Oil and USD Rallies Shake EM…

The oil rally reflects the fundamental tightening we were writing about since late Q2. Crude futures moving into backwardation last summer saw oil tanker storage turn uneconomic and the popular ‘glut’ narrative which saw several high profile bank analysts predict $40-45/bl Brent this year is now shifting…keeping 1.2 mb/d (plus nearly 0.6 m bpd from non-OPEC) offline for another year could push the market into a deficit situation, leading to accelerated inventory drawdowns and prices heading to the $80-90/bl range in H1 19. That’s a scenario worth stress testing in portfolios…’  4th January 2018 blog post

The macro outlook described back in December was for an asset allocation environment of rising rates, oil and the USD – the dollar rally took a long time to arrive, but JPM’s emerging market currency index has tumbled to its lowest level since early 2017. We’re seeing an unusual divergence between the declining broad EM USD carry index versus rising broad commodity indices, with which it usually correlates positively – that will have blown up a few hedge fund macro books.

That anomaly is partly because energy has dominated the commodity rally YTD and diverged from industrial metals impacted by slower Chinese credit/fixed investment (indeed short metals versus energy was one of our December resource trades) and US shale capturing some of the windfall from higher oil prices. We downgraded our view on EM equities to neutral coming into 2018, having been overweight since Q1 16. Arguing for the ‘cheapness’ of EM equities by looking at price to book or PER discounts to DM is simplistic; on an EV/Sales versus operating margin basis, the picture is far more nuanced across the EM universe with Asia looking most compelling, albeit distorted by IT where H2 earnings are now being broadly downgraded. Indeed, Asian tech was one of the most crowded bets cross global portfolios in Q4 an hasn’t delivered, while overall MSCI EM earnings momentum on a three-month rolling aggregated net analyst revision basis is now negative, as indeed is European.

Our view was that a growing divergence between Chinese growth and US inflation (and rates) momentum would become a key portfolio factor as dollar liquidity peaked and ebbed.  On that basis, the consensus long EM and euro trades looked vulnerable to sudden reversal, and indeed popular  carry trades have become lossmakers over the past month as the first signs of an offshore dollar funding squeeze emerge. For the euro, 2-year yield and relative macro data  differentials versus the US suddenly matter again and positioning remains very vulnerable to a further selloff, even if Italy’s new populist coalition avoids further antagonising Germany with ECB write-off talk.

We’ve been long DXY as well as global oil equities in our tactical portfolio, although the crude rally is now extended, with Brent at our year-end target and discounting immediate geopolitical risks. We noted bearish cognitive bias as a factor back in the January post, but the growing number of $100 forecasts from the same IB analysts calling for $40 a year ago reflects the career incentive to herd and momentum chase.

If Q1 was a dollar inflection point and DXY is headed for 100 plus alongside crude in the $70-80 range and 10-year yields sustaining a move above 3%, EM will be a net loser as QE morphs into QT through H2 at a time when import bills surge for twin deficit countries like India and Indonesia after recent FX weakness. The pressure to curtail current account deficits/domestic demand will intensify as funding tightens while more aggressive FX intervention running down official reserves  and pressure to hike rates (as in Indonesia this week)  will become widespread policy responses over the next few months – it’s hard to see even Turkey resisting for long more.

The rise in offshore leverage across EM since 2009 has been broad, although focused in some markets in the banking system (e.g. Turkey where the loan to deposit ratio has reached 120%) and in others the non-financial corporate. There is certainly no immediate prospect of a rerun of the 1982 Mexican or 1997 Asian crisis but the IB “buy the dip, this time is different” mantra looks as misplaced as their blind panic on the asset class in early 2016 deflation scare. When it comes to analyst groupthink, this time is never different…

 

 

Facebook Debacle to Accelerate ‘Self-Sovereign’ Privacy Innovation?

We highlighted coming into 2018 that investors faced an inflection point in the ‘zeitgeist’ for US web stocks, which have been engaged in a form of classic rent seeking and regulatory arbitrage as they built natural monopolies in which the user is the product. We have been secular bulls on global tech over the past few years (although broadly preferring the Chinese to US internet names since 2015 on more diversified business models) but the blind faith of some portfolio managers I’ve met this year has seemed almost cult like. At one meeting last month, an investor whose biggest single holding (in a value fund) was Facebook informed me after an hour of debate that Zuckerberg was a business genius who would prove our bearish thesis wrong, end of.

