internet companies vs. state-owned enterprises in China

Recently Beijing announced it wants to take equity positions in the major internet companies in China and place Communist Party officials on their boards of directors.

What’s going on?

I see two general possibilities.

Some background first.

Deng’s economic reform

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping realized that the Chinese economy was too big to be controlled through central planning.   To grow it had to adopt Western economic (but not political) methods.  So he began to allow the market, not doctrinally-correct political cadres, to dictate the direction of expansion.

A major issue he faced in doing so was that, say, three-quarters of Chinese industry was owned by the state.  These companies were rudderless, and hopelessly inefficient–but they employed tons of people.  If large numbers lost their jobs all at once, the ensuing social instability might threaten the rule of the Party.  Therefore, economic progress had to be tempered by the need to avoid this outcome.  And this in a nation without sophisticated macroeconomic tools to control the pace of growth.

The result over three+ decades has been a Chinese economy that lurches between boom and bust, depending on the temperature in the state-owned enterprises.  The strategy has generally been successful, I think, with the state-owned sector now representing less than a third of China’s overall output.

possibilities

–China’s internet companies have become large enough that their actions, intentional or not, can accelerate the speed at which state-owned companies shrink.  So they need to be monitored much more carefully than in the past.  This is the benign interpretation, and the one which share prices suggest the market has adopted

–China’s internet companies have become large enough to generate “creative destruction” in large enough amounts to threaten the economic control over China exercised by the Communist Party itself.  If this is the case, then the oversight over domestic internet conglomerates will be much more draconian than the consensus expects.  That would presumably result in considerable PE contraction for the firms being controlled.

My guess is that the first possibility is much more likely to be the case.  But I think we should watch the situation closely for new hints about Beijing’s intentions.

Shenzhen Connect starts next week

…on December 5th.

That’s according to the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX), whose Stock Exchange of Hong Kong subsidiary signed an agreement with its Shenzhen counterpart on rules for Shenzhen Connect last month.  The agreement was just approved by mainland Chinese regulators.

what is Shenzhen Connect?

It’s a mechanism that allows investors in Hong Kong to buy or sell Shenzhen-listed stocks, up to a specified (but large) total daily limit.  It also allows China-based investors to buy and sell Hong Kong-listed stocks through the Shenzhen Exchange.

The start of Shenzhen Connect trading follows the successful establishment of a similar arrangement between Hong Kong and Shanghai, called Stock Connect, a little more than two years ago.

significance?

In a practical sense, Shenzhen Connect and Stock Connect together end the closed nature of the Chinese stock market.  Doing so is an important economic objective of Beijing.  It’s another step down the road to dismantling the central planning and control that has characterized Chinese socialism since WWII.

rising Shenzhen shares?

Will this signal a boom in Hong Kong interest in China-listed shares?  I don’t think so, but it will be interesting to watch and find out.

Stock Connect, which opened the Shanghai stock market to foreigners wasn’t such a big deal, in my view.  That exchange is dominated by state-controlled banks and by stodgy old industrials headed mostly by state functionaries with no idea of how to run a profitable business.  Beijing will protect the banks but is content to let the  gradually wither and die.  So I didn’t see any rush to be the first foreigner to arrive in 2014.

The Shenzhen Exchange, on the other hand, is home to much more entrepreneurial firms, with little or no official state involvement.  So, in theory, yes, I might want to participate.

A big roadblock for me, though:  I have no idea whether I can trust the financial reports that companies issue.

Two ways to find out: listen carefully to what local players say and do; and visit the companies that sound interesting, interview the managements–and then watch to see how what they say matches up with operating results and what the financials report.

Even then, my experience is that you may not be safe.  Years ago, I visited a small Hong Kong manufacturing company at the urging (I didn’t need much) of a friend.  The firm told me a fabulous story of its success making computers for children.  I went back to see the management some months later.  They didn’t recognize me as a person they’d spoken with before.  This time they told me an equally dollar-sign-filled story, but this time they were an auto parts firm.  Whoops.

I’m not willing/able to put in the effort required to understand how the stock market game is played in Shenzhen.  So, Shenzhen Connect won’t tempt me away from the sidelines.

 

 

Janet Yellen, this week and last

Fridays are strange days on Wall Street.  That’s because, unless they’re super-confident, short-term traders don’t like to hold a large inventory of securities over a weekend.  Too much time for bad stuff to happen.  So they sell enthusiastically on Friday afternoons.

