January 5, 2018

Happy New Year!

I hope that you had a safe and enjoyable transition and I wish you a prosperous 2018.

While I wasn’t planning a post today, I don’t want to deluge you with too much content first thing Monday, so here is a mid-day post.

Cheers,

Duff

Perspective

NYT – Rise of Bitcoin Competitor Ripple Creates Wealth to Rival Zuckerberg – Nathaniel Popper 1/4

  • “The virtual currency boom has gotten so heated that it is throwing the list of the world’s richest people into disarray.”
  • “Consider what has happened to the founders of an upstart virtual currency known as Ripple, which has seen its value skyrocket in recent weeks.”
  • At one point on Thursday, Chris Larsen, a Ripple co-founder who is also the largest holder of Ripple tokens, was worth more than $59 billion, according to figures from Forbes. That would have briefly vaulted Mr. Larsen ahead of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg into fifth place on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people.”
  • “Other top Ripple holders would have also zoomed up that list as the value of their tokens soared more than 100% during the last week — and more than 30,000% in the last year. The boom has turned Ripple into the second largest virtual currency, within striking distance of the original behemoth, Bitcoin.”
  • “While most of these currencies were worth nearly nothing a year ago, many are now responsible for creating billionaires — albeit with rapidly fluctuating fortunes. If this is a tulip fever, the fever has spread to chrysanthemums and poppies.”
  • “Ripple, whose tokens are known as XRP, is far from the only virtual currency being fueled by the hysteria. In 2017, there were 29 tokens — including Einsteinium and Byteball — that rose more than Bitcoin’s remarkable 1,600% jump, according to OnChainFx, a data provider.”
  • “Nearly 40 virtual currencies are worth more than $1 billion — when all the outstanding tokens are counted at their current value — despite many of them not having been used in any sort of transaction other than speculative trading.”
  • For perspective, “… all the outstanding Ripple tokens were worth $140 billion on Thursday, while all Bitcoin were worth $250 billion.”
  • “Mr. Larsen was Ripple’s chief executive from 2012 until he stepped down last year to become the company’s executive chairman. During his tenure, Ripple focused on helping banks use its software to shift money between different foreign currencies, something that most banks currently do through a cumbersome process involving separate accounts in every country where they operate.”
  • “Ripple has said it has signed up more than 100 banks to use the company’s technology, including American Express and Banco Santander.”
  • “But banks do not need to use Ripple tokens for Ripple’s software to transfer dollars, euros and yen. That point appears to be lost on many small time investors who are buying Ripple tokens.”
  • “Most of the buying and selling of Ripple tokens is happening in South Korea, according to data providers that track virtual currency exchanges, where ordinary investors have thrown money at a wide array of virtual currencies.”
  • “…Even virtual currency analysts who believe in Ripple’s software have said there is a big difference between Ripple the company being successful, and Ripple the token gaining enough traction to justify current prices.”
  • “’An impossibly long list of things already needs to go right for XRP to become a reserve currency for banks,’ Ryan Selkis, a virtual currency analyst, wrote in a post on Thursday.”
  • “But, Mr. Selkis added, that doesn’t mean Ripple’s price won’t keep ascending. Why? ‘Because this is crypto, and everyone in the industry is now slinging crack crypto cocaine to retail addicts,’ he wrote.”

WSJ – The Cashless Society Has Arrived – Only It’s in China – Alyssa Abkowitz 1/4

  • “Though the U.S. saw $112 billion of mobile payments in 2016, by a Forrester Research estimate, such payments in China totaled $9 trillion, according to iResearch Consulting Group, a Chinese firm.”
  • “For Alibaba and Tencent, the payoff isn’t just the transaction fees they make from merchants, typically 0.6%. It’s also the consumer data collected, which can transform their apps into marketing platforms for an expanding array of services, from bike sharing to travel.”
  • “Conditions in China made it ripe for this innovation. Credit cards never caught on in a big way. Discretionary spending wasn’t an option for most people until recent years, and there has long been a cultural aversion to debt in China. On top of that, the government made it tough for Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. to set up shop.”
  • “The rise of tech companies as financial powers has dealt a blow to traditional banks. China’s state-owned banks lost nearly $23 billion in fees in 2015 they might have collected from card fees, according to a November 2016 report from EY (formerly Ernst & Young) and Singapore’s DBS Bank. The report projected the annual fee loss could widen to $60 billion by 2020.”
  • “The larger problem for banks might be that Alibaba and Tencent often know more about their customers than they do. If a Beijing car dealer uses a bank debit card for a business trip to Shanghai, the bank knows what airline he or she flew, as well as the hotel and restaurants patronized. ‘But if the ‘customer interface’ is happening elsewhere, the bank has zero visibility over transactions,’ said James Lloyd, Asia-Pacific FinTech Leader at EY. ‘That’s not a good situation to find yourself in’.”
  • “Tencent and Alibaba say they have no plans to push their payment platforms to U.S. consumers. Many Americans don’t see the need for mobile payments, since their plastic cards and cash are welcomed and some merchants still accept checks.”
  • “’Any new way of paying has to prove itself to be incrementally better than any other options you have,’ said James Wester of research firm IDC Financial Insights. In the U.S., ‘plastic is convenient, widely accepted and understood by the customer’.”

