Chinese plans for world technology domination foiled again. For now.


It all seems to be going wrong for Chinese-American relations when it comes to technology. Late last month Tsinghua University’s purchase of a minority stake in Western Digital was referred to CFUIS, the panel determining if global M&A involves a US national interest. This, contra lots of commentary at the time, wasn’t business as usual, rather the US government drawing a very thick red line around China and saying no nationally significant technology, in this case semiconductor memory, crosses this. And this week the US kicked the feelings of the Chinese People in the goolies by sticking it to ZTE, one of their national tech champions, for selling stuff to supposedly Bad Countries like Iran.

The net effect of this in the near term is bad news for much of the listed semiconductor equity in the US, as a potential purchaser of last resort is removed. Longer term, no-one knows, not even Baruch.

Continue reading “Chinese plans for world technology domination foiled again. For now.”

The Beginning of the End of the Euro Crisis?

Baruch has been a student of the wondrously dysfunctional Greek
political system long before it became fashionable, and is surprised at the
sudden relevance of what he had always thought to be rather interesting, but
not particularly useful. No longer – Greek politics is currently at the centre
of the world. What is upsetting, however, is that most everyone inside and outside Greece seems to disagree with him about what happened last week. Far from being a calamity exposing the weaknesses of the latest bailout package, Baruch thinks the ramifications of the call by Papandreou for a referendum are deeply positive. Merkel and Sarkozy, and the rest of us, should actually be grateful to him for heading off in Greece what is frankly the
biggest risk Europe and the global economy faces – political risk; specifically
“austerity ennui” on the part of the population, and pandering politicians
eager to exploit it.

Baruch is also unamused by the people who are watching what appears
a train wreck with barely disguised glee, rubbing their hands in anticipation
of the Euro’s supposedly imminent demise, starting of course with the ejection
of Greece. Your celebrated correspondent has no particular love for the common
currency, not least the silly name (“Euro-“ is a prefix, he has always thought),
but once in, the likely costs of leaving are so awful as to make it imperative
to stay in. In the case of Greece, were it to drop out of the Euro, we would be
talking about the instant impoverishment of a modern democracy, whose citizens’  life savings would be wiped out (apart from the  very rich who are able to have accounts abroad, take that, Gini co-efficient!) and the bankruptcy of every exporting enterprise. There would be mass unemployment. Imports such as energy and medicines would skyrocket in price, creating shortages; basic services would likely break down. People would die. It would be less like Argentina, more like post WW1 Germany, or maybe Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism.

Within the living memory of politically active people Greece has fought a bloody civil war, and flirted with fascism. European leaders should probably pause before inflicting this sort of stress on one of the most politically dysfunctional and divided states in Europe, a relatively big fish in the Balkan backwater, itself no stranger to conflict.

Seriously, I wouldn’t want this Pandora’s box opened even
if I was short the Euro, which I am not and which I happen to think may be a
quite bad idea if you want to make money in the near future. Yet never mind the
Eurosceptics who are actually looking forward to it, everyone else seems to be
fairly resigned to it as well. Even clever people. Felix, for instance, sees a “chaotic collapse” of Greece as “inevitable”. Josh Brown cheers him on.

I think the very awfulness of what will happen if Greece is ejected from the Euro in a messy way (and until the treaty is changed there isn’t really another way it can happen) actually makes it more likely that it doesn’t happen. No matter how nasty a generation of austerity may be, it is a walk in the park in comparison with the likely alternative.

And that realisation may just have dawned in Greece last week. Continue reading “The Beginning of the End of the Euro Crisis?”

Homicidal zombie markets reconsidered

Baruch received old media brickbats for his bloggy frettings last year about the impact and meaning of QE2. At the time, while understanding why people thought it was necessary, he worried that we were opening a can of worms which were going to wriggle off in all sorts of undesirable directions. He wrote:

in his darker moments that Baruch thinks a very good analogy for where we are right now is Pet Sematary. The people who buried their cat (and later their son) in the Indian burial ground to bring it back to life got something which looked ostensibly like a cat, but was so only on the outside. On the inside their little puddy tat  was really an undead homicidal zombie cat, as became clear through its increasingly odd behaviour. Unintended consequences followed (mayhem, murder, horror, the Wendigo — all that Stephen King stuff).

