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HOT REPORT CARD

Takeaway: HOT - we like it

In an effort to evaluate performance and as a follow up to our YouTube, we compare how the quarter measured up to previous management commentary and guidance

 

 

OVERALL:  

 

BETTER - Despite selling 4 assets YTD and some FX headwinds, HOT slightly raised guidance on its core business.  Bal Harbour sales greatly exceeded expectations.  HOT maintains that it will return excess cash to shareholders and that debt levels will not be reduced further

 

HOT REPORT CARD - h34

 

 

US LODGING OUTLOOK

  • BETTER:  Customers and developers are confident.  HOT remains upbeat on the US economy. Sequester has not had an impact given it's less 2% of its business.  HOT expects Q2 and 2013 US REVPAR to be in the high end of its 5-7% guidance range.
  • PREVIOUSLY: "Business activity continues to rise but with very few new build hotels coming on stream. So occupancies remain at near peak levels. If the U.S. economy continues on this trajectory, the basic laws of supply and demand suggest that we'll see strong growth in room rates for the next few years."

CORPORATE BUSINESS

  • SAME:  Transient rates are up over 5%.  Group business continued to pace in the mid-single digits.  
  • PREVIOUSLY: "Corporate and retail transient momentum is strong. Rooms sold in opaque channels are declining improving rate realization. Group pace is tracking in the mid-single digits for the year.  Group business in the cycle has come back slowly but steadily and companies remain careful about growing their cost base." 

LATIN AMERICA/CENTRAL AMERICA

  • SAME:  1Q was similar to 4Q.  Mexico was strong (+10% REVPAR) but Argentina woes continue (-15% REVPAR).  Local inflation has significantly slowed travel into Argentina.  HOT expects Latin America to remain challenged in the near-term due to Argentina.
  • PREVIOUSLY:  "Business travel in Mexico is up, and American leisure travel is coming back. We expect Mexico to be the engine of Latin American growth for us in 2013. At the other end of the spectrum is Argentina, where we have two large owned hotels. Argentina REVPAR is declining while local inflation hits 25%, squeezing our margins. The inflation devaluation gap is hurting Argentina's competitiveness, and hitting exports and travel. This is only likely to get worse until the devaluation resets the equation. Brazil hit a soft spot as China slowed, but is now recovering."

CHINA

  • WORSE:  REVPAR was up 5.4% (local currency), an acceleration from flat growth in Q4; Beijing was particularly soft, given its government exposure.  Southern China 1Q REVPAR was up 10%.  Q1 results in-line with its long-term outlook on China.  HOT expects China REVPAR to grow in the middle of the 5-7% guidance range for Q2 and FY 2013 from prior guidance of being at the high end of that range. 
  • PREVIOUSLY:  "With that behind us, we're seeing demand pick up as government activity starts to resume and business returns to normal....In January, Chinese REVPAR was up 6%. The transition is still ongoing with significant meetings coming up in March when the new leadership formally takes over at multiple levels and new policies are announced. As such we expect the rate of growth to pick up as the year progresses and year-over-year comparisons also become easier."

EUROPE 

  • SAME:  Q1 REVPAR was soft (-1.3% in local currency), largely due to weakness in London, suggesting possible oversupply post Olympics.  Ex London, Europe was flat.  Southern Europe saw growth.  Groups are smaller and booking later.  1Q is not really a material quarter for Europe to its tough to extrapolate trends. HOT continues to expect Europe to exhibit modest (2-3%) REVPAR growth in Q2, but below its 5-7% worldwide guidance range.
  • PREVIOUSLY:  "Europe remained at a stalemate during 2012 and we're not expecting much different in 2013, even though southern European bond spreads suggest rising confidence."

SG&A

  • BETTER:  SG&A was 6% lower in 1Q.  They only spent $4MM of the $10MM severance costs guided for Q1. Higher costs are expected for the rest of the year.  HOT maintained its +3-5% SG&A guidance.
  • PREVIOUSLY: "In Q4 and into Q1, we have been making additional adjustments, incurring some severance cost of approximately $9 million in Q4 and potentially another $10 million in Q1. These costs are included in our SG&A growth estimate of 3% to 5% for 2013."

