I recently sat down with Wallace Forbes to discuss investing in China and other emerging markets—the interview is now up on Forbes.com. The text of the article follows below:
Using ETFs To Play China
Wallace Forbes 03.01.10, 5:00 PM ET
John Rutledge, founder and chairman of Rutledge Capital, discusses with Wallace Forbes investments in China and other emerging markets.
Rutledge: Needless to say, this is a tricky time for people trying to forecast the economy since there are so many policy changes in the wind. I think what we’ve got to realize is that last year, 2009, was really dominated by an undervalued or broken market that came back to life. In March 2009 we had the opportunity to buy a dollar of equities for 50 cents, and we captured most of that value by the end of the year.
The problem is that now we don’t still have a free lunch. We’re going to have to earn our money by finding things to buy that can actually generate profits and cash flow, and have rising values. To begin with, the global economy this year, like last year will be driven by China, which is responsible for more than half of the growth of the entire world economy.
What’s driving that growth is the reform and opening of China along with technology change that has allowed capital to flow very quickly into high return areas like China. Where the U.S. will grow by, say, 2% this year, China will grow by 10%. And over the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years China will continue to have a dramatic growth advantage over the old economies in Western Europe and the U.S.
The way I like to look at equity investment is to use a metaphor from meteorology, which is really like the evening news covering today’s weather. We all know that when we see a storm on a weather map something’s going to happen. Storms take place when high and low pressure regions come together, and they make rain, snow, thunder, lightening, tornados and hurricanes. In economics the equivalent situation takes place when high and low return capital comes together, and investors take advantage of that gap to redeploy their assets from low to high return situations.
I use that metaphor to invest a pool of capital in Switzerland, and on my weather map we have three storm systems. One is the end of the credit crunch. Very clearly the financial markets now are coming back to life, and the blackout that happened in the credit markets is ending.
That means it’s late to make money by owning banks and financial stocks. The one exception to that I would make is that I’m very interested in the Blackstone Group. That’s because in the private-equality business the general partner, which is Blackstone, makes almost all of its money for the decade in the two years following the end of a credit crunch. When companies’ trailing histories show low profits, their owners are impatient in waiting for a sale.
Their creditors are forcing sales, but the prospects going forward look good and banks are again beginning to make leverage loans available. I think Blackstone at today’s price of about $14 is vastly undervalued compared to where it will be in a year or two year’s time. Plus, it has a dividend yield of 8.7%. So I have a sizeable whack of money today invested in Blackstone and the leveraged buyout or private-equity sector.
A second storm system, to use my initial analogy, is the growth of emerging markets led by China. The trick there is that Chinese property rights, audits, financial statements, courts are all very weak. So if you want to gather in the value created by the growth of China, which is really the only top-line growth happening in the world over the next 10 years, you’re going to have to do it by investing in somebody that makes money from China but whose governance is located in a safer place.
There are several examples of that. The typical one people talk about is FXI, which is the exchange-traded fund for the Shanghai stock market. It is not bad. It’s actually invested in Chinese companies. But when China grows, it buys its technology from North Asia, especially Korea, and Japan, and Taiwan.
China buys its natural resources from South Asia, in particular Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia. And it buys its money by going to the capital markets increasingly from Hong Kong and Singapore. And so this is one way to play these dynamics.
Forbes: Interesting combination.
Rutledge: Absolutely. There is one stock that captures four of those markets. The ticker is EPP. It is the collection of the stock markets of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore. And within Australia you have coal and natural gas. The same with New Zealand: You have the capital markets in Hong Kong and Singapore, both of which have been rated as more open and free economies with easier business conditions than the United States.
Forbes: Now this is an ETF that trades on the New York Stock Exchange?
Rutledge: It is. The ticker is EPP. There’s a second one that captures the bulk of China’s IT and communications technology needs which is the Korean ETF, EWY. The largest company in that ETF is Samsung. And Samsung is responsible for something like half of all of the mobile phone technology finding its way into China.
