Where to Look for the Next Wall Street Blowup
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Where to Look for the Next Wall Street Blowup

The tide’s definitely gone out in markets this year, but finance has come through with few problems—so far.

Tue, May 31, 2022 11:36amGrey Clock 4 min

When the tide goes out you find out who was swimming naked, Warren Buffett memorably said. The tide’s definitely gone out in markets this year, but finance has come through with few problems. Is it possible that this time not many were skinny-dipping?

The optimistic view is that the typical culprits—speculators using borrowed money—had been caught out already in the past two years and so weren’t up to their usual tricks. The pessimistic view is that the blowups are still to come.

Start with the positive: the list of recent crises that made investors reassess the dangers. The shock of the pandemic in early 2020revealed serious problems with leveraged trading and overnight borrowing in Treasurys. The Federal Reserve stepped in and backstopped the market, but fixed-income hedge funds that lost big as Treasurys moved in the wrong direction cut back.

In January 2021, short sellers were hit as Redditors piled into meme stocks such as GameStop, driving up their prices and causing multibillion-dollar losses for those betting against them. Melvin Capital, which was heavily short GameStop, finally shut down this year. Other hedge funds took note, and concentrated short positions were rethought.

Then in March last year—when the market was still super-bullish—hedge fund Archegos blew up, causing US$10 billion or so of losses to investment banks that had unwisely lent it money. Soul-searching at the investment banks means they have re-examined their hedge-fund lending, while Credit Suisse decided to pull out of the business altogether. Again, greater powers given to risk managers mean there is less risk of a repeat.

Roll forward to the autumn and currency and bond traders began preparing for rate rises, led by surprisingly hawkish talk from the Bank of England. But prices snapped back abruptly in November when the Bank didn’t follow through with the expected tightening, again giving funds that trade on macroeconomic news a dry run for the volatility that has dominated markets globally since.

All of these big but not huge shocks helped ensure that risk-taking was cut back, meaning there were fewer highly leveraged players who might be taken out by the extreme moves of 2022 in stocks, bonds, commodities and currencies.

So far there has been only one true catastrophe in traditional finance, the freezing of the nickel market when the London Metal Exchange foolishly decided to save a Chinese firm caught out by massive wrong-way bets. But bad as that was, it was never going to be enough to take down important parts of the financial system.

There have been some total disasters in crypto, notably the collapse of the Terra “stablecoin,” but the links to traditional finance remain small enough that this matters little to the mainstream.

The other important pillar of support is that banks are significantly stronger than in the past couple of decades, thanks to post-2008 reforms. They can weather bad times more easily as a result.

So much for the good news. The prevailing mood of finance executives I’ve asked about the lack of trouble is summed up by a repeated response: “So far.”

Long before Mr. Buffett discussed naked swimmers, economist John Kenneth Galbraith invented the “bezzle”—fraudulent losses accumulated in the good times that are only discovered when the economy weakens. After a decadelong bull market with only the briefest of interruptions in 2020, there could be plenty of bezzles yet to emerge.

The biggest bezzles in recent history took painfully long to emerge. After the bursting of the dot-com bubble in March 2000, it was 18 months before accounting fraud took down power company and leveraged energy trader Enron in what was then the biggest-ever bankruptcy. After the 2008 financial crisis, scandals continued for years across both finance and real-economy businesses.

The feedback loop from finance to the real economy and back to finance takes time to create serious problems, too. Already the weakest and most indebted developing countries are in trouble, with Sri Lanka in crisis and Ghana imposing fierce austerity to keep finances in order. The rising dollar and higher U.S. bond yields hurt governments and countries that chose to borrow in dollars and have a mismatch of dollar costs and local-currency income.

In 1994 and 1997-1998, it took more than a year for emerging-market crises—in 1994 Mexico’s “Tequila crisis,” in 1997 the Asian devaluations followed by Russia’s domestic-debt default—to feed back to Wall Street. When they did, Wall Street’s financial stability wobbled. More worryingly, the loss for investors in benchmark 10-year Treasurys from their peak is already much bigger than the shock of 1994.

There are two new risks that history doesn’t help with. The first is the unprecedented amount of liquidity that has been pumped into finance by central banks buying bonds. A lack of liquidity is what usually creates financial problems, as it prevents debts being rolled over. As the Fed and other central banks drain liquidity, problems might reveal themselves.

The second is that there’s a massive, and unknown, amount of private debt issued by lightly regulated shadow banks. My worry isn’t mainly that the lending turns sour (although it might). Rather, the danger is that the private-debt boom turns out to be a function of easy money. If investors prove less willing to lock up their money in private-debt funds as interest rates make mainstream investments more attractive, there will be a steady withdrawal of lending capacity. That could hold back the economy and make it harder for companies to refinance loans. These sorts of knock-on effects could take years to feed through into financial trouble.

I suspect there are plenty of underdressed bathers still to be exposed. I hope the crisis practice runs of the past two years mean there is less risk of Wall Street coming to a sudden stop.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 31, 2022.


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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