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CANARIES - More Market Warnings
There are numerous myths flying around the screens we all remain glued to - from inflows suddenly becoming correlated with equity market performance to a 'real recovery' in housing. TrimTabs CEO Charles Biderman paid a brief but fact-full visit to CNBC's Rick Santelli and the two somewhat skeptical gentlemen expounded on four of the critical fallacies supporting hope in our markets currently.
First, the last time inflows were this big we saw dramatic reversals in stocks; and coincidentally,
Secondly, we also saw companies buying back less stock (in fact we saw float rising at those periods) and sure enough that is what Biderman notes is happening in January too.
Third, current 'economic' euphoria appears due to the drag forward of incomes into Q4 2012 due to tax concerns (which is being spent/saved now) - however that means Q1 2013 and on will be negatively impacted (even if we see a decent print in Q4 GDP) as that pull-forward reverts; and finally,
Fourth, interest rates are rising and simultaneously refinances have plunged - hurting the 'housing recovery' meme which has been the driver of a lot of euphoria (be careful what you wish for). It appears facts, once again, get in the way of a good story.
RISK OFF - Citigroup Economic Surprise Index has moved below Zero
However, his note to clients today strikes a different tone – at least in the short term.
In the note, titled "CESI below zero - taking some risk off the table - moving Cyclicals to UW," Lee writes, "It certainly feels that the bullish sentiment is overpowering, supported by the calls for an imminent asset allocation shift out of bonds/cash into stocks, as well as the recent run of strong macro indicators."
Lee says his clients are having trouble finding a "red flag" that could send the market lower – which is all the more reason for caution.
Lee highlights four reasons investors in stocks should consider "taking some risk off the table" here:
1) US [Citigroup Economic Surprise Index] has moved below zero. On the past 7 occasions when this happened the near-term equity upside was capped. The average maximum upside of 1% and average drawdown of 8% seen over the following 3 months demonstrate the asymmetric risk-reward in our view.
2) Q4 results are beating the conservative expectations. However, EPS upgrades are failing to materialize. Many more companies are cutting guidance than raising it. Third quarter was the first one in 4 years where global profit margins have fallen.
3) Equities had a very strong run over the past few months. Given that EPS revisions stayed in negative territory, the P/Es have rerated. The latest equal- weighted P/E multiple for MSCI Europe, at 13.2x, has just moved to an outright premium vs the last 10 year average.
4) A number of technical and sentiment indicators are starting to signal caution. Bullish sentiment has become completely consensus as seen in AAII Bull index which is now in the top 5% of the observed readings. The backtest shows that forward equity returns from this level of Bullishness are significantly below normalized. The Equity Skew is at 10-year lows and VIX near historic lows.
Lee joins others on Wall Street in suggesting the rally may be coming to an end, like BofA Merrill Lynch strategist Rich Cochinos.
What were the main memories and insights they took away from this year's World Economic Forum?
Glass half full. The general mood was at its most upbeat since January 2008, when the financial system was as frozen as the Davos streets.
Relief that most experts judged the financial crisis to be over at last outweighed concern that economic growth and job creation seems likely to remain sub-par for the foreseeable future. (Christine Lagarde, boss of the International Monetary Fund, spoke of a "fragile and timid recovery".)
Angela Merkel was among several European leaders to express optimism about the continent's economic and political prospects. Even the finding of the Edelman Trust barometer that less than one in five people trust political and business leaders to tell the truth seems to have been shrugged off. Bankers instead took comfort in the finding that trust in banks has actually risen in the past year.
Leadership vacuum. There was hardly anyone from the Obama administration, though a few Republicans turned up, including Eric Cantor, the House majority whip. Bill Clinton, a Davos regular, also stayed home, apparently looking after Hillary.
The ongoing power transition in Beijing may have explained the light Chinese presence.
The Russians were out in force, making sure everyone knows they are leading the G20 this year. Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, showed up, but President Vladimir Putin stayed home.
French foreign legion. Business people from France were this year's tragic heroes, embraced and encouraged to persevere by their fellow capitalists from abroad, whilst their government's assault on wealth creators was widely condemned. Groups of French business men huddled together, sharing tales of adjusting to life in Belgium.
