Daily Archives: December 18, 2013

Twas the Night Before Taper: A Wall Street Holiday Poem

After several months of silence, Mustafa Mond, whom we last heard from in April, has resurfaced. Today, Mr. Mond offers us this holiday poem:

TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE TAPER

By Mustafa Mond

Twas the night before Taper, when all through the Street
Not a whale was stirring, not even a veep.
The earnings were prepped by accountants with care,
In hopes that bonuses would be much more than fair.

The bankers were settled all smug in their spreads,
While Fed interventions entranced all their heads.
And Barack with his selfie, and Michelle with hers too,
Readjusted their cameras to spy just on you.

When out in the markets there arose such a cry,
Barry sprang from West Wing to see what was nigh.
To the news wires he flew like a bat of hell,
Knowing hestill had the masses to quell.

Markets were speeding, out of control,
The VIX off the charts—who spiked the punch bowl?
When, what to his wondering eyes should appear,
But a great big helicopter with pallets in the rear!

With an exhausted driver, tired of dollar-yen,
And a new co-pilot, it must be St. Ben.
Faster than a flash crash his beneficiaries came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Blankfein! Now Dimon! Wells Fargo and Citi!
On Gorman! On Moynihan! NYSE and BONY!
To the highest of highs! ‘Til market bears have fled!
After all, in the long run, we’ll all be dead!”

The yield-hungry traders scrambled for carry,
Locking in profits before the curves vary.
And up to the market-top prices arose,
While Barack’s disapproval relentlessly grows.

And then, with the microphones set to full blast,
The media watched carefully for any contrast.
Trading floors went silent, as they are apt to do,
As Fed chairman testimony makes sense to so few.

He spoke all in jargon, acronyms and indices,
Durables and deficits and payrolls and factories.
A big pile of assets he still wants to backstop:
A mortgage, a bankruptcy, a credit default swap.

His data—how thorough! Statistics—such authority!
And his protégé, this Yellen, confirmed with a majority!
His post-Fed retirement expectantly awaits,
No doubt duly hedged for much higher interest rates.

Europe and China, oil exporters like Canada,
The Saudis and Russia, and fiefdoms like Panama,
Listened closely for signs of any new shocks,
But at least they have product–unlike tech stocks!

He was measured, cogent, lacking Greenspan’s grandiloquence,
But the reaction, as always, was irrational exuberance,
As he made quite clear that ZIRP would continue,
And Wall Street rejoiced–“to the discount window!”

Thus ended St. Ben’s last public report
As chairman of the lender of last resort:
Tapering delayed, until 2014,
When St. Ben will no doubt be far from the scene.

He sprang to his chopper, having completed his duties,
Leaving risks to be rated by S&P, Fitch and Moody’s.
And on his way out, they asked, “what of safety nets?”
He cried, “Happy Holidays! And good luck with your debts!”

MustafaMond.signature

Markets irrational longer than you remain solvent, exhibit #274

2013.12.Irrational markets

Source: Russell Investments

There’s an article out on Seeking Alpha yesterday, called “Manufacturing Growth and Capital are Moving from China to Mexico“, nominally about the Mexico-China relationship to the US, but also more broadly (in my interpretation) about how we react to and measure growth in developing economies.

The key thesis here has to do with the spillover effects of China’s decelerating growth and who will pick up the slack. This may not necessarily be an exact zero-sum game, but it is to a certain extent, at least as long as Americans are still gaming, eating, drinking, driving and whatever else they demand to do, and as long as China and Mexico remain the second and third biggest trading partners of the US.

That Mexico will pick up some of this slack is a foregone conclusion. But just how much it benefits is what remains to be seen, and at least among its boosters, is what drives all this excitement we’ve been seeing about Mexico ever since the current administration was elected. Specific to this article, which was written by an equity analyst out of California called Erik Gholtoghian, the currency deficit between Mexico and China is particularly telling:

“…the Mexican peso has weakened dramatically against the dollar since 1990, almost 80%, and the peso is down 2.44% against the dollar over the past year. In other words, the Chinese yuan has strengthened 34% against the dollar since the revaluation began in 2006, but over the same time, the peso has weakened 20% against the dollar. This means the yuan is 54% stronger against the peso just over the past seven years. The result will be greatly decreasing exports from China to Mexico and increased exports from Mexico to China.”

All fine and good, but there’s something missing here and after discussing this with some folks I know around Mexico City, it strikes me that this is partly about Mexico but also about how to approach investment prospects for many emerging and frontier market countries.

I’ll begin with a basic metaphor to illustrate what I’m thinking of here. When you jump up in the air, how can you remain airborne as long as you do? Gravity should theoretically pull you back to earth, and in fact it eventually does. But there is a brief moment when you can defy the theory of gravity, due to the relationship between your body’s mass, your muscle strength and the actual gravitational force of the earth.

In the case of Mexico, economic reality has been suspended in this theory-defying space for a few years now and it’s a matter of time before indicators on the ground (no pun intended) reflect a closing of this gap. Think of it as the reverse situation of the dotcom bubble or the real estate bubble. This is the basis for value investing (as opposed to speculative investing) and at a bird’s eye level is no different from the approach Warren Buffet uses in evaluating stocks. Company ABC has low costs, stable contracts with a diversified customer base, competitive quality products and whatever, they should be making X profits per year but they’re only making a fraction of that…therefore, buy.

Here’s another comparable situation: Billy Beane, he of Moneyball fame, used the same approach when he was managing the Oakland A’s baseball team in the early 2000s. He saw underpaid players who may not hit home runs and may even have crappy batting averages, but also never seem to strike out and wind up finding their way across home plate one way or another. He exploited this for as long as he could, until the rest of baseball caught on, copied it, and eliminated his advantage. By this metaphor, Mexico’s economy is slowly being recognized by the Billy Beanes of the investing world. The difference is that Billy Beane kept his mouth shut because he knew he was on to something. Meanwhile, these investing gurus can’t stop praising Mexico as the next big thing, partly because everyone else jumping on the bandwagon makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy (which is where the baseball comparison stops) and partly because the nature of today’s evolving media universe sort of demands everyone to stake his claim as an “expert” in something.

Another difference with the Mexico situation is that there are a lot more variables that could prevent the benefits of this growth from reaching ordinary Mexicans (corruption, red tape, narco, etc) and the persistent failure of commentators on Mexico to recognize the unpredictability and range of these other variables can appear very misleading. Sometimes this failure seems to be because the commentator in question is clueless/stupid/ignorant/etc. Sometimes it’s because they have a vested interest in a positive outcome and are therefore disinclined to (publicly) focus on downside risks (here’s one recent example of this).

There is also the perennial issue of timing, which is the great bugbear of economics and investing in general. Going back to the gravity metaphor, we can predict with decent accuracy how long you can stay airborne as a result of the very specific estimate of Earth’s gravitational force being 9.81 meters per second squared. One of the main reasons for this specificity is that Earth’s gravitational force is independent of human behavior. Mexico’s economy does not enjoy the same luxury for all of the previously mentioned reasons and more.

As John Keynes is supposed to have said, “Markets can remain irrational longer than you and I can remain solvent.”

Personally, I don’t believe anything – good or bad – until I see it.