China’s sudden cuts to rare earth export quotas and domestic production marked the beginning of a Rare Earth Economic War, proposes Jacob Securities’ Senior Mining and Metals Analyst Luisa Moreno. The good news is that partnerships between end-users and mining companies may just be the secret weapon to level the playing field for critical metals producers operating beyond China’s borders. In this exclusive interview with The Critical Metals Report, Moreno points to the companies that are closest to delivering high-quality goods for the benefit of manufacturers and investors alike.
The Critical Metals Report: Last year you published a research report called the Rare Earth Economic War. When we talked last time, you said that China was on one side and industrialized nations were on the other, with China winning. Does China’s new five-year plan with an emphasis on consumer consumption change that balance?
Luisa Moreno: China’s new five-year plan as it concerns raw materials suggests that China wants to better utilize its resources primarily for its own economic development, which in part supports the concept of a raw materials economic war. China, just as most nations, would like to be self-sufficient in key mineral resources. The country has about one-third of all the total rare earth element (REE) resources, but it supplies the world with more than 95% of its rare earth needs. I believe China is in a resource-preservation mode. However, what is not so fair are the differences between China’s domestic rare earths prices and international prices, which are usually much higher, and China’s dramatic decrease in production and export quotas in such a short period of time. China is well aware of the critical uses of some of the rare earths and it seems that it is determined to allocate a limited amount to the world and increasingly consume most of it by attracting REE-dependent manufacturing into China. The leaders plan to manage sustainable growth of the Chinese REE sector by attracting companies that utilize these resources. That would bring jobs while developing advanced rare earth-based technologies. It is no different from what other nations would like to do. Of course, China is at an advantage because it has the largest capacity in the world for the production of these elements and the know-how to refine them. The rest of the world is left with the option of moving manufacturing to China for better access to these materials.
TCMR: So you are saying that China is still winning?
LM: I believe so. Actually, the recent move by the U.S., EU and Japan to file a law suit against China may end up supporting that conclusion, if they are unable to persuade it to change its rare earth policies. It seems that China is increasingly consuming most of these elements and it is trying to control supply and prices.
TCMR: Can lawsuits and political pressure really make China change its export habits?
LM: Potentially. I think a negative ruling could make leaders think twice before deciding on export quotas or other related trading policies. But China will put Chinese interests first, obviously. I don’t think that the rest of the world has much leverage with what is now the second-largest world economy. I think the lawsuits bring attention to how other nations may feel, but might not necessarily be sufficient to change China’s policies regarding rare earths or other critical materials.
TCMR: China’s Ministry of Commerce recently announced that the export quotas would remain essentially the same—30,184 tons (t) in 2012—but only 50% of the quota was used last year. Is that quota meaningful?
LM: 2011 was an exceptionally bad year, the tsunami in Japan, the second-largest REE consumer, having caused a slowdown in demand, not to mention the global economic slowdown in the second half of the year, which was marked by poor economic conditions in Europe and negative economic politics in the U.S. The second half of 2011 was clearly not a favorable one for rare earths and many other commodities. Now that the rare earth element export quotas are separated into lights, mediums and heavies, I think it will become more evident where the real demand is and how tight the export quotas really are, assuming that we see some economic recovery.
I think the new invoicing system that China is implementing to better control production and exports may decrease illegal exports of rare earths as well. Right now, official export numbers are not the total picture because so much is illegally produced and exported. I’m not sure China will be able to control all of the illegal exports, but at least reining it in a little bit will impact the supply-demand equation.
If Lynas Corp. (LYC:ASX) comes into production and Molycorp Inc. (MCP:NYSE) ramps up production, we should see an increase in production of light rare earth elements (LREEs). That may make export quotas for LREEs less meaningful. However, China will probably maintain export quotas for some of the most critical REEs, including the light element neodymium and some of the heavy rare earths (HREEs) like dysprosium and yttrium. For the next five to 10 years, as long as there is a risk that some of these elements might be in shortfall, we may still see an REE export quota of some sort.
TCMR: You called 2011 an exceptional year in terms of bad economic news, but could the drop in rare earths prices indicate that it had been in a bubble? Have companies’ efforts to re-engineer products and eliminate their needs for rare earths been successful? Or was it just the economy in general that accounted for the price drops?
LM: Likely it was a combination of all those things. I think the current and future demand for materials such as dysprosium should be healthy, but I’m not sure if $3,000/kilogram (kg) was justifiable. Similarly, the prices of lanthanum and cerium, which are fairly common elements historically below $10/kg , were above $100/kg back in August, a level we now know is not really sustainable. Prices seem to have been in a bubble and when demand decreased, REE prices also fell significantly. Chinese officials may have wanted prices to stay high and some Chinese refiners even suspended production for a few months when prices were falling and demand was weak.
TCMR: Considering that not all REEs are created equal in terms of market value, what are some of the most in-demand elements, and could those prices break out this year?
LM: I think the critical elements identified by the U.S. Department of Energy—neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium—could experience a significant increase in demand; some may even be in shortfall right now. It is possible that the prices of these elements may rise, but in the short term, we might see continued decreasing prices until they stabilize. I have already seen signs that they are starting to stabilize. If there is stability, or better yet growth in the global economy, the prices for some of these elements could potentially increase this year.
TCMR: You mentioned Molycorp and Lynas. Molycorp just announced the start-up of its manufacturing facility in Mountain Pass, California. Will that produce mostly LREEs? Could those two companies make a difference in global supply in the next couple of years?
LM: Absolutely. Light rare earths are the most sold or consumed elements—particularly lanthanum and cerium. They are the cheapest, but they are the ones that are sold in the highest volume. Lynas and Molycorp could also produce significant amounts of neodymium, which is very important for the production of super magnets used in hybrid cars, computers and wind turbines. Molycorp really does not have much of the heavies like dysprosium and terbium at Mountain Pass. Lynas might be able to produce some of the most critical heavies from its plant in Malaysia, but it would be rather expensive given that it only has small percentages of heavy lanthanides. In any case, even if both companies ramp up production, it won’t completely close the gap in demand that exists for some of these critical elements outside China.
TCMR: When do you see each of those companies going into production?
LM: There have been delays with the Lynas project because of permitting issues, but I think it hopes to start production in Malaysia before the end of the year. Molycorp expects to reach its phase one annualized production of 19,050t of mixed rare earth oxides by Q312 and separated products perhaps before the end of the year. It’s hard to say exactly when these companies will be able to reach their target production. As you know, with mining projects delays are not unusual, but both companies are working very hard to deliver on their promises.
TCMR: What are your top picks for non-Chinese companies that could supply some of the heavy elements in the future?
LM: My top picks include Matamec Explorations Inc. (MAT:TSX.V; MRHEF:OTCQX) and Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (UCU:TSX.V; UURAF:OTCQX). I cover both companies and they both have a favorable REE distribution with high percentages of the critical elements. I think Matamec has made significant progress with its metallurgy and its partnerships. The company just announced that Toyota Tsusho Corp. (TYHOF:OTC; 8015:JP) has signed a binding memo of understanding with Matamec, which means it has priority over the development of the Kipawa. That is very good for Matamec.
Ucore should come out with a preliminary economic assessment (PEA) in the next few weeks, and we should be able to better assess if it is an economically viable project. The project is in Alaska and we believe it is the most significant HREE deposit in the U.S. It’s very interesting.
TCMR: Could either of these companies be takeover targets for a Molycorp looking to cover the HREE space?
LM: If Molycorp wants to become the leading rare earths company, it will have to find a solution for the heavy rare earths. I think Matamec could have filled that role, but because Toyota has now the binding agreement, it will be difficult for Molycorp to approach Matamec. Besides, it seems that Toyota is interested in a 100% offtake deal with Matamec. Ucore, on the other hand, continues to be another good option for Molycorp, although the company is still working on its metallurgy and may be seen as too early stage. When the PEA comes out, hopefully we’ll have a much better idea of the progress of the project.
Another company that would also be of interest is Tasman Metals Ltd. (TSM:TSX.V; TAS:NYSE.A; TASXF:OTCPK; T61:FSE), which has the Norra Karr deposit in Sweden. It is close to Molycorp’s Silmet refinery in Europe. Tasman has one of the highest percentages of heavies. Contrary to Ucore and Matamec, it actually has a very large resource. My understanding is that in terms of the metallurgy, it made significant progress but it is not as advanced as Matamec or Rare Element Resources Ltd. (RES:TSX; REE:NYSE.A). Hopefully, it will file a PEA this year as well.
TCMR: Matamec is trading at $0.32 today and Ucore at $0.41. Could the recent news be catalysts for both of those companies?
LM: I think so. As the market looks around for HREE alternatives to Molycorp, I think there is great potential for Ucore and Tasman to be recognized by the market as potential targets. Matamec is currently working on the details of a definitive agreement with Toyota Tsusho, to be completed by July.
TCMR: You have commented on the importance of metallurgy and the refining process for extracting and efficiently delivering high-quality oxides for each individual mineral source because each one is very different. What companies are well on their way to doing this?
LM: Like I said, Matamec is well underway in doing this. Now, it has a fantastic partner, which is Toyota Tsusho and all the associated companies and likely universities that will be involved in developing that project.
I think another company that has made significant progress is Montero Mining and Exploration Ltd. (MON:TSX.V). It has a deposit in Tanzania and it just announced that it has produced an oxide concentrate. That’s really good.
Rare Element Resources Ltd. is another. I visited its pilot plant last year. It has also made significant progress. The resource is mainly comprised of bastnasite mineral, which, relative to other deposits, might mean that it will have fewer processing challenges. It has been able to produce a mixed oxide concentrate and is moving towards separating the elements and producing individual elements oxides. As I said, it’s already at the pilot level and completed a prefeasibility study. Rare Element is one of the most advanced projects; we believe however that the company needs to secure offtake agreements and a JV partner capable of co-financing the $375 million project.
Another one that I like is Frontier Rare Earths Ltd. (FRO:TSX). It just published a comprehensive PEA, which included a separation plant. No other company has done that yet. Frontier has a partnership and partial offtake agreement with Korea Resource Corporation and the support of a consortium of Korean companies.
TCMR: Could other REE companies that you’re following break out in the next few years, either because of agreements with partners or as takeout candidates or because they might actually start producing?
LM: I think we should perhaps pay more attention to what is going on in Brazil. We believe that Neo Material Technologies (NEM:TSX) spent some time there before being acquired by Molycorp. It seems that the company may have been looking at recovering xenotime from tailings at the Pitinga mine in Brazil.
Another private project is owned by Mining Ventures Brasil. It seems to have a colluvial deposit with high percentages of xenotime and monazite. The distribution for the heavies may be quite favorable. It’s an early-stage project; the company is moving forward with the metallurgy now. There is a possibility that things could work out pretty fast for them.
Another private project still in Brazil is the one that it is ongoing at Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM). It is the largest producer of niobium but it also has rare earths in its deposit.
Medallion Resources Ltd. (MDL:TSX.V; MLLOF:OTCQX; MRD:FSE) is a public company targeting monazite deposits around the world. Monazite, just like xenotime, has been used in the past to recover rare earths. The model is to find these monazite deposits because they represent a far easier metallurgic process than other sources. That could allow Medallion to fast-track its project.
A lot of folks are trying to find solutions for these metals.
TCMR: The sheer number of early-stage projects presents a challenge for potential investors. How can investors pick which companies might be successful? What should they focus on when there are so many moving parts—the management, the location, the metallurgy and the different elements themselves?