The Bernank is like the guy who buried his cat, but in this case instead of a resuscitated cat he wanted his rally back, a healthy stock market and the wealth effect that would bring. I worry we have got something else.

Pointing to potentially horrible unknown unknowns tends to capture the imagination much less than pointing to the definitely unpleasant known knowns of an imminent economic slowdown. The QE2ers’ argument at its core was the eternal and seductive call that Something Must Be Done. No less than James Suroweicki at the New Yorker picked up Baruch’s idea of the “undead homicidal zombie market”, tautology and all, and lumping me in with the Tea Partiers, House Republicans and the other dead-end no-brained foes of QE, labelled us  “hysterical”. Baruch loves the New Yorker, but knowing their editorial stance and lack of track record when it comes to advising macro funds and governments, Baruch concluded their love of QE was less a well-thought-out economic analysis, and more a gleeful response to finding their political foes against an idea that felt “right”, Colbert-like, in their gut. In his response, (Felix also had a good one) Baruch bemoaned the politicisation of monetary policy by anyone. This hasn’t got any better — having an (admittedly Texan) presidential candidate threatening the Chairman of the Federal Reserve with a tarrin’ and a featherin’ if he buys any more bonds doesn’t seem conducive to a mature conversation on the subject.

So, was Baruch right? Or were the Suroweickians? An interesting thought experiment would be to think of where we would be without that second round of easing. With the benefit of hindsight I’m inclined to think we would have been better off right now had we not done QE2. Why? Continue reading “Homicidal zombie markets reconsidered”

Baruch the political football

James Suroweicki is using Baruch’s (rather good) line, the “undead homicidal zombie market”  as grist to his anti-anti QE2 mill.

What’s most striking about the attacks on QE2 is how hysterical they are. People aren’t just suggesting that the Fed’s policy—which is quite modest relative to the size of the U.S. economy—might be ineffective or mildly inflationary. Instead, they’re accusing the Fed of “injecting high-grade monetary heroin” into the system, pursuing a policy that “eviscerates” the middle class, and potentially giving birth to an “undead homicidal zombie market.”

The main problem with this of course, is that this last bit never happened. No-one ever accused the Fed of potentially creating an undead homicidal zombie market.

What Baruch actually wrote (my emphasis) was:

“I’m not saying we’re in an undead homicidal zombie market,”

And there we could let it lie.

Although to be fair, I did add “though we may be” as quite frankly I was not very sure of anything at that particular moment. Communicating this lack of certainty was the point of the post, which was about feeling confused and worried. But nevertheless, in the offending line above, Baruch was trying to stop going too far down the path of a metaphorical flight of fancy about undead cats. To avoid, if you like, hysteria.

So James S. has it completely arsy-versy. Clearly he hadn’t actually read Baruch’s post, and by the way James, in the unlikely event you ever read this one, if you do choose to misquote me disapprovingly the least you could do would be to drop us a link, no? Probably you have an outdated editorial policy that prevents you from doing so, but still, this is the 21st century.

Calling one’s opponents “hysterical” is, moreover, quite a cheap rhetorical shot, a debating tactic much used by Straussian neo cons and WSJ op ed writers to close off a reasoned argument they are on the wrong side of. Different words that do the same job are “partisan”, and (Baruch’s favourite) “shrill”. If someone is hysterical it is much easier to ignore the points they make. Rather, the word implies, they just need a hard slap and a good shake. The word has the stench of politics about it.