Perhaps, but he’ll have to do better than the self-servingly sanctimonious ‘building a community’ mantra to restore user and more advertiser faith. Of course, even if revenue growth and margins now almost certainly disappoint, Facebook is at least highly solvent and cash generative. Tesla isn’t without a significant capital infusion by end summer and is still struggling to scale up manufacturing, as evidenced by the disastrous Model 3 launch. The last car so badly built in the factory that it had to be effectively reassembled by dealers was the Soviet Lada, exported to Europe to earn hard currency in the 1980s. At least the Russians could knock out (literally) serious volumes.

Our tactical portfolio has recently been short the US web names, even as tech-focused stock funds have attracted net inflows equivalent to half of those seen in all of 2017. The almost viral, social media inspired retail frenzy that infected crypto in Q4 moved on a handful of leading tech names despite extended valuations priced for execution perfection. Just as belated regulatory action has slammed the crypto sector, so it will for several leading web names. The end of crypto and ICOs as an advertising revenue stream for Google/Facebook is a risk to H2 numbers as it will be for the GPU chip names as coin mining approaches marginal profitability.

There is no question that companies such as Microsoft retain strong earnings momentum (and Microsoft’s ‘software as a service’ reinvention via Office 365 cloud subscriptions etc. has been mirrored by many other legacy software names such as  Adobe). There are plenty of attractive themes in tech but the vulnerable areas to an investor exodus are those with unsustainable business models. and extreme positioning. It’s now widely accepted that ‘weaponized AI’ was used to micro-target voter groups based on interpolating preferences from their social media activity in both the US Presidential and Brexit votes, but intrusive data trawling looks far more widespread than yet realized, including via Android phone records.

I’ve compared social media in research notes to digital nicotine or casino gaming, with the adverse addictive fallout only now becoming apparent. However questionable ethically, until now this activity has remarkably remained almost wholly unregulated. Indeed, the same psychological design features that casinos use in slot rooms to maximize ‘time on device’ and engagement are embedded in multiplayer games, Facebook timelines etc. As that view of the negative externalities becomes widespread, ESG investors will likely begin reducing exposure.

Just the threat of regulation will drive up compliance costs which will be a medium-term earnings growth drag (the employment of thousands of outsourced ‘screeners’ over the past few months checking for offensive content to appease advertisers is just the start). The aggregation effects that fuelled social media/search and e-commerce platforms drive natural oligopolies if not monopolies, albeit with market power difficult to identify within a classic consumer welfare anti-trust framework.

Facebook was misunderstood in the sense that it was an inherently weak business model than the consensus believed in just how much relevant user data it could collect directly for advertisers. Unlike say Google, that forced it to rely on elaborate inference to discover user tastes and needs. It had to collect, share and ‘harvest’ as much behavioural and relationship related user data as possible beyond its own network via its Graph API partnerships until 2015. Most users when they agree via a single click to the complex disclaimers on apps simply can’t understand the implications of the agreements they are entering into and as with sectors from banks to airlines, consumer protections will now gradually be legislated, with the EU’s GDPR rules from May the first step.

With personal data privacy now becoming a priority for many, ‘self-sovereign identity’ systems are emerging to make it easier to take back control. These imply that individuals control the data elements that form the basis of their digital identities, not unaccountable private companies. This digital equivalent of a wallet contains verified pieces of our identities (passport, biometric etc.) which we can then choose to share with third-party apps and sites on a selective basis. This type of online identity uses standard key cryptography,  enabling a user with a private key to share information with recipients who can access the encrypted data with a corresponding public key.

By allowing individuals to control their online reputation and privacy, self-sovereign identity may ultimately become the most valuable and widespread blockchain application and would make it much harder for data hackers (or harvesters) to access sufficient data to interpolate income level, political beliefs etc. That would erode the business model of the ‘Apex Server’ web giants, but for software companies not based on stockpiling user data, decentralized identity should be a boon for customer acquisition and management.