For people who don’t like ETFs but like a little more bravado in their portfolios, the most interesting one to me right now is Freeport McMoran. That stock has been weak recently because they’ve had an issue with a government permit in Indonesia. But Freeport McMoran produces gold and is also is a very dominant producer of copper.
When China grows, it does infrastructure spending in real estate. There are 150 million migrant workers in China, all on scaffolds. The government there is very interested in keeping them on the scaffolds and off the streets. And when they build buildings, of course, they use copper.
At the moment, many, many more buildings have been started than have been completed over the last 6 to 12 months. So, there’s going to be a surge in copper demand from China happening in the next six months, which I think will show up in the price of FCX.
That stock is currently trading in the market at about $74. The trailing 12-month price-earnings ratio is 12.9. The dividend yield is just under 1%. But earnings, which were $5.86 last year, this year look like they’re going to approach $8, and next year $9, almost all of which comes from the increase in copper prices that happened over the last year.
Forbes: That’s a fascinating set of items to be suggesting, John, as always. We go from Blackstone to a couple of specialized ETFs in the Far East and then down to Freeport as a single way to play that opportunity, or at least as a driving force in it. John, that’s terrific. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
I don’t often write about government policies that I like. It’s not that I’m crabby; it’s because they are so scarce. But today I will make an exception. Today, the Fed and the Treasury, along with several other financial regulators, correctly identified the cause of the small business lending problem–themselves–and took steps to fix it. It’s about time.
Today the financial regulators passed the grown man test by “manning up” to what we have known all along; banks have been effectively redlining loans to small businesses due to fears of regulatory reprisal. You can read the statement by clicking here.
They have made a start at addressing the problem by instructing banks to look at the health of the borrower, rather than computer models, when assessing loans. And they have gone on record that banks who do their homework and make loans to healthy small businesses will not be subject to criticism from the regulators.
The purpose of the directive is “to ensure that supervisory policies and actions do not inadvertently curtail the availability of credit to sound small business borrowers.”
As you can see from the chart above showing bank lending to business borrowers. it would have been helpful if they had started ensuring that this wouldn’t happen 15 months ago when banks slammed their doors shut for business borrowers. But let’s not quibble. I’m happy they are taking action now.
Longtime readers will know that I believe non-price credit rationing to be the principal trigger for downturns in employment. It happens when regulators get over-zealous and lay their heavy hands on lending standards. I called it a credit crunch in a series of articles I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990′s and again in 2001, which prompted a vicious response from the then Comptroller of the Currency, who denied it ever happens. The fact is, business customers don’t decide how much money to borrow based upon the interest rate; it’s the availability of credit that matters.
This time around, non-price credit rationing has fallen especially hard on small businesses–the source of almost all new jobs. In the dotcom bust, only 15% of the drop in loans hit small businesses. This time it is almost half.
The facts are simple. Employment can’t increase until small businesses can borrow the money to meet payroll. Today’s step just might be a nudge to make that happen.
Bravo to the regulators for taking steps to fix the problem they created in the first place. Now it’s time for banks, large and small, to respond to this statement by giving small business owners the loans they need to do what they always do best–make more jobs for people who want to work.
(2/1/10) U.S. stock prices have dropped like a stone over the past two weeks. Total market capitalization of U.S. stocks was $13.1 trillion at yesterday’s (1/31) close, down $885 billion from its $14.02 trillion peak on 1/19.
Some analysts think it was China’s monetary tightening that caused the drop in stock prices. Some think it was Obama’s announcements of new taxes and new regulations on banks. Some think that investors have simply lost their nerve.
It was Obama’s war on capital that caused the meltdown. The numbers below show total U.S. market capitalization–the total value of all stocks trading in all markets–at several key dates over the past 2 weeks.
On 1/11/10, before any of these things happened, the U.S. markets were worth $14.02 trillion, which we will use as a benchmark for our analysis.
On 1/12/10 Chinese officials announced they would tighten monetary policy. There were sharp changes in individual stock prices but on 1/13/10, two days later, U.S. market cap was essentially the same at $14.02 trillion. No big deal.