That’s the wider context here, which I think we need to put James’ article into. QE2 has become politicised, and this is a mark of just how demented US political discourse has become. Domestic bond purchase programs elsewhere don’t generally create similar levels of controversy between parties; most politicians realise their central bankers are just following through with their mandates, as the Fed clearly is, without any regard for political advantage. Baruch thinks the blame for the politicisation lays squarely at the feet of congressional republicans. He also finds it highly amusing to find himself somehow lumped in with this lot, however indirectly, as he has yet to contemplate a more priceless, ill-intentioned, irresponsible and ignorant set of economic baboons.

But the worry is that if the republican baboons don’t like QE2, then it follows that those on the other side of the aisle will start to like it, not on the basis of a reasoned weighing up of pros and cons, rather because it gives them good talking points. The result will be the vaguely uncritical lumpen thinking we see in the New Yorker article, and at its worst, an item of pragmatic economic policy which should be debated on its merits will join the pantheon of topics of almost theological controversy in the US such as abortion, gun control, flag burning and gay marriage. Pretending that QE2 is a well established economic policy without risk of externalities is frankly as absurd as saying it is an unmitigated evil.

Felix, whose own position is not far from Baruch’s, does a much better job of tackling the article in this post. As he puts it, “the weird thing is that Surowiecki and I actually agree on most of the issues here.”

Indeed. As things stand right now, Baruch is very rapidly coming to terms with QE2: not particularly astonishingly, the thing might actually be working! There are green shoots everywhere he looks , from an apparent increase in volume at transaction processing companies, to semi makers guiding for much lower seasonality in the next quarter, to positive 2011 GDP revisions by the economists, to strategists telling me to buy cyclicals, etc etc. The price of gold even dropped a bit on thursday. He is pretty optimistic, certainly much more than he was last month, when his problem was that he could see the sufficient reasons for stocks to rise (QE2), but not the efficient ones (forward EPS estimates going up). That’s been solved, confusion lifted. Things are great!

Then again, that’s exactly what I’m supposed to feel, isn’t it? There’s nothing like turning up to a party with a hangover (swearing you’ll only stay for a bit), having that first drink and realising how much fun you’re going to have if you stick around. Thoughts of a potentially much worse hangover yet to come are far away.

Quantitative Queasing

So we have been having Quantitative Easing already, and Baruch doesn’t  like it.  The stockmarket is up (or was), the data seems to be improving; QE has done its work and for all we know it will continue. But there is a special unhealthy quality to it all. It feels like a “wrong” rally, like the cat from Pet Sematary was clearly a wrong kind of cat.

The problem as I see it is this: QE lowers overall interest rates and makes all the stocks go up when they wouldn’t have normally. It raises their valuations, which you can also express by saying it makes for higher PEs. This makes people feel richer. They will go and buy more stuff like LCD TVs, making the companies who make the stuff they buy richer too. They will invest more, and buy more stuff from companies who make stuff not for people, but for other companies. Eventually all the companies grow into their higher stock valuations, and we are all fine.

The key word here however, is “eventually”. What happens in the bit between the 2 points:  after all the stocks have gone up, and before the fundamentals improve to justify their new valuations? Because I think that’s where we are if stocks have stopped going up, or where we will soon be.

Now, my tech stocks aren’t exactly expensive. Lots of them are to be had for PE multiples in the low teens, which really isn’t bad. But there has been no fundamental improvement in their businesses since the summer, as far as Baruch can tell, and yet their stocks have absolutely zoomed to levels I frankly have difficulties buying them at, at least on the charts. Baruch was astonished last week to see that the NASDAQ 100 was basically back to its pre-crisis high!! You get that? That index is telling you that things are as good as they were before the Great Unwind.

I can’t short them either, at least not on past form. That’s been a mug’s game; the subtext of QE is “kill all the shorts” — another way of making sure stocks go up. Returns on short books have been pretty brutal, and most long short guys in the past couple of months have learned to be mostly long, or if they have to stay balanced, then long stocks, short indices.

