I watched the recent debate between presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Since I live Australia, you may ask why? I wanted to see whether either of the two candidates really seemed to understand the economic knife edge the world is currently balanced upon. Sadly, I was disappointed in what both of them had to say.
Other than a number of sound-bites there was nothing on issues such as China’s burgeoning debt Crisis and the impact this will have on the global economy.
Back on the 11th May 2016 the Financial times reported the Chinese Communist party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, published a front-page interview with an “authoritative figure” who warned that the country’s soaring debt levels could lead to “systemic financial risks”. This doesn't sound good....
On the 29th August the Australian Financial Review reported that prominent investor, George Soros, as seeing an “Eerie resemblance between conditions in China now and those in the US leading up to the financial crisis in 2008.” Remember, Mr Soros was the man that broke the bank of England in one of his currency trades.
What’s concerning is that Chinese debt levels are around 282% of GDP and China still hasn’t taken the foot off the debt accelerator. For example, right now debt is growing at around 13% and the IMF is forecasting China’s growth to drop to a 25 year low of 6.6%. This roughly means that it takes $2 of debt to fund $1 of growth….clearly unsustainable.
Some people are sitting back and saying, “So what! It’s China, that’s not us.” This is a naïve perspective of a highly interconnected world. As the world’s second largest economy (after the US) if China screeches to a halt then it will impact everything and I mean everything.
So what does this mean for domain investors? You only have to reflect on the last twelve months to see the impact of debt on the domain market. In an effort to get their money out of China and into more flexible assets many Chinese investors raised margin loans against share positions. They then took these loans off market (you can’t do this in most markets) and bid up the prices on short letter/number domains with the ultimate goal of flipping the assets into US dollars.
Last year, I attended DomainFest.Asia and upon returning home my business partner and I sold every domain we could get our hands on at top dollar rates. This year I attended the same conference and I can now buy the domains I sold last year for around 35% of the price I received for them.
So what happened? Debt combined with key market makers is what happened. This created a rapid downward spiral to the present valuations….it will be interesting to see what will happen to the price of all of the Chinese held domains in the event of a Chinese economic meltdown.
I remember writing about the crazy inflationary domain prices post the New York TRAFFIC conference. At the time key market makers pushed up prices and debt first entered the domain space (eg. companies like Domain Capital). This easy access to debt fuelled the price boom in much the same manner as the one Chinese investors just experienced.
So what else am I concerned about? Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 I’ve been keeping a close eye on the world’s major central banks as they tried to stimulate their way into recovery. This was attempted through combinations of lowering of interest rates, government spending (fuelled by debt) and quantitative easing (ie. Print lots of money).
Despite the massive injections of stimulus nothing has really worked. As can be seen from the chart below the global growth is still at a lackluster rate of 2.4%. In the case of Japan, the central bank has recently issued negative interest rates. This means it costs you money to keep your savings in a bank…..sounds crazy but true.
The main goal of dropping interest rates is to devalue the local currency by making it less attractive to foreign currency traders. Put really simply, if you can borrow money in the US at 2% and get 3% for depositing it in banks in Australia you can effectively make 1% for doing absolutely nothing. This effectively makes the $AU more in demand and increases the value of the $AU versus the $US.
So when the reserve bank in Australia lowers interest rates the margin gap between the borrowed and deposited money shrinks and this increases the risk. The $AU receives less demand and it sinks in value against the $US. This will ultimately mean that Australian goods and services are cheaper if paid with $US….which in turn stimulates the Australian economy. Sounds great in theory but there’s a problem.
In the case of the Global Financial crisis all the central banks simultaneous dropped interest rates/printed money. This has meant the competitive gap between nations didn’t materialise and central banks ended up scratching their heads while they played a global game of chicken with each other…..who will drop first?
Here’s what I’m concerned about, when central banks approach zero interest rates (or below) where do they go from there? All of their “gun-powder” has been used and we’re now rapidly approaching the 7-8 year economic cycle.
For years, economists have talked about a 7-8 year cycle as being like the heartbeat of the global economy. Guess what, back in 2008 was when President Obama first took office and literally weeks later he faced the sub-prime mortgage fiasco that caused the global economy to nose dive.
So now, after an interminably long campaign, we have Trump and Clinton coming up for election. If we imagine the two candidates as the captains on the economic titanic, as far as I can work out, Hillary is saying, “steady as she goes” while Trump is saying crazy things that amount to, “we need to instantly build a submarine.”
Let’s face it, both candidates are more focused on themselves then acknowledging the global problems that the US is caught up in. Neither is actually espousing a concrete plan with some sense of vision. I’ll be interested in viewing the next round of debates to see if there is any light at the end of the dark tunnel. It's sad to say but I think everything is down to how we all cross our fingers and hope something good will happen.
What the UK Brexit debacle has proven is a lack of decisive leadership around complex global issues leads to disaster. We elect leaders to lead and not to hand back their leadership in a referendum so they can say, “The disaster wasn’t my doing but the people’s”.
My hope is that once elected, either Clinton or Trump will rise to an unseen level of leadership that will inspire the entire US nation rather than foster the division that seems to be prevelant.
There are a lot more economic indicators than I’ve mentioned in this article that are pointing to troubling times ahead. So as a domain investor, what am I doing? Two words, gold and cash.
I could be wrong with all of my doom and gloom but there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years…..I’ve never regretted having excess cash. Cash provides the flexibility to move quickly and seize opportunities. If I’m right and in the first half of 2017 there is a financial meltdown, then there will be bargains aplenty for a person with cash.
I remember after the 2008 crash I picked up heavily discounted domain portfolios as people struggled to pay crazy high mortgages and tax bills. I’ve been enjoying the proceeds of these portfolios ever since. This time I think that I will be also looking at the more traditional markets and once again, domain data will help me pick the right companies to invest in. What I really want to keep an eye on is the Chinese domain market…..will it fall further or are there other opportunities that will play out in a downturn?
Just an aside, a recent report by management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. showed that Israel was one of the few countries in the world that was rapidly retiring debt. There’s one thing I know about the Jewish community, they’re generally pretty savvy when it comes to money.
So reduce debt, get cashed up and hang on for the ride….hopefully the cycle will pan out just fine but if it doesn’t, then make sure you’re ready.