Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Differences Between the BRICS

Goldman Sachs Asset Management - Annual Benelux Conference - Part 1

Emerging Markets in the Spotlight, more than 'Greece': The Differences between the BRICs

Like every year, LMG visited the GSAM Annual Conference for institutional investors. Always a good crowd, representing big pension plans, investment advisers and consultants on the one hand and a heavy GSAM delegation on the other. Like most of the times, GSAM Chairman Jim O'Neill did the main speech and it was - as always - a good one, especially for those of us interested in Emerging and Frontier Markets. Not a big surprise I guess, knowing that Jim is 'Mr BRIC' himself (he coined the phrase).

The venue was nice as well: the Taets Art Gallery in Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam.

Inspiring was also the panel discussion. Normally those panels are often created just to make sure all important people or entities that would like to say something do get the floor. But definitely not so this time. Led by a Dutch journalist who lives in Russia for more than 20 years already (working as on the spot reporter for Dutch TV and some newspapers) former Dutch ambassadors in India, China and Brazil sparred with him about the differences between the BRIC nations. A great session. Very serious stuff, but at the same token light enough to make people laugh, while at the same time presenting a broader picture.

Take for instance this one:

Former Ambassador to Brazil: ''Brazil has really advanced so much. In this democracy we have electronic voting and election results are available within 3 hours after closing of the ballot boxes. From Rio to the sub-tropical far away rain forests near the Amazon.''

Russia journalist: ''Now that would really not impress anyone here in Russia. Here the election results are known 3 years before the elections!!

Russia: Stability as the Keyword
Funny and sad at the same time? Maybe yes, maybe no. The Russia journalist continued to explain that in Russia stability is one of the key issues and that would probably not come as a surprise, taking into account that it is a country with just 138.7 million people but with 1/6th of total land surface of the earth. Russians take pride in the fact that they did not just defend that territory so far with big success, but also - whenever there were big wars in the world - could show/maintain their role as super power. 

Does that mean that there is a big sense of 'Russian Nation' in Russia? An 'us' versus 'them'? Not really, except when attacked. Other than that, people do not really trust each other and definitely not the intelligentsia or elite. Some even estimate that corruption comprises more than 25 percent of GDP! But what they do share is their appreciation of Russian 'Culture'. And they are right so. Just check out Literature, Arts, Music, Architecture and you will know WHY.

Leaders in this country have to be tough. Trying to be popular? Well, up to a certain percentage that can work by being mister Sweet Guy, but both Yeltsin and Khrustyev know that this will in the end fail. A nice anecdote about the recent visit of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to Moscow is indicative. Rutte had a chance to present himself on one of the few relatively independent news media in Russia, one that would normally NOT present the Russian ruling elite's point of view. In other words: one of the few stations where he would have a broader platform than Putin. Viewers could vote if they felt that Rutte would be a good guy to be PM in Russia. A stunning majority voted YES. But to be frank: even if one of our LMG seniors would present there, a YES might be the result. Why, because this channel was intelligentsia related hoping to make statements against the ruling elite and since they can only do so indirectly, this survey was one of those scarce opportunities!

Rutte Meets Putin and Learns about the Difference between expected Leadership Qualities in both countries.

Now, Rutte did visit Putin afterwards and our rookie, nice guy PM wanted to break the ice by referring to the survey (with a big smile on his face so as to not look seriously, but just friendly). Putin reacted with a face, cold as ice: ''It is good for Russia and you (!), that you do not have a Russian passport.'' Welcome in Russia, Mark Rutte!

Russian lack of humor? Well, doing business with Russians regularly and knowing them via earlier work with the Chess Federation and as chess sponsor (FIDE, the world chess federation is to a large extent influenced by top level Russian representatives), we can only say: No Way! 

The moment you know more of them, they are loyal, good friends and incredible fun to be with. Just be careful with the drinking, because their stamina is huge. This is not where Too Much Love Will Kill You (as in the Brian May song), but Too Much Drinking. So the stereotype about drinking is true. And it partly explains why Russian men die at a so much younger age than gender colleagues elsewhere in the world (true, crime and corruption are part of the explanation as well!).

The drinking stereotype is far more correct  than the one about Russians being trustworthy or not, with the verdict than most of the time being that they cannot be trusted. I rather do business in Russia with the right partner without a detailed written contract than I would do so in the US. Of course I am aware of the fact that critics would say that this is so because with or without a contract wouldn't make a difference in Russia anyway. Even if that were true to a certain extent, then be fair and compare that to the US situation where I could have a contract but even if I were right a court case against a multinational or the government would kill me financially before I end up winning the case.

In terms of market valuations Russia is the cheapest of the BRIC nations and one without a real middle class. Result: an interesting country for those who do business with the elite and top ranks, a total waste of time for those who focus on the lower layers of society. So do not bring supermarkets to Russia, but if you have luxury products to offer or want to buy stakes in Russian firms focusing on the upper classes: understand that this market might be more interesting than China, especially at current valuation levels. Add to that the resource availability and you might be willing to overcome doubts about crime and corruption to such an extent that you even start to like the Stability aspect!

Brazil: Where the Keywords are 'Future' and 'Crime'
Brazil has done a great job and in a reasonably democratic fashion. Is the so-called 'Country of the Future' this time really the country of the future? A cynical Brazilian saying was that 'Brazil is the Country of the Future and it will always be!'.
Well, a lot has been achieved and in mining, energy and agriculture the country has made huge progress and Embraer is now the third largest Aviation company in the world.

