Friday, November 17, 2017

The Blob.....

As many of you know, I've been off the grid in rural India for the last few weeks.  As I've also mentioned, I love my trips to India....I get a chance to regroup, reset, meet wonderful people and think about things I rarely take the time to think about.  It's all about perspective.

Anyway, while I was traveling, I had a chance to peruse the Alibaba September Quarter figures, Press Release, 6K, Investor Presentation and of course, took some time to listen to the always entertaining Investor Call.  Shortly thereafter, Alibaba had reported their amazing "Singles Day" sales figure of  $25.3 Billion of fake GMV.

To put this figure in perspective,  this year, "Singles Day" GMV came in at just a few billion more than the annual revenue of Sears/K-Mart (140,000 employees and 1,500 locations world-wide)..... again, I'll repeat that..... Alibaba sold, shipped and delivered the annual, global, sales volume of Sears/K-Mart in just one day!  ....800 Million orders to deliver!  Incredible!  Bravo!.....all those guys on the tuk-tuks, scooters and bicycles must be exhausted......


The Alibaba business model has triumphed once again.  It's now obvious that UPS, FedEx, DHL, et al, have it all wrong.  Why in the world would anyone invest in all of that expensive GPS, scanning, package tracking automation and logistics hardware when you can just dump your packages on the sidewalk and let homeless people figure out how to get them where they are supposed to go?  Again, the wizardry of Alibaba's ecosystem  has rewritten the global-logistics playbook.  Absolute genius....

Photos Courtesy of the NYT & Getty Images

The Investor Call

The Investor Call, with all of its suspense, of course, reminded me of one of the greatest motion picture epics of all time.  Many Cinephiles consider this flick to be the late, great, Steve McQueen's quintessential work. That's right, I am of course referring to that trans-generational, 1958 classic, "The Blob"

From the trailer:

....."It's kinda like a mass that keeps getting bigger and bigger...."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkOfeSNsWpM 

Like the Blob, Alibaba's financial misrepresentations, as absurd as they are, have grown to the point where its oozing tentacles of slime have crept into every corner the world's financial system. 

I won't bother to dissect the numbers any more than I have in the past, but suffice it to say that the same accounting shenanigans I've discussed herein, every quarter since the IPO in September of 2014 are still alive and well.  (See my last 20F analysis for a little more detail: "Finding Inner Peace in Dharamsala....and thoughts on the Alibaba 20F....")

Everything is steady as she goes.....Gigantic, unbelievable "asset-lite" growth, huge fake efficiencies and synergies abound.  Asset write-ups and inflated carrying values of "Questionable Assets" scattered across the books of more than six hundred (600) un-auditable, consolidated entities are omnipresent.  Alibaba Pictures and Alibaba Health are carried on the books at roughly $3 Billion more than their current, publicly traded market caps would support.  A Billion dollars of loans to insiders (See: Wasu Holdings, Simon Xie & Shi Yuzhu) are outstanding with a good chance that they will be looking for even more Alibaba shareholder money soon.

In the call, management reinforced their philosophy that they never manage a business to a profit/margin or apparently any sort of target/metric so they, of course, never feel compelled to offer any detailed explanation or meaningful guidance on the numbers, product mix or how they make their money....... except that everything will most likely be really good forever.  It's all about delivering nebulously defined "value".  The call was, of course, capped off with the usual, odd, irrelevant, softball questions posed by the religiously devoted cadre of analysts.  Note that the analysts all refer to the business as "our segments" or "our strategy" or "how are we going to expand...."....as though they are part of the Alibaba management team.  Call transcript posted below courtesy of Seeking Alpha.  Using our patented Dick Fuld Banker-Speak Translator (BST), I'll just take a minute to analyze the first analyst's question.  I'm not necessarily picking on Eddie Leung here, he seems like a really nice guy, but he happened to ask the first question.  No need to go deeper into the Q&A unless you are a glutton for punishment, It just gets worse from here:

Eddie Leung - Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Good evening. Thank you for taking my questions. I have two questions. One is on Cainiao. Could you share your thought on the long-term positioning of Cainiao? Again, as the professional logistic service providers in China and globally, how to differentiate and perhaps cooperate in logistics?
And then secondly, on New Retail, have we seen any change in the way that we cooperate with some of our brands and merchants across our multiple channels after we developed our offline channel recently? Thank you.
BST: "First, how the hell are you going to deliver $25 Billion of merchandise using push carts, bicycles and homeless people?  When you dump the packages on the sidewalk, what percentage of the merchandise is stolen?  Second, this is the first full quarter you've consolidated InTime as your "new retail"... the InTime acquisition?.... you know, where you just paid $3 Billion for a bunch of broken down department stores and vacant shopping malls?.... so you can dump fake knock-off merchandise and overstock junk in these stores?....that way photographers from the New York Times won't snap pictures of homeless people picking through the stuff scattered all over the sidewalks?" 
DT Note:  The correct response to this question should have been:  "Regarding Cainiao, I'll refer you to the detailed schedule XX of the 6K (which unfortunately doesn't exist) describing, by region/zone the packages/deliveries, product mix and associated costs by product category.  As for Intime, I'll refer you to the segment P&L's & Balance Sheets in Appendicix XX of the 6K (also doesn't exist) which describe, in detail the breakdown between On-Line and Off-Line GMV, Revenue and cost of operations, showing precisely what we're selling, where we're selling it and how profitable it is compared to our detailed projections. (which also don't exist)"  
This is what we got:
Response: CEO Daniel Yong Zhang - Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
"Eddie, this is Daniel. I'd like to answer your questions. For the first one, Cainiao. Actually, Cainiao is positioned as a smart logistic platform. Why smart is because this should be a data-driven logistics platform. We truly believe that the data is the most important asset which can generate value for the partners in the Cainiao ecosystem. And so what we do is that we work closely with our partners in not only warehousing, but also delivery network to enable them to optimize their operation. So we will continue this strategy and which is the partnership strategy and continue to work closely with our partners in China and in the world.
And the key thing is that the data-driven logistic network, actually we are – Cainiao is not going to be a logistic company and we are not interested into building another logistics company. Instead, we will work with a lot of logistic companies, delivery companies to build a network across the world.
And for your second question, New Retail, I would say actually, our New Retail strategy is very clear and we will continue to execute our New Retail strategy and to partner with the offline retailers in key categories such as in fashion categories, we work with Intime. In consumer electronics, we work with Sony. In food and FMCG categories, we work with Bailian and Sanjiang. And recently, we invest another regional retailer, which is (29:13) and we will work closely with them to empower them with our prospective (29:19) technology.
Second is about – is a valid New Retail form or format to enable them to operate efficiently. So I think this is our New Retail strategy, but we're still in early stage. And our goal is to help the whole New Retail (29:40) world to be upgraded into a digital operation. So actually we are on our way. Thank you."
BST: "I have no F-ing idea what I'm talking about and I can't give you any detailed information because it doesn't exist, all of these numbers are made up, so I'll just use words like 'partner', 'digital', 'data' and hope that you think I'm brilliant.  We don't need to build a logistics company since our homeless people on bicycles are doing just fine. Our retail strategy is very clear, you should already know what it is, I think, maybe not, but anyway, it's all about data.....data, data, data.  We have lots of smart, logistics data, and on-line, off-line data logistics partners and we are global across the world because of  our data.  We are going to ship things to all sorts of dumpy convenience stores, kiosks and partners for people to pick up.  It's a better model than dumping the stuff on sidewalks. When it rains, packages get soggy and customers bitch.  We're going to ship $25 billion of fake GMV in one day next week, Nicole Kidman will be at the party, we paid her big bucks to show up, ooopsss Jack told me to not to say that, but we are at the beginning stages of helping the world.  Our on-line, off-line data-driven-big-data will allow us to sell more data-driven fake junk to everyone on the planet on mobile apps, which will track everyone so the CCP knows exactly where they are and what they are doing.  Did I mention that we are experts at big data?  Oh....and Amazon sucks.  Thank you."   

So really, what is this gigantic "blob" of "China Commerce" GMV  and the related revenue comprised of?  Who knows?

