February 20, 2012

Hugh Hendry on China, Japan and Hyperdeflation

I’ll just say this straight out: you really need to know who Hugh Hendry is and, at the very least, consider what he’s saying. He has a brash style which maybe turns some people off, but don’t let that cause you to dismiss what he is saying. His message is important. Really important. The short story is that the global economy is nowhere near being out of the woods, and there are a (huge) number of unresolved issues that all investors should be following. Don’t let being a value investor cause you to stick your head in the sand and ignore the greater world. Micro-fundamentals are important and should be the basis for any investment, but ignoring these risks completely makes you an idiot.
This weekend, Barron’s ran a great interview with Hendry in which he discusses China, Japan and hyperdeflation. Here’s a snippet:

The London-based Eclectica Asset Management saw a 12% return last year in its flagship Eclectica hedge fund, and an eye-popping 46% gain in a new fund that buys credit-default protection on Japanese corporations. Much owes to the relentless logic and cheeky inventiveness of Hugh Hendry, chief investment officer. The Glasgow-born Hendry tells Barron’s why he expects a hard landing in China, and why hyperdeflation will precede hyperinflation. 
Barron’s: What makes a great macro fund manager?Hendry: First and foremost, an ability to establish a contentious premise outside the existing belief system, and have it go on and be adopted by the rest of the financial community. My great hero is [Caxton Associates' founder] Bruce Kovner, who was able to imagine the dollar falling to 100 yen—when the rate was 200. I am an existentialist. To my mind, the three most important principles when it comes to investing are Albert Camus’ principles of ethics: God is dead, life is absurd and there are no rules. Of course, that’s a doctrine of promoting the individual. You own your own decisions. As CIO of Eclectica, with $700 million [under management], I have no engagement with the sell side. 
Barron’s: Where do you find yourself outside the existing belief system today?Hendry: In 2009, I made a YouTube video of the empty skyscrapers in Wuhan, China. Goldman Sachs and others articulate a very reasonable and compelling argument of being invested in China. With the evidence of my own eyes, I concluded that China had a very robust system of creating gross-domestic-product growth, but forsaking the creation of wealth.
When America was having its China moment in the 19th century, it occurred against the backdrop of a gold standard, a hard-money regime, with a public sector that was minuscule versus the overall size of the economy. As an entrepreneur, if your project failed to generate a sustainable level of cash flow, you failed.China’s great opportunity is taking place within the U.S. fiat system, and so the consequences are perhaps less stark than in 19th-century America, which had stops and starts and many depressions, though with an overarching prosperity. China has not had that volatility.If you talk about a hard landing in China, you talk about GDP growth of 5%, not minus 5% or minus 15%. The Chinese government prints money. It can build superfast railways and overbuild airports, because the rest of the economy can subsidize it. China’s swollen public sector is directing asset allocation, rather than pursuing profit maximization. They see [their system] as a success. But it creates a bubble, which can prove quite damaging.

Hugh Hendry is a fund manager at Eclectica Asset Management. He has become prominent in the United Kingdom for his commentary on the financial crisis. Hendry has been referred to as "the most high-profile Scot in the controversial (Hedge Fund) sector."