August 1, 2017

Perspective

FT – Apple removes apps that bypass China’s censors – Hannah Kuchler and Max Seddon 7/30

  • “Apple has removed from its Chinese app store applications that enable users to bypass China’s ‘Great Firewall’, in a move that developers have condemned as ‘censorship’.”
  • “The Silicon Valley company has withdrawn virtual private network (VPN) apps from the store, as it pulls all software that do not comply with local law, even if the makers are based outside the country.”
  • “VPNs allow users to access content banned by Chinese censors to control access to information online. This has, in effect, created a ‘Chinese internet’, without many western social media or search engine sites.”

Project Syndicate – Venezuela’s Unprecedented Collapse – Ricardo Hausmann 7/31

  • “In a hastily organized plebiscite on July 16, held under the auspices of the opposition-controlled National Assembly to reject President Nicolás Maduro’s call for a National Constituent Assembly, more than 720,000 Venezuelans voted abroad. In the 2013 presidential election, only 62,311 did. Four days before the referendum, 2,117 aspirants took Chile’s medical licensing exam, of which almost 800 were Venezuelans. And on July 22, when the border with Colombia was reopened, 35,000 Venezuelans crossed the narrow bridge between the two countries to buy food and medicines.”
  • “Venezuelans clearly want out – and it’s not hard to see why.”
  • “But is this just another bad run-of-the-mill recession or something more serious?”
  • “The most frequently used indicator to compare recessions is GDP. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s GDP in 2017 is 35% below 2013 levels, or 40% in per capita terms. That is a significantly sharper contraction than during the 1929-1933 Great Depression in the United States, when US GDP is estimated to have fallen 28%. It is slightly bigger than the decline in Russia (1990-1994), Cuba (1989-1993), and Albania (1989-1993), but smaller than that experienced by other former Soviet States at the time of transition, such as Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Ukraine, or war-torn countries such as Liberia (1993), Libya (2011), Rwanda (1994), Iran (1981), and, most recently, South Sudan.”
  • “Put another way, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the US, Western Europe, or the rest of Latin America. And yet these numbers grossly understate the magnitude of the collapse…”
  • “Inevitably, living standards have collapsed as well. The minimum wage – which in Venezuela is also the income of the median worker, owing to the large share of minimum-wage earners – declined by 75% (in constant prices) from May 2012 to May 2017. Measured in dollars at the black-market exchange rate, it declined by 88%, from $295 per month to just $36.”
  • “Measured in the cheapest available calorie, the minimum wage declined from 52,854 calories per day to just 7,005 during the same period, a decline of 86.7% and insufficient to feed a family of five, assuming that all the income is spent to buy the cheapest calorie. With their minimum wage, Venezuelans could buy less than a fifth of the food that traditionally poorer Colombians could buy with theirs.”

Worthy Insights / Opinion Pieces / Advice

WSJ – Could Football Ever End? – Jason Gay 7/30

  • “A new concussion study provokes more existential worry in the NFL – and, reportedly, an early retirement.”

FT – With oil prices, half a step is not enough – Nick Butler 7/30

  • Saudi Arabia’s additional production curbs are a step in the right direction, but there are just too many other producers that they don’t control.

Markets / Economy

WSJ – Daily Shot: FRED – Velocity of M2 Money Stock 7/31

Real Estate

WSJ – Supermarkets Face a Growing Problem: Too Much Space – Heather Haddon and Julie Jargon 7/31

  • “A massive build-out by retailers has left the country piled up with grocery shelves as consumers are shifting from big weekly shopping trips to more snacking and to-go meals. The mismatch has flattened retail sales and leaves the industry vulnerable to a wave of closures that some executives, bankers and industry experts think is coming soon.”
  • “Commercial square footage of retail food space per capita last year set a record, with 4.15 square feet of food retail per person, according to CoStar Group, a commercial real-estate firm, nearly 30 times the amount of space allocated to groceries at major chains in 1950.”
  • “To be sure, major grocery chains weren’t as numerous decades ago, with many Americans shopping for food at mom and pop stores.”
  • “But the growth in groceries have extended across many types of retailers in recent years. Part of the expansion comes from grocers, who accelerated their store openings as a way to drive sales growth after the 2008 recession. At the same time, club chains, dollar stores, pharmacies—and even gas stations—increased their fresh food offerings to drive traffic and boost profits.”
  • Additionally, this article doesn’t mention the increasing foot prints of these grocers. Many are resembling department stores, but with an emphasis on food.

Finance

WSJ – Private Equity Takes Fire  as Some Retailers Struggle – Lillian Rizzo 7/30

  • “A wave of retail bankruptcies washing through court has revived an old debate about the role of private-equity firms in accelerating the problems of companies in distress.”
  • “Payless ShoeSource Inc., Gymboree Corp., rue21 Inc. and True Religion Apparel Inc. were all acquired by private-equity firms during the past decade. Now, lawyers for creditors have questioned whether private-equity firms share blame for the retailers’ financial collapse, in some cases by loading debt on the companies.”
  • “In the case of Payless, investors Golden Gate Capital and Blum Capital, after a leveraged buyout in 2012, over the next two years paid themselves $350 million in dividends—in total putting more than $700 million in debt on the company. In 2016, Payless said in court papers, it had about $2.3 billion in global net sales, and nearly $840 million in debt.”
  • “Vendors and landlords alleged in court papers that the dividend payouts, along with other payments to the investors, left the retailer particularly vulnerable to collapse just as technology and shifting consumer behavior upended the retail industry.”
  • “In general, private-equity executives say they often help companies improve operations and grow and that, sometimes, economic forces are beyond what any company could weather.”
  • “Moreover, retail woes are much bigger than private equity and extend to many companies that aren’t owned by such investors. Some private-equity investments haven’t had the problems others are experiencing.”
  • “Bankruptcy cases are messy by nature, and creditors—typically facing losses—are often determined to minimize them. In Payless’s case, which moved closer to exiting bankruptcy protection this month, lenders owed a majority of its debts will take control of the company.”