Embraer: Showing that Brazil is more than Football, Samba and Carnival

But at the same token Brazil is still the country where you should make sure NOT to use your GPS to find your way, because those damn things tend to go for the shortest routes. And short routes could take you through the favelas. Those shanty towns where crime rules.

But that is not to say that the country did not make great progress under former president Lula da Silva. It did, especially in the aforementioned industries. 

But democracies do always struggle with their balancing act whenever crime and corruption are important, and a period of less economic progress could easily translate into a shift in the balance of power between those responsible for regular economic growth and those in control of the invisible economy. At the moment the government is winning, but there is no guarantee that this will remain the case.

But it would be unfair not to give the Brazilians both credit and benefit of the doubt for their achievements. 

India: The inward-looking biggest democracy of the world
India is the world's biggest democracy. But also, as many people forget after Indonesia home to the largest Muslim population albeit that they are a minority in India. But notwithstanding Western folklore India versus Pakistan is NOT the main issue in India politically. Not at all. And it was good to hear that, because those of you who follow our LMG Facebook Page do know that we have our biggest traction in India and Pakistan with most often great discussions between our Indian and Pakistani friends. The real problem in India is China and India giving home to the Dalai Lama is in that respect a logical move. What is good for India is bad for China and vice versa. Although India is far less of a problem for China than the other way round. Our explanations about China below will help explain this dichotomy.

Balance in India: Inward-oriented but definitely a High Growth Country

Indian society is about balance, equilibrium, traditions and going back to business as usual et cetera. This is even so after terrorist attacks or other turbulence. And Indians are incredibly good at this shifting back to normality. This enormous focus on balance does have its weaknesses when having to perform cross-border geopolitics inside supranational bodies like the World Bank, IMF, G-20 et cetera. It always seems as if India is not capable of getting the role it deserves. Even with its current recognition of the importance of Africa as the resource rich continent that has to be uncovered, they are again lagging the Chinese who are more aggressive when it comes to promoting their national interests internationally.

But the Indians are not at all silly. And they know about their international weakness. Result: they focus more than the other giants on domestic growth instead of exports. And that has helped them tremendously during the period of the Global Financial Crisis when contagion between markets made the other giants struggle when Western financial systems ended up in disarray.

Not so India: the focus on domestic growth insulated them from a lot of the Western problems. Add to that the fact that India has a relatively young population - unlike China - and India knows that sooner or later the Chinese (although they are good long-term chess players as well!) will have to struggle with their internal demographic time bomb. In other words: India's glory days will come, sooner or later.

But the problem is of course: how much sooner or later. And what will the country do about its biggest internal time bomb: poverty and inequality?

But all in all: there is definitely a good case to make for India as well. And again, Indians are smart. If inequality is a problem nationally and export orientation is not there, then one can also export laborers. With the Middle East next door this strategy has worked and might continue to work. Just check out the average company or office building in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and you know what we are talking about. And this is not just an export of educated workers. The brain drain has been a problem in India in the past, but the Indian top level educational system is such a fantastic rat race that the Institute's of Technology and Management will continue to deliver top talen in IT, Physics, Economics, Finance, Chemistry et cetera. Dozens of Western multinationals recognize this and have created research laboratories in India, with cities like Bangalore thriving on them, and on internal Indian entrepreneurial initiatives along the same lines.

China: The Middle Kingdom, Heaven on Earth ruled by a Social Contract
Then let's end our BRIC travel in China. The Middle Kingdom is back to where it was before the Industrial Revolution. That is: on a growth path toward a 30 percent stake of world GDP. Not sure if they will get that far, because of the demographic troubles (the population is getting older), but growth is there and high single and low double digit economic progress seems to be standard.

China: The Renaissance of the Middle Kingdom. Back where it belongs.

But will China develop into a world power? According to a former Dutch ambassador to China that way of thinking is totally wrong. It is Western thinking. China is the Middle Kingdom. A kind of Heaven on Earth concept, ruled by an elite based on a Social Contract: for and by Chinese. That social contract is simple. The elite - be it the Emperor like in the past, or the Communist Party now - has to deliver progress. If they do, the average people focus on economic growth and spiritual balance and happiness at the family level. The ruling class has to deliver the infrastructure in which this progress can be achieved. If they do, fine so. Just the occasional intellectual will be worried about democracy, human rights and moral values. Not so the bulk of the Chinese. They worry about what car to buy, which Luis Vuitton bag to get and: in case corruption and organized crime might want to fool people by selling them fake products without people knowing it (i.e. different from what the Chinese try to sell naive foreigners!), those rulers should act with severe punishment.

It is therefore no surprise that the Chinese government is one of the toughest fighters against corruption and other crime. Penalties even worse than those in countries like Iran. At the same token - so as to complicate matters - do not try to do business with Chinese without offering them presents. There is a thin line between the regular gift policy and corruption, but it is there.

China's goal is not global dominance. The goal is growth of the Middle Kingdom. Foreigners? They can benefit as long as they deliver what the Middle Kingdom needs. That explains the Chinese 'Grasshopper Capitalism' in Africa. Westerners having trouble doing business with Iran? Because that country has a different system that Westerners don't like. Who cares? The Chinese care about China. And they are more than happy to do business with anyone as long as it benefits the Middle Kingdom.

If you keep all this in mind you can do fantastic business with China as long as you remember that you will never become Chinese. And also remember that you should not address the issue of the three T's in some kind of intellectual way, hoping to change the vision of the Chinese leaders. Three T's? Tibet, Taiwan and Turks (the Uyghur people): don't even think about the Chinese being willing to discuss the issue or change their mind. They won't. The only thing you will achieve is that they might reduce the amount of business they do with you.