In a recent blog post, Microsoft announced that it would start supporting decentralised identification technology within its existing verification application. Apple is also likely to take advantage of Facebook’s humiliation with a privacy focused product – its iOS phones have been immune to Facebook’s trawling of SMS and call records on Android devices for close contacts on the social network. Indeed, tech investors need to start thinking of data privacy winners and losers across the sector in a regime shift for the Silicon Valley ‘consumer as the product’ advertising led revenue paradigm. 

‘Volatility Volcano’ Erupts…

Changes in the real Fed funds rate have historically led realised equity volatility by about two years, due to the lags between official rate moves and risk-taking (the Fed started hiking in December 2015, albeit at a glacial pace). Low realized volatility feeding into quant based theoretical models has always fuelled the intellectual hubris of finance PhDs (think LTCM etc.) and ultimately proved toxic. The pre-crisis period shows that misplaced correlation assumptions can lead to a far more benign assessment of overall asset risk than is prudent.’  Weekly Insight ‘Sitting on the Volatility Volcano…’ Oct 12th 2017

‘That issue of deteriorating market depth and the proliferation of highly correlated factor based strategies which are de facto short volatility/long equity beta (including long duration corporate credit as an equity proxy) will become a big story next year…the value at risk models are in this sustained low realized volatility environment at maximum exposure to (particularly US) equities. A shock to consensus positioning, be it from inflation, policy or politics could see an ‘air pocket’ liquidity event. Overall, it looks wise to look for ways to trade against to trade the prevailing bias that growth, inflation and interest rates are anchored permanently lower.’ Weekly Insight, 18th December 2017

Our view coming into 2017 was that market structure rather than macro was the biggest risk and to prepare for both higher rates and volatility. That meant underweighting rate duration, being long equity reflation winners and finding volatility hedges. The importance of this selloff is to signal a shift to more nuanced risk appetite after the simplistic ‘melt up’ hype. As highlighted in those Q4 notes referencing the ominous LTCM precedent, the quant/factor investing boom was vulnerable to a paradigm shift in its input variables. While the financial engineers tinkering with factor models suffer a reality check, it’s unlikely that the multi-year bull market is over with earnings growth momentum still accelerating in many markets. Most systematic momentum following funds which soared in January are now down YTD, but given limited leverage overall, this doesn’t look a systemic event like LTCM threatened to become.

However, the role of ultra-low interest rates as a discounting mechanism and low realised volatility as a driver of equity appetite for factor-based strategies such as risk parity has belatedly come into focus for the consensus. If Q1 16 was about investors stress testing portfolios for deflation risks, this time the adjustment is to a higher risk-free discount rate; the 2-year bond overtaking the S&P dividend yield last month was a cautionary signal. When we initiated a VIX long in our tactical portfolio in October, it was one of the most glaring anomalies across markets and generated a 2.6x return when we took profits in this week’s panic.

The length of this correction will be determined by whether a ‘buy the dip’ mentality prevails among an influx of new Millennial investors evident in recent statements from online brokers like TD Ameritrade, as much as whether 10-yr yields will top out at 3% term. It’s unclear if some have been buying stocks on their credit cards, as they clearly were crypto coins in Q4 according to MasterCard’s latest results call (and watch for a spike in card delinquencies in Q2).

The rise in long-term US rates so far is less about Fed policy or inflation expectations as it is a looser fiscal stance. As highlighted in that December note, the supply of US bonds will rise sharply this year at the same moment that demand potentially ebbs as real economy demand for capital in Europe/EM rises. Meanwhile, the Fed will buy $420bn fewer Treasuries than it did in 2017 and in 2019 will reduce purchases by another $600bn. It certainly helps that the ECB and Bank of Japan will be buying nearly all local sovereign issuance and the jump in yields may encourage some active multi-asset managers to re-weight fixed income over equities, as well as the automatic risk-parity rebalancing.

Exposure to key secular themes such as autonomous vehicles/robots, the shift to ‘biological software’ in the drug industry etc. should be opportunistically accumulated into weakness. Earnings momentum globally remains strong;  the scale of guidance upgrades in Japan which has a dominant position in several emerging technology supply chains such as Lidar, vision sensors, monoclonal antibodies and EV batteries should offer support once markets settle. Meanwhile, active investors can take some comfort from the humiliation of the quants whose share of the market has risen to unhealthy and potentially destabilising levels.