Alibaba management incessantly references their huge investment in infrastructure that enables them to sell supposedly gigantic volumes of Consumer Electronics, Fast Moving Consumer Goods, Clothing, Grocery, etc. yet they have never disclosed how much of same is sold through their platform(s).  How can they publish a gigantic $25.3 Billion, one day GMV total and not know what its components are?  I thought that Joe, Daniel and Maggie were the ring masters of this big-data circus?  They should know these numbers off the top of their head and disclose them.

For example.....

You can buy a million dollar yacht......just put it on your MasterCard/Visa or Alipay.....it would be nice to know how many yachts they sell on-line.

https://item.taobao.com/item.htm?pm=a230r.1.14.203.2221f271xw1ITD&id=555642734072&ns=1&abbucket=7#detail


Or perhaps you'd like a luxurious Prada hand bag.....apparently sold by authorized and licensed Prada distributors like "wishload flagship store" and "buyfine overseas flagship store".

https://s.taobao.com/search?q=prada&type=p&tmhkh5=&spm=a21wu.241046-us.a2227oh.d100&from=sea_1_searchbutton&catId=100&sort=price-desc



Or maybe you need a few hundred tons of steel pipe......

https://www.alibaba.com/trade/search?fsb=y&IndexArea=product_en&CatId=&SearchText=steel+pipes


...or sheet steel.....
https://www.alibaba.com/trade/search?fsb=y&IndexArea=product_en&CatId=&SearchText=steel+sheet

Perhaps a new building?...put a skyscraper on Visa/Mastercard!
https://www.alibaba.com/trade/search?fsb=y&IndexArea=product_en&CatId=&SearchText=commercial+building



Or land for sale in Estonia or Iran?....note the "smart data" algorithm on the right of the page.....people who liked "land in Estonia" also apparently liked "kitchen cleaners and car wash soap"....and I actually could have "chatted" with the creepy looking guy shown in this listing, but my IT Department advised against it.....

https://www.alibaba.com/trade/search?fsb=y&IndexArea=product_en&CatId=&SearchText=land


None of the above ridiculous transactions have anything to do with consumer goods and never "close" on the platform, yet they are there for a reason.  They are included in GMV.  They are "reported" by the seller (presumably for a fee?).....Think Craig's List....not Amazon.

The SEC correspondence from 2014 was illuminating......everything about this business is a misdirection or a half truth.....See pg 5, where Alibaba management opines that the GMV metric is a critical part of their fake operating/reporting framework and that it's perfectly legitimate for them to report transactions that were never shipped or closed.


We might ask, if GMV is so important, why have they never provided any detail as to its composition/mix, or oddly enough, are only reporting GMV twice a year now. (on "Singles Day" and an annual "Blob" in the 20F)   Is it somehow no longer important?

In fact, back in 2016 under Mary Jo White, the SEC started looking into, among other things, the possibility that there are issues with Alibaba's GMV reporting.  You'll also notice that, on page 60 of the above answers to the SEC correspondence, one of the signor/architects of the aforementioned, dubious Alibaba responses, was a Sullivan & Cromwell Attorney by the name of Jay Clayton, who also now happens to be the newly appointed Chairman of the SEC.  As they say....a fortuitous coincidence indeed.

I'd invite all of my readers to check this out for yourselves.....take a few minutes to browse the Alibaba sites, Tmall, Taobao, Alibaba.com, AliExpress, 1688, and type in luxury brands (Gucci, Prada, Coach, etc.) industrial goods, etc., sort by price (high to low) and see what you get.  It's a hoot....you can buy single malt Scotch and Kentucky bourbon made in China!.....who knew?  Let your eyes be the judge as to whether Mr. Clayton's position, while representing Alibaba, had any merit at all.

My guess is that "real" consumer goods GMV actually delivered is probably less than a third of what they report......yet investors believe these inflated numbers...... I suppose, because it's "China"....and in hindsight, perhaps because Jay Clayton got a (presumably) sizable paycheck to sign off on it.

Show Me The Money!

Finally, with all of this Revenue and activity, all of this purported income and cash flow....a little bird told me that Alibaba will be looking to the US Bond Market for more funding in the very near future, riding the wave of the latest fake numbers.  They'll be looking for something in the range of $5 Billion to $8 Billion.  The big question is, if the business is actually generating dump trucks full of money as they claim, why have they maxed out their bank lines of credit and why do they once again need to go running to the US credit markets for cash ???....in addition, why in the world don't Chinese Banks want a piece of this gold mine?  They should be clamoring to lend money to this national treasure.  There isn't one Chinese Bank materially involved in financing this mess, at least that I can see.  This, to me, is incredible.  Ninety percent (90%) of Alibaba's business is in China, they need RMB....not dollars....what gives?

Perhaps their "Authorized Representative" Don Puglisi would know the answers.  Every foreign company listed on a US Exchange must have an Authorized Representative in the United States and Don is Alibaba's man, per the original F-1.   Per Bloomberg, Don also seems to be a serial "Authorized Representative", collecting checks to represent dozens of foreign businesses in the United States, all run out of his three (3) person office in Newark, Delaware.    Lots of irons in the fire.  I can't imagine how, at his age, he can keep it all straight.  He's a busy man.  If I were him I would have retired long ago, but apparently "80 is the new 50"!  On the other hand, I, for one, think it's absolutely marvelous that a gigantic global enterprise like Alibaba was able to give a "little guy" like Don the chance to become a big time international player.  It must be a dream come true for him. 

Looking at the big picture, perhaps Don's job as an Authorized Representative was just the first of the "Million US Jobs" that Jack told the White House he was going to create!  Only 999,999 to go! Of course, Don's great new Alibaba administrative job pales in comparison to the half dozen or so high paying executive jobs that Jack had already created at his new (2014) Alibaba headquarters in the Caymans.  As our political leaders often say, "it's all about the jobs".  I couldn't agree more.

Anyway, I'm sure that Don is a great old guy and if asked, he could bring some clarity to what Alibaba is up to. Perhaps Mr. Clayton (after waiving attorney/client privilege) could lend some insight as well.  After all, if you are representing someone, I'd think you should have at least some idea as to what's going on with their business.


Additional Reading

Press Release
http://www.alibabagroup.com/en/news/press_pdf/p171102.pdf

6K
https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1577552/000110465917065677/a17-25090_1ex99d1.htm

Webcast
https://edge.media-server.com/m6/p/2r9yjiwq

Presentation
http://www.alibabagroup.com/en/ir/presentations/pre171102.pdf

Alibaba Singles Day
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/business/alibaba-singles-day.html?_r=0


The SEC correspondence from 2014
https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1577552/000119312514237452/filename1.htm

Lazada - pg 105 12/31/15 EUR 247 Million Revenue & EUR 312 Million loss.
https://www.rocket-internet.com/sites/default/files/investors/Rocket%20Internet_Annual%20Report%202016_English.pdf

Intime Financial Statements
https://www.marketwatch.com/investing/stock/intif/financials

Alibaba buys InTime
https://www.wsj.com/articles/alibaba-seeks-to-take-intime-private-with-founder-1484005494

Selina Wang Interview with Mike Evans
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2017-11-10/alibaba-s-evans-on-singles-day-strategy-in-u-s-video

Don Puglisi - Bloomberg
https://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/person.asp?personId=11324972&privcapId=60047155

Jack Ma to Create 1 Million US Jobs.
https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/09/alibaba-to-discuss-expansion-plans-with-trump-company-aims-to-create-1-million-us-jobs-over-the-next-5-years.html


Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) Q2 2018 Results - Earnings Call Transcript
Investor Call Transcript

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

$128.9 Billion of Failed Treasury Transactions last week......and My friend "Harvey" ...

....at 4:30 ET today the New York Fed released that figure.  $128.9 Billion isn't a lot of money in the grand scheme of things....but when it involves Wall Street's elite being unable to deliver collateral it merits at least some discussion.  $128.9 Billion last week (30% of transaction volume), $170 Billion per week in September (35% of transaction volume).  Hmmmmm......So let's try to figure out what the heck is going on.

