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Wednesday, February 22, 2012 6:08 PM

Hugh Hendry of Eclectica Discusses Hyperdeflation, Europe, China, and Japan

With the masses screaming their lungs of about hyperinflation, something that is highly unlikely at best, Hugh Hendry of Eclectica Talks About Hyperdeflation, why China might have a hard landing, and various off-the-beaten tracks Japan plays.

Here is clip from a Barron's interview.

Barron's: Where do you find yourself outside the existing belief system today?
Hendry: In 2009, I made a YouTube video of the empty skyscrapers in Wuhan, China. Goldman Sachs and others articulate a very reasonable and compelling argument of being invested in China. With the evidence of my own eyes, I concluded that China had a very robust system of creating gross-domestic-product growth, but forsaking the creation of wealth.

When America was having its China moment in the 19th century, it occurred against the backdrop of a gold standard, a hard-money regime, with a public sector that was minuscule versus the overall size of the economy. As an entrepreneur, if your project failed to generate a sustainable level of cash flow, you failed.

If you talk about a hard landing in China, you talk about GDP growth of 5%, not minus 5% or minus 15%. The Chinese government prints money. It can build superfast railways and overbuild airports, because the rest of the economy can subsidize it. China's swollen public sector is directing asset allocation, rather than pursuing profit maximization. They see [their system] as a success. But it creates a bubble, which can prove quite damaging.

Barron's: You've already had a hard landing—in the Chinese stock market.
Hendry: I should add something else that is contentious—U.S. quantitative easing [that eventually sent more money flowing to China], promoted because America had two sharp recessions and pursued orthodox policies, and had very little to show in the creation of jobs.

The policy was very successful. China now has inflation. Minimum wages have grown 20% annually for the past three years. This has encouraged the Chinese to tighten monetary policy. When you have bubbles and you tighten, bad things happen. China's stock and property markets are weak, a side-effect of quantitative easing. We may now have the pricking of the Chinese bubble. A year or two down the line, it could have enormous repercussions for the global economy.

Barron's: How does one play it?
Hendry: The world is very fearful of hyperinflation. Pension schemes have a preponderance of real assets, from forestry to gold to TIPS [Treasury inflation-protected securities], because they are very fearful. The road to hyperinflation is via hyperdeflation. That is why it's proving so difficult for hedge funds to make money. How does the rational mind that anticipates hyperinflation own 10-year government Treasuries yielding less than 2%? It can't. That's why people are struggling. To lay the seeds of hyperinflation, you need really, really bad things to happen. I thought the U.S. housing market having a massive crash would be hyperdeflationary. But then my Chinese friends pumped $1 trillion of credit into their $5 trillion economy, and created a global recovery, which has just come to an end. I'm speculating that hyperdeflation happens before hyperinflation. What's the worst that could happen? But the sum of all my fears would be China having a real hard landing of minus 5% or minus 10% GDP growth. If we had that—and Europe—the Fed would be printing $20 trillion, and I would have gold at $5,000. You can have a modest amount of gold, but you can't have all your assets in real assets, in case we get that hyperdeflation event.

Barron's: So how do you make money?
Hendry: Would you believe that the AIG strategy of selling too much credit protection in risky assets like mortgage-backed securities is alive and booming today in Japan? It doesn't concern mortgages. It is credit-default swaps on individual Japanese corporations.

Barron's: Do you seriously believe Japanese corporations are going to fail?
Hendry: Clearly, they can and do go bust. I'm buying the CDS on investment-grade Japanese corporations because of the overpricing anomaly. Japan had a bust 20 years ago, and yet today the banking stocks, relative to [Japanese bourse] Topix, are making fresh lows.

If I'm a Japanese bank and I lend money to a new business, I get 1% on 10-year paper. Then the bank gets a call from me, and I'm willing to pay 50 basis points for five-year protection on this same company. So suddenly, the yield has gone from 1% to 1½%. Compare that to five-year Japanese government bonds, yielding 30 basis points. The bank thinks: This is a great trade! Japanese steel companies are investment-grade and won't go bankrupt. So, the bank gets this huge yen yield, and thinks it is not taking any risk. You'd better believe it will sell way too much of that good thing.

One of my partners told me about Japanese steel: Here is a country with no energy, no iron ore or coal, yet it's the largest exporter of steel in the world, exports half its output. To put that in context, China manufactures 700 million tons of steel and exports perhaps 30 million. Japan produces 110 million tons and exports 40 million. As long as Asia is strong, they are fine. But if Asia hiccups or reverses, plant-utilization rates go from very high to very, very low very quickly.

Then we discovered that Warren Buffett owned shares of South Korea's Posco [5490.S. Korea], and that Korea was the biggest importer of Japanese steel, but Posco and Hyundai [5380.S. Korea] are building huge, integrated steel plants. They have a surplus of steel capacity and—guess what?—they're exporting to Japan, because the yen is so strong.

Initially, I wanted to buy a three-year, out-of-the-money put on Nippon Steel. My broker said, "I've been in a 20-year bear market; my boss will kill me." Then I thought, being long credit protection is being long volatility. I redialed his credit counterpart. I said: "I'm thinking of purchasing up to a billion yen of five-year credit-default swaps in Nippon Steel." The first thing he said was, "Would you consider 10 billion?" So one part of the bank is banned from selling volatility, and the other part is having a party. I bought reams of the stuff.

Barron's: We've barely discussed Europe.
Hendry: We are partly playing it through Japan. If events kick off again in Europe, the correlation across all [global] asset classes will go to one. So the steel CDS is 130 basis points, while to insure against default by the French government, I'd be paying the same amount. Which is riskier? A very leveraged steel company that can't tax you? Or a government that can? Our bearish bets are largely outside Europe. As for Greece, the end game will be the Greeks rejecting austerity. The euro is nothing but a gold standard lacking flexibility, and all the onus is on private citizens to take the pain. Eventually, a Greek politician will say, 'Vote for me, and I'll get us out of this system.'
I certainly agree with that last comment above.

I as I have said and repeated Eventually, Will Come a Time When ....
Eventually, there will come a time when a populist office-seeker will stand before the voters, hold up a copy of the EU treaty and (correctly) declare all the "bail out" debt foisted on their country to be null and void. That person will be elected.
The Barron's interview is well worth a read in entirety.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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