Therefore: China the number one catalyst of global growth? Yes, for sure. China a certain success story? Maybe. Markets are markets and if too many foreigners from the outside want to go in and benefit from this obvious growth story, prices go up and you might pay too much. And the Chinese won't stop that process. After all you are one of those foreigners aren't you, so who cares?

So the Chinese growth story will continue to follow a long-term growth path. It is essential that the elite - under the existing social contract - ensures long-term growth. This is their advantage vis-a-vis other countries where democracy is a great and fair system, but one that penalizes long-term decision taking in comparison with an excess short-term orientation. But again: the Chinese don't care. They just expand. They have to worry about two weaknesses:

1) The population is getting older, which creates a demographic time bomb; and
2) The social contract is just that. As soon as the leaders don't deliver, the biggest population in the world will get dissatisfied. And unlike in many other countries, this will not translate into bad moods, grief, talking, debate and not doing anything. It will transition quickly into actions against the elite. And the latter know it. Even the soldiers in the People's Army are trained and educated with this perception as part of what makes them tick. If their elite doesn't deliver? Then they won't be too loyal anymore.

Of course China remains the catalyst in the short term, but we feel that one has to be careful not to get overly enthusiastic as an outsider. The probability of paying too much is too high. In the near future it might be wiser to benefit from China by investing elsewhere in the world in countries that might benefit from China's demands for certain products. Africa might be an interesting growth story because of China's needs and in the slipstream those of India.

In a next entry more about the technical stuff that was discussed at this seminar. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Price of EU Indecisiveness, the New EU Debt Agreement: What Does it Mean for Investors?

As you know we aren't exactly big fans of what European leaders are doing: trying to solve their debt issues together without inviting those with big pockets to help solve the issue.

And not just that: the whole operation is not aimed at penalizing Greece or even PIGS nations as a group. OK, borrowers having a credit problem is part of the story. But we should also look at the lenders in this case. European government institutions and institutional investors (banks, insurance firms and pension plans) simply invested too much in Southern European nations. A horrible, naive mistake. Pretty much comparable to the investments of Dutch and British local government institutions in the Icelandic bank Landesbanki (through its affiliate Icesave). 
Did investors really assume that when Europe would get one currency and a - not that powerful - European Central Bank (although the ECB under Trichet developed into Europe's best financial institution!) credit risks would be the same anywhere? I.e. that Southern European investments in sovereigns or corporate bonds would simply translate into higher returns? There was never such a simple free lunch in bond investments. Normally: when something like this happens, you have to penalize the borrower and the bad investors. And that is exactly where the problem is.
Already back in 2008-2009 European governments were not willing to play it really tough. Very quickly did they announce that a failure of one of the big banks, insurance firms or pension plans would imply 'too big a system risk'. So instead of Lehman like scenarios of bankruptcy or AIG like scenarios of 'scaring the shit out of managing boards in affected bad investors' they started to create one of the world's largest moral hazard problems through a series of support actions, including nationalizations. The outrage of Western and Northern European populations when hearing about bank bonuses 1-2 years later is totally understandable. Being in the management layers of big system investors is like getting a call option to take as much risk as you can, and in case something goes wrong the tax payer will get the bill. 
But financial markets have become complex institutions. Somehow the major players, be they politicians, central bankers or institutional investors in Europe's North and West have succeeded in blaming only the South (including Ireland that seems to be recovering surprisingly by the way, thereby strengthening the argument that this is all about the behavior of Southern borrowers!).
However, when you increase the funding that is available for rescue: 'Isn't it then true, that the bulk of the money transferred to Greece and others will automatically move back into the North and West as payment (interest and/or principal) on earlier loans (yep, the bad investments) that Northern and Western European banks and other institutional investors invested in? If you know that a lot of these institutions are either led by former politicians or at least have strong ties with politics things sound totally different. But that is not the type of story European leaders want to tell, because failure to control in combination with poor investment skills is then becoming too much of an internalized story. The externalization into 'them' (the South) versus 'us' (the prudent North and West) is a far better political story to tell.
Northern and Western European Prudence: Not willing to Invest and Suffer. There are more beggars involved here. Not just Greece, but also Northern and Western Banks who made bad investments!
But what about the System Risk? The Introduction of a New Idea that might help
We are sure that when politicians or even those economists closely involved with institutional investors in Europe's North and West would read this, that they might classify us as 'dangerous rookies'. System risk could easily translate into total collapse. LMG agrees with the latter. But we believe that there are solutions possible. And in a way the US example shows that - if anything - that country did not collapse, unlike some of its big financial institutions.
System Risk: Are Big Financial Institutions really so big that they could make the whole system fail? Or is it the structure of the system that has led to this situation?
Why not do things in a way similar to sports competitions? Making tough rules, also for system risks by creating leagues (groups of financial institutions categorized according to size, international operations, financial solidity, etc.) and telling upfront that every year or every couple of years at least x percent of those in one of those leagues could fail. That will a) make people more careful before allocating to less solid banks or insurers that offer higher rates or lower premiums (freewheeling on the credibility of the more solid ones!) and b) reduces the moral hazard related to excess risk taking of bankers and other institutional parties within a certain league! Compare the system to the classification of hotels or restaurants with stars, where guests are willing to pay more for a larger number of stars and penalize those who do not live up to expectations. 
LMG believes that people are smart enough to make their decisions when that type of system is introduced and communicated in an open and transparent way. As long as you don't do that and continue in the old-fashioned way any system will always lead to
  1. Size being an asset, with bigger parties trying to get even bigger so as to reduce the risk of collapse thereby betting on the moral hazard game knowing that politicians could and would not let them fail.
  2. Within any non-transparent, informal quality or size group of institutional parties the least solid ones will always get some kind of free ride on the shoulders of the more solid ones.
In the latest plan Europe's leaders went a different way. The new European Agreement with its insurance-like solution is not really a solution. Think about the insurance component. If you are afraid that your house might collapse since it is too close to a cliff in an environment that might be struck by an earthquake: would you really care about a 20 percent insurance for the first loss?