LM: To start, investors should be looking at the same factors they usually use to assess mining companies. Beyond that, the most important factors for REE projects specifically are metallurgy and industry partnerships. However, it depends what investors are looking for. Essentially, there are some names in the rare earths space that are well known and respected. Examples of that are Avalon Rare Metals Inc. (AVL:TSX; AVL:NYSE; AVARF:OTCQX) and Rare Element Resources Ltd. They were the first ones to publish PEAs and are still perceived by some as the frontrunners. There are, however, lesser-known companies that have received far less love from the market, despite having made significant advances. That includes Matamec and Frontier, which I still feel are somewhat under the radar.
If investors are anticipating a bounce in rare earths stocks and would like to hold rare earths companies that have made major progress in metallurgy, with solid industry partnerships and have great potential for significant long-term upside, I think names like Matamec and Frontier might be good. They’re relatively more advanced, particularly in metallurgy, which is very important because you can have 100 million tons at high grades, but if the metallurgy is complex and you are five years away from solving the processing to a level where it’s economic to recover these elements, that might not be so competitive in this market. Those that are more advanced will be better positioned to secure development partners. That’s very important because the PEAs coming out show that projects are capital expenditure intensive and industry partners can help finance these projects.
Rare earths are not commodities; end users, usually through joint ventures, guide companies toward production of appropriate materials. It’s a very complex space. As I said, although Matamec and Frontier have made significant progress, they consistently have underperformed some of their peers. So investors who are interested in those names will have to be really patient. We believe, however, that Molycorp is the undisputable leading non-Chinese rare earth listed company at the moment and investor interest in this space should follow and analyze this company to determine a good entry point.
TCMR: You’re going to be speaking at the International Rare Earths Summit in San Francisco in May. What message will you be delivering?
LM: Seeing as a significant part of the audience is expected to be end users who are extremely concerned about the long-term availability of these elements, I’ll be talking about the challenges that rare earth miners and future producers face, focusing on how end-users may better participate in the development of a global rare earths supply industry. They could surely help fast track the development of the rare earths industry outside China.
TCMR: Thank you very much for your time, Luisa.
Luisa Moreno is a senior mining and metals analyst at Jacob Securities Inc. in Toronto. She covers industrial materials with a major focus on technology and energy metal companies. She has been a guest speaker on television and at international conferences. Moreno has published reports on rare earths and other critical materials and has been quoted in newspapers and industry blogs. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s in physics engineering as well as a Ph.D. in materials and mechanics from Imperial College, London.
Chinese Yuan and U.S. Dollars
The Wall Street Journal reports that China is decreasing its holdings of U.S. dollars
Fresh data suggest China is moderating its appetite for investing in U.S. securities, a trend that could mean lower flows of cheap capital from Beijing and a possible rise in borrowing costs across the American economy. An analysis of U.S. Treasury data suggests China, with $3.2 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, has begun to rapidly diversify its currencies portfolio. “It clearly indicates China’s intention not to put all its eggs in one basket,” said Lu Feng, director of Peking University’s China Macroeconomic Research Center. China still remains a strong buyer of U.S. debt. China’s holdings of U.S. securities rose 7% to $1.73 trillion as of June 30, an increase of $115 billion from 12 months earlier, Treasury data show.
This is a good time, then, to review how our balance of payments work here in the U.S. and to explore China’s role in our economy.
Balance of Payments
With some detailed records and some good guessing our government estimates how much money is flowing in and out of the country each quarter. You can read these reports, from the Bureau of Economic Analysis here. The most widely publicized of these is the trade deficit which measures the inflow of funds (when we sell/export goods and services to overseas customers) versus the outflow of funds (when we pay to import goods and services.) Most everyone knows that the U.S. chronically runs a trade deficit. A somewhat broader definition is the current account balance, which includes the trade deficit but also adds in unilateral transfers (think of grants and foreign aid) and interest income on investments. The current account balance (inflows minus outflows) is also negative.
If we keep running these deficits, shouldn’t we be running out of money? That’s a good question but fortunately there is another flow of funds into the U.S. that largely offsets our current account deficit. These are capital funds (think of loans or purchases of real assets) that outside investors, including foreign countries make. When an investor in Switzerland, or an insurance company in Singapore, or the government of China buys a U.S. treasury bond, that represents a flow of funds into the United States. These bond purchases also put some upward pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar, since those purchases require dollars to be completed.
To put it simply and approximately, our appetite for imported goods and services is paid for by foreign investments in our country. In theory this can continue on for a long time.
Instead of a trade deficit, China has a trade surplus – exporting more goods and services than it imports. Though this surplus has been shrinking in recent years, the accumulated surpluses generated added to the stock of funds held by China. It is prudent for China to hold those excess funds in different currencies – kind of like a stock portfolio. It has also been prudent for China to invest their funds in US bonds, which are still considered the safest investments in the global economy.
China also purchases assets denominated in dollars in order to influence the relative exchange value of their currency, the yuan (AKA renminbi) against the dollar. They have manipulated the value of their currency in order to keep the value of the yuan relatively low against the dollar. This preserves the low cost competitiveness of Chinese goods in the American market. When China buys dollar assets, like US bonds, that puts upward pressure on the dollar and downward pressure on the yuan. They have been criticized for this currency manipulation, which is relatively rare in a global climate of floating exchange rates.
When Things Begin to Change
This takes us back to the WSJ article. Though China’s holdings of US bonds continue to grow, some analysts see a new trend that will diversify China’s holdings away from the dollar. What might that mean for us?
If China and other foreign investors slowly begin to shift their investments away from the U.S. and towards other attractive economies, the capital inflow that pays for our trade deficit shrinks. The value of the U.S. dollar on currency exchanges might slide more than it is doing now. The impact of a weaker U.S. dollar is that our exports seem cheaper to foreign buyers and they will go up, while foreign goods will appear more expensive to American buyers and imports will go down. Those two forces will shrink our trade deficit. In addition, if capital flows into the U.S. slow down we will see upward pressure on interest rates – particularly on long term loans such as mortgages.
In many ways a slow, purposeful shift in capital funds might be healthy in the long run for the U.S. They can reduce the trade deficit and restore a sort of balance to our position in the global economy. If that shift happens suddenly, however, it would wreak havoc with our economy and almost certainly drive us into a deep recession.
Could China trigger a huge shift in capital flows? In theory. yes. A pragmatic policy on their part would argue against that kind of radical action. They, after all, have a lot of their “savings” in U.S. bonds and it is not in their interest to drive down the value of those bonds. And radical action would cause swift changes in the value of their own currency against the dollar, which in turn would decimate their sales of goods to the U.S. Still, a politically motivated action, similar to declaring war, could prompt them to harm the U.S. economy, even at a significant cost to their own domestic economy. I don’t pretend to have a good crystal ball in this arena, but it is tough to imagine the current leadership would take those radical actions.
The trends in offshoring and international trade that we have described are likely to accelerate. China currently employs around 120 million people in the manufacturing sector and, although some reports indicate that wages are rising in China, those wages are still only a tiny fraction of wages in the United States. Moreover, China is expanding its manufacturing base to low-wage countries across the globe through a series of overseas economic zones. The implication for American workers is that in order to regain ground, they will need to find jobs outside of manufacturing where wages are comparable to those in manufacturing.
I know I’ve harped on this plenty of times before, so I’ll be brief: Given the current regulatory regime in place at the federal and state level in the United States, it makes absolutely no sense to have free trade with China. Given that citizens of the United States are legally prohibited from competing for jobs on price, ad given that employers in the United States are expected to comply with onerous regulations, it is safe to say that there is no free market in the United States. As such, it is equally ludicrous to say that it is possible to mimic the outcomes of the free market by partially freeing up foreign import restrictions, and it is politically foolish (not to mention heartless and unpatriotic) to enact an economic policy that has had a measurable effect on closing part of the labor market to Americans.
The ECB and BOE have shown their intent with their recent aggressive balance sheet expansions and the Fed is trying hard to keep the door open for more QE even as the data in the US continues to defy the general global slowdown.
In Asia however sticky inflation in India, a desire to nail property developers to the wall in China and a belief in a post earthquake recovery in Japan have kept the big Asian central banks from providing additional easing. Even in Australia where the economy has been teetering on the brink of a recession for 6 months, the central bank has refrained from any decisive moves.
In three out of the four cases above however things may slowly be about to change.
In India, the central bank recently opened the door for considerable easing in 2012 as headline inflation comes in. The market has already heavily discounted such a move with Indian equities up about 25% since mid December 2011 and some big ticket single names such as Tata Motors up more than 50%.
Reserve Bank of India Deputy Governor Subir Gokarn said the monetary authority will cut interest rates once it’s confident inflation will keep slowing.“The stance now is that we have reached the peak and any further action will be toward easing,” Gokarn, 52, said in an interview at his office while discussing the rupee, the government’s budget deficit and bond repurchases. The central bank isn’t concerned about the currency’s record monthly advance in January “because in a sense it’s a correction,” following last year’s 16 percent decline, he said. Emerging-markets have stepped up efforts to shield growth from the impact of Europe’s debt crisis, with Brazil, Russia and the Philippines cutting rates in recent months.
The road is not entirely clear for easing by the RBI where two issues may still derail the central bank’s intention to start an easing cycle.
Firstly, the government’s budget deficit continues to increase and while borrowing to invest in infrastructure etc in India is certainly worthwhile, monetary policy may still have to lean against excessively and essentially structural deficit spending by the government. This is particularly the case as supply side constraints may mean that such deficit spending adds substantially to inflation.
Secondly, the INR may be subject to substantial weakening on a resurgence in global volatility. The Fed’s USD swap lines as well as the the ECB’s efforts to backstop the European banking system have so far calmed things down. Nevertheless, should another period of strong and sudden INR weakness ensue, it means the RBI would not be able to reduce the yield difference to the rest of the world in any meaningful way.
In China, the economy is now visibly slowing. Foreign exchange reserve accumulation have ground to a halt and M1 growth is negative on the year. Even if the desire to cool down excessive credit growth and nailing property developers to the wall might still constitute top priorties, the balance is shifting towards easing.
China is seen making more cuts to banks’ reserve requirements to fuel lending and sustain economic growth as the housing market cools and Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis weighs on exports.The proportion of cash that lenders must set aside will fall half a percentage point from Feb. 24, the central bank said Feb. 18 on its website. Standard Chartered Plc forecasts at least three more reductions this year, while HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA) sees a minimum of two.
So far, Chinese authorities seem content to use the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) as the main tool to provide easing. This makes sense in a command market economy where the government can be fairly sure to control the supply side of credit through loan quotas. I think however that the calls for no interest rate cuts until mid 2012 may turn out to be wrong if China is about to slow to the extent that our leading indicators show. Property prices have fallen (or failed to rise) for some time now in China and as growth slows further, the authorities may rightfully begin to argue that their near term objectives have been achieved.
Perhaps the most interesting development this week however came in Japan where the BOJ apparently got my memo as they restarted QE.
Japan’s central bank unexpectedly added 10 trillion yen ($128 billion) to an asset-purchase program and set an inflation goal after an economic slide fueled criticism it has been slower to act than counterparts.An asset fund increased to 30 trillion yen, with a credit lending program staying at 35 trillion yen, the Bank of Japan said in Tokyo today. The BOJ also said that it will target 1 percent inflation “for the time being.”
This decision appears to have gone completely under the radar, but I think it is very significant. Two points are particularly important to emphasize. Firstly, the entire 10 trillion yen added to the asset purchase program has been earmarked to JGBs which signals the BOJ’s willingness (or the MOF’s orders) that budget deficits in Japan are now to be directly monetised to a much higher degree than has earlier been the case. Secondly, the BOJ has now committed itself to an inflation target (1%) and will use balance sheet expansion to reach this goal.