There’s certain sense to this behavior.  For them two days+ may be a long holding period.  Also, companies and people, particularly sneaky ones, like to save bad news up for late Friday afternoon or the weekend, when they think no one is paying attention.  This lessens the pain, they think.  Often, it has the opposite effect, however, since anyone who’s been around for a while knows what a late-Friday press release invariably contains.

 

So in one sense it’s not a great surprise that the huge effort–enough to send her staggering off the stage–Janet Yellen put out yesterday to explain that, yes, the US economy is in great shape and, yes, the Fed is going to take the first baby steps to get the country out of interest rate intensive care (IRIC (?)–although it may be too late for this acronym) before New Year’s eve had no lasting positive effect on stock prices today.

The reason is that, aside from robots designed to react to newsfeeds, everyone knew that already.  In fact, her announcement on Thursday the 15th that the Fed Funds rate would stay at zero for now wasn’t a shock, either.  Futures markets had been putting the odds of a rate hike in September at less than one in three.

Yet the stock market took something Ms. Yellen said last week the wrong way.  If it wasn’t the interest rate announcement, what was it?

Actually, I think there are two things, one said and one not.

The first, and more important, in my view, is the unspoken but strongly held belief by the nation’s finest economists that if we have to depend on the White House and Congress for economic support, we’re doomed.  That’s because monetary possibilities to plug up a hole in the bottom of the boat are all used up.  The federal arsenal now contains only fiscal policy—changes in government regulation of business, or in spending priorities or in taxes.  The Fed knows it isn’t going to get bailed out by Washington if it raises rates too soon–something that has gotten many nations into trouble in the past.  Therefore, it has to err on the side of caution, even if that’s unhealthy to do.

We all sot of know this, but it’s not a plus to be reminded that as a nation we’re stuck in at best second gear as long as Washington dysfunctions its way through life.

The second, the one said, is that developments in China have the potential to hurt US growth enough to tip us over the edge.  I don’t think the effect on the stock market is so much about the details.  It’s the headline that matters–that the US is no longer so large that we’re impervious to what may happen in any other single country.  It conjures up thoughts of the post-WWI, when the UK passed the mantle of world economic leadership to the US, except that we’re now in the role of the UK.

Again, everyone sort of knew this was happening.  But having it confirmed by our foremost economists is another thing.

To put this in stock market terms, I don’t think Ms. Yellen is calling into question the market’s ideas about current earnings as about the multiple those earnings are worth.

 

 

 

thinking about China: deflating a stock market bubble

For most of the 30 years I’ve been watching China-related securities, the mainland stock markets have been an afterthought for virtually all foreign investors.  The same for the authorities in Beijing, as far as I can see.  They seem to have regarded the equity markets as a vehicle for funding moribund state-owned enterprises that no bureaucrat in his right mind would give money to.

The mainland markets have gradually morphed over the past decade into something more interesting, as smaller, more innovative firms elbowed their way in.  But the market remains very hard for foreigners to gain access to, and is arguably still not worth the trouble.  The real action remains in Hong Kong.

 

Last year, faced with a bubble in the domestic property market created by a flood of investment money with no place else to go, Beijing decided to redirect this flow of funds to the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets.

In solving one problem, however, Beijing created another.

The issue was partly that the mainland exchanges were going through the roof in US-internet-bubble fashion.  In addition, however, the rise was fueled in large part by borrowed money.  Worse, this consisted not only of official margin lending but also by huge amounts of sub rosa margin disguised as either uncollateralized borrowing or debt secured by businesses or property.  No one knew how large this total debt was–only that it was gigantic, and that inexperienced retail equity investors had leveraged themselves to the sky because they had taken government encouragement as a guarantee against losses.

 

As/when the market peaks and begins to decline, margin loans come due.  When speculators can’t add more money to margin accounts (as is inevitably the case), this triggers forced margin selling that feeds on itself and turns into an avalanche of downward pressure.  Once selling starts, it can be almost impossible to stop.  Of course, as soon as potential buyers realize what’s going on, they withdraw and wait for the market to hit bottom.

This precarious development in Shanghai/Shenzhen is not a unique phenomenon.  The same thing happened in 1985 in Singapore/Malaysia, in 1987 in Hong Kong, and in 1997-98 in many smaller Asian markets.  In hindsight, Beijing could possibly have averted the crisis by raising margin requirements and by cracking down on unofficial margin loans by financial institutions.  But it didn’t.

