China: The Grey Swan

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Guru Focus columnist Vitaly Katsenelson recently gave an excellent presentation at the Value Investing Seminar in Italy. The main theme themes discussed were

China, Japan, and his favorite stock idea: eBay.

Here is a summary from Vitaly himself about his presentation.

I changed the title of the China presentation to “China, the Mother of all Grey Swans” (instead of “Black Swans”). A while back, when I shared this presentation with my readers, I was corrected: China is not a black swan, because a black swan is a rare, significant, and unpredictable event. However, the consequences of what is transpiring in China and Japan are for the most part predictable (especially if I am writing about it). We don’t know when they will play out, but they are predictable.

Nassim Taleb, one of my favorite thinkers, who brought the black Swan to life in his books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan (I like both books, but Fooled by Randomness is my favorite, plus, it is by far an easier read than Black Swan), solved my dilemma with China by creating a new swan: “grey”– a rare, significant, but predictable event (though the timing is still unknown, or perfectly known only with the benefit of hindsight.)

I spent a few days at the seminar discussing and debating China with some very smart folks, who stirred up some random thoughts.

What really amazes me is how people who would not trust the US or European governments to do their laundry, have unconditional faith in Chinese government involvement in its very complex economy.

The Chinese government brainwashes its people the same way the Russians and Soviets brainwashed theirs: by controlling and censuring media. So I understand when Chinese people who live in China speak highly of their leaders – they are brainwashed (I have experienced this first-hand). However, I am amazed that the Chinese government has been able to brainwash people who reside outside of China.

No, an economy in large part controlled by the state is not superior to ours. Greater control over their economy allows the Chinese government to pull the economy out of recession a lot faster than in the democratic countries, but there is no free lunch. Their actions will just lead to greater excesses and imbalances down the road.

It seems that as Westerners we have an inferiority complex when it comes to Asian cultures. Chinese uniqueness is praised today the same way Japanese superiority was in the 1980s. I even remember reading Russian newspapers in Russia, in 1989, praising the Japanese work ethic and their unique culture and spouting predictions of the continuance of Japanese dominance. I can only imagine how the mainstream press in the US was caressing Japanese uniqueness in the late ’80s, especially as the Japanese were invading (buying) Times Square and the State of California.

What is very interesting about it is that today all those Japanese cultural advantages are looked upon as disadvantages. For instance, “saving face” did not allow Japan to deal sufficiently with failed companies; their economy was full of semi-dead, zombie companies, which did not allow the healthy ones to prosper. Their employment-for-life system that was praised to the heavens during the Japanese golden age is now killing productivity of the economy. I recently read that 12-17 million people in Japan are employed who should not be employed (for an economy of 120 million people, these are huge numbers). In other words 12-17 million Japanese show up for work every day and receive a paycheck, but add little or no value to their employers.

Back to China. Even if the Chinese are harder-working and more entrepreneurial than Americans and Europeans, that doesn’t mean the laws of economics are somehow suspended in China – they are not. The Chinese economy was geared for high global growth, while now much lower growth is in the cards. The excesses created by 14% of GDP being “stimulated” into the economy through a fire hose have led to significant overcapacity. It will take time for these excesses to be dealt with, even in a country full of super-hard-working people.

A friend asked, “But what about Singapore; its government plays a significant role in the economy, and Singapore is thriving.” The clear answer: government can only succeed in running very small and relatively simple economies. Let me give you this example. I have a game on my iPad called Flight Controller – my kids love it. The point of the game is simple: you are an air-traffic controller and your job is to land planes. Planes come in three colors, red, yellow, and blue, and each plane has to be landed on the runway matching its color. The objective is not to have mid-air collisions. I can land ten planes no problem, twenty gets more difficult, and forty I cannot handle (Okay, I played the game a few times). The same is true for economies: the more complex the economy the more difficult it is to be centrally planned.

Government is not and never will be an efficient allocator of capital. It empowers bureaucrats, which in turn leads to corruption, which further misallocates capital. The size of the bribe or strength of the personal relationship decides the flows of capital instead of the invisible hand that funnels capital from low to high uses. (A side point: Singapore is one of the most non corrupt countries in the world; this may explain in part the government’s success. China is not Singapore; it is infested with corruption)…

Japan, as the title of my presentation suggests, is past the point of no return. Internal consumption of its debt will likely turn negative very soon. Its post office, which includes a postal savings system that was historically one of the largest buyers of government debt) announced recently that it will be a net seller this year. The situation is out of the Japanese government’s hands. It will probably not be able to intervene in the economy for much longer, so rates will rise and there will be little they will be able to do about it.

The full presentation is embedded below. For best viewing click fullscreen mode.

Presentation China – Japan – QVG for Value Investing Seminar by Vitaliy Katsenelson

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