 

Oil Market Punishing Recency Bias

Overall, Peak Oil has now been replaced by Peak Oil Demand as a popular investment thesis, but timescale is as ever critical in investment. While the rise of electric vehicles is inexorable over the next 15-20 years as productivity drives a better power to weight and cost ratio for batteries, recently the popularity of SUV sales in both the US and EM implies a cyclical upswing in gasoline demand through end decade. Official statistics can often mislead based on poor sampling and opaque inventory accumulation.’ Macro Weekly Insight – May 18th 2017

The dramatic surge in oil since late summer has surprised the consensus and energy equities have in recent weeks been catching up with the crude move. The oil rally reflects the fundamental tightening we were writing about since late Q2. Crude futures moving into backwardation last summer saw oil tanker storage turn uneconomic and the popular ‘glut’ narrative which saw several high profile bank analysts predict $40-45/bl Brent this year is now shifting.

While global demand is still surprising to the upside amid unusually synchronized growth, and OPEC holding the line at least through mid-year, US shale supply ‘elasticity’ remains a key factor. By 2025, the growth in American oil production will equal that achieved by Saudi Arabia at the height of its expansion, the IEA has claimed in its annual World Energy Outlook, turning the US into a net exporter of fossil energy as shale liquids output reaches 13m bpd out of a US total approaching 17m. Recency bias or the behavioural tendency to apply undue weight to the latest data and simply extrapolate that trend is endemic in the forecasting game. History suggests that the IEA  (relied upon by IB analysts to derive their forecasts) has a very grubby crystal ball, having serially underestimated EM demand for instance – their shale forecasts don’t look plausible.

oil production

Source: US EIA

I wrote a note in July 2013 entitled ‘Are Oil Prices Ignoring a Technology Driven Supply Boost?’, highlighting that US output growth continued to surprise the consensus, while emerging market demand growth was already clearly peaking with Chinese fixed asset investment, but it took almost a year for the re-pricing of that supply shock to begin. Having been oblivious to shale’s impact back then, investors are being complacent as to its sustainability now, and the per rig output data for the key shale regions (which has been volatile recently) bears close watching as much as the overall rig count.

Consensus fears that shale DUCs (drilled uncompleted wells) will flood the market with supply again look unrealistic. When these wells are completed, it will be gradual and the natural decline in legacy shale production will be difficult to overcome – geology will likely dominate shale ‘manufacturing’ innovation. Production from the early Eagle Ford and Permian plays has been declining – it looks unlikely that net shale production will increase by more than a low single digit % in 2018.

We’re seeing a shift to capital discipline across a sector that generated negative free cashflow of $170bn over the past five years. While QE failed to ignite a wider capex recovery, it helped create an investment boom in tech and shale, but capital markets are growing impatient with a sector chronically unable to generate positive returns on investment. The days of shareholder value destructive shale output growth at any cost look to be over, as executive incentives evolve.

Offshore oil service stocks and rig builders remain unattractive versus onshore as global energy capex will likely remain depressed, aside from high IRR productivity led projects. Low marginal cost E&P plays look vulnerable to a round of M&A consolidation by the majors who have been replacing only about 60% of production with new reserves. If the consensus assumption that shale can reaccelerate output growth is overoptimistic, then OPEC will grow its effective market share again. Keeping 1.2 mb/d (plus nearly 0.6 m bpd from non-OPEC) offline for another year could push the market into a deficit situation, leading to accelerated inventory drawdowns and prices heading to the $80-90/bl range in H1 19. That’s a scenario worth stress testing in portfolios…

 

Tech ‘Second Movers’Begin to Perform

The right place this year has been in tech, above all for EM investors with the sector now over a quarter of the MSCI index and accounting for almost half of total performance YTD. The rise of ‘embedded intelligence’ as vision and other sensors enabled by AI software become ubiquitous has been a key theme of ours in recent years, and has attracted a belated consensus frenzy this year, with pure play stocks from Nvidia in the US to iFlytek in China soaring. However, the growth into value tilt we’ve suggested since the summer applies within as well as across sectors. There has been a pretty spectacular valuation arbitrage as new hardware technology and business models are adopted from retail to autos, among incumbents who sit on a fraction of the multiples of the perceived pure play tech leaders. We will see a similar trend in banking/insurance over the next couple of years as fintech startups broadly disappoint, but their innovations slash operating and customer acquisition costs for the more far sighted established names.

