Thursday, March 29, 2007

Letters from Bukit Timah / Frags of our Brothers

I was fortunate to be invited to attend a talk by Singapore's eminent economist, Dr Tan Kee Wee. Dr Tan is the Lilian Too of investors: while Lilian tells you what the stars have to say about the future economy, Dr Tan is more "specific" and "down to earth" in his speculations... i.e. he builds and uses econometric models to predict the future. In a nutshell, Dr Tan might be what you describe as a macroeconomic fortune teller.

Dr Tan's presentations are titled Investment Outlook Seminars and he has been doing them for a long while - Singaporean investors do listen to this sage and act upon his advice. However, what Dr Tan really does well is not tell people what to invest in; what he's good at is in explaining the intricate links between macroeconomic forces and current affairs, and why the world is in the funk it is in because of whose actions. It is a Macroeconomics 101 class that is a tour-de-force through the world shaping economic events of this century.

To illustrate his presentation, he uses movie themes. His theme this time round was inspired by Clint Eastwood's WW2 opus: Letters from Iwo Jima (which follows Flags of Our Fathers). With tongue firmly in cheek (Ed Note: I hate this phrase, but it is just so apt), Dr Tan titles his presentation 'Letters from Bukit Timah'. Following from here, I shall talk about what I understood of Dr Tan's presentation (which was interesting, humorous and a macro refresher for myself).

2006 was a year marked by a further ascent in the Chinese and Indian economies. In effect, the rise of the 2 nations are part of a bigger force known as Globalisation. As with any world moving force, there are both winners and losers in its wake. The winners are your i-bankers and MNC CEOs, who are laughing all the way to the bank because they can all buy low and sell high, that all-important principle. The losers are actually the low wage earners and workers of this world. While productivity has improved, wages have not followed suit. Tough luck workers.

Global Liquidity

Why has the world been able to globalise? It is all due to a phenomenon known as Global Liquidity (see this article to understand what it is; see this blog to know why it's a big deal). in a nutshell, global liquidity results in the world being flushed with too much money (none of which is going to people like you and I though). There were two factors that led to this situation:

1. The sinking of the Nikkei index - the Japanese economy tanked in the early 1990s (from its 40,000 high) and never recovered since then. What the central bank of Japan did was to lower interest rates in response, in the hope of stimulating entrepreneurship and investments (FDI). These macroeconomists all think we are motivated by borrowing rates: the lower it is, the more enticed we are to borrow money to start a business. However, what the lowered interest rates resulted in was a practise known as carry trade, whereby Morgan Stanleyish hawks borrowed in yen (cheaply, because the interest rate is low in Japan) and lend the borrowed funds in a high-interest currency, like perhaps the USD (at that point).

2. The dot-com crash - this had an effect because Alan Greenspan, at that time still Chairman of the Federal Reserves, decided to lower interest rates in the U.S. as well. For what reason? See factor number 1. What Greenspan inadvertently caused though was to make money 'cheap'. With borrowing rates low, the multiplier effect does its part in making more money available in the financial world.

To curb the effects that his action has caused, Greenspan has raised the rates again (this as of 2005 I think), but the effect of that won't be felt until much later. Therefore, the world as it is now is still enjoying (or suffering, depending on your point of view) the effects of global liquidity.

So what happens with money being so liquid is that the developing countries of the world, particularly your biggies like China and India, have a whole lot of USD in their pockets. A country like China is scared to be holding on to too much USD though. Why? Because buying too much USD with RMB will cause the RMB to rise, which will make its goods expensive, which will lower its exports, which means less income (ad infinitum as macroeconomic reasoning goes). So China uses its USD to buy US treasury bonds: low yield but stable returns. This is what every other emerging Asian economy does with its USD, to peg its currency artificially to the USD without causing its goods to cost more. Local Asian banks can thus keep their mortgage rate low and trigger what? You guessed it: property speculation (but that's another story...)

The Dominant Currency and Why no Hyperinflation

Come now to 2007 and we all start wondering why doomsday theorists all think this liquidity is supposedly a bad think. They naysaying economists all say so because too much money leads to that unhealthy economic phenomenon known as hyperinflation (my view of hyperinflation is that it is what makes the money we own as good as toilet paper, and I am not being lyrical here). However, we have not seen hyperinflation occur: Dr Tan says this is because all the money is being held by the ultra-rich (hence we are all not rich; hence we don't over-buy stuff and raise the demand curve; hence prices don't rise; ad infinitum reasoning ala macroeconomic theorists).

So... while there won't likely be hyperinflation (and you can bet your pants that the Fed will do all it can to prevent this by...... raising interest rates), there also won't be an alternative currency emerging anytime soon. The currency of the world is the USD.

Do you know why? Wow, Dr Tan's explanation of this conspiracy (it IS a conspiracy I tell you) totally blew me away. First thing you need to know was that, following WW2, the Bretton Woods Conference resulted in exchange rates around the world to be pegged to the USD, which was at that time based on the gold standard (i.e. you can buy USD and use it, at that time, to exchange for a fixed amount of gold... from Fort Knox I assume). What this did was to make the USD stable as a currency of choice: the European central banks love it, the Colombian drug barons love it even more.

The subsequent collapse of the gold standard and depegging of currencies did not diminish the dominance of the USD though: this was because another some Republican president had, by that time, convinced Saudi Arabia (and subsequently all of OPEC) to sell its oil in USD, and in USD solely. What to do? The oil-producing nations only want USD for their oil, therefore the economies of the world have to hoard USD to buy oil.

