Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Inflation/Deflation Debate and China's Commodity Carry Trade

The inflation vs. deflation debate is heated up again. The debate looks far from being settled, even among professional investors. The average Joes are probably more clueless. This may be the single most important debate in the investment world.

Jim Rogers, Peter Schiff, James Sinclair, Gerald Celente, Marc Faber and Congressman Ron Paul are on the inflation camp. The argument is simple: As the US government racks up trillion dollars of deficit spending, the money can come from neither raising tax, nor borrowing. So the only way out is print money out of thin air. In history, any time a government chooses to solve its fiscal problem through massive money printing, it always leads to hyper-inflation at the end. So that is going to happen. It might be postponed a bit but can not be avoided.

But I will not immediately dismiss the arguments from the deflation camp, either. Well known people on the deflation camp includes Mike Shedlock (MISH), Nouriel Roubini, and market ticker Karl Denninger. They present three strong arguments for deflation:

  1. Credits are destroyed in the ongoing de-leveraging process. Credits are circulated as money so the destruction of credit means less liquidity in the system.

  2. Although the government is massively printing money, most of the newly printed money is just hoarded away in the vaults of banks and do not enter circulation.

  3. Where is the inflation today? It's no where to be found!
Debunking the second argument is simple. Banks keep a high reserve because they are highly leveraged and they fear a bank run. If banks hoard cash instead of extend consumer credits, people will have to withdraw cash so they have the money to spend. Such a bank de-leveraging process could escalade into a bank run, resulting in the destruction of the banks and massive release of cash into the general circulation.

De-leveraging of the financial derivatives bubble does not cause deflation. Look at the history of Dutch Tulip Mania and the subsequent collapse. Did it lead to price inflation and deflation of things unrelated to tulips? Of course it didn't. The Dutch grocery stores never took a flower as a payment for milk and bread. Can I use a credit default swap to pay for milk and bread today? I can't. Inflation is a currency phenomenon. It has nothing to do with leverage.

De-leveraging is the process that people abandon paper assets due to counter party risks, and turn towards physical assets with no such risk. Physical assets have intrinsic values: the marginal costs to replace them and maintain an adequate supply. So in the de-leveraging process, paper assets will lose value, and physical assets will gain value. The US dollar is a paper asset. The dollar is leveraged on the full faith and credit of the US government on its ability to pay off its huge amount of debts, which frankly does not look good at all.

The world knows the US dollar is going down. Chinese students laughed loudly when Tim Geithner told them China's US dollar assets are "very safe". Many very rich and successful Americans know the dollar is going down. People like Jim Rogers are moving their assets out of the US dollars and into China and other places. No wonder the US government is cracking down on Swiss Accounts owned by Americans.

So here is your answer where is the inflation. Blame it on guys like Jim Rogers are selling their US assets! Jim Rogers is a billionaire. He sold his house in New York, therefore New York real estate collapsed. He sold his furniture, sofas and tables and chairs, so that brings the furniture prices down. He sold his US stocks so the US equity market is down. He sold his stuff for US dollars, and bring his dollars away from the US soil, and into China. Jim Rogers drains liquidity from the US market, thus prices of everything drop :-) Speaking seriously: This is an ongoing BANKRUPTCY LIQUIDATION SALE, not a deflation. The low prices will not last.

I told you that is exactly what happened, in my last article. Liquidity is drained from the US market because smart capitals are escaping from US soil to look for opportunities in places like China. This is a huge liquidity drain from the US. But it also causes headache for the Chinese. They need to deal with all the "hot money", the US dollars flooded into China to be exchanged into Chinese Yuan, as speculators are betting on Yuan appreciation over the dollar.

In other words, currency speculators are EXPORTING our inflation to China by draining the liquidity from the US and bringing hot money to China.

How China handles the massive inflow of hot money? China simply print their own money to soak up all the inflowing US dollars. It costs them nothing to print the Yuan to buy the dollars, and they can spend all the dollars to purchase physical assets and raw materials around the world. This is the Commodity Carry Trade they are playing, very successfully.

Few people in the west recognize China's real strategy. They thought it is impossible for China to sell the dollar and exchange it into euro or yen. Why would China sell one paper just to exchange for another paper? They thought China's recent commodities buying spree is to merely boost price to help domestic producers, or to stockpile for strategic safety. But China's buying of aluminum, a material that China has plenty, signals that it goes far beyond strategic hoarding. Commodities ARE China's new foreign exchange reserves. China is not selling the dollars, China is SPENDING the dollars.

With continued inflow of US dollars, and with China's own money printers running at high speed, China has plenty of money to spend and continue the buying spree. With Yuan tightly pegged to the dollar, this game can continue indefinitely until currency speculators stop sending the dollars to China. Then the US will go from being the largest exporter to the largest importer of inflation, over night! All the dollars will fight their way back home at once. Goods and raw materials will flow out of the USA, until this land is ripped barren! I predict many people will be voting with their feet, before the nightmare scenery occurs.