This is textbook QE and should be bearish for the Yen and bullish for the Nikkei, but things may not be so simple of course. Chris Wood adds to the discussion in the latest version of Greed and Fear .
The second point is whether the latest news is a signal to short the yen. On the face of it, it should be. But the issue is whether the BoJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa is going to follow the previous examples of his conduct of unorthodox monetary policy; whereby he raises thequantity of the so-called asset purchase programme but does not exactly accelerate the pace ofthe buying to fulfil the programme. Thus, the Bank of Japan has so far purchased ¥10.3tn of assets since the latest programme was first announced on 28 October 2010, amounting to only 52% of the previous target of ¥20tn set in October 2011.
In other words, how serious is this inflation target and over what horizon does the BOJ intend to reach it? Only time will tell, but given the persistence of deflation in Japan I would argue that any semi-serious adherence to this inflation target would require substantial balance sheet expansion by the BOJ.
As Chris Wood aptly puts it, the move by the BOJ is merely the latest evidence of the bull market in central bank balance sheet expansion and more importantly, relative central bank balance sheet. In a world where export driven growth is seen as everyone as the way out of debt purgatory you need expand and print more than your peers. On this, I also slightly disagree with Chris that Japan does not need a weaker JPY. My own analysis suggest that corporate margins in Japan are very sensitive to changes in the Yen. But that is a discussion for another time. For now, I will agree with Chris that we have seen the beginning of a sea change in Japan, but we need to see the BOJ backing up intentions.
Ultimately though, the most significant piece of news from Asia last week was the indication from both Japan and China that they would stand ready to offer their full support for the euro zone. The idea is simple; China and Japan would use the IMF as conduit to create the only real bazooka (apart from ECB monitisation).
Quote Bloomberg (my emphasis)
Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi said his nation and China will work together to help Europe solve its debt crisis through the International Monetary Fund.Europe needs a bigger so-called firewall of added funding to contain the crisis, even as Greece shows some improvement in solving its financial woes, Azumi told reporters in Beijing yesterday after meeting Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Azumi, who met Chinese Finance Minister Xiu Xuren during his visit, also said he asked China to make its currency more flexible.“We shared the view that Europe needs to make more efforts to create a bigger firewall,” Azumi said. “We also agreed to act together as the IMF will probably ask the U.S., Japan and China” to help boost its lending capacity.
This would indeed be global monetary relief from Asia.
I have been enjoying myself in the Austrian Alps last week and hence the lower output. Here is my look though, of a number of notable news stories and contributions.
Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB has penned a speech (and argument) on global (excess) liquidity. Izabella likes it and I agree with her that it is a good piece. I am not sure though that it is that much different than the Savings Glut argument put forward by Bernanke, but I may be missing the fine print (i.e. need to read it more carefully). The biggest problem I have is that he assumes that the lack of safe government (i.e. AAA rated assets) is cyclical and due to market failure or other “temporary” factors. Izabella interprets it as follows,
What’s the solution to this vicious liquidity circle? Simple, says Cœuré. The euro area needs to regain its role as a global supplier of safe assets. Something which could be achieved by a) ensuring that Eurozone countries have become fiscally sound and b) diverting excess liquidity from other zones back into “programme countries” by way of the IMF.
I disagree. The failure of euro zone economies and indeed large parts of the OECD edifice in general to provide “safe haven” assets is deeply structural and tied to population ageing. Unfortunately, there is little prospect that the euro zone economies will be able to supply AAA rated securities for a long time and herin lies the rub. Of course, if we are talking euro bonds, but then again. I will believe it when I see it.
Japan and the currency wars
A recent Bloomberg article suggested that Japan has been “secretly” selling JPY to try to stem the tide and force through depreciation of the Yen.
Japan used so-called stealth intervention in November as the government sought to stem yen gains that hammered earnings at makers of exports ranging from cars to electronics.Finance Ministry data released today showed Japan conducted 1.02 trillion yen ($13.3 billion) worth of unannounced intervention during the first four days of November, after selling a record 8.07 trillion yen on Oct. 31, when the yen climbed to a post World War II high of 75.35 against the dollar. The currency’s strength has eroded profits at exporters such as Sharp Corp. and Honda Motor Co., just as faltering global growth undermines demand.
Open market operations to sell domestic currency are so old school. Didn’t they get the memo in Japan? In a world where all major central banks are either at or very close to the zero bound, it is central bank balance sheet expansion (quantitative easing) that matters. On this note, both Japan and the Fed are being left decisively behind by the ECB and BOE (at least in the past six months). Of course, even the usage of “standard” measures in Japan is being contested and as long as this is the case, the Yen will continue to strengthen.
Don’t bet on deflation with the current team of global central bankers
Elsewhere, I am wondering where all the deflation, let alone disinflation, is. I am a sworn deflationist and I believe in the main thesis of the deleveraging/depression/deflation crowd. However, I have the utmost respect for the inflationist bias of global central banks and with the current batch of policy makers at the helm, deflation is a very remote risk.
The latest data show that inflation in China recently quickened as well as producer prices in the UK increased in the week that the BOE announced another round of QE. Of course, this is not all clear cut. Chinese real M1 (YoY) recently moved into negative territory for the first time since 1996 and in the UK, it is noteworthy that core inflation (ex food, beverages, tobacco and petroleum) came in noticeably lower in January.
I will change my views on the basis of changing data, but I am beginning to think that the bout of global headline disinflation we are expecting as a result of the global slowdown will reverse itself much, much quicker than many (including me) have expected. Arguably, we still need decisive easing in emerging markets and QE3 from the Fed, but it is more a matter of when and not if this happens and as such, global central bankers remain fully committed to creating inflation.
The main problem so far for those arguing for strong central bank action (including me) is the absence of nominal growth in output in excess of consistently rising headline inflation. Could this be a result of doing too little, perhaps, but at the moment stagflation remains the best way to describe our current economic situation and thus inflation in all forms is a drag on growth. Should the genie finally come out of the bottle in the form of consistent wage increases central bankers may find that they got more than they bargained for even if the alternative is equally painful.
The Greek experiment is about to end
Greece remains the main talking point and also the only thing that appears to prevent equity markets ripping to new highs. Greece is bankrupt and while I understand that the patience of the rescue committee will run out at some point, I am astounded that anyone expects this hideous experiment to end well. Greece will see its fifth year of contraction this year and for what? A membership of a currency union that does not work anyway?
We are told by the Troika, the EU and the IMF that failure to reach a deal would be catastrophic and thus that Greece has no way out but to take the medicine. However, Greece has a real choice and the stronger she is pushed the more obvious the end result is. Internal devaluation and decades of austerity don’t work; not in Greece and not elsewhere. This remains the KEY issue that the euro area politicians and the ECB have not understood. The social fabrics of society won’t stand the pressure and strain. Textbooks tell us that the cure is simple when you can’t devalue, but practical experience have now shown otherwise.
I am neither on the Greeks’ nor the IMF/Troika’s side, but I simply point out the obvious destiny of current events; failure! Even if Greece manages to appease its creditors with austerity, the end result in terms of Greek macroeconomic balances is still unsustainable and thus the underlying problems will not have been solved.
The ECB and the IMF will likely face significant drawdowns on their Greek bondholdings regardless of whether they use such drawdowns as ”carrot” for Greece to push through austerity measures. This is what the establishment has not yet understood.
MF Global investigation fails to uncover illegal activity?
Megan McArdle has an amazing article suggesting that the investigation on the failure of MF Global is finding it difficult to uncover anything illegal.
Megan quotes a piece from Reuters (no link available)
Lawyers and people familiar with the MF Global investigation of the firm that was run by former Goldman Sachs head Jon Corzine say that even though the hunt is still on to find out whether or not officials at MF Global intended to pilfer customer money in a desperate bid to keep the brokerage from failing, the trail at this point is growing cold.
This seems very odd to me even if I have not followed the aftermath in detail. I completely agree with the sentiment expressed by Megan.
I don’t understand how this could be true. To be clear, I am not saying that it couldn’t be true-only that I don’t understand how such a thing could have happened. There is more than a billion dollars missing from supposedly segregated client accounts. I understand that it was chaotic, but what kind of chaos causes you to accidentally move money out of money that any moderately sophisticated compliance system should have automatically flagged for approval?
While my professional responsibilities are confined to the smooth running of a macro research product I sit in an office, and work, with asset managers and ever since the failure of MF global I would imagine that their general level of concern has increased. This is understandable. If your main counterparty as an asset manager (i.e. your prime broker) essentially decides to steal your deposits and/or allocate them to losing trades against the principle of segregated accounts, it really does not matter what you do. No matter the tightness of the shop run on the asset managers’ end, he will face significant and perhaps even fatal losses.
Obviously counterparty risk is as old as finance itself and any decent asset manager today will deal with more than one broker and even have a strategy on how to manage counterparty risk. Ultimately though, mutual trust between asset managers and their prime brokers is a commodity which has been severely impaired by the MF Global failure and this is an issue for all players in financial markets.
Dealing with vintage data in economic forecasts using instrument variables (wonkish!)
A recent note from the George Washington University points to an interesting study from Warwick University on the forecasting of data vintages in the context of US output and inflation forecasts. The problem is as follows;
Consider a simple benchmark autoregressive model that a forecaster might use to forecast an economic variable yt. In order to estimate the parameters to be used for the forecast, typically the forecaster will obtain the most recently updated data on yt (i.e. the vintage of yt available at that time) and estimate the model using those data. However, the data in this single time series may in fact be coming from different data generating processes. The data some time back in the series have gone through monthly revisions, annual revisions, and perhaps several benchmark revisions. The most recent data, however, have been only “lightly revised,” as Clements and Galvão term it. Therefore, Clements and Galvão argue that the data in a single vintage are of“different maturities.” Forecasters may want to forecast future revisions to data as well as exploit any forecast ability of data revisions to improve forecasts of future observations. In their article, Clements and Galvão suggest that a multiple-vintage vector autoregressive model (VAR) is a useful approach for forecasters working with data subject torevisions. This comment discusses the importance of taking revisions into consideration and compares the multiple-vintage VAR approach of Clements and Galvão to a state-space approach.
This is a significant issue but remember; if the following holds, we need not worry too much about it.
If the revisions are unpredictable and the early data are efficient estimates of future data, then we may not need to be concerned about the different vintages.
Most economists assume that the statement above is true and simply force through their model. Being a great believer in practical usability when it comes to empirical economics, I would argue that in most cases this will not cause too many problems in most cases. However, a growing body of evidence suggest two important issues to consider. Firstly, revisions are predictable and thus provide important ex-ante information which should be incorporated into the the forecast. Secondly, even if revisions are unpredictable, the manner in which data is revised may itself provide important information on future data readings.
I agree, but the problem is potentially much more severe. Another issue then concerns that situation where you try to forecast Y(t) as a function of X(t) where both variables may be subject to revisions. Normally, we would solve this issue by restricting X(t) to variables where revisions are minimal (or absent alltogether). One way to do this is to use market based data (market prices, closing values of securities etc) which are, by definition, not revised. However, in the context of the e.g the classical leading indicators framework pioneered by Geoffrey H Moore, this issue re-emerges X(t) is cast in the form of real economic variables (themselves potentially subject to revision).
We have replicated and refined many of the LEIs described by Moore et al and applied it to various economic data series with specific fitting of a time series regression in each case. However, such an approach may still suffer from vintage data issues (as described above. One solution that I been thinking about is to imagine two forms of right hand variables. X(t, economic) and X(t, market based); if the latter is unrevised it might be possible to find an instrument for X(t, economic) (final revision!) using a variation of X(t, market based). This would, in my opinion, constitute an elegant way to solve the issue of data revisions in your explanatory variables.