The global auto sector has rallied hard since the summer, partly because investors are waking up to the fact that several automakers have very undervalued IP in the EV/AV/transportation as a service space that offsets the wider industry stranded asset risk. This reflects the historical pattern as innovation diffuses – the re-rating opportunity from tech will increasingly be among incumbents adopting new technology to boost competitiveness, from Japanese banks like SBI experimenting with blockchain/crypto payments to car makers like GM, Toyota or Ford able to scale EV/AV roll out better than Tesla ever can. Selling digital advertising via click-bait news feeds is infinitely easier than mass manufacturing.

Indeed, the aggregation effects that fuelled social media/search and e-commerce platforms are not generally relevant in hardware, which tends to get commoditized rapidly. From an investment perspective we’ll have a multiplicity of overlapping technologies and ways to play their relative success, most of which will be in long established but reinventing blue chips. Disruption reflected in relative performance may well be driven more from within incumbent sectors (reflected in rising return dispersion) than from outside them.

WalMart has rallied strongly in recent months versus Amazon and GM versus Tesla as both start benefiting from the underestimated ‘second mover’ advantages of allying scale economies with new business models and technologies. GM or GE were not first movers in diesel locomotive engines in the 1930/40s but by rapidly buying up promising start-ups and harnessing them to vast engineering and balance sheet resources ended up dominating the transition from steam over the subsequent two decades, crushing smaller ‘first mover’ competitors along the way.

second movers

The parallels with GM’s pivotal Cruise Automation acquisition and Chevy Bolt platform being rolled out via Lyft are worth watching closely (with Ford attempting a similar reinvention) as are WalMart’s belated e-commerce shift via the Jet.com acquisition. The breathless Silicon Valley hype is ignoring a looming period of accelerated evolution within sectors that will radically change their leadership and where spotting the sector Dodos unable to rapidly evolve within a portfolio is critical.

As an example, being a value investor in tech is generally a losing proposition but Intel which in terms of chip sector evolution has become a ‘second mover’ by missing the GPU versus CPU shift has been racing to integrate a series of strategic acquisitions (notably Mobileye in autos and Nervana in AI chip design) to play catch up in this market – if it succeeds against low expectations, the huge valuation discount to the perceived AI market leaders will close and versus AMD relative performance has now turned decisively. Tech disruption won’t be the much feared extinction event for adaptable incumbents – the quality of management will be key alongside aggressive M&A to preempt new entrant threats, but there are growing signs that hugely rated tech insurgents are not  going to have it all their own way for much longer. Therein lies the investment opportunity…

 

Blockchain Deconstructs the Corporation…

JPM CEO Jamie Dimon recently declared that he would sack any of his traders playing bitcoin which he compared to Tulip mania, but given the broad volatility famine that has crushed Wall Street’s Q3 results, any half decent trader would surely be keeping their skills sharp in the wild world of cryptocurrencies. It’s important to differentiate between permissioned networks (e.g. across banks to settle securities) with a central authority and fully autonomous ‘permissionless’ ones such as that underpinning bitcoin, which threaten the role of banks as the apex of a longstanding financial hierarchy. Near term, blockchain offers banks, insurers and asset managers a margin windfall by slashing processing costs – long term, it threatens to undermine their gatekeeping role.

While I’ve been a sceptic of the recent ICO boom and the resulting profusion of new cryptocurrencies (supply certainly isn’t limited in the aggregate), but blockchain is probably comparable in long-term impact to the TCP/IP internet protocol in the 1990s. In other words, it could prove as significant an enabling technology in transactional terms as the original internet protocol was in transforming communications. By now, all investors are aware of the disruption risk to many incumbent business models from new technologies that shatter barriers to entry and compress margins and pricing power, but there is an even more fundamental question looming.