Rogoff's Warning
Yesterday, Harvard Professor Ken Rogoff told Bloomberg TV that he believes that the biggest risk for the US economy is Europe. Rogoff is a great economist and former chess grand master. He is so right here. The US is gradually but slowly getting there, leaving the problems of the 2008-09 financial crisis behind it. Not really through a sensational V-shaped recovery, but with a slow economic growth path bringing it step-by-step into safer territory. To quite some extent this is also the result of bold FED policy (keep interest rates as low as possible thereby keeping the dollar low while at the same time ensuring that the biggest lenders from countries that 'have' will not leave 'the world's biggest have-not' in disarray), but Europe is still a major risk.

Gradual growth at a low pace is the most likely scenario for the US but European indecisiveness to a) go for a painful solution, even if that pain could hurt some of the Northern and Western European big institutional investors, could still lead to trouble. Especially when you know that they are continuing to play music in an orchestra without a) a clear, good conductor and b) good instruments (all have debt and economic growth issues themselves!). True, Sarkozy and some high level bureaucrats are talking to the Chinese and other Emerging Markets leaders (finally!) but nothing clear there yet. And you can compare it to the rescue of Swedish automobile manufacturer Saab, also this week. If you wait long enough, once thing is sure. The conditions under which the 'haves' can step in will get better and better.  
Is EU following a SAAB like scenario?
Nonetheless, also looking at the M&A data posted earlier this week by the OECD (with 2011 being the third best year in history) we do not think that a situation in which US growth is killed by what is going on in Europe is the most likely scenario. The most likely one is that things will gradually improve also in Europe (assume a 60-70 percent chance, 10-20 that things will remain volatile and nervous and 10-20 for the US being torn down by Europe's mess) with it only being uncertain who will benefit there: Europeans themselves or wealthy outside investors. But European indecisiveness and political games can still lead to renewed global problems.
In this scenario we would clearly favor US stocks over European ones. However, the interest of big financial institutions, wealth funds and conglomerates from Emerging countries in the asset and knowledge base of European relatively healthy financial institutions (they do still exist, although one has to be careful picking the right ones) might make them interesting speculation objects, also when knowing that the OECD's M&A data do confirm growing activity by EM investors (especially those from China, but Indian and Russian investors are also in the top-20).
And the longer Europe's leaders wait with getting the rich EM nations to the table the more the story will be like the one of Saab. In the Swedish car manufacturers case two Chinese firms were initially supposed to get a (rounded) 55 percent share for about Euro 250 million but ended up getting the whole firm for Euro 100 million half a year later.
A US overweight in your portfolio, in combination with a EU underweight is a logical top-down allocation with a - probably surprising - overweight to EU solid financial institutions with good asset and knowledge bases and 'too big too fail by European standards' characteristics within that EU sub-portfolio seems to be a logical strategy.

Will be continued.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kazakhstan and the Neglected Country Effect

Yesterday we added a piece about Andrew Lo's Adaptive Markets Hypothesis. The AMH allows people to make mistake, even for a prolonged period of time. This in turn leads to arbitrage opportunities that are not immediately eaten away, like in the Efficient Markets Hypothesis that still dominates financial market theory and even - to a certain extent - practice.

The AMH is directly linked to psychological and neuro-physiological theories about the evolutionary development of the brain. And our brain does play quite a few tricks on us. Overconfidence, Loss Aversion, Overreaction, the Carol Effect or Syndrome, Herding Behavior, an unhealthy demand for details that in turn blur our analysis, and there are many more negative phenomenons that we all suffer from.

Geographical Misperception - We all suffer from it!

Even the way in which we look at the world seems to be sensitive to this. We do see the world in big blocs. In the Developed World the USA, EU and Japan are the leaders. This does already lead to an underestimation of what is going on in countries like Canada or Australia. They are geographically at the outskirts and somehow they do end there economically as well. But OK, with them culturally belonging to the same group of nations as USA and EU we can manage.

Now that Asia is developing rapidly with India and China leading developments there, we often translate growth of the Emerging Markets bloc into 'Asian Growth' with Asia meaning India and China. Singapore and Hong Kong, hubs that share an Asian background with acquaintance to the Western culture (due to their history), are therefore chosen as pivotal centers in our quest for a piece of the action there.

China, Japan, India....giants in Asia that are relatively commodity-poor, with especially a huge demand for energy-related commodities (oil, gas, coal etc). But the industrialization of China and India does rapidly increase the nead for other industrial commodities as well. And somehow we translate this demand into an interest in the Middle East, that tricky politically-dangerous area that we do know for its total energy dependence. But then again: for the next 5-10 years that dependence is definitely not a sign of weakness but a sign of market power. 

Those of us who know the world a bit better, will suggest that Russia is a nice alternative. First, it has far more natural resources in a diversified mix. Second, it is politically far more stable than the Middle East.

Central Asia: The Forgotten Region
But somehow most of us always seem to forget about the region in the middle. The one surrounded by the others: Central Asia. And when talking to people it always seems as if they believe it is a rounding error. But hey: any idea how large the region is? Normally when telling people that Kazakhstan is one of the 10 largest countries in the world, 4 times larger than Texas, they find it hard to believe. That big? 