Stand up comedy. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, enhanced his reputation as the world's favourite comedy politician with his French bashing Franglais routine; catchphrase: "Donnez-Moi un break—as we used to say in Brussels.” He also called Davos a "cyclotron of egos". Mr Johnson generally overshadowed David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, who perhaps picked the wrong audience for his earnest lecture on the evils of tax evasion.
Happiest hedge funder. Dan Loeb, of Third Point, who in the past year has shaken up Yahoo! and defended Herbalife, was over the moon at he and his hedge fund brethren being described as a "stabilising force" in the world economy by Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England.
Young global leader. Whilst the official WEF Young Global Leaders were exiled to Klosters to contemplate our Schumpeter columnist's sage advice to be humble, the stage was left to 11 year old Pakistani, Khadia Niatzi, who explained how Massive Open Online Courses such as Udacity and Coursera could usher in world peace. She had got her degree in physics through online learning. When asked to leave the stage in order to make room for Bill Gates, she rightly seemed unimpressed.
Celebrity corner. No Bono. No Mick Jagger. No Brangelina. This year's top celebrity was Charlize Theron, a South African film star, who turned up to support the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Second, in absentia, was Justin Timberlake, who, it was widely noted, no longer looks anything like the now 30-something Sean Parker, famous Silicon Valley investor and co-founder of Napster, who did show up for a few headline-grabbing hours.
Party central. The official WEF theme this year was "dynamism and resilience". That was an apt description of the partygoing. Mr Parker allegedly blew $1m throwing an exclusive bash, co-hosted with Mark Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com, and Ian Osborne, a youthful British PR svengali.
A faded Davos night club was tarted up with stuffed animals sporting laser-beam eyes, drinks were free, and John Legend and Mark Ronson, a DJ, supplied the music. The party was billed as a celebration of "the future of philanthropy", presumably ironically. Elsewhere, Google not only lost Marissa Meyer to Yahoo!, where she is now chief executive; it let her steal its traditional Friday night party slot.
The McKinsey Party, with the same fabulous band for the umpteenth year, once again supplied the most reliable fun and packed, sweaty dance floor.
Shadow Davos. Over the years, a vast "fringe" of events and parties has grown up in Davos independent of the official WEF agenda. This "shadow Davos" was bigger than ever this year, with a growing number of people doing like Mr Parker and not even bothering with the official event and its huge fees.
As with the world of banking, at Davos increasingly the real action—from doing deals to having fun—is happening in the unregulated shadow system. The WEF seems in two minds about how to respond to this, with some hosts of unofficial events grumbling about WEF officials telling them to tone things down.
That is the instinct of the monopolist. Yet the WEF exists in an increasingly competitive marketplace for providing opportunities for the global movers and shakers to get together. A better strategy would be to deliver an even better official Davos in 2014.
The country's financial condition is deplorable and cannot continue much longer. So, too is virtually everything else the government has touched whether it be education, Amtrak, the post office, Social Security, Medicare, ad nauseum. Nothing government has done has not been a Ponzi scheme dependent upon additional theft from taxpayers to keep going.
The system is now broken. There is no one to blame for this other than government. Despite this obvious conclusion, government is still seen to be a savior by a large proportion of the country.
Freedom as a concept is praised, while government actions designed to reduce it for ordinary citizens continue.
Working longer and harder produces less wealth than was possible for your parents.
Living standards will be less for your children and grandchildren than they were for you.
Leisure (going on the dole) is now a choice unaccompanied by either shame or hardship.
Politicians have made dependency a tool to gain votes and power.
As freedom decreases, government becomes increasingly more violent in order to achieve the behavior it demands.
Laws are enforced selectively in favor of the political class and their cronies. No bigger rape of justice has ever been committed than the unwillingness to prosecute the banksters, regulators and legislators responsible for the looting of taxpayers.
Government lies with impunity with respect to the true condition of the country. This behavior is obvious with respect to economic statistics but also spills over into all other areas, like personnel decisions.
Cover-ups like "Fast and Furious" and Benghazi are ignored by a corrupt and compliant media. Lesser problems (Watergate) were cause for removing a president in simpler more honest times.
Government's insatiable spending has decimated the private sector economy. Capital and talent increasingly flee to other countries to avoid economic persecution.
