China, Treasuries and Stalking Horses by Salient Partners
The stalking horse is a hunting technique that goes back thousands of years, where a hunter finds it much easier to get a drop on wild game by hiding behind an animal or a representation of an animal that the prey finds more familiar in its natural environment than a human. My favorite description of how the stalking horse technique works comes from the 1972 Robert Redford movie, “Jeremiah Johnson”, where the old trapper Bear Claw patiently explains to newbie trapper Jeremiah that they can walk behind their horses to get a good shot because “elk don’t know how many feet a horse has”. Of course Bear Claw is right, and he and Jeremiah eat well that night.
Today’s markets are chock-full of stalking horses, not for something as trivial as setting up a hostile takeover (which is how the phrase has traditionally been used in investment circles), but for setting up politically-driven macro-economic goals. Whether it’s the use of words to create a representation of a stalking horse or a direct investment in a security to turn it into a stalking horse, governments today are more manipulative (and I mean that in the technical sense of the word) than at any time since the 1930’s. Very little is at it seems in modern markets.
And yes, we’re the elk.
Here’s a great example of what I mean. This past Wednesday the WSJ published an article titled “China Plays a Big Role as US Treasury Yields Fall”, pointing out that the Chinese government bought US Treasuries at the fastest pace in the first five months of 2014 than at any point since this data started being collected more than 30 years ago. China added $107 billion to its Treasury holdings over these five months, almost 10% of its total Treasury holdings of $1.27 trillion, which is itself about 10% of the total $12 trillion US Treasury market. As the article points out, these massive purchases go a long way towards explaining “the mysterious US bond rally of 2014”, where, for example, yields on the 10-year note fell from 3% at the end of 2013 to about 2.5% over this five month period, despite widespread expectations at the start of the year by both market savants and investor public opinion that rates were on a one-way path up, up, and away.
The reason I characterize China’s purchases as a stalking horse rests on both the meaning of the purchases for the Chinese government and the perception of the purchases by market participants.
China is not buying US Treasuries for the same reasons that, say, PIMCO buys US Treasuries. China is not an economic buyer of US Treasuries, making an asset allocation decision based on some evaluation of fundamental global growth prospects. No, China is a strategic buyer of US Treasuries, purchasing US dollar-denominated assets in order to weaken its own currency and spur domestic growth by boosting exports. I’ve written about this sea change in Chinese monetary policy a lot (here, here, and here), and what we are seeing in China’s acceleration of US Treasury purchases is part and parcel of this existential political calculus and its challenge to the Western “rules” of global economics.
What’s really interesting to me – and this gets to the market perception question – is that this “explanation” of the 2014 US bond rally is just now being promulgated by one of the major media arbiters of taste. I mean, China’s Treasury purchases are no secret. The data is published monthly with about a 6-week delay. In April (data released more than a month ago) China bought more Treasuries than the US Fed, but there was hardly a peep about it in any major financial media outlet. What’s interesting about the perception by market participants of China’s accelerated Treasury purchases is that there was essentially NO perception of these purchases as an explanation of falling rates. It’s as if China were invisible or something, which, of course, is EXACTLY how China wished to be perceived in these actions. The market’s inability to recognize that China was buying massive amounts of US Treasuries to weaken the yuan is exactly like the elk herd’s inability to recognize that Jeremiah Johnson was standing on the other side of his horse to get a cleaner shot. The market has access to all the data, just like the elk can see how many feet are under Jeremiah’s horse. We see six feet under the horse, but we can’t comprehend the meaning of six feet under a horse. This is the secret of the stalking horse.
To be clear, I’m NOT saying that there is some grand conspiracy between financial media and China to keep their actions and motives hush-hush. Even if, to use a purely hypothetical thought experiment, Rupert Murdoch were perfectly willing to carry Beijing’s water to the ends of the Earth, the simple truth is that the Chinese regime doesn’t need to resort to these Citizen Kane tactics to carry out a stalking horse operation.
Also to be clear, I’m NOT saying that China’s Treasury purchases are the only reason for falling rates or that there are no fundamental economic reasons for continued strength in global bond markets. On the contrary, I’m firmly in the camp that global growth is structurally challenged, miserable as far as the eye can see, and that Western monetary policy is part of the problem, not the solution.
What I’m saying is that