TIMESHARE

  • BETTER:  Vacation ownership is expected to generate ~$175MM in cash flow in FY2013 excluding Bal Harbour, up from prior guidance of $150MM for 2013. 
  • PREVIOUSLY: "In the last four years, we've generated almost $800 million in cash from the timeshare business, expect to do another $150 million to $200 million this year. So, we would have $1 billion in cash coming out of our timeshare business over the last five years. So we're running that business more for cash than earnings growth, and that has worked very well for us." 

BAL HARBOUR

  • BETTER:  HOT raised its Bal Harbour cash flow forecast from $100MM to $150MM for FY2013. 86% of the residences have been sold and only 40 units remain.  HOT expects to completely sell out by the end of the year.
  • PREVIOUSLY:  "Bal Harbour, $460 million in cash last year, more cash this year. That's gone from being a place where we were putting money in to finish the project to significant amounts of cash coming out of it. That'll all be done this year in 2013, we hope to finish, sell out this year."

VACATION OWNERSHIP CONTRACTS

  • SAME:  Originated contract sales of vacation ownership intervals and the number of contracts signed were flat compared to 2012.
  • PREVIOUSLY: "Our Vacation Ownership business, we're assuming that we will maintain a flat business"

 


HOT 1Q13 CONF CALL NOTES

Takeaway: We like hotels generally and HOT specifically due to our outlook for more asset sales and share repurchases

Solid quarter and higher guidance. We still think the numbers are conservative

 


"Overall, the global lodging recovery continues along the trend lines we’ve been seeing. Tight supply is driving higher room rates in North America, and our footprint continues to expand in the growing economies. We are seeing more interest among real estate buyers for both vacation ownership and our owned hotels"

 

- Frits van Paasschen, CEO

 

 

CONF CALL NOTES

  • Business is doing better than they expected across the board
  • They expect to complete the sell-out of BH this year. Only 40 units left.
  • In China business is generally picking up, 1Q RevPAR was up over 5%.  Results were soft in Beijing as it was more dependent on government business.  The government transition is not complete until March.  Meanwhile, across markets in the south, RevPAR was up nearly 10%.  The quarter's trends were in-line with the long-term trend HOT sees in China
  • Revenue grew by nearly 6% elsewhere in Asia. India was slower, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia were strong. Smart capital in India is moving to convert their brands.
  • 1Q European RevPAR was flat, ex London.  Weak start in London, suggesting oversupply post Olympics. Q1 is the off-season in Europe so its hard to draw conclusions for the full year based on these results. 
  • Argentina mess is spilling into Uruguay
  • North America RevPAR was up 6% and ex Canada up 7%
  • Government travel is about 2% of their business so the sequester is less of drag on their business 
  • Africa & the ME - RevPAR up over 7%. Business there is good. 
  • After their time in China, they increased occupancy by 6 percentage points in 2012 alone.  HOT doubled the number of SPG active members and SPG now accounts for 55% of our occupancy.  They grew outbound travel from China to their hotels globally by 52%.  And since the relocation, they've signed 54 deals, meaning our pace of signings is up by about 40%.  And 45 hotels have opened.

  • Hope to derive 80% of their profits from fees by 2016 by selling more assets
  • Will not reduce debt further and will use FCF to invest in high ROI investments and the balance will be returned to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends.
  • Transient rate was up over 5% in the quarter. Hawaii was particulary strong, N.E was weaker. Expect that NA will come in at the high end of their guidance range.
  • Group pace continues to pace along in the mid single digits. NA will remain their strongest region in 2013.
  • Expect modest RevPAR growth in Europe in 2Q.  Companies are watching their costs, groups are smaller and bookings are closer in. No signs that things are improving right now. 
  • China: As expected they saw business pick up in Q1. RevPAR increased 5.4% in 1Q in constant currency. New government has been asking officials to reign in their spending and lifestyles.  Harder hit are the north and western regions. Some impact from bird flu in the Shanghai region. They are monitoring the situation closely. Believe that new supply will be absorbed in the next 9-12 months. Expect China to be at the midpoint of their 5-7% guidance.
  • They will begin to break out greater China in their releases going forward
  • Impact on travel into Japan from North and South Korea issues
  • India remains sluggish but sequentially better
  • A&ME was the fastest growing region in 1Q.  UEA is booming with RevPAR growth of 14%.  Egypt was up 30% in the Q. Expect these trends to conitnue in 2Q.
  • Latin America was dragged down by Argentina which was down 27%. Argentina accounts from 15% of owned RevPAR.  Mexico was up 10% as US guests return. Expect LA growth to remain challenged in 2Q.
  • Owned portfolio: Impacted by Argentina. US owned hotels and in particulary Bal Harbor results were very strong. YTD they have sold an additional 4 hotels which will reduce earnings by $8MM from guidance given in 4Q. 
  • VOI: trends remain stable. Resort business was up sharply.  Cash flow from this business remain strong. 
  • Adding inventory in Orlando
  • Bal Harbour significantly exceeded their expectations. 
  • SG&A was down YoY, reduced costs due to restructuring and easy comps. Some of the severance costs and other costs were delayed this year. They incurred $4MM of severance so far vs. prior guidance of $10MM
  • Japan headwinds impacted FX