Beijing seems to me, however, to have followed the standard protocol for dealing with a mammoth overhang of margin selling and restoring order to the market, namely:

  1.  identifying and cutting off borrowing sources

2.  prohibiting short sellers from exacerbating the problem by speculative selling

3.  buying enough stock, either directly or indirectly, to reduce forced selling to a level that the market can handle unaided

4.  allowing the market, once functioning again, to clear by itself.

The way I look at it, we’re in #4 now.

One other comment:

in the US, the rise and fall of the stock market is regarded as the most powerful leading indicator of future economic performance.  I don’t think that what’s going on in Shanghai/Shenzhen stock trading has much macroeconomic significance.  Rather, the China stock market fall is an obstacle that every emerging market encounters on the way to stock market maturity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

thinking about China: economic growth and metals

In the late 1970s, Beijing decided that its central planning model of economic development wasn’t working because the domestic economy had become too complex.  It reluctantly shifted to the model Japan had used to recover from WWII–concentrating on export-oriented manufacturing, offering cheap labor in exchange for technology and industrial craft skill transfer.  China became an increasingly large user of natural resources (oil and metals) as it created industrial infrastructure, industrial plants and provided housing and other public services for its large population.

Maybe ten years ago China realized that it was soon going to run out of low-wage farm workers willing/able to switch to manufacturing in order to sustain the export-oriented model.  Associated pollution and other environmental problems were also becoming more acute.  So the natural resource intensive, export path to growth was nearing an end.

Five years or so ago, China, now out of cheap labor, began the shift to a consumer-oriented, domestic demand approach to GDP growth.  Government stimulus to offset the negative effects of the recent recession gave exporters one final surge of vitality.  Still, for years manual labor-intensive businesses have been leaving China for, say, Vietnam or Bangladesh.  Beijing has also been cracking down on relatively primitive steel and aluminum processing operations.

Politically and socially, as well as economically, this is a difficult transition to make, because rich and powerful forces of the status quo don’t want things to change.  Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong (multiple times) have made the shift; Malaysia, Thailand and much of South America have not.

One of the main characteristics of this period of change is a slowdown in demand for base metals and other industrial inputs.  For China, which had been the dominant customer for almost any base metal, the transition comes just as global mining companies have made (inexplicably, to my mind) huge additions to productive capacity.

The result of increasing supply at a time of flagging demand is easily predictable–lower prices.

Why write about this?

Many financial markets commentators have been pointing to low base metals prices as evidence of cyclical economic weakness in China.  That may ultimately turn out to be the case.  But it’s equally a sign of:  1) structural change in the Chinese economy, which would be a good thing, and 2) witless mining companies.  So it’s by no means a sure thing that bears on China are correct.

By the way, the last global collapse in base metals prices came in the early 1980s.  That followed a decade-long period of mine expansion that was based on the idea that the United States couldn’t grow economically without using copper, lead, zinc and iron in amounts that would increase in a straight line with GDP expansion.  In hindsight, what a mistake!  Although Peter Drucker had been writing about knowledge workers from the 1950s, no one put two and two together.  It took almost two decades for world growth to absorb the excess capacity that miners added back then.

 

the Chinese currency and the Chinese stock market

Throughout my financial career I’ve found that in sizing up currency markets traders from the big banks have always been ten steps ahead of me.

I’ve hopefully learned to live with this–meaning that because I’m never going to outthink them I believe my best currency strategy should have two parts:

–to avoid making future currency movements a major element in constructing my portfolio, and

–to be a “fast follower” if I can–that is, to figure out from a trend change what the banks must be thinking and to consider getting on board if I think the trend is going to have legs.

 

China has moved the price at which it will buy and sell renminbi down by 1.9% yesterday and by another 1.6% today.  Informed market speculation seems to be that another couple of downward moves of the same magnitude are in the offing.

From a domestic policy perspective, China would prefer a strong currency to a weaker one.  As I mentioned yesterday, the country has run out of cheap labor and must, therefore, transition away from the highly polluting, cheap labor employing, export-oriented basic manufacturing that is the initial staple of any developing country.  This kind of business has been the bread and butter of many Chinese companies, some of them state-owned, for decades.  Many are resisting Beijing’s call to change.  The strong currency is a club Beijing can use to beat them into submission.  In this sense, the fact that the renminbi has appreciated by 10%+ against other developing countries’ currencies over the past year, and by around the same amount against the euro, China’s largest trading partner, is a good thing.

