China Consumption Shifting From Property to Pensions…

One of the biggest issues for global investors over the next 3-5 years is that China may be running out of prospective home buyers as the prime household formation age cohort shrinks, creating a secular slowdown in a sector which directly generates 13-15% of GDP and in its wider spillover impact closer to 22-25%. Consumption in China doesn’t neatly fit the Western ‘life cycle’ model of neoclassical economics (e.g. housing tends to be bought in advance of marriage/household formation and left unfinished and empty until that point) but the structural demographic shift will transform housing demand as much as the shape of monetary and fiscal policy. Beijing’s efforts since 2015 to boost the birth-rate by easing restrictions on family size always looked likely to fail, given the ever-rising costs of child rearing and fertility trends across developed urban Asia.

Japan’s experience in recent decades indicates that when rapid growth begins to slow in an economy with very high corporate and household savings driving fixed investment, demand can prove extremely difficult to manage, particularly when demographic decline sets in simultaneously. This is particularly true if the deliberate promotion of credit growth and asset price bubbles has been part of the mechanism used to sustain demand. The tactical stance has been overweight China and AXJ despite still poor earnings and macro momentum but structural growth constraints are becoming binding as rising debt and declining demographics interact to radically change policy trade-offs, while the US is now intent on blocking or at least slowing significantly the technology upgrade path.

The real story behind China’s well documented economic imbalances is not just about structurally weak consumption versus investment as a share of GDP but also a large-scale net transfer of savings from abroad (and particularly the US) to the mainland corporate sector, a process which the White House, with broad bipartisan political support now seems committed to ending, whether a new trade deal is concluded or not. China’s plan to move up the value chain rapidly by ‘acquiring’ foreign IP to boost productivity as the workforce and investment intensity declines will now be much harder to achieve, even if it doesn’t in the worst case lose access to advanced semiconductor imports.

The country has an ongoing growth tailwind from urbanization (currently at 59% on official data, but by global standards likely 5-6 points higher), a remarkably advanced digital economy and payment systems, first world transport infrastructure in and between the major cities (and soon communication via 5G), and a growing number of globally competitive companies in mid-tech industrial and consumer markets. However, its economic dynamism will face a growing demographic drag as resource are diverted (whether public or private) to fund rising healthcare and pension costs.

Births last year dropped by 2m to 15.2m, and the median age will reach 48 by 2050, or about 10 years older than the US now. The total number of working-age adults (aged 16-59) fell by 0.44 % to just over 897m while the growth in the pool of rural migrant workers fell sharply, rising just 0.6% to 288m, down from 1.7% in 2017. The national old-age dependency ratio is already at 15%, and twice that in some depopulating peripheral provinces. The population on official data grew by 5.3m last year or 0.38% and Beijing has estimated that China’s population won’t peak until 2029 at around 1.44bn, but some demographers believe that tipping point has already arrived.

The ‘extensive’ growth model of adding more workers and capital becomes untenable as demographic decline starts. So too is the highly expansionary monetary policy that saw the PBoC balance sheet and M2/GDP ratio explode. That never generated much consumer inflation, as it was largely sterilised via housing which absorbed excess migrant labour and industrial capacity as a concrete inflation sink isn’t sustainable much longer. At the same time, the sterilisation of exporter dollar earnings and build-up of net foreign assets on the PBoC balance sheet and Treasury buying by SAFE is also winding down, as FX reserve growth peaks peak.

US demands to eliminate the bilateral deficit simply hasten the existing trend toward a current account deficit. Whatever the exact demographic glidepath, China is going to have to employ its human capital much more efficiently over the next couple of decades and refocus on intensive, productivity led growth. Global investors are going to have to adjust to the perpetual motion machine that drove global capital flows from the late 1990s not just stalling but going into reverse i.e. China will likely become a substantial net portfolio capital importer over the next decade, as it needs to fund soaring fiscal deficits, just as aging households begin running down savings…

With 12% more males than females in the 15-29 age cohort, having an apartment boosts prospects for marriage, and that factor as well as migrants buying properties to retire to in their home provinces helps explain much of the 45-50m ‘empty’ apartments that generate scare headlines. In China, housing has taken on the role of a ‘dowry’ for male offspring that gold has traditionally for female ones in India, but the 34m overall male surplus will rise and create a growing pool of involuntarily unmarried men (so-called “bare branches”). The home ownership rate among young Chinese households is consequently very high, thanks to help from parents who in a major city will have built up huge housing equity. Demographics will clearly begin to impact this cultural support for real estate, as the number of 20something males enters steep decline.

The 20-29 age cohort, the main source of new demand for housing, will have declined by about 80m by the mid-2020s from its peak in 2012/13 and the proportionate decline is similar for the teenage cohort behind them, slowing pre-emptive parental demand. A rising divorce rate and proportion of never married (in the case of many males, not by choice but economic circumstance) will offer some support to housing demand, but alongside a dramatic slowdown in migration, the overall fundamental demand picture will deteriorate materially.