 

Q&A

  • Were buyers earlier in the Q when the stock was under $60. They are opportunistic buyers of their stock.
  • Why did HOT's RevPAR in China materially outperform Smith travel numbers in China?
    • Geographic mix and they generally outperform the index with their brand. Mix of new hotels also helps.
  • Overall M&A environment: It's still a lumpy market on the UUP and Luxury asset side. Qualitatively, there is more interest than 12 months ago. Sense is that volume should continue to pick up.  They are still not seeing an active market for large portfolio sales (> $1BN), still a ones and two's market.
  • They do have the ability to sell most of their European assets and distribute that cash efficiently to shareholders. They have no cash trapped in Europe now. They should have no issues repatriating cash from asset sales.
    • Can structure sales as either asset sales or stock sales
  • VOI:  By having scaled back their business they have very favorable IRR's that nicely exceed WACC. Happy to keep the business in their portfolio given the cash flow generation and the syngeries. For example, they are moving the Westin St John's into VOI. More efficient than an asset sale
  • They have worked on their assets to make them ready for sale. In theory, they can achieve their asset sale targets before 2016 but it just depends
  • Regarding their buyback activity, look to past behavior as an indicator of future activity
  • US is better than they expected RevPAR wise. Trending at high end or netter in 2Q bc of holiday shift. China is a little softer. Europe is really unchanged - still projecting 2-3% growth since 1Q doesn't really matter.
  • Any impact from air traffic furlough from last week.  Think its was brief enough that they did not see an impact
  • Incentive fees: 60% of SS mgmt properties are paying incentive and about 75% outside the US. In the US, it's in the 30% range. 
  • Outside of group business, their visibility is somewhat limited 
  • Have some modest FX headwinds from Japan and Canadian and AU impact is also negative... all in to the tune of $3-4MM. They may also have some more severance charges. SG&A is also fairly lumpy.
  • In some cases they have a preferred time to sell due to tax issues or the need for renovations
  • Group Pace: low to mid single digit pace - same as before

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE RELEASE

 

HOT 1Q13 CONF CALL NOTES - H1

 