China

Bloomberg – China Asks Waldorf Owners Anbang to Sell Assets Abroad, Sources Say 7/31

  • “Chinese authorities have asked Anbang Insurance Group Co., the insurer whose chairman was detained in June, to sell its overseas assets, according to people familiar with the matter.”
  • “The government has also asked Anbang to bring the proceeds back to China after disposing of holdings abroad, said the people, who asked not to be identified because details are private. It is not clear yet how Anbang will respond, the people said.”
  • “Anbang was among the most prominent of Chinese insurers that went on a buying binge across the globe, fueled by soaring sales of investment-type insurance policies, with its 2014 acquisition of New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel catapulting it into the public eye. Chairman Wu Xiaohui has been detained for questioning since mid-June, while the policies fueling its growth have been all but banned by regulators.”
  • “Anbang’s rise in recent years was fueled by sales of lucrative investment products that offered among the highest yields compared with peers. China’s insurance regulator this year started clamping down on what it termed ‘improper innovation’ and tightened rules on high-yield, short-term investment policies. Anbang and other aggressive insurers such as Foresea Life got caught up in the crackdown.”
  • “One Anbang product, called Anbang Longevity Sure Win No. 1, boosted the firm’s life insurance premiums almost 40-fold in 2014 by offering yields as high as 5.8%. That helped provide fuel for the firm’s more than $10 billion of overseas acquisitions since 2014 and equally ambitious investing in the domestic stock market.”

FT – One of China’s biggest P2P lenders quits ahead of clampdown – Louise Lucas and Sherry Fei Ju 7/30

  • “China’s pending regulatory crackdown on the $120bn peer-to-peer lending industry has claimed its first scalp before it has even begun, with one of the biggest players saying it will wind up its business in an industry full of bad loans and no profits.”
  • “Beijing this month said it would delay regulations that will bar online lenders from guaranteeing principal or interest on loans they facilitate, cap the size of loans at Rmb1m for individuals and Rmb5m for companies, and force lenders to use custodian banks — a requirement only a fraction of the industry has met so far.”
  • “Imposition of the new rules has been delayed from next month until June next year to give companies more time to comply.”
  • “But Hongling Capital has already thrown in the towel, with founder and chairman Zhou Shiping last week admitting that ‘P2P lending is not what we are good at, neither is it something we see potential in. This [P2P lending] business of ours would always be cleared out eventually — it’s only a matter of time.'”
  • “Hongling, which has Rmb17.6bn ($2.6bn) in loans, plans to wind down its eight-year online lending business by the end of 2020.”
  • “According to Online Lending House, a website that tracks the industry, the number of P2P lenders peaked at 2,600 in 2015, while 3,795 platforms have collapsed since 2011.”
  • “Outstanding loans from China P2P lending platforms totaled Rmb816.2bn ($121bn) at the end of December, double the figure of a year earlier, according to P2P consultant WDZJ.com.”

WSJ – Chinese Banks’ Dash for Capital Gets Under Way – Anjani Trivedi 7/31

  • “Investors have long questioned when China’s banking system, with its heaps of bad loans and hidden leverage, would resort to raising much-needed equity. From the look of it, the weakest lenders are starting to do so.”
  • The method, convertibles. To start, “Ping An Bank, a midsize lender notorious both for selling piles of high-yielding investment products and for sitting on masses of overdue loans, said last week that it plans to issue 26 billion yuan ($3.9 billion) of convertible bonds—uncommon in China—that can be switched into its Shenzhen-listed shares. While convertibles don’t count as equity straight away, they could help improve Ping An’s equity levels when they are turned into stock.”
  • Debt is the green

South America

FT – Venezuelans snub Maduro vote on day marred by violence – Gideon Long 7/31

  • In a word, impunity…
  • “Venezuelans on Sunday largely snubbed Nicolás Maduro’s election for a new all-powerful political assembly, in a vote marred by violence that killed at least 10 people and left seven police officers injured by a bomb attack.”
  • “Opposition leaders rejected the electoral commission’s turnout figure of 8.1m — 41.5% of the electoral register — saying only about 2m had actually voted. Analysts estimated the turnout at 3m-4m.”
  • “The president’s critics say the new assembly, which will be convened within 72 hours, will snuff out the last vestiges of democracy in Venezuela after nearly two decades of populist leftwing rule, turning the country into a new Cuba. It will have the power to dissolve the democratically elected Congress, where the president’s opponents have a majority, rewrite the constitution, scrap future elections and draft new laws.”
  • “In the run-up to the vote, all reliable polls had suggested that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Venezuelans opposed Mr. Maduro’s assembly. One poll said only about 12% of the electorate would vote for it.”
  • The country’s decent continues.

WSJ – Daily Shot: Venezuela Money Supply YoY Change 7/21

  • “Venezuela’s money printing has accelerated. The broad money supply has risen 400% over the past year.”

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