three weird things that happened this week

1.  Greece  After months of vitriolic negotiations and after calling a referendum in which it successfully campaigned to have Greece vote against accepting a financial bailout from the EU/IMF, the Greek government appears today to have accepted that bailout.

2.  Chinese stocks  After plunging for a month, Chinese stocks have risen by 10% over the past two trading days.  The world is breathing a sigh of relief.  I’m not sure what’s weirder–that this happened or that foreigners believed for a short while that in a country where doing anti-social stuff can get you either a long prison term or beheading, rather than the cover of Forbes, China would be unable to achieve this outcome.  Actually, the foreign belief is way weirder.

3.  Microsoft/Nokia  Less than fifteen months after acquiring the cellphones business of Nokia, MSFT has discovered that what it bought for over $7 billion (led by mastermind Steve Ballmer) is essentially worthless and is writing off virtually the entire purchase price.  The stock went up on the news.

Which is weirder:  that the MSFT board that rubber-stamped this disaster is still intact?  …or that people are still buying Clippers season tickets?   I suppose you could argue that Nokia was the price for getting rid of Ballmer, which would imply that the behavior of Clippers fans is weirder.

(a little) more on the Chinese margin crisis

Chinese stocks closed lower by about 5% overnight, as the margin selling spiral continues downward.

My thoughts:

–this very strongly suggests that some margin accounts that have enough equity in them a day ago are under water now.  So Shanghai and Shenzhen will likely open tonight to more selling.

–to be clear, I don’t know exactly how Chinese margin works.  And, because I have no intention of buying A shares, I have no desire to find out.  A logical step for authorities to stop forced selling would be to loosen margin collateral requirements.  It may be, however, that the government has decided that the best course is to wring speculation out of the market as quickly as possible.  In other words, despite its rhetoric, it’s content to see the selling play itself out fully.

–margin players tend to be their own worst enemies.  Taking both their margin and cash accounts into consideration, they tend to have a mishmash of high quality stocks and speculative junk.  Their margin accounts tend to be heavily weighted toward trash.  The junk is what’s most vulnerable to price declines, since it has little, if any, intrinsic merit.  The logical response to a margin call is to sell the trash and keep the quality names.  Margin players, in my experience, invariably do the opposite.  They sell their winners and keep their losers, exposing themselves to continuing margin calls and prolonging the overall market agony beyond what it should be.

–I’m still guessing that the current selling will exhaust itself within two weeks.

the Chinese stock market now

declining stocks

Until about a month ago, Chinese stocks were soaring.  Over the prior year the main indices in both Shanghai and Shenzhen were up by about 150%.

Since then, however, both markets have been in a continuous tailspin, dropping a quarter of their value.

Beijing has just announced emergency stock market stabilization measures aimed at halting the fall, on the idea that swooning stocks will hurt capital formation (duh!) and clip a percentage point or more from economic growth–at a time when China doesn’t have that many points to spare.

What’s going on?

As part of its plan to gradually modernize its equity markets and ultimately open them to the outside world, China introduced margin trading (as well as stock index futures and short-selling) domestically in 2010.  China is now going through what all emerging markets eventually do–its first full-blown margin trading crisis.

margin trading

There are lots of ins and outs to margin trading, but it’s basically using the stocks you own as collateral for loans to buy more shares.  It can be very seductive when stocks are going up.  And it’s immensely profitable for brokers.  So it’s not surprising that margin loans are easily available to lots of customers.  Also, in many emerging markets, China included, it’s relatively easy to circumvent restrictions on margin lending by arranging bank loans collateralized by stocks that may not technically be margin borrowing, but effectively are the same thing.

The key aspect of margin trading is that the value of the securities in the account must exceed the margin loan total by a certain safety amount.  If prices fall to the extent that the safety amount shrinks, or is wiped out, the broker has the right to sell enough securities from the account to restore it.  He may call the client and give him the opportunity to add more money to the account   …or he may just sell.

However, this selling itself depresses prices further–eroding the value of the remaining securities in the account as well as any safety amount that may be built up.

Also, margin traders around the world tend to be both the ultimate dumb money and the ultimate herd animals.  They all but the same speculative stocks and they (almost) all leverage themselves to the eyeballs. Even if customer A is initially in fine shape, the selling in the accounts of customers B,C and D will pressure the margin balance of A as well as their own.

The first selling, then, tends to create an accelerating cascade of more selling that’s extremely hard to stop.

This is what China is experiencing now.  This is also why the government has stepped in with a massive market support operation to try to staunch the flow.

effect on the rest of the world?   …especially you and me

The Stock Connect linking mechanism between Shanghai and Hong Kong–aimed a diverting funds away from soaring mainland stocks–is now exporting the mainland weakness in much milder form to the Hang Seng.

Beijing has a ton of money and its stock markets are, realistically speaking, still not very open to the outside world.  As the current anticorruption campaign shows, the CCP has lots of ways to punish people who do stuff it doesn’t want.  So I imagine that the government will stop the downward stock market momentum.  The big questions are:

–how long will it take, and

–how large an unwanted portfolio of stocks (which will act as an overhang on the market) will Beijing have to purchase in order to achieve the stabilization it wants.

