Demonstrators march against the CETA trade deal near the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Feb.15, 2017. Globalization has not been kind to incomes of most of the middle class in developed world economies. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)Demonstrators march against the CETA trade deal near the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Feb.15, 2017. Globalization has not been kind to incomes of most of the middle class in developed world economies. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

MONTREAL—Geopolitical risk is running high despite all seeming well with U.S. stock markets, but evaluating broader trends, which include “de-globalization” and China’s economic transition on asset prices and inflation, is critical at this time.

Volatility—the degree of fear in the market that can be measured by the VIX (S&P 500 volatility)—is extremely low. Meanwhile an elevated level of policy-related economic uncertainty prevails; investors have little confidence that impending government actions will work.

“It’s a little bit spooky how disengaged the two have been to each other,” said Lisa Emsbo-Mattingly, Fidelity Investment’s global asset allocation director of research, at the International Economic Forum of the Americas on June 12.

While it seems the world is heading for a period of synchronized economic growth, geopolitics—or non-market factors—such as aging populations and rising inequality remain headwinds.

Diversification has always been critical for investors to smooth market ups and downs on a path to achieving financial goals. In times of market stress, asset prices tend to move together (increased correlation) and it becomes costly to change a portfolio’s investment mix due to greater costs for buying and selling (worse liquidity).

Domestic Focus

With globalization having distributed economic growth toward emerging and frontier markets, the U.S. hegemony has been eroded, said Marko Papic, senior vice president of Geopolitical Strategy at BCA Research, a 68-year-old Montreal-based independent investment firm.

“We know from history, when more countries get to say and pursue what they want, it is a less stable world,” Papic said. “Today we have the highest number of conflicts going on at the same time.”

China has its eye on filling the void left by the United States as the post-Cold War order crumbles. Under Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the United States can no longer be a reliable partner.

Knowing what’s going on in China now is more important than ever.

— Paul Podolsky, partner, Bridgewater Associates

And Canada intends to play a bigger role on the international stage, based on recent comments from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“We worry that East Asia will be the powder keg of the 21st century,” Papic said. Chinese and American economic symbiosis is tenuous at best.

In a more multi-polar world, Papic argues that it will be smaller and medium-sized businesses that will benefit relative to the large multinationals that prospered as globalization took hold.

“Any economy, sector, or particular stock that derives most of its final demand from within the jurisdiction in which it is domiciled will be the [investment] theme of the next 15 to 20 years,” Papic said.

The China Factor

“Swings in the global economy come from the swings in China’s economy,” said Paul Podolsky, a partner at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates.

China’s boom came from its cheap cost of plentiful labor; however, that’s less true today than it used to be. Its more recent rapid buildup of debt has propped up the world economy.

The issue is that plenty of economies—Canada, South Africa, Australia, Brazil—depend on China’s continuing to operate a credit-driven economic model. However, if the Chinese authorities are able to pull off the difficult transition away from a debt-fuelled investment model toward a domestic consumption model, it will be painful for emerging markets and commodity-driven economies. But China will benefit in the long run.

“Their domestic economy, that really needs to be resolved before they start thinking about global domination,” Papic said about China, whose 19th communist party congress takes place in the fall.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) revised its forecast for Chinese GDP to grow 6.7 percent in 2017. This is up from a prior estimate of 6.6 percent. Chinese credit growth slowed in May under the tighter supervision of policy-makers.

We worry that East Asia will be the powder keg of the 21st century.

— Marko Papic, senior vice president, Geopolitical Strategy, BCA Research

“Knowing what’s going on in China now is more important than ever,” Podolsky said. He added that the short-term prognosis for China looks good—at least the rapid debt buildup is denominated in its own currency, of which more can be printed.

Specter of Inflation

As globalization grew, production moved to cheaper sources of labor—China and emerging markets. Among the reasons the populist wave rose is the failure of globalization to boost incomes for the middle class in developed world nations like the United States and United Kingdom.

Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, has targeted helping the middle class in his two budgets. “We need to deal with the sense of anxiety people are facing,” he said in discussing the rejection of the status quo seen by the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election, and the Liberals returning to power in Canada in 2015.

As the global economy moves away from peak globalization, an upside risk for inflation develops. If free movement of capital and labor is restricted, supply is more costly to produce, resulting in higher prices.

“Our view is that we are exiting a deflationary period and entering an inflationary one slowly but surely,” Papic said. “And then gold will realize its role as a safe haven.”

U.S. stock markets have been in a “Goldilocks” scenario, supported by low interest rates, low inflation, good corporate earnings, and a low threat of an imminent recession.

“I would not say there’s a lot of complacency in the market. The VIX is reflecting a very exuberant market,” Emsbo-Mattingly said, adding that the recovery emanated from a Chinese recovery, which has been good for cyclical stocks globally.

“My concern is we’re at peak valuations, peak growth. A lot of things are as good as they’re going to get,” Emsbo-Mattingly said.

Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETBiz

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A sign hangs on One Chase Plaza in lower Manhattan on Oct. 14, 2014 in New York City. The iconic building is owned by a Chinese private equity firm as part of its overseas investment strategy.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)A sign hangs on One Chase Plaza in lower Manhattan on Oct. 14, 2014 in New York City. The iconic building is owned by a Chinese private equity firm as part of its overseas investment strategy.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Chinese investments in the United States reached a new record level of $18.4 billion in the first half of 2016, up three times compared to the same period last year, and even higher than all of last year ($15.3 billion).

