Real Estate Gold

This article published in Bloomberg should give us pause, because it’s not only in China where real estate leverage has become too big to fail. (And our POTUS is a real estate magnate.) In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, real estate portfolios were not allowed to fail and Fed credits were used to protect excessive investment. Now we have a stark divide in the fundamental values of real estate versus the inflated prices of a product that is tax-subsidized and priced solely on the margin. As a speculative trading asset rather than basic shelter, housing has now become the tail that wags the dog of our lives. This is pretty insane, and plants us back in the age of land feudalism.

The problem, which is not only a US problem but a global one, is excess cheap credit that has led to a generational credit-debt bubble in the private and public sectors. It promotes the imbalance between China and the rest of the world and drives inequality world-wide. It reflects coordinated central bank policy under the leadership of the US Federal Reserve that was made possible by the untethering of fiat currencies – giving governments world-wide discretion over the value of their currencies.  We’ve tried to grow faster than our productivity warrants. It has greatly increased systemic risk, price volatility, and uncertainty over price signals. For example, what is a house really worth? $100K of materials or $5 million based on the marginal value of land? Or how much somebody can borrow against it?

Ultimately, the value of scarce land will have to be taxed accordingly, an idea put forth by Henry George more than a century ago.

Evergrande Is Too Big to Fail Thanks to Its Huge Land Holdings

China’s Most Indebted Firm Is Too Big to Fail

This property developer is borrowing even more to expand into unlikely projects, such as electric vehicles. But there’s a method to the madness.

There’s a lot working against China’s most indebted property firm. China Evergrande Group is sitting on $113.7 billion in debt and its core profit fell 45% in the first half of the year. Real-estate growth is slowing, with banks under orders to curb home loans. President Xi Jinping’s refrain that houses are for living in, not speculation, has been cropping up more frequently. 

Time to rein things in, right? Not Evergrande. The company, whose portfolio already includes theme parks and a football club, now wants to become the world’s biggest electric-vehicle maker in the next three to five years. It’s burning through precious cash – 160 billion yuan ($22 billion) – to build factories in Guangzhou. 

Investors are voting on this folly with their feet. The company’s shares have fallen 30% this year, making Evergrande the worst performer among Hong Kong-listed Chinese developers. The property firm’s borrowing costs are among the highest in the offshore dollar market and its bonds are tumbling.  

For anyone gawking at Evergrande’s improbably ballooning debt load, just waiting for the doomsday clock to strike midnight, there’s a valuable lesson: This firm is too big to fail. Evergrande is one of China’s biggest developers – with projects in 226 cities – and its billionaire founder, Hui Ka Yan, is the country’s third-richest man. With property accounting for about a quarter of China’s gross domestic product, any instability in the sector has proven too much for Beijing to stomach. Time and again, the government has reluctantly reopened the credit spigots to boost a flagging real-estate market. Just look at 2008, 2011 and 2014. [As we have in the US, leading to a big gap between those who own real estate and those who rent or would like to buy.]

Crucially, Evergrande has China’s largest land reserve, with 276 million square meters (905 million square feet) of gross floor area, according to Citigroup Inc. While the developer has a lot of exposure to China’s smaller cities, where growth is slowing rapidly, it also dominates redevelopment in big, rich cities such as Shenzhen, where profit margins are robust. 

Land is scarce in Shenzhen, and urban renewal – demolishing old, low-density buildings to make way for high-rise apartments – is widely seen as the answer to the city’s growing population. These projects also give Evergrande access to cheap lots, which helps keep its land costs among the lowest of its peers, according to Toni Ho, an analyst at RHB Securities. If the protests in Hong Kong accelerate China’s plans to make Shenzhen the the next “global cosmopolis,” according to state-run Xinhua News Agency, Evergrande could be in a plum position.

The company’s diversification into electric cars is sure to bleed money for years, and competition is getting stiffer. During his visit to China last week, Elon Musk managed to score a tax break for Tesla Inc. But carrying out one of Xi’s signature projects has its perks: For example, clean-car manufacturers can get land much more cheaply from local governments than real-estate developers. That helps explain why a host of firms including Country Garden Holdings Co. and Agile Group Holdings Ltd. are jumping in.

Being in Beijing’s favor and securing low-cost inputs is no bad thing for a cash-strapped developer like Evergrande. Maybe there’s a method to the madness of its wild spending.

Time is Money?

191090-strip

Yes, but no. The actual truism should be stated as: “Money is Time.” The difference, of course, is that time, not money, is the ultimate value. (The truism is probably most often stated in reverse because most people are confused as to the ultimate value of life, and thus respond better to the admonition that they are wasting money, not just time.)

Time is egalitarian. It is the great equalizer because in the course of a lifetime, an hour of time is equivalent to a rich or poor person alike, or a powerful or powerless person. Not equivalent as measured in terms of the currency of money, but equivalent as measured in time value.

“Money is Time” is also probably the most profound statement one can make in economics, because, in theory, economics uses money as the true measure of the value of time.

