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Daily Archives: May 16, 2008

Fortune misinterpreted Maddison’s China prediction

Fortune magazine has an interesting article titled "You have seven years to learn Mandarin", in which Geoff Colvin argues in 7 years (that's 2015), China will become a major competitor to the US in technology, finance; China will no longer relies on cheap exports. 
Colvin's argument is based on Angus Maddison's prediction that by 2015, China's GDP (in PPP term) will surpass the U.S.  The prediction itself is quite plausible, but technology and financial innovations are often tied to per capita income level and the quality of institutions, not solely on total GDP. China has 1.4 billion population, more than four times of the US, so when China's total GDP equals the US, the personal income level is just 1/4 of the American income, assuming no big change in population. Also, in just seven years, I can't imagine that China's institutions can be improved significantly.
Nonetheless, the analysis is interesting and generally shows the trend that China will regain its great world power in 21st century.

Forget cheap imports. China's rise will soon be a force on Wall Street and Main Street and in Silicon Valley.

(Fortune Magazine) — Back in 2001 when the International Olympic Committee chose Beijing as the site of this summer's games, the event was meant to mark China's debut as a player on the global economic stage. But a recent study by the economist Angus Maddison projects that China will become the world's dominant economic superpower much sooner than expected – not in 2050, but in 2015.

While short-term investors are already cashing in on China's growth by playing the global commodities boom, smart long-term thinkers are contemplating what happens when China matures from an exporter of cheap goods to a competitor in sectors where the U.S. is dominant – technology, brand building, finance. China has almost wiped U.S. makers of low-value items like toys and socks, but by 2015 it may threaten Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500), J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), and Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500). It will increasingly influence the S&P 500 and the mutual funds in our 401(k)s. So it's worth looking at how that will happen, what it means, and what anyone can do in the seven years before the baton is passed.

Just using the exchange rate to convert China's GDP into dollars isn't helpful in comparing the two economies, because China controls its exchange rate; by that method, China's economy might not pass America's for decades. Exchange rates apply only to tradable products and services; they aren't very useful in valuing nontradable goods in a country like China that is much poorer than the United States. So we need some way to compare the real value of China's economic output with America's, and economists have developed one. It is called purchasing power parity.

For example, Chinese construction workers earn a whole lot less than Americans do, yet they can still build top-quality buildings. If we used the exchange rate, the value of a new skyscraper in Shanghai would count much less toward China's GDP than an identical building in Chicago would count toward America's, which makes no sense. Purchasing power parity corrects the problem.

Will China take the crown?

Angus Maddison's forecast (which uses purchasing power parity) isn't built on outlandish assumptions. He assumes China's growth will slow way down year by year, and America's will average about 2.6% annually, which seems reasonable. But because China has grown so stupendously during the past decade, it should still be able to take the crown in just seven more years.

If that happens, America will close out a 125-year run as the No. 1 economy. We assumed the title in 1890 from – guess who. Britain? France? No. The world's largest economy until 1890 was China's. That's why Maddison says he expects China to "resume its natural role as the world's largest economy by 2015." That scenario makes sense.

China was the largest economy for centuries because everyone had the same type of economy – subsistence – and so the country with the most people would be economically biggest. Then the Industrial Revolution sent the West on a more prosperous path. Now the world is returning to a common economy, this time technology- and information-based, so once again population triumphs.

So how should we make the most of our seven-year grace period? For companies: Focus on getting better at your highest-value activities. Just because the Chinese will be fighting you in the same industries doesn't mean you'll lose. (Investors, remember that China bought $3 billion of Blackstone (BX) at the IPO price of $31 last summer, and the firm is now trading at $19.) It only means you'll have to work harder to win.

For individuals: You can avoid competition with Chinese workers by doing place-based work, which ranges in value from highly skilled (emergency-room surgery) to menial (pouring concrete). But the many people who do information-based work, which is most subject to competition, will have to get dramatically better to be worth what they cost. For government leaders: Improve U.S. education above all.

Those are the issues in China's becoming No. 1 that we most need to focus on. And as with so much else in China's recent history, we'll need to worry about them much sooner than we expected. 

A digest of asset bubbles


Bubbles emerge at times when investors profoundly disagree about the significance of a big economic development, such as the birth of the Internet. Because it's so much harder to bet on prices going down than up, the bullish investors dominate.

Manias can persist even though many smart people suspect a bubble, because no one of them has the firepower to successfully attack it. Only when skeptical investors act simultaneously — a moment impossible to predict — does the bubble pop.

Bubbles don't spring from nowhere. They're usually tied to a development with far-reaching effects: electricity and autos in the 1920s, the Internet in the 1990s, the growth of China and India. At the outset, a surge in the values of related businesses and goods is often justified. But then it detaches from reality.

One who believes a stock is too high can short it, borrowing shares and selling them in hopes of replacing them when they're cheaper. But this can be costly, both in the fees and in the risk of huge losses if the stock keeps rising. Many big investors rarely short stocks. When differences between bullish investors and bearish ones are extreme, many of the bears simply move to the sidelines. Then, with only optimists playing, prices go higher and higher.

