Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Global Markets Floating on Beijing D'Opium

An irrational exuberance has set in for global markets, largely in denial of what is happening to the economies of the global elephants: the US, China, and Europe. The ongoing slowdown in China should be particularly worrying to global markets, but from the "artificial high" behaviours of markets, most analysts and economists appear to remain blissfully oblivious -- for now.
...banks have two costs of doing business: the cost of funds (which they pay to depositors) and the cost of bad debts that aren’t repaid. Since Chinese banks enjoy a regulated spread between their deposit and lending rates, the more they lend (and they’ve been lending a LOT these past few years) the more money they make. But the more generously they lend, the greater the risk they won’t be paid back — a risk that should be realistically tabulated and deducted from the earnings spread.

That isn’t happening. The notion that Chinese banks have 1% non-performing loan (NPL) ratios is patently ridiculous, and the claim that provisions for 2.5 times that amount are somehow “generous” (or remotely adequate) are equally absurd. I don’t believe it, and neither do investors in Chinese bank stocks, based on their valuations. Any company can report “profits” if it doesn’t recognize half its costs of doing business. Any company can boost “revenues” by granted easy credit terms to customers who can’t pay it back.

Regarding inflation, the Wall Street Journal published an excellent editorial today that expresses my thoughts as well as I could. You can read it here. They do an excellent job describing the stresses facing China’s banks, and reconciling the apparent contradictions between a slowing economy and inflationary concerns:
It might seem odd to worry about inflation, capital outflows and tight liquidity at the same time, but that’s a consequence of China’s distorted financial system. Because allocation of capital remains politicized, a significant portion of the credit stimulus has gone into wasteful projects; since that money is not creating real growth or productivity gains, it chases too few goods at higher prices.

Meanwhile, those who need cash—including bankers and small and medium-sized businesses—can’t get it. Liquidity injections might help bankers with short-term funding. But absent broader reform, that cash will only follow earlier credit down the inflationary rabbit hole.
Usually economists consider slowing growth and inflation as polar opposites –you can have one or the other, but not both at the same time. Over-rapid growth spurs inflation, but slowing growth reduces price pressure. However, if you print (or in China’s case, import) money and spend it on projects with a zero or negative return, you will get an initial GDP boost (as long as you keep spending), but eventually you will get stagnant growth AND inflation: stagflation. The Journal gets it. Does anyone in China? _Chovanec
That is where China sits: It has stretched its GDP boost well beyond the bounds of credibility, then is stretching it some more. Global markets have a lot riding on the pretense that nothing is wrong in China, nothing is wrong in Europe, nothing is wrong in the US, etc. To maintain that pretense, you can bet that a lot of mind altering substances are being consumed.

As an interesting aside, here is a story of illegal drugs in China. As things go south, societies often turn to drugs for consolation. Expect to see more of that in the not so distant future.

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