And when they learn about the economic development and availability of resources it is clear that it is a forgotten gem stone for many, especially if you do believe in a world in which Emerging Markets are here to stay. Just take our World in the average map and change the often-seen Europe-centered presentation (with Europe in the middle, US on the left-hand side and Asia on the right) for one where the center is reserved for the fastest growing area economically. Yep, with Asia in the middle you can clearly see that Kazakhstan is not just commodity-rich, but also neatly centered between Russia and China on the one hand and India and the Middle East in the South and another growth pearl (Turkey) in the West.

A clear example of 'We never went there, never thought about it, so gosh...didn't really know about it'. Maybe I am biased. My first visit to Kazakhstan was already back in 1981, when it had a magical sound because of the Medeo Ice Rink in Almaty (back then called Alma Ata) where people set records that were always mistrusted in the West. And that kind of thinking was part of the same mental bias that led to the neglected country effect we are witnessing now.

Medeo Ice Rink - Miracle World Records in the 80s

Turkey is determined to do more in Central Asia and some kind of collaboration there might have looked relatively unimportant a few years ago, but taking into account the economic growth in those nations and relatively healthy economies without huge debt loads, the world has changed. It is important now, especially when taking into account that Russia, China and Iran might like to see - and be involved in - a stronger Central Asia. If only for the sake of ensuring that lawlessness and terrorism are better controlled by forces in or close to the region.

Within the region Kazakhstan was already a favorite for quite a few years. But only discovered by those of you who were not afraid of Frontier Markets. The Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath led to a bit of stagnation. But the economic figures that Kazakhstan posts are still nothing but good.

Therefore: better to take a closer look. And sure: the Nazarbayev family, led by Nursultan himself, has a tight control of the country and the economy. But the same holds for the Communist Party in China. All in all the political situation is reasonably stable and the business climate not too bad, and corruption does exist. But it is not really that much worse than in comparable nations where we are doing business. In other words: those factors are often used as excuse for us having forgotten the opportunity. And besides: Kazakhstan is too rich and interesting to be hurt by some kind of embargo. If you want to make a difference, then the only way to do so is to help the country develop further. Result will be growing wealth for the country and the investor, and most probably reduced inequality and corruption. Only when the relative power of foreigners vis-a-vis ruling elite changes from within, will things change.

Nursultan Nazarbayev - Tight control, but getting older

And it is a good sign that Kazakhstan is not fighting that. On the contrary, the country tries to open up to foreign investors. Our feeling is that - and that fits neatly with the cultural and religious background of the population - the Nazarbayev family understands that increased wealth will imply less direct political control. However, it might lead to more risks from their perspective, but when ensuring that the family has stakes in different industries in the country the end result could be that heirs of Nursultan Nazabayev don't really care about political power anymore but focus on their businesses instead. That seems a reasonably likely scenario.

But bottom-line: Kazakhstan the Forgotten is more than Borat or cyclist Vinokourov who those of you who follow the Tour de France might now. The Astana cyclist team is a clear indication of Kazakhstan wanting to be discovered, but neglect and opportunities are still there.

Astana, capital and second city of Kazakhstan

The videos that we added to this report were shot in 2007, before the Global Financal Crisis, and under guidance of the government. So of course, they are biased. But so are government sponsored videos in most countries of the world, including our own. We therefore also added a link to the latest CIA Factbook report on Kazakhstan. All in all, it is clear that it is an interest story with according to us the following top-5 pluses and minuses:

Kazakhstan YES
1 Since 2000 average GDP growth rates of 7% (ie doubling of the economy every 10 years); and with commodity strength no reason to believe that this will change
2 Government handled the GFC well and started to diversify the economy and current debt levels around or below 20 percent of GDP
3 Investment Grade Credit Rating since 2002; and reasonably well developed banking system for a Frontier Economy
4 Vast resources, both energy- and non-energy related
5 Strategic and Economic Importance for BRIC giants Russia and China

Kazakhstan NO
1 Environmental and pollution issues related to former defense industries (Soviet times) and today's agricultural and industrial activities
2 Young population, but still questionable demographics (net migration negative)
3 Infrastructure needs enormous upgrading, because of export orientation of economy
4 Economy still relatively small (GDP USD 200 billion)
5 Political uncertainty? What will happen after Nursultan Nazarbayev?

All in all we believe that the pluses outweigh the minuses, especially because some of the minuses will be mitigated because of some of the pluses. The joint interest of Russia, China and Turkey in a strong Kazakhstan are helpful as well.

Therefore: don't forget about Central Asia and get your geography and economic math right!


CIA Factbook - Kazakhstan

Video Kazakhstan Part 1 (2007)

Video Kazakhstan Part 2 (2007)

Video Kazakhstan Part 3 (2007)

Video Kazakhstan Part 4 (2007)

For more about Central Asia and other regions (news and music) see also our You Tube Channel

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Link between Behavioral Finance, the Adaptive Market Hypothesis and Today's Financial Market Crisis

Introduction; Interesting Times
We are living in interesting times. Within academia top level professors like Andrew Lo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) present innovative work that links Economics to Psychology and Neuro-Physiology to explain why our traditional, rationality-based treatment of financial markets doesn't lead to solutions that work.