I have to say, as I was paging through the New York Fed's weekly transaction data, as I know many of you, my loyal readers, often do, my focus was a bit less laser-like than usual.  Oddly enough, as riveting as the data was, my mind begin to wander.  I found myself daydreaming about the "good old days" as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin.

I recalled a wonderful young man, who, to protect his identity, I'll simply refer to as Harvey.  (Author's note: I chose Harvey as his alias only because there have been a couple of  relatively destructive Harveys in the news lately and the moniker seemed apropos.)  

Harvey, as I recallwas an affable, energetic, athletic, intelligent young man.  He could hold his own in conversations on just about any topic.  He was a big-man-on-campus and the life of the party.  Everyone knew Harvey. Sadly, as you might suspect from this preamble, Harvey had a bit of a dark side.  Whenever we went out to the local college bars, as University of Wisconsin students have occasionally been known to do, Harvey would always hit me up for a loan.

Harvey: "Hey....do me a solid, I left my wallet back at the dorm.....give me $20.00....I'll catch you next time."
Me: "What?....again?  You always do this! ....and you never pay me back."
Harvey: "Don't worry man I'm good for it.....I wanna buy a round of Kamakaze's for those hotties over there....you can be my wing man."
Me: "Jeeezzzz.....and you are going to pay me back this time??....."
Harvey: "Promise man.....and I'll make it up to you for all the other crap I've pulled."
Me: "Ok....but you better pay me back......here's the $20...."

Of course, these exchanges went on through the semester.  Whenever I tried to collect from a sober Harvey during the week the conversations usually went something like this.

Me:  "Hey do you have that $20 I gave you Saturday night?"
Harvey: "Sorry man...I've been swamped...classes are tough...my finance professor is a pain in the ass...I'll make it up to you....you have my word."
Me: "Come on Harvey....you've been giving me one excuse after another...."
Harvey: "Really man...it's not my fault....a couple of guys owe me money and they won't pay me back....as soon as they pay me I'll pay you...."

Finally, one night when Harvey was drunk at the Red Shed I cut him off....no more money for old Harvey.  His outburst went something like this:

Harvey:  "Who the F@c% do you think you are?  I never borrowed any money from you.....you throw your money around, piss it away drinking and now you expect me to bail you out?  F@c% you a-hole....you are nothing......you think you've got friends on this campus?  Do ya?....Your name is shit on this campus....now get the F@c% out of here....loser..."    

Harvey eventually graduated and got a job working at one of the big banks.  I'm not sure whatever happened to him but I'd guess he's doing just fine.  As far as I could tell, he had all of the personal qualities and demeanor that would make him a great banker/trader.....but I digress...where was I?....Oh, right.....Treasury/Repo fails.....let's continue.

So....What's a Repo?

Let me take one (1) quick paragraph to explain what goes on at the New York Federal Reserve Bank every day.  A good sized chunk of the worlds collateral and cash passes through the books.  Keep in mind, nothing actually moves.  747's full of cash, bonds and T-bills aren't flying all over the globe. The New York Fed keeps the score card.  That said, a "Repo" is exactly what it sounds like.  If I run a financial institution and I need cash, and you run another institution and you have cash, I can sell you Treasury Securities (Bonds/Bills) and you send me money.  I also agree to "Repurchase" the Securities from you at a later date, sometimes tomorrow (Overnight Repo) or some other agreed upon date.  In other words, I'm borrowing money from you using my T-Bills/Bonds as collateral.  It's a short term loan.  Of course, you'd be entitled to the interest on the securities (collateral) for the days they are on your books. 

Commentary: There are only two (job related) things you can be fired for as a money manager.
1.) Losing money on your dumb-ass (hindsight is always 20/20) investments. 2.) Letting money sit idle. Un-invested cash is a hot potato.....gotta earn some interest!

So as a money manager, you've got to keep your money safe and working.  Treasury securities are the collateral of choice (although other securities are also/often used) as Repo collateral.  (There are markets for Government Agency Securities, Mortgage Backed Securities, Corporate Debt, Junk, Derivatives, etc.)  For the purposes of this discussion we'll just focus on Treasury Securities.

In the last year, roughly US$25.9 Trillion of US Treasury transactions were handled by the New York Fed.  Despite this market's enormity, only the creme de la creme of the world's global financiers are allowed to play in this sand box.  There are 23 "Primary Dealers" who are the gate keepers of this vast marketplace.  If you manage money and want to participate in the Repo Market these are the only businesses who will grant you access.  Based on the financial pedigree of the folks involved, the quality of the collateral and the technology deployed, you'd think that these transactions would almost never fail to close.  However, interestingly enough, they fail often....and sometimes in surprisingly large waves (like the recent trend).  In the words of a crotchety old banker friend of mine, while commenting on a post-dot-com-bubble Repo failure....

"They can't pay??......These things should be good as gold!.... What the hell??."

So.....How Many Transactions Fail?

The New York Fed publishes weekly, summary transaction and failure data, which I've presented in graphic form below.  The following represents "Delivery" transaction failures compared to completed US Treasury Transactions since 2006.  Each 52 week period is shown as of the end of the September Quarter.  



A couple of things jump out.  First we note the huge failure rates in 2008 (US$15.9 Trillion) and 2009 (US$14.3 Trillion) or 51.6% and 68.3% of transaction volume respectively.  We also see that Delivery Failures (FTD) normalized in 2010, creeping up to 14.5% by 2015 and nearly doubling again in 2016 to just over 26%.  Perhaps the chart below illustrates the situation a little clearer.


So it looks like failure rates of transactions, that historically shouldn't fail, have increased to the highest rate since 2006 (Except, of course, for the financial crisis, which I'm trying to block out....I guess that's why they call it a "crisis").  Note: After the financial crisis, to "incentive-ize" the players to complete transactions, the Fed, in 2009, adopted a dynamic "fails" charge, intended to penalize the failing party at a rate roughly equivalent to 3% (annualized) of the transaction value.  This "fails charge" and (some well placed post-Lehman caution) is the primary reason fails dropped to 4% in 2010 and remained in the 5% range through 2012.  This makes perfect sense, a 3% "fine" in a near-ZIRP environment is a whopping penalty.  These are supposed the be "risk free" short term/overnight loans.  As a money manager, you'd be incompetent if you were routinely paying 3% for money, when you should only be paying 1% for it.  Fails charges are the equivalent of paying late fees on your credit cards or getting pay-day loans....the cost is so onerous that the only reason you'd incur them is that you are backed into a corner and have no other alternative. 

Well, to parse the phenomenon a little differently, let's dig a little deeper into the recent quarterly numbers.



When we examine the quarterly figures, the increase in failure activity jumps off the page.  Moreover, the failure rate in September of 2017 (most recent month) came in at 34.8%.  Bankers and Traders suddenly seem to be Ok with paying lots of "fail" charges.  This, obviously, is worrisome.

Further, the highest weekly failure rates in the last 52 weeks occurred in September of 2017.  (40.9% September 6th; 40.4% September 20th and 31.5% September 13th)  Quarterly Window Dressing perhaps?  Hard to tell....

So now we've established that Repo failures have increased significantly over the years, generally increasing in Q3 & Q4, but nowhere near the levels of the financial crisis.  Again, it looks like the game has changed dramatically since 2010. 

So Why Do These Transactions Fail?

Much has been written about the mechanics of failed transactions.  I've posted a few links below if your interested, but suffice it to say that the transaction failures we're discussing in the above charts, generally, have only a few root causes.

  1. There's an error, the wrong securities/terms/dates etc. are recorded and the counter-parties disagree at settlement date.  There's a process for reconciling these transactions, but nevertheless, the are reported as "fails".  (Author's Note:  Not a problem.)
  2. Computer/clearing/system problems.  I don't believe that there's a business in America that hasn't blamed their IT department for transaction and/or back office issues at one point or another.  The New York Fed is apparently no different.  (Author's Note:  Not a big problem.  The NY Fed's IT Department is pretty good.)
  3. "Failing" on a transaction provides a greater benefit (or lower cost) than delivering/receiving the Securities as agreed.  i.e.) The banker can get a better return somewhere else, so it makes sense to "fail".  (Author's Note:  Actually, this shouldn't be that big of a problem since the implementation of the "fails" charge.) 
  4. Credit/Counter-Party Risk:  One of the Counter-Parties can't fulfill their end of the deal.  (Author's Note:  Big problem.  Because the Counter-Parties are actually willing to pay the fails charges, there's a good chance that this is the genesis of the recent wave of fails.  I'll refer to this as a 'Harvey Fail' later on in this post.)  