HOT 1Q13 CONF CALL NOTES - H2

  • Adjusted EBITDA was $315 million, which included $58 million of EBITDA from the St. Regis Bal Harbour residential project
  • Worldwide Systemwide REVPAR for Same-Store Hotels increased 5.0% in constant dollars (4.6%
    in actual dollars).... Systemwide REVPAR for Same-Store Hotels in North America increased 6.2% in constant dollars (6.2% in actual dollars).
  • In 1Q13, HOT "signed 26 hotel management and franchise contracts, representing approximately 6,200 rooms, and opened 18 hotels and resorts with approximately 4,000 rooms"
    • 20 are new builds and 6 are conversions from other brands. 
  • At March 31, 2013, the Company had approximately 400 hotels in the active pipeline (~100,000 rooms)
  • Special items... totaled a charge of $5 million (after-tax), included a loss of $8 million (pre-tax), primarily related to the sale of three wholly-owned hotels.
  • Excluding special items, the effective income tax rate in the first quarter of 2013 was 31.3%
  • Net income... included a tax benefit of $70 million, in discontinued operations, as a result of the reversal of a reserve associated with an uncertain tax position related to a previous disposition. The applicable statute of limitation for this tax position lapsed during the first quarter of 2013.
  • During the first quarter of 2013, 18 new hotels and resorts (representing approximately 4,000 rooms)
    entered the system.... five properties (representing approximately 900 rooms) were removed from the system.
  • Excluding owned hotels in Argentina, REVPAR at Worldwide Owned Hotels increased 5.3% in constant dollars (4.9% in actual dollars).  Excluding owned hotels in Argentina, internationally, REVPAR at owned hotels increased 4.2% in constant dollars (3.7% in actual dollars). REVPAR at owned hotels in Argentina decreased approximately 27% in constant dollars driven by economic instability in the country.  Excluding owned hotels in Argentina, margins increased by approximately 100 basis points.
  • Total vacation ownership revenues increased... primarily due to increased revenues from resort operations, the transfer of the Westin St. John from owned hotel revenues to vacation ownership revenues, and a favorable adjustment to loan loss reserves. 
  • Originated contract sales of vacation ownership intervals and the number of contracts signed were flat... The average price per vacation ownership unit sold increased 0.5% to approximately $16,200, driven by inventory mix.
  • HOT's residential revenues were $132 million.... realized residential revenues from Bal Harbour of $129 million and generated EBITDA of $58 million. During the first quarter of 2013, the Company closed sales of 38 units at Bal Harbour and realized incremental cash proceeds of $127 million associated with these units. From project inception through March 31, 2013, the Company has closed contracts on approximately 86% of the total residential units available at Bal Harbour and realized residential revenue of $939 million and EBITDA of $219 million. 
  • SG&A decreased ... primarily due to organizational changes in the second half of 2012 and non-recurring professional expenses recorded in the prior year. The Company continues to target a 3-5% increase for the full year.
    During the first quarter of 2013, the Company completed certain changes to its organizational structures
    in the Americas division. The Company recorded an expense for severance costs of approximately $4
    million associated with these changes.
  • Gross capital spending during the quarter included approximately $17 million of maintenance capital and
    $81 million of development capital
  • During 1Q13, HOT  completed the sales of three hotels; the Aloft and Element hotels in Lexington, Massachusetts and the W New Orleans - French Quarter for cash proceeds of approximately $61MM. These hotels were sold subject to either long-term management or franchise contracts. The Company recorded a loss of $8MM associated with these sales. In addition, following the end of the first quarter the Company completed the sale of the W New Orleans for cash proceeds of approximately $65MM.
  • In 1Q13 and through April 5, 2013, HOT repurchased nearly 1MM shares at a total cost of ~$56MM and a weighted average price of $59.35 per share. As of April 5, 2013, approximately $624MM remained available under the Company’s share repurchase authorization
  • At March 31, 2013, HOT had gross debt of $1.275 billion, cash and cash equivalents of $529 million (including $142 million of restricted cash)... including $472 million of debt and $20 million of restricted cash associated with securitized vacation ownership notes receivable, was $1.198 billion.

Down With The Euro

The Euro broke our TAIL line of support at 1.316 this morning and is capable of further downside, particularly if a rate cut is enacted by European Central Bank Chief Mario Draghi. All eyes remain on Europe and its de facto currency as the US dollar appreciates in value against it.

 

Down With The Euro - FXE ytd


Early Look

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Argentina: Teaching Us A Lesson

Argentina has one of the best performing equity markets in the world. Over the last twelve months, their Merval Index (Argentina’s equivalent of the S&P 500) has put up +67.9% in gains as the value of the Argentine Peso (we are bearish on the currency) plunges against the value of the US dollar.

 

Argentina: Teaching Us A Lesson - Equities YoY

 

While the country’s stock market is on fire compared to America, the country’s underlying economic situation leaves much to be desired. In fact, much of the equity market strength is being driven by strict capital controls and fear of eventual public confiscation of household deposits. Last week, Argentina turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $400 million cash deposit in order to increase their allocation to an emergency line of credit of sorts. Though the country had $39.8 billion in reserves, Argentina is drawing on those funds for bond repayments ($30 billion since 2010) and it just hit a six-year low. Essentially, the country is fiscally under the gun and will remain in a tough spot as long as Cristina Fernandez is president.