In practice, you could also try to replace Y(t, economic) with Y(t, market based), but this is probably too a-theoretical and ad-hoc.
If Beijing’s intervention into the Chinese economy justifies U.S.-government ‘retaliation’ to ‘correct’ market distortions created by those interventions, shouldn’t the still-significant lingering negative consequences of Beijing’s interventions into the Chinese economy from 1949-1978 be considered? Shouldn’t Beijing’s artificial destruction, during the middle decades of the 20th century, of production efficiencies in Chinese factories be weighed against Beijing’s artificial creation, in the early decades of the 21st century, of such efficiencies?
In short, the answer is no.
Boudreaux, in asking the question, implicitly accepts the validity of the state and of citizenship. He must also accept that the state must act in the best interest of its citizens. While the government should seek to redress the negative effects that its citizens face as a result of foreign market intervention, it has no responsibility to address the negative effects that non-citizens face as a result of foreign intervention. China is not the US, and Chinese aren’t Americans. As such, the US government has no obligation to concern itself with addressing negative economic outcomes faced by the Chinese people that arose as a result of the Chinese government’s economic policy.
Preserving wealth in a volatile political and financial world is a job for gold. Greg Weldon, publisher of Weldon’s Money Monitor newsletter and Grant Williams, a portfolio advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore, will share their insights at the Cambridge House California Investment Conference Feb. 11–12. In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, they answer the question: How low and high can gold go?
The Gold Report: Recent headlines continue to focus on the debt crisis in Europe as more countries are having their debt downgraded. Greg, you have diagnosed the problem as credit addiction and said that the European Union won’t be able to recover until leaders take painful measures necessary to kick their addiction. What does this mean for commodities and commodity equities?
Greg Weldon: It’s critical for asset prices across the globe. It is a debt addiction, debt refinancing and deficit financing problem, not only in Europe, but also in the U.S. and Japan. Austerity is the real answer to the fact that there is too much debt, and austerity measures in an economic sense are not positive.
My fear is that it’s going to be very difficult to see how economies in Europe, the U.S. and Japan can stand on their own two feet without the assistance of central banks debasing currency through debt monetization. I liken it to filling the sink halfway up with water and pulling the plug out of the drain. Of course, the water level will recede unless you turn the faucet on and start more water pouring into the sink. The level of water represents asset prices, the water flowing out of the faucet represents liquidity provided by global central banks and the drain represents the real macro economy, which has not been fixed.
At the end of the second round of qualitative easing, when the Fed shut off the faucet, the water level (asset prices) started to go down. But now the water is running again—particularly with some of the measures instituted by the European Central Bank, with its three-year loan program, the federal liquidity swaps and the back-ended way that it’s managed to involve the International Monetary Fund.
The problem with all of this is it does nothing to fix the underlying problem, which is too much debt. This is not sustainable. Central banks turning on the water faucet is good for asset prices. The real solutions of fiscal austerity, which are probably not palatable to most politicians in Europe, are the real struggle as we go forward. This problem is not going to go away.
TGR: Grant, in your Things That Make You Go Hmmm…. newsletter, you painted a picture of the final implosion of the euro and U.S. municipal bond meltdown. What would this mean for resource stocks?
Grant Williams: That was part of a prediction piece that I wrote at the end of 2011. It was semi-tongue-in-cheek. My contention was that as volatile as 2011 played out, we didn’t actually get any resolution. And it feels like 2012 will be the year those resolutions start to take place. One of the primary ones is the European situation. A Greek deal to solve the crisis seems to constantly be on the horizon, but they can’t seem to come up with an absolute solution to the public sector involvement haircut issue. When they do, I think it’s going to be the start of a whole slew of legal action to try and either trigger credit default swaps or negate any haircut from those who don’t want to sign up. Greece has a big refinancing coming up in March. It has to raise a little over €14 billion (B), and between now and then it somehow has to get a $130B loan package approved from the Troika. It is very hard to see how Europe can just keep pumping money into Greece. It’s very likely we’ll see Greece exit the Eurozone then, and that’s going to focus everyone’s attention on Portugal. I think Italy will be OK. Spain worries me more than Italy because the economy there structurally is in far worse shape. But if a bunch of countries pull out, that leaves the question of how people unwind any obligations they have in the current euro construct.
What this means for commodities is that the money-printing presses are going to be turned up to the max again. Despite adamant claims from politicians to the contrary, money printing—even if by another name—will have to be implemented at a magnitude much, much higher than ever before to meet current demands. Cash is being given to banks basically for free through the long-term refinancing operation on the quid pro quo that the money finds its way back into the government bond market. The problem is that a lot of this money is going to leak out somewhere other than where it is intended and I suspect it’s going to leak into commodities and equities. We are going to see stock markets float higher, not necessarily on particularly good numbers from corporates, but from the simple dynamic of a lot of freshly printed money looking for a home. We have already seen it in gold and silver this year. They both had big corrections in December, but they are two of the best performing assets of the year so far and I suspect the more money they print this year, the faster these things are going to go up.
People are starting to understand that deflation is not an option for the central banks. Once people realize that if we get a brief period of deflation, it will be fought aggressively with inflation, they will start to look past any deflationary period and position themselves for inflation. That is going to mean higher prices in commodities.
TGR: How high could gold and silver go in 2012?
GWilliams: I think gold trades at $2,200 an ounce (oz) this year. I think silver trades at possibly $60/oz this year, but they’re really just stepping stones on the way to higher ground. This 11-year ascent in both precious metals is only going to change when central bank policy surrounding it changes. I just don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future until they get this debt problem under control.
We are going to see periods with crazy spikes. We are going to see corrections. Some will view this as a collapse but the difference between a correction and a collapse is your entry price. If you bought gold at $700/oz a few years ago and you watched it go from $1,900/oz to $1,500/oz in December, that’s a correction. If you bought it at $1,900/oz, it’s a collapse. I think it’s important to try and take a longer view. The rationale for owning gold and silver is still in place. In a world of printing presses and fiat currencies, no one can manufacture gold and silver out of thin air. I think they are both going to go a lot higher.
TGR: Greg, what are your predictions for 2012?
GWeldon: There is a disconnect in the markets. Currencies really aren’t moving much either. The dollar hasn’t appreciated much. This is why gold is stuck in this range, capped just above $1,700/oz, with potential downside toward $1,300/oz. People are liquidating commodities. My sense is that there is more weakness to come in H112. Commodity prices in Q411 have already come down significantly, pumping some relief into margins. There is a little window of opportunity here where equities and some of the commodities markets could have some upside.
Debt could become an issue again in H212 depending on how central banks deal with that and whether we have a big downturn again in the stock and commodity markets. My longer term view is that when push comes to shove and central banks are staring into the abyss of a potential debt deflation, they will choose to reflate at whatever cost. That is bullish for gold long term. If banks can find the political will to do it, there will be significantly higher prices for commodities across the board in the long term.
China, in particular, has a bullish dynamic. Certain commodities, such as copper, have their own supply-demand dynamics that are detached from the dollar and monetary policies. The Chinese imported copper at a record high in December. Copper stocks on the London Metal Exchange have fallen by close to 30% since October. Copper is one of these commodities that has upside potential regardless of what the dollar is doing.
TGR: Grant, you are based in Singapore. There was a lot of talk at the last Cambridge House Conference in Vancouver about whether China is growing, shrinking, landing hard or soft. What impact will China have on commodities and equities around the world?
GWilliams: China faces a lot of problems. A lot of people think it is in for a hard landing. It is always difficult to believe official Chinese statistics, but the message that the Chinese government is sending through those numbers can be useful. For example, the Chinese growth numbers last week showed an 8.9% increase in gross domestic product. In a world of basically zero growth, that’s a pretty good number, but it’s not the double-digit number we’ve been conditioned to expect from China. Whether it was true or not, it shows that the government is saying: things are OK. We are on top of this, we’re in control. We are not going to slow to zero; we’re just going to grow a little bit slower. The big problem China has is inflation. Roaring food inflation in a society in which half the population lives in relative poverty in rural areas would be a big issue. A lot of people talk about property bubbles—and there are definitely bubbles in Chinese property—but as long as the government can keep people fed, it is going to find a way to get through this—at least for now.
China also has vast currency reserves. The Chinese absolutely understand that paper currency is being devalued incredibly quickly. So, until someone puts a sell-by date on copper and iron ore, it will keep stockpiling the stuff because it will need these commodities to continue growing. China will continue to swap paper money for commodities. The Chinese are bringing gold into the country as fast as they possibly can. Gold is in the DNA here in Asia. It doesn’t take an awful lot to persuade the public to own gold.
TGR: Greg, in your book, Gold Trading Boot Camp, you said gold is at the top of the macro-monetary pyramid. Why does it hold such an important position?
GWeldon: It is a rare and unique mineral that has provided a store of value for centuries that is not backed by any government. It is not subject to anyone’s IOU. Gold stands alone in the level of security it creates in people’s minds as a way to store wealth and protect it from governments that are continually debasing the value of paper money.
TGR: You put the dollar second on the pyramid, but said that could change soon. What will be the catalyst for change and what will be the result for investors?
GWeldon: I don’t know what the catalyst for change could potentially be. For me, the dollar stays as No. 2. There’s been an interesting little sequence recently where the dollar has rallied and gold has declined. But gold has not declined to the same degree that the dollar has rallied. Gold is appreciating in a lot of currencies outside of the dollar where it’s actually outperforming dollar-based gold.
Investors have a greater degree of confidence that the Fed will do what it has to do to circumvent a bigger issue. Next to gold, the dollar still is the second place that people feel comfortable.
TGR: Mining equities haven’t been able to keep pace with the price of gold. Do you see that changing?
GWilliams: It continues to surprise me, frankly, that these stocks are on such crazy valuations against the metal. I think once we start to get wider acceptance that inflation is going to be the outcome rather than deflation, people will start to look at these companies in a different way. Mining companies will instantly become some of the most attractive companies in the world.
I think there’s going to be a tremendous wave of consolidation in the mining sector. When it comes is a tough one to call, though. We’re going to see a lot of junior miners get taken out because it’s going to become a battle for ounces in the ground. If you have proven reserves, the majors are going to come looking for you—particularly if you are in a safe political jurisdiction—and they can afford to pay very, very good multiples of where the stocks are trading now.
In the last 10 years, we have seen some tremendous finds. We’ve seen some tremendous small companies that are very, very well run with incredibly experienced geologists. It requires a lot of due diligence to go through the sheer number of gold mining companies and find the very valuable ones, but I think having ounces in the ground and a good, proven management team are the two fundamental criteria that you have to look for in these stocks. Once the consolidation starts to take place and once the scramble for ounces of gold in the ground begins, I think the resulting valuations will be quite spectacular.
TGR: You are both speaking at the Cambridge House California Investment Conference Feb. 11–12. Based on all of these trends that you’ve laid out, how can investors preserve wealth or even profit during volatile times like these?
GWeldon: Investors who are focused on preserving wealth are best served by buying gold on the dip that is currently taking place. The gold price has a chance to reach $1,450/oz—that’s a sizable move downward.
There’s a chance that monetary authorities would take gold coming off that hard as a sign that they need to be more aggressive. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. However, being long gold and silver is clearly the best play in my mind to preserve wealth.