Let's look at the mechanics of "failing".  Each of the twenty three (23) Primary Dealers listed above will handle transactions for their own account as well as for their customers. 
  1. When a transaction fails, it's reported as a failure for every business day after the initial failure.  i.e.) If a US$100 Million transaction fails, and is not settled (delivered/received) for five (5) days for any reason, it's reported as a $1 Billion failure.  ($100 Million "Failure To Deliver" (FTD) and $100 Million "Failure To Receive" (FTR) x 5 days)  Since FTD is nearly 100% correlated to FTR over time, our discussion today will focus on Failures to Deliver (FTD).  
  2. Once a transaction "fails" it may cause a "daisy chain", where other transactions depend on the completion of the failed transaction.  i.e.) Dealer A fails to deliver $100 Million in securities to Dealer B; Dealer B had already agreed to sell these securities to Dealer C; and Dealer C has agreed to sell the securities to Dealer D.  Unless one of the Dealers purchases/borrows the Securities somewhere else, to complete their end of the transaction(s), the "fail to deliver" reported will be $300 Million (A+B+C) rather than just the $100 Million. 
  3. A "Round Robin" would occur if, in the above example, Dealer D had agreed to Sell the Securities to Dealer A.  In other words, the entire transaction could fail because Dealer A made a commitment to deliver the same securities it was expecting to receive from Dealer D, to Dealer B.  Because of the opacity of the transaction, Dealer A would have no way of knowing that these were actually the same securities.  I'll go into this in more detail in a diagram below.  Is your head spinning yet?.....just wait....there's more.
  4. The lower the interest rate, the lower the "cost" of failing becomes.  The inherent cost of failing is, of course, the time value of money.  At near-ZIRP the "cost" of failing is comparatively low. We could spend some time talking about the perverse impact that negative-interest-rates (where the borrower is actually paid to borrow) have on Repos but I'll save that for another post.  Author's Note: As previously mentioned, Post-Lehman, the TMPG (NY Fed - Treasury Market Practice Group) imposed "failure fees" or "fines" for failing to complete transactions, the equivalent of an annualized minimum interest rate of 3%.  I'd argue that today's failure rates, because of the Counter-Party's apparent willingness to absorb these "costs of failing" are even more worrisome than the Lehman/Bear days when there was no additional imputed cost to fail.  
  5. When transaction fail rates accelerate, it's not uncommon for Dealers to temporarily withdraw, or at least become a little more selective, while they reassess what's going on with their counter-parties, causing other counter-parties to follow suit, increasing the probability of  "fails".  There's a good chance this is happening now, we just don't know who's clamping down on who.  If unabated, Credit Markets can "freeze up", as we saw first hand only a few short, disturbing years ago.   
  6. Do you recall "Rehypothecation"? I first discussed this phenomenon in August of 2015 (Don't Worry....Be Happy...)  Because of Rehypothecation, under certain conditions, it may actually be mathematically impossible to close out all of the transactions.  In theory, we could run into a  situation where, on any given day, there may not be enough collateral in existence.  
  7. As we learned from Lehman, Bear, et al.  Counter-parties really have no idea what's going on with the other side of the trade.  (Authors Note: They think they do....but they don't.)  Dealer A might think they are dealing with Dealer B, but in reality, their transaction may be dependent  on a counter-party of Dealer D.  The only documents these bankers have in their "files" is a collection of really nice letterhead evidencing stellar reputations and long time personal relationships, some financial statements and a rock-solid commitment to deliver a chunk of really good collateral (or cash) that may or may not be available from some other counter-party....but if, and only if, they can't make more money somewhere else. Most Dealers have no idea that some 26 year old, consequence impaired, Wharton wizard is churning & burning the other side of their trade to make some big, fat commissions/bonuses....even though their 26 year old traders are doing the exact same thing.   
  8. Again, keep in mind that this post ONLY addresses Treasury Security Transactions.  These Securities are the Cadillac (I think that's still a compliment) of collateral, traded by the best, smartest, most talented and heavily capitalized financial businesses in the world.  I'll repeat what my crotchety old banker friend said......"these transactions should NEVER fail!"  Yet, our financial system actually seems designed to facilitate and manage these fails.  The system perpetuates the opacity of these Primary Dealers and their clients. i.e.) We have no idea who's really trading these enormous sums and what their real financial commitments are.  The informal practice of "rolling over" these fails, for a fee/fine until they are actually cleared, at least to me, is also cause for concern since all of these transactions take place in a vacuum. If my favorite underwriting "rule of thumb" holds true, 5% of the culprits are causing 90% of the problems. It would be nice to know who these players are, before we have a Lehman-esque redux.
Rehypothecation

As you may recall, I mentioned the impact of Rehypothecation on the potential availability of securities in a prior post.  For those who need a quick refresher on what in the wide world Rehypothecation actually is, I'll describe it with a little story starring my good friend Harvey.  Rehypothecation is a fancy-schmancy financial term for "reusing" collateral.

Let's say that Harvey is the president of the local Frat House.  His Frat was, for various disturbing reasons, evicted from their last house.  Harvey needed to find new digs.  He quickly located a perfect house to rent from a wonderful, trusting, naive landlord.  Harvey, with all the charm he could muster,  offered to sign a ten year lease, and pay a little more rent than the landlord was asking, as long as he could occasionally put a mortgage on the property (even though he didn't own it).  For some inexplicable reason, the wonderful, naive, trusting landlord agreed.

Harvey signed the lease and immediately went out and put a half dozen mortgages, each for full collateral value, on the property.  Harvey was "Rehypothecating" or "reusing" the collateral, even though he didn't own it.   Oddly enough, none of the mortgage lenders ever asked if Harvey had put any other mortgages on the house (collateral) or whether he even owned it.  They just loaned him the money.  The loan applications didn't ask about any other encumbrances and the mortgage terms didn't prohibit any other mortgages on the property.  There were also no provisions in the loan documents as to what Harvey could (or couldn't) do with the money.  So Harvey got cash he could invest equal to six (6) times the value of the new Frat house.  Since interest rates were really low he could easily make the mortgage payments out of principal.  Harvey figured, since he was a finance student, majoring in probability and game theory, he would fly to Vegas with is new found stake and put his education to work at the tables.  Hopefully, everything would work out, Harvey would make a killing (he was brilliant), pay back all of the mortgages, pay the rent on time and throw the biggest, loudest Toga Party the University of Wisconsin had ever seen......or, if by some remote chance things didn't go all that well in Vegas, no matter what, Harvey absolutely knew that things would somehow work out.  Harvey was an incredible optimist.

Of course the above sounds absolutely absurd and would be a textbook example of lender incompetence at best and perhaps mortgage fraud at worst.  But, unfortunately, the sophisticated investor's version of the above happens every day at the New York Fed.

Let's expand my example above with Dealer(s) A, B, C, D & E as a "Round Robin" and throw in a couple of Rehypothecations as well, with Dealer H (Harvey), just to see what the impact might be on Treasury "Fails".  For illustration, let's assume the following:

1.) Each transaction is for $100 million.
2.) Each Dealer agrees to sell Securities today and buy them back tomorrow.
3.) These are the only transactions the dealer is entering into that day.  (i.e. no other cash or Securities are available)
4.) The red arrows represent the flow of cash and the black arrows represent the flow of securities.


























Ok, I know the above looks like a convoluted mess, but I assure you, it's intentional.  That's what I'm trying to illustrate.  Can you imagine trying to diagram the $25 Trillion in annual transactions?  When we examine the above we see that:

1.) None of the Dealers (A,B,C,D &E) actually have any skin in the game.  They all have made commitments to deliver collateral to each other based on the commitment of the others. If all of the transactions complete (i.e.) a Dealer in the chain actually provides collateral/securities), the Fed would report five, $100 million transactions, yet there would be no change in the Securities Balance or the Cash Balance of any of the Dealers.