On 11/13/10, the evening before Obama announced the punitive tax on big banks–$117 billion collected over 12 years. On 1/19/10, six days later, U.S. market cap was essentially unchanged, at $14.02 trillion. This makes sense. An ostensibly one-time tax of $117 billion, collected over 12 years, is only worth $66 billion in today’s dollars at a 10% discount rate–a rounding error in market cap numbers.
Obama Bank Tax Estimates
On 1/21/10, Obama dropped the bomb. He essentially announced the breakup of the banking industry, imposing limits on the allowable size and business activities of a bank, measures that would force banks to divest many of their most profitable operations. U.S. market cap fell by $740 billion (6.3%) from $13.88 trillion to $13.14 at yesterday’s close. Altogether, market cap fell by $880 billion since Obama started meddling with the banking system. This $880 billion was sucked directly out of the value of U.S. pension assets and household net worth. An anti-stimulus plan if I ever saw one.
Way to go, “O”.
It is obvious why Obama is attacking the capital markets. Republican wins in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts driven by public rejection of his health care plan have undermined public support and put the mid-term elections in jeopardy. The public is angry. Obama would like to redirect that anger on someone else. Hence the war on banks.
We can’t afford Obama’s war on capital. The cost of punitive policies, in lost net worth, slower growth and fewer jobs, will fall directly on the people he claims to want to defend–the middle class. Unfortunately, this may be just the beginning of the Obama Inquisition. Stay clear of the stock markets until it is over.
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Yesterday, OnlineSchools.org posted an article called “100 Best Twitter Feeds for Your Financial Intelligence.” The article highlights the many Twitter feeds out there that discuss finance, economics, business, entrepreneurship and other financial-minded topics, and provides a list of their top 100 picks to get you started. And out of the 100 chosen, John’s feed (@johnrutledge) made the list! Check out the article to find other great financial Twitter Thinkers to follow and to see their description of John’s feed!
You can now listen to one of John’s recent speeches online! Check out the audio of John’s March 11, 2009 speech at UC Berkeley’s Information School by downloading the file or listening to it through your browser.
Titled “Lessons from a Road Warrior,” his speech delves deeper into the science behind his Thermo-Economics framework and talks about how that framework, in conjunction with other fields such as network theory and neuropsychology, relate to today’s economy. The mp3 file contains the full speech and following Q&A period, and runs about 1 hour and 22 minutes long.
For additional media files, you can also visit our Press Materials page in the Resources section. You can also read more about Berkeley’s Information School and the groundbreaking research they’re doing there at their website.
The latest business loans numbers show that bank loans to businesses are still falling. As I have written in recent posts here and here, large banks have systematically shut down their lending to small businesses over the past 2 months, an unintended consequence of the hugely profitable government bailout programs. Basically, today if you can’t sell it to the government don’t bother making the loan.
The chart above, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shows commercial and industrial loans from all banks. Banks have loaned approximately -$100 billion to U.S. companies since last fall. Tough to make payroll when you have to pay more to the bank than you get from the bank.
The latest weekly figures, above, show that banks have reduced loans to businesses by $15.8 billion–roughly -$4,000,000,000 per week–in the past month alone. That does not mean there is less borrowing; it means there is negative borrowing. Banks have forced their business customers to actually pay down their loan balances by $4 billion per week. The only way to do that in a small business is to lay off a worker or sell some inventory or other assets at a deep discount.
Essentially all business loans are small business loans–big public companies get their working capital in the commercial paper market. This is a major reason why employment continues to fall.
This is not the end of the world. I wrote a few days ago, in a piece called Time to Think About the Next Story-Inflation, Rising Rates, Commodity Prices, Weak Dollar, that the tsunami of bank reserves released by the Fed over the past six months is hugely profitable for banks and will eventually force a reopening of the credit markets. This chart is just to remind you that it is going to take longer to show up in jobs numbers than it has in bank stock prices.
The Dept.of Commerce released the April Personal Income and Outlays report today. Could have been worse. Personal income was $12,091 billion, an increase of $58.2 billion, or +0.5% over March. Disposable personal income (DPI) increased $121.8 billion, or +1.1% in April. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) decreased $5.4 billion, or 0.1%. Real disposable income increased +1.1% in April.