For investors who are looking to appreciate wealth, the commodities markets offer tremendous upcoming opportunities. That is because there is one thing that I can be certain about: Volatility will remain high. We are not going back to a low-volatility environment. It’s treacherous for individual investors trying to do it themselves. We run a long-short commodity program that’s non-leveraged. But there is a lot of talent in the commodities space for individual investors looking to profit from this market environment.
GWilliams: Preserving your wealth is absolutely the right way to look at it at the moment. Trying to make a profit in markets when there is so much uncertainty is a very dangerous thing to do because things change midgame. So I think for the next several years, using gold, silver and the platinum-palladium group metals as a store of wealth fundamentally makes a lot of sense. I suspect you are going to see outsized gains as a byproduct of using that strategy because I think the prices will go materially higher despite low headline inflation numbers. Using gold and precious metals to hedge yourself as a safety trade is the smart thing to do. By doing that, you will not only protect your existing wealth but you can also generate increased wealth through price appreciation in excess of inflation.
TGR: When you say gold and precious metals, how would an individual investor protect wealth using gold? Are you talking about holding the bullion, buying gold exchange-traded funds (ETF) or buying equities?
GWilliams: It depends. I think protecting wealth using highly geared gold mining companies is a dangerous thing to do. Yes, if gold goes crazy, you are going to make some outsize returns, assuming the asset in the ground is good, assuming the management is good and assuming you don’t get any collapsed mines or any other geological anomalies that sometimes are part and parcel of owning gold mining stocks. Holding the bullion itself is absolutely the safest way to do it. You have an asset free and clear with no claims on it. It’s yours. But that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do from a logistical perspective. A lot of people look at the ETFs as a good vehicle, and they are a perfectly good gold proxy. You have a claim on some physical metal there. But for pure safety’s sake, owning the bullion itself or as close to pure bullion as you possibly can is the smartest way to go.
If you’re looking for any kind of leverage or any kind of gearing, then you need to start looking into the mining companies. But outside the major miners, it’s a very dangerous place to be unless you have someone very smart holding your hand, and you need to do an awful lot of work on researching the particular stocks you buy. While the returns can be extremely good, particularly at these low valuations, gold is a very, very tricky thing to dig for and mines are very tricky things to operate and to run. So you have to be aware of that.
Most important, try to steer clear of government bonds. In a world of increasing inflation, and a world where central banks have promised to try and generate MORE inflation, to lend money to irresponsible governments at 0.23% for two years in the case of the U.S is just crazy to me. Over the long term, you are absolutely guaranteed to lose money in real terms by doing that.
TGR: Thank you for your advice.
Greg Weldon started his Wall Street career working in the Comex Gold and Silver Pits after graduating Colgate University. He progressed as an institutional sales broker at Lehman and Prudential before joining Moore Capital as a proprietary trader. At Moore, Weldon honed his systematic trading methodology and risk management discipline before joining Commodity Corporation where he became one of its top risk-adjusted money managers. Today, he publishes Weldon’s Money Monitor, The Metal Monitor and The ETF Playbook in addition to operating his Managed Futures Account Program as a CTA. He has a unique ability to define and forecast the market’s direction through his proprietary dissection of fundamental and technical market data. Weldon Financial is now a highly regarded and profitable publishing company, having garnered some of the world’s most respected fund managers as loyal and daily readers.
Weldon published Gold Trading Boot Camp: How to Master the Basics and Become a Successful Commodities Investor, in late 2006 in which he predicted the current global credit crisis and discussed the impact on golf from intensified central bank debt monetization. You are invited to participate in a “one-time” free trial of Weldon’s research @ www.weldononline.com.
Grant Williams is a portfolio and strategy advisor to Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore—a hedge fund running $200 million of largely partners’ capital across multiple strategies. Williams has 26 years of experience in finance on the Asian, Australian, European and U.S. markets and has held senior positions at several international investment houses. Williams also writes the popular investment letter Things That Make You Go Hmmm….., which is available to subscribers.
What do investors need to be watching out for in 2012? More Eurozone drama? Record gold highs? A hard landing in China? The U.S. Global Investors team addressed these questions with Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle author John Mauldin in a Jan. 5 Outlook 2012 webinar. The Streetwise Reports editors highlight some of the expert insights.
John Mauldin: Instead of doing an annual forecast, I’m going to look out about five years, which may be five times more foolish. What I want to do rather than try and figure out where the stock market is going to be at the end of 2012 or what gold is going to do, is look at the choices we have around the world.
In most cases, political events don’t change the economic world all that much. It’ll probably annoy partisans on both sides, but if Clinton had lost to George Bush senior the first time, we would have still had a bull market. We were already in recovery. Yes, we would have had different Supreme Court Justices, but that’s not the economic world. We were set on a path. If Gore had beaten Bush 2, economically I don’t think much would have changed. We still would have had the end of a bull market and a recession in 2001. We would have had a housing bubble. Greenspan would have probably been reappointed either way. We would have had a credit crisis because we were in the process of building up debt that started in the ’50s. Europe was building its debt up. Japan was building its debt up. That is the reality.
Now the private sector is deleveraging, but sovereign debt is in a bubble. The air is coming out. My view is that the wheels are going to fall off Europe this year. I have been researching the Mayan codes and I have determined that the ancient Mayans were not astrologers; they were economists. They weren’t predicting the end of the world; they were simply predicting the end of Europe. That is a humorous way of saying this is the year Europe is going to have to make some very difficult choices. Greece gets to choose what kind of depression it wants, hard and fast or slow and long. It can’t avoid depression completely. It has borrowed too much money. The government is too big. It has come to the end of the ability to raise money at low rates. Italy and Spain are well on that path along with the rest of Europe. So, they have to make a decision, a political decision that is going to have major economic consequences.
Does Europe want to be a political union that looks more like the United States, where the individual entities have to run balanced budgets and can’t print their own money and have some kind of fiscal controls or they go back to a two-tiered Europe with multiple currencies. One way or another, this is the year that Europe is running out of road to kick the can.
Fortunately, in the U.S. we are not there yet. We have some room to make a decision. That decision is going to be made in 2012 because by 2013 we are going to have to decide how we deal with the deficits and debt. After 2014, the bond markets will start to raise rates. Total U.S. debt is continuing to grow because governments are growing debt faster than private citizens are decreasing debt. The bond markets are starting to rebel long before you would think they would for a country that’s the world reserve currency. The key is whether debt is excessive relative to income. If you can make your debt service, people will still lend you money. When they don’t think you can, they will stop. That’s when you have a crisis. It’s a debt super cycle. And, when you reach the end, you have to deal with the debt. You can pay it down. You can default on it. You can print the money, extend it out with lower rates or financial repression, which are all other ways to look at default. But, nonetheless, that debt is there.
The problem we are facing in the U.S. is that gross domestic product (GDP) is consumption plus investment plus government spending plus net exports. If we decrease government spending over time, we decrease GDP. That’s the problem that Greece is going through right now. It has to decrease government spending by 4.5%, thus shrinking the economy. But it can’t increase government spending without increasing debt or taking taxes away, which decreases consumption. Nothing the government does will make things better. The U.S. is on the same path. We can become Greece by continuing to borrow or be proactive and say we are going to get our deficits under control over a period of five or six years. The economy is still going to be slower than we would like and unemployment higher than we would like. That’s just the rules. We’re at the end game. We are at the end of the debt super cycle and that’s what happens.
Printing money doesn’t increase the GDP in actual real terms, but it makes everyone holding gold happy because the value of natural resources goes up. That is why I buy gold every month. I take those coins, I put them in a vault and I hope I never need them. I quite frankly hope gold goes back to $300/ounce (oz) because that means the economy is in wonderful shape. I’m actually afraid that gold is going to go up in value, which means we are not getting our act together.
That leads to questions about fault. Did the banks do things they shouldn’t have? Yes. Were they the cause of it? No. Was Greenspan the cause of the bubble? No. He was part of the cause. I mean, we did a lot of things as a country that weren’t good choices. Should we have allowed our banks to go to 30 and 40 to 1 leverage? No. Should we have repealed Glass-Steagall? No. The problem is that real median household income hasn’t moved for 15 years because real private GDP hasn’t changed. The only thing that has grown is government spending.
John Derrick: In 2011, the European financial crisis moved from the periphery to the core. Central bank policies were big drivers of the decline. The European Central Bank and China raised rates early in the year and again in July as fears of a China slowdown grew. That early tightening to fend off inflation had a big impact on the course of events throughout the year. The other big events were the U.S. credit downgrade in August and currency intervention, particularly in the Japanese yen.
Frank Holmes: There is a huge amount of borrowing around the world in Japanese yen because it is so inexpensive. That includes investing in commodities, resources and emerging markets. And, every time we see this huge signal move by the yen, you get this rippling effect that takes about six weeks to resolve itself with commodities being sold down. Therefore, a lot of fund managers borrowing in Japanese yen are long energy stocks, resource stocks and emerging markets, which leads to a lot of selling.
JD: The second half of last year was very volatile, but the market ended essentially flat. In fact, much of the volatility was concentrated in the last month, which made for a very difficult psychological environment, as the market has been somewhat schizophrenic with weekly rallies and selloffs.
Spikes in the yen caused market selloffs. This hit commodities especially hard. So the secret for 2012 is to use the volatility. Buy on the volatility spikes. Unfortunately, what most people do is just the opposite. Another thing to look for in 2012 is a positive fourth year of the presidential election cycle as the government tries to implement policies that will get them reelected.
Brian Hicks: There has been a lot of concern about money supply growth in the emerging markets, particularly in China, which reduced bank reserve requirements last year. A reacceleration of global money supply can be particularly constructive for commodities going forward as there has been a high correlation between money supply growth and commodities.
If you were to take all the global money and back that by gold, the price of gold could go to $10,000/oz. If you just use half of the global money supply, gold would trade at about $5,000/oz, up from approximately $1,600/oz right now. The more U.S. dollars in circulation, the higher the price of gold. This has been the main factor increasing the price of gold since 1998 and will continue to be the case in the years to come. Gold has a lot of running room to go.
Another driver for the price of gold has been federal deficits. Government spending is way above revenues. We hit a point in 2000 where spending as a percentage of GDP greatly exceeded taxes as a percentage of GDP. This could be a point of no return and could potentially drive the price of gold even higher. There has been a large bifurcation between the price of gold and gold equities, particularly in the last couple of years as risk aversion has prompted many investors to buy the bullion as opposed to gold equities. This is creating opportunity. We feel like there’s going to be a catch up in gold equities, many of which are trading at very low multiples to cash flows and earnings. Stocks such as Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM:NYSE) look like value stocks now paying high dividend yields and trading at sub 10-times price to earnings ratios. This could really present an attractive opportunity in 2012.
JD: Just a comment on all the takeovers. We were seeing 6% premiums on takeovers in ‘06. Now we are talking 60+ premiums. That’s another reflection of how undervalued the stocks are relative to commodities.
BH: That’s a great point. We have seen tremendous value creation based on mergers and acquisitions.
Shifting gears a little bit, crude oil and refined product inventories ended the year at the lowest level on record (about 685 million barrels). That’s 6% below the prior year. It’s particularly interesting when you consider some of the geopolitical factors that have arisen with Iran talking about blocking off the Strait of Hormuz. This is a primary factor behind oil price supports despite the tenuous economic environment. Many investors don’t realize that Russia is very important for non-OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) supply, a key factor in containing oil price spikes. Russia is increasing production while other non-OPEC production in Mexico or in the North Sea have been declining significantly, which has helped to bolster OPEC’s market share. It has also limited the ability of oil markets to increase production out of the Middle East due to the inability to invest in those troubled areas. In fact, Russian production has been quite steady since 2006, increasing anywhere from 100 to 400,000 barrels per day (bpd), mid-single digit growth. But, forecasters predict in 2012 we will see flat production growth, which is troubling given the fact that we continue to see demand increase in other areas of the world, mainly out of China. This will be a driving factor going forward for crude oil prices.
