China’s push to open up its economy is winning praise from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Morgan Stanley and Jefferies Group LLC, which predicted last month a “massive” multiyear bull run for stocks.
John-Paul Smith doesn’t share the enthusiasm.
When the Deutsche Bank AG equity strategist looks at the country, he says he detects some of the same signs of a financial meltdown that led him to predict Russia’s 1998 stock market crash months in advance. China’s expansion is being fueled by soaring corporate borrowing, a high-risk model that needs to be replaced by the kind of free-market measures and budget cuts that fed Russia’s growth in the aftermath of the country’s default and subsequent 44 percent monthly tumble in the Micex Index, Smith said.
“There is potential for a debt trap in industrial companies which can trigger an economy-wide financial crisis as early as next year,” Smith said in an interview from London on Dec. 12, a day after he issued a report predicting China’s slowdown will lead to a 10 percent decline in emerging-market stocks next year. “If I am wrong on China, I am wrong on everything.”
Smith’s 2013 call for a drop of at least 10 percent in developing-country stocks has proven prescient. The MSCI Emerging-Markets Index has slid 5.9 percent, trailing the 22 percent rally in MSCI’s developed-markets measure. The Shanghai Composite Index, the benchmark equity gauge in the world’s second-biggest economy, has lost 7.9 percent, heading for its third annual decline in four years. The measure rose 0.2 percent at today’s close after falling for nine days.
The selloff in Chinese stocks has eased since mid-November, when the government’s top policy makers pledged the biggest expansion of economic freedoms in at least two decades. Measures included encouraging private investment in state-controlled industries, accelerating convertibility of the currency and liberalizing interest rates, an initiative that helped drive interbank borrowing costs to a six-month high last week.
China’s benchmark money-market rate climbed for a seventh day today, with the seven-day repurchase rate, a gauge of funding availability in the banking system, jumping 124 basis points to 8.84 percent, the highest level since June 20.
Morgan Stanley said the free-market push will boost consumption, technology and health-care stocks while Jefferies Group said companies in industries including auto and insurance will do the best amid the bull market rally. Goldman Sachs upgraded Chinese equities to overweight in part because of the country’s “commitment to reform, which seems quite palpable.”
Smith, who has been bearish on China since he joined Deutsche Bank in 2010 from Pictet Asset Management, said he wants to see how the government carries out the policy changes.
The economy is at risk of expanding less than 5 percent annually over the next few years, he said. Gross domestic product has grown less than 8 percent in each of the past six quarters, down from a high of 14 percent in 2007.
“The proof will be in the implementation,” said Smith, who’s the global emerging markets equities strategist at the Frankfurt-based bank. “It will be very interesting to see if they really intend to go down the same ‘hard state liberal economic’ path that Russia did from 1999 to the autumn of 2003. So far, there is no indication they are prepared” for that.
Smith, 52, has honed his market acumen over a three-decade career. Raised in the English town of Glossop, near Manchester, he studied modern history at Oxford’s Merton College before going to work as a European fund manager with Royal Insurance in 1983. From there, he did stints at TSB Investment Management, Rothschild Asset Management and Moscow-based Brunswick Brokerage, before joining Morgan Stanley in 1995 as a Russian equity strategist.
It was at Morgan Stanley that Smith made the call that he’s still best known for today, a forecast that got its inspiration in part from a visit he made in 1997 to a port city 600 miles (965 kilometers) south of Moscow.
In Rostov-on-Don, he got an up-close look at a combine-harvester maker that revealed some surprises: the company was taking a year to build its planned weekly quota, it was still employing two-thirds of its Soviet-era workforce and it was drowning in unpaid bills and barter deals.
That trip helped Smith understand the financial crisis that would lead Russia to devalue the ruble and default on $40 billion of domestic debt in August 1998.
In a June 1997 report, he wrote that investors may not have begun to “really focus on the possible fallout” from companies’ growing financial struggles. Smith highlighted the Rostov-on-Don trip in a January 1998 note in which he reiterated that investors were too optimistic. Two months later, he wrote that Russia had to “sort the situation out” that year or its financing burden would become unsustainable and trigger a devaluation.
In the aftermath of the collapse, Smith turned bullish on Russian stocks at an investors’ meeting in New York in 1999. The market soared 235 percent that year. He calls it the best forecast of his career.
“I suggested that Russia was now cheap and should be an overweight and the meeting ended very quickly indeed amid some expressions of minor outrage,” said Smith, who is underweight Russian stocks today.
Following those calls, Smith joined Pictet as head of emerging-market equities, where funds managed by his team almost quadrupled to $9 billion between 2001 and 2005. His Eastern European Trust Fund, with 40 percent of its assets in Russian equities on average, outperformed the MSCI Emerging Market Eastern Europe dollar index by 1.5 percentage points at the end of 2005.
“When he joined Pictet in 2001, it was like the second coming as the savior of our emerging markets business,” Stephen Barber, a managing director at parent company Pictet & Cie, wrote in a farewell note about Smith in June 2010. “He did seem to perform miracles in the years that followed, as our emerging markets business recovered strongly.”
While Barber said that Smith had an ability to avoid getting caught up in the market euphoria, he often made his calls too early.
“When he was with us, he was for a long period bearish on China,” Barber said. “The analysis was absolutely correct but in the meantime, you can miss out on a bull market.”
“When you have a great strategist who has these insights, you have to nurture these insights, not kill them,” he said.
Smith wrote an article for the Financial Times in December 2007 saying he sensed that the worst in the subprime mortgage crisis was over and that the U.S. market was poised to rally. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression followed.
The analyst, who has also been wrongly bearish on oil since April 2011, says he learned to never take a strong view without obtaining detailed understanding of the underlying fundamentals, such as what types of instruments were being held in the financial industry.
Smith’s China call is another strong view. His colleagues at other banks are underestimating the risks, he said.
China’s total credit, including items off bank balance sheets, climbed to about 190 percent of the economy by the end of 2012 from 124 percent in 2008, according to Fitch Ratings Ltd. That was faster lending growth than in Japan during the late 1980s that foreshadowed two decades of deflation, and in the U.S. before the financial crisis of 2008.
“It is really at the corporate level and at the micro level in China that the fate of the financial market and the economy there is going to be determined,” Smith said. “China is not such a safe haven as most market commentators appear to believe.”