So, now what? If stocks are now disassociated from their fundamental realities, however short a time that disassociation is supposed to last, non-fundamental realities are going to rule, and I have no idea what that means. Will we get stasis, a crunch in volatility and volumes? Will we have vast nauseating unexplainable swings in stocks, huge moves in the VIX? Will we crash? Will we carry on straight up? Will we pause and rally? Who can say? We’re in a period where anything is possible, as I’ve said before, a world of unintended consequences coming down the pipe. Some may be good, and some may be bad.

This is why in his darker moments that Baruch thinks a very good analogy for where we are right now is Pet Sematary. The people who buried their cat (and later their son) in the Indian burial ground to bring it back to life got something which looked ostensibly like a cat, but was so only on the outside. On the inside their little puddy tat  was really an undead homicidal zombie cat, as became clear through its increasingly odd behaviour. Unintended consequences followed (mayhem, murder, horror, the Wendigo — all that Stephen King stuff).

The Bernank is like the guy who buried his cat, but in this case instead of a resuscitated cat he wanted his rally back, a healthy stock market and the wealth effect that would bring. I worry we have got something else.

I’m not saying we’re in an undead homicidal zombie market, though we may be. But here’s an example of what the Pet Sematary market is capable of in terms of unintended consequences: QE inflates all asset prices, including commodities. This pressures the Chinese consumer, who we are relying on to pull us all out of this mess, who can suddenly not afford his new LCD TV because his Moo Shu pork is costing 20% more than it used to. Changes in commodity prices have a much greater impact on his consumption than Joe Schmoe in Idaho, with his low cost high fructose corn syrup and processed trans fat diet. The BoC has to raise rates to offset the inflation this is causing, hurting Chinese growth even more, and global GDP growth drops 50bp. Bravo the Bernank. With your Quantitative Easing you just killed off the only good thing in this market which was working naturally without outside interference.

OK, Baruch may be exaggerating, but a big part of today’s selloff is driven by fears of commodity prices in China and a collapsing Shanghai stockmarket. It’ll probably turn out to be nothing, a damp squib. But if it doesn’t, you heard it here first. I feel sure there is a wider point here to make about the bad things that happen when you mess with the signalling mechanism of the stockmarket. After all, the stockmarket does not exist solely to make us richer, does it? But that’s probably for another post.

Get me some of that subprime action!

One part of Baruch’s latest post concerned what after today may now properly be called “Mortgage Crisis II — The Evil Spawn”. I’m not referring to the foreclosure issue, that’s totally separate. I mean the bit where the banks knew that they were selling on dodgy mortgages — where they had done the due diligence and forgot to tell anyone they were selling them crap. We got the first case today. Pimco, the NY Fed, and others are suing BofA, and want them to take back $47bn of dodgy mortages they sold on. At par! It’s called a “Putback”, apparently.

Anyway, as you may remember from the post, Baruch made a joke! He wrote, concerning, as it may come to be known, Putbackgate (actually, Felixgate would be much better):

Certainly you would think a civil case would be worth a shot, and if proven, I can only imagine the settlements. I hope they remember to ask to have the checks made out in Yuan.

Baruch also wrote, and then deleted “I got to get me some of that sub prime paper” — on the ground that it wasn’t that funny. Honestly, I really did.

Incredibly, doing precisely that is the new real life trade on Wall Street! This crappy old mortgage paper trading at 40c on the dollar has suddenly found a new lease of life. Once you own 25% of a securitised issue you can, apparently, get to look at the books and find out just what it was the securitising banks didn’t tell you. You can get your own Clayton to look at the loans. And if you find a discrepancy, you hit the jackpot! Double your money. I dont think these loans are going to stay at 40c for long.

Pimco, according to the WSJ, had 63% of its main bond fund in government paper in July this year. Now it’s just 33%. They’ve been buying, among other things, mortgages, now 28% of the fund. Clever Baruch, with his little joke. But much cleverer is Pimco, methinks, for taking its sense of humour seriously, and thinking of a way of making money from it.


Through the looking glass again

I’ve been catching up on my reading and dear Bento, if anyone tells you they have a clear view on what is going to happen to the econo-world from here, walk away briskly. As Ed Hyman of ISI* puts it, with the now imminent onset of QE2 we are in “scary times”, a world of “unintended consequences”.

