Interview with Stan Druckenmiller
Hugo Scott-Gall: What are the risks of investing in China that are not well understood in your view?
Stan Druckenmiller: The growth in credit at a time when GDP growth is slowing is a problem for China. And I think this is the 2009-11 stimulus coming back to bite. I understand that it had to be done to fund entrepreneurs and the private sector, but it’s easier said than done if you’re channelling funds through local government investment vehicles. I’m a believer in markets. A few men sitting around a table and deciding how to allocate capital goes against everything I’ve ever believed. Not only are they not great at capital allocation, such an exercise also needs to deal with a lack of property rights and corruption. In essence, the frantic stimulus China put together at the end of 2008 sowed the seeds of slower growth in the future by crowding out more productive investments. And now, the system’s building enough leverage and misallocation of resources to warrant risks of a financial crisis, but the timing of that is still uncertain in my mind. What we’ve seen in China since 2009 is similar to what happened in the US in 2005, in terms of credit growth outpacing economic growth.
I think ageing demographics is a bigger issue in China than people think. And the problems it creates should be become evident as early as 2016.
You also need to keep in mind that for China to grow and evolve further, it will need to compete with a more innovative Korea and now a more competitive Japan. I don’t think China can do that with where its exchange rate is today. I think productivity is a key concern too. And I think that could be one of the reasons why the US has been so supportive of Abenomics.
People mention lack of infrastructure as a constraint. But when I go over there, it looks like they have a lot of infrastructure. It seems ahead of the population, not behind. I see expensive apartments in empty cities that 300 mn rural Chinese are expected to migrate to. That looks very unbalanced to me. Nobody’s ever had investment to GDP at 47%. Japan and Korea peaked at 36%-38%, so as a result I think capacity is way ahead of demand in some areas in China.
Hugo Scott-Gall: If China slows its fixed asset investment, will that have a knock on effect for its commodities demand and thus commodity prices?
Stan Druckenmiller: When I started in 1976, I was taught by my mentor that when cash flow rises equities go up. But commodities are driven by the cost of extraction 90% of the time, and over the long run, technology makes extraction cheaper, pushing the cost curve down and with it commodity prices. But that hasn’t always worked, if I’d followed that advice over the past few decades, I’d be in trouble.
About five years ago, I bought into the peak oil thesis. But then, along comes shale oil and shale technology, reminding me of what my old mentor said 35 years ago. Now I’ve come to think that the oil price is not as vulnerable to China slowing down as it is to ongoing shale supply growth. I regard the ramp up in investment by China as a 10-year aberration, making the last two years more normal and more representative than the previous decade.
I do think China is serious about rebalancing, which means infrastructure investment is going to slow. And obviously, there's been a huge ramp-up in supply around the world in response to the 2009-11 stimulus, which in my view is a massive misread by the suppliers of these commodities. So that’s not good for commodity prices. And then you have innovation. Can technology progress in iron ore and copper, the way it has with shale energy? My guess is it will.
If you look at food, there’s now technology that allows seeds to be drought-proof and disease proof. Yes, there is a demand-supply argument for food prices rising, but the impact of technology on food supply is greater than you think. On the other hand, we are using up more and more good arable land to build cities in China and there is a water problem in China too.