubbard, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt 7/18

  • A family matter made public.

Project Syndicate – Why Do Cities Become Unaffordable? – Robert Shiller 7/17

  • “The question, then, is why residents of some cities face extremely – even prohibitively – high prices.”
  • “In many cases, the answer appears to be related to barriers to housing construction. Using satellite data for major US cities, the economist Albert Saiz of MIT confirmed that tighter physical constraints – such as surrounding bodies of water or land gradients that make properties unsuitable for extensive building – tend to correlate with higher home prices.”
  • “But the barriers may also be political. A huge dose of moderate-income housing construction would have a major impact on affordability. But the existing owners of high-priced homes have little incentive to support such construction, which would diminish the value of their own investment. Indeed, their resistance may be as intractable as a lake’s edge. As a result, municipal governments may be unwilling to grant permits to expand supply.”
  • “Insufficient options for construction can be the driving force behind a rising price-to-income ratio, with home prices increasing over the long term even if the city has acquired no new industry, cachet, or talent. Once the city has run out of available building sites, its continued growth must be accommodated by the departure of lower-income people.”
  • “But this tendency can be mitigated, if civil society recognizes the importance of preserving lower-income housing. Many of the calls to resist further construction, residents must understand, are being made by special interests; indeed, they amount to a kind of rent seeking by homeowners seeking to boost their own homes’ resale value. In his recent book The New Urban Crisis, the University of Toronto’s Richard Florida decries this phenomenon, comparing opponents of housing construction to the early-nineteenth-century Luddites, who smashed the mechanical looms that were taking their weaving jobs.”
  • “In some cases, a city may be on its way to becoming a ‘great city,’ and market forces should be allowed to drive out lower-income people who can’t participate fully in this greatness to make way for those who can. But, more often, a city with a high housing-price-to-income ratio is less a ‘great city’ than a supply-constrained one lacking in empathy, humanitarian impulse, and, increasingly, diversity. And that creates fertile ground for dangerous animosities.”

Real Estate

WSJ – Foreign Buyers Pump Up U.S. Home Prices – Laura Kusisto 7/18

  • “Foreigners are buying U.S. homes at a record rate, helping push up prices in coveted coastal cities already squeezed by supply shortages.”
  • “In all, foreign buyers and recent immigrants purchased $153 billion of residential property in the U.S. in the year ended in March, nearly a 50% jump from a year earlier, according to a National Association of Realtors report released Tuesday.”
  • “That surpassed the previous record for foreign investment set in 2015, when foreigners purchased nearly $104 billion of U.S. residential property.”

WSJ – Property Developers Push for Open Drinking on City Streets – Esther Fung 7/18

FT – Retail woes lead to rising commercial mortgage delinquencies – Joe Rennison 7/17

  • “We see a lot of retail loans defaulting at maturity. Borrowers are just unable to re-finance their loans.” – Mary MacNeill, managing director – Fitch Ratings

FT – Will the death of US retail be the next big short? – Robin Wigglesworth 7/16

  • “Credit Suisse estimates that as many as 8,640 stores with 147m square feet of retailing space could close down just this year — surpassing the level of closures after the financial crisis and dotcom bust. The downturn is hitting the largely healthy US labor market — the retail industry has lost an average of 9,000 jobs a month this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with average monthly job gains of 17,000 last year.”

FT – Blackstone warns of internet impact on US shopping malls – Robin Wigglesworth 7/16

  • “’The retail industry is clearly facing headwinds. And it’s the first time we’ve seen secular rather than cyclical headwinds,’ said Nadeem Meghji, head of North American real estate at Blackstone. ‘We’re now seeing pressures even on luxury retailers, which I didn’t expect to happen as fast as it has.’”
  • “The market for second-tier enclosed malls has virtually frozen given how concerned investors are, but Mr. Meghji estimated that in the past two years prices may have plunged as much as 40% on average for the 1,100 enclosed regional malls in the US. Even for the top 50, prices have probably declined by 20%, the Blackstone executive said.”
  • “The private equity firm’s $102bn real estate arm still owns some grocery shop-anchored malls in high-density population areas, but no longer has any exposure to the enclosed shopping mall sector.”

Energy

FT – California confronts solar power glut with novel marketplace – Gregory Meyer 7/17

  • “California is a leader in solar and wind power. The Golden State is well on its way to reaching a self-imposed goal of getting a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, part of an aggressive agenda to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” 
  • “Yet this bold strategy is causing complications. At noon on clear spring days, too much solar power courses through the state’s electrical grid. Generators must pay customers to take excess supply — a condition called “negative prices” — or unplug their plants. Still, California consumers have some of the highest electricity rates in the country.” 
  • “Amounts of electricity generated by the sun and wind can vary in the space of hours, however, as clouds darken the skies or breezes die down. Every day, solar power fades towards dusk just as people come home and turn on lights, air conditioners and televisions.” 
  • “The imbalance market helps to iron out utilities’ power scramble as supply and demand shift during the day. It builds on longstanding markets for power delivered hours, days or months ahead by offering power delivered between five and 15 minutes in advance. When California suddenly finds itself with too much electricity, other states can now absorb it, and vice versa.”
  • “Participants say the imbalance market lowers overall costs for customers, makes grids more reliable and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by using clean energy that might otherwise be shut off. The ISO says the market has used 412,000 megawatt-hours of surplus California renewable energy since 2015, displacing 176,000 tons of carbon.” 