2.) If every dealer chooses to wait until they receive their securities from the prior Dealer in the chain before fulfilling their commitment, all transactions will fail.  They will continue to fail until someone in the chain steps up to provide collateral.  No completed transactions would be reported and $500 million in both FTD and FTR fails would be reported per day.

3.) Dealer Harvey, located overseas (e.g. Lehman's London Rehypothecation gambit), in a jurisdiction which has no limits on Rehypothecation, receives permission (for a fee) to Rehypothecate from his Client H. Dealer Harvey gets all five Dealers (A,B,C,D & E) to provide cash totaling  $500 million by re-using Client H's $100 million (Frat house) as collateral.  All five Dealers believe they've have fully secured/collateralized Repos when in reality, they have little/no title/right/standing re: the pledged collateral, adding potentially unlimited leverage to the system.

5.) In the above example, when Client H Repurchases his collateral, Dealer Harvey must either locate another client willing to allow him to Rehypothecate, or replace the collateral with $500 million in securities, rather than the $100 million as he had been using under the Rehypothecation.

6.) Again, all of these clandestine transactions take place in secrecy.   None of the dealers involved are aware of the commitments or available securities at the other dealers, yet all of the transactions are related. The butterfly is flapping its wings at Dealer A and typhoons form at Dealer E.  From the Dealer's perspective it looks like hundreds of millions dollars of collateral and cash are changing hands.  The markets look liquid, yet there's little/no underlying collateral....just empty promises to deliver it. Again, there could come a time where there is simply not enough collateral available at any price to close the transactions. It will become tougher and tougher to keep all the balls in the air. Perhaps, and I'm just guessing here, that's why we're seeing the failure rates inch up over the last few years.  Dealers have no choice but to juggle and pay the "fines".



Harvey Fails & The Dick Fuld Banker-Speak Translator (BST)

Given the above, I'd be remiss if I didn't take the time to deploy our patented BST to try to explain how Harvey Fails eventually get put to rest. Here's a hypothetical Repo Fail discussion between a Banker I'll call Lucky Dan and my favorite banker..... Harvey....

Lucky Dan: "Harvey, what's going on?... we've been waiting for you to close your position for two days.  Can I get a timeline?"

Harvey: "Dan, I've been meaning to call you, market conditions are becoming quite difficult.  Not to get into detail, but we're trying to work our way out of a couple of illiquid positions.  We just need a little more time.  Don't worry, it's just a short term imbalance."

Harvey (BST): "Don't worry man I'm good for it.....I wanna buy a round of Kamakaze's for those hotties over there....you can be my wing man."   

Lucky Dan: "Can you give me a little more color on the transactions?  Maybe I can help you work through it....."

Harvey:  "Not to worry old friend.  It's all good.  Just do me a favor.....We should be able to close everything out by Thursday.  I just need Morgan and Goldman to come through.  It's all good...."
Harvey (BST): "Really man...it's not my fault....a couple of guys owe me money and they won't pay me back....as soon as they pay me I'll pay you...."

FRIDAY


Lucky Dan: "Harvey, we've got to shut you down, you're well past terms, I'm sorry...it's out of my hands."

Harvey:  "I fully understand, I'd do the same thing if I were in your position.  We've got some solid alternatives.....don't worry, we'll get this resolved.  Let's get lunch next week."

Harvey (BST):  "Who the F@c% do you think you are?  I never borrowed any money from you.....you throw your money around, piss it away drinking and now you expect me to bail you out?  F@c% you a-hole....you are nothing......you think you've got friends in this town?  Do ya?....You're name is shit ....now get the F@c% out of here....loser..."   


Final Thoughts.....

Here's my thesis:  We're deluding ourselves....what we really have is a financial system fraught with an epidemic of uncollateralized loans backed solely by the reputation of the borrower.....for whatever that's worth.....masquerading as loans secured by US Treasury Bills/Bonds.  There's no transparency when money is moving at the speed of light.  When multiple parties lay claim to the same collateral on a systemic basis what good is it?  If multiple parties commit to deliver securities that don't exist, based on other commitments that can't be mathematically fulfilled, what do we really have?... Especially when we only find out that these claims exist after the fact, when things go South and the they have to be unwound.  Even the greatest financial wizards lose their mystical powers if they're not sure what's lurking behind the curtain.

These increased fails charges are yet another "behind the curtain" canary in a coal mine.  The Fed's Balance Sheet "Normalization" (aka buying bonds) will only exacerbate the condition.  As the collateral pool shrinks, collateral will be more difficult (and expensive) to locate.  Failure's and the inherent transaction cost will increase.  Let's just hope that I'm dead wrong and we're dealing with temporary imbalances and matching problems (that's what Harvey would tell you) rather than systemic credit risk.

Not to worry though, per Janet Yellen in her August 25th, Jackson Hole speech, everything is fine and dandy.  GDP is chugging along, Employment is steady, our asset prices (stocks, houses, etc.) are all up big since 2009!  We are much safer than we were ten years ago. We've put substantial controls in place to prevent what happened in 1929, 1987, 1999 and 2009, from ever happening again.  The Fed has done an awesome job!

To pose a rhetorical Question: Have you ever heard any banker say that "today my bank is less profitable and has gotten much riskier, less safe, less liquid and our underwriting guidelines have gone to hell-in-a-hand-basket on my watch"??  They (according to them) are the smartest guys in the room.....why inconvenience everyone with things like the Volker Rule, Dodd Frank and other cumbersome, unnecessary regulations......Laissez-faire for all!.......just sayin'.....

My final rhetorical question.....Why does it take you, me and "Joe Lunch-Box" two months, bales of documents, ten years of income verification and a cavity search to get a $300,000 mortgage (Which is subsequently securitized, sold to a hedge fund and used anonymously as Rehypothecated collateral ) when we have Quadrillions of dollars (FICC) flying around the globe in nano-seconds with absolutely no idea who's sending it, receiving it and why they're doing so?  ....and why in the world, would these titans of finance be unable to close these "risk free" transactions?

As my crotchety old banker friend often said:

"This is bullshit..."


Author's Note:  Dear Readers: I'll be traveling for a couple of weeks with occasional spotty Internet access (Rural India.....I love India....the whole crazy, wonderful place helps me think about things I wouldn't normally think about), so if you are trying to reach me, please allow a little more time for me to respond.  Namaste'.


Additional Reading:

Atlanta FRB - re-Hypothecation discussion.
https://www.frbatlanta.org/news/conferences-and-events/conferences/2016/0501-financial-markets-conference/videos/research-session-1-collateral-rehypothecation-efficiency.aspx

NY Fed - Fails Charges
https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/microsites/tmpg/files/Fails-Charge-Trading-Practice-2016-07-13.pdf

Janet Yellen's Speech - August 25th, Jackson Hole - Everything is just fine....
https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/yellen20170825a.htm

TMPG - Fails Charges - 2010
https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/epr/10v16n2/1010garb.pdf

TMPG - Fails Charge Docs
https://www.newyorkfed.org/TMPG/settlement_fails.html

A favor
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTtpWgrhS78

New York Fed - Primary Dealers
https://www.newyorkfed.org/markets/primarydealers

New York Fed - Primary Dealer Transaction Statistics
https://www.newyorkfed.org/markets/gsds/search.html#

Financial Times - Repos
https://www.ft.com/content/97ff6658-d87b-11e0-8f0a-00144feabdc0

WSJ - Repos
https://www.wsj.com/articles/repo-failures-at-highest-levels-since-2008-1458580656

ICMA Group
https://www.icmagroup.org/Regulatory-Policy-and-Market-Practice/repo-and-collateral-markets/icma-ercc-publications/frequently-asked-questions-on-repo/40-what-happens-to-repo-transactions-when-interest-rates-go-negative/

https://deep-throat-ipo.blogspot.com/2016/02/window-dressing.html

New York Fed -  Bangladesh Cyber-Heist
http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/cyber-heist-federal/



Monday, October 2, 2017

The Sum of All Fears.....and a few related charts......