 

Argentina: Teaching Us A Lesson - FX YoY


BWLD: WINGS NEED TO BE CLIPPED

Buffalo Wild Wings reported a disappointing quarter last night with EPS coming in at $0.87 versus consensus of $0.99.

 

Conclusion

 

We believe this stock is a short here ($90.20/share) as the company is expanding its new wings-per-portion serving practice. Despite the sequential comp acceleration from 1Q to April, we believe there are several overriding factors that will drag on the stock’s performance over the next 3-6 months:

  • The new service initiative (wings by weight) has been tested in only 40 stores and produced flat-to-down comps vs +1.4% co-op comps but is being rolled out to all co-op stores by end of June
  • Traffic was negative in 1Q (-290 bps), April (-130 bps excl Easter)
  • Flex pricing will likely materially impact guest experience (5 wings vs. 6, 10 vs. 12, etc.)
  • Consensus is expecting +1.2% and +1.6% traffic in 3Q and 4Q, respectively
  • Labor costs increasing due to training costs related to “guest experience model” (wings by weight)
  • Margins are likely going to deteriorate further from here
  • Wing prices declining will mitigate some margin pressure but labor pressure seems significant and if
  • Mgmt has no credibility when it comes to guidance after 2012
  • FY13 EPS growth guidance of +17% (unch’d from prior) is a Hail Mary after an 11% decline in 1Q13

 

Notable Earnings Call Quotes:

 

ON LABOR GUIDANCE OF +80 BPS FOR 2Q

 

“Well, I think we're just being cautionary.  We did see 80 basis points in the first quarter. We definitely have full attention to how we're rolling out this guest experience business model. And so we do believe that there is improvement to have on that as we go through the year. We're just not confident at this point in the second quarter on whether or not we'll see all of that. So we do think that for at least the near term an increase similar to Q1 is the most appropriate guidance.”

 

HEDGEYE: In response to an earlier question on guidance provided in February, management said, “We wouldn't have had a full view of our labor at the time that we did our February earnings call.” We would echo those sentiments with regard to labor for the balance of 2013. We believe the likelihood of management underestimating the impact of different initiatives on labor is high.  Examples include training staff to handle the flex pricing initiative, training an additional staff member as “guest experience captain”, etc. In 2012, management underestimated cost headwinds and we think labor is the 2013 iteration of that same mistake.

 

 

ON TEST MARKET REACTION AND EXPECTED CHANGE IN NUMBER OF WINGS PER SERVING

 

“Initially, same-store sales are flat to just slightly down. What the most important thing to the guest is to really understand how many wings they're getting... Well, we do plan to roll it with our July menu rollout and if wing sizes stay at the same place they are today, people would see a 5, 10, 15, 20 count as compared to the 6, 12, 18, 24. But if wing prices are different when we get to July, that could change – sizes, yes.”

 

HEDGEYE: What if the rollout across the system has a similar comp impact, in terms of the underlying trend? We expect that co-op comps in the back half of the year would be 2.5% and 2.9% for 3Q and 4Q, respectively. Consensus is modeling 3.3% and 3.6% for 3Q and 4Q co-op comp sales growth. Judging by the estimate of the serving portion size changes, outlined in the quote above, we expect this change to have a material impact on brand perception.

 

 

Earnings Recap

 

The table, below, provides an overview of the quarter’s key results versus what consensus was expecting.  Revenues came in ahead of expectations thanks to better-than-expected comps and April comparable sales growth is tracking at 5.2% versus the Street at 3.8%. An important caveat is that the Easter shift helped by 150 bps and price is running at 5% so traffic is down 130 bps.

 

BWLD: WINGS NEED TO BE CLIPPED - bwld recap

 

Howard Penney

Managing Director

 

Rory Green

Senior Analyst

 

 

 


China: Handle With Care

Takeaway: China: can the Forbidden Economy be rescued? One expert says Yes – but there’s work to be done.

Will China Break?

Hedgeye hosted a conference call on Monday with Dr. Carl Walter, author of Red Capitalism: The Fragile Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.  Dr. Walter received his PhD in political science from Stanford University, where he has now returned as a visiting scholar.  Dr. Walter spent two decades in Beijing in the investment banking sector, including a decade as chief executive officer of JPMorgan’s China banking subsidiary.  