Environment / Science

WSJ – Daily Shot: statista – 20 Worst Cities Worldwide for Air Pollution 7/26

Health / Medicine

FT – ‘Urgent wake-up call’ for male health as sperm counts plummet – Clive Cookson 7/25

  • “The sperm count of men in the western world has fallen by more than half over a period of 40 years, according to an international study described by its authors as ‘an urgent wake-up call’ about declining male health.”
  • “’Decreasing sperm count has been of great concern since it was first reported 25 years ago,’ said senior author Shanna Swan of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. ‘This definitive study shows . . . that the decline is strong and continuing.’”
  • “Professor Allan Pacey of Sheffield university, who has been skeptical about previous research showing declining sperm counts, said the latest research dealt with many of his criticisms. But he urged people to ‘treat this study with caution as the debate has not yet been resolved and there is clearly much work still to be done’.”
  • “Prof Pacey pointed out too that the reported decline from 99m to 47m sperm per milliliter still left the average count within what fertility clinics regard as the ‘normal’ range.”
  • “In northern Europe today more than 15% of young men had a sperm count low enough to impair their fertility, Prof (Richard) Sharpe (of Edinburgh University) added, and ‘this is likely to get worse rather than better’.”
  • “The combination of declining male sperm counts and a growing delay in couples trying for a baby — often until the woman is in her 30s and her own fertility is declining — created ‘a double whammy’ for natural conception in modern western societies, he said.”

Bloomberg – China’s Sperm Count Problem Has Created a Billion-Dollar Market 7/12

  • While the above article focused on samples from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, China too has its problems.

Britain

FT – UK plans to ban sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 – Jim Pickard and Peter Campbell 7/26

  • “UK environment secretary Michael Gove has announced plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in Britain by 2040.”
  • “The announcement follows the lead set by France two weeks ago and will be set out in the UK government’s long-awaited ‘air quality plan’ on Wednesday.”
  • “Mr. Gove will say that all new cars will have to be fully electric within a quarter of a century. His promise to ban other engine types — including hybrids — shifts the government further from its existing position, which was an ‘ambition’ for all new cars to be zero-emissions by 2040.”
  • “The coalition government’s ‘carbon plan’ in 2011 also predicted that all new cars sold after 2040 would have to be emission free, to meet a target of having no petrol or diesel cars on the roads by 2050.”
  • “The announcement is a milestone in the shift towards electric cars, which currently account for less than 1% of UK sales.”

China

FT – Wang Qishan: China’s enforcer – Tom Mitchell, Gabriel Wildau, and Henny Sender 7/24

  • Arguably the second most powerful person in China.

WSJ – China’s Visible Hand Starts to Squeeze -Jacky Wong 7/18

  • “Macau looks likely to be another target of China’s efforts to contain leverage and capital outflows.”

FT – China’s railway diplomacy hits the buffers – James Kynge, Michael Peel and Ben Bland 7/17

  • “China’s ability to build high-speed railways more cheaply than its competitors gave the technology a central place in ‘One Belt, One Road’, Beijing’s ambitious scheme to win diplomatic allies and open markets across more than 65 countries between Asia and Europe by funding and building infrastructure.”
  • “But less than two years after these hopeful words were uttered, a Financial Times investigation has found that China’s high-speed rail ambitions are running off the tracks. Far from blazing a trail for One Belt, One Road, several of the projects have been abandoned or postponed. Such failed schemes, and some that are under way, have stoked suspicion, public animosity and mountains of debt in countries that Beijing had hoped to woo.”
  • “In terms of scale, the rail push ranks as one of the biggest infrastructure undertakings in history. The total estimated value of 18 Chinese overseas high-speed rail schemes — including one completed (the Ankara-Istanbul service), five under way and 12 more announced — amounts to $143bn, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank, and the Financial Times. To put this number in context, the US-led Marshall Plan, which helped revive Europe after the second world war, was completed with $13bn in American donations, a sum equivalent to $130bn today.”
  • “The size of China’s grand design has made its many shortcomings all the more eye-catching. The combined value of cancelled projects in Libya, Mexico, Myanmar, the US and Venezuela is $47.5bn, according to FT estimates.”
  • “This is almost double the $24.9bn total value of the five projects under way in Laos, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, where two lines are under construction, according to CSIS estimates.”
  • “So why is it that so many rail projects backed by China’s unrivalled financing firepower, huge construction companies and advanced technology fall by the wayside? The answers reveal much about the limitations in Beijing’s global development vision.”
  • Mostly it’s “…the vastly divergent capacities to take on and absorb debt. China’s economic heft and authoritarian system allows companies that enjoy effective government guarantees to load up on loans and operate at a perennial loss. China Railway Corporation, the state-owned rail operator and investor in the country’s high-speed networks, has debts of Rmb3.8tn ($558bn), much more than the national debt of Greece. This is partly because much of the 22,000km of high-speed rail in China runs at a loss, officials say.”

FT – China’s Xi orders debt crackdown for state-owned groups – Tom Mitchell 7/15

  • “’Deleveraging at SOEs is of the utmost importance,’ the Chinese president said at this weekend’s National Financial Work Conference, which convenes only once every five years. He added that the country’s financial officials must also ‘get a grip’ on so-called ‘zombie’ enterprises kept alive by infusions of cheap credit.” 

FT – Chinese purchases of overseas ports top $20bn in past year – James Kynge 7/15

South America

FT – Venezuela’s economic and political crisis in charts – Lauren Leatherby 7/25

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