The only intellectually honest position to take at this point, it seems, is to admit we haven’t a clue. Personally I, Baruch, am getting really confused. My default setting is that we will muddle through and everything will be OK. But the cone of potential outcomes that surround that base case is now as loose and flappy as a wizard’s sleeve.

Note also that even the “muddling through” scenario doesn’t presume any particular level of the S&P at the end of the next 12 months. Plus or minus 30% and in Baruch’s view we’d still be all right.

Where to start? Well, here’s a list of the factors that I think are going to make us move, in the form of a dialog in Baruch’s head. None or all of them could dominate. Maybe some are already priced in. Some of them I hope are  made up and will go away. There’s nothing particularly original here I admit, but I want, at this juncture, to sum up where we may be. Baruch’s future self might find it interesting. Here goes:

1) we are getting QE2! It will save us from Japanese-style deflation. Yayy!

2) Yes, but this is not necessarily a good thing. QE2 is the first move, the invasion of Poland if you like, in the coming currency war against everyone who is good at exporting, especially the Chinese. In the ensuing cycle of “bugger thy neighbour”, we will descend into massive disruption of trade and runaway inflation. Oh no!

3) But don’t worry. The Chinese are going to make structural reforms in their upcoming 5 Year Plan which will massively boost consumption over the next few years. The Yuan will rise anyway, no matter what the result of the horrible currency shenanigans, and their ensuing import boom will be the engine dragging the world out of debt-deflation! Yayy!

4) Hang on. I’ve just had some bad news. The financial system is insolvent again. All the mortgages securitised in the past X years stopped being asset backed, as they umm. . . lost the paperwork. The holders can’t foreclose, and the people who have been foreclosed on may have had their houses taken away illegally. Many may have to get their houses back. So stuff that the banks still own has to be written down again. Hell, even the people who can pay their mortgages have a big incentive not to any more. We’re totally fucked.

5) Don’t worry! All that crap’s been written off already or backed by the Feds! Isn’t it? They can’t be as stupid to have it still on their books, right? While we may have jeopardised a couple of banks, the Foreclosure Crisis may also have solved the US consumer debt problem! All the mortgages will be cancelled!! As long as a few banks can survive we still got QE2, massive Chinese consumption growth AND a reset to US private indebtedness. Those crazy Americans can now re-re-mortgage their houses and buy another round of LCD TVs for their McMansions, and reinstate the semi-annual holidays in Disney World! We can’t lose!!

6) Not so fast, cheeky monkey. The US banking system may be meta-fucked. Turns out the banks who securitised mortgages may have defrauded their customers and broken the law, because they secretly did in fact do some due diligence, and knew all the mortgages were rubbish. There is no better person to tell you about this than our old mate Felix; who says bloggers can’t do journalism? Good news: bankers may not be the total idiots we thought they were. Bad news: they were fraudulently criminal instead, and apparently may have to pay cash at par for all the stuff they all wrote down already, plus a bunch of extra fines.  Even if the SEC throws up its hands and the DoJ doesn’t want to prosecute, I imagine foreign prosecutors won’t be so shy if there’s a case to be heard. Certainly you would think a civil case would be worth a shot, and if proven, I can only imagine the settlements. I hope they remember to ask to have the checks made out in Yuan.

7) You poor sap. You ridiculous perma-bear. Bernanke has our backs! You don’t think he doesn’t know this stuff already? You were wondering why he was so keen to rush into QE2 despite the positive turn in the leading indicators, and pump us all up before the mid-terms. You got it now? We’re going to get the mother of all easings, bigger than the trillion dollars everyone’s expecting, something open-ended, maybe.

Anyway, that’s as far as I got. Any better ideas out there? Anything I missed? Is any of it wrong? Can you help poor old Baruch make sense of it all?

* ISI is the only macro strategist my team actually pays for, everyone else seems to offer their opinions for free