What Now?

On episode 17, Dr. Ben Hunt is joined once again by Downtown Josh Brown. He’s an author, CNBC contributor, and CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management. The last time Josh joined the podcast was right after the first presidential debate. With the election and inauguration behind us, now what? Ben and Josh take on the proposed 2017 Fed rate hikes, the potential impact of a higher dollar, and what matters most in investing.

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You Can Either Surf, or You Can Fight

Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son.  Nothing else in the world smells like that.

– Apocalypse Now (1979)

Hello, hello, hello, how low? [x3]
– Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Outside the bus the smell of sulfur hit Bond with sickening force.  It was a horrible smell, from somewhere down in the stomach of the world.
– Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever (1956)

There’s more than a whiff of 2008 in the air. The sources of systemic financial sector risk are different this time (they always are), but China and the global industrial/commodity complex are even larger tectonic plates than the US housing market, and their shifts are no less destructive. There’s also more than a whiff of 1938 in the air (hat tip to Ray Dalio), as we have a Fed that is apparently hell-bent on raising rates even as a Category 5 deflationary hurricane heads our way, even as the yield curve continues to flatten.

What really stinks of 2008 to me is the dismissive, condescending manner of our market Missionaries (to use the game theory lingo), who insist that the US energy and manufacturing sectors are somehow a separate animal from the US economy, who proclaim that China and its monetary policy are “well contained” and pose little risk to US markets. Unfortunately, the role and influence of Missionaries is even greater today in this policy-driven market, and profoundly misleading media Narratives reverberate everywhere.

For example, we all know that it’s the overwhelming oil “glut” that’s driving oil prices down and wreaking havoc in capital markets, right? It’s all about OPEC versus US frackers, right?

Here’s a 5-year chart of the broad-weighted US dollar index (this is the index the Fed publishes, which – unlike the DXY index and its >50% Euro weighting – weights all US trading partners on a pro rata basis) versus the price of WTI crude oil. The red line marks Yellen’s announcement of the Fed’s current tightening bias in the summer of 2014.

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Source: Bloomberg, January 2016.

Ummm … this nearly perfect inverse relationship is not an accident. I’m not saying that supply and demand don’t matter. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that divergent monetary policy and its reflection in currency exchange rates matter even more. Where is the greatest monetary policy divergence in the world today? Between the US and China. What currency is the largest contributor to the Fed’s broad-weighted dollar index? The yuan (21.5%). THIS is what you need to pay attention to in order to understand what’s going on with oil. THIS is why the game of Chicken between the Fed and the PBOC is so much more relevant to markets than the game of Chicken between Saudi Arabia and Texas.

But wait, there’s more.

>My belief is that a garden variety, inventory-led recession emanating from the energy and manufacturing sectors is already here. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I spend too much time in Houston. Maybe low wage, easily fired service sector jobs are the new engine for US GDP growth, replacing the prior two engines – housing/construction 2004-2008 and energy/manufacturing 2010-2014. But I don’t see how you can look at the high yield credit market today or projections of Q4 GDP or any number of credit cycle indicators and not conclude that we are rolling into some sort of “mild” recession.

My fear is that in addition to this inventory-led recession or near-recession, we are about to be walloped by a new financial sector crisis coming out of Asia.

What do I mean? I mean that Chinese banks are not healthy. At all. I mean that China’s attempt to recapitalize heavily indebted state-owned enterprises through the equity market was an utter failure. I mean that China is going to need every penny of its $3 trillion reserves to recapitalize its banks when the day of reckoning comes. I mean that China’s dollar reserves were $4 trillion a year ago, and they’ve spent a trillion dollars already trying to manage a slow devaluation of the yuan. I mean that the flight of capital out of China (and emerging markets in general) is an overwhelming force. I mean that we could wake up any morning to read that China has devalued the yuan by 10-15%.

Look … the people running Asian banks aren’t idiots. They can see where things are clearly headed, and they are going to do what smart bankers always do in these circumstances: TRUST NO ONE. I believe that there is going to be a polar vortex of a credit freeze coming out of Asia that will look a lot like 1997. Put this on top of the deflationary impact of China’s devaluation. Put this on top of an inventory-led recession or near recession in the US, together with high yield credit stress. Put this on top of massive market complacency driven by an ill-placed faith in central banks to save the day. Put this on top of a potentially realigning election in the US this November. Put this on top of a Fed that is tighteningStorm warning, indeed.

So what’s to be done? As Col. Kilgore said in “Apocalypse Now”, you can either surf or you can fight. You can adopt strategies that can make money in this sort of environment (historically speaking, longer-term US Treasuries and trend-following strategies that can go short), or you can slog it out with a traditional equity-heavy portfolio.