Today, I'd like to take some time to revisit a couple of related topics that we first started discussing a few years ago. I am, of course, referring to the burgeoning increases in China's Debt levels, Shadow Bank Assets (loans) and M2, along with a high-level analysis of the most recent PBOC Financial Stability Report and FSB Global Shadow Bank Monitoring Report. (No!....please don't click this page closed....I promise this will eventually get interesting...)

As a starting point, let's begin by reviewing the February, 2015 McKinsey report  Debt and (not much) Deleveraging .  I first referenced the report in this blog in March of 2015. The report focused on the world's, and particularly China's, rapidly building debt/leverage phenomenon (2014 Year End Data).  I encourage you to re-read the entire report, but for those of you who are pressed for time, I'll give you the executive summary bullet-points right here:
  • Debt continues to grow  
  • Reducing government debt will require a wider range of solutions
  • Shadow banking has retreated, but non‑bank credit remains important 
  • Households borrow more
  • China’s debt is rising rapidly
I'm hoping that the McKinsey authors will consider updating the report, bringing the figures current, as I believe these observations, figures and analysis are even more pertinent today than they were back in 2015.

China's Debt

So now, using McKinsey as a reference point, let's take a look at where we are today, via the FRED (St. Louis FED)data below.

The FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data - Citations below) Chart below represents US Core Debt (as defined and provided by the BIS - Bureau of International Settlements) compared to China Core Debt, as a percentage of GDP.  The third (bold Red) line represents China's debt levels adjusted for a "what-if" constant I'll explain shortly.

Lets dig into the numbers.  We see from 2006 thru 2016 US Core Debt increased modestly from roughly 220% of GDP to 250% of GDP.  However, China's Core Debt, relative to GDP nearly doubled during the same period, to roughly 260% of GDP.


Before we discus the above, let's talk about what GDP is (and isn't).  GDP is:


C+I+G+(NX) or:
(Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + (Exports-Imports)).  

First, it's important to understand that increased GDP does not necessarily increase wealth or improve quality of life.  A GDP calculation is measuring-stick for economic activity....nothing more.  A GDP figure makes no representations as to the quality, efficiency or economic utility of the activity producing the GDP.  i.e.) When my Dad was in the Army (WWII....the "big one") he talked about "practicing" digging fox holes.  He and thousands of other soldiers would be told/ordered to dig holes and fill them in.....for no apparent reason other than to keep them busy.  This activity, since he was being paid to do it, would increase GDP, even though it accomplished nothing more than wear the men out, keeping them out of the English pubs.

That said, here are a few examples of things that would significantly increase GDP.
  • Building a Superhighway, Bridge or Bullet Train connecting two uninhabited deserts or islands. (I+G)
  • Building a Ghost City. (I+G)
  • A military build up. (I+G)
  • Producing millions of tons of steel and cement held in a developer's CIP inventory. (I+G+C)
  • Creating even more manufacturing capacity (factories and mines) for steel, cement, etc.(I)
  • Building infrastructure.  i.e.) Public works, water, power plants, tunnels, wells, utilities etc. (I+G)
  • Manufacturing phones, computers, clothing and consumer goods for export. (C+NX)
  • Buying tons of eCommerce stuff. (C)
  • Tearing down an abandoned building/high rise. (C+G)

Here are a few more you might not think about.....again, these are events/activities that increase GDP but don't necessarily increase wealth or quality of life.
  • A hurricane....all of the destruction has to be financed and rebuilt. (C+I+G)
  • Public Welfare and Housing Assistance Checks (C+G)
  • Single Payer Health Care (C+G)
  • Paying 10x as much for a medical procedure as you might pay in other countries (C)
So you get the point.....although it looks good on paper, incurring debt to build/finance things that aren't economically viable, produce little (or no) economic utility or fail to generate earnings and cash flow doesn't work too well over the long haul.  At some point, the lenders won't be paid back.....or, as should happen in a free-floating world, if they are eventually paid back, they'll be paid back with a currency having a fraction of the purchasing power of the currency they initially loaned out to finance the activity.

China's "Productive GDP"

Now, let's get back to the bold Red line on the chart above and take some time to coin a phrase. We'll call it "Productive GDP" or PGDP.  As any economist will tell you, desperate times call for desperate measures.....and new terminology!  Let's say that China's "Productive" GDP, for lack of a better term, is defined as GDP excluding all of the over-building, non-productive excess capacity and accounting games created simply to hit the arbitrary 7%, etched in stone, silly, CCP mandated GDP growth target.

So let's further say that rather than the published, rock solid, 7%, annual NBS GDP growth rate, the "Productive", un-fudged, non-incentivized, PGDP growth rate is only 4.6%, (2/3rds of the published/reported rate), but still a remarkable number for an economy the size of China's.  Extrapolating the bold Red Line above, if GDP is "overstated" by a third, we illustrate/conclude that the ratio of Core Debt to "Productive" PGDP explodes to nearly 400%, much higher than the current G20 average of 240%.

Author's Note:  You math aficionados out there might be observing that the bold red line doesn't consider the compounding impact (i.e. reducing the GDP growth rate in a prior year impacts the current year starting point).  So the method illustrated (multiplying GDP by a constant) actually overstates GDP.  That's absolutely correct.  However, since I have no actual data to base my adjustment on, it's a guess, an arbitrary adjustment, so the compounding doesn't matter.  Besides using a constant was simply easier than trying to program the FRED model to compound the change.  In any case, I'm just illustrating a point.

So far so good?

Shadow Banking

Now lets revisit the 2015 McKinsey Report (2014 data) bullet points above.  Specifically:
  • Shadow banking has retreated, but non‑bank credit remains important 
Unfortunately, per the People's Bank of China (PBOC), Shadow Bank lending has reversed course abruptly and skyrocketed since the 2015 McKinsey report.  Nobody really knows how big China's Shadow Bank ecosystem is, but the PBOC recently offered a rather shocking guess in their 2017 Financial Stability Report (pg.48).  China's Off-Balance-Sheet, un-regulated, "Shadow" loans have grown to nearly US $37 Trillion (RMB 252.3 Trillion) and have surpassed China's US$34 Trillion, "On-Balance Sheet" bank assets as of the close of 2016.  They also restated the 2015 numbers, increasing the 2015 figures to US$ 28 Trillion (RMB 189 Trillion), roughly doubling the 2015 figure.

Keep in mind, the PBOC estimating Non-Bank Shadow loans is a bit like the local Sheriff estimating "unreported financial crime".  He doesn't have authority over the mechanics of the activity, lacks enforcement resources and therefore can't do much about preventing the crime(s).  Even if he had authority and resource, he'd have a hard time zeroing in on the metric....criminals generally don't respond to surveys or self-report their schemes.  Moreover, the Sheriff would have an incentive to under-estimate the problem and hope everything works out, since, at some point, someone is going to be held accountable.  As history shows, Chinese Bankers are well aware of the penalties for this type of chicanery.  Financial scoundrels are normally exiled to horrific disgrace on a private tropical island with only occasional access to boatloads of Cayman Islands money.  Their globe-trotting travel is restricted to other carefully selected, non-extradition, quasi-paradise jurisdictions.....and so it goes.

Again, based solely on the usual, limited transparency inherent in PBOC reporting (good things are trumpeted and bad things are swept under the rug), a disclosure like this would indicate that the problem is potentially much larger than they are letting on.  In the 2017 Financial Stability Report (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) the PBOC restates the Shadow Bank Assets for 2014 and 2015 (as shown by the dotted line in the chart below). To my knowledge, no other major economy has ever experienced an acceleration anywhere near these levels of Non-Bank, Shadow debt relative to GDP, much less restated it in a gigantic "ooppps....our bad" buried in a couple of paragraphs in the bowels of a report.  In China....they do things big.  The bigger the better.  The two Charts below, prepared by Capital Economics illustrate that we've apparently entered uncharted waters.




Although the fiercely independent citizens, politicians and bankers of Hong Kong and Singapore might disagree, we can generalize that the leverage in those economies (tall bars on the left of the chart) is inextricably linked to the Chinese financial system. If there were ever a potential "ground-zero" for a default-induced financial contagion Shang-Hong-apore would be it.