Evan Smith: Oil supply threats include geopolitical problems at a time when oil supply and spare capacity at OPEC is rather low—a little over 2 million bpd. Nearly 40% of global supply is under autocratic rule. Iran has threatened to disrupt the supply of crude oil and products through the Strait of Hormuz where about a third of global oil supply passes. So, any disruption, even temporarily, would cause a severe spike in oil prices. We think oil prices could support $100/barrel. One of the things we like in 2012 is higher exposure to master limited partnerships partly because of their steady cash flows. They are becoming a growth business now. The capital expenditures here in the United States have grown from $3.5 billion (B) in 2005 to nearly $16B this year. This is partly because of the growth in many of the shale plays, which require increased infrastructure. We think this is an excellent investment opportunity. We also see a big opportunity for the global oil services. We can see that capital expenditures have been rising. We expect them to rise from about $500B to nearly $.5 trillion this year, an increase of 15%. So, we see tremendous opportunity for some of the oil services contractors and equipment providers. Another key driver is the impressive amount of money that has been invested in North America. Just over the last three years nearly $129B in mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures has occurred. Global companies are coming to North America to invest in these shale plays because the economics are so attractive due to improved technology. They want to learn that technology and take it home. So, we think there is continued opportunity for investors in the resource play here in North America.
Shifting gears, one of the base metals we will target is copper. It is our favorite base metal. The demand side is holding up relatively well compared to some of the other base metals. Even in China, which is the largest market for copper growth, the build out of the grid is really a key driver. That is holding up quite well. On the other side of the supply/demand equation, supply has been a problem. Through most of the boom in copper prices, mine output has lagged forecasts. Causes included weather, labor strikes and just poor grade. The bottom line is that supply has not kept up with demand. We have not solved that problem so we think 2012 should be a relatively good year for copper prices.
Another theme we like is the agricultural space. Global population continues to grow. The emerging middle class continues to consume more grains, principally through the production of more meat as people consume more protein in their diets. There has been a huge surge in the need for the production of grains, yet no more land is being created. One of the key ways we’re seeing increased yields out of croplands is through higher applications of fertilizers. That has created a fairly tight situation for potash, specifically. But, other fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphate are also benefiting from this trend.
FH: I would just add that the world’s population has doubled from the ’70s when we had rising commodities. There’s a very different factor and China and India have a global footprint that they didn’t have.
Xian Liang: China remains the biggest driver of world demand for energy due to a rising middle class, but it is in a very early stage when it comes to discretionary spending. Take for example passenger cars. Despite a tremendous growth in auto consumption in the last decade, only 18% of Chinese households own a car. Car ownership in China is just one-tenth of U.S. levels or the same level it was in the U.S. in 1914. Air travel remains at the U.S. equivalent of the 1950s. This illustrates a great growth potential going forward. Urbanization is one of the most significant trends driving consumption. In 2011, the number of urban residents in China exceeded rural residents for the first time in Chinese history. But, China won’t stop at this 50% urbanization rate if the historical trajectory of its richer neighbor, South Korea, is any guide. We could have another 30% of growth by the year 2013. South Korea outgrew its urbanization rates in a 40-year time span. And, if China continues to urbanize, there will be about 200 million new urban households in China, which creates enormous demand for consumer staples, durable goods and housing.
China’s government policies signal the trend will continue. China raised reserve requirement ratios 12 times since January 2010. We view that as an early signal for the next easing cycle. The last time China eased reserve ratios in October 2008, that triggered a big market rally in Chinese stocks. This should bode well for stocks. We don’t think the Chinese auto boom is over. Actually, in the last couple of days, officials in China hinted that new measures may be introduced to support auto and home appliance sales.
Outside of China, we see government policies remaining very positive in southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Thailand. The money supply in the past two years has not deteriorated in these two countries, in fact, it is growing at a healthy 16% year over year. This is part of the reason why we remain positive on southeast Asia. Indonesia is rich in natural resources, but it doesn’t depend as much on exports. In fact two-thirds of its GDP is driven by domestic consumption, which is how it managed to escape a recession in 2008 and 2009. Favorable demographics is a factor. It is a very young country. More than 45% of the population is under 24 years old and 2 million people a year are joining the work force. Second, urbanization is creating new consumer demand. Just like China, Indonesia’s household debt is low. Total mortgage loans outstanding account for only 3% of GDP. Consumer credit is still at a very early state. I see tremendous growth potential going forward.
FH: The money supply is growing very rapidly in the entire region. I think it’s not just a China story. It’s a whole emerging market. And, I like to characterize it as the American dream trade as all these countries want the American dream. They all want a house. They want a car. They want all the lifestyle that we have.
John Derrick joined U.S. Global Investors Inc. in January 1999 as an investment analyst for the U.S. Global Investors money market and tax free funds. In March 2004, he was promoted from portfolio manager to director of research and now manages the day-to-day operations of the investment team. Prior to joining U.S. Global Investors, Derrick worked at Fidelity Investments. He has appeared on CNBC and Bloomberg TV and has also been a guest on Marketwatch Radio and NPR. Derrick has been featured in stories for BusinessWeek, The New York Times, the Associated Press and USA Today. A graduate of The University of Texas at Arlington, Derrick earned a Bachelor of Arts in finance. He sits on the board of directors for the CFA Society of San Antonio.
Brian Hicks joined U.S. Global Investors Inc. in 2004 as a co-manager of the company’s Global Resources Fund (PSPFX). He is responsible for portfolio allocation, stock selection and research coverage for the energy and basic materials sectors. Prior to joining U.S. Global Investors, Hicks was an associate oil and gas analyst for A.G. Edwards Inc. He also worked previously as an institutional equity/options trader and liaison to the foreign equity desk at Charles Schwab & Co., and at Invesco Funds Group, Inc. as an industry research and product development analyst. Hicks holds a Master of Science degree in finance, and a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Colorado.
Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer at U.S. Global Investors Inc., which manages a diversified family of mutual funds and hedge funds specializing in natural resources, emerging markets and infrastructure. In 2006 Mining Journal, a leading publication for the global resources industry, chose him as mining fund manager of the year. Holmes coauthored The Goldwatcher: Demystifying Gold Investing (2008). A regular contributor to investor-education websites and speaker at investment conferences, he writes articles for investment-focused publications and appears on television as a business commentator.
Xian Liang is an Asia research analyst at U.S. Global Investors Inc. and a Shanghai native.
John Mauldin is the author of New York Times Best Sellers list four times. They include Bull’s Eye Investing: Targeting Real Returns in a Smoke and Mirrors Market, Just One Thing: Twelve of the World’s Best Investors Reveal the One Strategy You Can’t Overlook and Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How it Changes Everything. He also edits the free weekly e-letter Outside the Box. Mauldin also offers The Mauldin Circle, a free service that connects accredited investors to an exclusive network of money managers and alternative investment opportunities. He is a frequent contributor to publications including The Financial Times and The Daily Reckoning, as well as a regular guest on CNBC, Yahoo Tech Ticker and Bloomberg TV. Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. He is also a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, a FINRA-registered broker-dealer.
Evan Smith joined U.S. Global Investors Inc. in 2004 as co-portfolio manager of the Global Resources Fund (PSPFX). Previously, he was a trader with Koch Capital Markets in Houston where he executed quantitative long-short equities strategies. He was also an equities research analyst with Sanders Morris Harris in Houston where he followed energy companies in the oil and gas, coal mining and pipeline sectors. In addition, he was with the Valuation Services Group of Arthur Andersen LLP. Smith holds a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas in Austin.
Despite a pullback in growth for China, copper demand is likely to remain strong in 2012, according to Dr. Michael Berry, publisher of Morning Notes, and his co-author, Chris Berry, founder of House Mountain Partners. Other developing nations, such as Indonesia, should pump up demand, but supply from such regions remains a tenuous prospect. In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, the Berrys explain how “home-brewed” U.S. copper companies will be an important part of the equation.
The Gold Report: In a recent edition of Morning Notes, you referenced some “sprouting” problems in China. What are those problems and are they likely to affect China’s economy?
Michael Berry: We spent a couple of weeks in Shenzhen, China, and Hong Kong last month. On the surface, there do not appear to be any real problems in China. The infrastructure is fabulous—new roads, tunnels, bridges and stadiums. There are a lot of institutional investors in China with a tremendous thirst for knowledge. But old China hands—and I’ve been there many times since the 1960s—feel that there are serious problems beneath the surface, including inflation, slowing exports, bad loans and overbuilding.
During our visit to China, investment bankers we met with indicated that there are vacancies and see-through buildings in many cities. This is always a precursor of problems to come. China has an export-led economy and the U.S. and Europe, two of its main customers, have slowed down considerably. We may see a recession in Europe this year, which would bode ill for China, which counts the Eurozone as one of its largest trading partners.
An important question is how quickly can China transform itself into an economy with healthy domestic demand? That’s going to take years. There are also concerns about whether China can continue to grow at a breakneck speed of 9% or 10% per year. Most of the forecasts show China’s gross domestic product (GDP) will slow considerably over the next six years; however, it will still maintain growth levels above the Western economies. But problems are lurking in China, no doubt. The best we can hope for is a soft landing in 2012.
TGR: Paul Krugman recently wrote in The New York Times that China is on the verge of a massive real estate bubble. The World Bank recently lowered its GDP forecast for China to 8.4% from 9.1% in 2012.
MB: Growth will certainly slow, but China is better positioned to handle problems with overbuilding and bad debt than the U.S. China has been running huge surpluses for years and has accumulated significant foreign exchange reserves by pegging its currency to the U.S. dollar at artificially low levels. Japan recently inked a deal with China to buy its bonds. The Chinese currency and economy are slowly coming out of their self-induced isolation.
We remain cautious, however. China has a cushion here, but as we said before, there are some lurking issues and Paul Krugman touches on one in his piece.
TGR: How could a slowdown affect copper demand?
MB: Copper is probably the single metal that reflects good times in the world and growth. It is called the metal with a Ph.D. in economics because it’s so necessary for and indicative of economic growth. Expect supernormal growth of 5–7% in a number of emerging economies, which will keep demand for copper strong going forward.
The real question is from where will additional supply of copper come? There are the beginnings of a supply crunch in copper, which is affecting a number of mines worldwide. We are witnessing a combined supply-demand issue, not just a demand issue. Resource nationalism, falling grades and adverse weather are just a few issues affecting copper today. This is troubling but ultimately a good omen for junior mining companies involved in copper exploration.
Chris Berry: China is responsible for about 40% of global copper consumption, and copper is a 16-million-ton-per-year market. If GDP growth in China slows even from 9% to 8%, copper consumption has to fall in line unless other countries can pick up the slack in demand. What countries hold the potential to do this? Looking at demographics, potential demand and infrastructure build-out, several emerging markets come to mind including Brazil and India as well as “second tier” emerging markets such as Indonesia, Turkey or Colombia. If these countries do indeed grow at above-trend growth rates, you must then ask where additional supply is going to originate from—and supply appears tight going forward.
A notable example of a supply disruption is Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc.’s (FCX:NYSE) Grasberg mine in Indonesia, where company management recently declared force majeure on copper exports. You can add labor strife to the list of issues potentially curtailing copper supply. Labor issues at mines promise to remain front and center as high metals prices make mining a more financially attractive pursuit. Grasberg is one of the largest copper mines in the world and the employees there have agreed to a 40% increase in pay over two years, however, I don’t believe the strike is fully settled yet, highlighting how thorny labor issues can be. Issues at the Grasberg mine have some very serious implications for copper supply going forward. So to summarize, between supply and demand, I think copper supply is the more important of the two to focus on.