Pension coverage is now relatively high for a country at China’s income level but the income generating assets to fund defined benefits are hugely inadequate and this is where boosting private assets and returns becomes critical to maintaining systemic solvency. The pension funding deficit covered by central government is likely to reach over $150bn annually by next year. Deeper capital markets (including ultimately access by foreign mutual funds with local distribution partners) supported by pension savings inflows are a key part of the wider reform agenda. Current contribution rates for state/SOE pensions are far too low; private pensions and employer annuities (i.e. the addressable market for the insurers) are just over a quarter of total assets with the basic pension/national social security fund comprising the balance.

That ratio will gradually shift over the next decade in favour of private assets – the public pension system’s 43% replacement rate (ratio of annual benefits to final salary) implies a significant cash flow deficit will open up that could amount to over $1.5trn within a decade. Insurers will be a key part of the funding solution – weak capital markets and regulatory changes slowing premium growth have been a drag but they remain a key China exposure as inadequate social provision, from healthcare to pensions, is funded directly by individuals.

Total pension assets are just over 10% of GDP compared to 35% in Korea and HK. Assets will have to grow dramatically over the next decade to close the funding gap and the private share of total pension assets (currently sub 30%) will become dominant. Beijing already has the fallout from local government deleveraging and SOE restructuring to absorb which will see central government debt/GDP double to 70-80% over the next 3-5 years from the currently reported 37% – bailing out the pension system as well simply isn’t realistic. Assets managed by Chinese insurers have already reached over $2.6trn, even as new policy premium sales have slowed since 2016.   Solvency rules are now closer to international norms – capital requirements had been based on simple metrics of size but will now vary in line with how quickly policies turn over and how premiums are invested. Firms that rely excessively on short duration policies or invest heavily in equities must hold a much bigger capital cushion.

The slide in bond yields and A-shares has inevitably hit investment returns (as evidenced by the recent China Life profit warning), but offsetting this is an improving competitive landscape. The restrictions on wealth management product issuance (bank WMPs were offering yields of about 5.4% a year ago versus an average guaranteed rate offered by universal insurance products 30-70 bps lower) has seen retail investors return to insurers. Even with foreign firms likely to grow their share from the current low 5% base as the market opens, investors seem too bearish on life insurer growth prospects, with the key stocks on sub 1x price to embedded value multiples. As with education, investors in the asset gathering/private pension theme have to see through regulatory volatility to focus on the secular tailwind for revenue growth.

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.

 

China’s Deflating Housing Market Inflating Mainland Stocks…

The spectacular A-share rally which has made mainland equities the best performing major global market over the past year and YTD derives not only from historically low starting valuations (the rationale for our overweight stance a year ago and since), but also diverted real estate flows. The ongoing anti-corruption campaign and sustained overbuilding have depressed long booming housing prices (down 5.5% y/y in February, with sales down almost 18%). Most analysis on China focuses erroneously on GDP and earnings momentum as the equity market driver as it would be in a normal economy, when within China’s hybrid structure the allocation of household capital flows is far more important. Indeed, the inverse correlation between Chinese equities and the housing market has long been evident, given the absence of liquid alternative investment opportunities for wealthy Chinese households (the wealthiest 1% of households own at least 30% of all residential property, while there are about 2.5m USD millionaire households in China).

Easing monetary policy, looming SOE reform, the perception that the 1trn RMB debt swap between local government and Beijing is a form of de facto QE and the further deterioration of the housing market in Q1 have all helped drive the CSI 300 above 4,000. The rally has until recently had official media sanction, as it helped offset the tightening of financial conditions via the RMB’s rapid real appreciation (and a trading band widening remains likely this year) and still rising real borrowing costs as producer price deflation intensifies, against the backdrop of vast excess capacity in fixed investment related sectors.  

There are now clear signs of speculative froth as reflected in margin debt surging by over 1.5% of GDP since late summer (and margin trading comprises about 20% of daily volumes regularly exceeding 1trn RMB), record first week rallies for recent IPOs and A-share trading account openings total a remarkable 2.8m for the past couple of weeks – overall valuations have reached about 18x forward earnings for the large cap CSI 300, on a par with the S&P 500 but small cap valuations are have soared to 60-70x.

From a 10% discount last summer, A-shares are now on a near record 35% premium versus HK listed H-shares. Back in December, I suggested another 15-20% rally was feasible in mainland shares this year; H-shares on 8x 2016 consensus EPS and 25% average discounts to dual listed mainland peers are now the preferred China exposure, and the difference between this episode and 2007 is the rise of aggressive domestic hedge funds to both exploit and eventually counter the retail mob. They have already generated volatility in global commodity markets like copper and can now short the A-share market via futures and via the HK connect scheme take advantage of the huge ‘free lunch’ cross border arbitrage opportunity which was clear in the opposite direction last summer. As well as H-shares, the broader MSCI China looks set to play catch up with the huge move in mainland equities, even as the latter enter a more volatile period in Q2…