Moreover, when we examine the PBOC/CE Charts above, it wouldn't be much of a reach to conclude that Shadow/Non-Bank Credit has become an absolutely essential tool for keeping all of the financial balls in the air. As reported by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in a piece for the Telegraph:

Jahangir Aziz and Haibin Zhu from JP Morgan said the debts of the state-owned entities (SOEs) have alone reached 90pc of GDP or $13.3 trillion.  

Nearly 60pc of new credit this year is being used to repay old loans. It takes four times as much new credit to generate a given amount of extra of GDP as it did a decade ago. “China’s rising indebtedness has come to represent all that is disconcerting about their economy,” they said in a report entitled “The Sum of All Fears”.

Hmmmm....."The Sum of All Fears"....catchy little title for a financial/policy report!  Tom Clancy would be proud....

Viewed another way, when we add the current, 2016 BIS figure, roughly US$28 Trillion of China's Core Debt plus the estimated US$37 Trillion +/- of Shadow debt (RMB 253.5 Trillion), we have a Debt/PGDP ratio approaching 900% of "Productive" PGDP.  The Comparable, relatively constant, US ratio (250% +/-) is shown in blue below.


 

"Total Social Financing" (TSF)

Total Social Financing (TSF), yet another term of art the Chinese government introduced a few years ago to track the leverage in their economy, grew to RMB 155.99 trillion RMB (US$ 23 Trillion),  up 12.8 percent from 2015, per the PBOC Report. (Pg. 28)  The intent of this statistic is to track the "total financing" required by households and businesses.  The process goes awry when we try to decipher exactly what's included in this metric and how the data is collected.  There are numerous articles written on this topic and I've listed a few of them in the citations below.  Suffice it to say that the consensus is, that a significant amount of Non-Bank Shadow financing is excluded from TSF.  Interestingly, this metric, intended to show changes in the composition of how economic growth is financed, is potentially misleading, since significant Shadow risk is omitted from the calculations.



Some Verifiable Numbers.....Bonds

As difficult as it is to measure China's fragmented Shadow Financial System, there are a few reported metrics which are presumably more reliable than others.  China's bond markets are one such example.  In the last two years (2015 & 2016) the value of new "Major" Chinese Bond issues (below) has actually exceeded the total amount outstanding of America's Corporate Bond market (about US$ 8.6 Trillion).  Why is all of this new debt necessary?  Again, most (60%?) of the new issues are used to roll over other bonds/debts/financing coming due.



























Continuing the theme, Non-Performing Loans (NPL's) have somehow remained relatively constant, hovering just under 2% since 2011 as shown below.  (pg. 44 of the PBOC Report)

How can this be?  Perhaps it's just little old skeptical me, but usually, when borrowing skyrockets like this, underwriting is lax and bad loans go bad much quicker.  The universally accepted game bankers play to keep a bad loan from being reported as non-performing is to refinance it and change the terms....and (drum roll please....) ....like magic, it's a performing loan again!  In all likelihood, that's what's happening with this fake NPL statistic.  It's hard to believe that China's financial system hasn't already broken its economic foot as a consequence of kicking all of these NPL cans down the road, but somehow it just keeps chugging merrily along.  As my favorite Irish pub drinking song goes...."Roll me over in the clover.....roll me over lay me down and do it again...this is number one....we've only just begun....etc....etc...."


A Few More Notes on the PBOC Financial Stability Report

The very existence of a recurring document entitled "Financial Stability Report" is disturbing.  Does the PBOC really have to reaffirm the stability of their financial system every year?   Moreover, it's a difficult read to say the least.  The "don't worry, everything is under control" tone seems disingenuous and frankly, a bit over-done.  When we do a quick word count we see that the word "stable" appears 49 times, "stability" 40 times and "improve/improving" 217 times.  Conversely, "Deteriorated" was used twice and "Declined" was used 15 times, mostly in the context of "the occurrence of bad things declined a whole bunch".  Predictably, "holy crap", "suck", "dumb ass" and "Armageddon" did not appear in the document at all.

In another odd twist, beginning on page 129 of the PBOC 2017 Financial Stability Report, there's a brief discussion on the methodology and findings of the FSB (Financial Stability Board) 2016 Global Shadow Banking Monitoring Report, complete with what seems to be a veiled criticism of the US, EU & UK financial systems and the risk associated with each, generally concluding that "there's lots of risk out there, but everything is fine in China!".   Here's a sample of the language from the report....please just indulge me for a moment:

Page 138 - PBOC Report
China is now in a period of economic structural adjustment and upgrading alongside with structural conflicts, so it is necessary to establish a financial regulatory framework which fits for the development of the modern financial market and to enhance the role of macroprudential policies. China thus continues to improve the macroprudential policy framework, promote the institutional arrangement of interagency corporation, enhance the monitoring and identification of risks, and effectively implement and calibrate policy tools, so as to safeguard financial stability from all the dimensions and throughout all the procedures, and to hold on to the bottom line of allowing no systemic risks to emerge.

Honestly, I'm not sure what the above even means, yet the entire report reads like this. It's actually painful.  It makes my head hurt when I read it.  Other than the typos (corporation vs. cooperation) and the improved, enhanced, structural framework-able, institutionalized, "bottom-line" overuse of a Thesaurus, the main criticism I have with the PBOC's critique of the FSB report is that they refused to participate.  That's right, they spent ten (10) pages discussing the merits of a report, for which they declined to provide data. 

Here's the wording from Page 1 of the 2016 Financial Stability Board (FSB) Report (Published in May of 2017)

While all participating jurisdictions are covered in the “macro-mapping” of jurisdictions’ financial system, data from China were not received in time to complete an assessment of entities in China for the narrow measure of shadow banking. Improvements to Chinese data collection are currently underway in order to enable Chinese authorities to fully contribute to the 2017 monitoring exercise.

A disclosure like this absolutely requires that we deploy our patented, Dick Fuld Bankerspeak Translator (BST)  to figure out what the hell the FSB is saying.  Here's the translation:

"Holy shit.....we invite you guys to participate in our risk study, for the common good of all of our participants, and dare we say, all mankind, and you give us a bunch of outdated, nonsensical macro data?  When we ask you for the detailed-narrow, supporting data, which would help explain what's going on for our peer review, you take your ball and go home?  You're the 'second biggest economy' on the planet and you can't hit a deadline?....and then.... just a year later.....after reporting this top-side bull-shit .....you have the cajones to add another US$24 Trillion to the number you gave us?   What's next? an airplane hanger full of gold bullion and diamonds was missed?... Really?  Do you guys have any clue at all re: what's going on with your financial system?"   

Here's a Chart showing the breakdown of Other Financial Intermediaries (OFI) by Jurisdiction, including some of the (pre-revision) macro data provided by the Chinese government (Pg. 17):

























The size of Other Financial Intermediaries (OFIs) is measured by the sum of assets of all financial corporations that are not classified as central banks, banks, insurance corporations, pension funds, public financial institutions, or financial auxiliaries.  2015 Global OFI assets, prior to China's restatement for 2015 and 2016 was reported at US$ 92 Trillion.  If we're to apply the PBOC 2016 restatement, adding the "newly discovered" US$ 24 Trillion of OFI Assets to the total, all else being equal, we see that OFI Assets increase to US$ 116 Trillion, of which China's OFI Assets are actually US$32 Trillion (28%) rather than previously reported US$ 8 Trillion (8%) of OFI Assets.

Here's the summary chart of the FSB macro-mapping data, including China's pre-revision disclosures (Pg. 11):





















Note that assets invested in foreign jurisdictions may distort these ratios.  International Financial Centers like (IE) Ireland (Tech/Apple Money), (HK) Hong Kong, (SG) Singapore, (CH) Switzerland, etc. where the worlds multi-nationals, elites and assorted nefarious criminals/cartels tend to park their money, distort the ratios.  e.g.) These countries inherently have huge financial systems relative to GDP because they are holding "someone else's" money.  Further, data for the Cayman Islands are not represented in the above graph – the size of the Cayman's financial system was around 200,000% of GDP (US$ 6 Trillion) at end-2015, thanks to their extremely....hmmm....how do I put this kindly/professionally.... "friendly" banking system.  Moreover, there's no public data, at least that I'm aware of, describing the composition of any of the "off-shore" money by nation/jurisdiction.  Specifically, for our analysis today, it would be particularly important to know how much of this money is actually "parked" Chinese shell company money (Alibaba, Tencent, etc.).....but I digress.