Eventually this spending will cause much of the economy and all of the government to collapse. Massive debt defaults, impoverishment and social unrest lie ahead.
The phrase "government ethics" is little more than a comedian's tool for generating laughter.
The Mafia has far better ethics. It treats its customers better than government. The key word is "customer" which they must attract. Government does not have customers; it has "slaves." That is how government views private enterprice.
Compare the payouts on illegal gambling to those of government sanctioned lotteries for a simple comparison between the two methods of organized crime. You do much better dealing with the Mafia.
The frustration and anger is apparent in these comments. It should be. When one thinks about what has happened, it is difficult not to become angry.
CRONY CAPITLALISM - PPP within the Security-Surveillance Complex
National Security Agency Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland
As the US government depicts the Defense Department as shrinking due to budgetary constraints, the Washington Post this morning announces "a major expansion of [the Pentagon's] cybersecurity force over the next several years, increasing its size more than fivefold." Specifically, says the New York Times this morning, "the expansion would increase the Defense Department's Cyber Command by more than 4,000 people, up from the current 900." The Post describes this expansion as "part of an effort to turn an organization that has focused largely on defensive measures into the equivalent of an Internet-era fighting force." This Cyber Command Unit operates under the command of Gen. Keith Alexander, who also happens to be the head of the National Security Agency, the highly secretive government network that spies on the communications of foreign nationals - and American citizens.
The Pentagon's rhetorical justification for this expansion is deeply misleading. Beyond that, these activities pose a wide array of serious threats to internet freedom, privacy, and international law that, as usual, will be conducted with full-scale secrecy and with little to no oversight and accountability. And, as always, there is a small army of private-sector corporations who will benefit most from this expansion.
Disguising aggression as "defense"
Let's begin with the way this so-called "cyber-security" expansion has been marketed. It is part of a sustained campaign which, quite typically, relies on blatant fear-mongering.
In March, 2010, the Washington Post published an amazing Op-Ed by Adm. Michael McConnell, Bush's former Director of National Intelligence and a past and current executive with Booz Allen, a firm representing numerous corporate contractors which profit enormously each time the government expands its "cyber-security" activities. McConnell's career over the last two decades - both at Booz, Allen and inside the government - has been devoted to accelerating the merger between the government and private sector in all intelligence, surveillance and national security matters (it was he who led the successful campaign to retroactively immunize the telecom giants for their participation in the illegal NSA domestic spying program). Privatizing government cyber-spying and cyber-warfare is his primary focus now.
McConnell's Op-Ed was as alarmist and hysterical as possible. Claiming that "the United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing", it warned that "chaos would result" from an enemy cyber-attack on US financial systems and that "our power grids, air and ground transportation, telecommunications, and water-filtration systems are in jeopardy as well." Based on these threats, McConnell advocated that "we" - meaning "the government and the private sector" - "need to develop an early-warning system to monitor cyberspace" and that "we need to reengineer the Internet to make attribution, geolocation, intelligence analysis and impact assessment - who did it, from where, why and what was the result - more manageable." As Wired's Ryan Singel wrote: "He's talking about changing the internet to make everything anyone does on the net traceable and geo-located so the National Security Agency can pinpoint users and their computers for retaliation."
The same week the Post published McConnell's extraordinary Op-Ed, the Obama White House issued its own fear-mongering decree on cyber-threats, depicting the US as a vulnerable victim to cyber-aggression. It began with this sentence: "President Obama has identified cybersecurity as one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation, but one that we as a government or as a country are not adequately prepared to counter." It announced that "the Executive Branch was directed to work closely with all key players in US cybersecurity, including state and local governments and the private sector" and to "strengthen public/private partnerships", and specifically announced Obama's intent to "to implement the recommendations of the Cyberspace Policy Review built on the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) launched by President George W. Bush."
Since then, the fear-mongering rhetoric from government officials has relentlessly intensified, all devoted to scaring citizens into believing that the US is at serious risk of cataclysmic cyber-attacks from "aggressors". This all culminated when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, last October, warned of what he called a "cyber-Pearl Harbor". This "would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability." Identifying China, Iran, and terrorist groups, he outlined a parade of horribles scarier than anything since Condoleezza Rice's 2002 Iraqi "mushroom cloud":
"An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country."