 

Dr. Walter led off with his conclusion: in his opinion, China will not break.  But it may bend quite significantly.

 

Who’s In Charge?

While many in the West view China as a centralized one-party dictatorship, Dr. Walter says this is simplistic and wrong.  China’s consolidated power structure is made up of a complex web of interconnected entities, each with their own interest, and each with their own levers of power.  Dr. Walter compares the China of today to Europe.  Even though the nation is run by a central Party, much of the actual power is de-centralized across geographic and economic mini-centers.  

 

And Power is what it is all about.  The challenge every political official faces is, How to stay in power?  The answer in every case is, Create economic growth and do it in a way that reinforces social stability.  The average Western observer may not appreciate how delicate China’s social fabric feels.  If the head that wears a crown lies uneasy, imagine being one of a small cluster of crowned heads – all with competing interests – with 1.3 billion potentially dissatisfied subjects.  Clearly, it’s not all dumplings and wine at Central Party HQ.

 

Banking On It

The big banks are the pillar of China’s economic system, providing the funding that drives economic programs.  Individual Chinese do not deposit their money in small local banks, because they know local institutions are essentially powerless.  China’s five biggest banks hold over 60% of the nation’s deposits, with a more than equivalent share of influence.  

 

Policy makers pushed for greater corporate capital raising in recent years, in their efforts to stimulate growth.  The banks dominated the marketplace, but without a developed capital market, “capital expansion” was really expansion further into the banks’ balance sheets.  New bank loans accounted for over 85% of capital raised in 2009 – the peak year for corporate capital expansion, with over 11 billion reminbi (RMB) raised.  The balance was corporate bonds – zero equity capital was raised that year – and most of the bonds are, in turn, bought by the large banks.  Where does the money go?  

 

Seventy-five percent of corporate bonds are issued by State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), while 20% go to the financial platforms of a host of joint ventures and other private financial vehicles, much of it in connection with local economic programs.  Financing from private deposits is already used up, and there is little or no equity financing, making China’s economy look like the serpent that swallows its own tail.     

 

The drain on bank balance sheets is exacerbated by China’s rating agencies, which rate all corporate bond issues and corporate loans as investment grade.  These means the banks have to make only minimal loss provisions – or none at all – as they continue to expand outstanding credit to an ever-larger percentage of their asset base.

 

There is no liquid trading market for corporate bonds, which means the prices don’t fluctuate.  “Marking to market” can only happen if the market actually exists.  With no trading in the bonds, the prices don’t change, so banks don’t have to reflect lower asset values on their balance sheets.

 

Like any enclosed economic construct, this system functions perfectly well, until it doesn’t.

 

Bulls – And  Bears – In China’s Shop

The banks over-lent in the 1980s and were reined in during the 1990s, giving way to a brief inflationary period in the early 2000s, all while China’s central planners were trying to figure out how to best grow their economy to keep the largest numbers of citizens content.

 

Now the banks are lending but not generating economic growth.  The central authorities recognize that banking may no longer be the economic solution for China and the discussion now is about changing business models.

 

But to what?

 

Any business model requires fundamental underpinnings.  With the banks so dominant in China’s economy, Dr. Walter says corporate governance is a glaring weak point.

 

Even though the major banks are listed on the Hong Kong exchange, and even though they are subject to public company audits, Dr. Walter says the real management of the banks is not their boards of directors, but the Party committee.  In fact, until recently it was not even Beijing, but regional party committees who directed bank operations, as so much lending was tied to regional projects.  

 

In the past, local officials or Party cadres who wanted to advance their careers would lean on banks to over-lend locally to drive economic growth in their region.  In the 1980s, when the banks prepared to list on the Hong Kong exchange, control was centralized to Beijing.  In 2008, when the central Party announced their intention to lend in order to stimulate the economy, provincial party officials went into a feeding frenzy.  Local projects were proposed and approved left and right and, says Dr. Walter, “the banks lent like crazy.”  In this scenario, Beijing lost a significant amount of influence over the banking system even while nominally retaining control.