The April change in disposable personal income (DPI) – personal income less personal current taxes – was boosted as a result of government stimulus measures, which reduced personal taxes and increased social benefit payments. Even without these factors, however, disposable personal income increased $77.1 billion, or +0.7%, in April.
The increase in peronal income did not come from higher compensation. Private wage and salary disbursements decreased $1.3 billion in April. Goods-producing industries’ payrolls decreased $11.4 billion; manufacturing payrolls decreased $3.7 billion. Services-producing industries’ payrolls increased $10.1 billion. Government wage and salary disbursements increased $4.4 billion.
It was the temporary tax relief. Personal current taxes ($1182.4 billion) decreased $63.6 billion in April, compared with a decrease of $34.1 billion in March; down sharply from $1517.7 just six months ago. The Making Work Pay Credit provision of the stimulus plan reduced personal taxes $49.8 billion in April and $11.2 billion in March. The provision allows a refundable tax credit of up to $400 for working individuals and up to $800 for married taxpayers filing joint returns.
Sustainable increases in disposable income won’t happen until employment starts to rise again. And jobs can’t grow until small businesses have access to bank loans for working capital. As I wrote in a recent post, business loans are still falling. When loans turn up, so will jobs and personal income.
This morning I woke up in the dark to do a 7AM spot with Alexis on Fox Business Money for Breakfast. Our topic was Geithner’s first trip to Beijing to meet with the Chinese officials on U.S./China economic issues. What issues would be on the table?
That’s easy. They want to know what the U.S. is going to do to protect their $2 trillion in U.S. Treasuries and other dollar-denominated securities from inflation and a falling dollar. Doogie is going to try to convince them that we have it all under control—we will get that deficit down soon as the economy starts to grow again. They won’t buy it.
A few weeks ago I received a request for a private meeting with Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan to discuss economic issues between our countries. He was most eager to understand two things. First, why was the U.S. government spending so much money on the stimulus packages. (China’s stimulus package was not as big as advertized, mainly accelerated infrastructure projects that were already in the budget.) Second, why was the Federal Reserve flooding the market with dollars? Bank reserves in the U.S. have increased from $85 billion one year ago to roughly $1000 billion today.
I explained that the crisis first became visible in June 2007 when banks revealed they were holding some $300 billion of toxic (covenant-light) leveraged loans. From then until August, 2008 the Fed talked stimulus but walked tight money–bank reserves grew only 1% during this period–because the Fed acted to sterilize the impact of their newly-announced liquidity measures (Bear Stearns, AIG,…) by selling Treasury bills from their portfolio (idiots!). But in September, after the near run on money market funds, after depositors began to take money out of their banks in earnest, and after Lehmann died the Fed panicked and started shoveling reserves into the banking system, which is why reserves have increased 10x in 8 months.
Explaining the budget explosion was not so easy. Some economists in Washington actually believe that increasing government spending raises GDP growth like it says in the textbooks. (I am not one of those economists.) But most of the spending increase was the result of Hank Paulson’s ($700 billion) power grab last fall and the change in administrations that allowed the Obama team to come in and take advantage of the crisis by adding every program they have ever dreamed of to the Federal budget. As a consequence, Obama’s first (2010) budget will spend $1.8 trillion more than revenues and the CBO projects deficits of roughly $1 trillion per year, basically forever. (And the budget does not yet include national healthcare!)
To a holder of $2 trillion in U.S. securities all this isn’t the best news. He then asked a third question: what can china do to protect the value of its assets from U.S. inflation and a falling dollar? I told him that if I were in his shoes I would have a quiet conversation with Geithner and arrange a private transaction in which he would swap all his Treasury holdings for inflation-protected Treasuries, or TIPS.
I wonder what they are talking about at the meetings in Beijing today?