Could the firm, in the sense of the formal corporate entities that have evolved since Dutch spice expeditions to Asia gathered risk sharing investors in the 17th century, now become unbundled?  The information search comparative advantage of the firm versus consumer  or individual entrepreneur in classic microeconomic theory has narrowed dramatically while the cost of enforcing and supervising contract execution has tumbled via sharing economy models and soon the widespread use of digital ledgers.

As a reminder, blockchain is a distributed ledger technology, and uses a self-sustaining, peer-to-peer database to record and manage transactions in a decentralized manner. Verification of data is undertaken via complex algorithms and consensus among multiple systems, making it almost completely tamper-proof.  Data is transferred or stored using a series of blocks, each of which have a cryptographic hash protecting its contents. Any update or transaction on the data creates a new record in the form of another block, which is added to the existing blockchain.

The defining, radical characteristic of the digital economy in terms of traditional economics is its zero-marginal cost and we’ve now reached a point where something can be simultaneously digital and unique, without any tangible representation (bitcoin being a case in point). The bedrock of economic exchange is trust, and we now have technology that allows a reliable degree of trust to be established between total strangers in order to share resources, which has had profound implications for investors. That principle can be applied via the blockchain to anything from stock certificates to trust contracts, property title deeds etc. In that scenario, the elaborate hierarchy of trust we have built over several centuries via the legal system and complex compliance and oversight procedures becomes increasingly redundant.

This new distributed trust architecture could replicate much of the organization of a firm built on contracts, from incorporation to supply chain relationships to employee relations. If contracts can be automated, then what will happen to traditional firm hierarchical management structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers? Much of the corporate world is built on exploiting transactional ‘friction’ and information asymmetries between consumers and suppliers – the Internet over the past two decades has been a force for reducing these profit opportunities, from hotel room pricing to asset management. While crowdsourced trust between strangers via sharing economy platforms has been powerful in this respect, the advent of the blockchain over the next few years looks far more revolutionary.

As I’ve highlighted in many notes, online services and the advent of AI software are reducing slack and redundancy in the economic system – the internet from its inception has been about reducing search costs and price asymmetries between producers and consumers i.e. acting as a fundamentally deflationary force (a shift which central bankers still struggle to adapt their outdated equilibrium models to). Sharing economy platforms are zero marginal cost business models in terms of adding inventory (e.g.  advertising for Google/Facebook).

Google, Facebook, Twitter or Airbnb rely on the contributions of users as a means to generate value within their own platforms. Of course, in the existing sharing economy model, the value produced by participants is harvested by the platform owner with most of those contributing to the value production getting nothing beyond free access to services like social media, search or marketing their products.

Blockchain changes that because it facilitates the exchange of value in a secure and decentralized manner, without the need for an intermediary – to that extent, it’s a medium term threat to incumbent web giant business models, which are centralized rather than distributed and extract economic rent from often unwitting users. Digital ledgers and smart contracts reduce the capacity of the firm to enforce and exploit ‘trust arbitrage’. A far more fluid economic structure will develop over the next decade and beyond, with project focused associations of specialists coalescing and disbanding, their contractual obligations and financial entitlements will be delivered via blockchain.

Next year, we will begin to see significant blockchain and ‘smart contract’ deployment across the finance sector from maritime insurance contracts that rewrite themselves in real time to asset leasing and securities settlement. The logistics/freight forwarding business is another ripe for disruption and millions of mid-level admin jobs will be automated out of existence globally over the next few years as a result. While positive for early mover finance sector margins over the next few years, the implications for prime real estate look ominous, as office towers, which are simply warehouses of human inventory, begin to empty out.

Blockchain protocols make it technologically possible for a ‘Decentralized Autonomous Organization’ (DAO) of individuals with relevant skills to associate and organize for a specific task with the power to execute smart contracts between them and a client that can replicate many of the functions of a traditional corporate entity.  This shift marks the advent of a new generation of “dematerialized” organizations that do not require physical offices, assets, or even formal employees. Of course, this utopian vision won’t apply where regulatory compliance demands a centralized authority or significant capital/fixed investment is required but can certainly work across many ‘asset light’ service sectors from design to advertising and professional services, where freelancing is already common.