Okay, enough of a diversion into the USD as dominant currency. Serious contenders to this useless throne have been the Euro and, previously, the Yen. There might come a day though when the Chinese Yuan may prove to be THE world currency, but that won't be anytime soon (they don't want it either).

Bad for US, Good for ROW (Rest of the World)

So Dr Tan gazes into his crystal ball of an econometric model (200-300 equations of it; according to him, central bank models have >500 equations in their simulations). He predicts that a recession will hit the US in the 3rd quarter of 2007. To most economists, the recession has been looming for long enough: a treasury bond yield curve inversion has been observed for the last one year (see this article for an explanation of the power of this indicator). It is inevitable that it will happen sometime this year.

However, unlike the previous US recessions, emerging economies won't suffer alongside. Why? Because the US is no longer the main market for their goods and services. The world has shifted from doing business with the US to doing business with China and India. Most world trade is nowadays transacted with the Chinese and the Indians. Therefore, a US recession is unlikely to have the same repercussions as before.

On Singapore, Dr Tan says 'go for the champions'. The champs are your pharmaceuticals, financial services firms, building and construction firms (he always says there is a housing bubble building up... we're in the middle of a housing rush), the gaming industry (IR anyone?) and even something like the F1 (yay it's coming here!).

Sidetrack: Do you know that the Singapore economy is engineered to encourage you to SPEND? Spending stimulates the economy and it is what keeps a recession at bay (Macroeconomics 101 stuff). However, there are artificially designed laws which makes us spenders on a cyclical basis: COEs, which make a new car old every 10 years means that you WILL buy a car every decade; en-bloc sales, whereby property values will reach an optimum point every 30 years, this means property must be sold after 30 years (or it will depreciate). The Gahmen... it is very smart indeed.


Dr Tan also thinks that there will be war in 2007. Who vs who? This is too easy: the US will attack Iran. (yup, this is starting to sound like a coffeehouse chat, but it REALLY is an economist giving his predictions here).

The big event of 2007 will be the US attacking Iran. The reasons?

1. Iran might have capability to develop nuclear weapons / it has too much influence over Iraq (civil war) / it can choke the Hormuz Straits etc. These are all very familiar doomsday theories which all have their inkling of truth.

2. The more wild reason is that the US wants to do that to protect the USD. Again I was floored by the reasoning, but it made some sense. Oil is sold in USD but there have been detractors in recent history. Prior to the 2nd Iraqi war, Baghdad started to sell oil in Euros. Of course, they got invaded and went back to the USD market.

Teheran has decided of late that it also wants to set up a euro-based oil exchange. This caused alarm bells to go off in Washington, leading to calls for an overthrow of the regime (and here we all think it's all cos the Americans are anti-Islamist).

But why protect the USD? Dr Tan's macroeconomic brain goes into overdrive at this point and explains how the US actually taxes the world economy through the depreciation of the USD. At this point, I thought it was a little too cheem to understand (and google / wikipedia aren't helping here, so I'll save the theory for examination another day).

So... do look forward to the next couple of months to be an interesting time in the Gulf: plenty of missiles in the sky, for sure.

Buy and Sell

Finally, Dr Tan gets to the part where all the crusty Singaporean uncles in the room wake up and prick up their ears: what to do and when.

Dr Tan says:

1. Don't hold the USD... it is going to weaken.

2. Gold is good. Buy gold. It is cheap and it won't depreciate crazily like that stupid paper called money.

3. If you can buy uranium, go buy and hoard it. Prices will go up. (So will your radioactivity and geiger meter count)

4. Buy bonds. But be careful what bonds you buy cos there're a lot of junk bonds floating around. Avoid these. SG government bonds are good though (even with the crappy return)

5. Avoid US stocks - they are weakening. Uncle Sam is like the plague. Buy Chinese stocks. Buy Indian stocks. The stock exchange indices are on a path to the moon and are not looking back (yet). So buy these. In Singapore, go buy trusty Singtel: Dr Tan says it should hit 4 bucks end of the year.

6. Only buy high-end property, not your crappy HDB flat. Also, avoid ulu places like Seng Kang and Yew Tee: they won't be going en bloc in your lifetime, guaranteed. Always always always (and always) look for condos with en bloc potential.

7. And finally... in summary, Sell in March, Buy in June.

And so concludes Dr Tan's investment outlook.

1. Lilian Too is a famous geomancer in Malaysia who popularised the art of Feng Shui. She's also an astute businesswoman who profits from selling (IMHO useless) knick-knacks to boost your luck.
2. You can listen to a podcast of an earlier presentation of the same information at this website.
3. Dr Tan's profile and other information regarding his presentation can be found here.
4. Some of the views expressed here are my own and not Dr Tan Kee Wee's. However, all failed attempts at dramatization are Dr Tan's fault - wah lau... don't you think it's corny that he called his talk 'Letters from Bukit Timah'?


hallonman said...

At the risk of being overly serious, something I'd never be on my own blog: Ilian covered the US "taxation" of the world economy, so have a look at the Macro notes if you want to follow up on it.


Anonymous said...

hey!nice blog. I have no time to go through it! By the way who are you and do you like anime?
I am zanat0s- feel free to contact me about this form of art!

greyscalefuzz said...

Hallonman: thanks for the tip. Unfortunately I have no access to Ilian's notes: think he didn't teach my promotion (Dec 06). It is an intriguing topic nonetheless, and I'm going to follow up on it when I have the time.

Zanatos: heya, yup I do love anime. I'm a Dec 06er who spent most of his time in SG as well. Perhaps we can catch up sometime to talk about anime. Cheers!