Note: When I wrote this explanation of budget deficits and interest rates just a year ago as a chapter of my book, Lessons from a Road Warrior, we were in a different world where budgets mattered, at least a little. We argued about deficits of $100 billion or $200 billion, and never had to use trillion in polite conversation. Today, government spending is completely out of control. Since last fall, when Congress was railroaded into giving Treasury Secretary Paulson complete discretion over spending $700 billion for the TARP bailout plan all semblance of fiscal discipline has been destroyed. Obama’s team quickly used the financial crisis to add another $1.2 trillion of spending and has added or expanded countless spending programs in his first budget. As a result the deficit for Obama’s first full budget year is likely to approach an incredible $2 trillion–not including the cost of his proposed national healthcare program. Trillions more have been provided by the Federal Reserve, without congressional approval or oversight, by taking on the authority to add all sorts of assets to their once-pristine balance sheet.
I decided to leave the numbers and the charts unchanged from the original examples in part to highlight the difference between then and now. The analysis remains unchanged. Balance sheets are still huge compared with private saving and private and government borrowing. It still takes a huge amount of government borrowing to move the needle on interest rates. And the most important question for interest rates is still whether anything is going on to change people’s willingness to hold the securities that are already outstanding, not how many new ones the Treasury is selling. But today the numbers are big enough that people all around the world are taking notice and reevaluating whether they want to hold dollar assets. This is the most important economic question of our time.
Textbooks have it all wrong when they teach students that interest rates are determined by the supply and demand for credit. For example, a leading finance textbook (Investments, by Bodie, Kane and Marcus) states:
Forecasting interest rates is one of the most notoriously difficult parts of applied macroeconomics Nonetheless, we do have a good understanding of the fundamental factors that determine the level of interest rates.
- The supply of funds from savers, primarily households.
- The demand for funds from businesses to be used to finance investments in plant, equipment, and inventories (real assets or capital formation).
- The government’s net supply of or demand for funds as modified by the actions of the Fed.
These statements are wrong, wrong, wrong. Had you acted on them to structure your investments over the last 30 years you would have lost all your money. Interest rates are simply a calculation we make from asset prices, as I explained in a recent post. Asset prices are determined in asset markets by existing asset supplies and the demand to hold existing assets. In spite of what the textbooks tell you, throughout history, the correlation between interest rates and deficits is actually negative; i.e., higher deficits are associated with lower interest rates. The drawings below explain why.
Interest rates are not determined by savings rates and are not determined by the demand for credit. As a logical matter, it is debt, not deficits, along with people’s demand to hold different types of assets, that determine interest rates.
Budget deficits in the ranges we have historically seen them—a few hundred billion–don’t matter much for the economy. Not for interest rates. Not for growth. The multi-trillion dollar bond markets don’t care at all whether the government is a net seller or a net buyer of $100 billion in new Treasury securities in a given year. They care whether the people who own the old paper today are still going to want to own it tomorrow. And that will depend on whether something happens to change people’s minds about future after-tax returns on bonds relative to other assets–period. The rest is all rounding errors. Nothing else matters.
When the Treasury holds an auction to finance a deficit, they print and sell new T-bills or other Treasury IOUs (notes and bonds) to investors like Aunt Tilly. This isn’t the first time the government has borrowed money from private citizens. Aunt Tilly and other investors already own a huge stock of similar old T-bills—$5.1 trillion worth at the end of 2007—that we call the national debt. At the end of last year, there were $9.2 trillion of old T-bills outstanding—the government’s accumulated borrowing since the time of George Washington. Of those, $5.1 trillion, or 55%, was held by private investors like you, Aunt Tilly and me.
New treasury paper and old treasury paper are perfect substitutes to investors. Not almost perfect substitutes—perfect substitutes. In practice, they are indistinguishable in the market. T-bills, notes and bonds are also very good substitutes for many other securities owned by investors, including agency securities, corporate securities, municipal securities and securities issued by financial institutions. These, in turn, are substitutes to some degree for equities, foreign securities and tangible assets in the minds of investors. When you buy a bond, you shop for its issuer, its maturity date, its call provisions, its tax features, and its yield—not its model year. This means that new bonds and old bonds that are the same in every other way must sell at the same price. Arbitrageurs make sure they do.