As usual, though, reality is exactly the opposite. This massive new expenditure of money is not primarily devoted to defending against cyber-aggressors. The US itself is the world's leading cyber-aggressor. A major purpose of this expansion is to strengthen the US's ability to destroy other nations with cyber-attacks. Indeed, even the Post report notes that a major component of this new expansion is to "conduct offensive computer operations against foreign adversaries".
It is the US - not Iran, Russia or "terror" groups - which already is the first nation (in partnership with Israel) to aggressively deploy a highly sophisticated and extremely dangerous cyber-attack. Last June, the New York Times' David Sanger reported what most of the world had already suspected: "From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America's first sustained use of cyberweapons." In fact, Obama "decided to accelerate the attacks . . . even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran's Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet." According to the Sanger's report, Obama himself understood the significance of the US decision to be the first to use serious and aggressive cyber-warfare:
"Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons - even under the most careful and limited circumstances - could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks."
The US isn't the vulnerable victim of cyber-attacks. It's the leading perpetrator of those attacks. As Columbia Professor and cyber expert Misha Glenny wrote in the NYT last June: Obama's cyber-attack on Iran "marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet."
Indeed, exactly as Obama knew would happen, revelations that it was the US which became the first country to use cyber-warfare against a sovereign country - just as it was the first to use the atomic bomb and then drones - would make it impossible for it to claim with any credibility (except among its own media and foreign policy community) that it was in a defensive posture when it came to cyber-warfare. As Professor Glenny wrote: "by introducing such pernicious viruses as Stuxnet and Flame, America has severely undermined its moral and political credibility." That's why, as the Post reported yesterday, the DOJ is engaged in such a frantic and invasive effort to root out Sanger's source: because it reveals the obvious truth that the US is the leading aggressor in the world when it comes to cyber-weapons.
This significant expansion under the Orwellian rubric of "cyber-security" is thus a perfect microcosm of US military spending generally. It's all justified under by the claim that the US must defend itself from threats from Bad, Aggressive Actors, when the reality is the exact opposite: the new program is devoted to ensuring that the US remains the primary offensive threat to the rest of the world. It's the same way the US develops offensive biological weapons under the guise of developing defenses against such weapons (such as the 2001 anthrax that the US government itself says came from a US Army lab). It's how the US government generally convinces its citizens that it is a peaceful victim of aggression by others when the reality is that the US builds more weapons, sells more arms and bombs more countries than virtually the rest of the world combined.
Threats to privacy and internet freedom
Beyond the aggressive threat to other nations posed by the Pentagon's "cyber-security" programs, there is the profound threat to privacy, internet freedom, and the ability to communicate freely for US citizens and foreign nationals alike. The US government has long viewed these "cyber-security" programs as a means of monitoring and controlling the internet and disseminating propaganda. The fact that this is all being done under the auspices of the NSA and the Pentagon means, by definition, that there will be no transparency and no meaningful oversight.
Back in 2003, the Rumsfeld Pentagon prepared a secret report entitled "Information Operations (IO) Roadmap", which laid the foundation for this new cyber-warfare expansion. The Pentagon's self-described objective was "transforming IO into a core military competency on par with air, ground, maritime and special operations". In other words, its key objective was to ensure military control over internet-based communications:
It further identified superiority in cyber-attack capabilities as a vital military goal in PSYOPs (Psychological Operations) and "information-centric fights":
And it set forth the urgency of dominating the "IO battlespace" not only during wartime but also in peacetime:
As a 2006 BBC report on this Pentagon document noted: "Perhaps the most startling aspect of the roadmap is its acknowledgement that information put out as part of the military's psychological operations, or Psyops, is finding its way onto the computer and television screens of ordinary Americans." And while the report paid lip service to the need to create "boundaries" for these new IO military activities, "they don't seem to explain how." Regarding the report's plan to "provide maximum control of the entire electromagnetic spectrum", the BBC noted: "Consider that for a moment. The US military seeks the capability to knock out every telephone, every networked computer, every radar system on the planet."
