Posts Tagged ‘BRIC’

The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

In future, if we look back at 2008, will we find that it is the year of the turning point in terms of global growth? Right now, for all intents and purposes, the US is in recession. Japan looks like it is falling back into recession again. Western Europe seems to be sluggish. But there are other bright spots, namely the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and perhaps the Middle-East and Eastern Europe) countries. (We know we are generalising here, but we are doing so for the sake of brevity because the focus of today’s article is something else). Thus, there is little wonder that although the IMF is lowering forecasts for global growth, it is still positive (i.e. their forecast does not point to a global recession).

But what is the greatest danger facing the global economy today?

Recently, we read BHP to use half of state’s electricity in the news media:

BHP Billiton will need nearly half of South Australia’s current electricity supply to power its vastly expanded Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine.

China is growing rapidly in a massive scale. Such massive growth requires massive amount of metals for building skyscrapers and infrastructure. Mining and producing all these metals requires copious amount of electricity. Copious amount of electricity requires copious amount of energy. The recent snowstorms in China shows that the entire nation has a very narrow margin of energy supply before serious disruptions occur. If China is to grow further, its current supply of energy is inadequate. China has abundant coal (it used to export coal). But today, there is not even enough for her energy needs. By now, you should be able to appreciate what is involved (in terms of energy usage) to keep China in its trajectory of growth. And we have not included India into the picture.

Maintaining the way of life in the developed Western nations requires huge amount of energy. As we said before in Smart money in alternative energy?Part 1: current energy quandary,

The most important ingredient that drives the efficiencies, comforts, automation and wonders of today?s modern way of life is energy. The trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes that transport massive quantities of people and goods over vast distances quickly require energy in the form of fuel. The heavy machines that do heavy physical work far beyond the scope of human labour require energy too. The powerful computers that process and store vast amount of data and information as well as automate mental labour requires energy in the form of electricity. The heating in winter and cooling in summer of our abode requires energy too. Take energy away and our modern way of life will very much grind to a halt and bring us back to the hard life of our ancestors. In fact, contemporary life rests on the premise of abundant and cheap energy. Therefore, whoever controls the supply and provision of energy controls power and wealth.

To elevate the way of life in developing nations (e.g. India, China) to a level that is on par with the developed Western world requires a greater initial upsurge of energy use. After that, to maintain that level of way of life for all these additional billions of people, the world will see a permanently much higher plateau of energy usage indefinitely. It should be clear by now the gravity of the implications of such projections.

Can the earth supply enough energy fast enough to allow the developing world to embark on such a path? The earth may have plenty of energy under the ground (i.e. coal, oil and gas), but can humanity extract them fast enough for such unceasingly growing usage? An analogy for this question would be to imagine yourself trying to breathe through a straw. Yes, there may be plenty of air around you, but if you have to breathe through a straw, there is no way you can do strenuous exercise without turning blue. There are two big-picture issues with regards to the world’s energy supply:

  1. Peak Oil. As we said before in Is oil going to be more expensive?,

    Put it simply, the Peak Oil theory states that the world?s oil production has reached the peak and is entering the stage of terminal decline. One common misunderstanding of Peak Oil is that the world is running out of oil. No, the world is not running out of oil?the world is running out of easily accessible oil.

  2. Energy production capacity Even if you do not believe in the Peak Oil theory, there is another problem. There is not enough infrastructure to extract oil and natural gas from unforgiving and inhospitable terrains (e.g. Arctic, Siberia, undersea). Oil extraction is one problem. Refining them is another infrastructure challenge.

Next, even if energy supply is not a problem, there is another headache- global warming. Burning all these oil, natural gas and coal will release colossal amount of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere. It will be a sad irony if China and India achieves the same level as the West in the way of life, only to face environmental disasters that will drag them down again.

In summary, supplying environmentally sustainable energy indefinitely at a rate fast enough is a colossal global problem that must be solved. If not, the latter generations will not live better than the current generation. That is where the best investment opportunities lie.

Awash with cash?what to do with it?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Not long ago, an Australian executive went to the Middle East to promote one of his company?s software systems to potential Arab clients. In his sales pitch, he sprinkled the words ?low-cost? all over to stress the cost effectiveness of the product. After a while, one of the Arabs pulled him aside and growled, ?What do you mean by ?low-cost?? We don’t care about the cost! Just cut the nonsense and give us what we want now!? Upon returning to Australia, that executive remarked that the Middle East is ?just awash with money.?