My answers are:

–I don’t know, but probably not more than a couple of weeks, and

–I don’t care, because I think the way to play a potential rebound from oversold levels is through the Hong Kong stocks now being sold by mainlanders.

Macau casinos

I haven’t written about the Macau casinos for some time, mostly because I haven’t had anything useful to say.  The fact that I’ve called this group horribly wrongly over the past year or so hasn’t encouraged me to make predictions, either.

I’ve traded around in the group (and, in the case of Wynn Macau and Sands China, their US parents, as well) but have kept my overall position size by and large intact.  Shows what I know.

It has seemed to me, wrongly, that all of the bad news about the casinos in Macau has been in the public domain for some time.  The anti-corruption campaign being waged by Beijing–that has made high rollers wary of exhibiting their wealth at the gaming tables–has been going on since 2013.  Restrictions on visitation rights from the mainland to Macau put in place last year have done the rest of the damage.

Both of these factors have been well-known for a long time.  Therefore, it has seemed to me, much/most of the potential damage had to already be factored into the prices of the stocks.

Wrong! The Macau casino stocks have been sold down again and again when the SAR’s gaming authority has announced each month the (highly predictable) year on year gambling revenue decline.  Figuring we were at the bottom six months ago as far as the stocks are concerned, as I did, has clearly been the wrong position to take.

As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, however, the stocks I pay particular attention to–Wynn Macau, Sands China and Galaxy Entertainment–are each up by more than 10%.

Why is this?

It’s because the mainland has rescinded the travel restrictions it inaugurated in 2014.  As far as visiting is concerned, we’re back to the older, more favorable rules.  This plus has been already reflected in US trading over the past two days, but only in overnight trading tonight in Hong Kong.

Are we at the bottom now?

For someone like me, who already has a significant position, this question has no action-related relevance.  And, as I’ve mentioned above, I’ve been wrong about these stocks for a considerable time.  Still, it’s hard to ignore a 10%-15% increase in stock prices.  Also, the second half of 2014 was the period when the Macau gambling market began a serious swoon. Therefore, year on year comparisons for the overall market should soon begin to improve.  We don’t need current results to get any better.  More than anything, the improving comparisons will be coming from deterioration in the base year, 2014.

So. yes, I think this is the bottom.

I also think that the upturn in the gambling market won’t be a rising tide that lifts all boats, was it has been in the past.  I think Wynn Macau, and to a lesser extent, Galaxy Entertainment, have the most to gain.

 

MSCI and China’s A shares

A few days ago, MSCI, the premiere authority on the structuring of stock market indices around the world, declared that it had been carefully considering adding Chinese A shares to its Emerging Market indices–and concluded that it would not yet do so.

What is this all about?

MSCI

MSCI (Morgan Stanley Capital International) creates indices that investment management companies use to construct their products–both index and actively managed– and to benchmark their performance.

Having a certain stock, or a set of stocks, in an index is a big deal.   For passive investors, it means that they must hold either the stocks themselves or an appropriate derivative.  Either way, client money flows into the issues.

For active investors, they’re forced to at least research the names and keep them on their radar.  If they don’t hold a certain stock or group, they’re at least tacitly betting that the names in question will underperform.

 

If we measure economic size using Purchasing Power Parity, China is the largest in the world.  It seems odd that the country not be fully represented in at least Emerging Markets indices.

 

China

Beijing, in the final analysis, would like to have international investors studying A shares deeply and buying and selling them freely.

How so?

In many ways, the story of the growth of the Chinese economy over the past three decades has been one of slow replacement of the central planning attitude of large, stodgy state-owned enterprises with the dynamism of more market based rivals.  The heavy lifting has been done by constant political struggle against powerful entrenched, backward-facing, political interests that even today control some state-owned enterprises.  It would be nice for a change to have the market do some of the work–by bidding up the stocks of firms that increase profits and punishing those that simply waste national resources.

 

In addition, Beijing now seems to believe that freer flow of investment capital in and out of China can act as a safety valve to counteract the extreme boom/bust tendency that the country’s domestic stock markets have exhibited in the past.

 

the burning issue?

Foreign access to the A share market is still too limited.

Fir some years, China has had a cumbersome apparatus that allows large foreign institutions to deposit specified (large) sums of money inside China and use the funds to buy and sell stocks.  But becoming a so-called qualified foreign institutional investor and operating within government-set constraints is a pain in the neck.  It’s never been a popular route.

Recently, Beijing has begun to allow investment money to flow more freely between Hong Kong and Shanghai.  A HK-Shenzen link is apparently also in the offing.

In MSCI’s view, this isn’t enough free flow yet.  I think that’s the right conclusion.  Nevertheless, weaving A shares into MSCI indices is only a question of time.

my thoughts

As professional securities analysts from the US and elsewhere turn their minds to A shares, there stand to be both big winning stocks and equally large losers.  The big stumbling block will be getting reliable information to use in sorting the market out.