Think about this a little more deeply. What explains the differences in value between a horse, a car and an airplane? The difference in monetary value is explained by the efficiencies gained by a car over a horse, and an airplane over both. A horse can get one rider from Los Angeles to New York in probably about 2-3 months. A car can get maybe five or six people from LA to NY in about 3 days. An airplane can get 300+ people across the continent in about five and a half hours. If we compute and compare the three options in terms of man-hours expended, we can see why airplanes are valued that much more than a horse.

One could see this just as simply by comparing the productivity (in terms of time) of a tractor vs. a plow horse, or a computer vs. a typewriter, or a smart phone vs. a telegram. Technologies that allow us to make the most of our time are valued accordingly and displace less efficient technologies. And the time we gain is measured in monetary wealth.

This truism, that Money is Time, also has profound implications for how we control money as a measure of time. Money has been defined by its three functions: a unit of account, a store of value, and a medium of exchange. What money really does is tell us how much time value we have produced, saved, and stored up for future consumption. As such, money is merely an information signal that tells us if we are on the right track or not. If we are on the wrong track, being unproductive and wasteful, ultimately we have squandered time, not money.

I recently read a monograph by George Gilder, The New Information Theory of Money, that explores this relationship between time and money in depth. He observes that Neanderthal Man had the same natural resources that we have today, since all matter is conserved. Homo sapiens today is much wealthier because  we live longer, we spend less time working for food and shelter, and have much more opportunity for leisure and cultural pursuits. Our wealth is really a measure of how productive we have become with our time.

Gilder’s monograph analyzes what this means for our concepts of money. When we think of money as wealth, we come up with all sorts of schemes to increase the supply of money in order to increase wealth. When we consider the actions of the central banks for the past hundred years, we can see that this fallacy defines our misguided policies. This should be clear from the actions of the US Federal Reserve since the 2008 financial crisis, both leading up to that crisis and in reaction. Fed policy, referred to as Zero Interest Rate Policy and Quantitative Easing, has merely goosed the nominal prices of assets such as houses, collectibles, land, stocks, and bonds with the idea that more nominal wealth as measured in US$ will lead to greater productivity and real wealth as measured by the value of time.

It hasn’t quite worked that way. Why? Because the Fed is focused on managing inaccurate statistical measures of real wealth as denoted by GDP, money incomes, CPI price changes, etc. Policymakers focus on the monetary economy rather than the real economy because that’s what is measured by their statistical information. Perhaps it is the best proxy we have, but it is still a proxy.

You must ask yourself – are you richer in terms of time? More time for you and your family to spend as you see fit? Those few beneficiaries (the 1%) who have benefited directly from this misguided monetary policy can certainly answer yes, but for the aggregate body politic, the answer is no.

Money supply today is controlled by governments with their ability to expand and contract credit through the banking system. Thus, our monetary economies really operate according to the calculus of political power and influence. It is no accident that ZIRP taxes small savers in order to recapitalize large banks that made the bad loans that crashed the financial system. No wonder the majority of voters are disgruntled with the results.

Gilder explains the true value of money (as opposed to wealth), is as an information signal that helps us be efficient and productive with our time. When we distort this information source (which is exactly what the Federal Reserve does when it manipulates interest rates), we can only become less efficient and productive. He notes that gold was a more accurate basis for money information because its value was a direct function of the time and effort it took to get it out of the ground. Governments or private actors could not easily manipulate its value.

He applies this reasoning to an even better foundation for money, Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a digital currency that is “mined” by the application of mathematical algorithms that get more and more difficult to solve as time goes by. This means that in order for the supply of bitcoins to increase, we must become more and more efficient in terms of computing power. In other words, becoming more productive with time. You see, the more productive we are with time, the greater the wealth the monetary information signal should represent.

Currently, governments have little constraint over how much money they can create, meaning there is little hard discipline being imposed on political power. This can only be a dangerous state of affairs, as we know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As I mentioned in a previous post, floating fiat currencies were intended (ala Milton Friedman’s monetarism) to discipline politics, but have failed miserably to do so. In fact, they have achieved the opposite, creating more volatility and chaos in the global economy.

But, with digital currencies, power, influence, and wealth have little or no sway over the supply of money, which means they cannot manipulate the value to suit their narrow interests. Of course, those who hold political or economic power are loathe to surrender it, so we can expect powerful forces to be opposed to taking control over the money supply away from them. But a money that is directly connected to the value of time must be the most efficient and productive information signal that will increase the value of wealth measured in time, while insuring both liberty and justice for all. Remember, time is the great equalizer.

Digital currencies today are not yet developed to the point of replacing fiat currencies, but if this discussion captures your interest I would recommend reading up on technologies such as bitcoin. Much of the literature focuses on the efficiency of a digital payment system, but the real payoff in throwing off the yoke of fiat currencies will be in terms of liberty,  justice, and true egalitarian democracy.