China's 'Eco' Ghost Town
Back in 2006, Hu Jintao was excited when he visited Caofeidian, the “the world’s first fully realized eco-city”, built on land reclaimed from the sea. Since construction began in 2003, it has devoured the princely sum of $100 billion, most of it provided by banks. One million resident were once supposed to live there. It is a ghost town today, sporting only a few thousand inhabitants. Practically no-one has ever stayed in the city, and the buildings are already deteriorating. In fact, many of the buildings have been left half-finished, as credit eventually ran out.
The Guardian has posted a number of haunting pictures of this monument to massive capital malinvestment.
As the Guardian notes:
The ‘eco-city’ was made possible through huge bank loans. Once it was half-built, these loans were halted and many projects suspended due to the rising cost of raw materials and a lack of government support.”
A few of the pictures are reproduced below:
The city's obligatory bridge to nowhere – only the ten pylons have been erected, then the project had to be abandoned.
(Photo credit: Gilles Sabrie)
Europe's Cage is Rattled a Bit
The little disturbance in Portugal's banking landscape hasn't been entirely overcome yet. New management has been installed at Banco Espirito Santo, but the problem is that the bank apparently sits on quite a few dubious assets, and the new management cannot wish them away. BES appears to have sunk a lot of money into former Portuguese colony Angola, and these loans are the subject of growing concern. On Tuesday, the stock of BES collapsed to a new low, but the losses have been recovered in Wednesday's trading session.
In parallel with the still growing worries about BES, Germany's ZEW institute issued its economic confidence indicator, which showed the 7th monthly decline in a row. Wasn't there supposed to be a recovery?
A few excerpts from a Reuters summary:
“European stocks and the euro fell on Tuesday after shares in Portugal's biggest listed bank hit a record low, while a plunge in German economic sentiment pushed up borrowing costs for some peripheral euro zone countries.
Global stock markets have recently been supported by dovish policy measures from major central banks and signs that economies are recovering, though worries persist over the pace of growth in Europe and the health of the region's banks.
The banking sector was a sharp underperformer, with Portugal's Banco Espirito Santo slumping 17.5 percent to a fresh record low. Traders blamed concerns over the bank's Angolan loan portfolio and the sale of a stake at a low price by the bank's founding family on Monday.
"The key takeaway is that the banking sector globally continues to struggle despite time having been bought, and policy being tremendously supportive," said Jeremy Batstone-Carr, head of private client research at Charles Stanley.
"The sector feels like a minefield."
Portuguese Banking Group's Woes Deepen
When we wrote about the troubles at Banco Espirito Santo yesterday (our post was written before European markets opened) information was still fairly scant. However, on the very same day the situation continued to escalate. Here is an excerpt from the WSJ providing further details:
Shares in the troubled Portuguese lender have been under pressure since May, when the bank disclosed that an audit ordered by Bank of Portugal into Espírito Santo International SA, the conglomerate that indirectly holds a stake in the bank, had found Espírito Santo International was in a "serious financial condition" and had uncovered accounting irregularities. But the declines mounted drastically Thursday after investors learned Espírito Santo International had delayed coupon payments relating to some short-term debt securities.
Switzerland-based Banque Privee Espírito Santo SA, which is owned by Espírito Santo Financial Group, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that Espírito Santo International has delayed the repayment of short-term debt sold to some of its clients. It said the repayment is the sole responsibility of the conglomerate. The conglomerate declined to offer a separate comment.
The bank's stock dropped more than 17% before trading in its shares was suspended. Trading in Banco Espirito Santo's controlling shareholder, Espirito Santo Financial Group SA, listed in Luxembourg and Lisbon, was also suspended earlier Thursday. The Portuguese markets regulator banned short selling, or betting against, Banco Espirito Santo shares in Friday's session.
Breaking From the Wedge
France is currently Europe's “sick man”, not least due to the destructive economic policies pursued by its socialist government. Halfhearted attempts at reform have so far not achieved any notable change, precisely because they are going nowhere near far enough. President Hollande seems to be waiting for the recovery in the rest of Europe to bail him out. His willingness to look beyond leftist dogma and display political courage seems rather limited, which we have always attributed to his fear of being challenged from elements even further to the left, both in his own party and outside of it. However, it is probably more than that: he is a true believer, and is suffering from the delusion that governments can suspend economic laws by fiat. This delusion is of course shared by central planners all across the so-called capitalist world, but it is especially pronounced in his case.