Strong mergers and acquisitions activity accounted for the majority of the incoming Chinese capital, said research firm Rhodium Group.

With the stock market crash in China that began in June 2015, the flow of outbound investment from China to the rest of the world soared. With growing uncertainty about exchange rates and the economic and political outlook, investors are seeking to stash away capital in safe havens like the United States.

“The rapid growth of Chinese outbound (Foreign Direct Investment) FDI in the first half of 2016 has triggered political reactions both in China and host economies,” Rhodium stated.

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This capital flight has led to a further deepening of FDI deficit in China’s balance of payments. So Chinese regulators are increasing their scrutiny of outbound investment transactions.

“China’s leadership continues to pledge its commitment to further external liberalization, but concerns about capital outflows have clearly grown and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) and other regulators have taken informal steps in recent months to ‘manage’ the outflow of foreign exchange,” the research firm said.

The appetite of private Chinese companies for U.S. investments remains high.

—  Rhodium Group

This has increased concerns about the ability of Chinese companies to close deals, driving up risk premiums and reverse break fees for Chinese buyers.

A sharp uptick in the Chinese deal-making activity in the United States is also keeping U.S. regulators busy.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), reviews foreign acquisitions for national security threats and China for the last few years has been in the top spot for covered transactions (transactions that result or could result in control of a U.S. business by a foreign person).

A number of transactions have run into delays because of CFIUS and other regulatory reviews including Syngenta, Ironshore, Fidelity & Guaranty Life, according to the Rhodium report.

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Strategic Versus Financial Investments

The Chinese investments in the United States in 2016 were spread across a wide range of sectors including entertainment, consumer products and services, technology, and automotive.

Besides M&A activity, Greenfield projects, where companies start building their operations from scratch, were also strong, driven by capital-intensive projects in real estate and manufacturing.

More than 80 percent of all Chinese FDI transactions in the United States in 2016 are considered as strategic investments (firms investing in their core areas of business). The largest strategic investment was Haier’s acquisition of GE’s home appliances business for $5.6 billion, in consumer products sector. And the second largest was Wanda’s purchase of Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion, in the entertainment sector.

Other sectors attracting large investments include information and communication technologies (acquisition of Omnivision Technologies by a Chinese consortium for $1.9 billion) and automotive (Ningbo Joyson’s acquisition of Key Safety Systems for $920 million).

Financial investments (investments for financial returns) amounted to $3.5 billion, or 20 percent of total investment in 2016, according to Rhodium. Most of them were driven by private investors buying commercial real estate assets in major coastal cities.

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Outlook

The value of announced but not yet completed Chinese investments was still close to an all-time high of $33 billion at the end of June 2016, according to the report. Major M&A transactions include HNA Group’s $6 billion bid for technology distributor Ingram Micro, Anbang’s $6.5 billion acquisition of Strategic Hotels & Resorts, and Apex Technology’s acquisition of Lexmark for $3.6 billion.

There are also pending investment in real estate development projects in New York and California.

“The appetite of private Chinese companies for U.S. investments remains high. … It is reasonable to assume that recent geopolitical shocks (Brexit) and related USD strength will aggravate capital outflows in coming months,” Rhodium said.

“This makes it likely that regulators will continue or even increase scrutiny of outbound FDI transactions, particularly for deals involving large amounts of foreign exchange and those with a financial nature.”

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China’s ghost cities are good evidence that China has wasted trillions of dollars in investment spending. But are they really?
Apart from a few nice photographs of empty streets and shopping malls, it’s hard to find actual data for this phenomenon. Until recently, when the World Bank came out with a report about urbanization in Asia.
The findings: Yes, China has wasted trillions on unused urbanization projects, although 131 million people changed from rural to urban from 2000-2010.
The overall population density in urban areas in China remained stable over the period, but it is very unevenly distributed across the different urban centers, according to an analysis by PEW Research Center, based on the World Bank report. 
(Source: PEW Research Center)
Beijing for example increased in population density while around 50 cities added land and actually lost people, according to the PEW Research Center. This happened in only one other urban region in the whole East Asia, where most urban centers became more dense. 
In total, 62 percent of the urban areas with more than 100,000 people became less dense, compared to 9 percent in the rest of East Asia.
“Despite the huge growth in its urban population, China’s urban population density (5,300 people per square kilometer in 2010) remained stable, and lower than the average for the region because of the accompanying rapid urban spatial expansion as well as barriers to migration,” states the World Bank report.
Increase of urban land in square kilometers (World Bank)
And this does not even include completely empty cities like Ordos City in inner Mongolia.
“While anecdotal and photographic evidence shows that these cities feel virtually empty, their populations are often too small to appear in the World Bank data, or they are considered parts of larger urban areas,” the PEW Research Center analysis states.
What does this all mean? Yes, China has moved a large portion of its people to the cities, increasing their productivity and keeping population density low at the same time.
However, by centrally planning the whole operation, rather than letting it happen naturally, China has wasted trillions in investment spending on infrastructure and houses on places where nobody wants to live. Proof of a bad investment.
 

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