Prof Andrew Lo - MIT ''Adaptive Markets Hypothesis''

In-and-of-itself we already know that the so-called Efficient Market Hypothesis that played - and still plays - a central role in mainstream Economics and Finance is under siege. Behavioral Science literature (both within and outside Economics) provided us with too many strange examples of situations where people acted anything but rational. A few examples:

Russo & Schoemaker (1989) performed a fascinating experiment. They asked a group of test candidates 10 general knowledge questions. But instead of asking them for their 'best guess' answer, they asked for a 90% confidence interval. In other words: 'Answer the 10 questions in such a way, that you expect to score 9 out of 10'. Outcome: only 1% of the participants succeeded!! The actual number of mistakes (i.e. answers falling outside of the confidence window) was 3-4 out of 10! This is indicative of decision takers suffering from a tendency to overestimate their abilities. Juggling around with numbers in today's Financial Crisis it is quite clear that it is not unlikely that quite a few decision takers that are at the helm in the Developed Economies of Europe and the US are suffering from this behavioral bias.
The unwarranted appeal of details
Kahnemann & Tversky (1982) created a nice experiment that indicates what happens with us when provided with more details. They told their test candidates about a lady called Linda and painted a picture of her: she was a bright, socially-engaged, sympathetic lady, active in her community and assertive. Through the various pieces of information that the test candidates received about her, they did more or less get the feeling that they knew Linda. Then, Kahnemann & Tversky asked them to provide them with the most likely answer to the question 'What do you think Linda is?':

a) A bank teller; or
b) A bank teller and woman activist

The funny thing is that 90 percent of the respondents chose b!. But obviously the best answer is a) since - with more details - the likelihood of b) being correct is smaller. This strange phenomenon of feeling more confident when knowing more details is also at work in today's Crisis, where you see that problems in Debtor nations in the Developed World does also translate into the phenomenon that a lot of funds are withdrawn from markets that do not suffer from the same fundamental problems. Emerging Markets went often even more down than the developed markets. Reason: in general Western investors know far less about these markets than they do about their own markets and they translate that into the 'certainty' that those markets will therefore be ''more risky''.

Loss Aversion, Risk Aversion and Gambling Behavior
When asked a choice between a certain profit of USD 240,000 or an uncertain gamble with a 25 percent probability of a USD 1 million gain and a 75 percent chance of leaving with nothing, most people will opt for the first option: the certain profit. Of course, when calculating expected gains, the second one will score USD 10,000 higher (0.25 x 1 million plus 0.75 x 0). But obviously, we have to subtract a risk penalty > 0 in the second case. Result: only the least risk averse or even risk-seeking (positive reward to risk) persons will choose the uncertain gamble.

But now, to make things a bit more relevant in today's Crisis, let's slightly change the example. Suppose we can now choose between a certain loss of USD 240,000 on the one hand and another uncertain gamble with a 25 percent probablility of a USD 1 million loss and a 75 percent probability of breaking even.  Applying the standard expected result mathematics we end up deriving that the certain example leads to a USD 240,000 loss of course and the uncertain example a USD 250,000 loss. In other words: the uncertain gamble is USD 10,000 less good already before subtracting the risk penalty!

Kahnemann & Tversky (1979) showed however that whereas the bulk of people opted for certainty when faced with a chance to generate profit, but with the uncertain gamble when faced with a loss chance: risk aversion was replaced by loss aversion. Not rational, but still it happens. And here we are in the Financial Crisis. Developed nations are nations that - most of the time - are led by politicians who have to be democratically re-elected. They will for sure take the risk in an uncertain gamble when the choice is between 'bad' (certain bet) and 'very bad but with a chance that results will be good' (uncertain bet). The bulk of the difference between negative and very negative outcomes will be visible after the next election date anyway, so better not to play it too safe when it is about negative things. In that case all will pin this event's tail on your government's donkey. Result: the likelihood of representatives of those parties finding a solution together that will reduce global risk is not too big. On the contrary: they will lavish themselves in the risky game with a lot of praying, postponing of tough decisions et cetera.

The Carol Effect
Game theory does also report about the so-called Carol Effect which implies that the prettiest, most wanted girl in town might actually not be the one being courted by most guys. Guys will analyze their chances using three potential scenarios: first, I approach her and it works. Most guys will immediately think: if it would be that easy, what about the other guys? They would then compare their chance of success with the chance of failure and embarrassment. With the latter obviously being much larger than the first, except maybe for the most overconfident macho's. The embarrassment scenario with all its negative repercussions would get a zero or even negative utility score. Of course: winning the heart of Carol would be fantastic, but when multiplied with a very low probability it is not that likely that this score will really outweigh the multiplication of a much more probable non-successful event multiplied by the zero or even negative score. And: if we add to that the option that we don't approach Carol in the first place and continue to do what we are doing right now (i.e. ignore her), then it is very unlikely that Carol will be asked to have a drink with us.

Uma Thurman: Experienced the Carol Effect in Real Life
 Actress Uma Thurman has confirmed that the Carol Effect does exist. When asked about it, she told interviewers that she did always have far less men approaching her than other girls did....

You might think: What is the relevant of all this for today's Financial Crisis? Well, when thinking of Carol think of China, Russia and Arab nations with big Wealth Funds filled with oil and gas dollars and you might understand what we mean when thinking of the macho guys as Western government leaders struggling alone with their Debts. Only when the Debt levels reach such levels that they have no choice anymore, will they go after Carol and ask her for help.....but by that time Carol might be old and not so pretty anymore. The latter could even be the result of us not going after her: because the Crisis will also affect her financial beauty.
Of course: there will be new Carols around, and new guys. But in democracies the new guys are probably new government leaders and the whole game will start again!

One thing that worries us though, is that part of the Carol effect - when applying it to the Financial Crisis - is not about the guys not being brave enough to approach the rich Carols of this world - but about Western leaders being too overconfident and cocky: 'We don't need Carol! We can do it alone!'.