Also, as some Epsilon Theory readers may know, I co-managed a long/short hedge fund that weathered the 2008 systemic storm successfully. There were trades available then that, in slightly different form, are just as available today. For example, it may surprise anyone who’s read or seen (or lived) “The Big Short” that the credit default swap (CDS) market is even larger today than it was in 2008. I’d welcome a conversation with anyone who’d like to discuss these systemic risk trades and how they might be implemented today.

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Going Gray

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Everything under the sun is in chaos. The situation is excellent.

– Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976)

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

– Chinatown (1974)

Language is conceived in sin and science is its redemption.

– W.V.O. Quine (1908 – 2000)

I am, as I am; whether hideous, or handsome, depends upon who is made judge.

– Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)

All -ism’s end up in schisms.

– Huston Smith (b. 1919)

What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient.

– Lee Kuan Yew (b. 1923)

Two years ago, the new seven-member Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo – the most powerful political entity in the country – was introduced to great fanfare. All seven men walked on stage wearing a dark suit and a red tie, but to me the most striking aspect of their appearance was their hair. Yes, their hair. Their dark, immaculately coifed, powerful hair. Despite an average age of 65, not one of these men has EVER been seen in public without sporting a mane that would make their grandsons proud.

On the other hand, consider this handsome man, Bo Xilai. Once the princeling of princelings, the son of a Long March vet, Bo was enormously popular for his Redder-than-Thou politics and enormously rich from his mayoral “crackdown” on organized crime in Chongqing, a municipality with about the same urban population as New York City. To put Bo Xilai in a US context, he was richer than Michael Bloomberg and more politically ambitious than Rudy Giuliani, if either of those two qualities can be imagined. And of course, this 65 year old politician had the luxurious jet-black hair as befits a man of his position.

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But alas, Bo’s political reach exceeded his political grasp. Undone publicly for abuse of office and a murder conspiracy, privately for his creation of a top-notch intelligence operation that spied on his fellow Politburo princelings (again to put in a US context, imagine if a mega-billionaire mayor of New York City created his own electronic FBI that could monitor everyone’s market activities … crazy, right?), Bo found himself on the wrong end of a show trial and is currently living out the rest of his days in a Madoff-style cell. How do we know that Bo is gone for good, that he has lost whatever political support he formerly commanded? Because they took away his hair dye. He’s “gone gray”, as they say in the Chinese political lingo, portrayed to the world as a frail old man who not only lost his freedom but much more importantly lost his mojo.

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Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death!”, a sentiment that makes sense in Western political culture but is met with puzzled looks in the East. Personal liberty is, in an important sense, everything in Western political culture. In Chinese political culture … not so much.  On the other hand, signifiers of personal potency – like maintaining dark hair – have enormous meaning in China and, at times, a diametrically opposed meaning in the West.

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Okay, Ben, kinda interesting in a cultural anthropology sort of way, but what in the world does this have to do with investing? Simply this, and it’s a core Epsilon Theory tenetthe meaning of events and market signals differ hugely from country to country, tribe to tribe, generation to generation. Ferguson does not mean the same thing as Hong Kong. Hong Kong does not mean the same thing as Tahrir Square or even Tiananmen Square. Monetary policy does not mean the same thing in Beijing as monetary policy means in Washington, which in turn does not mean the same thing as monetary policy in Paris or Rome. But we have an innate tendency to act as if these signals DO mean the same thing, and we can totally wrong-foot our investments as a result.

The biggest thing happening in the world today is the growing divergence between US monetary policy and everyone else’s monetary policy. There is a schism in the High Church of Bernanke, with His US acolytes ending the QE experiment in no uncertain terms, and His European and Japanese prelates looking to keep the faith by continued balance sheet expansion. That divergence plays out mostly in exchange rates, and it has three HUGE implications, one for investment strategy selection, one for global growth, and one for … (gulp!) gold.

First, this is great news for global macro strategies and their low-cost, populist cousins, so-called “alternative beta” strategies. Global macro performance has been absolutely atrocious over the past five years, driven primarily by a coordinated global monetary policy regime that squeezed out the historical patterns of difference between geographies and asset classes. Now that monetary policy is uncoordinated, with every major economic region essentially fending for itself, global macro and alternative beta strategies have “room” to work. To be sure, some of these strategies will still be confounded by an investment regime where monetary policy trumps economic fundamentals at every turn, but the sine qua non for ANY active investment strategy is distinction and dispersion. For the first time in more than five years, we can see this sort of distinction and dispersion in regional macroeconomic policies, giving traditional global macro strategies at least a chance of success. Vive la difference!