There is also a trade-off between blockchain network size versus transaction frequency. The blockchain is so far struggling to solve this trade-off between network size versus transactional frequency, and until that technical dilemma is resolved it’s hard to see this technology competing with existing payment networks like credit card networks or SWIFT on a global scale anytime soon (i.e. achieving several thousand transactions per second).

However, despite these and other limitations, the huge scale of capital now being invested in this area (some of it via the notorious ICOs) and surging interest from blue chip companies (particularly in Japan, as covered recently) suggest that every investor needs to reflect on the nature and implications of this potentially revolutionary technology. The current generation of cryptocurrencies may ultimately fall by the wayside, but the innovations that enabled them almost certainly won’t…

Asian Crisis Still Resonates…

There haven’t been any official events to mark the 20th anniversary of the Asian crisis, which erupted when Thailand freely floated the THB on July 2nd 1997 (having struggled to fund an 8% current account deficit, twice the average across EM Asia at the time). Within a year that had caused a domino effect ‘margin call’ across emerging markets, culminating in the collapse of Russian markets and the devaluation of the ruble in August 1998. Russia only accounted for just over 4% of world GDP in 1997, but was a major borrower of short-term capital and the contagion effects were rapid.

What was until then a regional crisis spread across GEM and then global markets, causing spreads and volatility to surge with a cross correlated violence that blew up value-at-risk models. That contributed to the collapse of $126bn AUM hedge fund LTCM by year-end, which led to a Fed engineered bailout. That would have been a potential shock on a par with Lehman’s implosion, but the fallout was pre-empted unlike in 2008 – LTCM had successfully hedged most of the risk from the Asian currency crisis and delivered a 17% after fees return in 1997 (after over 40% in each of the previous two years by applying huge leverage on its ‘relative value’ strategy).

Global capital flows since then have been shaped by these events, as Asian (and wider EM) governments committed to never allow themselves to become vulnerable to speculative attack again, driving mercantilist policies and a huge build-up in official reserves as a bulwark. Asia’s currency reserves stand at almost $6.3trn over half the global total, versus less than $1trn in 1996 as a portfolio flow ‘margin call’ loomed.

Those reserves were largely recycled into Treasuries, funding persistent US current account deficits and the steady deterioration of the country’s net international position or ‘net worth’. Aggregate Asian CA surpluses are back at pre-crisis levels of over $600bn (and with China’s surplus looking understated because of very questionable growth of the estimated tourism deficit as covered in a recent Fed analysis, probably well over $700bn).

I’ve just been to Budapest, where the raddled face of hedge fund legend George Soros stares down from government sponsored billboards, labelling him  as a scheming currency manipulator (he has accused his native country under its right-wing, anti-immigrant leadership of becoming a ‘mafia state’). It seems unlikely that for all his pseudo intellectual ‘reflexivity’ theories Soros could have anticipated the longer-term fallout from his currency attacks across Asia in those tumultuous months. One of those is that he helped end the era of swashbuckling macro hedge funds bending intimidated governments to their will – no hedge fund balance sheet can fight an aggressively deployed central bank one.

As we highlighted back in 2014/15 as the consensus abandoned EM assets, the move to floating exchange rate systems and high reserves versus FX debt made another crisis, which was widely feared at the time, highly unlikely – tumbling currencies acted as an EM macro pressure relief valve and forcibly closed current account deficits from Indonesia to Brazil, underpinning the ‘surprise’ rally in EM assets over the past 18mths. However, the sustainability of the capital recycling model built up since the late 1990s looks very doubtful – the US economy simply can’t absorb huge surpluses from both Asian and Europe any longer as the ‘consumer of last resort’.

The Asian crisis led indirectly to the 2008 global one, as the ‘savings glut’ being forced upon (a very receptive and overly deregulated) US suppressed funding costs, as explained by Ben Bernanke back in 2015. In the interim, the Fed by rapidly cutting rates in an overreaction to the LTCM debacle fuelled the Dotcom bubble – unintended consequences have been the defining feature of central bank policymaking over the past two decades. Meantime, is there another LTCM combination of hubris and leverage lurking within the global financial system after another extended period of low volatility? We’ll find out as the first central banks take tentative steps toward policy and balance sheet normalization in the next 12-18mths, but it’s probably not in Asia…