Since then, there have been countless reports of the exploitation by the US national security state to destroy privacy and undermine internet freedom. In November, the LA Times described programs that "teach students how to spy in cyberspace, the latest frontier in espionage." They "also are taught to write computer viruses, hack digital networks, crack passwords, plant listening devices and mine data from broken cellphones and flash drives." The program, needless to say, "has funneled most of its graduates to the CIA and the Pentagon's National Security Agency, which conducts America's digital spying. Other graduates have taken positions with the FBI, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security."
In 2010, Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, gave a speech explicitly announcing that the US intends to abandon its policy of "leaving the Internet alone". Noting that this "has been the nation's Internet policy since the Internet was first commercialized in the mid-1990s", he decreed: "This was the right policy for the United States in the early stages of the Internet, and the right message to send to the rest of the world. But that was then and this is now."
The documented power of the US government to monitor and surveil internet communications is already unfathomably massive. Recall that the Washington Post's 2010 "Top Secret America" series noted that: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." And the Obama administration has formally demanded that it have access to any and all forms of internet communication.
It is hard to overstate the danger to privacy and internet freedom from a massive expansion of the National Security State's efforts to exploit and control the internet. As Wired's Singel wrote back in 2010:
"Make no mistake, the military industrial complex now has its eye on the internet. Generals want to train crack squads of hackers and have wet dreams of cyberwarfare. Never shy of extending its power, the military industrial complex wants to turn the internet into yet another venue for an arms race".
Wildly exaggerated cyber-threats are the pretext for this control, the "mushroom cloud" and the Tonkin Gulf fiction of cyber-warfare. As Singel aptly put it: "the only war going on is one for the soul of the internet." That's the vital context for understanding this massive expansion of Pentagon and NSA consolidated control over cyber programs.
Bonanza for private contractors
As always, it is not just political power but also private-sector profit driving this expansion. As military contracts for conventional war-fighting are modestly reduced, something needs to replace it, and these large-scale "cyber-security" contracts are more than adequate. Virtually every cyber-security program from the government is carried out in conjunction with its "private-sector partners", who receive large transfers of public funds for this work.
Two weeks ago, Business Week reported that "Lockheed Martin Corp., AT&T Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. are the first companies to sign up for a US program giving them classified information on cyber threats that they can package as security services for sale to other companies." This is part of a government effort "to create a market based on classified US information about cyber threats." In May, it was announced that "the Pentagon is expanding and making permanent a trial program that teams the government with Internet service providers to protect defense firms' computer networks against data theft by foreign adversaries" - all as "part of a larger effort to broaden the sharing of classified and unclassified cyberthreat data between the government and industry."
Indeed, there is a large organization of defense and intelligence contractors devoted to one goal: expanding the private-public merger for national security and intelligence functions. This organization - the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) - was formerly headed by Adm. McConnell, and describes itself as a "collaboration by leaders from throughout the US Intelligence Community" which "combines the experience of senior leaders from government, the private sector, and academia."
As I detailed back in 2010, one of its primary goals is to scare the nation about supposed cyber-threats in order to justify massive new expenditures for the private-sector intelligence industry on cyber-security measures and vastly expanded control over the internet. Indeed, in his 2010 Op-Ed, Adm. McConnell expressly acknowledged that the growing privatization of internet cyber-security programs "will muddy the waters between the traditional roles of the government and the private sector." At the very same time McConnell published this Op-Ed, the INSA website featured a report entitled "Addressing Cyber Security Through Public-Private Partnership." It featured a genuinely creepy graphic showing the inter-connectedness between government institutions (such as Congress and regulatory agencies), the Surveillance State, private intelligence corporations, and the Internet:
Private-sector profit is now inextricably linked with the fear-mongering campaign over cyber-threats. At one INSA conference in 2009 - entitled "Cyber Deterrence Conference" - government officials and intelligence industry executives gathered together to stress that "government and private sector actors should emphasize collaboration and partnership through the creation of a model that assigns specific roles and responsibilities."