Efficient or Adaptive Markets Hypothesis
The Efficient Market Hypothesis states that all publicly available information has been incorporated in prices in an unbiased way. This is the result of the interplay of rational decision takers and arbitrageurs. Whenever they find a mispricing their buying and selling behavior will automatically imply that prices will quickly adjust until equilibrium is re-established and prices reach their fair value again. This neo-classical doctrine has been the basis of important investment theories like Mean-Variance, the Capital Asset Pricing Theory, Black-Scholes option model et cetera. On the other hand the behavioral flaws mentioned above where presented as evidence that markets are not efficient. But most of the time the proof was presented in an ad-hoc manner.

Over the last decade top-level scholars like MIT's Andrew Lo have tried to structure the anecdotal, fragmented behavioral evidence in a way that would contribute to the derivation of a more structured alternative to the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH). Lo's paper on the Alternative Markets Hypothesis (AMH) seems to be a good effort to do so. It links standard economic thinking - the bulk of which was the basis for mainstraim EMH style theory - to psychological and neuro-physiological ways of thinking. The latter is very much linked to evolutionary thoughts about how men's brains can be seen as a combination of a more reptillian emotional core, combined with a mammalian mid-layer and a humanoid upper-layer. The lower levels are more emotional, less deep and less logical, more spontaneous and less 'controlled' by us. Result: especially in situations of fear and/or greed these layers tend to gain in importance unless we really establish mechanisms to control them. Strange? Not really. Our history as mankind was one in which in the end the only thing that matters was 'survival'. But 'survival of the fittest' and 'preservation of the species' are not the same as 'survival of the richest' in financial markets. But a lot of our behavioral biases are related to us not being capable yet of controlling our lower level behaviors sufficiently when faced with new risks in financial markets. Compare it to the strange behavior of fish when out of the water. They make similar movements as the ones they would make when in the water. Difference: under water it would help them swim away from the danger or predator. On the land it is useless, and just tiring them.

Behavior of market participants in financial markets can therefore remain irrational and illogical for quite some time to go, and - when the emotional/irrational actors have sufficient market power / financial resources - this could go on long enough to kill the rational ones that try to arbitrage these mistakes away. In a New World Order in which Emerging Markets are here to stay, with their own wealth, different cultures, different actors, different political systems it is more than likely that the old tricks of what has literally become a collection of one trick pony's (Western financial institutions) might not necessarily be the best way forward anymore!
Also because of that, it is best to get the Carol's of this world as quickly as possible to the negotiation table to find a proper solution. And yes, that solution might even involve that Western countries have to accept a sell-off of certain larger firms, other entities or infrastructural projects previously considered ''strategic''. But then again: when it was about the Western nations gaining market share in the colonial countries the definition of ''strategic'' has been implimented much looser as well. With a bit of fantasy - and along the lines of EMH thinking - we could see it as one big, longer-term equilibrating force!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Greece, US Debt Ceilings and Kingdom Towers reaching the ceiling of the world: about a New World Order

The US government, in an effort led by president Obama on behalf of the Democrats but with the Republicans being the decisive factor, avoided Greek-like debt default. I know, European observers would like to correct us stating that there was no default in Greece and that the collective efforts of EU governments, ECB and the IMF avoided a default. But that is of course crap. If your debt is so high, that it is reaching twice the level of GDP we can all calculate that a country is bankrupt. With a GDP of 200 percent, even an interest rate of 2 percent would translate into a 4 percent required growth rate of GDP just to ensure that things won't eradicate further. And that 200 percent debt rate wasn't that far away anymore for Greece. So it was an impossible situation that could never be maintained without belt-tightening severe cost-cuttings. And that is why there was but one option for Greece. Go into a real default, which would then make investors look like big losers who would lose face, or change the terms of debt in a kind of 'soft default'. With the bulk of financial institutions in the European Union now being to quite some extent owned by their governments as a result of the Global Financial Crisis we are not really surprised to see government leaders opt for the soft landing scenario so that 'their' banks don't look like bad investors. But let's be fair: that is basically what they were. There was far too much money lend to and invested in the non-performing economies in Southern Europe in general and Greece in particular.

There is not really a credit crisis, but it is a liquidity crisis: money is elsewhere
But in an earlier Twitter message we also indicated that in the end Greece is not really the issue, and neither is Ireland nor Portugal. They are all relatively small compared to the economies that really matter in the world today. It is just a sign of times and huge nervousness that the Western world moves from one exaggerated crisis to another. At a time when Europe is struggling how to tighten the knots and cover the deficits prince Abdulwaleed of Saudi Arabia announced that he will - together with the Bin Laden (!) Construction Group build the tallest building of the world in Jeddah. The Kingdom Tower will be 1km tall. Higher than the Burj al Kalifa in Dubai. When will the Western world understand that the Changing World implies that when you pay a lot of money for oil, gas and other commodities and for cheaper products from China and India that then sooner or later those countries will be rich whereas you will have to make ends meet?

The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah:

The solution was and is simple. Get those with money to the table and convince them that investments in the Western world are worthwhile since it could buy them a stake in economies that are still more advanced, based on superior human capital and a superior financial infrastructure. The Chinese, Arabs and Russians are ready. When will the Western world be that far?

