What Blows Up First? Part 3: Subprime Countries

By: John Rubino | Sun, Jan 26, 2014
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One of the reasons the rich countries' excessive money creation hasn't ignited a generalized inflation is that today's global economy is, well, global. When the Fed dumps trillions of dollars into the US banking system, that liquidity is free to flow wherever it wants. And in the past few years it has chosen to visit to Brazil, China, Thailand, and the rest of the developing world.

This tidal wave of hot money bid up asset prices and led emerging market governments and businesses to borrow a lot more than they would have otherwise. Like the recipients of subprime mortgages in 2006, they were seduced by easy money and fooled into placing bets that could only work out if the credit kept flowing forever.

Then the Fed, spooked by nascent bubbles in equities and real estate, began to talk about scaling back money printing*. The hot money started flowing back into the US and out of the developing world. And again just like subprime mortgages, the most leveraged and/or badly managed emerging markets have begun to implode, threatening to pull down everyone else. A sampling of recent headlines:

Contagion Spreads in Emerging Markets as Crises Grow
Investors Flee Developing World
Erosion of Argentine Peso Sends a Shudder Through Latin America
The Entire World is Unraveling Before Our Eyes
Chinese Debt Debacle Supports Soros' 'Eerie' Portrayal
Venezuela Enacts "Law of Fair Prices"
Argentina Returns to Villa Miseria
Indian Rupee Falls to 2-Month Low; Joins Emerging Market Sell-Off
Turkey's 'Embarrassing' Intervention Fails to Curb Lira Sell-Off

Prudent Bear's Doug Noland as usual gets it exactly right in his most recent Credit Bubble Bulletin. Here are a few excerpts from a much longer article that should be read by everyone who wants to understand the causes and implications of the emerging-market implosion:

Virtually the entire emerging market "complex" has been enveloped in protracted destabilizing financial and economic Bubbles. In particular, for five years now unprecedented "developed" world central bank-induced liquidity has spurred unsound economic and financial booms. The massive investment and "hot money" flows are illustrated by the multi-trillion growth of EM central bank international reserve holdings. There have of course been disparate resulting impacts on EM financial and economic systems. But I believe in all cases this tsunami of liquidity and speculation has had deleterious consequences, certainly including fomenting systemic dependencies to foreign-sourced flows. In seemingly all cases, protracted Bubbles have inflated societal expectations.

For a while, central bank willingness to use reserves to support individual currencies bolsters market confidence in a country's currency, bonds and financial system more generally. But at some point a central bank begins losing the battle to accelerating outflows. A tough decision is made to back away from market intervention to safeguard increasingly precious reserve holdings. Immediately, the marketplace must then contend with a faltering currency, surging yields, unstable financial markets and rapidly waning liquidity generally. Things unravel quickly.

The issue of EM sovereign and corporate borrowings in dollar (and euro and yen) denominated debt has speedily become a critical "macro" issue. More than five years of unprecedented global dollar liquidity excess spurred a historic boom in dollar-denominated borrowings. The marketplace assumed ongoing dollar devaluation/EM currency appreciation. There became essentially insatiable market demand for higher-yielding EM debt, replete with all the distortions in risk perceptions, market mispricing and associated maladjustment one should expect from years of unlimited cheap finance. As was the case with U.S. subprime, it's always the riskiest borrowers that most intensively feast at the trough of easy "money."

So, too many high-risk borrowers - from vulnerable economies and Credit systems - accumulated debt denominated in U.S. and other foreign currencies - for too long. Now, currencies are faltering, "hot money" is exiting, Credit conditions are tightening and economic conditions are rapidly deteriorating. It's a problematic confluence that will find scores of borrowers challenged to service untenable debt loads, especially for borrowings denominated in appreciating non-domestic currencies. This tightening of finance then becomes a pressing economic issue, further pressuring EM currencies and financial systems - the brutal downside of a protracted globalized Credit and speculative cycle.

In many cases, this was all part of a colossal "global reflation trade." Today, many EM economies confront the exact opposite: mounting disinflationary forces for things sold into global markets. Falling prices, especially throughout the commodities complex, have pressured domestic currencies. This became a major systemic risk after huge speculative flows arrived in anticipation of buoyant currencies, attractive securities markets, and enticing business opportunities. The commodities boom was to fuel general and sustained economic booms. EM was to finally play catchup to "developed."

Now, Bubbles are faltering right and left - and fearful "money" is heading for the (closing?) exits. And, as the global pool of speculative finance reverses course, the scale of economic maladjustment and financial system impairment begins to come into clearer focus. It's time for the marketplace to remove the beer goggles.

No less important is the historic - and ongoing - boom in manufacturing capacity in China and throughout Asia. This has created excess capacity and increasing pricing pressure for too many manufactured things, a situation only worsened by Japan's aggressive currency devaluation. This dilemma, with parallels to the commodity economies, becomes especially problematic because of the enormous debt buildup over recent years. While this is a serious issue for the entire region, it has become a major pressing problem in China.

At the same time, data this week provided added confirmation (see "China Bubble Watch") that China's spectacular apartment Bubble continues to run out of control. When Chinese officials quickly backed away from Credit tightening measures this past summer, already overheated housing markets turned even hotter. Now officials confront a dangerous situation: Acute fragility in segments of its "shadow" financing of corporate and local government debt festers concurrently with ongoing "terminal phase" excess throughout housing finance. China's financial and economic systems have grown dependent upon massive ongoing Credit expansion, while the quality of new Credit is suspect at best. It's that fateful "terminal phase" exponential growth in systemic risk playing out in historic proportions. Global markets have begun to take notice.