Second, this divergence in regional monetary policy creates enormous strains on the tectonic plates of modern international trade – currency exchange rates. In the absence of a re-convergence of monetary policy I don’t see any compelling reason why recent dollar appreciation should slow down, much less reverse itself, with the obvious consequences for US S&P 500 earnings (negative), commodity prices and commodity-related securities (negative), most EM markets (negative), and European and Japanese earnings (positive). But the greatest risk for global economic stability from a dollar on steroids is, for my money, China. Why? Because as I’ve tried to point out in prior Epsilon Theory notes (herehere, and here), China’s political stability depends on economic growth – it’s the mojo of the Party just as surely as jet-black hair is the mojo of Party leaders – and Chinese growth depends on exports.So long as the yuan is effectively tethered to the dollar, a stronger dollar means a stronger yuan, which means weaker exports to Europe, Japan, and EM’s. Sure, it’s cheaper now to buy more iron ore and copper, so I suppose you could build another ghost city or two to keep the growth train on track, but the Politburo’s only serious answer to the politically existential question of growth is to sell more advanced products to more people, most of whom don’t live in China. That means selling medical devices to Japan and telecom equipment to Germany, tasks made much more difficult by a stronger dollar/yuan. To be clear, I do NOT see some imminent economic collapse in China. But growth is much less certainin China today, and that’s a political problem that the Politburo will stop at nothing to fix. I expect the 180-degree shift in Chinese monetary policy that began this January and paused this summer to accelerate again, which in turn will accelerate political tensions abroad with the US and Japan, as well as political tensions domestically with the mega-rich princeling families. And speaking of domestic political tensions …

Look, I don’t think the meaning of Hong Kong – even to the participants – is some pro-democracy uprising a la the Arab Spring or any of the “color revolutions” our media is so quick to christen. Maybe if we start to see fewer English-language signs and fewer teenagers lifting their smartphone “candles” I’ll change my mind, but right now it seems a lot more like a tepid expression of political identity than a determined effort by determined citizens to change the political system at a fundamental level. This isn’t a release-the-hounds moment like Deng believed Tiananmen Square to be, and it looks like the Gang of Seven in Beijing have decided as much with new orders to pull the police back and let the protesters block traffic and annoy everyone in the city who just wants to get back to business.

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But I do think there’s a deeper implication of the Hong Kong protests, one likely to be missed by Western investors who want to project a Western meaning on the events taking place. I think the most important lesson that mainland leaders in the CCP and PLA will take away from the Hong Kong protests is not that the population must be brought to heel, but that they can’t be trusted, that they’re not really one of us. And that’s okay to a certain degree … the potential of “contagion” from Hong Kong to, say, Chongqing seems really remote given the State’s control over media and information flow … but it’s not okay if the “transmission wires” of Hong Kong’s financial system can’t be trusted. Hong Kong is an indispensable financial intermediary for the Chinese State, and I have zero doubt that Beijing will move to cement their control over the sinews of real power here, by any means necessary. One of those sinews of real power is the Hong Kong dollar, which means that Hong Kong monetary policy and the Hong Kong Currency Board – already reduced to a semi-independent satrap – is about to make the transition to full-fledged puppet. This lesson won’t be lost on the mega-rich Chinese princelings, either. The days of parking your mainland wealth in Hong Kong are now over, as it’s no longer a safe haven from the long arm of the CCP. Let the capital flight begin, and watch out below for the Hong Kong dollar.

As for my third point – the implications of monetary policy divergence on gold – I’m always reticent to write about gold because it incites such passion (and I don’t just mean the gold bug camp … poke pretty much any academically-trained economist and you will unleash a furious anti-gold tirade). To be clear, I believe that the meaning of gold today is NOT as a store of value but as an insurance policy against central banks losing control. With market faith in the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence at an asymptotic top, the price of that insurance policy – call it $1,200/oz – is as low as it’s going to go. And now with a schism in the High Church of Bernanke, monetary policy divergence, and growing pressures on the tectonic plates of exchange rates we have catalysts for both a generic and geographically specific central bank loss of control. Now I understand that gold means different things to different people, and to the degree that gold trades as a commodity or a dollar-denominated store of value it can trade cheaper as the dollar advances. I get that. But I don’t think that’s been the principal meaning of gold for the past 5+ years, and if you think as I do that this is the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of the Central Banker (or at least the end of the beginning), gold is pretty interesting here.

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