TGR: The junior resource sector had a difficult time in 2011. The Toronto Stock Exchange Venture Composite Index, which is mostly composed of junior resource companies, was at about 2,400 in April, but had fallen to 1,450 by the end of December. Do you think we’ll see a sector rebound in 2012?
MB: There are strong headwinds for a lot of these companies and 2011 was unkind to the junior mining space in general. Very few junior mining companies have escaped the wrath of the pullback in commodities and overall panic at issues that have developed around the world. Investors must now focus on which companies can sustain themselves until we’re over the hump. We’re not there yet. The question will be which stocks can stand the test of time, can sustain their exploration and development activities and raise sufficient capital to fund operations in a difficult environment, to put it mildly.
TGR: Revett Minerals Inc. (RVM:TSX; RMV:NYSE.A) had some potential catalysts coming to the forefront this summer. What’s new there?
MB: Revett produced 3 million ounces (Moz) silver equivalent and earned about $16 million (M) in the third quarter. The company also recently announced a $20M revolving line of credit from Société Générale. It produces the best copper-silver concentrate in the country from its Troy mine in Montana. The mine has a perpetual seven-year life because it keeps finding more copper and silver resources as it mines. It’s building in production and the kind of liquidity and strength it will need to manage any economic downturn.
We visited the company in early September. The management team is very much together. It got a good ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the environmental impact of Rock Creek on grizzly bears and endangered fish. Rock Creek is a second ore body fully drilled out, and environmentalists have tried to block its development. It has 229 Moz silver and a couple billion pounds of copper in virtually identical geology to the currently operating Troy mine. There’s a good chance the company will be able to mine Rock Creek within the next couple of years.
Revett should prosper and could be the target of a takeout. It’s a very positive situation. The stock trades around $5/share, but it was $0.07/share a few years ago. That speaks well for the management and investors in Revett Minerals.
TGR: The line of credit is at London Interbank Offered Rates (LIBOR) plus 3.5%. Do you think that’s a bit high?
MB: Possibly, but certainly Revett can handle it. It’s producing and selling all the silver and copper concentrate it has, so a revolver is a good deal for it. These are catalysts that you want to see from time to time.
TGR: If Rock Creek moves ahead as planned, when would it reach production?
MB: I don’t think the environmentalist group will appeal to the Supreme Court. Even so, I don’t think the Supreme Court would hear it. It’s probably three to four years away from production.
The Troy mine will certainly sustain the company in the meantime. Management presentations indicate that Troy has perhaps 10 to 15 years of production left.
TGR: Is $5/share a good entry point for that stock?
MB: This stock is fairly volatile. If Rock Creek comes on, yes, I think $5/share will be an incredibly good bargain for investors. I’ve been watching Chief Executive John Shanahan now for several years and he’s completed everything he said he wanted to do.
TGR: In a recent edition of Morning Notes, you discuss some of the recent ups and downs of Quaterra Resources, Inc. (QTA:TSX.V; QMM:NYSE.A). You called the company’s Yerington copper project in Nevada “a company maker” even though Quaterra also has the high-grade Herbert Glacier gold project in Alaska.
MB: Tom Patton, the chief executive of Quaterra, bought Yerington out of bankruptcy for $250,000 in stock. Historically there are about 5 billion pounds (Blb) of copper at the Yerington Bear deposits. This past May, he announced he was exercising Quaterra’s option on it. There is going to be a large copper district there. There are three companies now in the area. Nevada Copper Corp. (NCU:TSX) has a very large, high-grade skarn deposit. Entrée Gold Inc. (ETG:TSX; EGI:NYSE.A) has some properties to the east of Yerington, which include the Bear deposit, a large, partially drilled out porphyry, and the MacArthur, an oxide-chalcocite run-of-mine project with 1.4 Blb of mine-ready, leachable copper. Quaterra drilled out the MacArthur oxide quite nicely and found a fair amount of higher-grade copper averaging about 0.5%. It could be leached directly and brought into production within two to three years for about $250M. The key to the entire district is the MacArthur property that Quaterra owns, in my opinion.
Quaterra has been cut in half in this pullback. We hope management will move to monetize some of its assets, either its Nieves silver property in Mexico, which may have 100 Moz silver in all categories, or even its 35% stake in Herbert Glacier, a high-grade, gold-silver resource north of Juneau, Alaska, which was recently discovered through drilling.
I may be a loner in this regard, but the MacArthur oxide-chalcocite deposit and the fact that it has a huge water resource are the keys to the entire Yerington district. I think the district holds 50–60 Blb copper. When I visited Yerington in September, Quaterra had five drill rigs turning. You don’t have five rigs turning on a property if you don’t think you’re really proving up and increasing the resource significantly.
TGR: Nevada Copper was shopping its project before its share price went down considerably. Which one—Quaterra, Entree or Nevada Copper—is most likely to be taken out first?
MB: Nevada Copper is the furthest along. A company like Antofagasta Plc (ANTO:LSE) might want to take it out. However, whatever company comes into the district is going to want to consolidate it. Having Nevada Copper would be a coup, but it would not help consolidate the district. From a strategic view point, Quaterra’s Yerington pit, MacArthur pit and Bear deposit are really the keys to the district.
There are already some big players in the district. Rio Tinto (RIO:NYSE; RIO:ASX ) owns 25% of Entrée Gold. Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. (IVN:TSX; IVN:NYSE) owns 12%. But Entrée is three years behind Quaterra and Nevada Copper.
TGR: Arizona has some vast reserves of copper as well. Do you see a renaissance in developing copper juniors in Arizona?
MB: I do. On our way to China, Chris and I visited Tucson, where there are several great porphyry discoveries. ASARCO LLC, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP:NYSE; BHPLF:OTCPK) are there. One junior miner in particular, Redhawk Resources (RDK:TSX; QF7:FSE; RHWKF:OTCQX), has been drilling and it’s onto something.
Arizona, Nevada and Idaho are great states for mining. Given the unemployment in some of these regions, there is a new lease on life for junior mining companies to work in these states.
TGR: Redhawk is trading at about $0.42/share. Do you like that as an entry point?
MB: The stock is cheap, there’s no doubt about that. Its property, Copper Creek, is quite spectacular. When we visited in December, it had three rigs turning. There are close to 400 breccia outcrops of fairly small tonnage, but very high-grade copper, gold, silver and molybdenum. Red Hawk is looking for deep, but high-grade, thick veins that characterize big discoveries like Butte in Montana. I like the management team. It raised $20M earlier this year and it’s probably going to have to go back to the market again or do a joint venture. There’s lots of interest and it has confidentiality agreements signed with the big boys. There are smelters literally all around it. It’s got great infrastructure. There’s a good chance for a world-class discovery there.
TGR: What about Quadra FNX Mining Ltd. (QUX:TSX)?
MB: Quadra is a great case study. It has done a great job. You want to see that event that monetizes the shareholders. The Polish firm KGHM Polska Miedz S.A. (KGH:WSE) offered $15/share for the company. There is a lot of interest in U.S. deposits now. There’s a new life on mining and exploration, and there’ll be more takeouts in the future.
TGR: Do you have anything to add to that, Chris?
CB: There has been a lot of talk lately about what makes a metal critical. Certainly, copper is a critical metal based on its ubiquitous use throughout all facets of the global economy. Mineral deposits where resource nationalism isn’t a top concern, or a concern at all, like Arizona, Idaho or Nevada, deserve a second look and a premium in share price based on their location. I think we are sure to see more cross-border mergers or take outs like the KGHM/Quadra example as copper’s importance to economic growth is only magnified by an emerging middle class of billions in the years to come.
TGR: You gentlemen are about to launch a new product, the Discovery Investment Scoreboard. Tell us about that.
MB: About 10 years ago, I defined a technique called Discovery Investing because I was interested in discovery. All great wealth creation starts with discovery. I defined 10 rules or factors and continued to refine them over the last decade. Dr. Terry Rickard, a brilliant mathematician and former senior fellow at Lockheed, finally convinced me to put my discovery investing discipline in a software format. We use a powerful mathematical technique that he developed. It allows users to rate stocks in English vocabularies and develop an ordinal ranking. The number of companies that the system ranks, the database, is getting quite large. The most interesting aspect of the database is its ability to build a crowd score. It takes each individual user’s analysis and builds it into a single score, which allows investors to check their analysis against the crowd.
CB: The toughest part about the nano cap space is in trying to evaluate these companies, because traditional metrics don’t work. There are no earnings or cash flows so there is a great deal of guesswork involved. The Discovery Investment Scoreboard (DiS) is designed to take the guesswork out of evaluating these companies. We can rank any one of the companies we mentioned today—it doesn’t even have to be a nano cap.
We might look at the management of a company and you might say it’s average. I might say it’s excellent. At the end of the day, who’s right? Nobody really knows. There are still a lot of open questions. We’re aiming to quantify those opinions. The real bonus for the end users is the crowd score. Investors can see how their opinions rank relative to the crowd. Since I’ve been using the system, it has raised many questions about what I’m seeing that the crowd is not or vice versa. We think it has potential to shine a lot of sunlight on accurate valuations for junior companies.
TGR: Have either of you adopted a New Year’s investment resolution?
MB: In 2012, we hope to make DiS available to everyone who wants to analyze these companies. It’s going to be by subscription but we’re actually looking now for people who want to help us build the database. We’re planning to kickoff the system on Jan. 22 at the Cambridge House International Resource Conference in Vancouver. We haven’t priced it yet, but it will be affordable for the individual user. We’re going to have versions for institutional users that will be more detailed and quite a bit more powerful.
TGR: Jeepers. You might just put some analysts out of business.
MB: Chris and I actually sat with two analysts and two investor relations representatives in China and they loved it. We travel to Denver next week to conduct a focus group on the usage of the DiS.
CB: Once we explained the rationale and the background to them, it became a little bit addictive, because companies start popping up in your head and you think, “Gee, I wonder what the crowd thinks about this company or that company?” The whole idea of finding out what I’m missing or what I know that the crowd doesn’t is key. I think that’s what has a lot of people excited right now.
TGR: Thanks to both of you.
Dr. Michael Berry served as a professor of investments at the Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia from 1982-1990, during which time he published a book, Managing Investments: A Case Approach. He has managed small- and mid-cap value portfolios for Heartland Advisors and Kemper Scudder. His publication, Morning Notes, analyzes emerging geopolitical, technological and economic trends. He travels the world with his son, Chris, looking for discovery opportunities for his readers.
Chris Berry, with a lifelong interest in geopolitics and the financial issues that emerge from these relationships, founded House Mountain Partners in 2010. The firm focuses on the evolving geopolitical relationship between emerging and developed economies, the commodity space and junior mining and resource stocks positioned to benefit from this phenomenon. Widely quoted in the press and a frequent speaker at conferences throughout the world, Berry holds a Master of Business Administration in finance with an international focus from Fordham University and a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from The Virginia Military Institute.
China has become the $5.88 trillion question in the world financial equation for 2012. In an attempt to gauge the direction of this economic elephant, Cambridge House International is asking two China experts to debate the health of the second-largest economy at the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference January 22. We called the two speakers for a preview of the tactics they will take in this epic debate.
Frank Holmes, chief executive and chief investment officer at U.S. Global Investors, will focus on the upside of massive Chinese modernization and growth. He is the recipient of both Mining Fund Manager of the Year Award from Mining Journal and International Citizen of the Year Award from the World Affairs Council of America and has a long-term investor’s view of international geopolitics.