As intelligence contractor expert Tim Shorrock told Democracy Now when McConnell - then at Booz Allen - was first nominated to be DNI:
Well, the NSA, the National Security Agency, is really sort of the lead agency in terms of outsourcing ... Booz Allen is one of about, you know, ten large corporations that play a very major role in American intelligence. Every time you hear about intelligence watching North Korea or tapping al-Qaeda phones, something like that, you can bet that corporations like these are very heavily involved. And Booz Allen is one of the largest of these contractors. I estimate that about 50% of our $45 billion intelligence budget goes to private sector contractors like Booz Allen.
This public-private merger for intelligence and surveillance functions not only vests these industries with large-scale profits at public expense, but also the accompanying power that was traditionally reserved for government. And unlike government agencies, which are at least subjected in theory to some minimal regulatory oversight, these private-sector actors have virtually none, even as their surveillance and intelligence functions rapidly increase.
What Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex has been feeding itself on fear campaigns since it was born. A never-ending carousel of Menacing Enemies - Communists, Terrorists, Latin American Tyrants, Saddam's chemical weapons, Iranian mullahs - has sustained it, and Cyber-Threats are but the latest.
Like all of these wildly exaggerated cartoon menaces, there is some degree of threat posed by cyber-attacks. But, as Singel described, all of this can be managed with greater security systems for public and private computer networks - just as some modest security measures are sufficient to deal with the terrorist threat.
This new massive expansion has little to do with any actual cyber-threat - just as the invasion of Iraq and global assassination program have little to do with actual terrorist threats. It is instead all about strengthening the US's offensive cyber-war capabilities, consolidating control over the internet, and ensuring further transfers of massive public wealth to private industry continue unabated. In other words, it perfectly follows the template used by the public-private US National Security State over the last six decades to entrench and enrich itself based on pure pretext.
MOST CRITICAL TIPPING POINT ARTICLES THIS WEEK - Jan 27th - Feb. 2nd, 2013
China has passed many reforms aimed at easing capital controls. But these are being rolled out slowly. A meager deposit interest rate has forced people to turn to wealth management products and other risky investments. And the recent credit crunch forced many into the unregulated shadow banking system.
China has created too much credit too quickly - The last big surge of credit came in 2009 when China unleashed 4 trillion yuan to help spur economic growth and employment. "Since that date, China’s economy has become a credit junkie, requiring increasing amounts of debt to generate the same unit of growth. Between 2007 and 2012, the ratio of credit to GDP climbed to more than 190%, an increase of 60 percentage points." In 2012, new credit to the non-financial sector totaled 15.5 trillion, that's equivalent to 33 percent of 2011 GDP.
China also has significantly more debt than its emerging market peers.
A lot of debt is sustained by real estate which is offered as collateral, and credit booms end when property bubbles burst. - A lot of China's debt is supported by real estate which is put up as collateral for the loans. Banks' official exposure to property is listed as 22 percent of the loan book. But that doesn't account for exposure to real estate through their loans to local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) and off-balance sheet credit instruments.
Moral hazard is a major issue in China's banks b ecause of heavy state controls.- Moral hazard is a real issue in China, since the state controls not just the biggest banks but also the recipients of credit, the state owned enterprises (SOEs). "These arrangements have encouraged crony lending practices and the concealment of non-performing loans." Moreover, since local governments can't borrow directly from banks for their own use, they have had to create local government financing vehicles (LGFVs). These LGFVs account for between 15 - 25 percent of outstanding loans and often offer land, marked above market value, as collateral. Other guarantees are also questionable since they depend on land sales which could leave local governments shy when real estate prices fall.
There has been a surge in shadow banking. - Shadow banking, which involves lending that is kept off the balance sheets has surged, in particular, the wealth management products. In Q4 2012, non-bank lending accounted for 60 percent of new credit. China's shadow banking system is reminiscent of what we witnessed in America before Lehman's fall. "Trust loans that finance cash-strapped property developers have a whiff of the subprime about them; wealth management products that bundle together a miscellany of loans, enabling the banks to generate fees while keeping loans off balance sheet, bear a passing resemblance to the structured investment vehicles and collateralized debt obligations of yesteryear; while thinly capitalized providers of credit guarantees are reminiscent of past sellers of credit default insurance.
Banks refused to lend to local government financing vehicles, so local governments turned to the corporate bond market.
Wealth management products (WMP) - An increasing number of bonds are being packaged and sold to banks' clients through risky wealth management products (WMP).