The currency speculators did the wrong thing selling dollars buy the Yuan. The dollar is going down, but so will the Chinese Yuan. Investors should go to physical commodities, not Yuan or any foreign fiat paper money.

Some Chinese already realize that the Yuan is losing purchase power. In recent months, there was a SUDDEN turn up in real estate markets in major cities in China. The housing slump turned into red hot housing boom, literally over-night, caught many people in a big surprise.

Unless you read news in Chinese, you might think I was telling a fairy tale. But it is absolutely true. There is a sudden housing boom; an auto sales boom; a boom in bank loans. Mean while China could NOT sell its own treasury bonds. What does that tell you? China could not borrow a mere Y28 billion Yuan (US$7B) from its own people. Why would China be able or willing to extend another trillion dollars of credit to the US government?

Jim Rogers is absolutely right that commodity is the only asset class whose fundamentals have not been impaired, but improved. One of the best sectors to play the Chinese commodity buying spree is dry bulk shipping, as China's global buying spree is far from over.

Stocks in dry bulk shipping include the follow names:

There is a shipping ETF called SEA. Do your own due diligence on specific positions.

Raw materials that China does not produce, but are critically important to China's economy, are the best commodities to buy. This includes platinum group metals, platinum and palladium; aviation metal titanium; battery technology metal cobalt. My best favorite is the palladium metal, and palladium mining plays: Stillwater Mining (SWC) and North American Palladium (PAL). Recently Andrew Snyder published an article pitching palladium as a critical metal for China, and SWC with a potential of 1,389% gain, without naming the names! I am not sure any one knows what China's next big purchase is. But it is a fact that palladium is one of the critical strategic metals that any modern country must stockpile. Look at TIE as a titanium play, and OMG as for cobalt play. I also recommend buying physical cobalt.

If you are interested in rare and strategically important metals, then follow Jack Lifton, a regular writer for Resource Investor. Jack's article on tellurium got me first interested in the metal. I actually bought some tellurium. Read a recent article on First Solar (FSLR) and tellurium: Hard to Find, Easy to Smell. It's amazing that FSLR still holds up well today and there is still no rush to buy tellurium. But as I predicted, Samsung bets big on tellurium based Phase Change Memory. The chip is already in commercial production. I recommend shorting FSLR if it raises near $200 a share. If you hold long or short position in FSLR, you have a fidelity to your money to demand the truth from FSLR on their tellurium supply.

I have high respect for Jim Rogers. But I have a huge disagreement with him on his love of agriculture commodities. I know his agriculture love is very influential and a lot of people agree with him. But I must point out that he is completely wrong on agriculture. In terms of dollar or any fiat currency, all commodities are bullish. But in terms of growth potential in real purchase power term, agriculture products will perform near the bottom, only better than gold.

I don't like gold (GLD) at current price at all. As the world is facing so many resource crisis, I can not understand why the world as a whole still dedicate a lot of efforts digging a metal that is least useful, and least in shortage. Sell gold to buy silver, physical silver, not SLV. After I carefully scrutinized the silver bars list I do NOT believe SLV has the actual silver bars.

On agriculture: granted that the world sees a food crisis looming; granted that every fact Jim Rogers cited is correct: Farmers can't get loans to buy fertilizer; Asian countries eat more meat; And that food is the single most important human need. Despite all these facts, Jim Rogers is still wrong on being overly too optimistic on growth potential of agriculture products.

Jim Rogers doesn't know how the poorest people in the world are struggling to feed their families. There is demand destruction. The poorest people in the world are already spending 80%, 90% or more of their income on food. Farmers could barely make any profit raising their cattle. If food price doubles, do you think the poor people will have more than 100% of their income to spend? Or a farmer can spend more to feed their cattle? No! Poor people will have to buy less and eat less, and farmers will have to slaughter their cattle.

Such demand destruction can quickly reduce food demand, and hence it tightly caps the price growth potential of agriculture products. This is why agriculture products will never be the most bullish of all commodity plays. Agriculture is still bullish, not bearish, but the growth potential is simply unattractive. A number of rare metal plays can easily beat any agriculture hands down.

My last article called to buy United States Natural Gas (UNG) fund. I was a bit premature. But at current price level, UNG has no more down side and plenty of explosive upside potential. A recent EIA report noted an important trend: At current low natural gas price, it could become economically incentive for power plants to switch to burning natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity! Please read that document carefully. If power stations switch from coal to natural gas, the huge demand boost will put a rock solid bottom at current natural gas price. In comparison, I will caution about adding position on US Oil Fund (USO).

Full Disclosure: The Author is heavily invested in palladium mining stocks SWC and PAL. I also hold significant positions on shipping stocks EXM, EGLE, TBSI, DRYS, GNK, as well as positions in UNG. I hoard physical tellurium metal but have no position in FSLR.