At some point in a bubble, optimists' enthusiasm runs its course. Prices turn down. There's an expectation that at this point, investors who were skeptical may see prices as more reasonable and start buying. If they don't, that's a signal that prices had gotten way too high — and then they tumble.

The insights of bearish investors "are more likely to be flushed out through the trading process when the market is falling, as opposed to when it's rising," Mr. Hong and Harvard's Jeremy Stein write. They say this explains why prices fall more rapidly than they go up. Over 60 years, nine of the 10 biggest one-day percentage moves in the S&P 500 were down.

Fed and bubbles

Greg Ip has a nice piece on wsj summarizing the ongoing heated debate whether the Fed should prick bubbles using monetary policy and whether monetary policy itself is the culprit for creating bubbles.

ECB: not the lender of last resort

William Buiter argues in the case of financial crisis that involves cross-border banking activities where reponsibilities cannot be clearly defined, ECB, lack of backing of fiscal authority of a single sovereign country, cannot function as the lender of last resort. Something needs to be done about it.

Should we have a strategic beer reserve?

Beer price is soaring, what to do about it?

Icahn’s letter to Yahoo board

Dear Mr. Bostock:

It is clear to me that the board of directors of Yahoo has acted irrationally and lost the faith of shareholders and Microsoft. It is quite obvious that Microsoft’s bid of $33 per share is a superior alternative to Yahoo’s prospects on a standalone basis. I am perplexed by the board’s actions. It is irresponsible to hide behind management’s more than overly optimistic financial forecasts. It is unconscionable that you have not allowed your shareholders to choose to accept an offer that represented a 72% premium over Yahoo’s closing price of $19.18 on the day before the initial Microsoft offer. I and many of your shareholders strongly believe that a combination between Yahoo and Microsoft would form a dynamic company and more importantly would be a force strong enough to compete with Google on the Internet.

During the past week, a number of shareholders have asked me to lead a proxy fight to attempt to remove the current board and to establish a new board which would attempt to negotiate a successful merger with Microsoft, something that in my opinion the current board has completely botched. I believe that a combination between Microsoft and Yahoo is by far the most sensible path for both companies. I have therefore taken the following actions: (1) during the last 10 days, I have purchased approximately 59 million shares and share-equivalents of Yahoo; (2) I have formed a 10-person slate which will stand for election against the current board; and (3) I have sought antitrust clearance from the Federal Trade Commission to acquire up to approximately $2.5 billion worth of Yahoo stock. The biographies of the members of our slate are attached to this letter. A more formal notification is being delivered today to Yahoo under separate cover.

While it is my understanding that you do not intend to enter into any transaction that would impede a Microsoft-Yahoo merger, I am concerned that in several recent press releases you stated that you intend to pursue certain “strategic alternatives”. I therefore hope and trust that if there is any question that these “strategic alternatives” might in any way impede a future Microsoft merger you will at the very least allow shareholders to opine on them before embarking on such a transaction.

I sincerely hope you heed the wishes of your shareholders and move expeditiously to negotiate a merger with Microsoft, thereby making a proxy fight unnecessary.

Sincerely yours,


Food consumption as % income in the world

China       28%
US           7%
India         33%
Vietnam   40%

It Is The Bio-Fuel Policy Stupid!

(coutesy of John Mauldin)

There are three food staples in the world today which dwarf all other food ingredients in terms of importance. They are (in alphabetical order) corn, rice and wheat. They have all experienced rapid price appreciation since last summer. What is it that has driven this price explosion and what does it mean to financial markets? As with most things in life, there is no simple explanation; a number of factors have conspired to create a situation which is exceptional but also destabilising and hence dangerous.

The explanation given by most commentators is the bio-fuel policy currently being pursued by the Bush administration in Washington. The policy is driven by a desire to unlock the United States from its rising dependence on imported crude oil. The problem, as Bush and his government have been slow to recognise, is the stupidity of the policy in its current form. Let’s back that claim up with some hard facts.

In the United States, corn (better known as maize over there) is the primary ingredient in ethanol production although wheat and soybeans are also used. According to a recent UN report, it takes 232 kg of corn to fill an average 50 litre car tank with ethanol – enough corn to feed a child for an entire year. It is estimated that almost 20% of total US corn production will go towards ethanol this year and the number is set to rise to 45% by 2015.

The problem with corn is that it is low on carbon hydrates, which is where the energy comes from. Instead, American ethanol producers rely heavily on fertilisers with the energy being extracted from the nitrogen in the fertiliser. This is an inefficient and very costly approach – in particular in an environment of rising energy prices because crude oil and/or natural gas are major ingredients in fertiliser production. 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas are required to produce just 1 ton of ammonia!

So what does all this mean? According to estimates from Goldman Sachs, the cost of ethanol from corn is now over $80 per barrel, it is about $145 from wheat and over $230 from soybeans. Other countries recognised this problem a long time ago and use crops with higher carbon hydrate content. In the Philippines they use coconut oil and the Brazilians use sugar cane. Goldman reckons that the cost of one barrel of ethanol based on sugar cane is about $35. So why not import sugar cane from Brazil instead of using corn? One simple answer: Brazilian farmers do not vote at American elections. Idaho farmers do.