There are critical market issues with no clear answers. For one, how much speculative "hot money" has and continues to flood into China to play their elevated yields in a currency that is (at the least) expected to remain pegged to the U.S. dollar? If there is a significant "hot money" issue, any reversal of speculative flows would surely speed up this unfolding Credit crisis. And, of course, any significant tightening of Chinese Credit would reverberate around the globe, especially for already vulnerable EM economies and financial systems.

No less important is the historic - and ongoing - boom in manufacturing capacity in China and throughout Asia. This has created excess capacity and increasing pricing pressure for too many manufactured things, a situation only worsened by Japan's aggressive currency devaluation. This dilemma, with parallels to the commodity economies, becomes especially problematic because of the enormous debt buildup over recent years. While this is a serious issue for the entire region, it has become a major pressing problem in China.

The crucial point here is that this crisis is not a case of one or two little countries screwing up. It's everywhere, from Latin America to Asia to Eastern Europe. Each country's problems are unique, but virtually all can be traced back to the destabilizing effects of hot money created by rich countries attempting to export their debt problems to the rest of the world. ZIRP, QE and all the rest succeeded for a while in creating the illusion of recovery in the US, Europe and Japan, but now it's blow-back time. The mess we've made in the subprime countries will, like rising defaults on liar loans and interest-only mortgages in 2007, start moving from periphery to core. As Noland notes:

Yet another crisis market issue became more pressing this week. The Japanese yen gained 2.0% versus the dollar. Yen gains were even more noteworthy against other currencies. The yen rose 4.2% against the Brazilian real, 3.9% versus the Chilean peso, 3.5% against the Mexican peso, 3.9% versus the South African rand, 3.8% against the South Korean won, 3.0% versus the Canadian dollar and 3.0% versus the Australian dollar.

I have surmised that the so-called "yen carry trade" (borrow/short in yen and use proceeds to lever in higher-yielding instruments) could be the largest speculative trade in history. Market trading dynamics this week certainly did not dissuade. When the yen rises, negative market dynamics rather quickly gather momentum. From my perspective, all the major speculative trades come under pressure when the yen strengthens; from EM, to the European "periphery," to U.S. equities and corporate debt.

It's worth noting that the beloved European "periphery" trade reversed course this week. The spread between German and both Spain and Italy 10-year sovereign yields widened 19 bps this week. Even the France to Germany spread widened 6 bps this week to an almost 9-month high (72bps). Stocks were slammed for 5.7% and 3.1% in Spain and Italy, wiping out most what had been strong January gains.

Even U.S. equities succumbed to global pressures. Notably, the cyclicals and financials were hit hard. Both have been Wall Street darlings on the bullish premise of a strengthening U.S. (and global) recovery and waning Credit and financial risk. Yet both groups this week seemed to recognize the reality that what is unfolding in China and EM actually matter - and they're not pro-global growth. With recent extreme bullish sentiment, U.S. equities would appear particularly vulnerable to a global "risk off" market dynamic.


To summarize:

Developed world banks have lent hundreds of billions of dollars to emerging market businesses and governments. If these debts go bad, those already-impaired banks will be looking at massive, perhaps fatal losses. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars of derivatives have been written by banks and hedge funds on emerging market debt and currencies, with money center banks serving as counterparties on both sides of these contracts. They net out their long and short exposures to hide the true risk, but let just one major counterparty fail and the scam will be exposed, as it was in 2008 when AIG's implosion nearly bankrupted Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase.

Last but not least, individuals and pension funds in the developed world have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in emerging market stock and bond funds, which are now looking like huge year-ahead losers. The global balance sheet, in short, is about to get a lot more fragile.

So, just as pretty much everyone in the sound money community predicted, tapering will end sooner rather than later when a panicked Fed announces some kind of bigger and better shock-and-awe debt monetization plan. The European Central Bank, which actually shrank its balance sheet in 2013, will reverse course and start monetizing debt on a vast scale. As for Japan, who knows what they can get away with, since their government debt is, as a percentage of GDP, already twice that of the US.

The real question is not whether more debt monetization is coming, but whether it will come soon enough to preserve the asset price bubbles that are right this minute being punctured by the emerging market implosion. If not, it really is 2008 all over again.

* "Money printing" in this case refers to currency creation in all its forms, electronic and physical.

 


 

John Rubino

Author: John Rubino

John Rubino
DollarCollapse.com

John Rubino is author of Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green Tech Boom (Wiley, December 2008), co-author, with GoldMoney's James Turk, of The Collapse of the Dollar and How to Profit From It (Doubleday, January 2008), and author of How to Profit from the Coming Real Estate Bust (Rodale, 2003). After earning a Finance MBA from New York University, he spent the 1980s on Wall Street, as a currency trader, equity analyst and junk bond analyst. During the 1990s he was a featured columnist with TheStreet.com and a frequent contributor to Individual Investor, Online Investor, and Consumers Digest, among many other publications. He now writes for CFA Magazine and edits DollarCollapse.com and GreenStockInvesting.com.

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