China, Prosperity, and Free Markets

Chairman Xi faces more significant problems than just a declining stock market. Future prosperity, innovation, and China’s global position in advanced technologies are at stake. Bureaucratic regulation and central government money are not the answer, and an uncomfortable truth for communist bureaucrats is that a free market, access to venture capital and private equity, and vibrant public markets are essential for China’s success. A volatile market is still best at attributing value and allocating capital over time. China’s entrepreneurs have brilliance, incomparable fortitude, and a strong work ethic, but without capital and liquidity for that capital, the ship will run aground.

Permanent capital is essential for the growth of an economy, innovation, and prosperity. Liquidity is essential for that capital.

Industrial Policy – Stupidity by Another Name

Zero-sum thinking has begun. Despite comparative advantage, mutual cooperation, and specialization proving indisputably more beneficial than any other approach to economic interaction, this ideal is under threat. Rules and norms for economic integration lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, created an order-of-magnitude increase in the average wealth of the Western population, and benefited countless hundreds of millions enabling a way of life otherwise unimaginable post-World War II. Now that system is under threat as developed countries subsidize alternative energy, attract manufacturing via expensive subsidies, and restrict the flow of goods and capital. Mutual benefit is out; national gain is now the highest priority. In other words, stupidity and zero-sum thinking have taken over. A handful of bureaucrats, regardless of how brilliant each may be, can never equal the mind of the market. Management and control usually spell disaster eventually. Managed focus on technological development for products and services the central government believes have greater substantial benefit to the overall society may not be calamitous, but the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. It will be inefficient, substandard, and create potentially dangerous side effects. Innovation, creative freedom, and unstructured thought are essential components to the development of any technology of substance and disruptive benefit.

Sweltering, Chills, and Discontent

Sweltering, Chills, and Discontent

While most of Europe and the United States suffer sweltering heat, darkening economic skies and bitter winter of discontent are looming. Threats to the world economy are chilling. Rising interest rates are slowing activity for discretionary spending while rising prices for nondiscretionary spending are also slowing economic activity. It would be miraculous if the compounding of both effects would not lead to a recession in both Europe and the US. China’s growth has stalled. The Ukraine conflict will resolve itself to the West’s dramatic disadvantage and the West seems to be willing to let it happen – much to each economy’s long-term disadvantage. Don’t count on anything miraculous.


Commodities and Crisis

Beyond 2022, higher interest rates and slower global growth most likely trigger a market correction, perhaps at an exorbitant cost. As discounts rates rise and growth assumptions lower, many stocks based assumptions that low interest rates and high growth would sustain for many years will see dramatic repricing and much lower valuations.
Energy and commodities, and the businesses associated with them, are in for a very bumpy ride, but there is a fundamental sustainability to their cash flow and long-term attractiveness as world supply reorders. That which is essential prevails.
The luxury of thinking we have halcyon days of global growth and geopolitical stability may not be with us for some time to come. It is perhaps time to plan for that now.


Noise and Unpredictability

Distinguishing what’s happening in the market and the direction of important market metrics – the signal – from garbled, inconsistent, and mostly useless data – the noise – is extremely challenging today. Information is contradictory and transient making data and critical events more confusing and indistinguishable. Unusual circumstances brought about by the pandemic, subsequent supply chain interruptions, inconsistent production and demand, and unclear economic forecasts combined for almost unprecedented uncertainty and unpredictability.

Typically, near-term predictions are reasonable and reliable because we have immediately available and fairly accurate data making short-term predictions reasonably accurate. In other words, we can estimate what will happen because we have a good idea what just happened. But this is not the case today. Predictions based on the near-term past are more muddled now than ever. While we used to be able to say we can see a trend, whether that’s inflation, economic growth, or some other important metric, too much volatility, irrelevance, and lack of applicability (after all, who is going to project from a base that includes a pandemic impacting global supply chains and production?), we really can’t reasonably rely on any of that data to try to find a trend or connect the dots generating a near-term forecast with any meaningful depth of data and understanding

More intense volatility occurring more often will be characteristic of this market from now on. An investment strategy must withstand and profit from this. The only clear signal from the market is that there is far too much noise and not enough of a clear signal. Without clarity, determining an investment strategy is flying blind with no instruments.

Core holdings combined with an ability to withstand and profit from volatility and unpredictability are essential for investors today.