The US Debt Ceiling and why its level was - of course - increased
The clearest example of the changing world and the demise of former global empires and rulers is the debt crisis in the US. For weeks and months it was clear that without any interventions the US would reach the point where it could not continue to pay for all government activities and debt service anymore. The debt ceiling was reached. Democrats basically wanted a solution based on increased taxes, with Republicans as always opting for reduced spending. It was a fascinating theater play with in the end a logical outcome and somewhat obscure plot. Of course - finally - an agreement was reached. Reason: a non-agreement was too expensive to afford. In that case the credit rating of the US would definitely be reduced and that would immediately translate into higher interest rates and even more costs. And not just that: what is a bigger demise of a country that once was responsible for almost 40-50 percent of global GDP and 50 percent of global stock market value than to come out with a press release stating 'Sorry guys, we cannot pay our debts anymore''.

Analyzing the US Government Debt : 1970-current

LMG took a closer look at the data since 1970 and you see the result in the table below.

Development of the US Government Debt : 1970 - current

In the period 1970-current there were 5 Republican presidents and 3 Democrats. During that period GDP (nominal) went up from USD 1024.8 billion to USD 15227.1 billion. A huge increase but let's not forget that it was also a very inflationary period. We could have adjusted the figures for inflation of course, but we decided not to because the debt levels are in nominal values as well. Over the period Government Debt went up from USD 388 billion to USD 14332 billion. If we now calculate the Debt percentage as share of GDP we went from 37.9 percent of GDP in 1970 to 94.1 percent of GDP today. Scary numbers. Of course nothing like Greece - as a percentage - but be aware. The US is now by far the largest debtor nation in the world. One big credit card, financed by saving Chinese, Japanese, Russians and Arabs.

As you can see our table consists of 4 windows. The first one gives information about the presidency, party etc. The second analyzes the government debt, the third the development of GDP and the fourth links the two together. In the fourth window we also asked ourselves the question: which presidents were capable of reducing the debt percentage during their presidency? Answer: 4 out of 8. Their names: Nixon, Ford and Carter - not coincidentally the first 3 in our analysis period! - and Bill Clinton. Father and Son Bush, Ronald Reagan and current president Obama were the one who saw the Debt to GDP ratio deteriorate rapidly.

What is clear is that debt, so often associated with Democrats, is not necessarily a Democrat thing. Ronald Reagan, whose presidency is so often seen as one of the better ones with the economy recovering after the poor 1970s albeit at a huge price when it became clear that Supply Side economics based on the so-called Laffer curve didn't really work, was one of the champions of increased net spending. If the net spending is the result of excess government spending on social welfare, jobs, health care, education etc (popular with Democrats) or defense (the latter often popular with Republicans) or simply because tax rates are too low (also a favorite of Republics) is basically a non-issue. When you spend more than you earn as a nation you do exactly what credit-card addicts do. The US did and does get away with it to a large extent, simply because a) the US Dollar is still a reserve currency; b) it is still the most powerful nation in the world militarily and economically with a 25 percent share of global GDP but remember: we started in the 40-50 percent regions. So, in other words: when you try - with just about 300 million people - to rule the world as a leading policeman while at the same time supporting your struggling domestic economy with 'credit card like' debt, it is obvious that it is a bigger burden to do so when you represent 25 percent of the world than when you represent 50 percent of the global cake.


LMG believes that it is a dead-end street that will - if we like it or not - lead to a New World Order, one in which the former have nots in the Emerging world will now play a far more important role. We believe that the multipolar equilibrium that will result from it will - in the longer run - be of the best interest to all parties involved, including the US. We do not see them fall back into Splendid Isolation but simply giving up part of that Global Police role will automatically translate into healthier economic fundamentals when combining it with bringing tax levels up to levels similar to what we see in other developed nations.

We are pretty confident that this will happen and when it does, that not the US but Europe will be the sick man in the developed world. Do not underestimate the vitality and dynamics of the US economy in the longer run. But in the short run, as long as the Western world is not yet ready to adjust to the New World Order, make sure you act careful using this confused interbellum to increase your exposure to Emerging Markets winners.

Reps or Dems: who are to blame?

Last but not least: typical US question.....who are to blame? The Republicans or the Democrats? The answer might be surprising and a paradox, but it is stated by the facts: the Republicans! They delivered 5 presidents who ruled the US for 28 years in the period that we analysed. The Democrats delivered 3 presidents who ruled a combined 14 years. The Republican Presidency translated into percentage debt increases of 49.9 percent net (see last column in the table), or an annualized increase of 1.78 percent. The Democrat Presidency translated into a percentage debt increase of 6.3 percent net (see last column in the table), or an annualized increase of a mere 0.23 percent. The problem of the US is not their health care or social security, it is the facilities for the rich and their defense spending.

What about Global Security?

Are we blind? Don't we see that without that spending the world would be an enormously dangerous place? That is what a lot of rightist politicians and other interested people might ask us. Of course we are not blind, but the fact is that the more you try to superimpose your own ideal system onto a world that clearly wants something else and that does have the big pockets now to go elsewhere - being not so dependent on you anymore - that sooner or later you stimulate and trigger terrorist uprisings in a similar fashion as what has led to the uprisings in the colonial empires of the past. The French, Portuguese, Spaniards, Brits, Dutch....they all know that sooner or later an expansionist system becomes too expensive. And the more you try to maintain it, the more expensive and violent it gets.

Time to get the rich Emerging Markets nations at the table. They are willing to invest. Sooner or later Kingdom Towers and other toy spending become boring. And it is a fact that the superiority in several areas (human capital, education, financial infrastructure etc) of Western economies is still there. If we allow leading business men or Ministers of Finance and Economics from Emerging Nations in, the likelihood that terrorists will be the ones showing up and taking the lead is actually getting smaller.

It might in the end be a sign of times that we should now focus on the Bin Laden Construction Groups of the world and not the Osamas!