A friend just pointed out to us that France's stock market suddenly looks rather wobbly. French stocks rallied strongly along with other European stock markets once fears over the sovereign debt crisis receded. As we have discussed previously in these pages, year-on-year true money supply growth in the euro area surged strongly from its late 2011 low near 1%, to a high slightly above 8% in early 2013, and has since then begun to decline noticeably again (see our assessment of Europe's tepid economic recovery from mid May: Europe’s Recovery is Stuck in the Mud. A chart of the euro area's true money supply and its annualized growth rate can be seen here). The money supply growth rate is still fairly high at present, but the trend is down and one cannot tell in advance what level will be the threshold that triggers the next bust. However, it would certainly make sense if France's stock market were to lead other European markets at the turning point.
There is a chance that such a turning point may have arrived. Of course, this isn't the first time European stocks are correcting since their uptrend started, and one can never be certain whether short term moves really have significance for the larger degree trend. France's stock market is acting worse in the recent correction than other European markets, but we thank that may well be because it is leading them.
The character of the recent correction seems different from that of previous short term downturns, even though its extent is not yet unusual. Contrary to previous dips, the market has put in a second lower high on the daily chart. The move has moreover clearly violated the lower boundary of the preceding wedge-like advance. The last rebound attempt didn't even manage to move the CAC-40 index back to the broken trend line for a “good-bye kiss”, which we believe is a strong sign that something is amiss.
Excessive Optimism, but Money Supply Growth Rate Remains High
We recently remarked on the astonishing levels of optimism currently visible in the stock market. The present phase of excessive optimism has lasted for quite a long time already and has recently begun to once again approach the all time records seen in several indicators at the end of 2013. As we already mentioned on occasion of the last update, there is at least one 'good' reason for traders to be optimistic, and that is the fact that many charts of individual stocks and sectors look bullish (there have been a number of noteworthy break-outs lately, as one would expect).
However, the problem with good-looking charts is that they only look good until they don't anymore, so one has to keep an eye on market sentiment and the money supply. In summary the situation is that the market's underlying technical condition (apart from being overbought) still looks positive, sentiment is at absolute nosebleed levels and giving us a big warning sign, and money supply growth remains strong enough to continue to lend support to the market. The caveat to the latter remark is that y/y money supply growth has halved from its peak, and we cannot know with certainty where the 'bust threshold' will turn out to be this time.
First a chart from sentimentrader, the “smart/dumb money confidence spread” – which measures differences in market exposures of the two classes of traders. The definition essentially regards anti-cyclical market participants as 'smart' and pro-cyclical traders as 'dumb'. This doesn't mean that the former are always right – in fact, they very often aren't right for long stretches of time. However, they will as a rule be right at extremes.
Cruising for a Bruising
The BIS has published its annual report, which as usual contains numerous quite candid observations about the global credit and asset bubble. The entire report is 246 pages long, so it takes a while to go through it all. Here is a comment from the report that doesn't really tell us anything new, but represents a good summary of what the brewing problem consists of:
“Highly accommodative monetary policies in the advanced economies played a key role in lifting the valuations of risk assets throughout 2013 and the first half of 2014. Low interest rates and subdued volatility encouraged market participants to take positions in the riskier part of the investment spectrum. Corporate and sovereign spreads in advanced economies drifted to post-crisis lows, even in countries mired in recession. Buoyant issuance of lower-rated debt met with strong demand, and equity markets reached new highs. Some asset valuations showed signs of decoupling from fundamentals, and volatility in many asset classes approached historical lows.”
Central banks got what they wanted – investors are acting as if there were no longer any risk. This is seemingly confirmed by certain data points like ultra-low default rates in junk bonds, but it must be remembered that these low default rates are themselves a direct result of yield chasing and the tsunami of central-bank created money that is crashing ashore in various asset markets. If any Tom, Dick and Harry regardless of his creditworthiness can get refinancing at absurdly low rates anytime he wants, then why should he default?
The problem is of course than many of the bubble activities that are receiving funding today at ridiculous rates would likely never get funded in an unhampered market economy, or would only be able to compete for funding at prohibitively high interest rates.
The entire situation is therefore solely a result of ultra-loose monetary policies. Has the perpetuum mobile finally been invented by our esteemed central planners? We rather doubt it – something, somewhere, will go wrong. The longer it takes for this to happen, the worse the denouement will be.