 

China still has far to go before it develops credible capital markets.  Dr. Walter calls China’s stock market an economic “afterthought.”  The stock markets were primarily a policy tool to permit China’s SOEs to incorporate and establish a presence and a valuation for their securities.  Out of tens of millions of trading accounts on China’s exchanges, only about 7% actually execute transactions.  

 

Where To Next?

China’s big banks are the economy.  This goes beyond Too Big To Fail.  The Chinese will not allow their big banks to fail.  When Lehman was put into bankruptcy, says Dr. Walter, the Chinese were flabbergasted.  They simply could not understand how the US government could allow a “flagship name” institution to fail.  Could it be, they wondered, the US was actually too weak to rescue a major investment bank?  

 

China will have a difficult time creating a financial marketplace.  Until it does, there will be no market discipline to accurately price its securities, bonds and loans, to attract serious inflows of foreign capital, or to drive growth.

 

Government policy has distorted the pricing of bank portfolios.  Currently, there is a 3% differential in yields between corporate loans and bonds.  Since the same entities that issue bonds also take out bank loans, there is no incentive to create a bond trading market.  The banks continue to dominate – or to be stuck with – the lion’s share of Chinese debt.  Chinese households own less than 5% of the nation’s bonds, while foreigners own less than 2%.  Despite noises from such potential buyers as Australia, there is no significant outside market to create accurate pricing or provide liquidity for China’s banks.

Without liquid markets, how do the banks stay afloat?  Remember that the bonds don’t trade – which means no liquidity for the banks (bad) – but it also means the price of the bonds in their portfolios never changes (good!)  Far better[easier] than issuing new bonds to pay off the old ones, China’s banks simply extend maturities – extend and pretend.

 

This is simply [at worst] unsustainable [and at best economically unhealthy].  All the more so as Chinese local governments and the SOEs turn out to be bad credit risks.  In the 1990s, says Dr. Walter, banks loans rose as high as 75% of GDP – and up to 25% of loans went bad.  Now, the level of problem loans has declined slightly – around 20% in 2010 – but total loans have soared to over 130% of GDP.

 

In the past decade, the more banks have loaned, the slower China’s economy has grown.  Lending has continued to flow to massive projects driven more by concerns over social stability than by economic justification.  Local debt continues to pile up – by some estimates it could be up to RMB 16 trillion today – a RMB 6 trillion increase over 2011 – on a current GDP of about RMB 45 trillion.  China has borrowed itself into a quagmire, by borrowing from itself for dubious projects.  It has perhaps not been more profligate in its misuse of debt than the West – indeed, Dr. Walter says a global economic recovery will [would] play a significant role in revitalizing China’s economy.  

 

Conclusion

China’s Party officials remain deeply concerned over potential civil unrest and will continue to focus on local economic programs.  But the country is already significantly overbuilt.  At the same time, economic inequality continues to grow. 

 

Some 300 million people have been brought up out of poverty in China in the last 20 years – but that leaves one billion people who have not.  Central Party officials and their hangers-on will continue to grow richer, as will those living and working in the prosperous coastal regions.  Dr. Walter expects the rest of the society to decline economically, leading to ever-greater inequality.  China’s aging population does not have Medicare or 401(K) accounts – they have only their savings – and less of a younger generation to rely on, thanks to years of the one child per family policy.  

 

The difficulty of establishing a consumer-based economy under these circumstances could pale next to a very real possibility of severe social problems, and possible social unrest, in the coming 3-5 years.  This has Party officials constantly looking over their shoulders.

 

Dr. Walter says China’s banks are not headed for collapse.  There are plenty of assets available to fill the gap left by an unreliable financial system.  But China does not have a good record on financial reform.  Its most significant players – the SOEs, the banks, and the local party organizations – are opposed to it, as each sees the current dysfunction as working to their advantage.  It will take ingenuity and cooperation and the forceful exercise of political authority to bring meaningful change, and the key to how well and how quickly the Chinese ship can be righted lies with the personalities at the center.  

Walter says Xi Jinping, the new General Secretary, is an excellent man for the job: he is outgoing, relaxed and confident in public, and has the support of the military.  But one man is not sufficient to change the course of the gargantuan ship of the Chinese state.  

 

Finally, China is a major piece of the global financial puzzle.  It will not recover on its own.  Its own recovery will be both a result of, and an influence on global economic trends.

 


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