It’s like the commercial where the dad asks his teenage son to drive to the local gas station to put gas in the family car. Hours later, the dad is still standing in the driveway when his son returns with the explanation, “But Dad, you didn’t want me to mix the new gas with the old gas, did you?”
Bond investors mix the new bonds with the old bonds all the time.
Flow-of-funds is a theory to explain the price of new bonds. Portfolio balance is a theory to explain the price of old bonds. But in the real world, there can only be one price for all bonds. Which theory wins? Portfolio balance, because almost all bonds are old bonds. The important question is not whether the government will borrow money this year. It is what price it will take to make Aunt Tilly—and all the other investors who owned T-bills yesterday—still want to own the stock of T-bills tomorrow.
But balance sheets do not sit still; they grow over time. The stock of tangible assets grows as a result of building houses, factories, shopping centers and new cars faster than they wear out. The stock of private financial assets grows as people issue mortgages to finance home purchases, and companies issue new stocks and bonds to finance capital spending, home construction and durable goods production—at a faster rate than the old ones mature. We create new government securities to finance the budget deficit, or we destroy them by using a budget surplus to buy back debt.
As our net worth grows, so does our appetite to hold all assets. This growth is represented by drawing a second pie chart showing the larger stock of stuff (tangible assets) and financial assets. Historically, U.S. balance sheets have grown at about 7% per year.
Higher net worth gives investors like Aunt Tilly an appetite to own more T-Bills too, as illustrated in the drawing. You can think of this appetite as thousands of Aunt Tillys standing in line in front of the Treasury building, waiting to place orders for the new T-bills that the government will sell next year (to add to the ones they already own).
That appetite is larger than most people think. If net worth grows 7% next year, as it has done historically, investors will want to increase their holdings of T-bills by $357 billion, from $5.1 trillion to just under $5.5 trillion.
If the Treasury issues just enough new T-bills to satisfy Aunt Tilly’s appetite, then everyone will go away happy. There will be just enough T-bills to go around. Prices will remain the same as they were last year. Interest rates will remain unchanged.
But what would happen if the treasury issued too few or too many T-bills to satisfy investors’ appetites? That’s easy. There would be a scuffle. If they were too few T-Bills for sale due to a smaller government deficit, then Aunt Tilly would wrestle with the other investors for the limited supply. This would drive T-Bill prices up and interest rates down.
If the government ran up the deficit and there were too many T-Bills for sale, then the Treasury would be forced to lower their asking price to sell their inventory. T-Bill prices would fall and interest rates would rise.
It is only to the extent that budget deficits exceed Aunt Tilly’s appetite for new securities that they can be said to push interest rates up at all. In our example, we can think of the $357 billion from the previous example as the interest rate neutral budget deficit—one that will put no pressure on interest rates. The balanced budget that we all wish for would actually exert downward pressure on interest rates every year. Over time, government debt would gradually become extinct like the dodo bird; it would be irrelevant for investors.
This does not mean that I love budget deficits. It does not mean that deficits are good or bad. And it does not blunt the fact that higher government spending uses tons of resources and creates all sorts of incentive and resource allocation problems. It just means that budget deficits are unlikely to be a factor in determining interest rates in the range in which we have historically seen them.
If deficits don’t determine interest rates, then what does? The answer is any factor that could drive a wedge between the relative returns on different assets. Higher inflation does that by increasing the return on tangible assets (i.e., the gain on owning a home raises its return) relative to returns on securities. That makes people sell securities to increase their holdings of real assets, like we saw during the 1970s, which drives interest rates higher. Lower income tax rates increase the after-tax returns on taxable securities relative to real assets, for example, because people are forced to report all income from securities on their tax forms but are not required to report the value of living in their home as taxable income. This will drive interest rates lower. Rising productivity growth can quicken net worth growth, which will increase Aunt Tilly’s appetite for all assets and drive interest rates lower. And the Fed can influence the rate of net worth growth by making it easier or more difficult to finance investments.