In its most recent monetary policy announcement, the ECB council introduced a new type of long term financing instrument, the so-called “TLTRO”, short for “targeted long term refinancing operation”. The reason is that the ECB has noticed that in the wake of its frantic – and ultimately successful – attempts to dissuade the market from punishing what are de facto bankrupt governments (there are only very few governments left in the world that are not in actuality bankrupt entities relying on a Ponzi finance scheme), lending to the private sector has plunged.
Let us recall the events surrounding the crisis. Beginning with Greece, Portugal and Ireland, it was suddenly realized that a number of governments in the euro area were actually on the brink of insolvency. The reasons were varied: in Greece, an inept and corrupt political and bureaucratic apparatus had for many years lied about the true state of the government's finances. Everybody in Brussels knew of course that they had been lying. After all, they were already lying when they joined the euro, and a number of economists and a handful of conscientious Brussels bureaucrats alerted the European commission to this fact. It was decided to simply get rid of these critics by firing them, so as to proceed with a cover-up. However, this scheme obviously unraveled with the advent of the crisis. In Ireland, the government had made the mistake – under pressure from various European institutions – to bail out its overextended and insolvent banks and in the process bankrupted itself.
From these humble beginnings (“the problem is well contained” was the widely heard refrain at the time), the crisis began to flower and soon included a few rather large, and partly “too big to bail” candidates, like Spain and Italy.
In the course of all this it was also discovered that Europe's fractionally reserved banking system – surprise! – had flagrantly overtraded its capital and was completely insolvent as well. “Luckily” though, we have a fiat money system and a central bank, which means that the losses of banks and governments can be “painlessly” shifted onto the backs of savers and wealth generators in the economy via the printing press. After all, the US Federal Reserve had already shown the way (as had incidentally Japan some time earlier already).
An Overabundance of Confidence
When looking at the charts of individual stocks, we find many that “look good”. This is undoubtedly one of the market's main saving graces. The problem with this is of course that charts always “look good” until they suddenly don't anymore. Shortly before the crash of 1987, to name an extreme example, the charts of many stocks, as well as those of the indexes, also looked good. There was very little in the technical backdrop that indicated that things would change radically and go totally pear-shaped in the space of just one week. And yet, this is what happened. The only warning provided by the charts was that the market suddenly and inexplicably became extremely weak in the week prior to the actual crash day. It put in a lower high on that occasion, which by itself is also not an entirely reliable sign that things are about to go seriously awry.
We are only using this example to illustrate that there is sometimes more to the situation than just the message provided by the charts. Normally, charts will deteriorate slowly enough to provide plenty of warning that the technical underpinnings of the market are weakening – but this is not always the case (it did happen in late 2007/early 2008, but even at that time, the message was for 'mixed' for quite some time. For instance, the DJ transportation average made a new all time high in May of 2008).
Anyway, in order to gauge the market's temperament, or at least the effects of the most widely adopted belief system, we can also look at quantitative sentiment data, and since a few remarkable things have happened on that front lately, we are providing a brief update. As to the “belief system” adopted by most market participants, it is the sheer boundless faith in the machinations of central banks. We happen to think that relying on these bureaucrats is dangerous, regardless of the fact that is has obviously “worked” for a good while now. It is the modern-day variation of the “potent directors fallacy” – the belief that a handful of powerful people can actually stop the market from expressing itself in an untoward manner. There are countless historical examples that show this belief to be erroneous, with the 2008 dislocation being the most recent one.
We regularly look at put-call ratios and the like, and came across a rather remarkable combination of data last week. The equity put-call ratio declined to its lowest one day reading in several years last week, while almost concurrently, there was the biggest spike in the one-day reading of the OEX put-call ratio in at least 20 years (we cannot tell for sure if it was a record high, since we are only able to consult data going back two decades). At the same time, the VIX (which measures volatility premiums paid for SPX at and near the money front month options) has declined to below 11, which is roughly in line with the lowest values seen in 2007:
Dysfunctional Bond Markets – A Comparison of Yields
Below we show the 10 year government bond yields of three countries: Spain, Japan and the United States. Also shown are budget deficits and total public debt as a percentage of GDP. It would actually make more sense to look at deficits as a percentage of tax revenues. The comparison of debt to GDP seems not to make a lot of sense intuitively, as governments cannot pay their debts out of 'GDP', but only out of tax revenues (note also that there are slight differences in the GDP calculations).
Anyway, the point is mainly to compare the three countries, as both Spain's and Japan's bond yields essentially reflect zero risk at this point. In fact, investors seem to assume that the combination of inflation risk and default risk in Spain and Japan is lower than in the US, which strikes us as slightly absurd, if only for “technical” reasons. An overview of annual CPI rates of change is shown as well. Also included above the bond yield charts are the credit ratings assigned by the three big credit rating agencies (in this order: S&P, Moody's, Fitch).