Because of higher returns people are also flocking to risk real estate trusts.
These trust products are the Chinese equivalent of subprime mortgage-backed securities. Chinese savers that are chasing yields and LGFV's are the dominant borrowers from trust companies. The Chinese trust industry has more than doubled in the past two years to about 6 trillion yuan by the end of September 2012. Trust operators are "highly leveraged" and because these trust products are low quality and have broad exposure to real estate, they are seen as the Chinese equivalent of subprime mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
WMPs have been the most popular investment for Chinese savers
Some argue that WMPs are ponzi schemes
The WMP's asset and liabilities have differing maturities (i.e. duration mismatch) which makes them much more risky.
China has an extensive credit guarantee system, but many of these are "thinly capitalized and poorly regulated".
Collateralized lending is extremely popular - Since Chinese banks aren't allowed to charge for risk, banks ask for collateral. More than 40 percent of all bank loans are collateralized. In China, commodities like steel and copper that were part of the residential housing bubble were often used as collateral. What's more? Often the steel or copper offered as collateral doesn't actually exist.
The banking sector is also vulnerable to capital flight.- Because of its trade surplus and capital inflows in the last decade China has had to print new yuan for every dollar entering the country and control the value of its currency. Naturally, capital inflows have seen a rise in lending and have helped fuel a credit boom. Moreover, the wealthiest Chinese control the equivalent of two-thirds of the country's foreign exchange reserves, and they have ample reason to move their money out of the country. "If the wealthiest Chinese were to move a significant portion of their money offshore, liquidity in the banking system would be drained.
China's credit expansion relative to GDP is much larger than the credit booms experienced by the U.S. ahead of the financial crisis and Japan in the late 1980s.
6 - China Hard Landing
MACRO News Items of Importance - This Week
GLOBAL MACRO REPORTS & ANALYSIS
US ECONOMIC REPORTS & ANALYSIS
CENTRAL BANKING MONETARY POLICIES, ACTIONS & ACTIVITIES
BANKING CONSOLIDATION - Assets versus Derivative Liabilities
As of this morning Tim Geithner is no longer Treasury Secretary. And while Tim Geithner's reign of clueless pandering to the banks has left the US will absolutely disastrous consequences, an outcome that will become clear in time, the most ruinous of his policies is making the banks which were too big to fail to begin with, so big they can neither fail nor be sued, as the recent fiasco surrounding the exit of Assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer showed. Just how big are these banks? Dallas Fed's Disk Fisher explains.
It is important to have an accurate view of the landscape of banking today in order to understand the impact of this proposal.
As of third quarter 2012, there were approximately 5,600 commercial banking organizations in the U.S. The bulk of these—roughly 5,500—were community banks with assets of less than $10 billion. These community-focused organizations accounted for 98.6 percent of all banks but only 12 percent of total industry assets. Another group numbering nearly 70 banking organizations—with assets of between $10 billion and $250 billion—accounted for 1.2 percent of banks, while controlling 19 percent of industry assets. The remaining group, the megabanks—with assets of between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion—was made up of a mere 12 institutions. These dozen behemoths accounted for roughly 0.2 percent of all banks, but they held 69 percent of industry assets.
What does this mean numerically?
As the most recent weekly H.8 statement shows, there was $11.25 trillion in total assets at domestically chartered commercial banks. Which means that just 12 banks now control some $7.76 trillion.
And that is Tim Geithner's true legacy: the "0.2%" now control 69% of everything.
But wait, this is just the asset side. What about the liabilities that these assets support, and especially the over the counter derivative side?
Well, according to the latest Q3 OCC report, the total amount of derivative exposure at just the Top 4 banks is now some $212 trillion, or 93.2% of the total $227 trillion in outstanding US derivatives.
To summarize: the top 12 banks control 69% of all financial assets, some $7.8 trillion yet just the top 4 are responsible for 93.2% of all derivative exposure.
A job well done, Mr Geithner.
And now, can you please head the Federal Reserve when Bernanke retires in one year to finish your job of completely dismantling these here United States and destroying the country's middle class?