On the other hand, the developed world has made it clear to China that if it wants to be included in the club that sets world financial policy, and in particular if it wants the renminbi to be a world reserve currency, the renminbi cannot be rigidly controlled by Beijing.  It must float, meaning trade more or less freely against other world currencies.  So China has a long-term interest in doing what it has started to do yesterday–to allow the currency to move as market forces drive it.

Why now, though?

World stock markets seem to be thinking that a severe erosion of China’s GDP growth is behind the move toward a currency float–that it’s backsliding from a committment to structural reform.

I’m not so sure.

I think what currency traders have concluded is that Beijing has enough money to prop up its stock market and enough to keep its currency at the present overvalued level–but not both.  So they’re borrowing renminbi  and selling it in the government-controlled market in the hope of pushing down the currency and buying back at a lower price.  Understanding what’s going on, and realizing the risks in defending a too-high currency level, Beijing is bending in the wind.  Doing so limits the amount of money that can be made this way, effectively short-circuiting the strategy.

Offshore renminbi, which can’t be repatriated into China, trade about 5% cheaper that domestic renminbi.  That’s where we should get the next indication of how far renminbi selling will go.

As far as my personal stock investing goes, my strong inclination is to bet that renminbi-related fears are way overblown.  I’ like to see markets calm down a bit before I stick a toe in the water, though.

 

 

 

 

 

the Chinese renminbi “devaluation”

devaluation?

Every day the Chinese government sets a mid-point for trading of its currency prior to opening.  The renminbi is then allowed to trade within a 2% band on either side of the setting.  At this morning’s setting, Beijing put the mid-point 1.9% lower than it was yesterday.  This is an unusually large amount and can be (is being) read as an effective devaluation of the currency.

What does this really mean?

background

In the late 1970s, when China made its turn away from Mao and toward western economics, it chose the tried-and-true road toward prosperity trod by every other successful post-WWII nation.  It tied its currency to the dollar and offered access to cheap local labor in return for technology transfer.

Late in the last decade, the country ran out of cheap labor.  So it was forced to begin to transform its economy from export-oriented, labor-intensive manufacturing to higher value-added more capital-intensive output and toward domestic rather than foreign demand.  The orthodox, and almost always not so successful, method of kicking off this transition is to encourage a large appreciation of the currency.  That causes low-end production to leave for cheaper labor countries like Vietnam or Afghanistan.

China, armed with a cadre of young, creative economists with PhDs from the best universities in the West, decided to do things slightly  differently–to hold the currency relatively stable and to boost domestic wages by a lot to achieve the same end of making export-oriented manufacturing uneconomic.  The idea is that this doesn’t bring the economy to screeching halt in the way currency appreciation does.  So far this approach seems to be working–although the shift does involve slower growth and a lot of domestic disruption.

At the same time, forewarned by the immense damage done to Asian economies by speculative activity by the currency desks of the major international banks during the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, China elected not to let its currency trade freely.

what’s changed?

For some years, China has been upset about the fact that despite being the biggest global manufacturing power, and by Purchasing Power Parity measure the largest economy on earth, it has virtually no say in world financial or trade regulatory bodies.  Those are dominated by the US and EU.  The main reason for China’s limited influence is that its financial system isn’t open.  (The other, of course, is that fearing China organizations like the new US-led Pacific trade alliance pointed excludes the Middle Kingdom.)

So China has been gradually lessening state control over the banks, the financial markets and the currency, in hopes of being admitted into the inner sanctums of bodies like the IMF.

In one sense, this is why China is becoming less rigid in its control of renminbi trading.

why now?

There’s no “good” time to let a currency float.  China doesn’t want to cede control over currency movements at a time when the renminbi might appreciate a lot, since that would be a severe contractionary force.  On the other hand, it doesn’t want the currency to fall through the floor either, since that would result in new export plants sprouting up all over the place.

China is growing more slowly than normal and is experiencing currency outflows as a result of that.  Letting the currency slide a bit relieves some of the pressure–although it may simultaneously attract speculators to try to push the renminbi lower.  So, yes, it is a sign of economic weakness.  At the same time, the loosening comes shortly before the IMF will decide on admitting the renminbi as one of its reserve currencies.  And it follows by a few months Beijing allowing banks to issue certificates of deposit at market rates, rather than at yields set by central planners.  So it’s also a step toward a healthier, more economically advanced, future.

my take

I think worries about the stability of the Chinese economy are overblown.  I also think that traders are using the Beijing move as an excuse for selling that they’ve been wanting to do anyway.  Beijing may have been the trigger for this, but it isn’t the cause.