Putting Everyone to Sleep
Watching the financial markets has lately become the equivalent of watching paint dry. Such periods of extremely low volatility are however invariably followed by periods of very high volatility. All that is required to make the markets break out of their ranges and become a lot less 'dull' is a trigger event. A number of potential trigger events have recently come and gone, with none of them providing sufficiently exciting information to decide the issue one way or the other.
Keep also in mind that the initial break from the 'dull' trading ranges could turn out to be false as well. In other words, it is possible that just as a move of consequence appears to be getting underway, its directio reverses again. This is just meant as a caveat, as in the majority of cases, the break from a 'dull trading range' tends to be meaningful.
The charts below have been updated during Thursday's session, so they do not show closing levels. A point we would like to make here is this: there will probably be an advance warning somewhere, in a corner of the markets that perhaps isn't widely watched. We would keep a close eye on credit spreads, the yen, SKEW, the VIX, etc. with a view toward spotting divergences and/or breaks of important technical levels.
Let us look at a few data points that may influence market behavior from here on out.
Debt and Malinvestment
Readers may recall our recent article on Variant Perception's special report “Understanding Market Tops”. The report echoes an idea we have discussed on previous occasions as well, namely that the corporate debt market (or more generally, the market for low quality debt, whether it is corporate or state debt) represents the major Achilles heel of the current echo bubble era. One interesting characteristic of the financial asset bubble created by the world's central banks in the wake of the 2008 crisis and euro area crisis is that there seems to be no specific business sector in which bubble activities are concentrated.
In this respect, the current inflationary boom (weak as it is in terms of real economic activity) is different from e.g. the late 1990s mania, which was mainly focused on the technology sector, and within this sector specifically on capital goods producing companies. As an aside to this, the demise of the late 1990s boom provided us with empirical evidence that was perfectly in keeping with Austrian business cycle and capital theory: many of the companies that went bankrupt were investing in the production of capital goods that were temporally very far removed from the consumer goods stage of the capital structure. Examples for this were companies like communications satellite manufacturer Loral or undersea cable producer Global Crossing.
The current boom also differs in this respect from the real estate and mortgage credit bubble that expired in 2007/8, and the concomitant China/commodities bubble. In short, there were two distinct business sectors that could be identified as the focal points of that particular boom, namely real estate and commodities.
The Bernanke/Draghi/Kuroda echo bubble appears far more diffuse, but there are nevertheless a few areas that stand out. One is the explosion in government debt and activities associated with it. Government debt is basically 100% waste, as bureaucracies can only engage in a very rudimentary form of economic calculation by observing prices in the market economy. Essentially they have very little idea of the opportunity costs associated with their spending.
In most cases they are not even interested in whether their spending is economically sensible, because bureaucratic incentives regarding how funds are to be spent are entirely different from those prevailing in the market economy. For instance, a bureau usually must try to spend all the funding it gets in a fiscal year, so as not to create the impression that it will need less funding in the next financial year. Whether such spending actually serves consumer wants is not exactly at the top of the list of priorities. To name two specific areas in which massive state-financed malinvestment is currently underway, there is e.g. the explosion in US student debt, which is a symptom of malinvestment in human capital. Since reportedly a large number of college graduates end up as burger flippers these days, one must assume that a large portion of the funding in this area is wasted.
Along the lines of the recently discussed idea that central bank interventions have distorted numerous price signals, here is some additional evidence supporting this contention. The first chart shows the Eurostoxx Index compared to inflation expectations as reflected by yields on 5 year US and euro area inflation adjusted bonds. For a long time, stock prices and yields have moved in unison. This is no longer the case. They have increasingly decoupled since late 2012/early 2013. One cannot rule out that they will converge again at some point.
Eurostoxx vs. 5 yr. US and euro area TIPs yields – click to enlarge.
Articles that might be of interest for you:
- In Defense of Austrian Economics
- Fleeing the French Welfare State
- Market Sentiment and Money Supply Update
- Janet Yellen Chimes in on the Bubble Question
- Germany Rolls Back Labor Reforms
- Outlook for Gold, Stocks, Economy by Incrementum’s Advisory Board
- The Massive Myth about Hillary Rodham Clinton
- The Government’s Inflation Figures Are a Lie
- The Price of Shipping Is Collapsing
- Bulgaria's Strange Bank Run