Calamity averted! At least for a day or so.
Markets did not self-immolate over night. But the S&P Banking sector had its worst day out in nineteen years. It was led—or dragged—by a 34% decline in the shares of mortgage lender Washington Mutual, after an analyst said the company would have to raise capital to offset some US$28 billion in loan losses.
Now the wealth destruction is advancing on two fronts. Equity shareholders are wiped out as financial shares plummet. Meanwhile, assets are being revalued or in some cases, written off. Bondholders will be next.
Here in Australia the credit noose tightened on the economy last month. Gasp. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that total lending finance fell by a seasonally adjusted 13.3% in May. It was the steepest fall in 16 years. “Total lending” includes all kinds of borrowing, personal, business, housing, and leasing. The only bright news, perhaps, was that business borrowing grew by 3.2% after last month’s 15% drop.
Not all debt is bad. It just depends on what you do with it. If you buy an asset that produces income over time, we’d call it good debt. If you use borrowed money to buy financial assets that are falling in value, we’d call it bad debt.
Yesterday we mentioned how much exposure Chinese official investors have to mortgage debt issued by the GSEs. Today, we read that Chinese firm CITIC has upped its stake in Macarthur Coal (ASX:MCC) to 20.39%. It surpasses steel giant Arcelor Mittal (19.9% stake) as Macarthur’s largest shareholder.
Rock that burns beats paper.
Macarthur does not have a balance sheet full of mortgages, or a vault full of IOUs. It has a mine full of coal. Two mines actually. Between the Coppabella and Moorvale mines, the company supplies nearly a third of the world’s pulverized coal used to generate electric power, according to today’s Australian.
Is energy a better way to store your capital than financial assets? Well, shares in energy companies (and we consider coal and energy commodity, although it is also a steel-making commodity) are still just financial claims on a company’s earnings. But those earnings are derived from a real asset with real demand.
This is why—as bad as this grinding deflating of the financial asset bubble is—you need to keep your eyes open for quality resource assets. They are in demand more than ever, both economically (driven by Peak Oil and Urban China) and as investment alternatives to the slow-motion train wreck that is the American mortgage market.
And then there is the huge construction boom in the Middle East. This has to be a bubble of sorts as well. Soaring oil prices have sent billions of dollars into the Middle East. That money is turning into gaudy construction projects. But at least some Aussie firms are making out like bandits.
Leighton Holding’s (ASX:LEI) Middle East Operation—Al Habtoor Leighton—has landed $1.7 billion worth of projects in the last three weeks. Yesterday the company announced it won the contract for the Al Bustan mixed development complex in Abu Dhabi. The complex will include five 17-story residential towers and a five-story car park. And also a stairway to heaven.
Dubai, the new Babel?
Do you think Dubai will be around in 50 years? Or will it be a giant desert ghost town, and a monument to misallocated capital? If so, it will resemble the empty cul-de-sacs of Suburbistan in Southern California.
The Romans left roads and stadia and aqueducts and walls as visible signs of their Empire. America’s Empire of Debt just leaves busted real estate developments in its wake all over the world. Great for scavengers of copper and wire. Bad for investors.
Hey did you see that inflation in New Zealand is running at an 18-year high? Second quarter consumer price inflation clocked in at 1.6% on the other side of the Tasman. The culprits? Food and fuel. We’ll ask our colleague Mike Graham, who’s filling in this week at Money Morning for Al Robinson, what’s going on.
“Gold Jumps to Highest in Three Months on Risk of Attack on Iran,” reports a Bloomberg story.
Don’t you think gold’s recent strong showing has more to do with the colossal risk to the U.S. dollar posed by Henry Paulson’s plan to save the GSEs? The U.S. government already has US$7 trillion in debt outstanding. What’s another US$5 trillion at this point?
Well, not to be too obvious, but it’s US$5 trillion. Adding that to the balance sheet of the USA puts enormous pressure on the greenback. It should, in the long-run, drive up borrowing costs for the U.S. And you know what that means…higher taxes under McBama.
The Aussie dollar traded at another 25-year high overnight. Send us your best guess for when the Aussie hits parity with the Greenback. The winner gets a complimentary subscription to both the Australian Small Cap Investigator and Diggers and Drillers. Entries can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
for The Daily Reckoning Australia