Just where do all these money come from?

The answer, as you would have guessed by now, is the United States. The US, being in the enviable position of having its money as the world’s primary reserve currency, is not subjected (for now) to the same rules as the other countries?it can spend more than it earns simply by printing its own dollars to pay foreigners. Thus, it can sustain greater trade deficits than would otherwise be tolerated by foreigners.

For years, the US has been running a ballooning trade deficit?its imports, which is paid by its own printed dollars, has been exceeding its exports by an ever-widening margin. From China, the US has been importing consumer goods and from the oil-producing nations, oil. The US dollars that are used to buy oil are nicknamed ?petrodollars? (the money in the above-mentioned story is such dollars).

Today, those foreign countries that account for the vast majority of US imports (namely the oil-producing Middle Eastern nations, Russia, China and Japan) are sitting on so much US dollars that they do not know what to do with it. Therefore, they recycled much of those dollars by purchasing US Treasury bonds. As a result, the long-term interest rates in the US are being artificially suppressed by those purchases.

As we said before in Will the US dollar collapse?, some of these countries are murmuring about diversifying their reserves away from the US dollars because they see that such state of affair is increasingly unsustainable. With the US continually inflating its money supply (printing money), their reserves of US dollars are increasingly become more and more worthless. In fact, we believe that given the swelling amount of US dollars in the world, its current price is overvalued.

Now, here comes a problem. Countries like China and Saudi Arabia are sitting on a massive pile of US dollars parked in US Treasuries. They also know that the US dollars are overvalued and are becoming more and more worthless as each day passes. On one hand, they would not want the US dollar to collapse to its intrinsic value because that would mean the purchasing power of their US dollar reserves would be crunched. On the other hand, they would not want to continue maintaining their holdings of US dollars because they lack confidence in its value. Selling their US Treasuries at once and using the proceeds to buy alternatives to the US dollars will be unacceptable because by virtue of the magnitude of their US dollar holdings, such action will have an immediate and significant impact on the market prices. This will have a very disruptive and destabilising effect on the global financial markets. Thus, the only sensible solution is to quietly and slowly diversify away from their holdings of US dollars so as not to disturb the market prices unduly. This would take a long period of time.

The next question is, what would these countries buy to replace their US dollars?

How to join in the growth of China?

Friday, December 8th, 2006

As we mentioned yesterday in Why is China printing so much money?, we believe there are better alternatives in taking part in the rise of China than sinking your money into the wild liquidity of the Chinese economy. It is a mistake to simplistically assume that to take part in the rise of China (or India, Brazil, Russia, etc), all you need to do is to pour your money into the sizzling Chinese (Indian, Brazilian, Russian, etc) stock market and watch your wealth grow. In case you do not know, it is very much possible for the stock market of a high-growth country to fall significantly while the rest of the economy is humming along fine?it has happened before in China and it happened in India this year.

We should keep in mind the following general rule of thumb: In the long run, the stock price of a company should grow at the same rate as the growth in the profits of the company. Similarly, in the long run, company profits can only grow at the same rate as the growth in the overall economy. With this rule of thumb, whenever we see stock prices outstrip the growth of the overall economy by a far margin, it is time to beware. This may be a sign of a bubble. As we mentioned in Divergent sentiment , if you are the central bank you can make the stock market index climb as high as you want simply by printing money. This is what is happening in China right now. With all these China growth stories, it is tempting to assume that any managed funds that invest in Chinese stocks will automatically do well in the long run. True, some of these funds may seemingly do well in the short run, but unless you are a fast and nimble short-term trader, investing your money into them for the long term may not be a good idea (note: if you are a short-term trader in the Chinese stock market, you will not be investing in that managed fund in the first place). And before we get criticised, please note that we are NOT saying that ALL managed funds that invests in Chinese stocks are bad?we are merely stressing the importance of not judging the quality of a fund just on the basis that it invests in Chinese stocks.

Now, what is our preferred way of taking part in the growth of China? For us, as contrarians, we prefer to seek out companies that have China as their target market. In other words, we prefer companies that sell their goods and services to the Chinese. As China grows richer and stronger, their purchasing power will increase. For this, we will have to study the needs, trends and fads in China to discover what are the things that the Chinese wants and have the money to buy. A business that is well positioned to take advantage of that will garner our interest.