Signal vs Noise

TECH Policy and Unintended Consequences

Technology is facing a substantial crossroads as policy changes with global resonance, such as China’s new crackdown on the country’s big tech companies (such as Ant Financial and Didi Global), the rising resistance to social media behemoths like Facebook, and the need for governments, whether in the United States, Western Europe, or China, to manage and control technological development. Regardless of any good intentions, this will add friction, inefficiency, and underperformance to the most dynamic global industry. The best intentions usually bring disastrous consequences. China cannot escape the law of unintended consequences. Trying to “manage” innovation and creativity takes away the often unplanned and serendipitous breakthroughs that make many significant advancements possible in the first place. From an economic perspective, capital is not going to invest in an uncertain environment where prosperity is managed and, despite great risk where most ventures will fail, the truly successful ones which make up for the losses and encourage capital to keep investing, will be mitigated. The vanguard of capital flight from China is beginning, and it will not ease if this policy and attitude are not revised. This attempt at “fairness and more equal distribution” will do nothing more than keep capital away and stifle any attempt at creativity, technical innovation, and economic advancement. The intention of this policy will yield the opposite outcome as a consequence. The signal means substance. Substance means innovation, creativity, and competitive dynamics that create the most effective innovations, the best solutions, and the most sustainable companies. Central planning, bureaucratic industrial policy, government-led economic management, and dictatorial focus have always failed, and always will. The US should not fall into this trap, regardless of how appealing it may be.

It is only noise.

The Thucydides Trap

China, the US, and the Thucydides Trap

The “Thucydides trap” is where a rising nation-state – for Thucydides it was Athens – must eventually have a violent confrontation with the existing dominant nation-state – Sparta in his time. It is a zero-sum game where there can be only one dominant nation-state as the eventual winner – and it is usually assumed to be the rising nation-state outdoing the dominant nation-state.

Today, many “experts” (and I have great disdain for self-proclaimed experts) believe this is the circumstance between the US and China. We are headed toward violent confrontation where there can be only one winner. I read the book by Thucydides about the conflict between Athens and Sparta (I cannot be dispassionate here about that outcome because my family is from Sparta on my father’s side). But I fundamentally disagree with Thucydides’s historical descriptions being used as analysis by anyone to describe global events, especially those between the US and China.

Digital central banks

Initiative, savvy, luck, circumstance, and convolution have taken over currencies – or at least digital creations purported to be currencies (but in reality don’t, and never will, quite fit the bill). Those entities that create and support real currencies are taking notice. In other words, welcome to government in action. Here come central bank digital coins. Now imagine these “developed” governments (of whom France is probably not the worst offender) trying to deal with a global currency, currency exchanges, and the transfer of funds internationally. We don’t have to look too far to find the convoluted rules behind Bretton Woods, the WTO, and other international absurdities to recognize that this problem is not easily solved, or even understood. Bureaucrats are generally better at devising rules, charging fees, and collecting taxes and information than making anything that is useful or even comprehensible.

Luck rather than leadership, circumstance rather than foresight or political skill, seem to have been more helpful in triggering these developments. Digital coins (while loosely described as “currency” are more like a digital asset easily transferred and accounted for in a digital ledger) represent a handful of rather clever people taking on central government’s mighty bureaucrats. Armed with simplicity, clarity, and algorithms, they are defeating all administrations’ fondness for complexity, confusion, and rules.

In general, bureaucrats are masters of the art of convolution. Essentially, governments work overtime to create farce in the spirit of precision. An example of bureaucratic absurdity can be found in France (admittedly, a country that has taken bureaucracy to an art form – perhaps more so than art itself). When the government started a new lockdown because of the pandemic, they devised a two-page permission form to leave home, with 15 different justifications, before, thankfully, shelving it in the face of ridicule. The French can buy alcohol, for instance, but not underwear. These rules were simply to be able to walk out the front door, and the government imagined that this kind of detailed process was somehow useful, and not the bewildering reality it represented.

Abundant Cash Is Not Cash Available Abundantly

The pandemic, Fed interest rate policy and bond purchases, restrictive banking regulations, and banks’ swelling cash balances will have a lingering impact on liquidity and produce some mind-bending policies to deal with this uncharted territory.

As the pandemic emerged in March 2020, strange things happened:

o Bond markets seized up and investors panicked.

o Bond yields spiked causing severe price declines.

o Credit default swap prices (debt protection derivatives) rose 100x in less than a month.

o The dollar rose and liquidity dropped for U.S. Treasuries, usually the world’s most liquid security.

o There was substantially lower demand at U.S. Treasury auctions.

The Federal Reserve responded with an almost never-ending pile of cash, buying vast quantities of bonds with newly created cash. It has continued its purchases, at a pace of at least $120 billion a month.

But this has not resulted in “happy days are here again.” This mountain of dollars is limiting liquidity and constraining markets. That’s right, read that again if you must – too much cash can constrain the economy.