As we recently noted, the US Macro picture is considerably less sanguine than every talking head would have you believe. Not only are earnings for Q4 coming in notably weak, but the top-down macro picture is its worst in almost five months - and turned negative this week. Of course, the fact that our 'market' is dislocated from any sense of reality will come as no surprise to anyone; but, the chart below provides some, perhaps useful, insight into how to trade this disconnect (and its inevitable convergence). To add a little more impetus to this decision, the past two weeks have seen the US macro picture drop at its fastest rate since June 2011 - right before the last debt-ceiling debate, which was followed by a quite notable decline in stocks.
While not perfect, the combination of the 20/100 DMA with the fact that US ECO has turned negative is a strong indication of a short-term correction in stocks
What could generate a correction now? We see the following near term concerns:
1. A complacent ECB. Whereas the Fed and BoJ are adding to asset purchases, and the BoE may do so soon judging by the King Speech Tuesday night, the ECB will likely (continue to) contract its balance sheet as LTROs are repaid and does not seem in the mood to cut rates either. This might present most problems via the currency. But if the ECB makes the same mistakes by tightening policy as under Trichet in mid 2011, European stocks could really suffer. Since our economists expect instead further cuts eventually, and OMT activation could generate balance sheet expansion, our base case is underperformance, not Armageddon, in European equities. But it is worth noting that a theme in meetings in 7 European financial capitals over the past couple of weeks has been: why shouldn’t European equities do better this year? This suggests that investors are already positioned for gains/ outperformance.
2. Another concern is Japan. Well before Elections in Japan on 16 December last year, aggressive investors built short JPY (and long NKY) positions anticipating pressure for easier monetary policy from Japan. While the Election outcome and subsequent BoJ decisions (more QE, higher CPI inflation target) have to a large degree validated these expectations, we think this move might have run its course for now. In part this reflects the slightly disappointing BoJ decision to postpone further balance sheet expansion to 2014. And in part recent official comments that JPY rapid depreciation may have downside risks. There may be pressure from trading partners if Japanese government spokesmen return to too explicit a policy of talking the JPY lower. The JPY/ NKY move may have another leg when the BoJ Governorship changes on 8 April but we have cut our tactical position to zero for now. If the market confuses JPY short term strength/ NKY weakness for a general risk off move, this could also cause near term volatility more generally.
3. Another investor focus is the recent softness of the data, particularly in the growth outperformers. In very recent days, better than expected European data have kept our G10 ESI from falling further though zero. But the US index remains soft and so does the EM overall index. On the US ESI, after 4.5 months in positive territory, the index has moved negative, partly because of the way it is designed to mean revert over time. Positive surprises last year decay out of the index over 3 months and at an accelerating rate. This may lead to some participants citing ESIs as a concern for risk assets. Our own Risk-On/ Risk-Off (RORO) rule for markets based on ESIs was triggered on 17 January - as seen above.
Of course, there is all the other usual stuff too such as the debt ceiling deadlines, politics in Europe and elsewhere, deleveraging etc. However, the three concerns listed are where we would see a more serious setback coming if it did.
COMMODITY CORNER - HARD ASSETS
2013 - STATISM
2012 - FINANCIAL REPRESSION
ICELAND - We didn't follow the prevailing orthodoxies of the last 30 years in the Western world
"Why do we consider banks to be like holy churches?" is the rhetorical question that Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimson asks (and answers) in this truly epic three minutes of truthiness from the farce that is the World Economic Forum in Davos. Amid a week of back-slapping and self-congratulatory party-outdoing, as John Aziz notes, the Icelandic President explains why his nation is growing strongly, why unemployment is negligible, and how they moved from the world's poster-child for banking crisis 5 years ago to a thriving nation once again. Simply put, he says, "we didn't follow the prevailing orthodoxies of the last 30 years in the Western world." There are lessons here for everyone - as Grimson explains the process of creative destruction that remains much needed in Western economies - though we suspect his holographic pass for next year's Swiss fun will be reneged...
2011 - BEGGAR-THY-NEIGHBOR -- CURRENCY WARS
2010 - EXTEN D & PRETEND
CORPORATOCRACY - CRONY CAPITALSIM
GLOBAL FINANCIAL IMBALANCE
STANDARD OF LIVING
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Tipping Points Life Cycle - Explained Click on image to enlarge
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