Visual Capitalist – China’s Digital Wallets Offer a Glimpse at the Future of Payments – Nick Routley 12/30

NYT – Three Months After Maria, Roughly Half of Puerto Ricans Still Without Power – Frances Robles and Jess Bidgood 12/29

Worthy Insights / Opinion Pieces / Advice

A Wealth of Common Sense – When Things Don’t Make Any Sense – Ben Carlson 1/4

  • Some perspective on the cryptocurrency boom.

FT – Fed risks massive hangover as it begins ‘great unwind’ – Michael Hassenstab (CIO – Templeton Global Macro) 12/27

  • “Only a strong economy can stop damage in Treasuries spreading to equities and credit.”

FT View – A healthy economy is a risk for stock markets 12/29

  • “If the big US tax cut that brought 2017 to a conclusion has its intended consequences, then capital expenditures will start to rise in the next year, as will wages. With consumer confidence high, that should lead to higher consumption. It would also lead to monetary policy at the tightest end of what currently seems probable. The European Central Bank and Bank of Japan would indeed desist from their asset purchases, the Federal Reserve would reduce its balance sheet, and liquidity would flow out of world markets. The Fed could be expected to raise rates four times.”
  • “This would be a consummation devoutly to be wished, vindicating both the belated fiscal stimulus that the US has just administered and the desperate muddle-through strategy that preceded it. But significantly higher rates and lower liquidity would be bad news for equity markets, which look historically expensive. High valuations can be justified while rates are historically low. Future earnings can be discounted at a low rate and the cash yields on stocks look attractive. But if all goes according to the US Republican party’s plan, interest rates will need to be significantly higher a year from now, and valuations will come under pressure.”
  • “The alternative scenario is that the tax cut achieves no meaningful stimulus, and is merely put towards higher corporate dividends and expensive mergers and acquisitions. The synchronized global economic recovery of the past year peters out, as other brief post-crisis recoveries have done. In this situation, the Fed tightens far less aggressively, other central banks blink and keep buying assets, and bond yields stay where they are, or even fall. On this gloomy prognosis, the legacy of the tax cut would be no more than greater inequality. But equity markets would enjoy much the same benign conditions they have had this year.”
  • “Amid Wall Street’s bullish prognoses for 2018, an inverse relationship is becoming clear. Those who are more optimistic for the economy tend to be more pessimistic about the prospects for risk assets. Some say they are so bullish they are bearish.”
  • “This is realistic. If monetary stimulus really does give way to a successful fiscal stimulus, investors should expect much higher volatility, and probably outright price falls, from equity markets.”

The Guardian – The sugar conspiracy – Ian Leslie 4/7/16

WSJ – China’s Bid to Dominate Oil Pricing Will Fail – Nathaniel Taplin 12/26

Markets / Economy

Bloomberg Quint – World’s Wealthiest Gain $1 Trillion in ’17 on Market Exuberance – Tom Metcalf and Jack Witzig 12/28

FT – Uber’s rise triggers financial crisis at taxi lenders – Alistair Gray 12/30

  • “Credit unions at risk of failure as loan losses mount.”

Real Estate

WSJ – Daily Shot: UBS Estimates – US Retail Store Closures 2017 – 1/5

FT – Brookfield moves into private rented sector for fresh profit – Aime Williams 12/29

  • “Fund manager to keep 1m sq ft space in Canary Wharf Group towers.”
  • “Brian Kingston, chief executive of Brookfield Property Partners, said property prices in London had ‘always been high’, but were now ‘very high’.”
  • “’You would always have people starting out renting, but they would graduate to owning,’ said Mr Kingston. ‘But in New York and London, you could be a fairly well-compensated individual and you could still not afford to buy’.”

Tech

FT – Travis Kalanick to sell part of his Uber stake for first time – Tim Bradshaw 1/4

  • “Deal will earn ousted chief over $1bn in sale to SoftBank as part of their tender offer.”

Entertainment

FT – China’s Hollywood romance turns sour – Matthew Garrahan and Charles Clover 12/26

China

NYT – China’s New Lenders Collect Invasive Data and Offer Billions. Beijing Is Worried. – Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li 12/25

FT – China share pledges soar as founders seek new borrowing tools – Gabriel Wildau and Yizhen Jia 12/26

  • “Chinese stockholders are ramping up borrowing against shares, driving revenue for securities houses but creating risk of a chain reaction in the event of a sharp market downturn.”
  • “Shareholders in 317 Shanghai and Shenzhen-listed companies had pledged shares worth at least 40% of those companies by December 18, up from 224 companies on the same date a year earlier, according to Wind Info.”
  • “Share-pledging is especially common for small and mid-cap companies, where a single shareholder often owns a large stake. Controlling shareholders sometimes reinvest the proceeds into company projects or buy additional company shares on the secondary market to boost the share price.”
  • “In September China’s two main bourses published draft rules that would tighten regulation on share pledging. One provision caps the value of loans secured by shares at 60% of the market value of the pledged shares, ensuring a buffer that will protect the lender in case a share price falls.”
  • At least the mainland exchanges require that such pledges be disclosed, unlike the Hong Kong exchange, where other shareholders can be surprised.

Reuters – China’s lenders fret over debts lurking in shadow banking system – Engen Tham, Matthew Miller and David Lague 12/28

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