Sunday, November 28, 2010

Can China Be Hedged?

There is a difference between people and markets. While both have histories, they are portrayed differently. The experience of people is recorded with lots of emotions, thought processes and personalities. We record market movements whether they are for securities, commodities, real estate or objets d’art in two dimensions, up or down. I believe the study of both are essential for any successful investor. However, the study of people should serve as alerts to those who focus on the history of markets.

Calamities Travel

Once in a while the single tree falling in a forest or an insect flapping her wings could be the start of a world-wide calamity. There are two relatively recent examples that I saw early, but did not fully comprehend until much later, to my accounts’ disadvantage. The first was the collapse of a Greenwich, Connecticut based hedge fund firm called Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). Actually before the founding of LTCM, I was exposed to one of its widely proclaimed “geniuses.” This learned academic gentleman believed that market-based statistics could be used to predict future market prices. He was correct in many instances, but not in each and every instance. He and his associates applied their mathematical skills to foreign treasury instruments with considerable leverage. They were totally “blindsided” when the Russians defaulted on their treasury issues. My mistake was I did not fully understand the implications of this collapse, after all none of my accounts were exposed to Russian paper. Initially I missed two knock on relationships. The first was the contagion effect. LTCM and other leveraged players (more on this shortly) needed to quickly restore their capital base. They quickly sold their other emerging market positions. (I did not foresee how a Russian default would be the cause of Mexican market decline.)

The second relationship, or if you prefer the second order problem that I missed, was the nature of the trading community. LTCM was one of the largest customers of many fixed income trading desks on “The Street.” Initially these desks merely filled the order of their customer rapidly, perhaps in some cases they sold short the securities as part of filling the order. Soon they saw how successful LTCM was and they followed its trading patterns and in some cases put money into LTCM’s funds. The size of these actual or potential losses would have been very large for the trading community if all of The Street’s trading positions had to be liquidated quickly when LTCM problems became known. Unlike the more recent cases of Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, the government recognized the problem early, but the Fed did not ride to the rescue of LTCM with saddle bags full of money. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York convened a meeting of all the principal players including a very reluctant Bear Stearns and would not let the participants out of the meeting until they agreed to loan enough money to LTCM so it could be prudently liquidated. Thus Wall Street was saved from its own potential collapse. (In this instance the FRB of New York played the role of J.P. Morgan when he helped end the “Money Panic of 1907,” before the Federal Reserve was created.) Thus, the tree falling in Moscow almost took down the entire trading market in the US and probably elsewhere as well.

The Sub Prime Calamity

While I recognized that far too many people were speculating in real estate and that amateurs often lose to professionals in the market place, I did not appreciate who the real losers would be. (The providers of credit all the way along the line were the losers.) Initially, people began writing about the ballooning sub prime and the “Alt A” mortgages and that they would lead to bankruptcies and a slowdown on the building of new homes. While this was serious, at the time it was not of monumental importance, as new house construction is a small part of our expanding economy. Once again I was not sufficiently conscious of significant changes and how the market place was operating. I did not fully comprehend that the major investment banking houses had become the center of the mortgage origination casino to feed their securitization sales forces. This process was replicated in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere and the resulting production of mortgage slices were owned throughout the world, including places as distant as Norway and China. While in the case of LTCM the infusion of leverage was at the so-called professional level, at almost every stage of the housing chain leverage was induced so there were many more losers, including those living on fixed income from these mortgage tranches. When the various governments started to get inklings as to the size of the looming debt on the way to non-payment status, the governments rode to the rescue to save at least their financial communities, if not their economies. (We can debate whether the rescue attempt was ham-handed and whether the private sector should have been let to sort out the problem, as Mr. Morgan forced in 1907.)

Is China A Potential Calamity?

Recently I spent time thinking about conventional asset allocation strategies. In almost all cases, institutions are attempting to broadly diversify their assets. Often the categories they use are as follows:

  • emerging market equity and debt
  • developed market equity and debt
  • domestic equity and debt
  • commodities including timber
  • domestic and foreign real estate

My unanswered concern is that these diversification attempts are making a common bet and therefore do not have the diversification against a major risk, which suggests there exists a potential for a major dislocation. All of these classes are exposed to China in one way or another. Most emerging markets are increasing their trade with China. General Motors sells more cars in China than the US. Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, Microsoft and soon Apple, have important sales and/or facilities in China. “The Middle Kingdom” is the swing buyer or seller of most non-agricultural commodities in the world. Almost all bonds are priced in relationship to US Treasury issues of similar maturities. The Chinese convert much of their trade surplus with the US into the purchase of US bonds, which helps to absorb our increasing deficits. A significant slowdown in China’s purchases, let alone its absence from the market, could send most bond prices down around the world.

I am not an expert on China. I have a great deal of respect for its economic leadership so far. Perhaps these “experts” will continue to manage the population’s needs and desires as they have done in the past, but each year it becomes more difficult. China has replaced the US as the locomotive for global growth. This is not a prediction but an observation that at some point it is conceivable that the engine will perceptively slow down or even temporarily go off its planned track. With so much of the world dependent on the continued growth of the Chinese economy, a slight flicker or a rumor of an unexpected result could cause all markets to react.

How Does One Hedge The Chinese Risk?

Granted we don’t know for sure that there is such a risk, but we should have learned from the LTCM and sub prime examples that calamities can happen. As a professional investor I would like to identify a satisfactory hedge against the possibility of a Chinese calamity. I would like to do this on two counts. First, I am in the market for some insurance. Second, if there was a recognized hedge, its price action could be a clue to a the current market’s perception of the risk.

I have reviewed all of the current asset allocation categories and have found to varying degrees each is dependent on developments within China. At the moment I can not find an independent hedge. Perhaps you will share your thoughts with me on such a hedge or at least your leading indicator of Chinese problems.

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