Author and Commentator Gordon Chang literally wrote the book on why investors should be wary of China’s growth. His book The Coming Collapse of China has attracted attention from the likes of the LA Times and Asia Times and many other publications in between. He has made appearances on Fox News and regularly contributes to Business Insider, Barron’s, National Review and Forbes magazines. When he lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades, most recently in Shanghai as counsel to the American law firm Paul Weiss, he saw the ghost cities and environmental challenges up close.
“The debate is a direct response to attendees who need to know if China is on a course to grow, slow or blow,” said Nicole Evans, president of the Cambridge House International Conference Division. The Gold Report called these two experts to find out the numbers behind why they have such different predictions about how this enigmatic country will fare in the coming years.
Frank Holmes: This veteran investment advisor based his positive prognosis for China and its Eastern neighbors on a combination of tacit knowledge learned firsthand through travel and observation of geopolitical conditions along with explicit knowledge of history and the markets.
He studies S-curve patterns, modeled on economist Simon Kuznets’ 20-year long cycles. For example, the world’s population has grown from 1 billion in the 1800s to 7 billion today, which has drastically affected commodity consumption and infrastructure buildout. “Nowhere is this more evident than in the emerging markets, such as China,” Holmes said.
“When governments have invested in infrastructure, there has been a powerful impact on gross domestic product (GDP) numbers.” For example, he pointed to the 1950s, when Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, allowing commerce to expand across the nation, with restaurants including Dairy Queen and McDonald’s experiencing tremendous growth over the next several decades. “Paved roads from coast to coast helped sustain a more than tenfold increase in U.S. GDP,” Holmes said.
“Whereas the U.S. connected 160 million people with nearly 47,000 miles of freeways, by 2020 China will connect 700 million people across 250 cities, spanning more than 47,000 miles of interstate and 18,000 miles of rail,” Holmes explained.
Holmes estimated that over the next 25 years, about $41 trillion will be spent on global infrastructure—$6 trillion has been approved for the 2011 through 2013 timeframe with China projected to spend half of that $6 trillion. He believes these investments will result in rising GDP per capita and trigger a consumption economy.
“Once China connects its super cities, it will enable more Chinese to travel around the country, resulting in a completely different consumption pattern. You will see train stations with 50-story condominiums along with U.S. restaurants that have already been expanding in China, including McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and Starbucks. Major hotel chains, such as Wyndham, Starwood and Hilton, along with luxury goods businesses including Cartier, Hermes and Gucci will compete for market share. Infrastructure will change the face of the economy in China just the way it did in the U.S.,” said Holmes.
“We are big believers that government policies are precursors to change, so our investment team continuously tracks the fiscal and monetary policies of the world’s largest countries in terms of economic stature and population. The G-7 (industrialized) countries are 15% of the world’s population but 50% of the world’s GDP and growing only about 1%. Western countries seem to be focused on cutting back infrastructure spending and raising taxes to pay for entitlements. At the same time, E-7 (emerging) countries comprise 50% of the world’s population with 20% of the world’s GDP. However, these countries are growing at 7% to 8% and include a rising middle class of some 60 million people out of a total 2.2 billion people. But, 60 million people making $30,000 a year is very significant. Think about the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”—this is what is happening throughout Asia. That is why companies such as Gap and GM and KFC are focusing on expanding in China where its residents love American products and pack the stores in Beijing.”
Holmes also saw important policy changes in the works that could improve China’s economic outlook. “Over the past 10 years, we have seen a slow migration of more property rights being given to people in China. The largest transfer of real estate in the history of mankind took place in China seven years ago when more than $500 billion of real estate value was basically transferred to farmers. That was followed by condo building. Additionally, to attract public companies, Shanghai adopted the Hong Kong Stock Exchange listing and bankruptcy systems, which are based on common law. This is significant because if you look at all the countries that have had financial problems over time, no common law system has ever gone bankrupt. Civil law has. China is slowly adopting a rule of law system.”
Not all of the changes have been smooth. “One of the biggest things that China has been wrestling with is the fear of inflation,” Holmes said. “The government raised the minimum wage and that resulted in a big spike in food inflation. Then it had to deal with real estate inflation in Shanghai and the cities along the ocean. It required banks to keep more reserves, up to 20% in some cases, to avoid the problems now occurring in European banks. A tax on speculative real estate slowed the economy and it showed up in the psychology of the stock market.
“The spike is slowly reversing and rates are falling. Because there is so much less borrowing generally in China than in the rest of the world, prices rebound much faster,” Holmes said. “Only 25% of homes have mortgages so the impact of bankruptcies is much smaller. Also, I don’t think they’re going to print money the way they did in 2008. The Chinese government will move slowly to make sure the country doesn’t get hurt by Europe’s slowdown.”
Based on money supply, debt levels and the weakness of the dollar, Holmes predicted economic activity in the emerging countries should double over the next five years. “It is going to be between 8% and 9% this year and it has another 10 years of growth ahead of it,” Holmes said. “Investors need to understand volatility and not be fearful of it. If you are trading futures where your leverage is 10 to 1 and you have a big correction, you can get wiped out. But, if you are a cash business, you understand when these markets go through these corrections. Solid companies paying dividends can be an attractive investment over the long term.”
Gordon Chang: This China-watcher recently wrote an article for Forbes that said what others considered positive November trade numbers—exports up 13.8%, imports up 22.1% year-over-year—was actually an indication of flat consumer demand once the commodities were factored out. His conclusion was that the government was taking advantage of low prices to stockpile things like soybeans, copper and iron ore while domestic demand remained stagnant. “Since September, we have seen essentially flatlining growth,” he said.
“The growth over the last three decades has been absolutely stunning, but that was then, and this is now,” Chang cautioned. “After 35 years of virtually uninterrupted growth, the Chinese economy hit an inflection point, probably in September of this year. I think we are going to see a long-term cycle down. There are a number of reasons for it, some of them short term, some of them long term. The reasons that created this growth either no longer exist or are disappearing fast. Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform paired with the end of the Cold War and expansion of globalization triggered growth in the 1980s. However, under current leader Hu Jintao, China has seen the reversal of reform, with the government partially renationalizing the economy. Today, we are in the second part of a global downturn, which will be much worse than what started in 2008. A trade-dependent economy like China’s is going to have real problems. Additionally, China was aided by the demographic dividend, an extraordinary bulge in the Chinese workforce, which by most estimates will level off between 2013 and 2016, leaving a demographic tax where one worker supports two parents and four grandparents.”
Chang pointed to stagnant electricity consumption, flat car sales, plunging industrial orders and collapsing property prices. “For example, in October, we saw property prices collapse 30% in places like Shanghai and Beijing, and actually across the country. That has to eventually trigger a negative wealth effect.
“Domestic growth is vital for a sustainable economy,” Chang said. “Last year, domestic consumption comprised less than 34% of Chinese GDP and it has been dropping in recent years. That means China is not restructuring its economy because the problems go to the core of the political model. The government would have to let the Renminbi float, allow banks to offer market rates of interest to depositors and state enterprises, allow workers to bargain collectively to get higher wages and provide a better social safety net, especially in the health care area. These are things that Beijing didn’t do a half-decade ago when it was growing at 9.9% and they’re certainly not going to do so now in a very difficult environment.”
On the manufacturing side, Chang referred to the December HSBC/Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI). “It showed an absolute, outright falloff in industrial orders domestically. I think that is a really important indication of the problems,” Chang explained. Technically, the Chinese economy went from expansion in October to contraction in November when it crossed the critical 50 line. Any number above 50 shows expansion; any number below 50 shows contraction.
The fact that China is reporting negative numbers is telling in itself, according to Chang, who said often government-issued statistics conflict with reports from other sources. Beijing reported 13.8% export growth in November. However, during that same period factories went bankrupt, factory owners fled because they couldn’t pay their debts and some of them took their own lives. Even more damning are container and freight statistics, including reports from mega-container shipper Cathay Pacific that showed November cargo shipments down 13.8%. “Exports to Europe have fallen off the cliff and the EU was China’s largest trading partner so something doesn’t add up,” he said.
For the final blow, Chang pointed to the actions of the Chinese government. “If China really does have robust, 8–9% growth as everybody says, why is the central government starting to stimulate the economy again? That just doesn’t make any sense. If we look at things like imports and exports, I think the economy is really in trouble.”
Chang warned of political consequences if the country is not growing at least close to a double-digit rate. “I don’t know if China can stand 3% growth—or the other very real possibility, contraction. The American government bases its legitimacy on the nature of its political system. The legitimacy of the Communist Party is primarily based on the continual delivery of prosperity. Already, the number of protests in China has increased dramatically from maybe 70,000 mass incidents a year in 2005, to as many as 280,000 last year. In addition to strikes, riots, insurrections and bombings, the standoff between villagers and the authorities in Guangdong province are threatening the future of the Communist Party.”
One solution is for the Chinese government to continue to spend millions on infrastructure to create growth as it did when it spent $1.1 trillion after the 2008 downturn. “This tactic is of limited usefulness the second time around,” Chang warned. “It may be able to play out the game for 18 months, maybe two years at the outside, but it’s pretty much done. Plus, the artificial stimulus also created a stock market bubble, inflation, ghost cities, banking weakness and property bubbles. Massive spending didn’t avoid problems, it just postponed them and made them bigger and more difficult to solve.”
Chang said that people in China are starting to see the reality of the problem. “There is a sense of pessimism. Starting in October, we saw large, unexplained transfers of money out of the country.”
The bright spot, according to Chang, is that while China will not be able to fuel a global recovery with a consumer-driven middle class, a Chinese meltdown won’t be a major blow to the U.S. either. “We have the world’s largest internal market; 70% of our GDP relates to consumption. Exports don’t really play that much of a role in the U.S. as it does in other major economies. So China can fall off the cliff in a sense, and it would have some negative effect but not very much. In fact, we might benefit from it.”
Chang’s conclusion? “People say the Chinese economy is the global engine of growth, but that’s not true. The engine has been the American consumer because we are taking every other country’s exports, and the Chinese, through predatory and mercantilist policies, have been grabbing growth from other countries. For the last 200 years, China has been a potential source of customers for other countries. Still, domestic demand isn’t that significant. China’s imports lately have been commodities and that is going to fall off because China’s exports of manufactured goods, to Europe and the U.S., are going to be stagnant or lower than they have been in the past. So China really reacts to the rest of the world. If the changes over the next couple of months are as dramatic as they’ve been for the past two, then we’re going to be looking at a very different China. The Chinese economy could fall into a big black hole with 1–2% growth or even contraction. Can the government turn it around as it has in the past? That’s the money question.”
Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer at U.S. Global Investors Inc., which manages a diversified family of mutual funds and hedge funds specializing in natural resources, emerging markets and infrastructure. In 2006 Mining Journal, a leading publication for the global resources industry, chose Holmes as mining fund manager of the year. Holmes co-authored The Goldwatcher: Demystifying Gold Investing (2008). A regular contributor to investor-education websites and speaker at investment conferences, he writes articles for investment-focused publications and appears on television as a business commentator.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. His first book is The Coming Collapse of China. He is a columnist at Forbes.com and The Daily and blogs at World Affairs Journal. He lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades, most recently in Shanghai, as counsel to the American law firm Paul Weiss and earlier in Hong Kong as partner in the international law firm Baker & McKenzie. His writings on China and North Korea have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and Barron’s. He has given briefings at the National Intelligence Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Pentagon. Chang has appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He has appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, CNBC, MSNBC, PBS, the BBC, and Bloomberg Television. He has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
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