The simple formula:

CN+HK+SG+KY = OUCH

Shang-Hong-apore + Caymans =  Opaque Unacceptable Contagion Hegemony

Based on the above we see that the size of China's Financial System, including Shadow Banking, is just over 400% of GDP as of 2015, prior to the PBOC Financial Stability Report Shadow Banking revisions.  Now, again, all else remaining constant, let's superimpose both the PBOC Shadow Banking revisions and the above described "Productive" PGDP adjustment on the data...and see what we get....



Pretty ugly....don't you think?  Again, the leverage in the Chinese financial system per dollar of GDP is more than twice that of the US and most developed, non-financial center jurisdictions.  I'd imagine that these skyrocketing, continuously revised ratios are scaring the living snot out of every Economist on the planet by now.  But you and I will never know what hit us.  Economists, and highly compensated Investment Bankers, as we all know, have nerves of steel.....as long as there are big fees involved.


Rating Agencies

Even Rating Agencies, although usually last to the party (Moody's famously first downgraded Enron the day after the bankruptcy filing) have begun to take note.  Moody's  downgraded China's sovereign debt a few months ago and S&P followed suit a few weeks ago. Both rating agencies, without giving specifics, cited rising debt levels as the primary reason for the downgrade.

Of course, there's been volumes of commentary on the agency decisions.  Predictably, the Chinese Ministry of finance vehemently disagrees with the downgrade(s).  The comments from the analysts re: the downgrade are generally benign ......steady as she goes.....everything will be fine...the government will bail everyone out, etc.  One of the few, powerful exceptions of note, at least that I could locate, came from Claire Dissaux from Millenium Global Investments - who said: "China’s credit problem is the biggest problem we have ever seen in any country....etc......all that is an argument to say China’s rating might still be too good.”"


Dump-Trucks full of Money

As expected, when debt grows like this, the money supply must grow as well.  Chicken?...egg?...etc.  As we can see below (per FRED), China's M2 isn't only growing, it's exploding.  Again, in China, nothing is written off.  Every business is a success...usually the biggest, best, greatest in the world. Nothing ever fails.  Nothing defaults.  Every "can" is dutifully kicked down the road.  When a debt can't be serviced, it's viewed as a short term problem and it's rolled over into new debt or some sort of hybrid debt/equity/securitized/investment product by some entity other than a bank.  Of course, you need dump-trucks full of money (M2) to accomplish this magic.


Per the above, we note that US M2 has ballooned, nearly doubling since 2006.  The FED has been on the greatest globally-fueled, money-printing, expansionist, binge in US financial history.   Yet, Janet Yellen looks absolutely hawkish when we compare US Monetary Policy to the PBOC.  China's M2 has increased more than 500% (similar to the combined Core/Shadow debt levels) during the same time period.  Remarkably, the RMB has simultaneously strengthened.  I've long opined about the impossibility of this relationship if it wasn't for China's dual On-Shore/Off-Shore currency system, yet this theoretically impossible relationship continues to exist today.  The RMB could actually be the greatest, government-manufactured bubble in financial history.

What's Next?

China Bulls would tell you that the meteoric growth in the Chinese financial system, and satellites (Hong Kong, Singapore & the Caymans) is actually appropriate based on the size of the economy.  They would tell you that China is an unstoppable juggernaut.  Based on the PBOC revised numbers, compared to a theoretical "Productive" PGDP, I couldn't disagree more.  The hard landing that so many have predicted has now become unavoidable.  It's just a matter of time. The math doesn't work... and it never will.

On the other hand, this financial party has been going on for quite a while now, perhaps much longer than many of us would have thought possible.  Yet, when we examine the evolution and underlying changes in the global financial landscape, we can also conclude that this condition can indeed continue on, perhaps indefinitely.  I addressed this phenomenon in my The Theory of Financial Relativity post last year.  If Central Banks all provide liquidity in lockstep, at the same relative rate, bubbles can indeed go on forever.  This "new normal", if to be believed, would make the world a much safer place to invest.  Bubble-ized asset prices and currencies would be supported in perpetuity.  Investors would be in a no-lose situation.  Our task would be effectively reduced to "picking the best bubble" from a universe of bubbles!

Unfortunately, the risk of course is that, at some point, for some reason, a Central Banker or two will refuse to play ball and the whole thing will unravel.  Bubbles will burst.  As fate would have it, we're starting to get tepid rumblings of tighter money from some of the players.  Both the FED and Bank of England have signaled tightening.  The FED will begin "balance sheet normalization" (selling bonds) and the BOE is considering raising rates.

The ramifications of what would seem to be subtle policy shifts, knocking things "out of balance", will be devastating to the global financial ecosystem.

Finally, to that end, I've embedded a "behind the scenes" secretly recorded, video link to a recent joint FED/PBOC task force discussion describing the potentially horrific global-economic fallout if the Chinese somehow lost control of their financial system and their currency.

Let's just hope this all works out......there's not much else we can do now......"Oh ...the humanity!"



Citations:

International Monetary Fund, M2 for China© [MYAGM2CNM189N], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MYAGM2CNM189N, September 21, 2017.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), China / U.S. Foreign Exchange Rate [DEXCHUS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DEXCHUS, September 21, 2017.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), M2 Money Stock [M2SL], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/M2SL, September 21, 2017.

Bank for International Settlements, Total Credit to Non-Financial Sector, Adjusted for Breaks, for United States© [QUSCAM770A], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/QUSCAM770A, September 21, 2017.

Bank for International Settlements, Total Credit to Non-Financial Sector, Adjusted for Breaks, for China© [QCNCAM770A], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/QCNCAM770A, September 21, 2017.

McKinsey Study - February 2015
http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/debt-and-not-much-deleveraging

Mauldin - Shadow Banking in China
http://www.mauldineconomics.com/editorial/chinas-growth-driven-by-shadow-banking-is-a-potential-trigger-for-the-next#

BIS - Core Debt By Country
http://www.bis.org/statistics/tables_f.pdf

PBOC - China's Shadow Bank debt is nearly US$38 Trillion.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/07/17/shock-rise-chinas-shadow-banking-enrages-xi-jinping/?utm_campaign=JM-305&utm_medium=ED&utm_source=mec

Moody's Downgrades China
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/05/24/moodys-downgrades-china-says-credit-explosion-continue-growth/

S&P Downgrades China
https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahsu/2017/09/22/sp-right-to-downgrade-chinas-sovereign-credit-rating-deleveraging-process-is-too-slow/#601089d84184

S&P Downgrades China - Claire Dissaux
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-economy-rating-downgrade/sp-downgrades-chinas-rating-citing-increasing-economic-financial-risks-idUSKCN1BW19N

Telegraph - China's Retreat on Credit Crackdown
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/05/16/china-signals-retreat-credit-crack-down-stress-mounts/

PBOC - 2016 - A Most Excellent Financial Stability Report (English)
http://www.pbc.gov.cn/english/130721/3390064/2017092716540370024.pdf

PBOC - 2016 - A Most Excellent Financial Stability Report (Chinese Version)
http://www.pbc.gov.cn/goutongjiaoliu/113456/113469/3338552/2017070417184281695.pdf

FSB - Financial Risk Monitoring Report - China was "late"
http://www.fsb.org/wp-content/uploads/global-shadow-banking-monitoring-report-2016.pdf

Brookings Institute - Shadow Bank Primer - as of March, 2015
https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/shadow_banking_china_elliott_kroeber_yu.pdf

Barron's - Is it Time to Freak Out? - April 2016
http://www.barrons.com/articles/is-it-time-to-freak-out-about-chinese-debt-1460105016

Yardeni - Total Social Financing
https://www.yardeni.com/pub/chinasocialfinance.pdf

China Shadow Bank - PBOC Risk Simulation - Video
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH-mhZLuGRk